Lessons from the past

Alex reed
4 min readOct 28, 2020


My wife has been cleaning out her office. She hands me a book titled “ITTEN,” all caps in the title. It is an old book on color theory by Swiss expressionist painter Johannes Itten. This is an old book, the copy write is from 1970, but Itten worked and taught far earlier than that. He was active from the 1920s through the 1950s. His work can have no possible relevance in 2020 digital design


I am only a chapter in and have learned a couple things already.

There is no one color theory. There are many, but also there are three primary theories.

Color is in the eye of the beholder. Wow, why didn’t I know that?

Who was Johannes Itten?

Johannes Itten
johannes Itten

Johannes Itten was born 1888 and taught at various schools in Germany and Switzerland and at his own private school. His beliefs, explained roughly, was that color harmony is an individual pursuit and that creativity would be quashed if students followed strict artistic rules and disciplines.

From his teachings we see a different path of color and paintings. His color wheel is different from the one we see on Adobe’s website. He defined a color sphere within the wheel in his personal search for color harmony. His definition of color harmony were colors that when combined, revealed gray. His color wheel was designed around complementary colors that would reveal this color.

The reason this color harmony struck me is that in digital design we use this color all the time. We use gray shadowing to add depth to containers and elements on screens. It is a neutral color that does not easily offend the eye. When borders and defined spaces are needed, gray is the color often turned to. It even adds a nice transition into literal white space, of which there is plenty in modern website design.

When we design high fidelity apps and screens we always consider the colors. We create a color palette that factors in emotional states, user expectations, industry norms and how the colors play together. It is a mini harmony of a few colors. What usually is not included are the transitions or backgrounds (unless a vibrant green or red is your whitespace). The colors behind the colors. With white space that is easy to transition to. Adding enough white to any color will eventually end in white, but in the middle you will find gray.

I suspect we all at least subconsciously notice and appreciate the various shades of gray mixed among other elements on the page. Our eyes will find the gray even when there is none. Take this image for example. Looking at all the black squares at once your peripheral vision will see gray squares in the corners of the whitespace behind.

As Itten states: The eye looks for the harmony between black and white, which is gray.

This is one of the better known examples of this. Psychologists and optometrists may say it is a trick of the eyes, but I think a non-scientific view of how the mind searches for harmony makes for a more helpful presentation. Knowing this information we can help guide the eye where and through that path it enjoys the view. For these reasons, I think the importance of what is in between is just as important as what is up front.

Again, I am only on the second chapter of a book that summarizes his life and work. Already it has been an interesting read. For those outside of art circles that may not have heard of him, I would encourage picking up his book. Just having a frame of reference that is around 100 years old will help give you new perspective on modern design work. I feel like he would encourage us to find our own harmony and devise our own color wheel when tackling all the different projects we encounter in the digital world.

Now Itten is not the only color theorist out there and I have not read about all of them, but Itten is definitely interesting. He was a strict vegetarian, practiced in a fire cult, was an believer in the artistic power of meditation and generally walked his own path. His distinct appearance lent him on air of eccentricity. Maybe not a standout oddball among other artists over the ages, but he would probably be the first to proclaim how his different beliefs influenced his creativity. Let his disparate ideas lead you to your own. Read about him and his theories and discover what new ideas you will come up with.

As always any feedback or insights you would like to share, please do. I am always eager to know more.