https://gds.blog.gov.uk/2011/08/18/orange-gov-uk/

Will it be orange?

To outsiders it may sound like a superficial question, but one thing I keep getting asked around Government is "will the single-domain be orange?" – at least in reference to the sections for citizens which will launch in public Beta early next year.

Some people on the Directgov team feel a great sense of personal attachment to the colour that's used throughout their site – others have never liked it and see this as an opportunity to move on to colours new.

So I thought I'd take a few moments to discuss the pros and cons publicly and invite feedback. As a newcomer to Government I don't personally have any attachment to orange, so I'm hopefully coming at this from a relatively objective viewpoint.

The arguments for:

  1. For many users, Directgov has a good reputation. Some years ago a lot of money was spent on campaigns to establish and reinforce its strong orange branding, and over the years the brand has come to be recognised as the Government site for citizens. Our initial (not yet statistically significant) research hints that an orange site without the Directgov name is still assumed to be part of Directgov, and that brings a level of trust with it.
  2. The single-domain site – if the Beta is successful – won't replace everything at the flick of a switch, but will link to existing Directgov-branded transaction pages for some time. A user journey between two orange sites would be less jarring than if the single-domain site used completely different colour scheme.
  3. Single-domain would ultimately cater for citizen, business and Government audiences, and it's important for a user to be able to orientate themselves within the site. A colour palette of orange, lilac/purple and charcoal grey for sections aimed at those respective audiences is consistent with the existing branding for Directgov and BusinessLink, and are clearly three distinct colours even for people with the most common types of colour blindness.

The arguments against:

  1. For other people Directgov has a reputation for being difficult to use. For the single-domain to be orange doesn't suggest the clean break from this legacy that many desire.
  2. The colour blindness argument mentioned earlier is to some degree a red-herring – there are other palettes which would work equally as well, a few of which even look reasonable to everybody!
  3. Orange is not an authoritative colour, and has some negative associations which I'll come to in a moment.

Finally – and not exactly a point either for or against, but worth remembering – single-domain, like Directgov before it, is politically neutral. In terms of central government we'd be wise to avoid blues, yellows, and reds. Broadly speaking, that leaves the choice of purples (think: Business Link), greens, and oranges – though orange isn't the least bit neutral when it comes to devolved administrations.

We're not the first to ask these questions. A internal review of the Directgov visual identity two years ago concluded that orange was not an appropriate colour for Government. Research showed that associations with low-cost brands such as easyjet undermined the site's authority in the eyes of new users.

A recommendation to switch to a more "friendly, fresh, and approachable" green palette was put forward. The point was made at the time that green alone would not make Directgov look "official", although combining it with a crown mark would help. The work to implement these recommendations was obviously never completed, but the debate is not yet over.

So, will it be orange? The jury's out on this one at the moment, and you'll have to wait and see. I'd love to read your opinions in the comments below.

 


Paul Annett is Creative Lead at the GDS. You should follow @nicepaul on Twitter and read his personal blog at nicepaul.com

21 comments

  1. Nick Bramwell (@TwoLittleFishes)

    I used to work for a local Council where the Web site colours had to match the corporate colours (but it still caused problems as they were CMYK specified and not RGB). But for the single site it is different.

    I think that the best argument for keeping orange is the consistency when redirecting to the DirectGov pages.

    On the other hand orange doesn't really say official or government to me. I think dark colours feel more official and governmental. The first colour that springs to mind is black (probably from an association with the door of number 10).

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  2. Terence Eden (@edent)

    Is there a case to make it user selectable? If the colours are all controlled in CSS, it would be fairly simple to start with Orange and present an option so that people could colour the site to their personal aesthetic tastes (or political affiliations).

    Of course, if a lot of your graphical assets are based around a colour - this could make it tricky.

    Personally, I like the orange 🙂

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    • Paul Annett

      There will certainly be the option to change the colours for people with accessibility requirements, of course.

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  3. Joss

    Good to see you're focusing on the important things... should it be coloured Orange. Really?

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  4. Simon Coopey

    I thought: "What colour scheme would I most expect a governmental site to have?" and my answer was grey. Grey doesn't have to mean dull though.

    Does it need to be the bright '80s-style orange of the old site? i.e. the one most associated with 'low cost' brands.
    Do the logo/header backgrounds need to be orange, and the text an alternate colour?
    Could a paler, more pastel, orange be used for a splash of colour?
    If you invert the palette, and have the orange for the text instead of the backgrounds you could use something like #FFAA00- this goes well on a background of grey #717171, for example.
    So does green #88CC33 if you wanted to opt for green.

    As an aside, I don't think any colour could be considered politically neutral any more. There is after all, a green MP now; Plaid use dark green as their colour, SNP use yellow, Liberal Democrats use gold (which looks orange to me), UKIP may not have an MP but have MEPs and they're branded with purple and yellow. If you were going to eliminate colours due to party associations then you'd be left with none and end up with a palette of black and white. Why not consider an official-looking blue? There are lots of shades to choose from...

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  5. Gareth Rees (@_gareth)

    @Joss actually colour can do a lot for the trust and reputation of a website.

    I think orange can be a nice highlight colour (like the border over Paul's comment replies) but on direct.gov.uk looks way too tacky.

    If I was doing it, I'd probably go with Black / White / Grey, but with a bit more “style” than than direct.gov.uk

    Personally I think alpha.gov.uk is how it should look, but Paul swatted that one down on Twitter!

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  6. kriscoverdale

    Given the recommendations of the referenced Directgov visual identity review, it sounds like a foregone conclusion?

    FWIW, I think the only person / organisation who really manages to use orange successfully on the web is Zeldman! So rather than trying to compete, I think a more sober colour choice would work better.

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  7. Benjamin Nunn (@sirbenjaminnunn)

    Needs to be a strong brand - ideally extending offline as well as digital - so they shouldn't rush the decision.

    Gut instinct is that something like a dark green / soft violet ( #225522 and #bb99cc ) with corresponding dark and light tinted greys would be a good government palette.

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  8. rico

    I'm a fan of your work Paul, but you can tell you're new to the Civil Service when you talk about building a "politically-neutral" single domain. The work you're doing (which has been excellent so far) is simply at the whim of the current SofS and his Spads. And the website you end up will be a window onto current Government policies and services. Hardly neutral. One day there will be a reshuffle or a change of Government and you will have to change course to meet the whims of the new ministers. That's how it works.

    To answer your question, the orange is too much of a reminder of a website which largely, and expensively, failed (and was built to satisfy anothet long-departed SofS) so should be replaced.

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  9. Dan Blundell (@danblundell)

    I understand the dilemma, however, it could be argued that political neutrality is another red herring. Think hard enough, no matter what colour you pick, there'll be some sort of political affiliation.

    Design wise I would hope it's more about feel focus and flow than inference. Much of the methodology behind this project seems to have been based on functionality and handing over tools to users rather than flat information. Making decisions based on what's right for the audience, experience and the purpose of the site would surely give a better experience than one. In turn, the arguments about usability, focus, flow, feel and accessibility are far stronger than anything else.

    In essence the thing that excites me the most about the approach of your team so far is that of a fresh take on government business - by getting too wrapped up in the political nature of it you run the risk of moving away from what you know and what you're good at. Although the politics and social impact of a change like this should be considered, I believe they come second to useful, practical and effective design - no matter who the client is.

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  10. Alan Maddrell (@alanmaddrell)

    I wasn't there at the time but I assume part of the thinking behind the orange was to make govt info approachable - an implied value in what Directgov tries to do. As to whether it should be orange in future, you're right to concentrate on the bigger picture - users need to know they're "in the right place", however that's done.

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  11. Craig Morrison (@craigmorrison)

    I've always found the heavy use of bright orange too jarring for a site which has very text heavy content.

    I agree with a lot of the above comments. I also immediately associated black and dark green, maybe I'm making some associations with No. 10 and the house of commons there but I find those colours quite authoritative and official. I'm sure friendliness was part of the DirectGov decision but these days i'd associate orange more with budget airlines, not a very governmental association. If the orange is kept I'd rather see it muted slightly.

    I also agree that the political considerations are another red herring, orange, green and purple are all also used by parties which although highly unlikely to lead a Westminster government are still very prominent. Associations will always be there for those who want to see them but it's not something I'd be looking for when thinking about public service information.

    I feel a government site should be beyond branding in the same way that many government services are considered beyond party affiliation. By this I mean usability and accessibility should trump other considerations even more than they would on a typical corporate project.

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  12. mr.iterative

    I worked on (but not for) Directgov for quite a long time, it always seemed to me that the problem is less with the colour itself and more with the way it's used. The thick orange bar dominates so much that it's difficult for any third party brands to "breathe".

    Not that I'm advocating including third party brands for their own sake (though a decent co-branding solution would make Directgov/GovUK an easier sell within departments). From the point of view of a user entering into a transaction, it's important to be clear which part of government they're dealing with - if only so they know who to call if things go wrong. It's also an important part of holding service providers to account for their successes and failures (@paul_clarke has made this point in relation to local government, but it applies to all public sector service providers).

    Orange on white rather than white on Orange? Light-touch use of colour (and light-touch branding in general) is a better reflection of what Directgov/GovUK is: a platform rather than an entity you can interact with. I'm sure a decent co-branding solution isn't beyond the GovUK team: the BBC, for example, manages this sort of thing very well. You just need something that says "you're on the GovUK platform, but you're dealing with service provider X".

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  13. Andrew

    Well there are different tones of orange, at the moment it appears identical to the easy orange which is not a good thing; however, the problem is more the way the orange sits on the page. The Home Office web site is much better, for example, and still orange.

    Orange isn't necessarily authoratitive, but isn't that the point? Orange is supposed to be warm and bright to encourage users and not serious and weighty such as dark blues, or the institutional green which does a great job or reinforcing many people's impressions of HMRC.

    Get the design right and using the orange could be very positive, get it wrong it could be overbearing.

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  14. fberriman » Working for the government

    [...] Colour me excited (but maybe not orange?). [...]

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  15. What I’ve been reading | DavePress

    [...] Will it be orange? | Government Digital Service – Is orange a good colour for a government website? [...]

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  16. alexcoley

    A perfectly good colour solution was developed in 2009. Its digital implementation was still being prodded with a stick in early 2011. In the brand presentation I attended the Director of Communications described the perception of orange as "exotic with a touch of danger," the low cost and sectarian associations were also noted. Hence the green pantone which was supposed to crown Project Austin. Purple was the only other serious potential candidate, dismissed partly for its lack of gravity.

    Was all that work and expense for nothing? Everything was signed off except the agreement of when to actually go live. There were three dates to change the colour, each of which got pushed back and then the election happened and the rest is history.

    Why can everyone just get the hell on with it? The dithering is painful to watch

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    • Paul Annett

      Hi Alex. Thanks for your comment!

      You're making the assumption that the 2009 research about rebranding Directgov which we both mentioned has been disregarded. That's not the case, and I can reassure you that I have a copy of the report for consideration. However, the single domain is a different proposition to Directgov and we have to look at the recommendations of that report with that in mind.

      Please don't think that us taking the time to publicly blog about these issues is "dithering"! I'm pleased to say there is much development happening behind the scenes with an in-house Agile team working at a much faster rate than has previously been possible within Government 🙂

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