8 Trends in Mobile App Color Scheme

An illustration of different color schemes

The market for mobile apps is huge, furthermore, it’s growing rapidly. Mobile apps are expected to generate US $ 189 billion in revenues in 2020, as this Statista report shows. The annual number of mobile app downloads was 178.1 billion in 2017, however, this number will likely be 258.2 billion in 2022, as another Statista report shows.

These are phenomenal numbers. What’s more significant is the market share of successful apps. WhatsApp, the widely popular messaging app had 1.5 billion ‘Monthly Active Users’ (MAUs) in December 2017, as this Statista report shows. Successful apps are truly in a class of their own!

What makes some apps successful? Functionalities are very important however the design is equally important. There are several aspects of a great mobile app design. I had earlier elaborated on mobile navigation menu examples, however, there is clearly more to a great mobile design. In this article, I will explain 8 trends in mobile app color scheme.

Contents

The importance of color in mobile app design
Trend #1: Minimal color usage with focused palettes
Trend #2: High-contrast colors
Trend #3: Subtle colored shadows
Trend #4: Bright colored iconography
Trend #5: Pastel, muted colors
Trend #6: Confine choice of colors to black, white, and grey
Trend #7: High-contrast, complimentary gradients
Trend #8: Colorful illustrations
Tools to help you choose colors

The importance of color in mobile app design

A designer making an app plan on a whiteboard

We interact with one or more computing devices every day in our modern life. Mobile apps now command an increasing share in this interaction. Mobile screens and smaller, furthermore, we are often on the go when we use our mobile devices. This makes the ‘User Interface’ (UI) very important. Colors are a key component in the design of a mobile UI.

Colors in a mobile app UI are important due to the following reasons:

  • Colors facilitate user interaction with the apps’ content.
  • Different elements are presented in different colors which enable users to find them.
  • Users also depend on colors to understand the correct actions they should take in the app.
  • Your app should reflect your brand and colors aid in this.
  • Every app has its’ main areas. The designer should identify a primary color and use that for the main area. It helps users to follow the functionalities clearly.
  • Different geographic regions in the world associate different colors with different conceptual themes and abstracts. Using this knowledge in the mobile UI design enables users to understand the app functionalities well.
  • It can be hard to browse the content in an app if the color scheme isn’t pleasing to the eye. However, what’s pleasing to the eye also depend on the context. An eSports app has an entirely different usage than a meditation app. Designers must identify a pleasing color combination for the context.

Read more about the importance of colors for a mobile app design in “The underestimated power of color in mobile app design”.

Trend #1: Minimal color usage with focused palettes

As the name indicates, this color scheme doesn’t overuse colors. Many of our favorite mobile apps use minimal colors, additionally, they provide sufficient white space. This kind of design should visibly differentiate between linked and active elements.

A clean and concise color scheme can improve the user experience significantly. This happens due to the natural urge of the human brain to see comforting colors on surfaces that are glaring. On the other hand, using too many colors can adversely impact the user experience. Read more about it in “The beauty of minimalism in mobile app UI design”.

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Note that using minimal color doesn’t indicate a monochrome design. Far from that. It just means using the required colors, but not more than that. Even while using a minimal color scheme, a designer can differentiate the app very well.

To do so, the designer can use various tones, tints, and shades within one color. Designers can also adjust the saturation and brightness. Note that using different brightness within one color strains the eyes significantly less than using too many contrasting colors.

Designers must test their color scheme for different mobile platforms like Android and iOS. They also should test their color scheme for different popular devices. The minimal color usage can work especially well if the color scheme goes well with the device.

Trend #2: High-contrast colors

This trend became popular with iOS 7. The thrust is to introduce very bright colors in the UI. A few examples are bright pink, bright green, red, etc. It has an effect of offering a noticeable contrast. The bright colors are often used for important contents or ‘Call to Action’ (CTA) buttons.

The advantage with this approach is that users clearly see the CTA button or other key content. The color stands out so much that users’ focus is on taking that action or browsing that content. This approach is good when your app has such high-priority actions.

Think of a music app. Several popular music apps have the ‘Play’ button displayed in a very bright color. The contrast it offers against the background makes it crystal clear to users about what action is the most important.

This happens because high-contrasting colors improve both readability and legibility. Read more about this effect in “Bright colors in UI design: benefits and drawbacks”.

High-contrast color schemes rely on the natural categorization of colors into strong and weak. For e.g., orange is a strong color, whereas white is weak. The human brain reacts to strong colors with a higher intensity. A content in bright color remains in the memory for long. When an app retains the mind space this way, it’s like that the app will have a higher user retention.

Designers should also categorize their content carefully before using high-contrast colors. A good idea is to use the same bright color for one CTA button across all screens, for e.g., ‘Buy’. This helps users automatically remember that CTA button, which in turn helps them find it easily on the other screens too.

However, there are some disadvantages to using a high-contrasting color scheme. On screens where the text and the background colors contrast very significantly, the users will find it hard to read the text. Hence, moderation is important.

Trend #3: Subtle colored shadows

As you would expect in the highly competitive mobile UI design landscape, there is no shortage of ideas. Designing experts spend significant effort to study the market and come up with new ideas. This helps in offering differentiated designs. Subtle colored shadows in mobile UI design is a good example.

Typically, shadows are monochrome. That’s how we have always viewed them. It’s natural that that’s how we had come to expect in the web and mobile UI landscape too. However, there are mobile UI design use cases where icons make a lot of sense. Now, by their very nature, you can only offer a limited number of icons.

Why? Well, when you use icons in the mobile UI design, you are likely trying to save space by omitting texts. This makes you highly dependent on the users. Do they intuitively recognize an icon? Is that icon universally recognized? You are okay then.

On the other hand, if you are using icons that aren’t universally recognized or icons that aren’t easy to understand, the situation changes notably. You will likely have quite a bit of churn since users wouldn’t understand what they should do from the icon. You haven’t provided any text describing the function either. Effectively, you really can’t use unknown or little-known icons!

This naturally limits your choice of icons. With a limited number of icons to play with, how do you differentiate your design? Subtle colored shadows make a big impact here. Within the icon, using bright but muted colors you can create subtle shadows. It gives an appealing 3D effect to your icons. This stands out as a clear differentiation from the competition. Read more about it in “7 rules for mobile UI button design”.

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However, remember that this idea of using subtle colored shadows work when you have a muted background for the icon. Otherwise, your users will find it hard to focus on the icon since the bright background will also demand their attention. Hence, use this subtle colored shadow design for your icons only when you have the background of the icon in a weak color.

Trend #4: Bright colored iconography

There are apps that require several icons on one screen. Each icon represents elements with potentially equal importance. This is common for apps providing multiple sub-functionalities. Here you face a challenge of conveying the importance of each sub-functionality simultaneously.

If you decide to highlight only one icon, then chances are that users won’t remember the sub-functionalities. This could curtail the effective usage of your app since users will more often easily find one functionality and focus on that. You need to communicate the importance of all sub-functionalities.

This requires you to make each icon or element to stand out. Bright colored iconography addresses this use case. Here you use bold and bright colors for each icon and elements. Users will see the striking appearance of each element. The bright colors ensure that each icon and element remain in their memory. They will not need to look around for the sub-functionalities again when they return to the app.

I recommend you read this guide “Standing out in a sea of blue: which color should you pick for your icon?” to learn how you should choose colors for different icons. You also need to remember one more aspect. Since you are using multiple bright colors for icons and elements, you need to have a background with sufficient weak colors, for e.g., white. The screen could strain the users’ eyes otherwise.

Trend #5: Pastel, muted colors

Mobile UI design is never a ‘one-size-fits-all’ affair. There are multiple reasons for this. One is that a mobile app is a ‘System of Engagement’ (SoE). It’s not necessarily a transactional system. Transactional systems are often called ‘Systems of Record’ (SoRs).

There are a settled set of users for a SoR, for e.g., a corporate internal web app has its’ functional users. These users don’t have a choice. Even if the UI isn’t appealing, they will need to use it. This principle doesn’t work with SoEs. A user has choices, many choices, in fact! If the UI doesn’t appeal to the user, he may not return to the app.

Now, what do I mean by saying “appeal to the user”? Users are not one monolithic entity. They are numerous, with different requirements. The mobile app ecosystem isn’t a monolithic entity either since there is a multitude of use cases.

The appeal of an app must correspond to its’ use case. A live-streaming music app signifies fast-paced action. On the other hand, a personal finance app requires calm and cool analysis. The appeal for each app is different. The UI must match the characteristics of the app to create that appeal.

There are apps for which bright bold colors aren’t suitable. Low/medium saturation, soft or subdued shade and soothing colors are more appropriate. Pastel colors are increasingly becoming a noticeable trend for such apps. Read more about how you can design with pastel colors, in “Pastel color schemes for refined website design”.

Trend #6: Confine choice of colors to black, white, and grey

We can think of this trend as a subset of the minimal color usage trend. This is for apps where the screen displays a limited amount of content. It should also have a very limited number of CTA buttons. Moreover, the use case of the app should be such that the users’ focus will be mostly confined to the content.

This kind of use case makes many other trends redundant since colorful CTA buttons or elements aren’t present. Since the user will mostly read the content, designs that resemble the old-fashioned diaries make sense. White background with black texts and CTA buttons can be useful for such apps.

Designers need to be careful while using such minimalist schemes since they are suitable for limited use cases. Read “8 Color Scheme Trends in Mobile App Design” for tips to judge if this the right scheme for you.

Trend #7: High-contrast, complimentary gradients

In a way, this is a variant of the high-contrast colors trend. What is different here is the use of a different kind of gradient. Typically, gradients were of the same color. It’s different here, with complimentary high-contrast colors used in the gradient.

Apps with a high concentration of imagery in the content often need to distinctly mark sections of the content. The main section is where the user entered the content. A good example is a social media app.

A user may browse the page of another user and then click for more details. The subsequent page displays images pertaining to the user. While the main section can use a gradient of high-contrast complimentary colors, the other sections display the images. The user remains anchored to the profile due to the gradient. Read “4 ways vibrant colors boost UI design” to know how this approach can enrich the UI.

Trend #8: Colorful illustrations

Apps that require users to understand and use a workflow needs illustrations. Many designers now use bold colors and subtle colored shadows within these illustrations. If you want to use this approach, remember to use weak colors for the background.

In a sense, this approach is a variant of the well-known illustration-based design approach that has a wide use even outside mobile UI design. To know more about illustration-based design, read “5 illustration trends for 2017”.

Tools to help you choose colors

In concluding this article, I want to recommend a few tools that help you choose colors for your mobile app UI design. Check out these apps:

Download Our Project Specification Template

Aran Davies

Blockchain Expert | Developer | Writer | Photographer
I love all things blockchain and related to app development. What time I have when I am not busy writing for the DevTeam.Space blog of over 350 articles, I spend sitting around wondering what the future will look like 50 years from now.
Aran Davies