My daughter is 6, and because we're stuck at home a lot these days, we've been passing the time introducing her to classic '80s movies like The Goonies, Back to the Future, and E.T. I was close to her age when these movies came out, so my recollection of some of them is hazy. As I've re-watched them, I've been struck by something--the '80s were a lot weirder than today.
It's definitely true that it would be hard to make a movie about violent-but-goofy crooks chasing around a bunch of unsupervised kids and their deformed but kind-hearted brother today. That sort of delightful weirdness has been largely replaced by a parade of slick-but-safe superhero movies. But it's not just the movies themselves; it's the world they depict.
The past looks inconvenient--Marty McFly skate boards around instead of calling an Uber--but also more colorful. In the decades before omnipresent corporate standardization and big tech dominance, according to '80s movies at least, the space they now occupy was largely filled with humans putting themselves out there in all their diverse, strange, colorful glory.
Is that true? Has our day-to-day world become more bland (even if global news is a roller coaster ride)? Or am I just turning into a grumpy old person pining for the good old days while chasing kids off my lawn? It turns out that on the visual level at least there is a way to definitively answer that question, and a British museum recently ran the experiment.
Our world really is getting grayer.
I came across the delightful analysis done by the Science Museum via the newsletter of Northeastern University Dean Dan Cohen. The museum is home to a treasure trove of technological and household items going back centuries, from telegraph machines to iPhones. What would be revealed if we took a picture of all 7,000+ of them, the museum wondered, and analyzed how their colors changed over time?
The results, published in a fascinating, in-depth Medium post, are a wonderland for design and data nerds to explore, but the basic takeaway is clear from the very first graphic representing the colors of the Museum's collection over time. To the left, where older objects reside, is a riot of color, with a substantial cluster of earth tones representing all the wood, leather, and metal people used to use to make things. As you move towards the right, things get increasingly gray, with a growing stripe of corporate branding blue (more on that here).
"Our preliminary analysis suggests that everyday objects may have become a little grayer and a little squarer over time," the museum concludes. That settles it then. The world is literally getting less colorful thanks to technology and standardization.
That's a challenge for museums that don't want to bore visitors silly with an endless array of black boxes, but for humans looking to stand out and sell things, it might be an opportunity, according to Cohen.
He noted a big spike in reader interest when he first posted about the museum's project. "Despite two decades of social media suppression, there's still a latent, and currently unsatisfied, yearning for the truly surprising, unusual, and unique," he writes. The fact that my family is re-watching The Goonies instead of streaming The Fast & the Furious No. 457 is also a testament to this.
Cohen goes on to nudge readers to actively seek out more of the weird, colorful, and unexpected in their lives, which is solid advice. But if you're a business owner or creator, there's another clear takeaway here too. The world really is too gray, predictable, and frictionless, creating a huge pent-up demand for the personal, surprising, and even downright odd.
Could you or your business be more successful if you were bold enough to be a little more colorful and a little less gray?