By Stephanie Tom
When we talk about targeted advertisement, we usually talk about college students being consistently barraged with YouTube ads for Grammarly and Chegg. Or parents of young children being assaulted with ads for Disney+. Or Americans with McDonalds. But we never talk about Pantone, which is why, when they dropped their announcement for 2020’s Color of the Year last December, I was surprised to see my familiar niche of Twitter all abuzz about it. What was so special about the color blue, and why was Twitter—of all social media sites—the one reacting to it the most gleefully? It’s not like it’s a strange color to see over the web. (A recap and simpler guide to your online blues: LinkedIn and Facebook are for professional faces, Instagram is better known as one’s personal photography portfolio, Twitter is for your best one-liners and hot takes, and Tumblr is an abyss of your past and present teen angst.) I almost didn’t get it—until I made the connection that the Color of the Year was a “Classic Blue,” the exact shade of the Microsoft Word icon on my laptop. The writer community on Twitter had a field day with it, laughing at the striking similarity between the two colors.
“Proof that Microsoft Word > Google Docs,” tweeted a friend known for exclusively using Word and preferring to fill his desktop screen with hundreds of individual files rather than give them up to the Drive.
“I’m getting anxious just looking at it and thinking about all of my WIPs,” joked another.
It seemed that we all shared a collective love-hate relationship with the color blue, whether it be regarding our specific feelings about Microsoft Word (and thus our writing), or about other corners of the Internet. LinkedIn and Facebook are semi-dark, muted blue, for professional endeavors and updates only (minus the meme groups). Twitter is a bright sky blue, for more unfiltered thoughts, whether they be my own words or a combination of others’. Google Docs reminds me all too much of the Zoom app, in both color and function, meant for schoolwork and academic endeavors. As for Microsoft Word, the only Classic Blue among all of the platforms I use to write, I dedicate solely to my creative writing. Every corner of the Internet has its shade of blue, and so does every genre of my writing.
I thought it seemed funny that Classic Blue would be a “return to the Evening Hours” (as described by a CNN article back in December of 2019 when the color was freshly unveiled.) It’s not just because I tend to hit my stride when writing close to dusk and into the night. I remember learning in my Environmental Psychology class last fall about color theory, and how the majority of people globally (roughly 70-75%) tend to pick a cooler color like blue when asked about their favorite color, rather than a brighter color like red, because cooler colors are more calming. What a coincidence for Pantone to choose a calming classic as we move into a new cycle of life, a new decade. The Pantone Color Institute said it wanted to capture a moment in time, “a color that anticipates what’s going to happen next.” How do we seek a sense of calm and security in a year that has felt longer than the entire decade that has just passed, even without being halfway through?
We return to the Evening Hours. But just what are the “Evening Hours” we talk about? Could it be a reference to the blue found in our fascination with “unnatural nature?” It’s been a growing trend with the rise of popular fantasy, dystopian, and science-fiction screen adaptations—including but not limited to Coraline (dir. Henry Selick, 2009), Tron (dir. Joseph Kosinski, 2010), and Avatar (dir. James Cameron, 2009). If you’ve watched or recognize these movies, then you probably know how distinctively bright blue the tunnel to the Other World was in Coraline, as well as the rest of the scenes in the Other World at night; how sharply the neon blue light panels of Tron criss-crossed over roads and bodysuits of the characters alike; how deep blue the members of the humanoid Na’vi species of Pandora were in contrast to the humans who explored Pandora. There’s something about these genres that make us want to color them blue, to shroud their rebellions and uncertainty in comfortable lights and temporal distance in order to assuage our worries. As if saying, there is nothing to fear. Blue, blue, blue. So many shades, so that, when the camera pans with an ominous ballad, the skyscrapers of the cityscape don’t look any different than the ones we see in our own urban areas. Swimming pools glow neon blue as naturally as they do in the day under sunshine, even when you’re not involved in a clandestine rendezvous to discover secrets. The technology that surrounds you in these films is just as harmless as Alexa when you call for her and she lights up. Dystopias, science-fiction, and their cyberpunk aesthetics capture our fascination, define the unnatural through colors we’re familiar with, and thus turn the otherworldly into something familiar by grounding us in blues so natural to these stories we forget how unnatural they truly are.
Or do the “Evening Hours” refer to the intertwining of public and private personas via social media? It’s especially funny how people tend to spend a lot of their time online in the webspace of social media at night, past the “Evening Hours,” in between work, school, and sleep. In the same vein as cyberpunk and the fear of everyday AI-domination, the pervasiveness of social media and the widespread reach of the Internet in our everyday lives has become commonplace, when a millennium ago it would have seemed laughably impossible. Whether it be Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr—note the commonality of blue icons, if you count Instagram’s old look before it updated—many users feel compelled to curate the most authentic version of themselves to be preserved online, but only in the best light possible, myself included. We are primed to present ourselves simultaneously in both public and private, to be both authentic and polished, yet still unfiltered. We rise in the morning to blue sky, fresh and focused for the day to come and the people we’ll meet, until we return home in a steeping blanket of navy, night creeping in. We have learned over the years to revamp and refresh our outward appearances and the people we present ourselves to be in margins of blue, whether it be the beginning of our commutes in liminal spaces as the sky changes color, or online as apps load to bursting on screens full of our carefully documented days. It’s a confusing dichotomy, but that’s what a varied palette of blue is supposed to be for, right?
And what of the “Evening Hours” when we are feeling blue? I’m not sure of the origins of linking depression and anxiety with the color blue, but it doesn’t take a very large jump to make an association for why this is the case. Blue is the color of safety, for wrapping yourself up in a blanket of quiet and calm. No wonder it’s a common color to represent peace and tranquility, too. Isn’t it interesting how the two share some of the same feelings, yet seem equally to be worlds apart? Some people turn to app icons—blue as a whole no matter how you pin them—for comfort, while others see them as catalysts of negativity and end up feeling overwhelmed? I too hover over the app icons on my phone sometimes, hesitating over whether or not I want to open up a window to the world at my fingertips, full of people yet devoid of physical presence. I wonder why I pause at this threshold of connectivity when I want to feel connected to others yet still feel a sense of dread at this virtual vacuum that has swallowed our lives.
The Pantone Color Institute reflected on this paradox as it “recognized similar feelings of instability gripping the world today,” saying that they settled on “Classic Blue” because it was a shade that offered a reminder of “the reassurance, confidence, and connection that people may be searching for.” I admit, I’m searching for some of that reassurance and connection now, too, especially in the age of quarantine and social distancing, in the time of Coronavirus. Once we left campus for various corners of the country and the globe, we were all left ever more estranged from one another. Spring semester was cut two months short (emotionally, since classes continued remotely post-spring break) and the reality of distance and our tethered connections to one another were thrown into an even starker light. Although I love being at home with my family, I feel a sense of longing and yearning whenever I remember all of the what if’s and have been’s in my memory and camera roll.
The week after I got home, if I were still on campus, I would have seen the pink flowering trees outside of Olin bloom just as they did during my freshman year. Three weeks after getting home, if the semester had continued as planned, I would have gone to see Little Women (dir. Greta Gerwig, 2019) at the Cornell Cinema with some of my friends for a birthday, and then would have gone to see another friend star in Much Ado About Nothing at the Schwartz Center the next day. On what would have been the last day of in-person classes this semester, it would have been one year since my first time celebrating and attending a Kitsch Magazine launch party. In the midst of all these memories, I need only turn to the various blue square icons on my phone and laptop and reach out to the people in them. I share memes with friends via Facebook, call them over Messenger and Zoom, and banter with them over Twitter threads. And every time I see a little red notification next to a blue square, I smile despite myself.
Ask anybody what the color blue looks like, and they’ll all have different answers. Some think of the sky against McGraw Tower on a spring day, some of the ocean, or of Beebe Lake. I think of all of the above, and of every bout of laughter that has come with reaching out to pals via social media, something I have learned not to take for granted. Through the blues of life and love, our calm can be a façade for our sadness and our sadness can be a source of calm. Pantone never could have predicted the world that 2020 has become and the decade it has felt like in the short span of months, but I think they made an excellent choice in selecting the color of the year. In times of uncertainty, we could all use a reminder that there is a chance for serenity and better things to come, even in the face of fear.