The internet is supposed to be fun. Firefox gives color to the gray world of browsing with seasonal shades and a new collaboration with former Nike sneaker designer Keely Alexis.
As she began hunting for what brings people joy, Ingrid Fetell Lee quickly discovered the power of color. According to her, it starts in our DNA. Spotting ripe fruits and tender greens among the trees was an evolutionary advantage, but it took a series of genetic mutations spanning tens of millions of years before bichromatic humans developed color vision. Now bestowed with the gift of seeing color, the gradient of grays transformed into a rainbow of hues.
“Of course, we don't look at a brightly colored wall now and think ‘I'm going to eat that,’ but because of how our brains evolved there’s a primal feeling of energy and anticipation that we get from seeing bright color,” said Lee, designer, author and founder of the Aesthetics of Joy.
Color is a nourishing source of joy we see in nature. Conversely, in digital environments—where people inhabit most of their day—is a lackluster metaverse decorated in monochromatic grays. Despite the myriad advances since the personal computer was invented decades ago, the same color palette that plagued its original design still remains in today's upgraded versions.
The internet we know today has evolved from a place to perform a specific task into a thriving, creative, (dare we say it) essential platform that touches most aspects of our lives. For that reason, Firefox decided now is the time for a more colorful web, one that can spark joy and offer a richer user experience.
Firefox has answered with colorways, a new browser feature that brings the internet to life with color. Firefox users can now customize their browsers by choosing from seasonal shades and limited-edition color drops (and change them as often as they like).
“Privacy has been part of Mozilla’s vision from day one, and now we’re making the connection that a safe and joyful internet is a colorful one,” said Mikal Lewis, senior director of product management at Firefox. “We know we are spending more time in this digital ecosystem—not the concrete jungle, but the digital jungle. So much more of our life is flowing through what have historically been these gray boxes. And we don’t really tolerate this type of what I would say are one-size-fits-all tools anywhere else in our lives.”
Behind “Independent Voices,” the new Colorways drop, is streetwear and sneaker designer Keely Alexis. In choosing to work with Mozilla for her first collaboration with a technology company, Alexis—best known for the Air Jordans and other sneakers she created at Nike—created bold and vibrant colored themes, Colorways, based on values she shares with the company. “‘Independent Voices’ are the voices of the past and present that create a better future,” she said. “I chose this [analogy] as my inspiration for the collaboration because it feels authentic to me but it also aligns with Firefox and the vision that we can make the world better, on the internet and beyond.”
Why the Web Is Gray
Our innate captivation with color is a key reason, a bit paradoxically, for its limited use in the digital environment. As technology developed, it took its cues from a technical culture in the throes of efficiency (often defined by a minimalist aesthetic at the mercy of improving upon predecessor versions, instead of disrupting all prior designs of cyberspace).
The somber tones that plague digital design have a parallel to modern architecture: design in the service of efficiency, reduced to its most simple form. The modernist movement of the early 20th century turned sharply away from superfluous decoration, including maximalist “ornamentation” (think of turning away from centuries of maximalist decoration: chinoiserie, art nouveau, the arts & crafts movement, etc.). Lee referred to “Ornament and Crime,” a manifesto in which architect Adolph Loos decried the use of decoration for decoration’s sake, in favor of useful objects as influential in the shift toward rectilinear buildings that were reduced to the most simplified form with no “unnecessary” features. The theory was that only those who lacked restraint—children and people in non-Western societies—favored overtly decorative design fraught with unnecessary use of color (color used without purpose or intention).
“Holding back from ornamentation was a sign of spiritual strength, so if you paraded conspicuous decoration overwrought with an abundance of color, you were basically showcasing your own moral weakness,” said Lee, referencing Loos’ essay.
The shift toward full blown modernism manifested the notion that “Modern” people stray away from conspicuous decoration and therefore overuse of color, which became a trope in modern culture. Restraint use of color and minimalism became the status quo among those who considered themselves arbiters of taste. Architecture and interior design embraced a restrained use of color.
The rise of the pared down aesthetic neatly dovetailed with society’s growing obsession with productivity (think of Le Corbusier’s search for standardization, and standards lead to perfection). In the drive for maximum efficiency, places from factories to call centers to offices to homes were designed for productivity—in work and in life. Workers were viewed not as individuals, but cogs in a machine that companies could endlessly fine-tune.
“A lot of us have been made to feel that the use of color is unnecessary or immature, and so we tell ourselves that we should limit our use of color,” said Lee. “I think that has also influenced the development of technology.”
Beyond Function to Feeling
Beyond the cultural narrative, technology’s muted palette is primarily the result of choices made for the purpose of functionality. “Nature does a really good job with color—it’s harmonious and nuanced,” said Amber Case, a cyborg anthropologist and UX designer. “But in the human world, we have a lot of supernormal stimuli, so we design first without color, then we can add color to it.”
Once functionality is achieved, the addition of color becomes deliberate (and secondary). Designers add color to guide people’s attention and prompt action. “The people who are best at using color online are obviously advertisers,” said Case. “They know exactly what color to use to bypass the ego and frontal cortex to get people to take action.”
Those bright “buy now” buttons and banner ads succeed because of the deep connection between color and human emotion. That link, however, also undermines some of the theories that led to dull-colored virtual environments. Stripping an environment of distractions to enhance productivity is, at best, partially viable. There are some good reasons to limit distractions in digital spaces. For example, subdued colors on a website or platform can help backgrounds retreat, keeping the focus on content. Conversely, the pinging and popping of notifications can also negatively impact concentration.
Some “distractions,” however, boost our mood and productivity. At the top of the list: the right balance of color and light. Colorful artwork on walls and windows that reveal a glimpse of sky or trees can reenergize people throughout the day. “You can't sit for eight hours a day and stare at the laptop,” said Lee. “We know that people perform better, and are actually more productive and more efficient when they have ‘distractions’ that are beneficial.”
“Research from several countries,” said Lee, “concluded that people in more colorful work environments are more alert, confident, friendly, and joyful than people working in drab spaces. Those studies were conducted in physical environments, but I have to think our response to it is so deep and so hardwired that it would apply in the digital realm.”
Firefox’s research confirmed that to be true:. “We identified color as a way to connect with people across all divides. It is a universal language that transcends the boundaries of our diverse verbal languages,” said Lewis. Early tests of the concept were resoundingly positive, and Firefox decided to include the option in future releases for desktop (and to change the typical language associated with technology’s look and feel). Wallpapers adds color to mobile with a limited edition “Independent Voices”-themed collection, aligning the platforms.
“We chose to call it ‘colorways’ rather than themes to show we are branching out from our ‘language of browser’ to speak the language of everyday life and everyday users,” said Lewis. “It feels like a natural extension to allow people to use this tool that they’re leveraging every day to feel like more of their own: to feel fresh, to be exciting, to just bring in that small moment of delight to their day.”
Building a More Inclusive Web
The appreciation of color may be a human universal, but preferences, even perceptions, are highly variable. They can also change with time, moods, and circumstances. When researching a book about sound and design, Case found that people tend to enjoy switching up colors every few months. They grow tired of a shade, or like to align their choice with the changing seasons. In traditional Japanese homes, Case noted, people alter the color scheme in one part of a room as the colors outdoors shift through the seasons. “You may have a home where design is very minimal, but there is a seasonal palette,” said Case. “Not everyone would want a Christmas-colored website obviously, but I liken it to painting your nails to have a seasonal color palette.”
Lee also has found that many people have lost touch with how particular colors affect them personally: “We all have this intuition for what feels good to us, either in our surroundings or in our technology, and because we've been conditioned to accept gray bland interiors and color devoid tech we've sort of lost touch with that intuition.”
In that context, the option to customize a browser with color, such as colorways allows, is not just a playful decorative touch. “I think it's a way to reconnect with our intuition and what feels good,” said Lee. “We’re cut off from it because we live these productivity-driven lives.”
Case argued giving people more choices to design their digital lives is a form of inclusivity. “It’s not the colors themselves that are inclusive, it’s that giving a choice is inclusive rather than people being handed something in the one-size-fits all environment—one that we are forced to live in now,” she said. “The opportunity to allow people to play with color is the kind of thinking that is bringing humanity to a joyous internet.”