Early this year, Danish sculptor Jens Galschiot and his art workshop, Art in Defense of Humanism, decided to make a statement at the Olympics in Beijing against China's human rights violations. Since overt activism was essentially banned, Galschiot, ever the artist, turned to color as a covert protest. He and his followers encouraged everyone - athletes, spectators and organizers - to wear or carry something orange in a country that revered red. The Color Orange Project garnered modest support at the Games, including from runner Usain Bolt, who wore an orange bracelet during his legendary 100-meter sprint. But sadly for the activists, press attention was scant.
Galschiot's project did succeed in exporting orange - "Red that has been made more human by the color yellow" - as a nonverbal political messenger on the modern global stage. Big surprise: Marketers and media were already there.
Orange may look like an innocent alternative to mainstream red, but don't be deceived: It is an incendiary color, shorthand for energy, youth and alternative thinking. Orange, like green, is not one of the primaries; it is a step apart from the mainstream, from the status quo. Orange is youthful, energetic, has no apparent sense of heritage and doesn't seem to care. When Entrepreneur magazine devoted an issue to young millionaires in September, it draped its newsstand covers in an eye-popping shade of orange.
Today's orange is always bright. It's not the tangerine and peachy tones of women's and food magazines. This is a sporty, edgy orange. It is the dripping soda-pop orange that saturates AT&T TV spots and backlights some of the better iPod ads. ING Direct's nontraditional online savings account is called Orange. The hue seeks to convince you the brand is hip and progressive, and it doesn't have the overhead and costs of old-school banks. It makes banking exciting with "Electric Orange" paperless checking accounts.
Ignited, a youth-oriented digital agency in Los Angeles, opted for fiery orange as its signature color. Design director Oogie Lee says, "Primary colors are fundamental and conservative; orange represents vibrancy and energy," which is why tech startups love it. It's also friendlier and more playful than red - "more casual and innocent," Lee says. That can also translate to naïve and immature - not sexy, sophisticated or formal enough for grown-ups.
Designers have said pink is the new black - the go-to color for cool design, says Lee. "Now orange is turning into the new pink, with the threat of becoming a cliché."
Maybe it already is. Politicians have taken to wearing orange as a cue for innovative thinking - especially when they are seen as offering just the opposite. Hillary Clinton wore an orange-ice-cream colored pantsuit for her rousing, campaign-closing speech at the Democratic convention. John McCain wore a bright orange tie as he was trying to explain away the Wall Street meltdown under the GOP's watch.
Wired magazine's explosion on the scene in 1993 put a spot of bright orange smack dab in the middle of the U.S. media map - along with neon pink, lime and yellow. They were the visceral, unfettered colors of the new grassroots Internet world. Bold layouts were the vessels for the magazine's libertarian, utopian exhortations, and the fluorescent inks were as lauded and disdained as its message.
Flash-forward a decade and Wired and its experimental colors had become part of the establishment. Cingular, with roots in Wired's hometown, was splashing its orange icon over everything that moved, taunting Verizon's red and AT&T's blue. Some say that it was a sign of the upcoming iPhone deal that after AT&T bought Cingular, it subordinated its true-blue heritage for trendy orange.
Brand color consultant Cheryl Swanson of Toniq thinks orange's best days are still ahead of it. Its use tends to be limited to fashion and technology, she says, and it could be much broader. Orange is an alternative to "our [American] cultural identity colors of red, white and blue. It could be a key differentiator for U.S. entities that have a personality consistent with the more global color," she says.
Indeed, orange - as a concept - was powerful outside the United States long before the 2008 Olympics. In 1994, a new UK mobile phone network called itself Orange and backed it up with a square orange logo and the slogan, "The Future's Bright, The Future's Orange." France Telecom eventually bought the network; today, Orange handles mobile and Internet telecom services throughout Europe. (In France, it's the exclusive carrier of iPhone, tied to orange-loving AT&T.) ING is Dutch, and the Dutch love affair with orange has its roots in the 1500s.
Lars Bastholm, AKQA's Danish creative star, jokes that he once worked with "an art director whose every design would be some variant of orange and blue. But it's probably because he's half-Swedish."