Bali, Bullfighting and the Big Red Design Myth

When we were in Bali I mentioned to Karen how It must be difficult for local businesses to survive over there for very long. On one hand you have the storefronts that line the streets, covered in loud banners and signage, all vying desperately for your attention. And on the other hand you have the the seemingly infinite lines of nameless market stalls that all appear to be selling the exact same thing. From a design standpoint, they're either screaming at you or they're saying nothing at all. 

That got me thinking. Then just the other day, I had a conversation that went something like this:

Client: “Just one more thing. That part under the last box. Can we have that in red?”
Me: “Do you mean the part that’s already bold and underlined?” (already in questionable territory at this point)
Client: “That’s the one.”
Me: “Do you mean you want it red instead?”
Client: “No we want it red as well.”
Me: “So you want it bold and underlined...and red.”
Client: “You got it!”
Me: “I see...”

Volkswagen's 'Think small' campaign showed the world how to quietly get peoples' attention.

I remember when I used to work for a local newspaper, ad requests would come through and the staff in marketing would make special note that the client wants the majority of the ad in bold, red text. They often also wanted some kind of red outline or a red band or a red button or something else that looked terrible...but it was always red.

Their thought process, I presumed, was that if their ad was as loud as possible then people would have to take notice of it. Except when the ad eventually reached the page, everyone else had the same idea. So all their shouting got lost in a mess of bold, red text and it just made you want to look somewhere else. There’s a famous quote by designer Art Webb who said “If you make everything bold, nothing is bold”. So true.

And why red? Why do we always default to the same colour? The problem lies in a common misconception about design which makes me think of a similar misconception about bullfighting. Yes, random, I know. This is unfortunately how my mind works.


People think that the colour red makes the bull angry, thus the reason they charge at the matador’s cape rather than trampling the matador himself (as I wish they would since bullfighting is a terrible thing). But the colour of the cape has nothing to do with it. He’s not going after the cape because it’s red, he’s going after it because it’s moving when everything else is still. It’s doing something different to get his attention.

It’s the same with design. Every colour has its use, but there’s not one magical colour code that flips a switch in the brains of your audience and demands attention. Regardless of colour, contrast is what draws the eye.

If everyone else is shouting, try a whisper. 

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