Author: Jessie Engler

Creative Shop Talk: The Role of Color in Design

It may not be surprising to hear that color has a huge impact on how something is perceived – whether it’s a brochure, logo, product, or walls in a building. The role of color in design is to invoke feelings in customers, align brands to their values, and communicate positive or negative messaging (like red error messages when filling out a digital form). For us, color has a huge impact on how we approach projects because the way humans perceive color varies from person to person; generation to generation; and culture to culture. The science and history of color provide powerful insight into the way it can be used in design.

What is Color?

Scientifically speaking color is not absolute. Color is the way we perceive wavelengths of light. Objects absorb wavelengths of light and the wavelengths they do not absorb are reflected off their surface, which our brains interpret as color. White is the all the visible wavelengths of light reflected back to us, while black is the complete absorption of those light wavelengths.

The number of hues a person can see varies, but on average the healthy human eye can distinguish 1 million different colors. Differentiating between those colors is a different story. Designers, artists, and those who work closely with color can typically distinguish subtleties in color that others are not attuned to. So that argument you had with your significant other about whether you painted your porch teal or green is technically a draw. Still looking for a way to settle the score? Take Pantone’s Color IQ Test, they are final say in color – but more on them later. [BBC Future]

The Limitations of Color

Throughout history access to color has been determined by technology. For thousands of years pigments could only be created from existing materials like rocks, plants, and metals. Many risked illness and even death in the pursuit of color.1 Pigments were often made from dangerous substances like lead, arsenic, and mercury. For centuries the most common way to make white paint was by chemically steaming lead to create a brittle white substance known as “white lead” which could be ground and dried. The dangerous effects of lead were well-known, but for a long time it was the only way to make white pigment, and it was cheap. Its economical appeal is one reason why it was used in interior paint for decades after other methods were discovered. [The Secret Lives of Color] [The Anatomy of Color]

In modern times, we have created synthetic pigments that have made colorful paint and clothing accessible to the masses. These synthetic pigments do have their limitations. With the introduction of digital technologies, we have created new opportunities and even bigger challenges. Through digital platforms we can create colors that are more vivid than we can produce in printed pieces. This is due to the inclusion of light in monitors and digital displays. While printing technology continues to advance, allowing us to produce brighter and clearer colors, the ability to match the most vivid colors that we can create on screen is still out of reach.

Design color books
Color swatch book

How We Speak About Color

Oftentimes, we give colors names to help us describe them. Like lavender, for a light purple. But how can we be sure that the color our minds conjure for lavender is the same color? The lavender in your mind might be bright with a hint of pink, while the lavender in someone else’s mind is cooler with a hint of grey.

The difficulties of naming colors are not new. When linguists study historic literature they see the words for black, white, and red develop rather quickly across languages, with yellow and green coming later. Blue is mysteriously missing from many significant writings. Take for instance, the Odyssey, where Homer describes the ocean as “wine-red.” The color blue’s absence indicates that there was a long period of human history where blues were considered shades of other colors – perhaps shades of black, red, or green.2 Which means the color of the ocean could be described in a myriad of ways. [My Modern Met]

Since color is so subjective, there have been numerous attempts to standardize color and create a common system shared between artists, designers, printers, and producers. Not least of these systems is Pantone. The Pantone system makes colors absolute. The company creates new colors each year, assigns them a number, creates a formula for mixing the colors, and provides printers with the mixed ink. Designers are able to provide the Pantone color to their printer who uses the Pantone ink to ensure an exact color match each time.

Pantone shows us it is possible to create a system that standardizes color across an industry at the global level. It’s a system that is ever-growing and heavily relied upon by designers in all disciplines.

The Meaning of Color Has Changed Throughout History

Colors are one of the easiest ways to visually communicate feelings. To many of us, a canvas of dark blues, greys, and black comes across as moody or depressing. Whereas pale pinks and vibrant yellows paint a lively and happy setting. But why do we think this way? A lot of it has to do with our culture.

Let’s go back to blue, in ancient Rome blue was associated with barbarism, mourning, and misfortune. Later, in 12th century France, blue was seen as divine, and even later in 17th century Japan, blue face paint was used to symbolize evil or sadness in traditional Kabuki theatre. Today in Western culture many large corporations use blue in their branding to signify trustworthiness and loyalty. Blue has had quite the history. It’s not to say that the meanings of colors are completely arbitrary, on the contrary colors are significant markers of how culture develops. [The Secret Lives of Color]

Business card design
For the JFH brand we used color to signify the different segments of their business

The Role of Color in Design

Adding color is the moment a project really comes to life. The selected colors solidify the personality of the project and harmonize the typeface, imagery, and copywriting. In design we use the meanings of colors to guide us, we pay attention to the specific hues to keep palettes current, and we research the market so that we know what will blend in and what will stand out. 

Color may be just one part of a company’s branding, but it can significantly influence the way a brand comes across. So while the process of selecting colors is often fun for designers, its importance is never forgotten. The desired impact of a project is always at the forefront of a color palette. We also take into account a color’s ability to be accurately reproduced in a number of applications including print, digital, and in embroidery on apparel. The finer details may take time, but they are what takes a project to the next level.

The way we see colors, the way we name colors, and the meaning society gives to colors all have a clear impact on our perception. It’s a designer’s duty to understand the role of color in design and make selections that create an expressive, finessed, and harmonious experience.


  1. Yes, we did say people have died for color. In The Secret Lives of Color Kassia St. Clair describes an event where a merchant outbid an emperor’s mother for a load of Indigo and nearly started political drama (oops). However, his success was short lived because he was robbed and murdered on the road home.
  2. Some scholars have hypothesized that early humans were mostly color-blind. Because a society without a specific color used to describe the sky is a society of lunatics.


More on the history of color:
The Secret Lives of Color, Kassia St. Clair
The Anatomy of Color: The Story of Heritage Paints and Pigments, Patrick Batty

More on color organization:
Color Image Scale, Shigenobu Kobayashi
The Visual Culture of Color: A Brief History of Color Matching Systems” Print Magazine

More on color theory:
The Wonderful Color Wheel: Part 1” Print Magazine
The Wonderful Color Wheel: Part 2” Print Magazine
The Wonderful Color Wheel: Part 3” Print Magazine

Design Awards 2020

Awards season is here and we’re pleased to announce a few new accolades. We strive for excellence in all that we do, and recognition of our hard work is always appreciated. This year our efforts were recognized for both print and digital creations.


Cruise America print campaign
Poster designs for Cruise America

The brand campaign we created for Cruise America took home distinctions from multiple competitions. It was selected in the print advertising category at this year’s International Design Awards. In addition, the campaign also took home an award from the Indigo Awards, another distinguished international design competition. The panels of judges look to recognize the iconoclasm of design worldwide, and celebrate work that showcases a fresh new take on design-inspired composition.

The work hinges on custom photography and meaningful copywriting, and helped take the Cruise America brand to a new level. The campaign communicates not only an eagerness for new experiences, but also the peace and clarity those moments bring to our lives. See more of our work for Cruise America here.


Drop Dead Gorgeous interior spread

The Indigo Awards continued to be gracious with their distinctions this year by giving our project with Phoenix Fashion Week an honorable mention in the Magazine & Newspaper design category.

Inspired by the local Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations, we created a high fashion portrayal of a storied tradition. Día de los Muertos looks at death as a part of life, creating a beautiful celebration of the spirit. Similarly, as captured through photography, the models’ glamorous depiction of death turns the typically grim idea on its head and makes it something beautiful you can’t look away from. View the full project here.


Custom-built Kachina for the Arizona Coyotes

The accolades keep coming from Indigo as our design for the Arizona Coyote’s conference room was honored with an award in the Mixed Media category. 

For the Coyotes, the design of the conference room celebrated the original look they wore when they were introduced to the desert back in 1996. We re-energized the room with a 6’5″ custom-built, three-dimensional Kachina; a new team member we are sure they won’t be trading any time soon, The walls were coated with skated ice, adding accents of actual hockey gear to the room that allowed this environment to come to life. View the full project here.


Splinter website design

Last, but certainly not least, top honors and recognition for the Splinter brand itself – for this very website. Our site won multiple awards this year including a Gold Addy (the highest form of Addy) from the American Advertising Federation. 

We measure our success by the success of our clients and our ability to help them achieve their goals. While our website does say a little bit about us, our primary focus was to showcase the stunning design work that we’ve made on our clients’ behalf. In a sense, this award would not be possible without your success. So to all of our clients who have given us their trust and allowed us to make these beautiful projects – thank you.


It’s not in our nature to look back and pat ourselves on the back. We stay busy and are focused on the future, looking ahead. However, from time to time, it’s essential to take note and recognize the designers and team here at Splinter. Their hard work and savvy does not go unnoticed. Not here in-studio, not from our clients and not from the international design community. 

They are gifted problem solvers, talented artists, great communicators and amazing people. They deserve this moment.

A Brand Finds Their Stride

In 2018, the groundbreaking event, America’s Run for the Fallen, hit the pavement in Fort Irwin, CA. It continued cross-country through 19 states over the course of four months. Names of fallen service members were read at every mile marker through the 6,000-mile journey. Gold star families and supporters gathered to hear their hero’s name read. Each fallen hero since the bombing of the USS Cole in October of 2000 was honored in this way.

The event was led by the parent organization Honor & Remember and had the support of the Department of Defense. It became one of the most comprehensive and successful tributes to our fallen military members this country has ever seen. We were moved by the remarkable message, the energy, and the amazing team of organizers. Spend any time with their founder, George Lutz, and you will be too. 

Map design of the run across America
Graphical map of the route

We started the partnership by designing a key piece for the event – a 30ft motorhome that provided a place to gather and rest. Over 20,000 names of fallen soldiers wove across the surface of the RV like the threads of a tapestry. Throughout the country, family and friends found solace in finding the names of their loved ones.

fallen service members hidden in design
Family and friends searching for the name of their loved ones.

After America’s Run for the Fallen concluded, the organization approached us to help evolve their brand design. The run across America was a one-time event, but the program races on. Honor & Remember has held individual state runs for several years. The national event gained the attention of more states looking to hold their own runs. As the cause continued to grow, the need for brand consistency became necessary.

Images of event and runners
Images from various runs across America.

Our approach was sympathetic and methodical. The sentiment and power of this event live in photographs. As a result, the branding system needed to support the visuals without pulling focus. Most of the imagery from the runs contain American flags and other patriotic symbols. We developed a color palette with deep military green, shades of tan, and steel grey. These neutral tones complement the red, white, and blue imagery without overpowering it.

Logo & brand design
Final, full-color horizontal logo

The new logo symbolizes stability, strength, and endurance. It is a tribute to both the fallen soldiers and the loved ones they left behind. We chose a square gothic style font for its clear legibility and bold geometric shape. The line at the bottom of the logo represents the road that participants run. As a foundational element, it supports the weight of the logo, just as Run for the Fallen supports the military community. To honor their existing logo, we refined the battlefield cross illustration with color and line work. The battlefield cross is a recognizable symbol of respect to honor fallen soldiers. Its distinct meaning adds context to designs and creates recognition of the event within the community.

Poster and Promotional brand design

Next, we implemented the new brand design system into their marketing materials and a new website. With such a large – and growing community – it was important to create a clear structure for the website. We streamlined the user experience by consolidating information and reworking the site navigation. New participants can easily find times and locations for local runs, look up where a hero’s name will be read, or offer donations. The new website is a place where the community can come together to celebrate and honor our fallen heroes.

Website Brand design
Run for the Fallen template website

We can’t emphasize enough the value and integrity of their team, and are very proud to be part of this incredible undertaking. Over the last two years we have enjoyed our partnership with Run for the Fallen and cannot wait for Arizona’s run on October 18th – 20th. 

Splinter & Corkcicle. Of Course We Wood.

It’s no secret brands delight in seeing their name on things, so when we found some wood-grain-inspired tumblers from one of our favorite brands we couldn’t resist. Projects like this keep our creative edges sharp. Working with new materials and different printing constraints adds to the bucket of knowledge that we share with our clients. Plus it never hurts to have a little fun.

Our design was heavily influenced by printing techniques and limitations. We wrestled with all options for imprinting. From pad printed, to silk screen, and from router inlays to laser engraved. All techniques had benefits and their own restrictions. Our initial sketches explored printing a large logo that would cover an entire side of the tumbler and bleed off the top and bottom. We wanted a finished product that was bold and impactful, but it was the constraints of production methods that informed the final design, and what would be possible. We reverted back to the sketch pads to rethink on how to create the most impact with the wood product and smaller imprint area.

Close up of Splinter logo on wood Corkcicle.

A simple knocked out logo celebrates the wood-grain texture and gives our brand center stage. While visually it is not as forceful as the original design, it does impart a secondary message that the first concept was lacking – design reveals meaning. The knockout visual enhances the relationship between the word “Splinter” and the wood-grain texture. Which in turns strengthens the connotations of our name with you, our audience. This is always the intention of design though it’s usually less literal.

You have to admit, it’s a cool cup. We enjoy taking inspiration from our work lives to make something that communicates a little bit about what we do. From solving puzzles to taking notes, we’ve made a few thoughtful, and award-winning, promotional gifts.

Healthcare Trust of America (NYSE: HTA) Partners with Local Agency, Splinter

A growing portfolio, committed investors, and enthusiastic tenants. These three components are the foundation of Healthcare Trust of America’s (HTA) advancement in their field, and the value in becoming partners with Splinter. As the largest public owner and operator of medical office buildings in the United States, they are continually improving their portfolio and assets.

They came to us to transform their website and digital assets into a beautiful resource that caters to each affiliate’s specific needs. HTA becoming partners with Splinter allowed us to work alongside the Standard & Poor Global team to construct a new website design that would grow alongside them. The finished design is both beautiful and functional.

Having such a powerful tool that provides a wonderful user experience ushers even more validation for the HTA business model. The work we created and the final website features the strengths of the business and portfolio. The strong digital foundation will help support the future of the company, knowing that HTA has sustainable digital presence for years to come.

Putting the Pieces Together, a Design Challenge

For our promotional project this year we invited people into the process of visual problem-solving. Great design is purposeful, it solves a problem through a combination of logic, creativity and ingenuity. Another important aspect of the design process is playfulness. It is necessary to explore different concepts, adjust them, and push the limits to see how elastic an idea is – at what point does it lose its context and become too unrecognizable? We wanted to find one item to embody all these ideas. Tangram puzzles were the perfect design challenge.

Tangram design challenge boxes

One puzzle consists of seven geometric pieces that combine to make a square. A deck of cards provides a series of figures, animals and landmarks formed by rearranging the seven pieces. It seems simple until you realize there are infinite ways to put the seven pieces together. We made it even trickier by including two puzzles with some cards combining all 14 pieces to make one design. One might call this an advancedgram.

Tangrams have seemingly endless possibilities and the final arrangements are very subjective. Two people may look at a completed puzzle and see two completely different things. This is similar to design at its heart and the challenges designers engage with during every project. Ultimately, we want our designs to be unique, but they also need to be recognizable to a wider audience. 

cards with design challenge images

In true Splinter fashion, we used wooden puzzles in wooden boxes with red and white cards. We kept the design simple so that the puzzles could be the hero of the project. We were overwhelmingly pleased to win a silver ADDY from The American Advertising Federation (AAF). But we were even more pleased to give a peek into the creative mind. Having a little fun while getting to the crux of the design challenge, that is our pointy genius.