Grey on grey

Permit this brief, late night post: I've been noticing rather a lot of grey lately.

Quite apart from grey skies: Grey clothes. Monochromatic furniture and furnishings. Silver cars. Gleaming chrome coffee makers, vacuum cleaners and televisions. Smart aluminium encased digital devices; MacBooks, iPhones, and iPads of course, but many other brands too. I'm informed of the existence of a best selling book that references the colour.

I was glad to come across an article in The Guardian a couple of days ago confirming that this indeed a trend: see From Apple products to DIY and fashion: how grey became the colour of the decade. It seems that, '[n]o longer shorthand for drab and depressing, grey has become a fashion colour, signifying good taste.' Good news for me, as I started wearing greys and blacks almost exclusively a year or so back to eliminate the theoretical possibility of injudicious mixing and matching of colours.

Indeed, the piece notes that certain shades of grey are particularly 'aspirational', as demonstrated by their esoteric names: discerning readers might wish to inspect Mole's Breath, Elephant's Breath and Mouse's Back, shades available within the paint and wallpaper store Farrow & Ball's Neutrals range.

The Guardian feature is written for normal people, so website interfaces don't get a mention, but greys, whites and blacks have always been primary colours in the professional designer's palette. Used appropriately these demure shades facilitate the design of elegant, usable interfaces that allow completion of a tasks with minimal fuss.

I'm seeing more and more grey online, and that is generally a good thing. I'm old and weary enough to remember a fashion for beige and canvas colours around the turn of the millenium, and the outbreak of bright pastel shades that characterised the Web 2.0 era. Since then, and we might be thankful, a pacific age of elegant grey tones has dawned.

In fact the prevailing contemporary trend seems to be towards extreme minimalism. The phenomenon of flat design, arguably initiated by the (very beautiful) Windows 8 interface, and later taken up by Apple for iOS 7, is well documented. But a roundup of 20 Minimal Web Designs That Don't Rely on Images compiled by the excellent Chris Spooner that crossed my Twitter timeline earlier this week seems to indicate that things have gone somewhat further.

Have a look: some of these designs really are quite extreme, nothing more than white space, typography and grey and white tones. In most cases, to be sure, nicely judged white space, exquisitely designed typography, and grey shadings of rare quality.

But, I wonder. Is the rigorous exclusion of all imagery from a website layout obviously a good thing? I like clear, uncluttered interfaces. We all do. But if photography and illustration are excised altogether, that leaves typography, sensitive use of whitespace and subtle shading having to shoulder the full burden of generating the site's desired ambience, of conveying the subtleties of its particular message or brand. And to my mind, and eye, that's a rather restrictive palette with which to work.

Painstaking typography, tasteful use of colour and a disciplined grid system are, I'd venture, necessary but insufficent conditions for a good design. Their qualities can best be appreciated when set off against attractive imagery. Well crafted, minimalistic interface elements shine most brightly when they complement good photography and illustration. In the absence of decent imagery an interface starts to look not so much elegant as stark.

Before we go much further down the minimalist road I think we would do well to remember a classic definition of design as a discipline demanding the artful, considered combination of both word and image.