color wheel

We recently visited the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s exhibition, “Saturated: The Allure and Science of Color.” The exhibition covers the development of color theory, and traces its application from antiquity to modern times through more than 190 objects. The director of the museum, Caroline Baumann, emphasizes that the exhibit “advances our understanding of what can be achieved when we experiment and innovate with color.”

We know from our branding work that corporate applications of color theory abound. Here are our top three branding takeaways from “Saturated: The Allure and Science of Color,” as they apply to the use of color for your business.

1. Use Trendy Colors the Right Way

Just like topics on Twitter, brand colors trend in and out of style. This has produced a demand for “color forecasting,” the art of predicting what colors will be popular in the future. PeclersParis, a trend-forecasting agency that specializes in this practice, produces a biannual Colors Trend Brook, a featured item at the exhibition. While PeclersParis’ forecasts are used most often by fashion designers and creators of consumer products, they have value in the B2B space. Trending colors can help to inspire a design team, and can be applied to future marketing campaigns to leverage established popularity.

2. Let Color Clarify

In a feature called “Navigating Color,” the museum shows how color can organize information and clarify intent. One of our favorite examples is the Prototype for New York City Subway Map by Michael Hertz Associates, designed in 1978. The first design iteration used the same color for all train lines, making it hard to distinguish between the lines. In the final design, a distinct color is used for each line, providing optimal visual clarity. Corporate charts and infographics also benefit from the use of color for definition and emphasis, and to help customers find their way through product offerings.

comparison of maps

On the left, the first iteration. Right, the final color design, still used today.

3. Color Choice is a Differentiator

Color choices can make a brand stand out, or blend into the pack. One striking example at the exhibition was the Jonathan Ive design for the original iMac. The bright, neon colors Ive chose for the computer’s case differentiated the computer from its beige competitors — and signaled the delight customers would find inside. As Steve Jobs said, “for most consumers, color is more important than megahertz, gigabytes, and other gibberish associated with buying a typical PC.” Choosing a color that is unexpected in your industry is still a valuable way to capture attention in a competitive space. And Jobs’ quote also speaks to a key mandate of any business: understand your customer, and anticipate what will attract them to your offering.

Our takeaway: use color wisely to inform and define — and don’t be afraid to let color bring excitement and joy to your brand.

“Saturated: The Allure and Science of Color” closes on January 13th, 2019.

Images courtesy of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum