Breaking the Dull Barrier: Dynamics of Color Selection and Graphic Design

by Michael Paloian, President, Integrated Design Systems

When engineers refer to design they are typically thinking about how the part will be created or how it will perform after it is manufactured. Their concerns are typically focused on part geometry, material properties and other technical parameters.

However, most consumers and managers are usually influenced by how the product looks. The subtle engineering and complex performance issues usually go unnoticed. Typically, they have little effect on customer satisfaction or their influence on the purchase decision.

On the other hand, color and graphic design do have a major influence on product identity, customer reaction and overall general impression. Color selection, surface finish and graphics can be as important to a product’s design as its performance.

Creating Dynamic Interaction with Graphics and Color

Bright primary colors such as red, yellow or blue will impart boldness, youthfulness and playfulness to a product. Conversely, subtle colors such as off-whites, shades of grey, pastels and beige will impart a more serious overtone to a product.

The use of different colors within the same product will add still another dimension to the overall design and product identity. Eye-catching product designs often make use of bright color highlights applied to key product areas. These sections are often distinguished by an interesting curve or sculpted form.

Creating color breaks requires a good sense of proportion, and artistic skill. The proportion of the highlight color to the overall main color must be carefully balanced so as to create visual tension. Complementary colors will create more contrast and a more emphatic statement than harmonious colors.

Interesting color combinations are also achieved when bright highlight colors are placed adjacent to somewhat neutral grays, blacks and off-whites. Examples of such color combinations are attained when a predominantly black product is highlighted with a small, bright, eye-popping red part or section. A large, cool, light gray surface can be made interesting when a small section of a complementary orange-yellow or warm green is added to a minor detail.

Color choices are often defined by four parameters:

  • Contrast of Hue: defined by the undiluted color such as red, blue or yellow, etc.
  • Light-dark Contrast: defined by the color’s shade toward the white or black end of the grey scale
  • Cold-warm Contrast: cold and warm tonal values are dependent upon the amount of blue or red added to a base pigment
  • Complementary Contrast: complementary colors are red and green, blue and orange and yellow and purple

Fortunately, color specification has been standardized and made universal to a great extent by referring to PMS colors published by Pantone. Although the Pantone color chart does not represent all the possible colors, it does simplify color specifications and mixtures by offering a color chart designated by numbers and letters.

Additional interest is attained when graphics are applied to surfaces to enhance shape, convey an impression or simply display important information. Significant advancements in applying graphics to products have been made in recent years, providing a wide line of graphic materials. Product branding has become an important part of many projects as a result of these vast improvements in graphic technologies.

This brief discussion of colors and graphics is part of my ongoing effort to share the many factors associated with product design. Color and graphics should be thought of as an integral part of product design. In addition to marketing benefits, color selection will affect molding, tolerances, safety and long-term outdoor performance. Next time you select a color, remember its effect on the user and your product image.