In a new content series, Crowd DNA decodes the latest colour trends to unpack cultural shifts. First up, what lies beneath the sunny, happy-go-lucky exterior of Gen Z yellow?
10 January, 2024
Welcome to Colour Me – Crowd’s newest content series, using semiotics to decode colour trends and unpack cultural shifts in the process. Our first instalment focuses on Gen Z yellow, charting its evolution from urgent beginnings to a dreamy rekindling. Bound up with seismic shifts in broader culture, we explore how a colour ascribed to Gen Z – the brash, outspoken kids on the block – lends itself to a sophistication and nuance that goes way beyond its associated years.
A colour held to represent positivity and joy, Gen Z yellow was signalled to be the new millennial pink back in 2017. Ranging from fluorescent yellow to mustard-like tones, what constitutes Gen Z yellow is up for debate but its purpose remains the same; it’s become an expression for an entire generation.
In 2018, Gen Z yellow became associated with urgency-tinged with optimism. We saw Greta Thunberg striking for climate change clad in a bright yellow coat. This was the same year that a critical mass of Gen Zers were coming of age, finding their voice in a world of political turmoil and climate anxiety, and making sure they were heard. Yellow was a loud, unmuted tone, ostensibly well suited to a generation refusing to be ignored. Fast forward to 2021, where Pantone’s Colour Of The Year was the aptly named ‘Illuminating’ – a vivacious, sunny yellow to herald the end of the pandemic, and attempt to satisfy a societal need for optimism and simplicity.
Now, as the global permacrisis shows no promise of resolving, Gen Z yellow has re-entered the fray – only this time, it promises enlightenment instead of false optimism. Below we look at how it has evolved from artificial urgency to a more grounded tranquillity.
Gen Z yellow was heralded as a symbol of optimism and youthful exuberance in the dog days of the post-truth world. The shade – like poster paints in primary school – resurrects the traditional signifiers of childhood with its cartoonish intensity and one-dimensional flatness.
In mainstream culture, Gen Z yellow’s oversaturated and in-your-face palettes are designed to be confronting, reflecting back broader culture’s urgency. Gen Z yellow demands something of its onlookers with the unapologetic, brutal simplicity of its yellowness.
We see how Gen Z yellow is paired with the language of dynamism. It’s there in the blocky, all-capital fonts in Pzaz Breath Spray (see below), with its logo that resembles an energy drink. Or with actual references to momentum, such as ‘On Your Marks’ Ganni x New Balance, above. This colour is more than brash – it’s full of frenetic energy, with no respite on offer.
Of course, you would expect a bright fluorescent yellow to convey feelings of urgency. Yet underneath this energy and force is an almost-garish, artificial brightness. It’s a colour not found in nature. But this is amped up with how references to childhood motifs (eg products that resemble toys and references to children’s films, see below) are paired with this harsh bright light to suggest a surface-level youthfulness. It’s the chromatic equivalent of faking a smile.
In among the paradox of optimism and cataclysm, Gen Z yellow’s double-edged sword merges cheeriness with a call to action, merging the innocence of childhood with experience.
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Starface’s bright yellow packaging harks back to childhood with products that resemble children’s toys, such as Lego
Pzaz Breath Spray’s language of rapidness paired with the fluorescent yellow promises unlimited momentum
Emergently, Gen Z yellow is departing from its cartoonish articulations and leaning into more refined, dream-like expressions that ground us in the present moment. Tapping into the broader cultural appetite for new forms of spirituality and escapism – WGSN and Coloro recently named ‘Celestial Yellow’ as a key colour for A/W 25/26. We’re seeing yellow in a different light, one defined by slowness and blissful presence.
Brands use hazy, lit-from-within visuals to evoke warmth and transport us into comforting, dreamy spaces. The angularity, harshness and the artificiality of Gen Z yellow has been replaced with curvature and roundness (see above and below: Basbas Hierbas, Earl of East, and Kin Euphorics) which tempers Gen Z yellow’s radical edge.
By pairing the shade with other colours (eg warm, neutral, earthy tones) and evoking nature (eg natural sunlight, elemental visuals, yellow flora), this gives the colour new depth and richness. It’s no longer faking a smile.
Meanwhile, varied tonality and textures (eg light and shadow, glistening liquids, silken fabrics) invites consumers to interact with the emerging Gen Z yellow, to counter its predecessor’s 2D flatness with tangibility (eg Givenchy, iPhone, above). This yellow ushers in positivity fuelled by enlightenment, to embrace light and shadow instead of pasting over the cracks with fluorescent paint. We are being steered away from artifice with a yellow that offers depth and profundity by being rooted in nature.
More adult categories like alcohol and dating apps are tapping into yellow to temper their sophistication and refinement with an optimism and a mellowness that doesn’t have to shade into childish tropes – Bumble’s ‘keepin[ing] the love flowing’ implies a lighter and more fluid way of living, whereas Basbas’s ethos of ‘carving out time to appreciate the real experience’ creates a space for consumers to deliberately slow down.
Gen Z yellow has softened its edges and let its guard down. It is being used in culture as a conduit to a more nuanced expression of positivity. It’s stepping away from the fluorescent adolescents and slipping into yellow-bathed spaces with no age restrictions.
Basbas Hierbas tap into glowy mysticism with their recipe for ‘The Fifth Season’ cocktail
Sabine Marcelis’ limited edition lava lamps aim to reaffirm the ‘magic’ of an object whose space-age silhouette might otherwise tiptoe into retro-kitch
Stora Skuggan’s ‘olfactory impression of gold’ marries the elemental with mustard-yellow
Gen Z yellow is a shade packed with rich cultural associations, but comes with a few pitfalls to avoid. Here’s how to leverage Gen Z yellow to your advantage:
Just like Gen Z, Gen Z yellow will go through countless rebrands but its presence in culture will undoubtedly persist. We foresee the shade venturing further into the spiritual, mystical territories that continue to dominate cultural narratives. As the Doomsday Clock edges closer to midnight and storm clouds gather on the horizon – permacrisis, polycrisis, crisis-crisis – consumers will likely be seeking softness as respite. We predict yellow will look even less saturated, more tonal, and more ethereal: a chromatic sanctuary for the weary senses.
10 January, 2024