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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