How gray became the king of colors
If you’ve been spending any time on TikTok lately, you might have noticed a sudden obsession with color — or rather, lack of it.
“Everywhere in the world the variety of colors has disappeared”, says one user. “Now I’m not sure if I like neutral colors,” commented another.
All of this comes from a Blog post 2020 who claims the color has vanished from the world. The researchers behind the paper used computer vision to analyze the color pixels in 7,000 photographs of objects and how the color of those objects evolved from 1800 to 2020. These were taken from five UK museums and divided into 21 categories ranging from electronics and lighting to household appliances.
The team concluded that over the last 200+ years, browns and yellows – once dominant hues – have declined in favor of dark charcoal.
It is important to note that the post is not a peer-reviewed study. And when Fast company When she contacted the data scientist who wrote the blog, she said she realizes that 7,000 objects are not enough to create a full color representation spanning two centuries. The technology used to analyze the pixels in each photo also presents some challenges.
Despite all of this, a broader database and the analysis of two individual color experts say the results are true – sort of.
According to HueData, which scours the web for color data and analytics, gray is the most common color In the automotive industry, it is the most popular color for brand logos and the second most popular color for fashion shows after black. So yes, people seem to love gray, but no, color isn’t going away from the world. The reality is much more complicated than that.
A (very) brief history of color
Let’s start with the basics. The development of color is closely linked to where it comes from and how it is produced. About 17,000 years ago, cavemen used raw materials such as ocher and red earth or white chalk to paint caves. Pigments were later produced on a larger scale in Egypt and China.
But it wasn’t until synthetic pigments were introduced in the 19th century that color production exploded. (As time Once associated with royalty and power, purple was reportedly the first synthetic dye able to adhere to fabric, sparking a “purple craze” in the late 1880s.)
As the 19th century progressed, more and more colors were democratized by industry, but it wasn’t until the 1960s, when Pantone developed its pioneering color matching system, that hues became standardized. The system took the guesswork out and allowed printers and designers to reproduce exactly the colors a company wanted, ensuring consistency across brands, products and packaging.
200 shades of gray
Today, consumers are faced with a wide range of choices, and new colors are added every year. Pantone has a whopping 15,000 colors. Benjamin Moore offers 3,500 shades, including almost 200 shades of gray alone. (Take that, EL James.)
And in a comprehensive color analysis on the web, including every single car make, 450,000 logos, and 30 years of fashion show analysis, HueData has logged more than 21 million different colors (although many also appear to be digital, including hues on social media.) using new techniques and technology, we can now create more colors than ever before (although we still are). the blue goes out.)
So why is grayscale so common? For one thing, color doesn’t just come from pigments. It also comes from materials, and the types of materials we use have changed drastically over time.
In the 1800s most objects were made of wood. Then came plastic. And today aluminum is king. It’s on our electronics, our home appliances, and even the window frames of our buildings.
“The leading color of the era has to be this greyscale,” says HueData founder Anat Lechner.
Take phones for example. During the 1960s and 1970s, plastic phones came in a variety of shades, from green to red to yellow. Then, in 1984, Motorola launched the first wireless phone. DynaTAC 8000X, or better known as “The Brick” for a 2-pound weight, was also plastic, but only came in three color schemes: beige and cream, black and white, or white.
However, a lack of color options didn’t seem to deter the market. The Brick was so popular that according to a Interview 2019 For Motorola design master Rudy Krolopp, the waiting lists were “in the thousands”.
Mass production of grayscale
It was not for nothing that shades of gray and popular mass-produced goods grew hand in hand.
In the early 1900s, Henry Ford said that “any customer can have a car painted any color they want, as long as it’s black”. In fact, his Model T was only available in black because applying paint was a complicated and expensive process and Ford was keen to prioritize efficiency in their production line.
The point is that we live in the aluminum world mentioned above and if you make a lot of products for sale, gray is considered a safe bet. Think of it this way: Every time a company introduces a new color, whether it’s a bright orange car or a bubble gum pink iPhone, they introduce more SKUs and expand inventory.
“We always say a good color sells, a bad color builds inventory, and nobody wants to build inventory,” says Leslie Harrington, executive director of the 100-year-old Color Association of the United States.
Risk-averse companies narrowed the color palette on the assembly line, and risk-averse consumers did the rest. Fueled by the promise of resale, Americans are chromatically self-conscious about big purchases, painting their homes gray (or neutrals), and driving gray cars. (According to A Survey 2020more than 72% of the cars on the road — read: cars people bought — were either black, white, or gray.)
And since we live in a country called capitalism, sales numbers matter. As Harrington points out, the vicious circle even includes buyers and the decisions they make about color, aka what sells and what doesn’t.
“If they see that black and gray and white always sells very well, they will continue to buy black, white and gray, and that’s what happened in fashion,” she says.
A focus on fashion
Symbolized by the “little black dress”, fashion has long had one obsession with black, and to some extent the data confirm this. In 2022 alone, HueData shows that black, gray and white together featured in 50% of fashion shows around the world (this was pulled from a total of 9,000 data points; black led at 29.9%, followed by gray with 18.8% %).
But there are important nuances to these numbers. First, the data does not include retail trends or even colors in the textile industry. Second, just because gray is one of the most commonly seen shades at fashion shows doesn’t mean it’s the main color on a garment. Gray goes with everything and accentuates other colors, so it moves up the chain in usage—but not necessarily an overall statement.
This discrepancy is reflected in the original analysis of the 7,000 objects, which found that anthracite was the most common color, despite making up a tiny fraction of the pixels in a photo. “This means that there are a great many colors and even the most common color, a very specific shade of grey, represents only a small fraction of all the colors observed,” says Cath Sleeman, Head of Data Discovery at UK non-profit Nesta and author of the blog post.
Back to non-black
So that’s it: shades of gray can be found everywhere on products, but they don’t necessarily have to displace other colors.
According to a fashion search engine called Tagwalk, color blocking was at this year’s spring/summer shows increased by 273% compared to 2021. Meanwhile, Valentino’s Paris Fashion Week show went all magenta and Milan fashion week was ablaze with bold prints and brightly colored sequins. Away from the catwalk, some brand consultants are speculating that the rise of e-commerce is leading to a resurgence in bright colors as they shoot better than black.
According to Lechner from HueData, another trend could now turn the tide – the rise of individualization.
“We’re moving away from 100 years of industrial views and mass production,” she says. “Today, we strive for personalization, and personalizing products and brands and consumer touchpoints requires different color representations.”
So you can buy one custom painted Porscheor add a pop of color Your own pair of Nikes. You can even instruct an AI to create a highly customized color based on an oral description of a summer sunset in New York City.
“It’s becoming the norm that your color is your color and you want it embedded in your iPhone, in your shoe, in your car, wherever you want,” says Lechner.
Of course, gray should remain a key color in mass products. But while we’re not exactly entering an era of rainbows and unicorns, the world isn’t bleeding out of color either.