This writer respectfully disagrees.
The year’s biggest color trend wasn’t a single hue, at all. It was a blend of them. More precisely, it was ombré (the ten dollar word for color gradients).
Consider Pandora’s new logo. In October, the music streaming service ditched its muted blue wordmark for an understated icon with a subtle gradient, the hue inside the blocky, sans-serif P fading from a dusky blue at the top corner to the color of midday sky at the bottom. Instagram’s new icon, and the icons of its sibling apps Boomerang, Layout, and Hyperlapse, do something similar with red, yellow, and purple. Most of the native apps on iOS10 do the same.
But the trend extends way beyond app icons. Pay attention and you’ll see it everywhere. On the home pages of Spotify, Airbnb, and payment startup Stripe. On the music recommendation cards in Apple Music. On the app home screens of Lyft and PayPal. When The Verge overhauled its website earlier this year, it did so around a yellow-to-magenta color gradient. And when veteran blogger Jason Kottke redesigned his beloved kottke.org in September, he placed an ethereal, rainbow color gradient at the top of the page.
And before you ask: No, this is not the Baader-Meinhoff phenomenon at work. “It’s definitely a trend,” says Lisa White, a creative director at trend forecasting company WGSN.
Like “millennial pink,” gradients were slowly, then suddenly, everywhere. The Pantone Institute, the renowned color consultancy behind Pantone’s color of the year, identified ombré as a trend to watch for in its 2013 report. “We saw it coming,” says Laurie Pressman, vice president of the Institute. Apple did, too; it’s been using rainbow gradients in the branding of its operating systems since at least 2013, starting with the release of iOS7.
Granted, trends tend to be cyclical, and ombré is no different. Designers have used gradients for decades, as evidenced by Josef Albers, the influential Bauhaus professor and author of “The Interaction of Color,” who used them in his explorations of black and white. Although Pressman says you can trace ombré’s pop cultural roots to the days of psychedelia, when the long-standing dying method exploded in popularity in the late 1960s.
Perhaps that’s why ombré’s latest reemergence has a throwback quality about it. “I suspect the current trend has something to do with ‘70s and ‘80s nostalgia,” says graphic designer Hamish Symth, who used gradients in his logo for New York City’s Fulton transit center. “Colorful gradients look a lot like the computer games and graphics of that time period,” he says. “Think Miami Vice meets Tron.”
Ask other experts what appeals to them about ombré and you’ll hear all manner of responses. To the designers behind Pandora’s new icon, gradients presented an attractive middle ground. It let them add dimension to the logo’s otherwise flat design without resorting to the hyper-literal, real-world representations of skeuomorphism. “It just felt when compared to the other version we had that you wanted to press on this one more,” says Tony Calzaretta, vice president of design and creative at Pandora. “It sorta begged the thumb to come into the screen and push on it.”
As for Kottke, he says the decision to put a gradient at the top of his blog came down to flexibility. “With a rainbow gradient, I can pick any kind of color out of there, use it as an accent, and I don’t have to commit to it really,” he says.
Even scientists have thoughts on ombré’s popularity. “Things that are smooth are perceived to be safer,” says Stephen Palmer, an aesthetic psychologist at the University of California Berkeley. And color gradients are smooth, by definition. Their lack of abruptness, Palmer says, could make them easier for our brains to parse. “There’s a fair amount of research that shows people like things that are easy for them to process,” he says, adding that there’s a fine line between something being too complex and too simple. Color gradients are the Goldilocks of the visual world—they’re more interesting than a solid hue but less distracting than an image with, say, multiple sections of discrete color.
But don’t get too cerebral about it. “Gradients just look cool and fun, right?” Smyth says. He’s got a point. So enjoy the ombré wave while it lasts. Rose gold is great and all—but why settle for one color when you can have them all?
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