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Four Steps To “the Right” Color in Product Design

(This post was updated on October 14, 2021.)

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.

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

The Importance of Color in Product Design

Color selection is a tricky proposition for designers, especially those of us working with physical products where decisions are more permanent.

Data shows that consumers make up their minds about a product within seven to ninety seconds of their initial interaction. Depending on which source you consult, between forty and ninety percent cite color as the main deciding factor.

It’s generally accepted that when consumers are faced with comparable product function and price, most will base their purchase decision based on the product’s appearance.

Getting Started with Color Selection

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

Color selection without a net — or color selection that isn’t driven by a rational process — is risky to product success.

When industrial designers approach color in product design, some or all of the following activities come into play: color theory; color trend exploration and competitive research; brand relationship; market positioning; and translating the final color scheme into production language for manufacturing. How do you go about synthesizing these elements?

At Bresslergroup we’ve 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.

Color Selection for a Line of Mobile Accessories

We used this method to help our client, Ventev, develop a strategic visual brand language (VBL) for its new line of mobile accessories.

Here are the four steps we followed for Ventev:

color in product design - our four-step methodology for choosing the right colors


 

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 Product Category’s Material-and-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: Recommend Direction and Refine 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.

color in product design - choosing colors for a line of mobile accessories

Ventev’s “mature/expressive” mobile accessories.

Color Selection for a Pet Product Portfolio

Our client, PetSafe, needed a new, versatile brand language to apply to a wide variety of products. PetSafe had acquired products through acquisition of smaller companies, resulting in little to no brand cohesion among its portfolio. The company had rebranded acquired products without changing their industrial design and color scheme. Because the collection was so diverse, defining design attributes to drive a new design language was challenging.

Another challenge was the variety of PetSafe products — variety in shape and size, functionality and application, price point, and level of technological sophistication. The new brand language needed to be versatile enough to encompass all.

We used the same four steps to help PetSafe define a color palette that would be a core component of the new visual brand language to use across their portfolio’s diverse range of products:

color in product design - our four-step methodology for choosing the right colors


 

Step 1: Identify Target Users and Create User Personas

First, we did some brand exploration to define the attributes that would drive PetSafe’s visual brand language development.

This work uncovered a desire to be more human, approachable, and empathetic. It was a priority for indoor products (like a feeder or a litter box) to have a sophisticated look to harmonize with home decor rather than being relegated to a garage or mud room. Durability was another priority, due to pets’ tendency to beat things up, and especially for products that go outside.

We also identified an opportunity to differentiate PetSafe from its competitors by designing products that are visually simpler, and subsequently feel intuitive and easy to use.

This process resulted in pinpointing the following brand attributes to drive VBL development: approachable, authentic, intuitive/uncomplicated, durable/reliable, and stylish.

Step 2: Map Each Quadrant’s Attitude to Color

Then we worked with PetSafe to define its target markets — cat enthusiasts, active trainers, outdoorsy owners, and dog lovers. As with Ventev, we created user personas to help our client understand the range of attitudes to color — youthful/expressive, youthful/understated, mature/expressive, and mature/understated — across those four categories. (And as with Ventev, this exercise helped us rule out the youthful/expressive quadrant as a target.)

Visualizing all four on a grid and benchmarking them against competitors helped us realize PetSafe is best positioned in the marketplace by communicating an approachable, uncomplicated, and sophisticated tone.

Step 3: Map Product Category’s Material-and-Finish Value Tiers

For material and finish, we took our cues from the brand attributes we had pinpointed during initial brand exploration:

Authentic is communicated via quality materials with molded-in colors and metallic finishes. There are no applied or painted finishes on molded parts.

Durable/Reliable is communicated via satin-textured molding finish, overmolded sealed buttons and easy to clean surfaces.

Stylish is communicated via flush-fitting part transitions and integrated latches. Trim and accent details are designed to harmonize with home décor.

Step 4: Recommend Direction and Refine Color Options

After exploring different color schemes, we found that a darker palette is more understated, more practical, and can be leveraged effectively across PetSafe’s range of indoor and outdoor products. The final selection — a rich, dark blue with metallic silver highlights — is more sophisticated and distinctive than charcoal or black.

The result is a wide range of products that’s linked foremost by form. The subtle, curved forms and symmetrical footprints tie together the common branding elements and common use of colors, materials, and finishes. They harmonize the visual look and feel of the product family.

Color in product design - a consumer products case study

PetSafe’s approachable, uncomplicated, and sophisticated product line.

Color Us Pragmatic

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 that are driven by a rigorous process.

Isn’t it ironic?

(Watch Chris Murray’s webinar on Color Selection in Product Design, first presented at the IDSA Northeast Conference.)