Poster image courtesy of DayGlo Color Corp.

This article is part of our exploration of design and psychedelia. Pick up a copy of Eye on Design #02, the Psych” issue, for a deeper dive on the topic.

DayGlo was born in the dark.

It was 1933, and as lore has it, a young Bob Switzer (one of DayGlo’s inventors) had gotten a head injury while working his summer job at a H. J. Heinz Company tomato quality control laboratory in Berkeley, CA. With a fractured skull and optic nerve damage, Switzer had to spend months of recuperation in dimly-lit spaces.

To help Bob pass the time, his father built him a darkroom in the basement of the family’s pharmacy, where Bob and his brother Joe—a chemistry student and amateur magician—would experiment with chemicals taken from his family’s store. One day, the brothers combined Murine Eye Wash with rubbing alcohol, and noticed that under UV light the chemical soup began to glow with a fluorescent hue that they’d never seen before.

Intrigued by their discovery, Bob and Joe decided to combine the concoction with white shellac to thicken it, in turn creating a paint-like substance that could absorb the UV black light and reemit it as a glowing pigment. With that, the precursor to DayGlo and its neon empire was born.

Today DayGlo pigments color everything from traffic cones to tennis shoes, but back in the 1930s it was barely used at all. Though the Switzer brothers can lay claim to commercializing fluorescent pigments, they were far from the first people to discover the phenomenon. By the time Joe and Bob created their homemade paint, scientists had already spent years in the laboratory exploring the chemical makeup of glowing substances.

The fascination began centuries ago when scientists observed a phenomenon called bioluminescence, whereby organisms like glowing plankton, fireflies, and certain tree barks naturally emit light. Some of the first recorded observations came from Mexico in the 16th century when a botanist noticed the water around a tree glowing with an electric blue hue. That tree, known as kidney wood, sparked a rush of scientific inquiry into what made its wood glow, but it would be centuries before scientists were able to recreate this phenomenon in the lab.

The Switzers painted glowing midnight posters” for cinema lobbies and crafted eye-catching in-store displays.

Around the turn of the 20th century, the science of spectroscopy (the study of the light spectrum), was developing, and it ushered in a new era of understanding around how pigments and colors work. At that time, scientists were just beginning to unravel the behaviors of illumination, which allowed them to develop synthetic counterparts that could fluoresce. Even though scientists were working with pigments and the science of fluorescence, they didn’t know what to use it for,” says Rigoberto Advincula, a professor of macromolecular science and engineering at Case Western Reserve University.

Courtesy of DayGlo Color Corp.

It just so happened that the Switzer brothers knew exactly what to use it for, and they soon began marketing their glowing pigments as a breakthrough in advertising.

Fluorescent color is seen 75 percent sooner than conventional color! Fluorescent color is three times brighter than regular color! Your eyes go back to fluorescent color for a second look 59 percent of the time!” an early marketing promotion read.

In 1934, the Switzers started their first company, Fluor-S-Art Co, and partnered with a San Francisco artist to create advertising displays that would glow under black light. They painted glowing midnight posters” for cinema lobbies and crafted eye-catching in-store displays. There was just one problem: The pigments only worked in dark. The Switzers knew that in order to scale their business, they’d have to make a pigment that’s visible during the day, too.

Courtesy of DayGlo Color Corp.

In the 1940s, the brothers started the Day-Glo Color Corp. and began developing a series of daylight fluorescents” that were visible in bright natural light. Compared to their earlier pigments, these colors were able to convert the energy from the UV spectrum into longer wavelengths visible to the human eye during daylight. The colors emitted a hue so intense that the military began to take notice. During World War II, the Allies used DayGlo in a variety of applications, including painting aircraft with the “blaze orange” color to avoid crashes in mid air and as a way to identify cracks and breaks in machinery.

After the war, the Switzers developed a new kind of DayGlo pigment that was more stable than the fluorescent coating it had been using with the military.  According to a history of DayGlo by the American Chemical Society, this is how it worked: Combining the fluorescent dyes with a new class of polymers and then milling the composition to an appropriate particle size produced material that behaved like traditional organic and inorganic pigments in printing techniques.”

During World War II, the Allies used DayGlo to paint aircraft with the “blaze orange” color to avoid crashes in mid air.

In other words, DayGlo paint was suddenly just like any other ink or paint. This opened a door for artists and designers who were curious about the neon pigments, and soon DayGlo could be found in newspaper and magazine advertisements and on packaging. In 1959 the detergent maker Tide debuted a new box that replaced its orange rings with a more striking fluorescent pigment. Sales surged, which sparked a tidal wave of companies embracing the bright hues.

Herbert Aach

This shift in consumer marketing aligned with a broader societal shift happening in the late ’50s and early ’60s. After decades of utilitarian design and muted, natural tones (a movement dubbed by MoMA as Good Design”), people were ready for something new. Or at least, something less reserved. There was a shift away from earnestness and natural fibers,” says Juliet Kinchin, a curator in MoMA’s department of Architecture and Design. It spoke to such a different sensibility—it was almost denying the relationship with the natural world.”

Artists in the 1960s were embracing DayGlo’s brash new colors as a technological advancement that could extend painting into a more sensorial experience. 

You could see this shift towards acid bright pinks, Kool-Aid purples, and neon oranges in the early advertising work of Andy Warhol, years before he became an international pop art star. At the same time, artists like Frank Stella began experimenting with fluorescents in his early work, fascinated by their unnatural qualities. According to Stefanie de Winter, a doctoral candidate at KU Leuven who is researching DayGlo’s impact on art history, there was a community of artists that included people like Richard Bowman and Herbert Aach who at the start of the 1960s were embracing DayGlo’s brash new colors as a technological advancement that could extend painting into a more sensorial experience. “They saw their art as the next step in depicting light,” she says.

At the time, using DayGlo in art was a relatively controversial idea. People would often say it was in bad taste, de Winter says. They [Bowman and Aach] were devoting their art to this new palette, and they never really got the appreciate they should have.” Still, DayGlo persisted. It became synonymous with the psychedelic culture of the ’60s and ’70s and flowed into the fashion of the ’80s and ’90s. Today, DayGlo may no longer be a signifier for a new form of visual experimentation, but its brightness and brashness still glows on.