Some colors tend to come and go as fashion dictates, but a few have been chosen by humans for very specific, utilitarian purposes. Whether it’s about leveraging the advantages or limitations of human sight, or just evoking a particular emotional response, civil engineers and designers have used color to shape our world in ways you may not expect. Here are the stories behind the colors of five everyday objects — and why these hues are perfect for their assigned tasks.
Glimpse a fleet of buses parked at any U.S. public school, and you’ll notice they’re all the same deep yellow — and it’s been that way for nearly a century. In an effort to standardize school bus construction around the country, thus ideally making them both safer and cheaper to mass-produce, school transportation officials met at Columbia University in 1939 to discuss the universal color for these vehicles. Fifty shades were hung up on the walls, ranging from lemon to deep orange. The color that was finally selected — known today as National School Bus Glossy Yellow, or Color 13432 — was chosen because of its ability to stand out from the background. Education officials didn’t know it at the time, but Color 13432 is wired to capture our attention, as the shade stimulates two of the three types of cones in the human eye — sending double the transmission to the brain compared to many other colors. That’s one reason a big yellow school bus is just so hard to miss.