When one thinks of the material finish “chrome,” images of surreal reflections, dramatic light tricks, flamboyant car trims, and general shininess come to mind.
However, chrome is actually a very versatile aesthetic tool. Many of its uses are invaluable and go unnoticed–literally.
It’s called “Ghost Chrome” by some, and its one of the oldest ID tricks in the book. Used correctly, chrome really shines (pun intended) in a supporting role.
I’ve identified 3 common Ghost Chrome applications. There are probably more, but this post will focus on these 3.
- Creating the illusion of lighter weight or floatation
- Material transition buffer
- Removing visual emphasis from something that is not a priority
The above image is of a white cube with a chromed base. Because it is chromed, the base will take on the material appearance of whatever surface it happens to be in direct contact with. This creates the illusion that everything above the chromed volume is floating.
There are many reasons one may want to apply this technique to a product design. Perhaps an object appears too heavy, or it has a harsh relationship with its environment.
Here are two products that have benefited from chrome floating.
The Microsoft Explorer Mouse has a chromed base. This makes sense for a mouse because this product type needs to communicate that it glides across its ground plane in the absence of obvious queues like wheels.
When the difference between two adjacent materials is very strong, applying a chrome trim can ease the transition, improve the perceived intentionality of the part break itself, and make a product appear more finished. This technique is most often seen in the consumer electronics market, where high gloss and rubberized textures are often applied adjacent to one another in a tight space.
The trim along the Microsoft Mouse 6000 marks not only the transition between a high gloss piano black and a textured grey rubber, but that between a highly controlled surface to a very organic one.
Chrome trims are also used in car design, one of the more appropriate uses being to unify the passenger windows and transition from them to the metallic paint of the body.
Removing Visual Emphasis
Lastly, chrome can draw attention away from visual elements that would otherwise distract from the main point of a design.
The white face in the above image has visual priority. By mirroring the environment, the other surfaces virtually disappear.
Cars have historically had chromed bumpers. This is because until recent advancements in design & manufacturing, bumpers were extremely stuck-on.
Because the bumper on this Chevy Impala has been chromed, it disappears into the environment, giving way for the red body to take center stage.
Ghost Chrome is a great technique for strengthening the visual hierarchy in your design. However, it is still only a material finish, and can not necessarily compensate for a hierarchy that was not given proper consideration. Improperly used, chrome can dominate a hierarchy, so think before chroming.
Go forth and chrome responsibly.