Hacker News new | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Why Pencils Are Yellow (2017) (artsy.net)
303 points by colinprince 3 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 109 comments

So the story is, as it is for nearly every physical artifact in my life, "Because people are easily lured by bright objects and catchy marketing into associating quality with anything but the quality of the goods."

I'm reminded of User Testing at Powerset. When we did unbranded search testing of Wikipedia, late-stage Powerset usually won most search comparisons by users. But if we branded the search results against Google, we lost. At first we thought this was an artifact of the test data, but then we ran an experiment where we randomly assigned a brand to our search results and asked users to rank them. Same GvP comparison. The Google branding won. We took it a step further: sometimes random recall searches crept in (there aas essentially no logic to what we put in front of the users other than keyword match). If those got branded "Google", sometimes they still won just by the power of brand association, even against Powerset's sophisticated NL-powered search.

This reminds me of a post on HN where someone put a picture of a Duck on a wireless charger, giving it a brand identity and the charger was selling like crazy. Users identified with that brand over a charger that was brandless.

How can an animal give brand identity? Do you have a link to that post? I'm curious.

> How can an animal give brand identity?

O'Reilly books are a fantastic example of this that goes beyond something as simple as the name of the company/product being an animal (Penguin, Puma, Jaguar) -- any time you see a book with that cover with that style of animal, you know who published it.

Because it is a duck, and that duck is cute.

I thought this story was going in a different direction, where you had replaced Powerset's logo with one having bright colors, and then it started winning.

Well the google logo is a bright colorful child's toy, as opposed to ... well... look it up. Powerset has branding so bad I didn't wanna see it either.

> So the story is, as it is for nearly every physical artifact in my life, "Because people are easily lured by bright objects and catchy marketing into associating quality with anything but the quality of the goods."

Bright? According to the article, the pencils were painted yellow to symbolize China, because their graphite was sourced from Siberia. (Seems like a stretch, but that's what it says...)

What does brightness have to do with it?

It's an adjective. An adjective not uncommonly associated with the hues in question. It's also not uncommon as a turn of phrase in english to say, "people are distracted by the newest bright and shiny object." So I took the opportunity.

Is this... a real question? This seems like a fake question.

It's not a fake question, it's question your assertion (which comes with no citation) regarding the origin of the colour yellow used in pencils, which contradicts the origin story described in the article.

I'm sorry, but which part of calling the color yellow "bright" conflicts with the article's presented content in any way?

>Manufacturers usually painted their pencils if they were looking to cover up imperfections in the wood. Accordingly, typical paint colors were dark: purple, red, maroon, or black. But Hardtmuth was looking for a way to advertise the caliber of its graphite rather than its wood.

Bright color to stand out, as opposed to dark colors hiding imperfections. Another stretch, perhaps.

That could have been because people have learned to associate Google with good search results, because of the 'quality of the goods'

I mean, at the time certainly Google was beating the breaks off Yahoo. But for wikipedia, Powerset was doing things that at the time were unimaginable. We were reliably disambiguating cases like "who did Dick Cheney shoot" from "who shot Dick Cheney" and showing those off.

So while I agree folks should have a positive vibe with the brand, it was kinda overwhelming when we put random recall results under a google logo and lost to them.

I was honestly expecting a story similar to why barns are red.

My totally uninformed, off the cuff guess: because red was/is the cheapest paint color you could get.

It happens that linseed oil and rust, which make for cheap rot prevention and waterproofing, stains the wood red. You're basically correct.

(Falun red. The pigment, and main ingredient apart from flour and linseed oil, is basically garbage from a copper mine.)

Growing up in India, all the pencils I used were red and black striped made by Nataraj. I remember seeing yellow pencils in western movies though.


Probably the most common colour in New Zealand is that red and black stripe as well, but usually made by Staedtler[0]. Some other brands also copy the same style[1].

Seems like we need another article on Why Pencils Are Red And Black.

[0] https://i.imgur.com/AMbEQzT.jpg

[1] e.g. https://i.imgur.com/mmN943m.jpg

Yep same in Australia

South Africa is another antipodean country where pencil means Staedtler in black & red

This article already addressed it: red and black paints are used to cover up imperfections in the less-than-high-quality wood being used .. red and black both being inexpensive paints.

I live in the UK and always since I can remember (27yrs) pencils have always been red or the red/yellow and black striped ones. In fact the only yellow ones I remeber seeing have always been the packs of very cheap poor quality ones.

Same in Switzerland. The good default pencil was the red one by Caran d'Ache. The yellow ones (with an eraser on top) where super cheap and would always break or get dull very fast.

Grown up in China and most popular pencils were coded in dark green made by Zhonghua.


Yellow ones are rare there.

Does the color green have a meaning in China?

For Han people, it doesn't mean anything specific. Here I think it's just refering woods.

You can see bamboo leaves in the zoomed-in version:


Sure, "cuckold" (as applied to hats, not in general).

But I doubt that's what they're going for with the pencils.

Same in South Africa. No yellow pencils here: most are red and black striped.

In Italy, quality in everyday pencils used to be associated to Staedtler, and their pencils were striped black/yellow.

What you are describing are Koh-i-noor pencils. Staedtler pencils are blue, with the black top.

Search for "staedtler matita" (italian for pencil) and look at images: https://www.google.com/search?q=staedtler+matita

The overwhelming majority is black/yellow. Maybe they geo-segment.

Apparently, several types exist. The high-end ones are the blue/black I was describing (Staedtler Mars Lumograph), while the black/yellow ones (Staedtler Noris) are the most common ones.

In Australia and New Zealand they're red and black[1].

[1]: https://i.imgur.com/AMbEQzT.jpg

In Japan there are yellow pencils but green pencils are more common. https://www.tombow.com/products/writing/pencil/

I practically grew up eating that thing, though I also find mitubishi's maroon pencils to be popular too.

Here in Brazil growing up most of them were green, with the occasional cartoon character-branded pencil in the mix.

Almost all the pencils in my childhood were red. The manufacturer was Berol.

Of course, my schools didn't necessarily buy the highest quality pencils for the children, and they probably all came from the same supplier.

The high-quality ones, which a relative who was a draughtsman used, were dark green [1]

[1] https://www.ebay.ie/itm/12-x-Berol-Venus-H-Fine-Quality-Writ...

Across the water in Scotland, the most common pencils in school were black and yellow striped -- the Staedtler Noris, back then made in Wales and stamped "Made in Great Britain". These were the ones the school provided and also the ones parents bought. Still a great pencil today, but no longer made in the UK.

High-quality ones, used by a couple of artists and a draughtsman my parents knew, were blue: Staedtler Mars Lumographs, again made then in the UK, but now only made in Germany. Still an even better pencil than the Noris.

I remember Berol "Handwriting" pens, red with a white nib that produced blue ink, but never liked them or used them much. Berol had colouring pencils sewn up when I was in school.

Across yet another pond, in Norway, my childhood school pencils were Norises in primary whereas in secondary we got Lumographs.

I still can vividly recall the sense of awe whenever I entered the storage room in which the school kept all consumables - box upon box of pencils, erasers, rulers, notebooks...

Somewhat of a writing fetishist to this day - I have a box of Lumographs in the office for field notes, whereas meeting notes and such are mostly done with a fountain pen.

Berol were kind of the British Sharpie, in some respects. Not exactly the same product but similarly ubiquitous. They were made in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, I think.

My childhood pencils are green: Evolution 650 France HB/no2 Conté (Bic) pencils[1]

These are virtually unknown in the US, but they are fantastic. The best part is the synthetic material they use for casing instead of wood. It is a joy to sharpen (the reviewer mentions a synthetic smell to go with it, but I never recalled there being any).


This is what I have in my mind: green with a black top. Like the staedler but with green instead of blue. https://discountoffice.nl/productImages/8/large/Q640366-1.jp...

Now that you mention it, I took 3 years of drafting (2 mechanical, one architectural) in high school, and our pencils were always green.

>Of course, my schools didn't necessarily buy the highest quality pencils for the children

if your schools are buying pencils for the students, you're one up over my childhood in canada.

A quick search suggests pencils, pens etc are still provided for the youngest children. Paper, exercise books and textbooks are provided for all of school.

I think the average 7 year old has their own pencils and pens. My mum was a teacher in a secondary school in a poor area; she always had spare pencils and pens for any child without one — which if it was frequent, was probably a small hint that home life might not be great for that child.

The wider area was of average wealth, and the school bought the pencils my mum gave out. I think, in some areas with particularly underfunded schools, teachers are known to spend their own money on things the poorest children need.

(I grew up in England.)

I used berol handwriting pens when I was 4 or 5 years old and they are still my pen of choice today.

In my mind, Faber-Castell will forever be the ultimate pencil. I think yellow pencils are a staple of American culture but in my mind pencils are green...


Staedller, the most stable graphite lead pencil brand across Asia (not colored pencils) were black and yellow striped hexagonal, and of wonderful quality (iirc, better than Faber Castell for art pencils).

In Australia and New Zealand, Staedtler are hexagonal but red and black.

[1]: https://i.imgur.com/AMbEQzT.jpg

I suppose it's quite easy to monopolise the visual imagination of one child. I picture pencils as black, because someone once gave me a nice mixed tin of Caran d'Ache pencils which were all matte black, and I used them endlessly to do drawings of 16x16 sprites and 8x8 fonts on graph paper.

> mixed tin of Caran d'Ache pencils

Totally off-topic but I just realized as I read that that it sounded like the Russian word for pencil: карандаш (karandash)

So I thought, aha, it's like with Xerox -- the Russians took the name of the company that makes the item and named all the items of that type after the company's name.

But it actually is even more interesting. The name of the company was taken from a French satirist who created his pseudonym after the Russian name for pencil.

And then, later, a Swiss company that made pencils used the name of the French satirist's pseudonym as their name.


MSX? Spectravideo? Which other system used 16x16 sprites? :-)

Agreed, this must be a (North)American thing rather than a Western thing. I grew up in Spanish-speaking Western country and yellow was not the most common pencil color of my childhood.

I must say, I did always think those pencils were higher quality than the ones I got.

But I didn't get just yellow ones. I had many different colors and patterns.

I do instinctively recognize yellow as "the color of pencils" but it's from so many cartoon graphics of them, not because they were all that color.

How is this particular item a "spare" pencil? > Spare pencil for the Castell 9000 perfect pencil

Surely any time you buy a new pencil it is a spare or replacement for the pencil you already have?

I could be wrong, but I think it means 'spare' as in 'singular' or 'loose', not as in 'replacement' or 'extra'.

No it's spare as in replacement. It's a replacement pencil for a pencil holder. That's why it's so short.

It's the consumable part of the pencil. Cheaper than buying the pencil holder again.

FWIW, the article mentions that Faber also jumped on the yellow trend.

I use Faber Castell pencils in 3H and 4H in my workshop, they're quite good. Sharpen to a very fine point easily that lasts a while when marking metal or wood surfaces.

The article can as well be “Why Pencils are XYZ” where XYZ depends on the country. Once a product is successfull, the original manufacturer and their competitors just continue to copy the attributes of the sucessful product until people can no longer imagine the same product with very different attributes. That is why “Why pencils are yellow” makes sense only in the US, while people living elsewhere are saying: nope, not where I live.

Explains my confusion with early internet "cliparts" and icons being always in yellow. I am sure most non westerns might be equally confused.

Pencil meant black and red for us in India - Natraj FTW

It's not even Western, from my experience it's just the US. In Australia, I don't think I'd ever seen a yellow pencil, other than one that came in a set of coloured pencils for art. I hadn't realised it was the norm in the US until relatively recently.

We have these, just for example:



Definitely not just US. I'm from Lithuania and these were the pencils we all used [0]. That was around 1992 and later, so could have been a relic from Soviets.

Only in later years green ones appeared and yellow with black stripes.

[0] - https://thumbs.dreamstime.com/z/lead-pencil-isolated-white-b...

I distinctly recall yellow pencils in the USSR. Not that it was the only color, but it was definitely a popular one.

Looking it up, apparently this has something to do with pencils being manufactured in early (1920s) USSR by an American entrepreneur:



Eventually the Soviet government bought the entire operation from him, and thenceforth it became this:


And they probably just continued to use yellow, because why not?

I spent a year in the baltics, got homeschooled while there. The pencils were a tealish green and tasted much worse than your garden variety Dixon, but wrote much better.

It was probably an H grade rather than HB. Pencils in the US stores often come out smudgy to me ever since then...

Australian here too - I do remember occasionally using yellow US-style pencils but I think they were usually crappy knock-offs from cheap shops because the wood was always low quality, the graphite broke all the time and the rubbers (erasers) on the top were always useless and left black marks everywhere.

The standard pencil we had at school was just plain red with a straight cut top so you could see the graphite - I think a staedtler HB (bit like [1] but didn’t have the ‘minerva’ brand name on it). A lot of automatically marked tests needed 2B pencils to mark the answer sheet and we almost always used the red and black striped ones like your link.

1. https://www.supplyme.co.nz/shop/Stationery/Pens+Pencils+Mark...

American that just recently learned about Indian pencils- they're so much better than pencils we have here! Though I'm partial to the Apsara Regal Gold instead of the traditional black and red Nataraj

I remember all the pencils being yellow in school (in California), some at home being red and maybe also some blue ones, and then in Germany of course a lot of green.

These days the general-purpose pencils I occasionally use are no "color" at all:


Yes, yellow were the pencils of my childhood. But finally I learned what Koh-i-noor stands for, never bothered to Czech. Pun intended :) CZ citizen here.

The article doesn't mention that "Koh-i-Noor" is Persian for "Mountain of Light" [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koh-i-Noor]

I associate it with these actually: https://hobbyklei.nl/1816-large_default/bic-potlood-gilbert-...

Maybe a Belgian / Netherlands thing? Or perhaps just me :)

We did have yellow pens in Germany, but thinking back on it, the forest green of Faber-Castell [0] was the color I would associate with pencils the most.

[0] https://www.faber-castell.com/products/GraphitepencilCastell...

Also blue. Staedler was blue, with a black top.

Our school Staedler HB pencils were all yellow and black such as these: https://www.glsed.co.uk/product/stationery/pencils/blacklead...

The occassional ones were red and black, I think those were more likely to be 'B' or '2B' ones, but it's been longer than I can remeber since I used such a pencil.

The default Bruynzeel pencils often used in schools in the Netherlands were yellow. But that may just be _my_ bubble.

Dutch/limburg here, very rare to see those. I think mine were usually green (a brighter shade than the ones linked in a sibling thread), but not exclusively. We also had uncoloured and black for example.

... except when they aren't.

This reminds me of the famous "why manhole covers are round" question. They aren't, as a quick look at the Wikipedia page can confirm:


They aren’t. Nice bit of local history for Americans though!

I think this needs more detail:

In China, yellow had long been tied to royalty... Eventually, the shade came to represent happiness, glory, and wisdom.

Was this true outside of China too? Did buyers in the western world really associate the color with Chinese Royalty? Or did they just like the bright color?

Disclaimer: pure speculation follows. Ignorance abounds.

In that era, I believe there was an obsessive interest in all things "Oriental". China and Japan were both still very mysterious, with Japan having been forced to open up in the 2nd half of the 19th century, and China similarly unwillingly thrust onto the world stage by the Opium Wars in the same timeframe.

So, it wouldn't surprise me that a company would be able to leverage the interest in China via marketing. Maybe people didn't know of the association with yellow before the marketing, but I'd bet they did after.

I was raised in Europe, my pencils were always blue like those:

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/08/Pencils_... http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-2r0Y8HUTeMI/UQVsbzQceKI/AAAAAAAAB5...

I was surprised the first time I saw a yellow pencil, like the IKEA ones.

Yellow IKEA pencils - in what country? I've only seen unpainted ones (in the UK, and also the US from what I remember, circa 2004-5), with IKEA printed in black on the side.

Red and Black stripes. I don't think i've ever held a yellow pencil.

article appears to be down, pastebin of google cache: https://pastebin.com/W7ZXM6Vy

My reading skills are going down. I was expecting a punchline delivery to the reason why pencils are mostly yellow: "Essentially, because of marketing". Just wasted 5 minutes of my life.

I'm Czech and never heard about this story. I knew about Hardmuth and why Koh-I-Noor was used, but the story of the color was new to me, thanks!

At the time, many yellow paints had lead in them. I wonder of that was the true then... makes me think about chewed-upon pencils.

Or cadmium is also a yellow pigment. I do remember chewing on my pencils. Maybe I should get a lead blood test. Or maybe I shouldn't cause it's too late anyway...

It may be tough to detect vs the background noise in the United States these days, https://www.google.com/amp/s/mobile.reuters.com/article/amp/...

Because you're a parochial American?

My pencils have been plastic and steel as far back as I can remember, with 0.5 mm HB rods in the good ones, and 0.7mm HB in the disposables.

During some tests, some teachers just couldn't believe that HB and #2 were the same thing, so that's about the only time I wrote with painted wood.

Fark yeah. I'd give real money to get my 9th grade book bag back! HP 11C scientific calculator, drafting supplies including a bunch of mechanical pencils and fancy erasers, and a copy of the HHGTTG. Pure nostalgia right there.

A few years back HP manufactured a few new HP-15C calculators as a limited edition. I was lucky enough to hear about it early and buy one.

I see they're now on Amazon for crazy high prices, so I assume they're no longer in production.

Borrowdale is only seven miles from Derwent. Were there other English pencil makers in the area?

I'm pretty sure “natural polished” pencils could make a major comeback. Dare I say for the hipsters? Could add an environmental spin on it as well.

All my pencils growing up were either red/black or yellow/black, depending on how hard they were.

I miss Staedtler pencils.

So it has its origins in bullshit. Great.

Koh-I-Noor still makes high quality art supplies, btw.

I thought this is because School busss color is Yellow so everything yellow identifies things which has to do with students.

"Hardtmuth settled on yellow to communicate the graphite’s geographical origins", China because "yellow had long been tied to royalty."

Please stop clickbait.

Without the clickbait title, you might have missed the beautiful pop-up that obscures the entire window requesting a subscription.

Nowadays, every page seems to have one of those or the cookie disclaimer. Advertisers and idiotic laws are close to reaching their goal of definitely ruining web experience.

I stopped reading and mentally discarded the article as trash upon encountering the phrase "diamonds are graphite".

Applications are open for YC Summer 2019

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact