Adult coloring books are a phenomenon. Three of the top 10 bestselling books in the UK are adult coloring books, and 8 of the top 20 bestsellers in the US. You may be wondering why on earth this would be so appealing to grownups… I’ll get to that. But first, let’s talk about the design aspect and its trending impact.
What Makes These Different?
These are not your kid’s coloring books. The artwork is made up of intricate, densely packed patterns, which offer lots of small areas to fill, versus a few large ones. The patterns are mostly abstract, rather than simple illustrations of recognizable objects, so there’s no right or wrong color to choose. The patterns are also quite complex, which presents more of a challenge, rendering them ‘adult-level.’
The bestsellers feature hand-rendered drawings with varying line thickness, so the results are beautiful, reminiscent of pen-and-ink-wash art from the pre-digital era. Most importantly, they come with a couple of pieces already filled in with suggested colors, to nudge you to complete the pattern.
East Meets West
Some people find coloring in a buddhist mandala to be an easier form of meditation than simply focusing the gaze for extended periods on a finished mandala. However, mandalas—like their Western equivalent, the stained glass windows of churches—tend to be more rigidly geometric, and come with religious/spiritual overtones and expectations. They offer few surprises.
The most successful adult coloring books contain designs that are a combination of two specific styles: Indian Henna patterns and Art Nouveau illustration, plus a narrative element. Why this mix?
Henna patterns entered pop culture via Bollywood movies and proved popular as tattoo art. e.g the “sleeve” of tattoos. Indian art, teeming with abstract detail and fluid, curvilinear elements offered an alternative, exotic look to the older generation’s style of tattoo. At the same time, Art Nouveau re-emerged as a natural fit for tattoos with its easy-to-fill bordered motifs and romantic subjects. The combination of the two styles offered familiarity with a touch of the exotic, making it the most accessible and widely appealing of all.
Both these art styles exhibit a looser, more curvilinear, look that is closer to organic elements found in nature: vines, flowers, rivers, jungles. They appear at first glance to be a dizzying fluid mix on the verge of chaos. However, as soon as you start colouring in a few similar elements—surprise!—a predictable pattern begins to emerge. Importantly, the pattern is not immediately clear; it meanders in a circuitous way, triggering your curiosity with its mysterious possibilities, encouraging you to continue coloring, in order to unlock the secrets and reveal the ‘hidden’ pattern. This act of ‘discovery’ allows you to unconsciously impose order on this heretofore mess. This is huge. Why?
Stress Relief and Set Completion
Finishing a task is satisfying. Completing a series of tasks that form a pattern is even more satisfying. Addictive, even. The brain loves to create order from chaos. It delivers a sense of mastery. Makes us feel smart, capable and accomplished. Hence the popularity of Candy Crush Saga, or achieving a new level in Angry Birds. Creating opportunities for Set Completion is one of the key tools used in Persuasive Design.
In our hyper-connected world, the daily avalanche of incoming emails, texts and internet ‘news’ leaves us no time for processing these ideas. Our brains crave the balance of mental down-time. Or as our parents used to call it, day-dreaming. As more repetitive tasks and routine work is automated, workers are forced to spend more of their days planning (creating patterns) and less of their time completing them. Ever had a day that’s been full of busy work but feels unproductive? Could be there was not enough set completion.
Ideally, we’d all take a daily walk in the woods, Thoreau-style. But sadly that’s not an easy option for most, and gyms and streets present even more stimuli for our exhausted brains. We need an activity that forces us to sit still and focus on something for a few minutes to calm us down and re-boot the brain. Something that still allows for some physical movement so we don’t feel as if we’re wasting time because we’re not doing anything. Something that produces a visible result, so we have something to show for it. Coloring is perfect. With the added bonus of color therapy.
The Trend Begins
You will start to see this mix appear in other areas, wherever decoration can be found. Not just the obvious applications, like wallpaper and linens, but also cookies, women’s fashion & accessories, housewares, gadgets and interactive wearables.
Brace yourself for the return of paisley patterns…