The Blue Landscape of Our Imagination

The Blue Landscape of Our Imagination

By Dorothy Shamonsky, Ph.D.

Does it seem like blue is the most common color utilized in interfaces? Besides black and white and the multiple shades of gray in between them, it only takes a quick analysis to see that blue is the color most used for links, backgrounds, window borders, icons, etc. This includes variations of blue ranging from green blue or aqua, to purple blue or indigo and from pure saturated blues to a range of blue grays.

Generations of operating systems have heavily utilized shades of blue and gray. On my current Mac desktop, I can set a preference for the “Appearance” to be “blue” or “gray.” However, even if I choose gray, the folder icons are light blue. The app bar has slightly more blue-dominated icons than any other color and the system background choices are dominantly in blue, gray, purple and green palettes. The app I am using to write this text, MS Word for Mac, has a window background of gray blue, blue rulers and blue and gray icons.

As a user experience (UX) designer, I can tell you that blue is a flexible color to work with. It mixes and juxtaposes with black, white and gray probably better than any other color in the color wheel. In that sense, it works well as a UX infrastructure color. It is attractive but doesn’t attract attention. Blue doesn’t jar or dominate like red or orange. It’s not heavy and physical, like brown or green. It’s not quirky, like purple. It doesn’t hurt your eyes like yellow. But I often feel the pressure to get away from always using blue. Managers will sometimes ask, “Can we stand out from the crowd and not use any blue for a change?”

It turns out that survey after survey cites blue as the most popular choice, when people are asked what their favorite color is. This is the case across gender and usually by at least 40% of the population, worldwide. Why is blue so loved?

In 1993, a survey was conducted about the artistic preferences of people in ten countries. It was called the People’s Choice project and was overseen by two artists, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid. The artists worked on this project, whereby they created the ‘most wanted’ and ‘least wanted’ paintings of various countries based on the results of surveys conducted by professional polling companies, including Marttila & Kiley Poll Company in the U.S. (1) In some cases, the artists followed up the polling with meetings and focus groups. In the end, the project claimed to be reporting on the artistic preferences of nearly two billion individuals.

The most preferred painting style worldwide was not abstract or modernist as was expected, but a bluish landscape that included water, trees, some open areas, animals and people. Individuals from all parts of the world gravitated toward a general type of landscape that was not unlike upstate New York.

Melamid, speaking after the project was completed states: “I’m thinking that this blue landscape is more serious than we first believed …almost everyone you talk (with) directly - and we’ve already talked to hundreds of people – they have this blue landscape in their head. It sits there, and it’s not a joke. They can see it down to the smallest detail. So I’m wondering, maybe the blue landscape is genetically imprinted in us, that it’s the paradise within, that we came from a blue landscape and we want it …We now completed polls in many countries – China, Kenya, Iceland and so on – and the results are strikingly similar. Can you believe it?” (2)

In fact, in the past few decades, evolutionary psychologists have been investigating this same attraction to a specific kind of landscape. The “Savanna Hypothesis” suggests that this beloved blue landscape has much in common with the savannas and woodlands of East Africa where hominids split off from chimpanzee lineages. This type of landscape is where much of early human evolution occurred – it is the habitat that we evolved for. (3)

Can we think about interfaces as landscapes that we inhabit? Yes, absolutely! The infrastructure or background of a user experience is different from the expression of a brand or the need to appear different from the crowd. Usability is about achieving an innate sense of clarity and ease – the mystical blue landscape is often the most effective background to balance the branding and the attention grabbing elements that often rest on top of that landscape.


  1. and (People’s Choice Project and Melamid’s observation following People’s Choice Project)
  2. Dutton, Denis, The Art Instinct, Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009) 15
  3. Ibid,  19