Walter Starck

n a world of ever increasing competition for our attention hyperbole has become the norm. Our verbal medium of exchange has been thus devalued making it difficult to communicate what is really exceptional. The colors of reef creatures are truly dazzling. By this I do not simply mean brightly colored. I mean instead something close to the dictionary meaning of the word dazzling, i.e. to bewilder, amaze, or overcome with spectacular display; to inspire admiration or wonder.

Often when one first encounters some of the more strikingly patterned reef creatures the effect is mesmerizing. You almost canít believe what you are seeing. Your attention is totally captivated. This effect is by design not accident. Fishes are the dominant animals on coral reefs. They possess good visual acuity and can distinguish colors. In short they have a visual system similar to our own. Their colors and those of many other reef creatures have evolved in response to the survival advantages of advertising, concealing or confusing the bearerís identity or presence to or from the eyes of fishes.

With thousands of species crowded together there is a premium on patterns which are both unique and which stand out, the former to avoid misidentification the latter to attract mates or warn predators or competitors amid a multitude of other species trying to do the same. Starting with abundant shelter, clear water, good light and a colorful natural setting then fine tuned by tens of millions of years of uninterrupted natural selection in favor of the most successful, the result is truly eye catching.

In our own endeavors of fashion, advertising and packaging we too strive for attention and identity. The color patterns of reef creatures can be a useful source of inspiration for graphic design. Both the patterns and the principles are worth our consideration. Many of the patterns are directly adaptable for our purposes and the principles are even more widely applicable.

The color patterns are not just superimposed but are intimately related to the underlying form. They may serve either to emphasize it or to disrupt and thus alter or even hide it. Important features such as defensive spines are often highlighted by contrasting markings. Gradations of shading at boundaries of visual elements are frequently employed to enhance contrast in otherwise subtle patterns. Fine detail is sometimes used in a manner that is distinctive at close range while at the same time blending to create a different appearance at a distance. Colors which contrast with or are highly reflective of the ambient spectrum are another common device. Certainly there is much that is applicable to our own purposes from this studio of living design.

Over the years I have experimented a bit with adopting the colors of the reef for various purposes. Here is a sample of the results.