Rob Giampietro | Essays

On Arranging Books by Color

Left: Conway Library, London. Right: Witt Library, London. Photographs by Candida Höfer, 2003-5. (Via The Nonist.)

When it comes to the organization of knowledge, a lot is revealed by the system of organization that's used. For most serious academic libraries in America, the organizational system of choice was invented in 1874 by Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey (or Melvil Dui, as he liked to spell it), who was an assistant librarian at Amherst College when his eponymous system was devised.

The Dewey Decimal Classification system (or DDC) is definitely widespread, however there are some notable exceptions. The Library of Congress, for example, has its own system known as LCC. And the New York Public Library has not one, but two, arcane systems: one is the Billings Classification, a broad subject classification created in the 1890's and recently retired in favor of LCC; the other is a fixed-order scheme arranged by the size of books.

So that's how the pros do it. But what about the rest of us?

Before I consider this question, let's get back to Dewey for a second. A trailblazer in many ways, Dewey was the founder and editor of Library Journal, a cofounder of the American Library Association, and an outspoken advocate of spelling reform, a 19th-century movement which suggested changing odd-looking British words like "catalogue" to more familiar-looking American ones like "catalog."

One of the words that would have caught Dewey's eye was "colour" — or, more patriotically spelled, "color" — and on this subject Dewey's opinions were perhaps a bit unorthodox. Later in his life, Dewey sponsored several pamphlets about Ro, a language created by Rev. Edward Powell Foster in which words are constructed using a categorical system similar to Dewey's own system for books. In Ro, words starting with "bofo-" are color words, as in "bofoc" for red (c=crimson?), and "bofof" for yellow (f=who knows?). Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, does it? Replace the color words of this lovely final line from Robert Haas's poem "The Problem of Describing Color,"

Red, I said. Sudden, red.

with its Ro equivalents:

Bofoc, I said. Sudden, bofoc.

The poetic effect is not really the same. It's a bit like saying the hexadecimal color equivalent of medium goldenrod — "EAEAAE" — out loud. Like a computer language, Ro is not a language of nuance, it is a language of hard, driving logic. Such a regimented worldview may have also shaded one of Dewey's other unorthodox color opinions: he was rumored to be an extreme racist and advocate of racial segregation.

Questionable personal beliefs aside, I have never found the Dewey Decimal Classification system to be an accurate reflection of how books are organized in my own mind — or anybody else's for that matter. Certainly I understand the DDC's advantages when when it comes to large-scale collections, but if how we choose to organize our personal effects says something about who we are, then an arbitrary numeric system says very little about me. My library is, to borrow from Georges Perec, "a sum of books constituted by a non-professional reader for his own pleasure and daily use." Perec's definition comes from a wonderful essay of his titled, "Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One's Books" [found here], and includes such other quoteables as "The problem of the library is shown to be towfold: a problem of space first of all, then a problem of order." I am well aware of both.

Perec lists several possible ordering schemes in his essay, and in practice I have used a number of these, sometimes alone and sometimes in combination with one another. Randomness (or chance) has dominated certain shelves of mine for a while. Loose categories governed by architectural constraints was a working method of mine, too, with a large wall grouping my novels and a side table sheltering the smattering of books I have on the dramatic arts. Sometimes the size of the books themselves is the governing agent: I have ganged up a set of cheap paperbacks on a squat shelf because they fit there splendidly. A book's value can govern my placement of it: for example, I keep my expensive books away from the sun. In other cases, time is the reason for a book's placement, with older books piling up a dark corner of my studio while newer books are proudly displayed on my coffee table. (Though there is some method to my madness, I still take solace in Terry Belanger's aptly-named Lunacy and the Arrangement of Books, which profiles several of my predecessors.) The central issue, as Perec warms us, is that "None of these classifications systems is satisfactory by itself," and he is right. But one idea from his list, "ordering by color," seems to be gathering a small following of late, particularly among the visually-inclined.

Recently, I stopped by a design studio in my building called Thumb to see my friend Luke Bulman. He'd just reorganized his books by color, and I asked him why he did it. A few reasons that resonated with me, and helped to illuminate his logic.

For one, books he's purchased or received as gifts are books he knows and often loves, and the color of these books is a major part of the experience of interacting with them. He's not the only one. When I glance at my own bookshelf, I immediately react to the black spine and stacked caps of Tibor, the metallic silver heft of a monograph on Frank O. Gehry, the austere white backdrop of Sol Lewitt, and the optical orange punch of the 15th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style.

Another of Luke's reasons is this: organizing his books by color allows him to discover new and unexpected relationships between books he knows well already. When two unrelated books are forced to occupy the same shelf simply because of their spine color, the shelver is asked to think about whether they have ideas to share between them. Perhaps, the designers of these chromatically-related books saw something in the books' content that even their authors did not. Maybe their ideals share a common hue?

The orange of my Chicago Manual of Style (which in my own theoretical color-coded library would be shelved next to Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading) seems to support this romantic notion about the color of ideas, which has been explored more fully by Dmitri Siegel in his short piece for Dot Dot Dot 8 entitled, "Why Are All These Books Orange?" Siegel shows four books at the start of the piece: An Introduction to the Principles of Transformational Syntax, Metacritique: The Philosophical Argument of Jürgen Habermas, Adorno and Horkheimer's irresistible "Dialectic of Enlightenment", and, last but not least, The Meaning of Contemporary Realism. None of these, despite their common sunny color, are exactly what you'd think of as beach reading. In thinking over the titular question, Siegel decides that "I search out these books because their relentless orangeness speaks to the relationship between theory and visual practice. Just as the designer enforces a uniform surface to market this genre, the content of the genre — theory itself — is used by savvy designers to add a marketable mystique to their work."

This "marketable mystique" may also be a part of Luke's final reason for organizing his books by color: pleasure. Our bookshelves often take up a good deal of space in the places we live and work, and organizing them by color transforms them from a banal backdrop into a poppy, rainbow-colored focal point. Books organized by color are cool to look at. Just ask designer Mark Owens, who transformed a photograph of color-coded binders in at a European office supply store into a 15-second bumper for the MTV show "Video Clash."

"Video Clash" by Mark Owens. © MTV Networks, 2003.

Or ask artist Chris Cobb, who (along with 20 volunteers) recently reshelved the 20,000 books at San Francisco's Adobe Bookshop according to the color wheel.

"There Is Nothing Wrong In This Whole Wide World" by Chris Cobb, in Adobe Books, 2004. (Photographs via Tomas Apodaca.)

Even The New York Times Magazine's style section recently featured the home of art collector Andy Stillpass, which houses a number of site-specific works by leading contemporary artists in a wide variety of media, including Stillpass's own books, which were rearranged first by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster to form "The Blue Vein" in 1993 and then further juggled by Rirkrit Tiravanija to form "The Red Threat" several years later.

Photograph by Jason Schmidt for The New York Times, 2006.

The more you look, the more you see an enthusiasm for color-coding in every corner of our culture. A cursory glance at Flickr does well at articulating the range. Users there are sharing photos of color-coding systems they've observed on everything from condiments to bike racks, from dress shoes to trash cans. In addition to books, I know a number of people who've organized their records by color, and this makes lots of sense too. The many moods of music seem well-suited to color-coding, as does the indescribably abstract quality of the artform itself.

So, will Pantone's numbers replace Dewey's decimals anytime soon? Probably not. But don't let that discourage you. To rearrange your books is to see them afresh and to investigage yourself in the process. Even if you make a terrible mess, Perec reminds us that "Disorder in a library is not serious in itself; it ranks with 'Which drawer did I put my socks in?'" and your sock drawer is probably color-coded already.

Rob Giampietro is a principal at Giampietro+Smith, a design firm based in New York City. Rob is also an adjunct faculty member at Parsons School of Design and a regular columnist for BusinessWeek Online.

Comments [50]

"For most serious academic libraries in America, the organizational system of choice..."

I hate to nit-pick here, but the cataloging system that is most widely used by research and university libraries (e.g. 'most serious academic libraries') is, indeed, the Library of Congress system.

DDS is mostly used in public libraries, not academic libraries. In fact, the DDS is not in the public domain, and libraries that use it must pay a fee to OCLC...


Absolutely rivetting idea and post. Thank you. I've learnt the Dewey system as the 'class librarian' in secondary school and appreciate much more your insights on using colour to code books.
niti bhan

1) I have two friends who've organized their books this way. It works for them, because each has 10 shelves or less holding all their books. But how do you find a book if you have a lot of them?

Perec may like disorder through order: I prefer being able to find the book I want.

2) I organize my Mac dock by color.
john massengale

The first instance I remember seeing something about arranging books by color is in JSF's Everything is Illuminated: "The final time they made love...the Gypsy girl asked my grandfather how he arranged his books," and later, the Gypsy girl sneakily finds out, and brokenheartedly says, " Your books are arranged by the color of their spines...How stupid.
Haynes Riley

This is not unlike retail merchandising where color is a key ingredient which allows customers to find products easily and create dominant visual impact which lends to the theater of the experience.
I like the idea of arranging my books by color! It makes sense to me.
Bob G.

This is interesting, and it illustrates the differences between finding something when you know what you are looking for and finding something when you don't know what you are looking for. Both the DDS and the LCC are wonderful in that they often lead you to a book that you didn't realize you needed based on it's proximity to the book you actually searched for. Organizing them by color, allows you to locate a book that you know, based on an attribute of the book that is easy to remember.

Presumably the books on your shelves are all known objects to you, organizing them by color does indeed allow you to explore relationships between them that you might not otherwise have thought about.
Paul T

I used to work for a large bookstore chain (whose name is also a colour). When management were canvassing ideas for a prominent display table, I suggested grouping the books by colour. My suggestion was sarcastic, as I'd grown tired of the chain's treatment of books as just more product to be consumed. To my surprise, management tried it out. To my horror, it was a hit. To my irritation, we could never find anything ever again.

Moral: never be sarcastic.

(However, at home, I do keep all my Penguins together. I like the orange block their spines form.)

I've generally found these "clever" organizations mostly annoying and wanky, and sense a certain amount of denial in the idea that there will be some kind of associative wonder engendered by putting similarly-colored spines near each other. We like to make connections; and while most are all ultimately artificial, some are moreso than others. The spines on my copies of Fran Lloyd Wright's autobiography, Consilience, and a Gilbert and George monograph are all white. I don't feel a thing. And my copy of Manguel's book has a cream and black spine. I'd hate to think what would happen if I had to replace a book with a different edition.

(I also note that not all of Thumb's books are arranged by color. Why?)

Did anyone notice the main characters' books in the film Cache were placed on the shelves with the spines facing inward. Apparently Warhol did this when he bought a house already equipped with books - books that were obviously bought to be seen instead of read. Many thrift stores in ohio arrange clothes based on color and it works great, so why not books. "a red hardback would go great with my new issue of Vogue"

I really loved Caché and noticed this, too, both in Georges's and Anne's living room and on the set of Georges's show. You can see what Peter has mentioned here and here.

Peter, in terms of Warhol's "spines backward" phenomenon, I'm sure it has a lot to do with decorating, and you can see an example of it from this month's Pottery Barn catalog here. It's interesting to me how the spine-edges of the books give us such great information but the trim-edges of the books give us none. How one is a way of potential organization and the other simply decoration.

Thanks to the librarians for setting the record straight on DDC vs LCC - I'm being educated all the time. Much appreciated.
Rob Giampietro

I rearranged my library based on color one day out of curiosity and, uh, probably just plain obsessive-compulsiveness. It sure looks good, but I can't find a damn thing anymore. Now I have to organize it by subject again before I go crazy.

When I was a child I had a whole series of books from National Geographic. I would arrange them by color, and my mother would come after me and arrange them by content, both of us mystified by the what the other could possibly be thinking. Years later I re-arranged my books by color after swooning over books arranged by color at a furniture store. Now, since my latest move, they are arranged in Dewey Decimal order, which isn't satisfying but has strange inertia.

There are also books shelved spine-out in a dream sequence in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the effect is haunting.

So if I arrange all my books based on color of spine...

Are they ROYGBIV?

Alpha by author after that? or...

Alpha by subject after color? or...

Alpha by color? or...

Color based on author? or...

Color based on subject? or...

??? ...

And what colors are included? RGB? CMYK? Pantone ( by number )? Crayola? TOYO? ( And what the heck is TOYO anyway? )

I'm going to stick to books arranged by Moran. Much better system in my view.

HA! ( hazy azure -- the new mauve )


ps. And what if you're the 5% of the population that is color blind? Then what?!? ( Double Heck? )
Joe Moran

Mr. Giampietro I believe you've hit on quite the burgeoning trend: Not one, but two of the trophy homes on recent apartmenttherapy postings have quietly featured color-coordinated bookshelves. (See www.apartmenttherapy.com/ny/fsbo/fsbo-304-west-10th-street-012064 and www.apartmenttherapy.com/ny/house-tours/house-tour-allyson-maxs-hudson-tour-de-force-011972).
Just wait till the kids at Dwell & Blueprint catch wind of this.
elisabeth c

I recommend an order by the birth date of the author (for literature, novels, philosophy etc.).

I am quite sure that you will be (like me) surprised about the fact who is the 'neighbour' of someone else and about obvious time gaps in your collection...

I'm about to do the same with my cd collection. Imagine some thousand backs of cd's, arranged from black to white on the other end...

Why, you could merge the two trends: spines facing inwards and ordering by colour: the colour of the paper. Different shades of white, plus the many books that have coloured edges. Add some bibles for gilded accents.
I remember seeing a piece by Rachel Whiteread consisting of a cast of a library. The coloured books (cheap paperbacks, probably) had left a faint trace on the plaster. Lovely.


Peter and Rob, I don't believe the books in Georges and Anne's home were arranged with spines in, although the ones on his TV show set certainly were. Most French books are published with plain white or off-white covers and spines, harking back to the day when people had the collected signatures custom bound. Although some titles are now printed with showier covers, a shelf of French books usually makes for very plain viewing.

I could be wrong about the movie, of course. It's been quite a while since I saw it.

Su had wondered why not all of the books were organized by color. Well, two reasons, possibly related:

I didn't set up rules about how much of a single color would qualify a book for a certain color section. What does one do when the spine is half-yellow and half-green? Hmm.

and second, a complete chromatic reordering to the collection seems a bit dogmatic. I like that there are chunks of color among the heterogeneity. In the end, the organization is inconsistent: some sections by size, by subject, by publisher too. It is a small collection so a singular organizational rigor seems, well, a bit too rigorous.

Luke Bulman

Mr. Bulman,

A Pox on 'ye! For instigating this whole conversation.

Although, a "small" pox.


JOe MOran

I have to second the comment at the beginning, that Dewey is not the predominant classification system in American libraries. By the 1960s, most libraries had tired of DDC's major shortcomings (namely its lack of inter-library standardization and inability to integrate new fields) and switched to the LoC system.

Continuing in this strain, organizing by color is not so much a classification system as it is a means of interior design. Which is not to say that this method isn't visually attractive or couldn't suffice in small collection in which locations could be easily recalled, but a more effective means of achieving this end in a large institution would be to classify books according to the LoC standards and then have different subjects rebound in the desired color(s) (which is what was done for the British libraries at the top of the page).

Two years ago I decided to rearrange the first bookshelf of a series of four (which were alphabetical, by subject) by color. It was great fun, touching every book, looking at it and thinking about them in a different way.

When I was done and lived with the new shelf a few months I realized how much more organized it looked compared to the three to its right (which remained alphabetical, by subject). Gazing at the color-coded shelf created a feeling of calm, continuity, while the other three looked disjointed, chaotic.

Now all of the shelves are arranged by color, with the pattern going across the four shelves, from top to bottom (approx 2,000 books). Yes, there is an aspect of interior design here: the books create an ambiance.

Suprisingly, I rarely cannot find a book I am looking for. Having touched each and every one of my books in a relatively short amount of time for the first time, I remember what they look like, not just how they made me feel, or what they sounded like to my imagination, or where I was when I bought or read the book. In this sense, the new arrangement adds to the richness of each book.

I have since arranged the bookshelves in the other parts of the house in the same manner. I love it.

What a great concept. Thanks for the decorating and organizing food for thought as I move into my new office today!

Scott Abel
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Scott Abel


a complete chromatic reordering to the collection seems a bit dogmatic. I like that there are chunks of color among the heterogeneity. In the end, the organization is inconsistent: some sections by size, by subject, by publisher too. It is a small collection so a singular organizational rigor seems, well, a bit too rigorous.

True, and this(or Rob's pre-placement of Manguel next to the Chicago Manual) gets a bit at the denial that I see in these stunts. They're either ordered by color, or they're not; anything else suggests surreptitiously imposing a different, more recognizable order on something pretty much completely removed from the books or even yourself. (This isn't aimed at you so much as you're just the example in front of me. I don't care what you do with your books *grin*)

I'd forgotten the other day: Of interest here is also Henry Petroski's The Book on the Bookshelf. While primarily a history of shelving, there's an appendix giving a page or more each to twenty-five organizational systems he's encountered. Yes, color's included, and a really nice-sounding example at that. But two others stuck out for me: strict order of publication, or acquisition. Both, and especially the second, could provide some interesting context to any given book while remaining fairly intelligible.

Personally I organize my books by topic. The fun parts are the gradients between topics and getting the transitions right. i would love to have them all be the same color, but it is not practical, unless I am coloring them.

I truly enjoy book stores that are organized by publisher. This is rare in the US these days. There are publishing houses, such as Kodansha Globe, or Europa, that I purchase because of the respect I have for the house, and the quality of books to date. Scanning shelves to find spine designs of the different houses is not as fun.
karen hembrough

I love the way it looks. But it strikes me is a somewhat selfish thing to do. I remember arranging my cds this way when I was a teenager, the problem is only the arranger (or main collector) has the required associations between color and book to actually be able to find anything. It's a system for hermits.

Kottke just posted a link to an online store that allows you to shop for objects by color. Oh, the possibilities! [Link]
rob Giampietro

its interesting someone mentions the plainness of french books. the color coding system rob giampietro writes about is more akin to a european publisher's system of publishing books - there is a clear identity and organization to a literary series that is manifested visually. usually if you go to a large university bookstore's foreign language section, you can see an example of this. books by one publisher are uniform in shape, typeface and color, with slight variations within the system. its easy to see from the aisle where one publisher's series ends and another's begins.

what i find beautiful about the adobe bookshop project is that it takes the chaos of the neighborhood bookstore and applies a very simple ordering system based on something essentially visual like color. you look at it in a different way. despite the strictness of the system, there is still a lot of personality in terms of the variation of color tones, shapes, thicknesses, and sizes.

"I used to work for a large bookstore chain (whose name is also a colour)."

Was it perhaps Indigo, in Canada?

I frequent a secondhand store (still can't break the college habit) where the clothing is organized by color. Alas, the rest of the establishment is hardly attractive enough to benefit from this, and finding something in my size requires approximately eight times the effort it would were the goods arranged otherwise.

It seems an odd contradiction to me that such a utilitarian establishment would choose, for one facet of its retail, to drag function around on a leash held by form, as it were.

When Willy Fleckhaus designed the paperback line for German publisher Suhrkamp in 1963, he set up a color coding system for every title based on subject. The Suhrkamp catalog consisted primarily of 20th-century German literature, foreign language literature, and the humanities. Fleckhaus' coding system set colors for each subject area; new titles would take on a color in between the existing color values. The result is an ever-expanding rainbow.

In the original design, the covers were purely typographic, with the bright colors used to differentiate titles. More recent covers feature images.

I haven't yet found a good image online of the books together, although there's a small page at the Goethe institute which shows the spines:

Also, here's a page with some examples of Suhrkamp covers, new and old:

Some revealing insights into how designers think here. The tension between arranging things to look nice and arranging things logically (the old 'style' vs 'usability' dichotomy again?). The need to have some sort of 'system' - and, more, the importance of being seen to have some sort of system. A fascination with taxonomy and categorisation. But above all, the idea that the way one arranges one's books is a statement about oneself.

This brings to mind a story about the late Sufi writer Idries Shah. Someone visiting his house in England was found by an associate in the library, trying to make sense out of the strange assortment of books on the shelves. The associate smiled and explained: "You assumed these books could give you an indication of Shah's tastes in reading. In fact they're there to give him an indication about you. I expect your eye has run along these titles when you've been in this room with Shah. You can take it that all the titles you passed over, or paused at, were noted by him and helped in an assessment of YOU".
james souttar

It's a designers urge to create something that is beautiful which seemingly has no logic but functions perfectly. A sort of utopian design solution - one that looks and functions perfectly but in a sort of zen like way. In the instance of organising books by colour are we expecting to be guided to the book by our associative experience with the colour? but without really having to have concious thought?... maybe a sort of design synesthesiaIt's a designers urge to create something that is beautiful which seemingly has no logic but functions perfectly. A sort of utopian design solution - one that looks and functions perfectly but in a sort of zen like way. In the instance of organising books by colour are we expecting to be guided to the book by our associative experience with the colour? but without really having to have concious thought?... maybe a sort of design synesthesia

I wrote about organizing my books by color, and the tension between private and public collections, long ago.

thanks for the example prem. in the USA it seems that imposing an overall identity to a publisher's output isnt very popular, at least these days and with more 'literary' titles. bookcovers are almost like a performance. usually when you talk to a publisher's marketing department, the emphasis is that the cover is commercial enough to sell -- can't be dry, plain, or boring. more or less it has to scream out 'buy me!' which pretty much goes against a more systematic approach to an entire series. is this a cultural difference?

some travel books do this, as well as '____ for dummies' type series. i think itd be a great opportunity to work on a series of reissued literary titles for a publisher.

Maybe some other commenters might know this. What are some of the popular classification systems outside of the US?

Anyone who studied Greek and Latin would be familiar with the Loeb Classical Library which had a very consistent coloring scheme: red = Latin, green = Greek. The first image of the green and red books above looks very much like the shelves of Loeb classics I frequented during my studies. The jackets have changed a bit, but more on the Loeb library can be found here: http://www.hup.harvard.edu/loeb/history.html

And the Fraunhofer lines?
A C Baker

I organize my books first by topic, then by size. It's lovely seeing a row of books neatly sloping down as the height decreases -- weighty textbooks to the left, paperbacks to the right. The next shelf I reverse it so the big books are on the right and the small ones to the left.
John B

haven't done my shelves by color, but I did make a infographic with bivalent color axes to classify them, and the result was similar:



If memory serves (I'm an old librarian who does remember pointing out to a user the needed volume across the room as "the big red one on the third shelf down,") the Worcester Ma. Public Library's new building (late 1950's or so) had colored shelves! That was an idea I was sorry didn't catch on. Trivia: Reference Service (ask a librarian a question) originated there-in the old building.

I am now tempted to arrange our books into a portrait of Melville Dewey.

Great idea. I just moved my office and family to Fort Worth and am excited to change the way I organize my office. I'll definitely try this color deal for the library.

I wonder what it would do to the functionality of an entire office space to organize every item by color: desk, computer, printer, bookshelf, photos. Interesting.
Charlie Trotter

i've always organised by books thematically and my fiction also alphabetically

how boring that seems now. many it's time for a colour epiphany!

people arrange their books in order???
Lisa Jewell Michael

I found a typo:
"The problem of the library is shown to be towfold[edit: twofold?]: a problem of space first of all, then a problem of order."

Other than that, this seems like such a designery thing to do. I could only imagine a lot of us out there creating spacial arrangements based on compliments and triads and all that.

I recently visited a clothing boutique in Atlanta (called Wish, for those in the area) that used hundreds of black books with different colors of foilstamped titles on the spines to line their shoe room in the basement. It was very interesting and now surprisingly relative (for me) to this article.
John Ellis

I was considering Dewey, but now this has been bought to my attention ...
I'm amazed I've not thought of it myself. You'd know what I mean if you ever saw my garden, clothes on the washing line, wardrobe, Linen closet .... ad infinitum.

Maybe I didn't think of books because my librarian mother influenced me into more logical arrangements...?

i'm a little late to the party but... what a great article. my books (and cds) are all organized by subject/style with overlapping categories where possible. while i was a record store employee, i did, however, like to organize elvis costello's discography my colour. the spines of his albums are each a colour of the rainbow. :-)

Here's a short film of Chris Cobb installing the color-coded Adobe bookstore.
Michael Bierut

Jobs | July 21