Finding Colour

"You're at work, aren't you?"

Technically, no. I'm actually sat at the dining table, nursing my daily coffee power-up and shovelling porridge into myself and the baby. But yeah, the wife is right as always: I'm not really here. I'm staring at nothingness, in my head, working. That spot in the middle distance, that's where it's all happening.

Far too late last night, I called it quits on a book cover I'd been working on. Something about it just wasn't coming together, and no amount of eye-rubbing or desk-tidying was helping. Even sticking the Social Network soundtrack on loop – usually a good way of shaking the cobwebs loose – failed to get me out of the creative quagmire. So to bed.

It turns out that sleep was actually quite useful, certainly more so than staying awake indefinitely (must remember that for future reference). Whilst fading from robot-dinosaur-dreamspace to breakfast, I figured out where I was coming unstuck: the colours are off. The problem isn't solved yet, but at least it's identified. And now I can't stop thinking about it. It's sat there on my desk, incomplete, just a few metres from the kitchen. Come on, brain. Think. Finish your oat-slush and think. Colours.

The thinking behind the design as it stands doesn't particularly help. There's usually some element that helps to inform colour choices – something in the text, the concept, imagery. There'll be a seed of something. Not this time, though. It's pretty much entirely geometric and abstract and … well, seedless.

Perhaps it's right under my nose. How about a delicate blend of porridge hues? Or a cheerful greyish-brownish coffee tones? Maybe not. I would turn to my ever-loyal Pantone 549 mug for inspiration, but I've already taken advantage of that particular muse one time too many. Sorry, tealy-blue, but it's time we spent some time apart.

No. Sod it. This is going to involve me getting up, getting my trousers on and heading out into the sunshine. It's time to resort to that most valuable of design stratagems, a technique that dates back to the earliest practitioners of graphic design: a bit of a walk and maybe a nice slice of cake.

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"Are you taking a photo of your Victoria Sponge?"

Yes and no, the wife, yes and no. I am pointing my iPhone camera at the undeniably photogenic slab of niceness, but I'm not taking a photo as such. There's more magic to it than that. It's more like I'm stealing its soul. I'm Kuler-ing it.

Kuler (reviewed in the last issue) is Adobe’s latest brilliant toy, an app that instantly plucks colour schemes from the world around you. Point your camera at absolutely anything – a Victoria Sponge, a lemon torte, perhaps even a mille feuille – and it'll produce a five-colour palette that you can save, name and export for use in any other Adobe app. It takes a bit of getting used to, and 99% of the sets you save will turn out to be useless, but it really is a great little tool.

Of course, having to hold up an iPhone and point it at things becomes a little tiresome after a while. What I really need is a Kuler HUD before my eyes, constantly scanning the world for chromatic wonderments. Imagine if it was built into something like Google Glass? Although of course, it'd have to be significantly prettier than Glass – cutting edge it may be, but ugly is ugly. No, the dream is a device that smooshes together all the best bits of Kuler, Glass and some chunky Wayfarers. Oh my yes, that needs to happen.

Unfortunately, that idea is the only fruit of my outside wanderings. My slice of cake has been eaten and had all the colour sapped from its spongy soul. I'll head home and continue my quest there … and maybe pen a lengthy proposal to Adobe, Google and Ray-Ban.

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"You're spinning. Again. I'll go sort out the washing."

Spinning. Yes. Mmm-hmm. Leave me now, I'm having a creative moment on my spiny chair. Kuler has opened my eyes to the vast spectrum of potential visible everywhere. You know the stargate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey (or rather, that bit in The Simpsons when Homer sits in the massage chair)? That's how I feel. Before today, the world was in colour. Now it's in COLOUR.

There’s colour aplenty visible from my little workstation. Just a quick spin of the old stool reveals a reliable source of inspiration: if years of hoarding books and records and magazines has taught me anything, it's that there's gold in them there spines. Slivers of rainbow, type and texture – I could look at these all day. But that doesn't seem awfully productive, so I merely rearrange them instead. And now I'm the proud owner of an entire shelf made up of nothing but black, white and red spines. Useful. Pretty.

The colours I need are around here somewhere. When they appears, they’ll appear in the most unlikely of places. My mind wanders back to a conversation with designer Nick Felton (aka Feltron). One of his legendary personal annual reports was a combination of greys and greens and whites – only later did he realise that the colours perfectly matched a photograph of some lichen he'd taken months before. So maybe I've already seen it, maybe the inspiration is already lodged in my noggin, maybe …

Whilst I furrow my brow and stroke my chin, my exasperated other half is actually getting something done; hanging washing in the doorway of our home studio, lining up an array of damp t-shirts just so. A navy and white striped one. A mottled grey one. A faded green one from a Wilco gig I dragged her to years ago.

And there it is. Colours. Perfect. She'll pretend it's just some chromatic happenstance, but I think she's known all along. Brilliant, patient wife. So much more useful than a thousand apps.

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Originally published in the September 2013 issue of MacUser.