Coloring Books in the Digital Age

The full-version of this post is now available at the Children’s Literature at the University of Cambridge blog!

Printed books have been on the rise of late, and one of the sources of the print publishing sales revival might be a surprising one: coloring books have become very big business — by some estimates, up to 12 million coloring books were sold in 2015, compared to approximately 1 million the previous year.


Indications of the popularity of grown up coloring books are seemingly everywhere. For example, crayon manufacturer Crayola’s Color Escapes marketed as the colored pencils for adults (“for adults” in this case, meaning a fancier box and higher price tag). But why the sudden interest in adult coloring books? There are many theories that have been circulating, but as with most explanations for broad cultural trends, perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between many factors. Coloring books have been touted for their appeal as a type of art therapy, and there appears to be some university research suggesting that coloring might just reduce levels of stress. Other explanations focus upon how the coloring book satisfies a deep-seated need for play that is intrinsic to all of us, no matter what age we might be.

Another popular theory is that coloring books offer a welcome respite from the hours of swiping, tapping, and reading on our ubiquitous screens at a time when digital fatigue might be setting in. As Johanna Basford, author of the surprise best-selling Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book suggests:”It’s a chance to unplug, look away from the screens and do something analogue and fun.”



aybe there is something satisfying about the tangible experience of coloring itself, of seeing the results of our labor on paper instead of on screens. Of course, the non-digital theory has limits — part of the coloring book craze is certainly fueled by social media: we are now taking photos of our finished coloring to put them on Instagram (perhaps the digital age equivalent of sticking our drawings on the refrigerator?). For further proof of how complicated our split between digital and non-digital lives is getting, the latest development: turning Instagram photos into coloring books, which you can print, color … and then post on Instagram (via Mashable: “Website turns your Instagram photos into a coloring book”).

The social element has carried over into the non-digital world, too: adult coloring group meet ups have become a commonplace sight in the U.S., and August 2 is set to be National Coloring Book Day.


Coloring books for adults are not entirely a new thing, of course. They were especially popular in the 1960s, with a distinctively politically subversive flavor to them. That element of coloring protest is echoed even in our present day — you might for example enjoy Drew Daywalt’s The Day the Crayons Quit.

It’s certainly possible the coloring trend might disappear as quickly as it appeared — but that time doesn’t appear to be imminent. The efforts of publishers to reach the coloring book enthusiast market has taken a variety of forms, from the Hillary Clinton coloring book, to Game of Thrones (from the Guardian: “The Game of Thrones Coloring Book Really Isn’t For Kids”).

To read more about the topic, there are some excellent think pieces (such as this and this), which delve into the coloring book phenomenon that might be causing a global shortage of pencils. Not everyone is a fan, however.

What do you think about the coloring book phenomenon? Do you have any first-hand experience? Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments!


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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