A Peek Inside the World of Colour Forecasting

August 1, 2018 Updated: August 1, 2018

Earlier this year, in a Manhattan conference room littered with half-eaten lunches, water bottles, laptops, and easels, a group of colour forecasters from PPG Brands was wrapping up a week of work.

They came up with recommendations that will influence the colours and finishes we’re likely to see in 2017 on a wide variety of products, including appliances, cars, phones, airplanes, paints, beverage cans, even holiday ornaments. They also picked a colour of the year.

PPG Brands—which makes paint, coatings, and materials for industries ranging from architecture and aerospace to automotive and consumer products—is just one of many companies that produce colour forecasts.

At this Manhattan meeting, the forecasters were deep-diving into colour decks, field research reports, magazines, books, and each other’s heads. The easels were covered with inspiration swatches, photos and descriptive phrases. One “mood board” listed the words “timeless,”  “memories,” “diamond patterns,” and “ticking stripes” under the header “Nostalgia.”

Small groups sprawled on the carpet with card-filled recipe boxes. They brainstormed, laying out arrays of coordinating colours that looked like mosaics, or game boards. Cards were edited in and out, until the palettes came together and there was a universal nod of satisfaction.

“We start really loose and abstract, then we take those organic concepts and make them more concrete,” said Allison Heape, a colour team leader from Long Beach, California.

At the end of the session, the group prepared an extensive file of themes, colours and finishes from which designers and manufacturers can draw.

Dee Schlotter, senior colour marketing manager for PPG’s paint brands, in Pittsburgh, oversaw the forecast session.

“We draw inspiration from global influences,” she said. “The team considers what’s happening in society, fashion, nature and elsewhere, and delves into things that resonate with consumers.

“For example, did a significant event take place this year, and are there colours that connect with it that capture the feelings it may have created?”

For instance, she said, “After 9/11, soft pink, a compassionate colour, and chocolate brown, a grounding colour, bubbled to the surface in home decor because they resonated with how people were feeling at the time.”

A few years later, greys became popular and dominated the neutrals category, she said, “because with the state of the economy and of the world, the hue felt right.”

The forecasters also consider lifestyle and demographics. A Texas baby boomer may want different paint colours than a millennial in Oregon does, for example.

The team also develops palettes around popular hues.

“Let’s say pale beige is trending,” Schlotter said. “It can seem dated, but when it’s next to a dark granite grey, or an orange-red, it becomes fresh and new; different from the beige a baby boomer remembers from the ’80s.”

Does the forecast team ever disagree?

“We have more than 20 stylists from six countries and four different industries, so the discussion’s quite lively. We’re all passionate colour enthusiasts,” she said.

But this year, the Colour of the Year choice was unanimous.

PPG shows Violet Verbena as their 2017 colour of the year. The grayish purple colour is considered gender and age neutral, and is ubiquitous in the natural world. (PPG Paints via AP)
PPG shows Violet Verbena as their 2017 colour of the year. The grayish purple colour is considered gender and age neutral, and is ubiquitous in the natural world. (PPG Paints via AP)

“Violet Verbena dominated trends reports from every industry and geographical region,” Schlotter said.

The colour is a greyish violet. The forecasters liked its gender and age neutrality, as well as its presence in the natural world, from amethysts to outer space. Those factors should make it appealing to a wide audience, they felt, but the team won’t know for sure till products begin to roll out.

Schlotter is optimistic. Pop culture moments such as the death of Prince in April and a new purple tea drink at Starbucks should draw consumers toward the colour purple over the next year, she said. The trend is already visible: This summer, the company Big Chill launched a limited-edition collection of appliances in purple.