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Colour me happy: The design world goes gaga for gradients.

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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