Guest Column | April 29, 2014

Purple Pipes: A Communication, Education, And Branding Issue

By Donna Vincent Roa

purplepipes

In recent months, I've been evaluating visual representations of the water cycle, virtual water flows, water scarcity, infographics on the global water footprint, and presentations by senior leaders from water associations and water organizations. I've also been looking at projects involving public outreach and public perceptions regarding recycled water.

What I learned in the process is that communication about water is muddled by: an overuse of engineering terminologies and technical buzzwords; media-driven clichés and stigmatizing language; no standardized color palette; and no standardized or common icons. There is also inconsistent use of colors and icons representing the water cycle, water processes, equipment, water pipes, etc.

Shouldn't We Use the Same Color Purple?

While Irvine purple (Pantone 512; RGB 131,49,119; CMYK: 53,99,3,18; Hex #833177) was originally chosen as a color to differentiate between pipes that carry recycled water and those that carry drinking water, the variety of the colors in use by the industry range from dark pinkish to lavendar to dark purple. The industry's use of the mixed variety of colors for purple pipes represent a branding issue and the chance for miscommunication and misunderstandings about the purpose of purple pipe. 

The use of purple for pipes carrying reclaimed water has an interesting story. According to the Irvine Ranch Water District, one of the first water districts involved in recycling water: "The head of the IRWD Planning Department asked one of the engineers to come up with a color palette, thinking that using a different color pipe for recycled water would be effective. A challenge came with this request – the department head was severely color blind and only saw shades of gray."

Purple looked different to the engineer, who could only see shades of gray, so it was chosen. The team worked with the American Water Works Assocation to designate purple as the national standard for the pipes that carried recycled water.

Purple pipes, as a concept, do have the potential to help with public education. Color categorization is a familial concept and a universally understood framework that has the potential, when used correctly and consistently, to enhance understanding and carry important messages.

Water in Purple Pipes is NOT Safe to Drink

In my review, I came across a well-designed infographic published by an international organization with major investments in the water sector. The product showed purple pipes emanating from a water treatment facility mapped directly into a house; delivering water to the kitchen sink, bathtub, washroom tub, and bathroom lavatory.

As we all should know, purple pipes carry a lower grade of semi-treated water for use in gardens, washing cars and flushing toilets, but certainly not for drinking or cooking. Water in purple pipes is NOT safe to drink.

Let's Develop Some Brand Equity in One Color Purple

Perhaps we can move towards manufacturing pipes all in the same color purple. Creating dark pink pipes or other variations in the color purple can be confusing. If we are to educate and communicate more about reclaimed water (aka reused water or recycled water that is not intended as a drinking water source), let's develop some brand equity in one color purple.

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