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Where Have All the Colors Gone? Or, Why We're Now Living in a Spineless, Black and White World.

Ever wondered why the only colors many industries now offer you are black, white, silver, or gray? I love colors and it strikes me as odd how colors have been tuned out of so many products.

While some colors are seasonal and faddish, others are perennials; a good color may last centuries, even if its use is up some decades, and down others. Colors capture our cultural subconscious and stay there for a long time. But somehow we're now in a boring, monochromatic world.

To industry, colors are a headache. They are tough to manufacture with consistency, hard to predict based on issues of taste, and always leave someone unsatisfied or worse, blogging furiously about "that hideous color."

The '90s were more colorful age, while the '00s somehow dwindled into a colorless abyss. I remember attending a focus group for Acer in 1996. frogdesign helped Acer introduce the Aspire, then a blockbuster PC that came in color... the first colorful PC.

The focus group was an educational experience like no other. Thirty or forty adults from the Bay area were asked about colors and reacted freely. When they were asked in private about their color preferences for the new product line, they made clear and often bold decisions. However, when asked as a group to pick their favorite color of the current year's PC, they unanimously picked slate—the designers' euphemism for dark gray.

pink-razrThe exception was one lady, quite old, who kept saying "But I like the green," or "I bought the green and I love it." She repeated it so many times that it became obvious to everyone (professionals included) that she was a little addled. What a shame. Whenever I discuss color, I always remember that lady. Following the focus-group's advice, Acer opted for a monochromatic lineup... and quickly disappeared from the U.S. market. The 1996 Aspire was a one-year-wonder, and color was a big part of that success. More recently, with the hot pink Razr, Motorola showed a little more daring... with sensational results.

So why are we so conservative about color? First, not all of us see colors the same. Then, think about this: Some 10% of men are color-blind, yet 90% of those with executive power are men. No wonder the color game often played in front of a hostile crowd. In addition, colors are emotional and intuitive and our system doesn't like to assign decisions to the gifted few who have the talent and intuition for it.

In Italy, for example, you can see public objects with a variety of sophisticated color schemes. Why? Because Italians have an appreciation for color in their blood. Visiting Rome I could not contain my excitement seeing the local garbage squad's uniforms. NASA would have been proud to have such cool hot astronauts. The bright orange, red and silver suit (yes, suit) looked more like a fashion statement than a garbage garment and yet it was functional and allowed for personal flare.

Italian Streetworker

Finally, colors can be tough to reproduce. Unfortunately, the more nuanced the color, the tougher it is to maintain its integrity from one production batch to another. The toughest, actually, is gray. It's a mix of many colors, and can easily shift from warm to cold, from deep to flat.

cyan My current love affair is with cyan. It's a wonderful color bright with optimism and progress. A young, budding blue, it's unique enough to have some green overtones, yet sophisticated enough not to be just green. A few years ago I had a fling with red—the magenta side, not the Ferrari side. I liked its sweetness and softness. Going all the way to magenta would have been too suggestive; just in between was a great combo of flamboyance and maturity.

Fresh green is cool too, as long as it doesn't get too limey or acidy. Fortunately, it's also a color that is easy to reproduce.

There's no reason we can't rekindle our love affair with color. After all, the one area of design that the car industry has gotten right has been color, which demonstrates that, given options, lots of folks would choose for something beyond black, white and gray. Let's freak out and imagine our streets colorful like the Italians would!

Read more of Gadi Amit's The New Deal blog

Gadi Amit is the president of NewDealDesign LLC, a strategic design studio in San Francisco. Founded in 2000, NDD has worked with such clients as Better Place, Sling Media, Palm, Dell, Microsoft, and Fujitsu, among others, and has won more than 70 design awards. Amit is passionate about creating design that is both socially responsible and generates real world success.