(And the golden rule to avoiding tackiness)
It’s become blindingly obvious. From rose-gold shoelaces to cutlery that looks like it belongs in the backside of a magical egg-laying goose, metallic colouring is back in vogue. But before we leap to turn our branding, homewares and wardrobes into oversized pieces of fishing tackle, let’s spend a moment exploring the usage and abusage of this shiny new trend and lay some ground rules for navigating its risky terrain.
The rise of shine.
It’s impossible to talk about the rise of metallic colours without exploring the obvious catalyst: the technology industry’s prominent use of them on their products. “The design language of Silicon Valley (influences) other design sectors,” says Fast Company, describing the sector’s use of metallic colours as “the ultimate sign of the times”.
Looking back at phones of the early 2000s, the attention paid to the design of gadgets like phones has gotten significantly more sophisticated. No longer are cheap, recyclable plastic frames and rubber keyboards the standard. Instead, glass and aluminium finishes are preferred, making these devices feel more like jewels than portable computers.
Far from being an afterthought, for companies like Apple the design of the device has become a central element to the business strategy. Ben Thompson, the blogger behind Stratechery, called out in 2016:
“The fact that smartphones are such an important part of people’s lives, combined with the fact that physical objects can have additional consumer benefits like status, enables Apple to sell each iPhone with a huge amount of margin.”
With metallic choices ranging from ‘Silver’ to ‘Coral’, everything about Apple’s current iPhone colour line-up seems designed to inject a status of luxury and timelessness into a product which, by design, refreshes every twelve months.
Despite this steady stream of newer models, consumers have embraced these lavish colourways, largely because the company has, for more than a decade now, gone to great pains to instill the phone’s interior with a story of cutting-edge innovation and craftsmanship. Apple is making a coherent symbolic statement; both its hardware and software are of a pristine standard.
It’s not always a silver bullet.
The etymology of the word “tacky” relates to the adhesive, sticky quality of the word “tack”. In essence it speaks to something literally stuck to something else, thoughtlessly. And with the rising prominence of metallics, not every brand’s use of the precious colourways is as thought-through as Apple’s.
A trip to a homewares store reveals a marketplace flooded by brands employing metallics to paint a facade of prestige to everyday consumer products. This tidal wave has brought with it everything from water bottles to throw pillows and even disposable birthday party supplies, all supposedly turned insta-aspirational with a simple addition of a splash of gold or bronze.
In response to the rising trend, colour empire Pantone recently unveiled a “collection of lustrous metallic and pearlescent tones” which comprise its new “metallic shimmers” range. In doing so, the number one ‘colour partner for design’ have armed many-a-brand with an arsenal of precious metallic colours with which to belie less-than-precious surfaces.
Just as it’s Pantone’s job to cater to the needs of designers, so too is it the job of a designer to use their colors responsibly.
A few Golden Rules.
So how does one leverage the precious metallic trend and avoid the inherent pitfalls of tackiness that come with it? The answer is to take a leaf from Apple’s playbook and be guided by the meanings behind the colours themselves.
All precious metallics (bronzes, silvers, and golds) are weighted with meaning; they convey with status, prestige, and scarcity. In short, they communicate quality. Furthermore, their immediate association with the raw elements of their namesakes also means they carry within them a sense of timelessness.
With this in mind, the golden rule for employing precious metallic colours is as follows: is the item you’re coloring and the message it’s sending both worthy of a precious metallic colorway?
A rose-like bronze, used sparingly, can make a festive season invitation feel special, warm and traditional. It doesn’t, however, give off the same effect on, say, a spatula. Silver can instill corporate logo with a sense of understated class. But it’s far from home on a throw pillow bearing an inspirational Pinterest quote. A drop of gold might just be the thing to give your wedding invitation a sense of luxury and distinction. But unless you intend to make a piece of satirical commentary, it’s a questionable color for the handle of a toilet brush.
It should go without saying that less is always more. That said, here I am writing this article. So remember, using metallic colors when the occasion calls for it can help a design connect with its intended audience and fit the right occasion. Using it on everything makes you look, well, kind of basic.