How Paper For iPad Reinvented Digital Color Mixing

Finding the perfect color is near-impossible, but Paper’s new tool makes blending colors intuitive.

There’s nothing more frustrating than picking a color out of Illustrator’s mega rainbow gradient. It’s inherently overwhelming, and finding the right shade of blue to complement a red you’re already using is nearly impossible. That’s why many designers take the easy way out and just download a few preset palettes.


That shortcut is just what Paper, the iPad app by FiftyThree, offered at launch. The app came with just nine set colors that worked perfectly together. “It’s amazing how far a well-considered set of defaults can go,” FiftyThree Co-Founder Andrew Allen tells Co.Design. But at the end of the day, if their app was going to be the quintessential digital sketchpad for creatives, it needed more colors–custom colors.

So FiftyThree set out to redefine how we find and choose colors, to make the experience as natural as mixing paints with a palette knife and as gratifying as using perfectly complementary preset swatches.

“We felt strongly that color should be fun,” Allen tells Co.Design. “A big part of making color fun was to make it physical again. We wanted to ‘create’ colors rather than ‘pick’ colors–to take the control out of the menu and into our own hands. For that, the metaphor of mixing paints just felt right.”

What the team built was the Mixer: one-part finger painting, one-part algorithm-automated taste. You can read about the complex science behind the color blending process here, but the effect to the end user is something we can all understand intuitively: Pick one color. Pick a second color. Swirl the second color into the first color to create a perfectly predictable gradient that contains the color you really want.

As simple as it sounds, this approach wasn’t a success right out of the gate. In an early iteration, the Mixer was simply tied to those traditional HSB (hue, saturation, brightness) sliders, so as you’d blend color, the bars would shift in parallel. It was too confusing, no doubt the exact sort of throwback to Adobe products that the team was trying to escape, but that failed approach taught the team how powerful the most basic representation of color blending could be.

“We had to simplify the control to one dimension–spin forward to add color, spin back to remove,” Allen says. “The best tools are very simple ones. The power is revealed in their use. Take a pair of scissors–anyone can pick it up and start using it immediately–yet, you can master it over time. The Mixer doesn’t look complex, but it offers a new powerful action that can be used in an infinite number of ways.”


Reaching “infinite” required one more fix, though, as the Mixer was left with an inherent limitation. While it could blend two colors from Paper’s harmonious 9-color palette, if the Mixer’s purpose was really to discover new colors, then it needed a way to break out of these presets. The solution here was a bit of a compromise. By tapping on the Mixer, you’re greeted with a more traditional HSB popup that allows you to select from a greater rainbow of colors.

“The limitations of mixing are good when you want harmonious colors, but can get in the way if you want a color outside that gamut,” Allen explains. “We also needed a way to connect our color back to the world of traditional color interactions.”

Shots from the third prototype, in which the team wanted to nail down the mixing gesture and onscreen feedback of color blending.

So even though Paper is bucking every known tool metaphor of digital image creation, they ultimately chose to acknowledge, and even accommodate the Adobe power user with a layer of customizable sliders. It will be interesting to see if, in another 10 years, more natural, organic interfaces can continue to meld with the Photoshop mainstays we’ve all come to know.

“HSB is a model for really getting in there and tweaking a color one parameter at a time. It’s like driving a car with a manual transmission, Allen says. “There are some who need that level of control like semi-truck drivers, but for the majority of us, an automatic is the right way to go.”

Download Paper here.

[Hat tip: Fast Company]


[Image: Color wheel via Shutterstock]


About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.