How to describe this color palette obsession
March 3, 2021 11:54 AM   Subscribe

My lack of artistic vocabulary, combined with red-green colorblindness for extra difficulty, have produced an impasse trying to describe and learn more about a color palette trend I've noticed (and gotten obsessed by) over the last few years. Details and links to examples below.

Since I don't have the terminology nor deep enough art-historical knowledge, these links will have to suffice. One of the biggest examples that hit me was the palette for the Women's March logo and branding by illustrator Nicole LaRue. I adore that combination of colors. There's a sort of modernity-meets-nostalgia that gives me a visceral, happy reaction.

Similar color designs seemed to spring up everywhere (I'm sure fueled in part by my looking out for it) after the Women's March branding debuted in 2017, and to this day. Below in random order are some others I've come across in the past and more recently.

You'll notice they aren't necessarily the same colors, but these feel to me like they are somehow doing the same thing.

How do I describe this seemingly connected approach? And are there historical periods to look at? It feels vaguely like a late 60s-mid 70s thing to me, back when color palettes weren't so vibrant.

posted by Celsius1414 to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I would call those muted colours with a lot of grey undertones, and sometimes a midcentury feel.
The combination of buttery yellow, rust, and dark blue also has an Arizona / New Mexico / Southern US Indigenous feel to me too.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 12:12 PM on March 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Aside from being a little muted, A lot of those colors are sort of "in-between" colors. There aren't many primary colors. The reds are slightly orangish, the blues are a bit greenish, etc. I think that's what ties some of them together.

Aside from that, I'm not sure how exactly to describe them, other than they definitely have a bit of faux-nostalgic feel. To me, they seem more like WPA-era than late 60s-mid-70s. Here's an example.
posted by jonathanhughes at 12:15 PM on March 3, 2021 [12 favorites]

Best answer: Muted, washed-out, sun-faded, faux-vintage.
posted by cooker girl at 12:31 PM on March 3, 2021 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Saturation probably ought to be mentioned, although I’m not really knowledgeable enough to go beyond mere mention.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:34 PM on March 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It's a definite trend right now, using tints of colors, which means there's quite a bit of grey mixed in to a hue. You can *almost* design something in a more saturated color palette and just blanket add a percentage of grey to it and have it work.

National Parks logos are another example.

You're right that it's very nostalgic/retro. I feel like this modern incarnation might have kicked off with (or at least gotten a big push from) Shepherd Fairey's Obama poster, but it's definitely from a prior era. I would think 30s-40s, as mid-century gets a bit more pastel.

These 1933 World's Fair posters, for example, lean hard into these color schemes.
posted by pixiecrinkle at 12:34 PM on March 3, 2021 [12 favorites]

Best answer: If I'm understanding correctly, the artwork of The Believer Magazine has been doing this sort of stuff for a long time, since around 2003. This is a much earlier example than what you've listed, but it seems to me to use the palette you're describing. Personally, I associate this aesthetic with The Believer's origins in the early 2000s San Francisco-based Dave Eggers/McSweeneys indie publishing world, and the artists within its orbit. Chris Ware might be another example.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 12:37 PM on March 3, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: A knitting blog I've read off and on for ages talks about color theory in terms of juicy and blah, as combos of colors that often play well together. It's been stuck in my head ever since, and I've used it with success. A lot of your example combos are totally juicy and blah.
posted by tchemgrrl at 12:43 PM on March 3, 2021 [12 favorites]

Best answer: You might also be interested in playing around with Adobe's color app. The Trends link at the top, in particular, might help you drill down in this, where you can search the kind of terms people are suggesting here to see if the results hit what you are thinking about. (Warning: this can suck you in hard if you're not careful. In the best possible way.)
posted by pixiecrinkle at 12:43 PM on March 3, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: In case it triggers your brain sparkles, there are some nice articles out there about colour preferences through the decades:

Here's one I like, scroll down for neat preview

Here's another
posted by greenish at 12:43 PM on March 3, 2021 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Some good insights from the folks above, you could also take a look at a site like Color Hunt which is literally a popularity contest for color palettes.

I love color theory and looking at palettes over the years, but I don't think you'll find a lot of consensus in the way designers talk about palettes. The design world is very cyclical, color schemes swing like a pendulum: palettes get popular, then overused, then there's a counter-reaction moving away from the familiar. It's usually not until a few years after a "trend" is fading that we put names on them (and even then, these names are very hand-wavy and hard to pin down).
posted by jeremias at 12:46 PM on March 3, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Most of your examples are explicitly retro. But the general trend of slightly muted/desaturated colors, especially on the web/mobile is driven to a great part by Google's Material Design system and in particular it's 2014 defaults. I don't think Material is the source of the desaturated trend, but when a company like Google picks defaults for a general purpose open source design framework, it makes a big difference.
posted by caek at 1:17 PM on March 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Some of what you've linked to also looks like a "jewel tone" color mixed with a lighter color. If you search jewel tone in Google image, you'll come up with a number of color swatches.
posted by coffeecat at 1:18 PM on March 3, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The colors feel passive but when put next to each other they have a lot of contrast, so they really stand out.
posted by happy_cat at 1:26 PM on March 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This might be too obvious, but almost every combination you shared has navy blue or inky blue and little or no black. The firewatch game and cowboy bebop use brown instead as the dark-contrast color. So then this leads to other interesting options, especially with the peachy color and cream with the blue. If you poke around, you can find some "navy blue is the new neutral" type articles out there.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:02 PM on March 3, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: The palettes also tend to be very "CMYK" (which aligns with the "vintage" or "muted" characterizations), lacking the "fluorescent" and very saturated hues that you can only achieve in RGB space. (This blog post about Garfield has some good, if extreme examples of how this can play out). In a digital setting, that somewhat duller colour space can seem nostalgic without relying on overt pastiche, which is why one example might seem vaguely "70s" and another, similar example might seem vaguely "(19)20's." By a similar token, there seems to be growing fatigue with the de-rigueur hyper-flat and very-digital design of the past decade+, and dipping into colourspace associated with print might be one way to create a more "grounded" or "tangible" impression without violating recent injunctions against shading, texture and "skeuomorphism."
posted by wreckingball at 2:06 PM on March 3, 2021 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks, all! Wonderful, colorful responses! <3
posted by Celsius1414 at 8:47 AM on March 5, 2021

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