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Are Color Trends Important in Product Design?

Color can have a huge emotional impact on customers, but that doesn't mean you need to change your product line to follow trends. Here are the elements of color theory you should consider.
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Emotional resonance is key to successful design. Consider color: Its influence begins in childhood, when you probably picked your favorite. "It's really multilayered, the human reaction to color," says Courtney Garvin, an Atlanta-based graphic designer whose senior thesis at Yale concerned color theory. "There's the physical aspect--what happens optically, what happens in the brain. Then you have cultural associations, personal connotations and on and on."

Entire organizations are devoted to forecasting color trends; the best-known is the Color Institute, run by Pantone, whose color-matching system is the standard for printing and industrial design. The group selected Emerald as color of the year for 2013.

Does that mean you should have adapted your product line to feature the colors of Oz? Not if you ask Payton Cosell Turner, owner with Brian Kaspr of Flat Vernacular, a Brooklyn wallpaper studio that has been featured in Elle Decor. Chasing every color trend would be prohibitively costly for a small business like his, he explains; rolling out a new product line in the latest shades is an expensive experiment if consumers don't embrace the trend. Instead, Turner and Kaspr will test the green trend via a partnership with Scratch, a nail-art company, to produce a line of Flat Vernacular nail wraps--little patterned appliqués for fingernails. "Our initial output is nothing except creative content," Turner says.

Finding inexpensive ways to experiment with color trends is a good strategy for showing that your business is clued in to changing tastes, Garvin says, particularly in certain fields: "If you're in an industry with close ties to fashion, there's an expectation that you'll at least be aware of trends."

But it's not just for fashion or decorative arts--color comes into play in all manner of product design. "Color can be a barometer of other trends, including economic trends," Garvin says. "The classic example is the funky iMac." Launched during the late-'90s tech boom, the fruit-colored computers were a radical departure in an industry where the palette had been putty and gray.

"When the economy is strong, people will spend money on a color that's out of their comfort zone," she says. "When the economy shrinks, people make more conservative color choices. You're not going to plunk down a couple of grand on an orange sofa when times are tight--you want a color that's going to stand the test of time, not immediately feel dated."

For businesses that don't create physical products, color comes into play via branding. Garvin's advice? Understand the norms in your sector. "Know your competitors. Know the color palette," she says, citing the example of Rimidi, a client in healthcare services. "There's an expected color palette in healthcare, and if you stay within it, you send the message that you're safe, you're not rocking the boat." Most companies in that realm choose reassuring shades of safe, serious blue. "But this particular client had some new technologies that were innovative," Garvin says. "They chose to stand out. We used a bright magenta for their signature color."

Turner and Kaspr also followed their instincts. Their branding features a retro shade of pink--think Grandma's bathroom tiles--that their graphic designer tried to talk them out of. "But it's so right for us," Turner says. "People respond to it. It just works." Garvin echoes that reaction: "Nothing trumps personal preference."

Hue Can Do It

Help for the color-impaired

Check out the experts.
Each December Pantone announces the upcoming color of the year; it also releases twice-yearly fashion color reports. (PDFs are at In addition to emerald, mossy and lime greens, fall 2013 will be dominated by deep purple, bold red, Mediterranean blue and vibrant orange, rounded out by neutrals of dark gray and rich brown.

Color Marketing Group releases seasonal predictions and provides referrals to color experts with specialization in home design, printing and graphics, product design and fashion.

analyzes trends and offers consulting in brand strategy, color differentiation in marketing or product design and metrics to evaluate the effectiveness of color strategy.

Hire a graphic designer.
The U.S. design organization AIGA has a referral service that can help you find a trained professional in your area. Visit

Read what people are saying.
There are dozens of great design blogs, and the informal format makes it easy for a novice to join the conversation and find a range of r esources and points of view. Apartment Therapy, Design Sponge and Swissmiss are good places to start.