The Bureaucracy of Color

English: Nate Berkus at Showtime's 2010 Summer...

English: Nate Berkus at Showtime’s 2010 Summer TCA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The United States has official colors, and I’m not just talking red, white and blue. The palette is  known as “Federal Standard 595.” (From the look of some federal offices and signage, I must assume protecting the public’s aesthetic sensibilities has never been a top priority.) The government’s stockpile of “certified color chips” is warehoused just outside Washington, D.C., at an undisclosed location (apparently to protect them from crazed terrorists and Nate Berkus.)

Every time a federal agency wants to, say redecorate an office, they must use official colors. Of course, there’s a bureaucratic procedure for requesting an un-sanctioned color. I wasn’t able to track down the request form, but this should give you an idea of the decidedly uncreative ways bureaucrats talk about colors: Federal Color Change Notice

Graham T. Beck has written an interesting essay on the history of “Federal Standard 595.” Here’s a short sample:

In October 2001, F.S. No. 33696, a shade of yellow, was the color of the 2,000-calorie plastic-wrapped food-aid packets that American forces dropped on Afghanistan. A very similar shade was used on the soft-drink-sized bomblets that the U.S. military also released from above. For a brief moment, and certainly not for the first time, a sort of chromatic mistranslation—or more accurately, an abundance of signification—actually became a matter of life and death. “Do not confuse the cylinder-shaped bomb with the rectangular food bag,” an American psy-ops radio broadcast reminded the local population.

Feel free to describe your favorite example of disturbing government aesthetics in the Comments section of this post.

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