The visual appearance of the artificial world is largely governed by films or composites containing particles with at least one dimension smaller than a micron. Over the past century and a half, the optical properties of such materials have been scrutinized and a broad range of colorant products, based mostly on empirical microstructural improvements, developed. With the advent of advanced synthetic approaches capable of tailoring particle shape, size and composition on the nanoscale, the question of what is the optimum particle for a certain optical property can no longer be answered solely by experimentation. Instead, new and improved computational approaches are required to invert the structure-function relationship. This progress report reviews the development in our understanding of this relationship and indicates recent examples of how theoretical design is taking an ever increasingly important role in the search for enhanced or multifunctional colorants.