Apple sows seeds for colorful new world; Hues: Companies rush to offer goods in bright, transparent shades, hoping for a taste of the iMac's success.


Apple dropped the tutti-frutti bomb a year ago when iMac computers were deployed encased in transparent skins of blueberry, strawberry, grape, tangerine and lime.

Instantly, life as we know it changed.

The fallout from the sale of more than 2 million colorful iMacs realigned target customers, diverted the product design palette to preschool color preferences and cloaked spiritual issues in a colorful shroud of commercial exploitation.

Sounds like a lot to pin on the chromatic difference between tan and tangerine, but there it is.

The happy-color bomb, designed in Northern California Apple labs, targets the most desirable customer -- the trend-setting generations younger than the baby boomers, known as Gen X, Gen Y and the echo boomers. They cruise highways in apple-green Volkswagens, work on blueberry iMacs and use angora-sweater-pink Nokia phones.

"The colors of the new iMacs represent the current demographics of those who are buying computers -- innovators and young-minded people who are open to the use of color," says Leatrice Eiseman, author of "Colors of Your Every Mood." These multihued folks are easy to distinguish from the black-clad boomers driving silver SUVs.

Upon tutti-frutti detonation, the traditional high-tech color signifiers of black-on-black and institutional beige became obsolete. Any company that hasn't changed its hues will get to work on it.

"In order to be competitive, the manufacturers of these things have to think of other ways to make their products more desirable," says Emily Davidow, chief executive of Home Cinema Designs.

Where style used to be dictated by German carmakers and Italian fashion designers, control is now in the hands of Silicon Valley geeks, and the choice of Gummi Bear colors is the dominant influence on consumer goods.

Within months of the iMac's fruit-hued debut, electronics and communications devices were being wrapped in cellophane colors -- rainbow-colored phones from Nokia, cherry LifeSaver colored two-way radios from Motorola. By August, school supplies were encased in similar see-through Crayola-colored plastics, and Target stores were displaying CD players and cameras in eye-candy colors.

What does the trend toward bright colors say about society? For one thing, it says we're happy. The positive appeal of bright colors reflects a childlike sense of expectation and an optimistic view toward the new century. "Optimism has to be expressed in bright colors," Eiseman says.

"Designers are using color more than ever as the hope and prosperity of the new millennium draws near," says Lisa Herbert, vice president of Pantone, a color research and development company.

Pantone coordinates colors so that cerulean blue will be the same blue for printers, painters and yarn dyers. Cerulean is on Pantone's short list of "the five most directional colors for spring 2000." The others are hot coral (orange), opaline green, primrose yellow and toast. It is no coincidence that three of their choices are from the iMac color wheel.

The two most popular colors in a preference study were blue (No. 1) and green (No. 2). A bright, clear blue was the leading choice among trendsetting 18- to 19-year-old men and a light sky blue was popular among women.

Purple (iMac grape) and red (iMac strawberry) are the third- and fourth-most-popular colors.

"It comes as no surprise that Americans overwhelmingly chose the color that best evokes a soothing, calming tranquillity in a frantically fast, often insecure world," says Eiseman, who is also executive director of the Pantone Color Institute. "It may seem a stretch to equate color and design directions with our state of mind and body, but these trends have always reflected society's concerns and interests, and surviving stress is a key issue in today's world."

Bright orange was the respondents' least favorite color, but it has the highest acceptance in the youth market, especially with adolescents. When Apple introduced iBook, the Apple laptop, it was offered in two colors: blueberry, the most popular color, and tangerine, a color approved by preteens.

Was Apple's choice of these two hues, the ones most likely to blanket the age spectrum, driven by demographic preferences?

"We don't comment on our color choices," an Apple spokesperson said.

Nor will the company admit to backpedaling by including a new color, "graphite," in the latest iMac release. The transparent black computer housing looks like a throwback to Italian design. An Apple spokesperson is horrified by the suggestion: "We are not going backward." The graphite color is even more transparent than the fruit group. "It's completely translucent; you see the workings of the machine."

All this twiddling with transparency is on the forward wave, say color forecasters. They predict optical effects will be the next change -- metallics, opalescence and iridescence. After that, they'll fiddle with degrees of transparency with optic shifts, chameleon capabilities and finally, sheer transparency.

Looking for color?

Stroll through the retail aisles and you'll find a variety of products that have adopted the bright colors of the iMac color wheel. School supplies and bath products tend to look childlike in the primary-colored plastics, and furniture made in see-through products looks flimsy. But electronics, such as telephones and CD players, look kinda now, kinda wow.

Seen recently in multiple bright colors:

* V-TECH 900 cordless telephones

* Audiovox CD players

* Southwestern Bell caller ID boxes

* Vivitar 35mm cameras

* Conair trim-style telephones

* Freeplay radios

* Motorola two-way radios

* Philippe Starck chairs

* Authentics chairs

* Scotch cellophane tapes

* Body scrubbers

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