In 1957, artist Yves Klein debuted a series of paintings in Milan. Each featured the same intense, ultramarine shade, a colour he described as “a blue in itself, disengaged from all functional justification”.
International Klein Blue, as Klein called it, was created by suspending pure pigment in synthetic resin, a process he later patented, and which ensured the dye retained its brilliance on canvas. For Klein, IK Blue represented a sense of boundlessness and pure space; and he worked almost exclusively in the colour until his death in 1961.
More than 50 years later, IK Blue remains a source of inspiration for artists and designers: it makes regular appearances on the catwalk, as well as in packaging, furniture and interiors, and even cars (at last year’s Milan Design Week, Ross Lovegrove unveiled an IK Blue concept car for Renault).
In these fields, IK Blue’s appearances are regular, but fleeting. In graphic design, however, it’s a colour that has become increasingly popular over the past five years. Trendlist (trendlist.org), a blog documenting trends in contemporary graphics, contains more than 280 examples of projects using IK Blue, dating back to 2008. Prague’s Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design revealed a striking new IK Blue identity in July last year and in April this year, New York’s Jewish Museum followed suit (CR June).
Each of these projects is visually very different but, in most, IK Blue is used alongside a monochrome palette, or with one additional signal colour – usually red or sometimes, fluorescent green.
It’s unclear exactly how or why this trend came about, but Trendlist founder Michal Sloboda believes it began online. “I’ve seen it in a lot of personal portfolios – you can apply it as a colour wash over photos and posters and it gives great definition. As it’s RGB, you can shut off every other colour and leave just this one, vivid blue,” he says.
Ronny Duquenne, co-founder of Ghent-based studio Ronny & Johny, which recently worked on an IK Blue identity for Beyonderground Festival with Werklig, agrees. “It first became very popular in the use of websites of (mostly) graphic designers and afterwards, found its way to print…we have been using it for quite a while, but have seen it become very popular [recently],” he adds.
When used full-screen, as it was for Beyonderground’s website, RGB blue has a startling visual impact. This intensity is difficult to recreate in print, but Mash Creative’s Mark Bloom, who recently designed an IK Blue identity for media group Kickstart, says it can be more faithfully produced than other RGB shades, which may have added to its appeal.
“Being a traditional print designer, it can often be quite frustrating that some RGB screen colours simply can’t be produced in print. IK blue seems to be an exception to this rule, without having to resort to the use of fluorescent inks. I love the contrast it gives against stark white as it really seems to ‘pop’ off the page,” he adds.
This surge in blue monotone designs may also have been influenced by the rise of risograph printing (CR Oct 12). Riso can’t produce a colour as vivid as IK Blue, but variations have been used in many riso zines and prints. In projects with a limited colour scheme, it’s a versatile choice that’s suitable for both copy and images, a look that in turn inspired other designers using different printing techniques.
Leatrice Eiseman, executive director at Pantone Colour Institute, says the last time IK Blue enjoyed such a boom was in the late 1990s, “IK Blue was associated with the outer reaches…with the advent of the new millennium, people were fascinated with ‘what lies beyond’.” Since then, it has become popular on everything from bottles to planes, where Eiseman says it has replaced red as a signal colour.
Most designers try to avoid being overly influenced by trends, but with social media, it’s hard to be immune. Duquenne feels IK Blue may be reaching its peak – its popularity has stopped him using it on occasion – but for now it seems to be the shade du jour in graphic design.