Colour me happy: The design world goes gaga for gradients (again)

Where Instagram ventures, the rest of the world typically follows. Think selfies. Photo filters. The craze for captioning an edited snap of one’s café breakfast with an inane hashtag like #sundaze. If it didn’t happen on Instagram, so the popular refrain goes, did it really happen?

The re-emergence of colour gradients is a case in point. A popular hair and beauty trend in the early 2000s known as ombré, gradients took a while to catch on in the design field more broadly, which for the next decade or so preferenced flat design. But when the social media giant ditched their baby-poo brown camera logo in 2016 in favour of a boldly coloured rainbow gradient with a simplified lens and viewfinder, the design world snapped to attention. (The new icon wasn’t without controversy, however: The New York Times called the internet’s reaction “The Great Instagram Logo Freakout of 2016”, while one Twitter user argued the logo looked “like a rejected Starburst flavour”).

What a difference two years makes. By 2018, the prevalence of attention-grabbing gradients was so prominent that many in the design community dubbed 2018 the “year of the gradient”. And in 2019, we see this trend only continuing to gain momentum.

Of course, gradients have been found in nature since the dawn of time. From a simple green leaf to a lingering sunset, they carry a sense of life, energy and movement that is immediately arresting. It was only with the global rise of digital, however, when new opportunities arose for brands to own visual, that the gradient emerged as a popular design technique in computer graphics. Previously, choosing a colour that wasn’t already associated with another brand was difficult (Tiffany blue, Cadbury purple, Coke red – the list goes on). Gradients allowed brands to create something unique and ownable – something that cut through the noise.

A way of capturing an audience’s attention in this saturated digital age, gradients are exceptionally versatile, whether used subtly in the background or as the striking focal point of a design. They’re also a great way to add visual depth and dimension, a trend that may be linked to the rise of augmented and virtual reality as designers attempt to create ever more immersive and realistic designs. Certainly, combining colours in a manner that’s never been done before is a sure-fire way to create something uniquely fresh and modern. And which brand doesn’t want to do that?

Indeed, studies show that the relationship between colour and branding can’t be overstated, with up to 90% of consumers judging a brand’s personality based on their gut reaction to the colours used alone. Given that a brand’s success is crucially bound up with their audience’s emotional connection to it, it makes sense that designers are turning to colour-bending gradients to connect an audience with a product or idea. Unsurprisingly, colour theory and psychology play an important role in determining whether the particular gradient used in a logo, web design or app succeeds in attracting customers or not.

In his famous book Color Psychology and Color Therapy, Faber Birren explored how colours elicit specific emotional reactions in people, even those from vastly different backgrounds. Red is recognised as the colour of passion, in other words, whether you’re from Melbourne or Marrakesh.

Through engaging with colour theory in a groundbreaking new way, Spotify’s hugely influential duotone gradient campaign succeeded in conveying the emotional “burst” one feels when listening to a much-loved song. Other big brands like Apple Music, Sephora, Nike and Samsung have also jumped aboard the gradient train.

A runaway design trend that shows no signs of slowing down, gradients look set to power through the coming year. What lies ahead in 2020? Only time will tell.

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Amazing tech, but who’s it for?

Month after month we see industry news articles about how the big players are filling their stores with cutting-edge tech to improve the experience for customers.

This article
, for example, explains how Walmart has recently been updating its store in Levittown, New York with enough cameras, sensors and processors to pump out 1.6 terabytes of data every second, and enough cabling to scale Mt. Everest five times.

Similar to what can be found at Amazon’s Go stores,  this incredible amount of tech monitors stock levels in real-time and notifies employees when an item needs replacing, at the same time freeing them up to engage more with customers.

Dubbed the ‘Intelligent Retail Lab’ – or “IRL” for short – this is Walmart’s future-focused retail testbed. Mike Hanrahan, CEO of IRL, explains that learnings from this store will be rolled out across the Walmart chain once proven.  

Great news for Walmart’s customers, right?

Certainly, it’s great when there are knowledgeable team members available to help you when you need it, either by showing you where something is, or sharing their expertise. And depending on the application, if it’s tech-powered, even better.

Take Sephora’s Color iQ foundation match for example. To find the foundation that perfectly matches their skin tone, customers must visit a Sephora store and chat with a team member who uses a special Pantone-powered handheld photographic device. It’s over six years old now, but it’s still genius. It gives customers a reason for heading in-store, and it gives team members a tool to support their knowledge and passion for cosmetics.

But in the case of Walmart’s IRL store, are the millions being spent on new tech – at least from a customer’s perspective – just fixing a problem that doesn’t really exist?

Let us explain what we mean.

Walmart, like so many retailers, already has excellent fulfilment in place. So too do almost all retailers these days. Generally speaking, if it’s not on the shelf, it’s not out the back – it’s completely out of stock. And no amount of fancy real-time tech will fix that.

When it comes to Amazon Go’s checkout-free stores, sure they’re ‘frictionless’, but just how much of a benefit to customers is this really? In other words, just how frustrating is it to wait at the checkout at your local supermarket for a minute of two? Is it frustrating enough to make you choose to shop at another store if it’s further away? Probably not – especially as the problem doesn’t happen all the time. 

Photo by Fabio Bracht

Thinking about all this reminded us of Rory Sutherland’s excellent Ted Talk from back in 2009. Rory talks about perceived value, and gives the fantastic example of engineers being tasked with a way to make a train journey from London to Paris better. The engineers, Rory explains, came up with a very clever (and very expensive) engineering solution that would shave the travel time. As an ad man, Rory suggests a better solution would be to pay male and female supermodels to walk up and down the train aisles serving fancy French wine for free. Passengers would, Rory suggests, ask for the train to slow down. A tongue-in-cheek idea, sure, but a good point nonetheless.

Now returning to Walmart’s IRL store. When we hit the webpage of the article about the store, the first thing we noticed was the striking motion-tracking art installation that Walmart has installed (pictured above). For us, that’s a brilliant example of a great use of in store tech to surprise and delight customers. It’s genuinely cool – and we bet it cost a lot less than all the other cameras and sensors that have been installed to monitor stock levels or help customers save time at the checkout.

As humans, we care about efficiency – but only up to a point. According to a 2016 study by the Time Use Institute, US shoppers spend about 43 minutes on a typical grocery shopping trip. What percentage of that time is spent at the checkout? Not all that much. 

We’re not suggesting Amazon’s Go stores aren’t great – they are – but we’re wondering whether the few minutes saved at the checkout are really a big practical advantage to the customer. Because convenient as just walking out is, there’s actually a fair amount of effort required to enter the store in the first place. You need an Amazon account, a recent iPhone or Android phone, plus the Amazon Go app.

Perhaps it’s the fact that the stores are in convenient locations, they look fantastic, that the food is fresh and that the prices are right that has led to their success more than the ‘just walk out’ factor.

Imagine the exact same store, but instead of being able to just walk out, you have to use a self-checkout – but the self-checkout tells you a different joke every time you use it. Would that put just as big a smile on your dial as being able to simply walk out does? We think it probably would. 

While we understand the commercial reasons behind equipping big retail stores with futuristic tech, we wonder whether customers could be impressed with much, much cheaper experiential elements.

Now that’s one way for brick and mortar retailers to fight back against sales being lost to online.

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