A funny thing happened in iStores around South Africa last weekend. The new iPad went on sale, and no one noticed. What they did notice, though, was a new version of the iPhone, not with enhanced features, but with a new colour.
The new iPad 9.7” tablet is the successor to the iPad Air 2, but carries many of the same specs as the high-end iPad Pro, without the enhanced price tag. The iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus Red Special Edition smartphones introduce only a new colour.
Suddenly, that is a big deal.
Yes, the vibrant red aluminium finish has been released in recognition of more than ten years of partnership between Apple and the (RED) global campaign to fight AIDS, so it is not merely a matter of cosmetics. However, this nuance will probably be lost on most customers for the device.
In 2017, it seems, new colour options are a prerequisite for high-end smartphones. In fashion terms, colour is the new black. Any colour.
The trend was kicked off in earnest during Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February, when Huawei unveiled its new flagship phones, the P10 and P10 Plus. As this column noted at the time, it was not the advanced camera and other specs that were expected to turn heads. Rather, it was the physical design of the phone, along with a fresh suite of colour options. Huawei had collaborated with the Pantone Color Institute, global thought leaders in colour standards, to introduce new colours not seen before on smartphones.
Pantone Greenery, named the official Pantone Colour of the Year for 2017, was applied to a handset with a sandblast finish, giving it a clean look that it said would reflects the eco-friendly symbolism of green. A new deep blue shade named Dazzling Blue, added to the diamond-cut finish, delivered a subtle glow effect that is likely to make it the most popular shade.
It is rare that colour options are stand-out features for phones, but Huawei pulled it off with its refreshed palate and the ultra-fresh Greenery. The new phones, due in South Africa in May, also come in Ceramic White, Dazzling Gold, Prestige Gold, Graphite Black, Rose Gold and Mystic Silver.
“With consumers increasingly comfortable using colour as a form of expression, we are seeing more experimentation and creative uses of colour,” said Laurie Pressman, VP of Pantone Color Institute, at the launch. “Colour is truly a medium through which individuals can express themselves to the world around them.”
Last month, when Samsung launched its own new flagships, the S8 and S8 Plus – likely to be the standout phones of 2017 – it also unveiled a new colour range.
When it arrives in South Africa on 5 May, a key element of its marketing will be, in Samsung’s words, “a rich colour palette”. It will include Midnight Black, Orchid Gray and Maple Gold, with more colours to be introduced later in the year. The official global launch range includes Coral Blue and Arctic Silver.
While Samsung made less of the philosophy behind its colours, it put as much effort as Huawei into colour as a differentiator and a key element of the phone’s design. In a commemorative book issued at the S8 launch, entitled simply Galaxy S8: Design Story, it offered an echo of the Pantone argument:
“The influence of nature informs the colour palette for the Galaxy S8. Samsung’s Liquid Shade spectrum explores the depth of lustre as seen through the surface tension of a water droplet on metal.”
As abstract as this may sound outside the rarefied language of design, the real clue to the colour explosion in high-end smartphones probably lies in another principle expressed in Design Story – that of neutrality:
“With a strong and flexible but fluid design ethos that blends naturally into its environment, the Galaxy S8 is a device not defined by age, gender or geography.”
In other words, in contrast to a trend over the past few years to define phones according to their target market, the S8 attempts to be all things to all people. The only way to achieve this is to suit all colour tastes. The idea then, is that one of the five distinctive colour options for the S8 handsets will appeal to any of the various gender, age and location-based demographics of people who would be in the market for a high-end phone.
It is clear, then, that as it becomes more difficult to distinguish phones by design – although Samsung can argue that the S8 stands out from the rest – colour will become more important than ever before. Apple has proved the point with the new iPhone Red. There is little doubt that new-look phones ranging from Samsung Coral Blue to Huawei Greenery will make consumers more aware of colour than ever before in the short history of smartphones.