Image by Mitch Goldstein and Anne Jordan from walking.designcrit.com

Whither Beige?

I remember a time when most consumer electronics, and virtually all computers were beige. The story goes that manufacturers needed to have an obtrusive, less noticeable color for these new magic boxes, and beige was it. Not white, not tan, not black, not brown — but beige. The un-color color. You would think white would fill that role, but white is actually quite noticeable in how crisp and clean it is; whereas beige just fades away. It can fit in to any decor, it can get dusty without looking noticeably grimy. Black was reserved for entertainment devices, like TVs and VCRs. Beige was the color of computers, of business, of “getting shit done.”

In all of my years as a design student and a design teacher, I can honestly not remember once when beige has come up — as a color, as something to try to get, as a palette. Off-white? Yes. Light yellow? Sure. Dingy gray? Occasionally. But I have never heard “you need some more beige in that” or “have you tried making that type beige” or “you know what would make this really pop? Beige.” Beige has moved from the color of make stuff happen to the color of nothing happening. Beige is now negatively generic. It is the color of nothing. It is visual Muzak. It is a can of government issued beans with a white label and all-cap sans serif black lettering that says “BEANS” — only today that bold black lettering on white would be considered pretty hip design.

We like to say that “______ is the new black” to refer to whatever is now, whatever is hot. But what is the new beige? Will we look on all of today’s brushed aluminum electronics 20 years from now as we surf a history of electronics website on our magenta/tartan/clear/paisley/holographic-colored tablet computer and ask ourselves what the hell were they thinking? That brushed aluminum looks so… beige. And what about graphic design? Sure there are trends and popular movements and predictable elements, just look at Trend List for a sample of current fads in graphic design. But beige is more than just about a fad, it is about a larger shift in aesthetics, in what we want and need not just in a small way, but in a larger context.

I look at the brushed aluminum on my iPhone and I have to wonder: are things already — if I may coin a phrase — beigeing before our eyes?