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  • Writer's pictureJonn Langan

Why choosing colour isn’t a black or white decision

This article was originally posted in Ssachs Magazine and expands and explores the points made to further explore the subject of using colour effectively within the design process. This extended version goes further to discuss implementing new colour into a current colour palette can be a tricky process.

I remember back in art class when we were first introduced to the concept of a colour wheel. The idea that you could mix primary colours together to create secondary and tertiary colours was mind blowing for little Jonny.

At the time I thought this was magic, how combining two completely different pigments together could make completely new colours. Mixing combinations offered endless possibilities and was immensely satisfying. So, little did I know how important colour mixing was to be to the products I designed.

In fact, colour (and its application) is so important to the design process, and getting it wrong can mean an instant no from a buyer or customer, irrespective of the quality of the finished product. So, combined with the importance of reducing waste and designing more efficiently, choosing and applying colours to a project is fundamental to get right.

On the surface, the idea of colours seems fairly simple. You choose a colour, or combination of colours. You lab dip them, approve the lab dips and voila the fabric is produced! . . . . er no, if only it was that simple. The process of choosing, applying and realising colours needs some careful consideration and planning to get the right results, and here’s why.

Going through the mill

Working with yarn and fabric mills can be both exciting and frustrating in equal measure. As what seems to be the simple process of lab dipping can lead to an increasing frustrating situation as the material sign off for production comes ever closer. This frustration often comes from lab dips not coming in correctly and them needing to be re-issued time and time again, only to have variations on the same disappointing result.

But if you look at the factors that go into a creating a lab dip, you will start to see why you are maybe not seeing the result you had hoped for. When going back to the principles of the colour wheel, and you think about how hard it can be to mix certain colours and then apply that to a line of communication to a mill or dye house, you can start to see where confusion might start to occur.

Colours are mixed through a recipe and can be adjusted depending on the types of dyes used, but essentially it is not as simple as choosing a Pantone reference number and a material and off you go. It is important to consider the yarn type, dying process and desired colour saturation when making this choice.

For example some colours can be harder to dye than others on certain yarns. Sometime you can get a good saturation and depth to a colour, only to see that the colour fastness to light or rub is appalling. Or maybe the base material dyes up fine, but with the finishes and coatings to a material the colour can change significantly, often becoming washed out or faded.

A lot of dye houses & mills can adjust recipes, use different dye types or try different finishes to help get closer to the desired colour on certain fabric, but sometimes it is best to do your research by looking at what colours have already been dyed up in the desired fabric and comparing them to what you are trying to achieve, before making your decision on colour.

Often a simple conversation with the fabric manufacturer will highlight where they may have issues with a colour hue or level of saturation, so that an early decision can be made on both the material choice and the colour.

Every cloud has a silver lining

Understanding that lab dipping can be a difficult process to control can be frustrating, but it can also lead to opportunities when balanced within the planning of an entire collection.

Using your knowledge gained from the conversations you have had with a mill, you can plan an outfit or merchandising plan around what you can best expect to achieve. This can mean using a shaded colour concept for each colour in your collection to better control the results you may get from each fabric.

Knowing that each yarn will dye up differently is especially important when you are balancing fabrics and material types from many different mills, within a merchandising collection or even within a single garment. So looking at where you can best achieve certain colour hues and saturations can lead to some beautiful merchandising concepts.

Essentially, with a little planning and considerations for the logistics of dying materials you can both save time in the lab dipping process, and have more confidence in creating collections that feel considered and refined.

Decisions that can last a lifetime

So as you can see there is a great responsibility to undertake when choosing colour and it is a decision that should not be taken lightly. In this new world where we are all re-looking at our values to build more responsible, longer lasting garments, colour is an important factor that can change how we feel about a product.

For years the seasonal attitude to colour has been driven down our throats and choosing new seasonal colours was deemed as a necessity to keep product relevant, but is this still true? For sure colour is something that can change the way we feel about a product and new colours can refresh items to continue their lifespan, but the decision to update colour automatically every season seems an outdated concept.

With defined seasons blending together, product type and product lifespan come to mind when deciding on when to change or add a colour to a product. For example it is hard to justify adding a seasonal trend colour to an expensive jacket when the colour trend may be obsolete 6 months later.

So, the important decision to make is to look at how the seasonal trends will affect your core business and how long do you expect them to be part of your brand story. If the seasonal trend looks to be fleeting but could also be an effective update to a collection, then maybe looking at shorter life span products like t-shirts, mid-layers and accessories, can be a great way to refresh a look. This enables collections to stay relevant, without either compromising the range planning for long lifespan products, or your desire to evolve a colour story to keep things fresh.

Evolution or Revolution

When it comes to new seasons or times when it is identified that there needs to be colour palette refresh, what do you do? Generally there are 2 main principles you can adopt.

Either evolve the colour palette that you currently adopt adding additional colours and dropping colours which are deemed old or surplus to requirements, keeping best selling colours (which are often classified as core).

Or you can completely revolve a colour palette, starting fresh and building a colour palette that changes completely the visual impact of the brand. This adoption of a revolved colour palette is often used when a brand needs to completely change the whole ethos and brand identity, or when there is a new direction or collection that needs an injection of impact.

Depending on the situation, these approaches are more or less effective, but what sometime happens is that a brand attempts to combine these approaches to both keep the recognition & association of a colour palette with a brand.

A good example of a brand taking this route is when Mammut rebooted their design direction after Adrian Margelist came onboard as the CCO, back in April 2017, to modernise the brands output. He set about redefining what Mammut stood for as a technical outdoor brand.

Adrian looked to moving them towards what he calls Urbaneering, “a mix of highly functional materials, cut with a fashion statement”. As a result he first injected an revolve principle and brought softer, “non-traditional outdoor ” colours in to signify a statement approach to the new direction.

At the same time Adrian looked to use an evolve principle in some core product areas. Essentially he took the Mammut signature mountaineering colour palette of electric blue and tangerine orange, and evolved it to focus on the orange as a technical highlight, with a more modern navy & crisp white base as the impactful adaptation of the original concept.

This combination of approaches attempted to both refresh and infuse the outdoor market with a new take on outdoor and then brought the markets attention to a modern take on their signature colour story.

So the next time your are asked to refresh a colour palette, try to think about how a colour will work on each fabric, how the colour can be merchandised and how long to you expect the colour to be relevant on each product. This alone can save you a ton of material development time and offer a more effective brand strategy to both reap more effective financial gains, but also eliminate wasted efforts and products.

For more on the utilisation of colour, implementing new colour principles and building future proofed colour palettes, contact Jonn at

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