How gray became the king of color
If you’ve been spending time on TikTok lately, you might have noticed a sudden obsession with color, or rather the lack thereof.
“There has been a disappearance of the variety of colors all over the world”, a user says. “Now I’m not sure I like neutrals,” another commented.
Everything stems from a blog post 2020 who claims that color has disappeared from the world. The researchers behind the post used computer vision to analyze the color pixels in 7,000 photographs of objects and how the color of these objects changed from the 1800s to 2020. These were sampled in five British museums and divided into 21 categories, from electronics to lighting. to household appliances.
The team concluded that over the past 200+ years, browns and yellows, once dominant hues, have declined in favor of dark charcoal gray.
It is important to note that the post is not a peer-reviewed study. And when fast business contacted the data scientist who wrote the blog, she said she recognizes that 7,000 objects is not enough to draw a full representation of color over two centuries. The technology used to analyze the pixels in each photo also presents several challenges.
Despite all this, a wider range of data and analysis from two individual color experts indicate that the results are true, of some sort.
According to HueData, which scours the web for color data and analysis, gray is the most common color in the automotive industry, it is the most popular color in brand logos, and it is the second most popular color in fashion shows after black. So yes, humans seem to like gray, but no, the color is not disappearing from the world. The reality is much more complicated than that.
A (very) brief history of color
Let’s start with the basics. The evolution of color is closely linked to where it comes from and how it is produced. Around 17,000 years ago, cavemen used raw materials, such as ocher and red earth or white chalk to paint caves. The 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 reports, purple, once associated with royalty and power, was the first synthetic dye capable of sticking to fabric, fueling a “purple craze” in the late 1880s.)
More and more colors were democratized by industry during the 19th century, but it was not until the 1960s, when Pantone developed its revolutionary color matching system, that hues became standardized. The system eliminated the guesswork 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 rainbow of choices and new colors are added every year. Pantone has a huge 15,000 colors. Benjamin Moore offers 3,500 paint colors, including nearly 200 shades gray alone. (Take that, EL James.)
And in a vast analysis of color across the web, including every car brand, 450,000 logos, and 30 years of fashion show analysis, HueData recorded over 21 million different colors (although many also seem to be digital, including tints on social media.) Thanks to new techniques and technologies, we can now create more colors than ever before (although we are still run out of blue.)
So why are grayscales 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 dramatically over time.
In the 1800s, most objects were made of wood. Then came the plastic. And today, aluminum is king. It’s on our electronics, appliances, and even the window frames of our buildings.
“The dominant color of the era must be this range of grays,” says Anat Lechner, founder of HueData.
Take telephones, for example. In the 1960s and 1970s, plastic phones came in a multitude of shades, from green to red to yellow. Then in 1984, Motorola launched the first cordless phone. DynaTAC 8000X, or more affectionately known as “The Brick” for weighing 2 pounds, was also plastic, but only came in three colors: tan and cream, black and white, or white.
A lack of color options didn’t seem to deter the market, however. The brick was so popular that, according to one interview 2019 with Rudy Krolopp, Motorola’s design master, the waiting lists numbered “in the thousands”.
Mass producing grayscale
It is no coincidence that grayscale and popular mass production products have grown together.
In the early 1900s, Henry Ford said “any customer can have a car painted any color he wants, as long as it’s black.” Indeed, its Model T was only available in black, as paint application was a complicated and expensive procedure and Ford was determined to prioritize the efficiency of its production line.
The crux of the matter is that we live in the aforementioned aluminum world, and when you’re producing multiple products to sell, 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, it’s introducing more SKUs and increasing its inventory.
“We always say good color sells, bad color creates inventory, and no one wants to create inventory,” says Leslie Harrington, executive director of the Color Association of America, Centennial.
Risk-averse companies reduced the color palette on the assembly line, and risk-averse consumers did the rest. Driven by the promise of resale, Americans are chromatically sheepish when it comes to major purchases, painting their homes gray (or neutral colors) and driving gray cars. (According to a Survey 2020over 72% of the cars on the road (read: the cars people were buying) 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, i.e. what sells and what doesn’t.
“If they see that black, gray and white are still selling very well, they will continue to buy black, white and gray, and that’s what happened in fashion,” says -she.
A focus on fashion
Symbolized by “the little black dress”, fashion has long had a obsession with black, and to some extent the data confirms this. In 2022 alone, HueData shows that black, gray and white appeared together in 50% of fashion shows globally (this was taken from a total of 9,000 data points; black came in head with 29.9%, followed by gray with 18.8%). %).
But there are important nuances in these figures. First, the data does not include retail trends, or even colors in the textile industry. Second, just because gray is one of the most common shades on fashion shows doesn’t mean it’s the main color of an item of clothing. Gray goes with everything and accentuates other colors, so it eventually moves up the chain in frequency of use, but not necessarily overall.
This discrepancy is reflected in the original analysis of the 7,000 objects, which found charcoal gray to be the most common color, even though it represents only a tiny fraction of the pixels in a photograph. “This means that there are a very large number of colors and therefore even the most frequent color, which is a very particular shade of gray, represents only a small proportion of all the colors observed”, explains Cath Sleeman, responsible for of data discovery. UK non-profit Nesta and blog post author.
Back to non-black
So, that’s just it: while it’s true that shades of gray can be found on all products, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they always replace other colors.
According to a fashion search engine called Tagwalk, color blocking at this year’s Spring/Summer shows was up 273% compared to 2021. Meanwhile, Valentino’s Paris Fashion Week show went all out on magenta, and Milan Fashion Week was on fire with loud prints and colorful sequins. Off the catwalk, some brand consultants are speculating that the rise of e-commerce is leading to an increase in bright colors, as they photograph better than black.
According to HueData’s Lechner, another trend may now be reversing the gray tides: the rise of personalization.
“We are moving away from 100 years of industrial visions and mass production,” she says. “Today we are looking to personalize, and personalizing products, brands and consumer touchpoints will require different manifestations of color.”
So you can buy a Custom painted Porscheor add a touch of color to your own pair of Nikes. You can even tell an AI to create a highly personalized color based on an oral description of a New York summer sunset.
“It will become normative that your color is your color and that you want it in your iPhone, in your shoe, in your car, wherever you are,” says Lechner.
Naturally, gray is likely to remain a key color in mass-produced products. But while we’re not exactly entering a rainbow and unicorn era, the world isn’t bleeding colors either.