A guide to choosing colours in product design

Excuse the obviousness of this statement; but colour is not black and white. Human attraction to certain colours is almost always subconscious and variable rather than conscious and predictable. Emotion, context and precedents influence colour preferences more than any amount of logic, research or trend evidence. This reality adds difficulty to product development.

Is there a process?

Books about colours and colour forecasting services are big business. Think of someone who is part black-sweater-wearing designer; part researcher; and part fortune-teller and you begin to get a picture of a colour forecaster.

Being able to know with certainty how people will feel about colours or which colours will be ‘IN’ would provide manufacturers of clothes, cars, or any product an obvious commercial advantage. Due to the unique simplicity and universality of colour it is a dominant and influential visual characteristic of most objects. So it would seem there should be good, reliable information on colour. The trouble is colour theory forecasting is not the solution its proponents make out.

Another problem with the majority of available colour trend information is that it revolves around major industries; interior decor (i.e. wall paint, fabrics), fashion and automotive colours. Trends in other areas of product development are seldom, if ever analysed. So unfortunately designers and manufacturers of industrial products, sports equipment and IT components, as well as medical or scientific devices, are outside the scope of the trend forecasters.

Moreover, geography, culture and product type play a large part in determining the most appropriate finishes. Therefore colours that work in Scandinavian countries may not work well in Australia, and a texture popular in the USA may by disliked in Europe. Products outside FMCG and homewares sectors generally have longer lives and therefore need to outlast the peaks and troughs of short-lived colour trends.

No matter what colour forecasting groups claim, unless the research directly relates to your specific product and market geography you cannot use forecasts to determine colours for particular products with any certainty. For example a manufacturer of cycling helmets might be tempted to use automotive colour trends, but these are likely to be different to colours forecast for apparel fabrics. As a helmet is ‘worn’ on a person but finished more like a car which trend should be followed? In this, as with most other contexts, designers must interpret the available information and precedents for each context to creatively choose colours that suit these applications.

Follow the Leader?

Successful designers and products create trends that cannot be researched or predicted in advance. Without the hindsight of the iPod, who in 2001 (when practically all home and portable electronics where either silver or black) would have forecast that THE colour for this segment would be high-gloss white and anodised aluminium?

The Real World

Despite all this innovation and forecasting information, in the real world Cobalt have found making a colour choice in product design is not as methodical as the rest of the development process. Although companies contract out the product development to external professionals, too often the client takes it upon themselves to decide on the product colour; sometimes for spurious reasons as to match the company logo or because their marketing people have a hunch on a particular colour. In most other cases companies tend to err to the conservative as the risk of getting a colour wrong is greater than the benefit of trying something new.

Conclusion

  • Treat colour forecasts more like horoscopes than absolute scientific research
  • Market leaders can create their own colour trends
  • Basing product colours on existing products, competitors or market precedents may work for some products, however in other cases it may not be as successful as striking out with a new colour, so that it stands-out rather than blends-in
  • The product’s industrial designer, and not a colour forecaster, market researcher or branding expert is the best equipped professional to combine all of the specific issues related to a particular product and recommend its colour and finish