What's the thinking behind this color palette?
January 7, 2014 8:20 AM   Subscribe

Why these 10 colors?

I took to using these Post-it page markers to help me organize my day planner into different projects. You'll notice there are 10 different colors. I've actually stopped using the page markers themselves, but I've adopted the palette for a project spreadsheet I'm using and also bought markers in these colors. I'm wondering why Post-it chose these particular colors (two greens, one blue, two purples, two pinks, etc.) for their product. What's the thinking behind it?
posted by Leontine to Grab Bag (12 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
The original yellow color was more or less random according to this interview.
posted by jessamyn at 8:31 AM on January 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

People write on post-its so they have to be light. I'm not sure what colors you think are missing? These look like a combination of Post-it's pastel and ultra/neon offerings, which would make sense.
posted by acidic at 8:31 AM on January 7, 2014

Bright yellow is urgent, muted yellow is less urgent (but same category)
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 8:32 AM on January 7, 2014

Best answer: Post-it comes out with five-color "collections" but when it comes down to it there's not much variation because they have to stick to light and/or muted colors. My guess is simply that they already had page markers in production for some of the collections and they threw a bunch of different colors together to make a ten-pack. Your ten-pack looks a lot like this eight-pack with a couple of colors switched out and a couple added.
posted by payoto at 8:42 AM on January 7, 2014

Darker colors will also come out black when put through a copier.
posted by JoeZydeco at 9:03 AM on January 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Here's my color-geek take on this.

There's a color notation system called the Munsell scale. In this notation, all colors are described according to three characteristics: Hue, Value, and Chroma. Hue could be understood as the "identity" of the color: red, yellow, blue, green, orange, etc. It's the closest thing to what we think of as the name of the color. Value is the lightness or darkness of the color to the human eye.

Chroma is the odd one to describe -- it's the "colorfulness" of the color, the intensity of the color compared to an equal value of gray. Different hues have different maximum chroma levels. That is to say, the most intensely, vibrantly colorful red has a much higher chroma than the most vibrant possible violet. Violet just never gets quite as blazing as a blazing red.

In addition to different hues having different maximum chroma levels, each hue reaches its maximum chroma at a different value. This chart shows the differences. Red is "brightest" (has its chromatic maximum) at about the halfway point between its lightest and darkest value. Yellow, on the other hand, is brightest at a very light value. Violet has its max chroma at a very dark value.

OK, so what's the point of all this? Post-Its have basically two necessary functions: legibility and visibility. In the interest of visibility, you want the highest-chroma colors possible, because they "pop" and have a glowing, attractive effect on the eye. The paper also has to be light enough for the writing on it to be legible.

If your Post-It is yellow, everything is great because yellow happens to have its max chroma at a very high lightness value. The colors related to yellow, like yellow-green and yellow-orange also have the property of being able to be both very light in shade and very intense in chroma.

But we run into a problem with the colors in the opposing violet family. Red's max chroma is at about 50% gray, too dark for text to be visible on it (let alone photocopiable, as JoeZydeco points out). Blue's max chroma is even darker, and violet has the darkest of all.

That means compromising by lightening the value but decreasing the chroma. Red becomes pink: lighter in value, but decreased to a slightly lower chroma. The lower-right color in the image you posted is the best example: it's a violet-blue at a very low chroma, almost gray. The violet above it is slightly more vibrant, but not by much. The most intense possible version of that violet color only exists at a very dark shade, too dark to be good for a Post-It. The blue Post-It is closer to cyan than it is to violet, increasing its ability to be simultaneously high-chroma and higher lightness.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 9:28 AM on January 7, 2014 [278 favorites]

The overeducated_alligator does an excellent job of explaining the motivation behind choosing the lighter shades, but not why specific colors were chosen.

As for this story:
They had some scrap yellow paper – that’s why they were yellow . . . It was not thought out; nobody said they’d better be yellow rather than white because they would blend in - it was a pure accident.
I don't believe this for a second. In the lab, maybe, but once marketing got involved, you can bet a lot more thought went into color choices. Why would they have had an abundance of yellow paper around in the first place?

Post-it Notes were introduced into a well-established business ecosystem. Part of that ecosystem was NCR paper, otherwise known as No carbon Required paper, or carbonless copy paper. Invented at NCR (when this stood for National Cash Register) in the early 1950s, NCR paper replaced labor-intensive means (and anticipated digital means) of generating neat identical copies of hand-written and typed forms.

NCR paper was (is) provided in pre-printed perforated forms with between two and ten (?!) stacked sheets in different colors for easy identification and collation.

Long before Post-it Notes arrived on the scene, the colors and even the sequence of colors had become standardized:

2 parts: white, canary*
3 parts: white, canary, pink
4 parts: white, canary, pink, goldenrod**
5 parts: white, green, canary, pink, goldenrod
6 parts: white, blue, green, canary, pink, goldenrod***

* The familiar pale yellow used in the original Post-it Notes.
** The somewhat less familiar yellow-orange.

If you were to use the term "canary" or "goldenrod" in an office in the late 20th century, anyone would know you were talking about a paper color. The forms'd be labeled like:

white - customer
blue - billing
green - legal
canary - file
pink - accounting
goldenrod - shipping

Compare the color pallet of your page markers to the standard NCR paper colors. Starting with the top left and working down, 1 = NCR canary, 2 = NCR goldenrod, 5 = NCR pink, 7 = NCR green, and 10 = NCR blue.

Since Post-it Notes are far less formal, they could afford to be more creative, and that's why you later see 'fun' but illegible colors like hot pink, dayglo orange, electric blue, gang green, microdot purple, etc.

But I'm all but certain that the earliest colors offered by 3M were intended to match standard NCR paper colors, which would allow them to be used for the same purpose: easy visual sorting, collating, and routing.

***Back when rocks were soft, I briefly had a job as an entrepreneurial bureaucrat. I worked with septuplicate forms, so seven colors is the most I ever saw. PRESS HARD YOU ARE MAKING SIX COPIES.
posted by Herodios at 12:40 PM on January 10, 2014 [52 favorites]

Additional data point: You used to be able to get correcting fluid in all these same colors as well. I used make little abstract paintings with the stuff on blank forms.
posted by Herodios at 8:06 PM on January 10, 2014 [7 favorites]

I'd have thought spots 2, 4, & 8 were the CMY of CMYK (in Y-M-C order, though) and then their inverses were the most standard orange, green, purple. Top two and bottom two a bit more Post-It specific, perhaps...
posted by mdn at 12:43 PM on January 14, 2014

I'd heard that Post-its matched NCR forms' strata as well.

Back when I was a lowly minion, I often had to glue NCR forms together, because my boss was too cheap to use a bindery. I had happily forgotten the horrors of the septuplicate form.
posted by culfinglin at 11:09 PM on January 14, 2014

I used make little abstract paintings with the stuff on blank forms.

Classic pre-Internet slacking! You had to be creative, kids.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 6:05 AM on January 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

Herodios, I don't know where you worked, but well into the early 1990s I was using 5 part carbon required NARDA forms. A little history of NARDA ...

We were a smaller shop so we only had correction fluid in white ... but I saw it in pink, yellow, green, and blue. Color-part forms - that makes sense now!
posted by tilde at 4:54 PM on January 18, 2014

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