It's no secret: we love colour here at Visualist. And so does Stephen Westland. Steve is a big believer in the power of creativity. He's a drummer, writer, podcaster—and a colour scientist. Steve is Professor of Colour Science at the School of Design at the University of Leeds and has worked with companies like AkzoNobel (the owner of Dulux paint) and Colgate (the toothpaste company). His colour research spans many disciplines, from design and fashion to artificial intelligence and machine learning. In one recent article, Steve and his research fellow explored whether the colours in your home could make you happy. These days, Steve is also knee-deep in running his own startup, Colour Intelligence, which works with colour trend reporting in the fashion industry.
Our team had the golden opportunity to work with Steve and his PhD students to develop Visualist's proprietary colour detection algorithm, thanks to a Future Fashion Factory grant (more on this to come). After months of emails and video calls about K-means, Delta E (colour difference), and RGB codes, we caught up over email to chat about creativity and—of course—colour.
On specialising in colour research
I started with a degree in colour chemistry. Later, I moved into colour physics, colour engineering, colour neuroscience and colour design. For me, colour is such an inherently multi-disciplinary topic; people approach colour from all sorts of starting points but quickly realise that they need to stretch themselves beyond their starting point if they are to really understand colour.
On the intersection between science and art
More than half of my research is in the field of design. I really enjoy working at the interface between science and art or the interface between science and design because that is where you will find colour. The cross-disciplinary nature is the very thing that makes colour research so interesting. At my core, I am a scientist. However, how wonderful it is to work in a School of Design and be surrounded by creative people and the beautiful creative things that they produce.
On the 'colour' black
The question I get asked most often is: is black a colour? I have been engaging with the public for a very long time and I enjoy trying to answer questions that people have. In the 90s this was through something called FAQs; in the last couple of decades this was through blogs; and now, through podcasts. But the question about whether black is a colour keeps coming up.
So—is it? I define colour as a perception and I don't really discriminate between red, blue, white or black. So black is a colour; albeit one that has no chroma.
On dispelling colour myths
There is a long list of common misconceptions about colours. The big one is the idea that you can start with three colour primaries and mix them together to make all other colours. You cannot. You can make all hues but not all colours. Despite the fact that this has been known for at least 100 years, the misconception continues to be taught to pre-school children, to children at junior and secondary school, and even at universities. I am involved in a project called Colour Literacy to try to correct this.
On his favourite colour
I would say red's my favourite colour, though I also love pink and yellow. It’s quite unusual because if you ask people what their favourite colour is, the vast majority say a cool colour such as blue or green. However, I really like bright warm colours. The latest theory about colour preference is that people tend to like colours that remind them of things that they like. I am a huge supporter of Manchester United. Is that partly because they play in red? Or, do I like red so much because I like Manchester United? I don’t know.
On colourful socks
Before COVID, I used to mainly wear navy blue socks. But for some reason, I have started wearing really brightly coloured socks. My colourful socks are the most colourful thing in my home.
On his typical workday
I don’t do anywhere near as much teaching as people might think—I probably do less than one lecture a week. I mainly undertake research. I have a large number of PhD students in my group and I also have several research assistants working on industrially funded projects. It’s not uncommon for my day to consist of meetings from 9-5. These are meetings with PhD students, with the companies with whom we are working and with colleagues. However, the days I like best are when there is time for me to actually do some hands-on colour research. I really enjoy writing code. I enjoy it in the same way that, perhaps, other people might enjoy completing a crossword or a sudoku puzzle. It's challenging, but you know that all the solutions are there if you look hard enough.
The other thing worth noting is that colour affects so many industries that you never know when the next opportunity is going to come along; this could be an enquiry from a design company, a food manufacturer, a fashion company, an automotive company or even a tech startup. I like that unpredictability.
On winding down
Because teaching doesn’t really dominate my day-to-day job, the end of the semester or the non-teaching time (such as the summer) is not really very different to me than the teaching period. But I try to do other recreational things as often as I can. In addition to my drumming and writing, I play chess pretty much every day and I love watching movies or, more recently, the big Netflix shows such as Squid Games and The Queen’s Gambit.
On working with Visualist
The ideas I have about colour are somewhat disruptive. Although I do work with some very large companies, I was very excited to have the opportunity to work with Visualist because, from the first moment, I realised you shared my passion for colour and had aspirations to do things differently in a way that can bring about real change. I find working with smaller startups to be particularly exciting because you often have the drive and agility to make things happen.
On running a startup
Surprisingly, being an academic is not totally unlike running a small company, so it’s not as big a step as you might think. As an academic, I have a small team of staff I employ. I need to worry about how to ensure I obtain new research contracts to continue their employment in the future. I need to think about how to attract and retain talented staff. I need to worry about all of the things I need to pay the University for in order to carry out my research and keep things going. However, there are things I would like to do, to ensure that the ideas that I have generate the maximum impact, that don’t easily fit into the framework of how a university works. That is why I formed Colour Intelligence earlier this year. It’s not the first time I have run a small company. I also ran a colour company from about 1994 to 2006.
In my spare time, I am a drummer in a covers band. We play a range of music from the 60s right up to stuff which is in the charts now. I guess being a professor is quite an intellectual process and then drumming is almost the opposite. Drummers are often the butt of jokes within a band. The drummer is often thought to be the stupid one; when the rest of the band are talking about which key they should play the next track in, the drummer is just thinking about what to have for dinner tomorrow. But it is the physical act of playing the drums that gives me the greatest pleasure. It couldn’t be more different to my day job.
On writing fiction
I also love writing fiction and I have published a number of books, mainly consisting of flash fiction (which is the idea of writing a story in a relatively few words). The older I become, the more important it is to me to be creative. I think it's about attitude, to be honest. Over the years, I have become more interested in my creative side and more confident in exploring it. Activities such as writing fiction or designing book covers are things I didn't think I would be any good at when I was younger. But now I have the confidence to try at least. For me, creativity is about expressing your personality. In science, the idea is that when you analyse data it shouldn't really matter who does the analysis—the outcome should be the same. But for some other activities, the outcome depends entirely on the person doing it.
On the colour of creativity