Breathing colour into brands

Hella Jongerius’s exhibition Breathing Colour, at the Design Museum in Kensington, gave us pause for thought.

6 mins read | Mark Longworth, Anouska Craig, Rachel Jones

Breathing colour into brands
Breathing colour into brands

The exhibition explored the ways light can cause the colours of objects to change throughout the day. Jongerius’s woven textiles, lacquered vases and multi–faceted ‘colour catchers’ were startling and wonderful. We got to thinking more deeply about the ways that colour can shape what we perceive.

For Jongerius, an industrial designer, colours that are standardised and industrially produced are just a small part of the picture. She shows how colour changes its characteristics by taking its cues from condition and context: the geometry and the material of an object a colour is printed on, for example; or the fact it’s emitted from a computer screen rather than seen on printed paper stock.

The exhibition showed faceted grey vessels that picked up hues from surroundings, and 300 vibrant vases glazed using techniques that were abandoned long ago, commercially, because their results are inconsistent. Taking a more provisional approach to colour can allow it to have a life of its own. “It’s unbelievable how colours can breathe if you use them right,” says Jongerius.

Play it safe – or time for a bolder approach?

It’s an argument that made us think about how brands choose and use their colours – and about whether a more provisional approach can have commercial value, too. Many play it safe, but there are risks to this strategy. If you pick predictable colours (corporation blue, environmental green or urgent–appeal red), you may diminish your ability to stand apart from your competitors. Over time, your brand may risk becoming part of the furniture.

For other brands, control is key. Choosing and using a single colour palette may help them to create and maintain recognition and association, but this approach (‘owning’ particular colours) risks becoming dry and lifeless.

Some brands aren’t afraid to experiment. They don’t settle for the usual options. Instead, those who create them use imagination in their approach to colour, just as they do in every other aspect of the brand. Instead of ‘what will work?’ these brands, like Jongerius, ask ‘what’s possible?’

Brands that use colour flexibly include Google Campus, a global network of spaces operated by Google for Entrepreneurs, with the aim of helping start–ups grow. With hubs all over the world, the brand employs a bright, distinct colour palette for each one to capture its energy and individuality.


Google campus

The Irish telecommunications company Eircom, rebranded as ‘Eir’, has launched a campaign that takes a much bolder, no–holds–barred, Warholesque approach to colour: “Life is colourful and so are we”. Colour itself becomes part of “a palette of elements” that includes type. Just as air/‘eir’ is an element, so is colour – and its colours change according to context. Even so, the combinations it uses might, in the words of one commentator, “make you wish you were at least 50% colour blind”. 



Build change into your palette

Not all brands can (or should) be this bold, but Hella Jongerius shows in her work the value of experimenting and looking for new options. Perhaps it’s just being prepared to build change into the palette. While it can be beneficial to stick to tried–and–tested colours established in a particular sector, sometimes it’s more interesting to see what’s possible, even if that might risk looking different from each angle, and being less easy to control.

In the financial sector, brands such as Barclays Bank have traditionally made use of the colour blue. It feels safe, evokes a sense of calm and trustworthiness, and can help to make a brand feel established. Using this colour helps to communicate what the brand does, and indicates there will be no surprises. But it can also look stale and predictable. Last year, NatWest’s mini revamp boadened its core brand palette – adding purple, turquoise, mustard and red – while retaining its distinctive ‘cube’ logo. It enabled a fresher and more youthful look to its marketing.



Natwest ipad

Taking a step away from colour, First Direct was a pioneer in defining its visual identity in black and white. This helped it shake off negative connotations associated with traditional banking brands, and promote itself as a ‘no nonsense’ bank. More recently, Monzo and Atom, two brands that see themselves as disruptors within the financial sector, have taken big steps with colour to differentiate their offerings and emphasise their differences within the industry. Monzo (“it’s time for a new kind of bank”) uses a neon pink for its payment cards, while Atom has been even more daring, allowing its customers to choose a colour palette to customise its logo, making their mobile app experience highly personal (with 1.4 million possible colour combinations).

Atom Monzo bank logo


Today, each brand has its own brand community. While some expressions of a brand are essential, others are more exploratory. Colour affects these equations. Do those who invest or participate in your brand appreciate familiarity? Or might they welcome the possibility of change and evolution?

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