Anything but Grey

By Richard Prime | April 6, 2009

The use and application of color is a minefield in any of the creative disciplines.

In 1878, Ewald Hering carried out research into color perception and began to develop several key theories on how we all share the same method of 'seeing' color. Further modern research shows that the human being can identify approximately 10 million colors. That said, the research in the world of color has not yet been able to tie down why the emotional response to those colors differs for each of us.

It would be a fool that suggests that color in design terms is an easy field to control and indeed master. Add to the mix the field of technological research, evolving swiftly to meet the changing needs of the consumer, global or regional legislation and indeed those of the designer, and the world of color looks like a fearsome opponent.

The color options open to the coatings and paint industry are vast and it is very important to realize that color has never held a more powerful position where getting a client to part with money is concerned.

"We always say, and this is a sad fact, that a badly designed product in the right color will be a success whereas a well designed product in the wrong color simply will not thrive," said Jackie Nash, managing director of London's Global Color Research, one of the world's leading color trend forecasters with more than 25 years in the color business.

One only has to look at the recent icons of the design and architecture fields to see that color is not the dirty word it once was. There is a new wave of industrial designers like Apple's Jonathan Ive for example, whose use of Bondi Blue on the first iMac revolutionized the technology industry in such a powerful way it's rare we see a grey in the grey-goods sector anymore. Plus a dynamic assortment of architects like Berlin-based practice Sauerbruch Hutton and Australia's PTW (the Beijing Watercube) are also pushing the use of external color to new places, reflecting a change in thinking.

The times when yellow and blue were only seen in drafts (supposedly the first colors we see when our eyes open as a child) and shades of grey were the only colors allowed in the thinking process are long gone. Color is a powerful emotional force, which can be used to seize the mind, form lasting associations and generate powerful emotional responses.

"As a designer color is seriously important as it is one of the most vital tools for design thinking," said color designer Latika Khosla, director of Freedom Tree Design based in India.

It is vital to have knowledge of color before you can begin to use it to its maximum, according to Swedish architect and color designer Kristina Enberg. "Many architects are afraid of colors. Dressed in black and working in white. They have no awareness of its power and fear the unknown, which is sad," she said. As she sees it, the problem with the market at the moment is that architects are still too afraid to make mistakes due to how costly these can be and so only use color (and very bright chromatic color at that) as accents in a design, otherwise sticking to the safety of black and white.

"Those working with colors often only use 'strong colors.' But to work with color properly you must have a careful balance of knowledge and sensibility," Enberg added. "Perhaps it is for this reason that many, sadly, stick to safe options."

However, attitudes have in recent years witnessed a slow change, thanks in part to the global melting pot of cultural influences opened up by the ability to travel and by technology. "In the U.S., the change is color coming from the minority populations and we're seeing a lot of Hispanic influences," said Khosla.

From her base in Mumbai, Freedom Tree is in a privileged position to view some of the most exciting areas of color use in the architecture and design sector coming from Asia. "We always have an eye on Asia as a source of inspiration for design and architecture. There are at the moment wild and very vivid colors emerging from India, China and South Eastern Asia," Khosla said.

Balancing this vibrancy at the moment is a more reserved and conservative aesthetic, also stemming from Asia. This seems especially rife in the hospitality industry and in communal areas. "A new take on grays that are more Asian-inspired include warm grays with yellow undertones," Khosla added.

In order to capitalize the coatings industry must follow the lead of the architecture and design fields and evolve with the industry to meet its color needs, especially where listening to and responding to trends are concerned.

Decorative paint is one of the most compelling sectors, proving that trends are important to all industries," according to Nash. "Trends drive fashion and fashion drives interiors," she said. "Admittedly there is a little more to it than that but that is a large factor in the changes we track and identify. "Decorative paint consumers are savvy and aware of what the trends are and need therefore to be alert to them and react quickly. The companies who respond best to the needs of the customer and cater to them are the companies who have the most attractive bottom lines."

Responding to and identifying the needs of consumers is a factor linking all forms of design and industry in these times of reduced spending. Clients are expecting much more for their money and will not accept a shoddy 'almost' or closest match where color is concerned.

For MIX Interiors, a leading magazine for the UK office interiors market, Nash's color forecast addresses color trends up to 24 months in advance of the season, with findings based and grounded in the specialist experiences of a selected panel of colorists, designers, architects and material specialists from across the design industry. MIX Interior's trend stories are not only built around the emotive power of color but also identify areas of legislation and technological advances, which will drive the options a consumer is likely to have. Cheaper pigments in a specific color, finishing techniques from the ceramics industry, the expanding use of Corian as an exterior surface and elements of car design have all been addressed in previous issues.

At the moment panel meetings are driven primarily by one piece of legislation. "The economic situation has the focus at the moment but it is never one thing that is the driver," said Nash. "Legislation in the paint industry concerning the phasing out of volatile organic compounds (VOC) will affect color selection."

Reflecting this switch, German color company RAL has recently developed a special selection of colors, which can be easily replicated from water-based techniques. Plus, the news that water-based paints and coating solutions can be classed as regular rather than commercial waste in some countries is something contractors are looking at as a way to keep carbon footprints low during a development while saving money.

"We actually preempted the introduction of VOC regulations for our customers," said Tomas H'rd, CEO of Scandinavian Color Institute, home of the Natural Color System (NCS). "NCS was the first of the color systems to recognize a potential change in the market and in 1995 ensured all its color samples (swatches) were lead- and cadmium-free and used only EU-approved pigments."

As with many environmental advances, Sweden was leading the way even in the color sphere. At the same time it switched to a new color formulation for its color samples, the Color Institute selected 200 new colors which would be more in line with the way paints and coatings would have to be produced and give color users the opportunity to use more sensitive shades of lower chromatic properties.

VOCs are the gasses emitted from a certain number of solids of liquids. Aside from the inherent toxic properties they are found in a large number of traditional paints and surface coatings, giving the ability to generate more poppy, chromatic colors. In Europe the European SED-Solvent Emission Drive came into play in 2007 and, while companies and users may be upset at not being able to reach certain colors and finishes, the fact is that VOCs are on the way out.

A study by Belgium-based Irfab Chemical Consultants in 2005 highlighted, "Quality and cost restraints," as a key opposing factor to reduced VOCs. It cited that, "In some sectors such as wood finishes it is rather difficult to replace solvent-based coatings since it simply does not result in the desired finish."

In some sectors an alternative 'secondary' solvent abatement was being used but this was not without its own financial drawbacks. Benjamin Moore is one of the biggest producers of paint in the world and commands a vast audience where color is concerned. Carl Minchew, Benjamin Moore's director of color technology said that the impact of VOC regulations has been to drive down the VOC of all paints and reduce the availability of alkyd paints thinned with hydrocarbon solvents. Among the developments and advances from his department in response to the changing market Minchew said, "Benjamin Moore developed a completely new tinting system with no VOC and a new ultra-premium, low VOC product line called Aura. Recently we introduced a high-performance 'green' product with zero VOC called Natura which uses the same tinting system."

However, if according to the research and places like the Scandinavian Color Institute with its Natural Color System, humans do see ten million colors, a small reduction on the availability on those colors is hardly spilled milk. Linking to the VOC laws and the manner in which they will and indeed have been affecting the brights it is possible to achieve, but is it really as big a problem as people fear?

Enberg thinks not. "It's a relatively unknown phenomenon and it only occurs with colors used on exteriors but it does have a huge effect. I suppose you would call it a shift in the perception of color," she said. "Every color has inherent properties (in a neutral state) however there is also the perception of a color, which differs greatly when placed outside. Sunlight, daylight, surrounding colors, surface, texture and the inherent color itself can have an effect on how the human eye takes in that color."

Trained, as with the majority of Swedish architects, in the NCS system Enberg explained that while original study in the phenomenon was carried out by the late Anders H'rd (the originator of the NCS system) a more recent study by Karin Fridell Anter, entitled "What Color is the Red House," shows that this shifting perception of color can be rather staggering.

Enberg said that this is very common in greys, which can be perceived as blues. With paint companies and manufacturers so unaware this happens, she stresses that, "Only with cooperation and transfer of knowledge between not only color systems but between education, architects and companies can color in design and architecture continue to grow.

Citing the cases of RAL and NCS, the introduction of new softer colors does give architects much more to play with and gently move away from black and white, with accuracy being the key to avoiding those costly mistakes. Moving towards the systems themselves, we looked at RAL and NCS and their respective new colors-sympathetic to the VOC laws. But what of the others and what of their relevance to the industry and the ways they can make easier use of color?

"For the industry one of the key areas in which a good color system is becoming more important is in the securing of brands and identity colors for larger multinationals," said Khosla. "We can first identify the brand colors accurately before producing tolerance guides and scales which make sure that companies can get color consistency no matter where they expand to."

For producers this means that if you are also using the same color system to guarantee your own accuracy and consistency you will appeal to a much greater proportion of the contract market. It is a simple matter of logic. IKEA is one such company that used a tolerance guide and range of bespoke color standards developed specially for them by Global Color Management, an arm of the Scandinavian Color Institute. In an age where corporate identity is such a vital part of a successful business, expect to see a growth in this area. In fact, recently a number of multinationals have begun to copyright the colors used in logos.

Color systems have been around since the middle of the 20th century. For the coatings and paint sector success lies in the ability to streamline color collection and secure accuracy in production, saving time and money.

However, in this day and age it is not only about what you can do internally with color but the advantages it can give you in the eyes of your clients. In this case using a color system can make it easier for your clients to get what they want. Call it standardization if you will but let us not ignore we are living in a global marketplace where projects are carried out by many different international entities and in this sense the enhanced ability to communicate your color requirements is essential.

At a glance there are three main color systems for design, architecture and related industries. Pantone, RAL and NCS. Each was developed in the mid 20th century and all exist to fulfill the requirements of industry, giving a user order from chaos as it were. Pantone is arguably the best-known name and is used extensively in the graphics, textiles and fashion sector with affiliations to Adobe and its design suites. On the surface it may appear to have a big range of colors and covers bright, fluorescents and more 'regular' colors and its samples are available as textile formats, the main reason for its use in fashion and soft furnishings. However, tests reveal that while its colors may appear attractive, the cost of reproducing these poppy brights are large and its accuracy of color often very unreliable. Its swatches are only printed and as a result have a tendency to fade quickly. Its suitability for graphics too often end at the production stage when the selection of a screen color (for internet or software use only due to being RGB) will result in a 'back to the drawing board' scenario and the next best color having to be selected.

RAL was developed as a national standard for safety and regulatory use in Germany. Still widely used in the coatings industry, its popularity lies in a new range of colors and the addition of strong metallic shades for industrial use. Its color products are however, more accurate than that of Pantone but its global reach is not that widespread especially an important consideration in this age of outsourcing. Aside from its range of metallics and colors for waterborne paint production, the range of colors is pretty widespread across the spectrum.

The Natural Color System, or NCS, as it is widely known, was developed in a slightly different way-as a means of measuring and identifying color. Essentially it is a language, which gives users the ability to describe any color the human can see using a notation. This means that rather than trying to describe a 'Treacherous Orange' to a supplier on the other side of the world you can simply say you require an NCS S 3050-Y50R. As long as the person on the other end of the phone knows the system they will be able to understand what color you require. NCS has by far the most accurate color system which is very important in this age of international production and its color products will not fade (if used correctly) for up to ten years. As opposed to the other color companies, NCS is based around its system rather than being swatch-driven. It's probably the fastest growing of the three, with many ArchiCad programs like Microstation and Google SketchUp all having NCS palettes and its use in the paint industry is very strong due to its consistency and accuracy.

"There's no recession in color and its impact can, literally, transform a tired space," said Doty Horn, director of color and design for Benjamin More. "Color sells. Color defines. Designers are sometimes signified by a signature color. This is what I call building 'color equity.' They rely on the versatility and the options that color affords them when working with clients and projects."

Right now and indeed looking into the future it is safe to say that the current economic situation will result in a wider use of color in paints and coatings. The public is seeking an escape from the bleakness in the papers and the uncertainty faced by us all. The psychology is simple: color uplifts us.

The new builds are seeing a greater use of external color as a way of enhancing a sense of community and fostering belonging, attachment and pride. "Color is also a language that is best translated when in combination with each other and at its best is such a powerful medium that can single handedly transform a product, space or mood," concluded Horn.

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