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Four Steps To “the Right” Color in Product Design

(This post is adapted from Chris Murray’s webinar on color selection, first presented at the IDSA Northeast Conference.)

Quick, what’s your favorite color? Now explain why. It’s tough, isn’t it? You’re probably fond of that color, because, well, you just are.

But the person next to you isn’t. And you might change your mind tomorrow. That’s because “favorite color” is an idiosyncratic notion. It comes from our gut and the reasons are nearly impossible to dissect and clarify.

This makes color selection a tricky proposition for designers, especially those of us working with physical products where decisions are more permanent. I recently asked some colleagues about their approaches to product color selection, and I found it fascinating to hear so many perspectives, from the humanistic and emotional (e.g., green = ecology; white = purity) to opinions grounded in logic, reason, and commerce (e.g., red = stop/alert; purple = luxury).

In the face of all this fluidity, how do design professionals and their clients confidently choose “the right” colors for products?

Getting Started

Color selection without a net — or color selection that is not driven by a rational process — is dangerous. Any meaningful color selection process for products needs to begin with an understanding of how colors connect products attitudinally and functionally with their users.

With the help of Reiko Morrison, a West Coast color consultant, we developed a color selection methodology that applies user-first design thinking to color selection for product design. This method isn’t a formula and it doesn’t remove the designer’s skill, but we believe it guides us through color selection in a rational manner that staves off emotional, gut decisions.

We used this method to help our client, Ventev, develop a strategic visual brand language for its new line of mobile accessories. Here are the four steps we followed:

Bresslergroup's method for color selection.

Step 1: Identify Target Users and Create User Personas

We worked with Ventev to define its target market — professionals whose work habits place high demands on their mobile devices and accessories. These are business travelers and mobile professionals who do the bulk of their business in cars, coffee shops, airports, and hotel rooms.

We created user personas to help our client understand a range of four different attitudes — youthful/expressive, youthful/understated, mature/expressive, and mature/understated — within the category of “mobile professionals.” This exercise helped us rule out an entire youthful/expressive quadrant as a target for their brand. (Note: “youthful” and “mature” are not age-related — they’re attitudes.) Visualizing all four on a grid and benchmarking them against competitors helped us realize Ventev is best positioned in the marketplace by communicating a more serious, businesslike tone.

The images of people we selected during this step to represent each quadrant stuck around and became visual tags as we made decisions about form and color. It’s much easier to choose color, material, and finishes for a user attitude when you have a photo and profile to reference.

Step 2: Map Each Quadrant’s Attitude to Color

We combined the user personas with relevant color trends. The mature/expressive quadrant featured more adventurous and progressive use of colors. The body colors are mature but represent a more distinct attitude toward color.

The youthful/understated quadrant — often referred to as the “Apple-like quadrant” — was characterized by black and white contrasts, whites, and pale greys combined with minimal color accents for a fresh, casual perception. This quadrant is all about small, controlled pops of color often in hidden places.

Step 3: Map the Product Category’s Material & Finish Value Tiers

In parallel we researched a range of material and finish options appropriate to the category of mobile accessories to show how materials and finishes communicate different levels of value to consumers.

The lowest tier of handheld tech devices uses baseline material, resin, and texture options. The middle tiers are more sophisticated with the introduction of contrasting trim, painted effects, high gloss coatings, and soft touch paint. In the upper tier, materials and finishes are more integral and authentic. The trim is real aluminum; metallic is impregnated in the resin; and the tactile soft feel is achieved by overmolding or twin-shot.

Step 4: Make Recommendations, and Refine Targeted Color Options

We recommended the mature/expressive quadrant as the strongest opportunity to appeal to Ventev’s target consumer. It has mass-market appeal and still makes a brand statement. We combined this with the materials and finishes we mapped to that quadrant in Step 3.

The final product range is a significant step away from the competitive landscape of boring, black products, and we can sleep better at night knowing there is solid and rational reasoning to back up our decisions.

Ventev's mature/expressive mobile accessories.

Ventev’s “mature/expressive” mobile accessories.

Just because color is ingrained and emotional — just because we’ve all had a favorite color since the moment we first learned our colors — doesn’t make it immune to pragmatism. In fact you’re more likely to produce an emotionally evocative product by making design decisions along parallel tracks that are driven by pragmatism.

Isn’t it ironic?

(Watch Chris Murray’s webinar, “A Rational Guide to Color Selection in Product Design,” and read about our Product Brand Language expertise.)