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Color by committee

Those avocado-hued appliances of yesteryear may not have been your fault at all.

They'll be talking about you at the Color Marketing Group's (CMG) fall international conference in Palm Springs, Calif.

The sometimes-heated discussions there will be directly about you and your taste; the color of sheets in your bedroom, the plates in your kitchen, the clothes on your back, and the car you drive.

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In fact, your taste in color and design is at the heart of the meeting.

It's not truly a secret meeting, but restricted to the 1,500 or so color and design professionals in the United States who have paid $650 annual dues to CMG to be there. In private, these powerful color and marketing experts will "forecast" the new colors of consumer products you will buy in the marketplace a year or two from now.

The color of a product in a highly competitive marketplace can be as important to manufacturers as feathers are to a rooster. Today colors are "inter-industry-dependent," which means colors appearing in one industry influence others - light blue or green on cars slips over onto refrigerators, or bold colors from pro sports uniforms are modified for cars.

"We have been accused of being the color mafia," says Pat Verdolt, president of Color Services and Associates of Huntley, Ill., who has attended CMG conferences for 20 years. "People think we dictate colors, but if you know the process, you know this is impossible."

At one of two CMG meetings each year, members gather behind closed doors in some 45 industry-category workshops - including fashion, transportation, home living - for a day and a half of discussions. They interpret the trends that influence colors.

As colors emerge out of the discussions, they are finalized into a palette of perhaps a dozen colors. A steering committee finalizes the list into an official CMG forecast. Among the commercial colors forecast by CMG in l998 for wide appeal in 2001 are the following delicious-sounding colors:

*Bon Soir: "a tinted blue-black that is a diamond in the rough."

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*Provence: "a rich, clean, Mediterranean red-base blue."

*Van Gold: "a burnished, opulent, malleable metallic."

*Wasabi: "a nonacidic, minimalistic, muted green, similar to an Asian green."

*Aquarelle: "a clear, refreshing water-influenced green/blue."

*Royal Plum: "an icon of royalty and wealth; spirituality and ceremonial ritual inspire this hue."

No photos, swatches of fabric, or samples of the colors are released to the public. "The palette is exclusive to the membership for a year," says Ms. Verdolt, "and after a year we can reveal it. The reason is because the members do all the work, and if we released it right away, everybody else would get it for free."

The forecast becomes a design tool for professionals. "It's one more bit of information that we use to develop colors for specific products for specific markets," says Nada Napoletan Rutka, of Nada Associates in Pittsburgh, a former president of CMG.

"A handful of people do not decide the colors," she says. "CMG's primary purpose is to provide a forum for the exchange of color information."

"The colors start to trickle into the marketplace in the industries that are easier to color," says Verdolt, "and then after a year the palette is released in more detail."

CMG grew out of an organization of paint and dye manufacturers in the 1950s. The group morphed into the nonprofit CMG in the 1960s.

A smaller group, the Color Association of the United States (CAUS), convenes twice a year and forecasts colors for apparel and interiors. Many professionals belong to both CMG and CAUS.

"The evolution of color is ongoing," says Jim King, a research fellow at Dupont Performance Coating in Troy, Mich., "and CMG monitors that, but I have to translate what colors are important to the automotive world. Color needs to have excitement, and when you see it, it has to have a 'Wow' factor, and it's hard to do because we have so many [technical] constraints."

Mr. King sees the trend of "beige or pale brown metallic" shades of paint on cars continuing, but evolving more toward a "yellowish, greenish" version rather than brown. More transparency and pearl effects will be added, too. The newest effect in car colors is to add little flakes in the pigment that result in directional color characteristics.

In other words, as the car moves it can change colors. "They are called interference pigments," says Verdolt. "They are micas. You look from one angle and the car is blue; another angle and it's red. Tires with color are also starting to appear."

With gardening high on the list of hobbies these days, Ms. Rutka cites stone- and pebble-textured products she worked on, which will be introduced by a manufacturer next year.

"We're seeing products that have a mixed metal and stone influence," she says, "that natural, pebbly effect. And with the year 2000 coming, people are looking for ways to relax and bring their lives into greater harmony and balance. This means colors that are on the cool side of the palette that are calming and spiritual."

She also worked on a white luminescent men's razor from Norelco that came out in January. "A lot of people today want to see into products," she says,"and the iMac computer is best example of color transparency."

As an example of how color influences sales, Verdolt recalls Igloo coolers. "They used to be sold in standard red, white, and blue," she says, "and they asked me, 'What would you do?' I said, 'There's no fun here. This is not a serious product.' So we made them in colors that were popular in summer like raspberry, yellow, and turquoise. Sales went up 15 percent."

The iMac is the prime example of color and design meeting in one product for a "Wow" factor. More than 850,000 were sold in the first quarter of their introduction.

"Steve Jobs took the multicolors of the Apple logo," says Rutka, "and applied it to a rounded, transparent computer that is extremely friendly. You want to hug it. Some people call them Lifesaver colors, and people now are more readily accepting of color in technology products."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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