How Brown Skin in Media is Dictating Color Trends
Originally, I’d planned to write about my prediction that peach or nude (or, really, some hue in between those two) would replace “millennial pink” within the year as the latest trending color on your newsfeed. But while I was dragging and dropping pics from the Web to prove my point, a more compelling pattern jumped out at me. The range of different brown skin tones that I’ve seen glowing in ad images and commercial campaigns lately is impossible, and too irresistible, to ignore. As people of color become centered in more visual communications, the color palettes, lighting techniques and moods we see rising in popularity are composed specifically to suit brown skin. And this is major.
COLOR TRENDS MATTER. NOT JUST AESTHETICALLY, BUT ALSO ECONOMICALLY.
I remember watching “The Devil Wears Prada” for the first time and getting my life over Miranda Priestly’s epic read of Andy when she dared to snicker about the color of a garment holding so much importance (catch the scene here). When Andy naively scoffs that she can’t tell the difference between two belts in near-but-not-quite-identical shades of blue, Miranda schools her about how the very sweater Andy has on “represents millions of dollars and countless jobs” and was, in fact, “selected for you by the people in this room.” Whether on the runway, in ad campaigns, in interior design trends, or in your favorite television shows, color has value across industries that transcends personal preference.
We know that different colors evoke different emotions. There’s an entire psychological basis to how color should be used in advertising or cinematic storytelling. But in an age where we encounter user-generated media as much as, if not more than, we consume mass-produced content, we can see the widespread influence of color trends based on what people share and mimic on their own timelines.
Brands that know what’s best for them latch on. Now that I work in creative direction and branding for consumer product goods, I know all too well what it’s like to sit in meetings for hours with a couple of Pantone wheels splayed out on the table and talk at length about what color scheme our packaging should bear. It sounds absurd to some, but it is that serious. Color trends impact which products will and won’t leave shelves, which content gets clicks, even what food people will eat (think Starbucks’ Unicorn Frappuccino that was trending earlier this year). A commercial brand that doesn’t choose their colors wisely is literally putting their coin at risk.
So, if we’re starting to get used to (and enjoy!) seeing people of color not only represented in visual media, but also styled with artistic direction that caters to our appearance, the economic implication is that mass taste-making industries can either respond to this new demand or lose money. And that means that it’s going to become less and less acceptable among mass audiences for brands to just paste bits and pieces of the cultures of people of color into their visuals without incorporating the people themselves. This is a practice that continuously gets heat in the fashion industry, especially. The evolving aesthetic will demand that you bring the melanin, too.
CENTERING BROWN SKIN IN VISUAL COMMUNICATIONS IS A REFLECTION OF A CHANGING NARRATIVE.
Mass audiences are starting to expect more for themselves when it comes to quality. That goes for special effects in film, storytelling in television, craftsmanship in clothes, ingredients in food, and the list goes on. At the very least, we want to believe that we have better taste in things as a culture, that we’re a little smarter and a little more discerning than we were when advertising was first taking root in America. This means that concerns once relegated to the art world or connoisseur class are fair game for us regular folk, and we’re beginning to vocally critique the way we appear in the images we see. Audiences of color want to see images that are thoughtfully presented. Representation alone won't suffice.
Ava Duvernay shed light on this when she interviewed with Vulture about her directing style on the OWN network drama Queen Sugar.
“Historically, you’ve had really muddy, unforgiving, unintentional images of black people. So I learned a lot from Bradford Young and Arthur Jafa and Malik Sayeed and the great black cinematographers about how to actually light our skin in a way that’s intentional — anyone can do it if you are favoring the darker skin tone. But that doesn’t happen. Only because of the context by which most of these scenes in films have happened for so long. The black character, the character of color, is usually the lesser of the two characters in terms of prominence.” - Ava Duvernay
Duvernay hits on how the story behind the image dictates the way the image is composed. So, as more products, media, and brands are innovated to intentionally reach people of color, we see promotional images that intentionally showcase and beautify people of color. And clearly, there’s a technique to that, which involves deliberate choices about the color, space, and mood in a frame. There’s a rise in visual media that treats brown skin as a centerpiece, not as an accessory, and it’s gorgeous.
AESTHETIC TRENDS THAT PRIVILEGE MORE DIVERSE REPRESENTATION MEAN MORE VISIBILITY FOR ARTISTIC DIRECTORS OF COLOR.
Solange Knowles has art directed several collections for Puma. Melina Matsoukas’ creative flair can be seen every week on Issa Rae’s Insecure, not to mention throughout Beyonce’s iconic visual album Lemonade. I name these two women because they’re a couple of my favorites. But what’s dope is that they’re a part of a growing movement to position people of color in spaces of creative decision-making. I don’t know about you, but it is just glaringly obvious to me when an image, scene or campaign that features people of color has been guided by someone with an intimate, authentic connection to the subject. I don’t believe you have to be black to get black visual storytelling right. But I recognize and appreciate an artist who customizes their technique to suit the skin on screen.
Thoughts? Join the conversation below and invite your people, too!