Colour in Modern Design

Every trend brings its own colours, every sensation has a palette. One of the most iconic and important changes to the use of colour in modern design was the palette that the Memphis Group brought in the 80s following Bauhaus in the 20s and early 30s – bright primary colours on everything. They made a vibrancy that echoes throughout all modern design to this day and I’m fascinated by it.

Of course, you can’t think about colour without thinking about traditional painters, all the dark moodiness of romanticism and the depth of impressionism is condensed into the knowledge of the wonderful creators at Memphis. The new movement paired their vibrant colours with a powerful buzzing energy in simplicity and geometry dubbed “post-design”.

Memphis Modern Design
Memphis Objects – By Memphis-Milano

In partnership with the rising pop-art movement which conjures images of Andy Warhol’s electric Marilyns and Keith Haring’s brilliant graphic style and a simple geometry screaming Bauhaus, the Memphis group brought a colourful, vibrating image that virtually defined the internet for the first twenty years of its life. Memphis found a cleanliness that was hard to replicate for so long, in their simple geometry they sought refuge from the work of the period in design. The vibrant energy of this massive wave that was this energetic visual design made a stark contrast from the painterly effects of Mad Men’s 60s advertising and the rebellious photographic work of the 70s, eclectic sheens and bright colours defined this movement and echoed throughout modern design for decades.

90s-2000s: colour became a symbol for the eclecticism that defined the period

Modern design of the 90s and 00s was jam-packed with ripples of the 80s, rock ‘n’ roll and rebellion lay under every contemporary design, pushing the colour palettes out, broader and more extravagant. Like wire, to mold a movement you have to push it past a threshold to reach the sweet spot and change its nature. Colour was pushed beyond extravagance and now has returned to reasonability. For a period, skeuomorphic design and flat design dominated the field and pushed a gamut that is very comprehensible, sensible, harking back to a mix of the insanity of the 80s but adding the sensibility reason of the 60s; following this though we are moving towards a wholly more simple movement, centred on the minimalism and currently populated by pastels and greyscale visuals.

Without a doubt, colour in modern design will fluctuate as does any other trend. The field of design has come through the deep sepia tones of the classical artists through realism, impressionism, pop art, grunge, flat design, skeuomorphic design, pastels and to a thread that has been growing to the point of inevitability: simplicity. Here we rest, anticipating the thing that will next define popular design for years to come.


For more of my thoughts on colour: Case Study: A look at Google design theory

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Case Study: A look at Google design theory

Since the late 2000s, Google has created a standard across their platforms that has revolutionised visual design on the internet. Google’s branding is unique and distinctly noteworthy because it was a revolutionising force in the development of the Material design style, creating principles and effectively leading the way for a huge proportion of web design at the moment.

google logo
The Google logo embodies the guiding principle of material design: create a visual language that synthesises classic principles of good design with the innovation and possibility of technology and science

The logotype is the start of this idea. Material design basically revolves around the principle that everything on the screen could be represented by a real world material, you can see it in every level of Google’s platforms from the cards in Google Now on Android pictured below where each card represents a piece of real world cardboard, they don’t overlap with other cards and they have their own natural motion. The cards play a subtle role in a much grander scheme by Google to create a unified visual system and a material metaphor as the unifying theory of a rationalised space and a system of motion for their products.

Google Now on Android is a prime example of material in action

The masterful intricacy of material design is its simplicity. Its function is based on the oldest design principles and having been intricately mapped out in every detail in Google’s breathtaking design manual this systematic design offers an unrivalled coherency heretofore unattained.

Google pioneered a style being adopted everywhere across the web from music sites to registration forms and personal portfolios. In their total market saturation and thoughtful deployment, they made a brand that couldn’t be missed and never left your mind: they copyrighted an entire medium and made an unforgettable style. It isn’t just the distinct character that makes this style so perfect, its the thoroughness, the attention to detail and the rigorous assistance Google developers are willing to provide to get their brand out there. The material design website has a gallery, colour tool, remixer, resizer, device metrics, dynamic stage, icons, guidelines, a list of material components… it goes on and on: basically, the developers are keen to get their image out there. It’s this that empowers their movement over Apple’s frosted glass, brushed aluminium or any grappling movement or trend, why polygons came and went, why Google, a single company – however powerful their influence – can create a design movement already considered timeless.

Google’s design is remarkable. The system factors in perfect white space, usable margins, readable sizing, precisely-designed layout, eye-catching colours, satisfying graphics and smooth motion: a usable system that inspires and enraptures.

Comparison: Frederick McCubbin and Jan Senbergs

Two periodically different artists: Australian Impressionist Frederick McCubbin and Contemporary painter Jan Senbergs both paint on beautiful subjects and create magnanimous work but they are closer than you might expect in subject matter. Frederick McCubbin and Jan Senbergs discuss loss, sacrifice, hope, desperation and humanity to great effect across four paintings.

Frederick McCubbin’s work represents the culmination of a very important part of Australian art in the late 19th century. His triptych, The Pioneer is a carefully measured painting. Sketched and resketched, painted and repainted – it offers a powerful story common to many people of its time. It shares the story of migration, settlement, new lands and lost faces. It is reflecting “the self-conscious nationalism of the years immediately following Federation” (National Gallery of Victoria, 2014).

Frederick McCubbin the Pioneer (Image courtesy NGV)

Visually, the first panel uses darker tones, rougher blending and a stretched – almost dragged out – feeling through its structure. Subtle elements colluding to offer a kind of misery, worry and faded ambition unique to settlers of a new land, farming the edges of an outward-bound colony. This was the bleeding edge of Victoria’s settlement, mere decades after the land was discovered by Europeans. The face and body language of the woman here show the uncertainty of her world, she mourns for her soul and her future, gazing sadly towards it, still yet unknowing.

The horses in the background complement this idea and bow their heads both eating and mourning. The man here too offers an empathetic glance towards the woman – presumably his wife. The lives of these people are not wonderful or ambitious but reflect their time: modest, frugal and careful. The only evidence to counter this point is the woman’s rich green dress, made from velvet or fine cloth portraying some value to the viewer almost as a glimpse into her luck and her wealth, her promise for the future. It is as if she is dressing up for a welcoming, showing the trees and the land her good side, by doing this she is identifying with a suggestion of tradition also reflected by the classical triptych format, elevating “the status of the pioneer within Australian art history” (National Gallery of Victoria, 2014) to an almost godly level.

The second panel is far more optimistic, the drastically lighter chiaroscuro on the trees and the new house in the background with the glow on the ground immediately gives a sense of optimism, success, comfort and warmth. The glow in the ground here is provided by an extra layer of white lead primer which McCubbin was typically known to experiment with (Whitelaw, et al, 1993). I find that the effect of this brightening, firming, relighting action is one of hope. A baby is added too, offering promise, future and warmth through affection and family; the woodsman’s hat is removed, symbolic that he is at home.

The trees are given sharp but fluid and natural lines, the scraping, rubbing techniques of the left panel are replaced in parts with use of a brush. At the same time, more vivid energetic colours with these new techniques work together to offer hope, concretely embodied by a smoking house in the near background. A kind of story forms between these two parts of the painting, the cart becomes a house, the fire burns without being watched, a baby is born, a tree is felled: hope arrives. The wistful look of the key figure though is kept, though now it is not the woman but the man, wearied and bearded: wiser by his time, having lain down his axe. He thinks, perhaps on his wife’s worn green dress, held constant between the panels.

The third panel is one of both sadness and happiness. The gap in the trees is widened, hope blossoms and civilisation appears but a young man inspects a grave, a symbol of the passing of time, the passing of lives. He is wearing a hat not unlike that of the man in the first panel, potentially drawing a paternal link. The young man’s remembrance on the right who now is a pioneer again, rediscovering land once owned by the mother and father, revisiting the resting place of his father.

The narrative developed between the first two panels is extrapolated again, what was once a simple cart is grown to a house and then to what is recognisably Melbourne – a detail only added by the suggestion of an auctioneer after its production for sale in 1904 (Whitelaw, et al, 1993). The growth and fluid narrative in this three panel piece is symbolic of the immense prosperity of the time, following a gold rush that brought Australia to the front of international focus and on par with countries across the world that had been settled for hundreds of years, this painting is a symbol of the new hope so integral to many people’s decisions to expand, to grow and remains an ongoing theme today. Where I find myself migrating across the nation from Canberra to Melbourne it is influenced by the same ideas as this painting, a brighter hope, a greater good, a more prosperous future. Yet I am still only one tiny part of an enormous movement: as numbers of refugees and asylum seekers entering Australia today grows so does our recognition of McCubbin’s sentiment in the Pioneer that we must sometimes lose something so dear to us and invest in a great future enough to lead us forward. A contemporary spin on this idea does not change it for it is immortal and echoed throughout history.

Frederick McCubbin – Lost (Image courtesy NGV)

In Lost, McCubbin uses many of the same techniques to create a sense of anxiety, worry and serene exposure. The painting reveals a very calm setting, still and unmoving through lines drawn vertically preventing movement left or right, like a jail cell confining the most free in nature. He paints a pregnant figure in the focal area of the painting raising her hand to her head as if wiping tears or sweat away, where the Pioneer used darker spaces to paint a darker mood, surrounded, entrapped by trees but still held in open spaces. Lost has a structure and cultural context not unlike that of the first panel the Pioneer, it shows exploration framed with anxiety and worry for the future, a pregnant woman is amongst the trees worried for herself, the trees are not just trees but embodying Australia and she is not just herself but the promise and potential of new industry in a new land: Terra Nullius.

The careful yet fluid, sharp and vibrant strokes McCubbin uses not only with a brush but with cloth, palette knives and even his own finger are indicative of not just his supreme skill but the amount of detail and precision in the painting and as such the importance of every framed element, from the peeling bark on the foremost tree to the glint of promising sky behind her, the painting conveys precision and care in what seems to be a careless organic splatter of elements across the canvas, an element shared in the Pioneer in a way not found in all landscapes from the Heidelberg movement. While his strokes are visible they are not emphatic or excessive, using subtle movements to draw on the beautiful natural forms of nature, indicating – amongst the first of Australian painters as part of the Heidelberg school to paint en plein air – the raw beauty of Australia’s beautiful unrefined nature. This same idea of intimacy within the environment is evoked by the proximity of the painting, from a perspective amongst the trees as opposed to outside or above them “conveys the sense that this generation of painters felt that they ‘belonged’ in the Australian bush” (Astbury, 2007)

With this new cultural movement of a recognition of Australian beauty comes the development of Australia’s personal identity, the mateship and loyalty so commonly identified with our soon-to-be ANZAC legend and other key works from the time like Shearing the Rams by Tom Roberts or A holiday at Mentone by Charles Conder which all work together to strengthen this important identity inspired by collaboration, teamwork, mateship and loyalty. This entire episode is the maturity of a defining Australian movement and still relevant today when we look at the way our younger generations continue to commemorate the ANZAC’s.

Jan Senbergs – Lost (Image courtesy NGV)

Senbergs in contrast uses bright electric colours or flat monotone ones to convey a mood, an energy natural to an environment and furthermore a time and place. Fire and Smoke is a prime example of this electric mood, a vast swathe of oranges and blacks behind a cloud of murky orange-white blended carefully with a cloth or sponge all collaborate towards an energetic almost drug-like vibrance that causes the image to move and swirl, as fire really does. This confronting motion causes an unease, almost fear but in the same way a deep engagement with a faceless painting. If you interpret the stalks to be cultivated plants of some sort – wheat or barley or the like – you feel pain for the farmer who so carefully tended these or if not this then for a forest now lost to the raging fires but Senbergs holds this ambiguous by painting with broad strokes, both careless and natural but careful enough not to distinguish them. The angle makes it seem as if they might be crops but the forms of them indicate a tree or bush and the loss of colour to the electric oranges and whites of the fire leaves this ambiguity in the hands of the reader so as to evoke both pains. Where McCubbin used fine, careful movements to depict a moment of inquest, colours darker than life to intrigue worry Senbergs uses gestural painting, fluid but aggressive strokes to give a much brighter, more alive concern. Still even and equal but louder and more energetic.

Senbergs uses the painting to convey a message comparable to McCubbin’s; a way of life is at threat: change is due. In Australia fire means destruction and rebirth, for a farmer shock, but for revitalisation of land, for a bushman new sprouts and fertile soil. This very idea of loss and sacrifice for fresh start is so obvious in the Pioneer where a couple have left their home, sacrificed it for a new life, revitalised in the Australian country to be a part of a new city. Senbergs paints the same idea but in the form that nature offers it: as a destructive fire burning up the labours of man. This was in a time of new things, the dawn of the internet, a new kind of contemporary art rooted in a continuation of Marcel Duchamp’s idea of readymade, almost a loss of high art and refined brushwork like McCubbin’s, this is subtle but present in his work where his clouds of smoke are so heavily emphasised taking up two thirds of the canvas, fluid and natural with all the care of a modern Impressionist: as if high art itself is burning and in the foreground the rough gestural strokes are already burnt as if once they might have been Frederick McCubbin’s landscapes but now are reduced to these stalks bare of any refinement or focus.

We all experience at some point in our lives great sacrifice, applying for a new job, emigrating from one mind-set to another, moving to a new place, every risk and every decision we make we sacrifice something – this sacrifice, our ability to deal with it, the risks we do take define us and characterise who we are. I look inward and see sacrifice made often and wisely but I also see sacrifices made unnecessarily or unwisely but we cannot define ourselves off just this, it is personal and unique what we do with ourselves and again fundamental to our personal identities the risks we take, Fire and Smoke is a tableau of a moment within a risk, the burning of a field which is a loss but could well be sprout to a great and wonderful forest.

Jan Senbergs – Copperopolis (Image courtesy NGV)

Senberg’s 1993 piece Copperopolis is another painting which features loss. It shows sacrifice but not in the same way as the other paintings. In fact in Copperopolis it is the opposite – where it was not long term but instantaneous success which the protagonist sought, almost balancing this idea of loss now for gain in the future with this instant gain and long term loss. The painting depicts what was once a town, then a mine and then a dilapidated skeleton of a place. It is rendered in monochrome warm greys with little to distinguish forms but dark lines and rough shading. The detail of the painting is distracting and beguiling, drawing the eye from point to point without letting it settle on any one detail: a parallel with the cluttered chaos of life in copper mining – a subtext brought on by the title of the painting. This same detail is focused in the middle by convergent lines leading into an hourglass structure – as if the passage of time would steal the industry’s success or the wealth of underground copper – where yet another tumbledown mining outpost lays abandoned and grey left for the elements, a technique used in the Pioneer too. The centre panel of the Pioneer uses these concentric lines and favourable light to draw attention to the house, giving a sense of hope and reassurance, that contrast draws attention to the polarity of these two paintings, where one instantly reassures, another foretells a dark and gloomy future. In partnership with Smoke and Fire these two paintings both offer destruction, but in vastly different ways, one is greeted with instant destruction for long term reward but the other for instant reward in return for long term destruction, a powerful juxtaposition integral to the message of the artist.

These paintings touch deeply on paradox, loss and a journey and have thoughts from their own times that are applicable to all time and all people. Each embody sacrifice in their own way and address key ideas and themes common to all living beings. Frederick McCubbin and Jan Senbergs in similar but also greatly contrasting ways capture a lot about the human condition and the everyday life of humankind.

Note: this was originally an essay and has been reduced/modified for online use.


Frederick McCubbin and Jan Senbergs

Astbury, L., 2007. Memory and Desire: Box Hill 1885-88. Australian Impressionism, October, pp. 49-56.

Bunyan, M., 2016. Exhibition: ‘jan senbergs: observation – imagination’ at the Ian Potter centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne. [Online]
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National Gallery of Victoria, 2014. Work of the Week: Frederick McCubbin, the Pioneer, 1904. [Online]
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Stephens, A., 2016. ‘It is very hard to think these days’: Jan Senbergs stays true to his art. [Online]
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Whitelaw, B., Payne, J. & Leahy, G., 1993. The art of Frederick McCubbin: a view of his materials and technique. Art Bulletin of Victoria, 1 August, Volume 33.

Frederick McCubbin and Jan Senbergs