It all started with a viral TikTok video. A video claiming color was disappearing from the world cited a graph suggesting gray has become the dominant shade. The user claimed, “we’re losing individuality and culture from design.” Like what usually happens on TikTok, the trend spread to other videos, and more people began to bemoan the tragedy of a lack of color.
The study that started the minor color panic was from October 2020. The non-peer-reviewed research analyzed colors in more than 7,000 photographs from the Science Museum Group Collection, an archive in the U.K. The objects in the pictures came from 21 categories, the earliest from 1800. The study drew several conclusions, but it was one graph that started the furor among the TikTok design community.
It showed that blacks and grays accounted for approximately 40 percent of all colors in the objects in 2020 compared with about eight percent in 1800. This was primarily attributed to the reduced use of wood and the introduction of materials like plastic and aluminum and products like phones and computers. The study noted that while things appear to have become grayer over time, the photographs they analyzed were mainly a sample of museum objects.
While the TikTok videos and their conclusions may not be accurate, they have a point. Another graph in the study noted that 70 percent of cars on the road today are now black, gray, or white compared to under 40 percent a little over two decades ago. Gray has become the most popular color in branding logos and the second-most popular color in fashion shows after black, according to HueData, which analyzes the web for color data and analytics. Gray and neutral colors have also been much more prominent in home interior design lately, and the most common carpet color is now either beige or solid gray.
This had us wondering about the effects on commercial real estate, particularly office interior design. If gray has become the king of color in our bland modern world, are more offices going gray, too? Not really, according to Katie Buchanan, a Design Director at Gensler who regularly works with corporate office occupiers on interior design. “Gray may be taking over residential design, but I don’t see that happening in office design. Neutral colors are a staple in the workplace interiors, but not a trend.” Buchanan told me.
Gensler’s design studio used to be known for its reliance on beige several years ago, but not anymore. They also haven’t turned to gray in interior design en masse recently. Neutral colors are common for law firms that try to project a more timeless design in their office designs. But many of Gensler’s tech clients have much more color in their offices, and most color choices are based on brands and concepts. Some Gensler clients want to use their brand colors in their office designs, but a color that looks great in a logo doesn’t always look good architecturally
There are some examples of occupiers, though, who insist on using their brand colors in interior design. T-Mobile has always been deadly serious about its trademarked magenta color, Pantone Rhodamine Red U. T-Mobile’s parent company, Deutsche Telekom, assigns a lot of value to it. The company calls the shade of magenta “the most important element of our corporate identity” on a company website that sells merchandise. T-Mobile isn’t the only company to trademark a color. Mattel’s Barbie Pink and UPS brown are also trademarked, and litigation over trademarked colors from the Pantone color system reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1995 in a case between dry cleaner competitors Qualitex and Jacobson Products.
For a company like T-Mobile as enthusiastic about its magenta trademark, Gensler helped them incorporate it into their interior office designs. Gensler has been working on the renovation and re-design of T-Mobile’s headquarters in Bellevue, Washington since 2017, and magenta plays a prominent role. You can find the color and slightly different shades of it on furniture, in the lighting, wall murals, carpets, and exterior illumination. Most of the magenta consists of color splashes here and there and never overpowering, blended in with neutral-colored floors and walls, and open ceilings. The sky bridges that connect the buildings across the more than 1-million-square-foot campus also have a magenta glow. T-Mobile rebranded last year and introduced “New Magenta,” so some more office re-designing may be in the works.
Another example of a tech office project heavily focused on branding is DoorDash’s headquarters in San Francisco. The office has energetic pops of color, sometimes in DoorDash’s signature red, along with an interactive, large-scale map of San Francisco. There are plenty of neutral colors, such as gray flooring and carpeting, but still touches of vibrancy. Colorful wayfinding throughout the office mimics the food delivery process of the DoorDash app (without the fees and surcharges). The curve of the DoorDash logo is found throughout the office in various shades and hues.
Buchanan of Gensler points to the T-Mobile and DoorDash designs as one of many companies today that have become more sophisticated in their chosen colors and how they tell a story. Neutral colors, such as gray, serve as a base color for design but most occupiers, especially in the tech sector, go way beyond that. And while many occupiers choose colors based on brand concepts, they also factor in the ways specific colors will make people feel, or in other words, color psychology.
For example, red is often used sparingly in offices, in muted tones, or as an accent for furnishings or décor. Red is known as the physical color because it provokes physical reactions. Some research has found that red can increase appetite, heart rate, and blood flow, which is why fast-food brands like McDonald’s rely on it. When red is used as a focal color in the office, it’s often considered in high-activity areas or social spots like cafeterias. Blue is one of the offices’ most popular colors for several reasons. It’s said to boost productivity and help soothe the mind. Many offices choose blue hues liberally as primary tones to maintain calm atmospheres.
Gray may be more prominent in other design aspects today, but color choices in the office go beyond neutral tones. If used too much, gray can induce monotony, so even law firms that rely on the color tend to pick certain shades and use them in combination with others. Combined with white, gray becomes a silver shade typically associated with clarity. The contrast of gray and green is also popular because that combo is found in nature. Reports of the color disappearing from the world are probably over exaggerated. Office occupiers are more sophisticated than ever in their color choices, and while neutral tones are always the safest bet, occupiers are looking at the whole palette.