As designers and marketers we are often asked to supply rationale for our color choices. These rationale and the discussions that happen about them can become very subjective and emotional. Color is an extremely sensory design element, and everyone has an opinion about it—especially our clients and colleagues! So how can we avoid falling into subjective and unproductive conversations about one particular color or combination of colors?
I’ve found it helpful when presenting a color recommendation to first design with a formalized color strategy, then rationalize the design using the same strategy.
To develop a strong strategy, I suggest building your color rationale around the following five aspects of color:
Fads, trends, and cycles
Directional aspects of the color and forecasting
The physical aspects of color involve the academics of color theory and color physics. Will the pigments be compatible and durable for your product? Will light affect the color? What type of printing, media, or production methods will be used, and what is the gamut of the colors available for the process? Is the color design balanced? Does it even need to be balanced?
The cultural aspects of color consider regional and group color concerns. Are the colors inappropriate due to established cultural meanings and associations? Is your product regionally sensitive to color? (For example: are you selling soccer wear in Italy in colors reminiscent of the French national soccer team?)
The psychological aspects of color can facilitate a connection with consumers on an intuitive and emotional level. Color can bring back memories and stimulate other senses. This emotional connection is unique for many consumers, and context is the key to communication. How the color relates to other elements of the design, its environment, and the viewer is critical. Many of us color designers cringe when we hear statements like: orange is happy, yellow is sunny, and blue is calming. This may be true in many contexts, but it’s not absolute. Think of when orange is utilitarian, yellow is old, and blue is frigid. We must understand the context and the audience before we try to connect on an emotional level.
Qualitative research about color messages can be helpful if presented in the design context and preferably, in the environment the consumer will experience it. Never, ever research colors out of context and as sole swatches for design purposes! Because color can connect emotionally with the consumer it can help support the brand story and define the brand character and architecture. Color can also add surprising delight if used in an unexpected place.
Fads, trends, and cycles are current and emerging consumer behaviors and purchasing patterns in the marketplace. Cycles last longer and are more predictable than trends, and trends are more enduring than fads. Fads come and go very quickly. While trend spotting is an important process it is often mistakenly used as a forecasting tool. If you spotted it and it is happening now—it’s not the future! If you approach design by using current trends as your only rationale you will always be a trend follower and never a leader.
Color direction and forecasting is the most often misunderstood and ignored part of a good color strategy. When we do color forecasting it is important to look at the current trends and cycles. But if you are truly going to predict where the color trends will move—what direction they are going—we must identify and consider the major influences. Influences are the important issues in the greater world that drive our decisions as consumers.
There are several long term influences that have been important for many years. They tend to reinvent themselves over time, and by region.
Consider these influences and where they may take the current trends over the next three years:
– Increased communication and the growth of the Internet
– The increasing power of the social network
– The economy
– The environment, nature, global warming and the green movement
– Customization of products
– Simplicity, honesty, trust, and authenticity
– Global versus local
– Technology developments
– Film, theater, music, and the arts
– Runway fashion
– Politics and government
– Mashing, fusion and mixing of concepts
– Intuitive and spiritual (relaxation, spas, escape, rejuvenation, well-being)
I discussed how the recent economic downturn is affecting color direction in “Warmer, Fuzzier: The Refreshed Logo,” an article which appeared in the New York Times on Sunday, 31 May. This cites great examples of how major societal changes can influence the direction of trends. To make predictions, you should always search for the new and emerging influences, and be sure to indentify any that may be specific to your product category.