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Subconscious colour systems.

As design styles move, change and over-saturate our lives, they expire and burn out. Last year’s soft pink and turquoise is as washed up as the 1980’s version it was recycled from.

So, it seems nearly healthy that there are a lot of epic design decisions out there in the world that have been made for us all, that we just have to live with.

We typically don’t consider the reasons behind these monumental, and often timeless design decisions, as we drive past or stop to take a selfie.

Civic design operates on a path of its own, perhaps more user-centric than it was in the early twentieth century, but always willing to be led more by function, than style. But when that utility becomes a trend, we have to appreciate the effect these everyday design decisions have upon us at a consumer level.

In the 1933, San Francisco opened a bold orange suspension bridge to the world. The orange hue we take for granted is a lot more than cosmetic.

The bridge was initially designed by engineer Joseph Strauss in 1917, but it was Irving Morrow, a relatively unknown residential architect, who designed the overall shape of the bridge towers, the lighting scheme, and its famous colour. The ‘International Orange’ colour was Morrow's personal selection, winning out over other possibilities, including the US Navy's suggestion that it be painted with black and yellow stripes to ensure visibility by passing ships.

‘International Orange’ is a colour used in the aerospace industry to set objects apart from their surroundings, similar to safety orange, but deeper and with a more reddish tone.

It also wraps the Bell X-1, the first airplane to break the sound barrier, and NASA space suits were also a shade of this colour at one stage.

International Orange still makes brief micro-comebacks in graphic design, and has previously spent a few years in the sun in the 1970’s as a car colour, fashion fabric and sofa throw pillow.

On the other side of the USA, the industrial gothic Manhattan Bridge debuted in a dull grey – the under-appreciated neighbour of the Brooklyn Bridge.

In the 1970s, Manhattan Bridge was repainted in a muted industrial blue, inspired by 17th and 18th century blue and white Dutch pottery, homage to the New Amsterdam moniker of years gone by.

Personally, I love the faded brutality of the Manhattan Bridge colour scheme. It’s not setting out to be pretty. It stays the course as the working bridge of the East River, and falls into the fog of night, just like it should.

In the southern hemisphere, ‘The Coat Hanger’ graces the shimmering waters of Sydney Harbour, painted in an imaginatively titled ‘Bridge Grey’. Little is written, but story has it that the dysfunction between the building engineers and the bridge ‘designer’ left room for someone to drive over to the Australian Navy docks to pick up whatever paint they had spare that would "repel sun and salt". The only colour the Navy had on hand: dark grey. The same grey they painted their warships.

The solution: Dulux Ferroko® No. 6 Micaceous Iron Oxide Chlorinated Rubber Finish PC 580. A heavily rubberized marine grey.

This paint colour has never been commercially available, but became a part of the public consciousness once it was known that a young Paul (Crocodile Dundee) Hogan (pictured above) spent his days painting the bridge in the 1970’s, just as his comedy career took off.

Very recently it seems, Bridge Grey has become a thing, and now you can buy the colour and apply as you wish. Perfect for the bedroom, the kitchen, or that warship you might be building.

So, what worked in 1932, works in 2020 too. Seems inspiration is all around us.


Damian Totman is a writer and designer based in London. Semi-famous studio works on projects all around the world. In former lives, Damian was the global creative director of tech giant, Bloomberg. He has owned and run a design agency in New York, and worked in lots of creative companies with long sets of initials on the door. He's selectively opinionated.

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