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The End of the Rainbow?

by Jude Stewart

Web Trends Map v4.0 by Information Architects, 2004

— Near the beginning of the move The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep delivers a monologue to the young Anne Hathaway about how the “lumpy,” cerulean sweater that she “chose” was, in fact, chosen for her—by the various business interests who make their profits by choosing those very colors. But aren’t our color hungers more complex than that? We’re fed emotionally by certain colors, and then we surfeit on them, as if we’ve been eating the same vegetable for too long. And right now, one such meme has been ascendant for awhile now: what I like to call the iRainbow.

You know the one: a series of translucent lollipop colors crisply arrayed on a white background. It started its public climb with the Apple iMac, evoking a humming technological future where cleanness met creativity, work and play happily blurred, where the pot of gold wasn’t sequestered to the rainbow’s end but instead scintillated, coin by coin, throughout the entire arc. Instead of the jarring Crayola rainbow of childhood, this CMYK rainbow felt subtly balanced in its hues, democratic and inclusive, yet filtered, a humanized take on a silvery Jetsons’ future.

Then came the infographic rush, where a multiplicity of colors took on a necessary function. Colors separated the various data strands from each other more elegantly than other visual cues could. It also happened to be stunning: those meek numbers lit up in so many incandescent hues was, and still often is, exhilarating.

Random Walk infographic from Visualcomplexity.com

Cover of The Visual Miscellaneum by David McCandless, founder of InformationisBeautiful.net

The rainbow-meme’s success bred many cousins, including an interstellar-space variation with colors popping against a black-and-white backdrop. Information Architect’s Web Trends map has become iconic of two memes at once: the rainbow-on-black color scheme, and the subway map as infographic template.

Web Trends Map v4.0 by Information Architects, 2004

GOOD Design Solutions series, 2007

Cover of We Feel Fine: An Almanac of Human Emotion, by Sep Kamvar and Jonathan Harris (2009), from WeFeelFine.org

And so we arrive at the late unpleasantness, the Great Recession, when the rainbow took on a more anxious hue: cheerful, even hectic, hopeful for rosier numbers soon. In an era marked by our first black President, first Hispanic-American Supreme Court Justice, and the (occasionally faltering) advances of same-sex marriage laws, rainbows also spoke of inclusiveness, a roll-up-your-sleeves teamwork required to pull us collectively forward again.

As befits a democratic stamp, the rainbow meme also went mass market, spreading to corporate brands. Brand New’s reviews of the decade’s most relevant identity work and the best and worst brand work of 2009 both feature a fresh smattering of rainbows, with a noticeably middlebrow slant: Altria, Kraft, MSN, the Bahamas, Wacom, TiVo, Meredith Corporation, The Bank of New York.

Charles Schwab’s “Investors Rule” campaign. More here

Still from Honda Accord Crosstour “Boxes” campaign, 2010

What next? One transitional meme popping up many places is the colored-gel effect: two or three interlocking circles distilling the rainbow into an abstracted, steadier, and decidedly calmer look.

Cover of Look Both Ways by Debbie Millman, 2009

GOOD Design ad for the 2010 Sarasota International Design Summit

The coolness of a white background feels frosty, too – as do all the nacreous grays our eyes were drawn to during more turbulent times last year. How about those new neutrals warming up the backdrops, like smooth or felty taupes, peek-a-boo cutouts, wood-grain, or particle-board? It’s a realer, more approachable chaos out there, less virtual and more textured, reduced in giddiness (as befits a post-bubble economy) but also less corporate.

The rainbow’s colors feel less stage-managed, too. One palette jolts with a mix of soft matte and electric hues (including that scrumptious flame-orange and turquoise that I hope to see more soon). Another palette goes paler and springlike, without losing strength (much like the quiet revolution of women taking over breadwinner roles this recession). Another retains the same core colors but shifts their flavor, from glucose to butter.

Frieze’s January/February 2010 issue

Metropolis’s January 2010 issue

Culture Counts UNESCO Poster Competition with Design 21

So you tell me: how do you see the rainbow-meme changing? What forgotten ingredients, recipe-tweaks or adjustments in preparation seem fresh and inviting to your eye?