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Color Communicates

Colors have shaped and informed our world for millennia, and one new technology promises to transform the way we design and create

Humans are social animals by nature, it’s embedded in our DNA. Our unique ability to communicate and cooperate allowed our human ancestors to band together and thrive in a hostile prehistoric world.

But communication is much more than just a tool for survival, it’s the common thread that connects us – across living rooms, neighborhoods and nations. We feel compelled to share ourselves with others and discuss everything from life’s great mysteries to last night’s dinner. And although we’ve developed an endless number of ways to communicate, there is one language that has remained universal since the dawn of humankind – color.

The earliest-known, human-made colorants were discovered in the Blombos cave in South Africa.  These were made between 70,000 – 100,000 years ago using a mixture of ochre, charcoal, crushed bone and crushed rock. Some 40,000 years ago pre-historic artists in Europe were using a mix of soil, animal fat, burnt charcoal, ochre and other colored minerals to make cave paintings that were vivid and detailed reflections of their physical world.  More than just an aesthetic choice, color was a potent means of communication that continues to shape our view of the world and each other.

The evolution of color is one of perpetual discovery – whether it be through art, science, or industry. For example, the development of new colors has accompanied the rise of art’s greatest movements – from the Renaissance to Impressionism to Pop Art – as artists experimented with never-before-seen colors and techniques.

Obtaining colors used to be far more difficult than it is today. Ultramarine, for example, was made from lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone that came from a single mine in northeastern Afghanistan.  The process of extraction involved grinding the stone into a fine powder, infusing the deposits with melted wax, oils, and pine resin, and then kneading the product in a dilute lye solution. The resulting exorbitant price was out of reach for most, but Renaissance artists could not resist its bewitching deep-blue.  The fortunate few counted on wealthy patrons to secure their purchases, while the less-fortunate mired their families deeply in debt to obtain this color for their masterpieces.

Over the centuries, color has remained a uniquely powerful force – socially, culturally, economically – one that can communicate thoughts and foster identity like no other, even inadvertently.

In the late 1800s, The Coca-Cola company could not have known that the striking shade of red that it painted its barrels to distinguish them from barrels of heavily-taxed alcohol would create one of the most successful marriages of color and commerce in history, turning its “health tonic” into one of the world’s most iconic beverages.

Color also helps drive major advancements in science and technology that continue to profoundly change our lives. The introduction of color television in 1965 brought the world in its full glory into millions of living rooms. And in 1987 the first full-color inkjet printers were introduced, launching a dazzling graphical revolution in desktop printing.

Today, the physical and digital worlds are merging into one. 3D scanning and ubiquitous sensors can ingest real-time data and send it anywhere in the world to be replicated via 3D printers.  Sound like science fiction?  This future where bit and bytes, instead of atoms, are sent across oceans to be turned into physical goods is closer than you think.

In this new digital world, the power of color will be even more profound.  New technology from companies like HP is introducing voxel-level control at industrial scale. Voxels are the tiny three-dimensional pixels that form the DNA of 3D printed objects. Its new printers lay down 340 million voxels per second, each only ¼ the width of a human hair, giving a previously unthinkable degree of precise color and detail.

The things they’re capable of producing are absolutely eye-catching, but they’re also industry-changing.


Heart surgeons will be able to custom-create a true-color replica of a patient’s heart, with its complex network of veins and valves, in three dimensions instead of relying on a flat x-ray for reference, and print it within steps of the operating room. Opportunities such as custom-created prosthetics, personalized dental implants, tailor-made surgical and training guides, and one day even functional 3D-printed organs will also help bring about the mass-customization of healthcare that can cater to the specific needs of each person. In fact, the Phoenix Children’s Hospital is currently exploring new ways to create personalized experiences that benefit the long-term well-being of its patients.


Lower-cost, full-color 3D printers democratize advanced technology and make it available to universities to educate and train the next generation of digital designers and innovators, but there’s no shortage of other applications for learning. Educators and students will be able to design, produce and utilize true-life, color-enhanced 3D models, experimental prototypes and educational tools – from concept to physical reality – right in the classroom, fostering a new environment of collaborative learning and innovation that has never before existed.  And beyond applied research, the opportunity for hands-on, real-time creation by students is a dynamic cocktail for fueling pure innovation. The exciting mix of engineering, materials science, art and design, systems thinking, and entrepreneurialism is staggering in its potential.

Color has been a profound presence in our lives for eons. It not only inspires and advances humanity in countless ways but also serves as a window through which we better understand our times and ourselves. Above all, color is a truly extraordinary medium that allows us to communicate, connect, and share in a sense of awe at the vibrant world around us.