Burdened with the speculating mind of a design architect, it's hard for me to travel through the built world without constant distraction. Open lots are blank canvas for imaginary projects. Historic buildings beg to be dissected by period and style. And newly constructed buildings demand some kind of analysis. For this reason, when traveling with friends and family, I'm not allowed to drive.
Recently, a handful of new buildings have sprung up in my urban neighborhood in south Minneapolis that keep me thinking long after I park the car and unload the groceries. A new children's hospital sports shimmering walls of iridescent metal panels in vibrant blues, reds and yellow-greens. A senior housing project down the road is predictably clad in brown brick and beige stucco. In the park, new playground equipment blares out across the verdant green turf in glossy primary colors: red, blue and yellow. And a hip hotel downtown has a lobby lined with inky black walls punctuated by white patent leather furnishings, purple rugs, and crystalline lighting in fuchsia and lavender.
What strikes me is how the chosen color palettes of these diverse building types seem to align so neatly with our preconceptions of the age of the user. Pure, bright colors are for children and adolescents. Gothic black mixed with eye-popping hues for young professionals. Earth tones for the senior set. Compare these architectural colors against the enduring fashion trends for these age groups (or product packaging or website designs), and the correlation builds steam.
Is this color bias mere happenstance? A conspiracy? To put it in philosophical terms: Are we, as design professionals, slavishly adhering to cultural stereotypes of color preference based on age, or is there some biological or psychological bias we intuitively obey?
For me, the mere thought that our aesthetic predilections are predetermined by our demographic profile is disconcerting. Can it really be true, for example, that only young people are drawn to Jackson Pollock paintings, or that only retirees would buy a Norman Rockwell wall calendar? (I get one free each year from my Realtor. Is he trying to tell me something?)
According to a mounting pile of research on color preference since the 1940s, evidence seems to indicate that members of discrete age groups really do exhibit collective preferences. In a recent (2003) online research project conducted by Joe Hallock, color preferences have been shown to change with age in regard to favorite as well as least favorite color. Not surprisingly, the findings across multiple studies corroborate many of the color choices made in my neighborhood examples.