Color and Imagination

I shouldn’t be entitled to speak about color frivolity as my profession, graphic design, makes me a manipulator extraordinaire of information through color. The only redeeming factor of my biography is that I spent most of my adult life questioning color in society.

I grew up in communist Bulgaria during the late70s and 80s.  Back then color was scarce, products were homogenous and stores were bare. The only tone that permeated the retina of my childhood was a certain kind of brown. That is, if we talk about commercial display of color.

Brown bags, brown buildings, brown candy wrappers, brown TV. The color bacchanalia spilling over products, fashion, awnings, plastic bags and food in America that I now take for granted, was once source of unattainable cravings and dreams. As my senses were so color malnourished, brown came to signify not the presence of color, but the lack of it. I found out the difference the day my father brought home some plastic bags from Vienna. They were filled with all sorts of candy and gum, but that didn’t even interest me. What intrigued me the most and propelled me to stash them away in secret piles in the closet, were their glossy textures and luminous hues. There was the lipstick-thick magenta that wooed like a vixen, the pale blue that opened up gates at foreign airports, the ochre yellow that smelled of Camel cigarettes, the shocking silver that hovered like a UFO.

After the West decadent colorization stained my mind, there was no going back. I dreamt of color every waking hour of my life until I was old enough to escape Bulgaria.

The colored plastic bags I saw - they weren’t colors, they were places and archetypes and life-styles. They were the Western culture encapsulated. On a subconscious level, this capsule of forbidden experience became the reason for my migration to America years later. Such was the effect of color deprivation and color control over my pliable senses. 

Because I was used to consuming color in small doses in times of communism, I now associate it with fleeting happiness. And even though neither of my present surroundings, social or seasonal, preclude me from basking in color (I live in capitalistic America and sunny California) I’ve learned not to trust color in society.

But the story of the color brown goes farther than communism, scarcity and deprivation. It is also the color of coffee, which my father drank incessantly. And if we move down the color scale towards its creamy tints, we arrive at beige. Beige was the clothing he wore and the car he drove. You see, my father was the epitome of sophistication and intellect for me. Thus brown and beige became emotional guides to elegance, love, safety, culture, civilization, literature, tenderness, language and so many other things that connected us.

Then there was the story about cyan. Cyan was the color of love and melancholy, because it hung in our kitchen when I was a child, and the kitchen was a sponge for my mom’s bitter-sweet loneliness. On the other hand, cyan had some sentimental relatives in the realm of exclusivity, privilege and social status. It marks the so called “blue phase” of my life, during which the communist party pronounced me a “little pioneer”. Back then I was to wear a luminous, silky, cyan neck scarf which symbolized freedom and peaceful skies. 

 I can go on about many other dual influences of color and emotions; like yellow and orange autumn leaves which signified euphoria, because autumn was the time of my birthday; at the same time yellow and orange meant scarcity because they translated into bananas and oranges which were imported in Bulgaria only in limited quantity during Christmas.

I can almost distinguish two emotional patterns in relationship to color – a whimsical pleasure when related to colors of people and places I love, and distrust when related to colors of material things and society.
Human beings take color from his/her surroundings and turn it into emotions. Lover’s green sweater, parent’s blue car, trees’ lime green, seasonal pink watermelon, pet’s black eyes, water’s aquamarine depth, earth’s brown translate into love, safety, relaxation, summer laziness, loyalty, thirst, death. These emotions are often slippery, inconsistent and have millions of grades and binary oppositions within them. That makes the corresponding colors open to interpretation. Basically, there are as many color sensations on earth as there are human beings.

Society, on the other hand, takes color from its surroundings and turns it into discourse. All of a sudden it communicates cheerfulness, peace, luxury, status and chosen-ess through a red scarf, green logo, neon sign, blue napkin, silver watch. The culturally assigned colors are less open to interpretation. It’s a make believe system, a form of a personal mythology bestowed upon us.

Only when you have to leap between two cultures or ideological systems, do you realize that color is a phantom. The more humans limit it (communism in Bulgaria), or abuse it (capitalism in America), the more apathetic it becomes. By that I mean that humans around it become color numb as well.

It may be a while before corporations and autocratic regimes adopt dynamic spectrums of hues as their brands, but meanwhile we can play with what’s in front of our eyes. I propose that you take an experience and create your own personal mythologies, systems, brands, French novels, logos, Nikes, food, sounds, textures, odors, color wheels.

I propose that you treat color as a living thing that loves freedom – the way it meshes with tastes, textures, places, sounds and emotions. Sadness, jazz and blueberries, for example. Take that acid trip of myriad of cross-sensory undulations.

Swim in color, use it, abuse it, abstain from it, explain it, entrench it, taste it, rationalize it, kill it if you wish, but don’t be ignorant about it. Compare cultural, political and commercial discourses in order to understand color applications. Don’t hold back. Color can take just about anything, except cluelessness.

Here’s where you can start to play: 
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “100 Years of Solitude”
your dreams
Bigfish Smallpond Design (
Tennessee Williams’ “Streetcar Named Desire”
your childhood
Art Nouveau
Alphonse Mucha
prehistoric societies
non authoritarian cultures
the movie Waking Life
…just to name a few. 

Have a bouncy cerise day!

To read the full article on color and imagination, visit

Fani Nicheva is a graphic designer and a writer, who lives and works in Santa Cruz, California. She has written the book "Type Talks" and is in the process of finishing her first novel "Mental Immigrant". 


Anne Duguid Knol said...

Stimulating post, Fani, and I shall certainly check out the original blog post. Bulgaria now is full of colour--the national costumes at the folkloric festivals, the greens of the countryside, the wild flowers and shrubs and all the commercialization of the packaging.
Sadly here at home it's a grey sky day. Even yesterday's bright green willows have turned olive with depression.

Fani Nicheva said...

I hear you. Have you been to Bulgaria? WOW!

D. Jean Quarles said...

Wow! Great post. Loved it!

Mary Jo Guglielmo said...

What a beautiful post. Love your writing.

Fani Nicheva said...

Thank you both!

Karen Cioffi said...

Fani, what an interesting post. You really brought 'color' to life. Thanks so much for sharing.

Heidiwriter said...

Lovely! Sometimes we take things for granted until we are deprived of them. Great post.

widdershins said...

The complete article is well worth the read too ... thanks for this.

Margaret Fieland said...

Check out

where the top three posts are color related.

Magdalena Ball said...

Lovely post Fani - colour is often underused by writers, but not Marquez and Williams who use colors wonderfully (as do you). I also recommend Rushdie, whose writing is full of Indian spices - tumeric, chillies, cardamom, cumin - I can see, smell and taste them in his work.

T. Forehand said...

What a deep understanding of color, and wonderful writing. It will make me more aware of how I use color in my writing but also how I relate to color emotionally.

Thanks for sharing.


Fani Nicheva said...

I am glad you liked the complete article.

Kathleen Moulton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kathleen Moulton said...

This is the most incredible writing I have read in a very long time. It touched me in a most unusual way. Can't explain it. I will enjoy reading it several more times.

Thank-you for inspiring me!


Fani Nicheva said...

Kathleen, I am so ecstatic and humbled by your reaction. It's what keeps me going.

Fani Nicheva said...

I checked it out. Fascinating. Thank you, Maggie.

Shirley Corder said...

Stunning post, Fani. And how beautifully written. I am passing this link on to my daughter, an art teacher who lives in Kazakhstan (from S.Africa where colour abounds!)and her daughter, my grand-daughter, who is now in America at university studying Graphic Design! Thank you.

Fani Nicheva said...

Thank you, Shirley!

VS Grenier said...

Getting caught up over here on all the wonderful posts. Found this very interesting and insightful. Thanks for sharing.

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