#33 On CEOs Having Color Preferences

Pants. I put them on every weekday


Almost every designer has a story about getting derailed by an executive doing a drive-by. More often than not, it’s about the CEO walking by their desk and saying something about a color. It’s so common it’s like a fairy tale archetype. The evil stepmother, the trusting fool, and the CEO with color preferences. Mine happened in maybe 2009 when the CEO walked by my desk and said: “I hate that shade of blue.” Changing that color had a ripple effect through the product.


It’s like a little mini-parable about the unintended consequences of straying from your lane. The butterfly effect of lost butterflies. 


My first reaction to this sort of feedback is, “Why on earth do you have this opinion and feel the need to express it?” There’s a couple of things going on. One is that colors are accessible. We all learned the right words for a basic discussion about color by preschool. And, in keeping with the Dunning-Kruger effect, those whose color education stopped in kindergarten have a hard time imagining that there really are Masters’-level discussions on color. There’s also the need to give feedback and feel like you made a contribution, which is gated by one’s contextual competence. On seeing a single screen in a complex flow for the first time, the only feedback one might be able to give is trivially aesthetic.


In which case, exercise self-control. Or just ask why things are the way they are. There’s a good chance that a lot of consideration went into the selection of a particular color. Like preserving minimum contrast for low-vision accessibility or reserving particular colors for certain purposes or types of information in a design language. And that changing a single color in a single situation might have enormous repercussions throughout the system.