In Western culture, new baby girls are welcomed into the world with rosy pink layettes. Over time, the pale hues of infancy fade away, giving way to more keenly saturated pastels as a child creeps toward toddlerhood. Later, pink is frequently summoned for balloons at birthday parties or streamers on bicycles, for hair ribbons and ballet costumes and Hello Kitty accessories. True, there's Pink Floyd and the Pink Panther (and yes, even Picasso had a pink period) but at the end of the day, the color pink basically telegraphs the XX gene. Progressive thinkers (and the designers who love them) may resist such a gendered historical reading of color but there it is: a girly cliché.
Recently, however, the paradigm of little-girl-pink has shifted, supplanted by a new, more purposeful pink: it's a color that conjures a still-female, yet altogether different message. Today, pink is the color of breast cancer awareness.
In the coming year alone, more than 200,000 individuals will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and 40,000 will die from the disease. What began with a small pink ribbon has grown into a big pink empire, raising funds for research through the sales of a million different pink-branded products and more impoortantly, boosting awareness of an extraordinarily pervasive health issue. Everywhere you look, there is evidence of an astonishing range of partnerships that reveal themselves with more pink things: Neenah Paper, Coach Watches, Wrangler Jeans, Barbie Dolls. The idea that a color has come to instantly represent an extraordinary cause is a brilliant example of the power of design.
And the brilliance here is in the simplicity of the idea: the notion of co-opting a color and making it your own.
Today, thanks to efforts that some are calling "punk capitalism", the color red is being used to help combat the AIDS epidemic. Working with The Global Fund and launch partners American Express, Converse, Gap, Giorgio Armani and Motorola (and "branded" if indeed you can brand a color, which it appears you can by Wolff Olins) Product (RED) is the brainchild of Bobby Shriver and U2's Bono. It's an idea that combines social idealism with grass-roots capitalism, but most of all, it's an idea that works because it's instantly recognizable: merging simplicity with ubiquity, you communicate while you saturate. (Personally, I also love the appropriation of all those verbs.) Pretty basic. And brilliant. Were it not for the celebrity heft included in the campaign (Kate Moss, Jennifer Garner, Steven Spielberg, to name a few) it smacks of the kind of original, if slightly idealistic "better-living-through-design" thinking that characterizes the best in graduate school thesis projects. It's deeply entrepreneurial, this Red project, yet it manages to also be rather enchanting. Their manifesto explains the simplicity of their win-win concept a business model, with heart:
"(RED) is not a charity. It is simply a business model. You buy (RED) stuff, we get the money, buy the pills and distribute them. They take the pills, stay alive, and continue to take care of their families and contribute socially and economically in their communities. If they don't get the pills, they die. We don't want them to die. We want to give them the pills. And we can. And you can. And it's easy. All you have to do is upgrade your choice."
Certainly, other brands have long claimed red as their own (Coca-Cola and Newsweek spring to mind), but this (Red) is different: it claims no material ownership, and paradoxically, might even be described as a kind of anti-brand. (A red iPod nano is still an iPod nano.) Still, red is quickly becoming pervasive, largely due to the instant, global, recognizability of a single basic color.
Which is, of course, highly subjective: one man's red is another man's blue. Or in my case, silver. Many years ago as a young designer, I made a presentation to a client for an identity I'd been working on for ages. The identity itself consisted of two colored squares, side by side, upon which the corporate moniker was to be superimposed. The diptych approach had been approved, but the coordinating colors proved something of a challenge. I paced my presentation slowly, eventually unveiling a particular option that included a silver, metallic square which I had optimistically (and wrongly, it soon turned out) predicted as the favorite. My client frowned. "I don't know about the silvah," she whined to her partner. "The silvah doesn't send me. Does it send you, Oiving?" Irving wasn't sent either. But the silver itself was indeed sent straight to the cutting room floor.
Where interpretation is concerned, no color is more subjective than a primary color. Take blue, for instance: the color of the sky, of the sea, of royalty and flags and navy regalia. With something old, new and borrowed, it's the only color allowed to penetrate the sanctity of wedding white. "True" blue, as it is often called, is the elder statesman of the primaries perhaps because it so unequivocally projects a kind of implicit nobility. Blue says classicism, strength. And wealth.
Many years ago, I remember Paul Rand telling me about a project he was working on for American Express. He created a series of sketches to demonstrate potential color variations for their platinum credit card, and one of them was instantly recognizable almost jarringly so as the trademark aquatic blue of Tiffany & Co. It seemed kind of sneaky, this notion of using a color that so instantly conjured the identity of another company: but that, Mr. Rand assured me, was exactly the point. Tiffany blue said expensive, rich, elite: to cue the audience through the inflection of this particular shade was genius.
Genius it may have been, but Rand's client disagreed. (Speaking of the cutting room floor and rather comforting to know that even Mr. Rand endured defeat, isn't it?) Yet the idea stuck with me. Like breast cancer awareness pink, Tiffany blue says you can't afford me. Like Product (Red), it immediately connects to an idea in this case instant elegance, pure luxury, exalted status the grandfather of bling. Interestingly, "Tiffany Blue" is actually trademarked: it's Pantone Number 1837, which corresponds to the year Tiffany & Co. was founded.
Which makes (Red) and (Pink) all the more remarkable. "Mere colour," wrote Oscar Wilde, "unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways." Unallied with form it may be, but when color connects to an institution, a purpose or a cause, something extraordinary takes place. It goes far beyond branding, because it hints at the emotional degree to which we respond to something that transcends language. To speak to the soul may seem a lofty goal, but it is by no means an impossible one.
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