Color Forecasting: How Are Color Trends Created?

Color Forecasting: How Are Color Trends Created?

How are these color trends created, who creates them, and are they simply a spontaneous fad? Let’s take a look.

With color forecasting influential in generating billions for the retail sector each year, color trends are no flash in the pan. In fact, color forecasting is a specialist industry, with experts from a range of design and manufacturing backgrounds. Months—even years—of research define the colors that will be the pigment of our lives for the season ahead. 

Looking back in time, it’s clear that color forecasting has deep historical roots, with penchants for particular colors often being the result of social, political, and cultural movements. Plus you will find influences spilling across from fashion, interior design, art, and architecture. 

In this article, we’ll look at how experts create color trends, why they matter for both designers and consumers, and how color has always been and will always be a mirror on the times we live in. 

Set Sail ChampagneSet Sail Champagne, a calm and serene color taken from Shutterstock’s 2021 Color Trend Report.

Color Forecasting: A Short History

Color forecasting cynics point out that the modern forecasting industry is merely a clever (and lucrative) way of regalvanizing demand for fashion and products on a seasonal cycle. Of course, while color forecasting plays a key role in retail and manufacturing industries, the reasons behind why particular colors are selected are often much less commercial in nature.  

Long before color forecasting existed as a discipline, individuals have desired, created, and selected colors for clothing, jewelry, and décor. Some of the earliest color trends were the result of new or specialist methods of producing dyes. One example is Tyrian purple, which was created using the mucus of sea snails in ancient Lebanon. Tyrian purple was incredibly expensive because it was so labor-intensive to produce. This eventually led to people associating purple as a color of royalty. 

Tyrian Purple SnailsThe first color trend? Tyrian purple was all the rage in ancient Lebanon. Image by contributor Phuong D. Nguyen.

Historically, other color trends have had more social origins. In the post-War era, Americans were entranced by cheering, pastel tones. These soft colors broke from the somber olives and drab browns of the 1940s—and with the misery of wartime years.

Later, the invention of Technicolor popularized rich, vivid colors. The technology allowed the brightly-colored costumes worn by stars like Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly to dazzle on-screen in full color for the first time.

Marilyn Monroe and TechnicolorIn the 1950s, Technicolor filming technology sparked a decade-long trend for bright, pastel hues, which went hand-in-hand with renewed social optimism after the wartime period. Left: Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a 1953 movie shot in Technicolor. Image by contributor MovieStore/Shutterstock. Right: The Technicolor headquarters at Paramount Pictures Studios. Image by contributor Ryan J. Thompson.

In more recent times, color has increasingly become a reflection of social, cultural, and even political movements and shifts. After a decade of trends leaning towards ultra-bright and neon colors, which went hand-in-hand with the rise of app design and the increasing use of light-emitting RGB and HEX color models, in the pandemic year, consumers developed a taste for earthier, more grounded colors that calmed rather than over-stimulated.

As the pandemic lingers into 2021, many brands are turning to rainbow palettes and childlike color options to foster optimism. See Apple’s recent iMac launch for just one in a slew of rainbow-hued product releases for 2021.

The color forecasting industry combines these insights into the history, psychology, and desirability of color, and predicts the colors that retailers can use that are intended to tap into our collective color psyche.

Apple's New iMacColor forecasting looks to social trends and psychological research to determine which colors will spark consumer desirability. A case in point—Apple’s new rainbow-hued iMacs for 2021, an optimistic palette in post-pandemic times. Image via Apple.

Who Are Color Forecasters?

Forecasting professionals are experts in the sociology and design of color, and often have backgrounds across design and manufacturing sectors. Tod Schulman, Creative Director of the Pantone Color Institute, has a background in product development for Bloomingdale’s. Meanwhile, Executive Director Leatrice Eiseman holds a degree in psychology and taught in the fields of fashion and interior design before becoming a world-renowned color expert.

The leading forecasting groups are the Pantone Color Institute and the Akzo Nobel Global Aesthetic Center (Dulux). Together they wield the greatest influence over a broad range of design industries, from fashion to graphic design products to interior design, and set seasonal color trends.

A selection of major paint brands are also influential, including Little Greene and Farrow and Ball. Their color choices set the tone for our homes in the slightly longer-term. There are also specialist forecasters that cater to specific industries such as car manufacturing. These industries require color forecasts two to three years in advance to facilitate the design and manufacturing process.

Farrow and Ball Paint BrandSome market-leading paint brands, such as Farrow and Ball (pictured), produce their own color forecasting reports, releasing new, desirable shades on an annual basis. These wield considerable influence across home decorating, interior design, and product design in the months ahead. Image by contributor Hadrian.

Shutterstock also releases an annual Color Trend Report. This report takes a digital-centric approach, using the company’s vast database of search information to decipher which colors are becoming increasingly desirable in twenty countries around the world. Indeed, color forecasters—who take search data and social media into account when creating color trends—are becoming increasingly sought out by businesses looking to take their products and marketing strategies online. 

Tidewater GreenTidewater Green, one of Shutterstock’s trio of color trends taken from its 2021 Color Trend Report.

How Do Color Forecasters Create Color Trends?

Color trends have long-held associations with the fashion industry. As a result, color forecasting is often unfairly dismissed as transient and meaningless. This is an inaccurate assumption about both color forecasting and the seasonal cycle of fashion design. While color forecasting does give renewed vigor to consumer sales, it’s because it’s a tool of smart marketing enabled by even smarter science. 

Months (and even years) of research—across scientific, psychological, social, cultural, and anthropological fields—result in the color or palette of the season. In-depth surveys of consumer response to color, as well as careful observation of design trends, social trends, political developments, and cultural shifts over the previous year are all taken into account when a color authority like Pantone decides on its much-anticipated Color of the Year

Pantone's Colors of the YearPantone chose two Colors of the Year for its 2021 forecast, Illuminating and Ultimate Gray. Image by contributor Alim Yakubov.

Color trends can seem to the individual as if they have emerged from thin air. However, they are (in fact) representative of expert observations from across a wide range of industries and fields. Businesses then use these color trends to produce products that will almost certainly appeal to a wide range of consumers.

You might not know that Fortuna Gold is the color you’ve been looking for. But, once presented to you, these color forecasts often feel perfectly aligned with consumer desires. Many businesses use color forecasting as a key differentiator for their products. Companies like Apple use color trends to create products that feel more aspirational (and, as a result, come with a heftier price tag) than their more affordable product lines. Rose gold iPhone, anyone?

Color has always had an emotional and psychological pull for individuals throughout history. So, color forecasters have developed a sophisticated science that condenses this into a format that consumers and retailers can engage with. 

Fortuna GoldFortuna Gold, a molten, antique gold shade set to be a major color trend in 2021, according to Shutterstock’s search data.

So, How Can I Use Color Trends?

If every company and creative professional used color forecasting intensively in producing branding, products, or work, they’d quickly reach saturation. Color forecasting isn’t intended to be used across the board. In other words, there’s no need to shift everything to yellow and gray if Pantone says that’s what will be trending this year. 

Rather, you can use color forecasting as a marketing tool to tap into audience awareness and psychology. Consumers today are more informed about color, and will recognize that a brand is relevant and forward-looking if they see the brand using familiar color trends. Consumers will also be more responsive to those colors due to the market research that resulted in them.

So, setting a social media ad in forecasted colors is achievable and effective. A complete rebrand that uses this year’s fast-moving trends, however, is probably not a smart idea.

Pantone's Colors of the YearThe fast pace of color forecasting means that full rebrands may not be achievable (or have longevity). However, designs with a short-term circulation, like social media ads, might be the perfect place to use color trends. Image by contributor Igisheva Maria.

It’s a good idea, however, to assess the pace of your industry and what model of color forecasting is appropriate.

The fastest-moving field is fashion, which often requires a completely fresh palette on a seasonal basis. Graphic design and illustration are also relatively fast-paced. Web design, social media, and editorial design all rely on a fast turnaround of trending colors. Product design is a little slower, and furniture even more so, given the speed of design and manufacturing. Large-scale, slower-paced design like architecture or industrial manufacturing might only require color forecasting on a two to three year cycle.

If you’re an illustrator, you might look at color forecasting quite often, evolving your choice of palette every few months. Meanwhile a furniture designer might be more interested in color forecasts that shift on an annual cycle. 

Chair DesignsVitra’s reissue of classic Eames chairs are made available in a new palette of swatches every couple of years (a selection pictured at the Milan Design Fair in 2019). Image by contributor andersphoto.

For creatives and businesses, keep in mind that color forecasting is flexible and intended to help, not hinder. Color trends are the result of sophisticated market research that your business didn’t need to conduct. Color forecasting helps businesses of all types and industries tap into consumer desirability through the simple application of a color palette.

Conclusion: The Future in Color

The color trend industry sees no sign of slowing down. Even in a year when pandemic panic spelled disaster for many businesses, Pantone’s annual color trends were still highly-anticipated and widely publicized by Pantone and external observers alike. 

We see the world in color, but the palette is always in flux. Color forecasting dissects the noise surrounding the cultural and social context of color, and presents something that feels relevant and reflective of a moment in time. 

Interested in color trends? Explore Shutterstock’s 2021 Color Trend Report to pick up inspirational palette ideas for your creative work:

Spring Color Palettes 2021: 10 Color Trends to Spark Joy and Creativity7 Fresh Color Palettes for Designing a New Autumn SeasonFrom Creamy Pastels to Luscious Greens: The Color Palettes of Inner LifeHow Monochromatic Color Palettes Help You Create Elegant DesignsDiscover these Emerging Color Trends in Children’s Design

Cover image via Barry Savage.

The post Color Forecasting: How Are Color Trends Created? appeared first on The Shutterstock Blog.

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