Despite the limitations of a black-&-white colour palette, it still spawns design and illustration at the cutting edge. Digit examines the appeal of monochrome imagery.
In an age of media saturation, with colours and messages flying at us from all angles, black-&-white still has a strong presence in design. Despite the wealth of colour and printing technologies available, it seems greyscale is still the colour scheme of choice for a wide variety of projects.
Adding colour to a design can make it stand out, create an impact or suggest a mood, but the same can be said of monochrome – sometimes even more so in today’s technicolour society.
A classic B&W movie, for example, possesses a timeless gravitas that many modern movies lack. Modern movies such as Frank Miller’s Sin City, Renaissance, Schindler’s List and Pleasantville all use B&W for various creative effects.
Today’s designers similarly understand the power of B&W. “Full colour is widely used in print and digital media, therefore a bright colour on a piece of design doesn’t stand out and it can simply add to the noise on a Web site or bookshelf,” says Emily Varns, head of production at creative agency Wheelhouse.
“Monochrome work can make a statement because it looks powerful and the lack of colour gives it a stark quality, which can give the design maximum impact. Shades of grey B&W is also a successful means to add mystery and intrigue to an image.
“There’s something about a B&W image that makes you really analyze it,” says Grant Hunter, creative director at marketing agency Iris.
“By stripping out the colour, it almost makes you concentrate on the tone and form in an image. I think however, B&W is mistaken as old-fashioned, but to me B&W can be timeless.”
This timeless and nostalgic power of B&W can elicit a very emotional response. “Look at the way charities or not-for-profit organizations have used B&W imagery in past advertising campaigns,” points out Alberto Chinaglia, creative intelligence analyst at Corbis.
“More recently, the banking industry appears to have adopted fresh usage of B&W photography across consumer magazines. HSBC and Barclays are currently running a couple of campaigns featuring B&W imagery, with their logos in full colour. The use of B&W photography here appears to give more exposure to their brands through the colour contrast.”
Californian illustrator Alex Rinker firmly believes in the creative power of two-tone. “I think that a lot of time the concept has to be stronger with B&W than with a colour piece, and you are forced to think things through a little deeper,” he explains.
“Don’t limit your creativity just because it’s in B&W.” In fact, being limited in your colour choice can have huge benefits for design work.
“Black silhouettes of people can be very dramatic when used instead of the colour alternative, suggests Emily Varns. “A good example of this is the iPod advertising campaign.”
The restrictions posed by the ‘stripped down’ mono palette can produce a renewed creative drive. “Working with a limited palette is one of the best ways to push oneself towards new styles and aesthetics,” says Matt W Moore of MWM Graphics.
“Restrictions and parameters are some of the best drivers for my creative process.” These restrictions might include budgetary concerns. “Printing in two colour is always cheaper than printing in four colour, particularly when that colour is black,” says Emily Varns, whose team has used monochrome in several book designs as well as online banner advertising.
“File size on GIF banners is also smaller as the number of colours is reduced. In some instances cost is a consideration, in others it is because we feel B&W adds high impact to the design execution.”
An extra spot colour can sometimes be used for even more impact. However, there are times when colour just muddies the creative waters. Joe Wade, whose Don’t Panic! info packs carry artwork in mono, feels CMYK printing often lessens an image’s impact and can look blurred and pixellated.
“Large blocks of solid colour rendered in CMYK often looks slightly washed out, as the colour doesn’t remain consistent,” he says. “Black is classic, restrained – evoking shadow plays and cameos.”
Popular artists such as Albrecht Dürer, M C Escher, and Aubrey Beardsley prove that B&W is an enduring look, and everyone from comic book artists, tattoo designers, and advertisers have cashed in on its appeal.
The starkly monochromatic Guinness campaigns are popular examples, and have been influential in advertising and beyond. “As a design milestone, the Guinness Surfer TV ad demonstrates an outstanding use of monochromatic cinematography,” says Grant Hunter.
“It’s a timeless piece. I look at it today and it still leaves me spellbound.” Emily Varns feels that the excellent television and print work Guinness has produced in B&W has had a lasting impact outside of marketing. “I think it made people consider that using B&W can be a choice rather than a restriction,” she says.
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