Hello Yellow

For the ancient Greeks, yellow represented fire and sun, while to Christians and Hindus it means life and truth. In the West, it’s associated with cowardice. In this, the fourth and final part of our colour series, Fay Sweet looks at the many guises of ye

Dale Russell, Russell Studio:

Yellow is a metaphor of the natural, encompassing spiritual and material reality from the acrid bitterness of bile to the optimistic radiance of the sun.

Will Alsop, Alsop & Strmer:

Yellow at your peril. In large quantities, this colour depresses me.

William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night: He will come to her in yellow stockings, and ’tis a colour she abhors.

Eva Jiricna: If it is a bright, clear

yellow, it cheers me up, lifts my spirits and generates optimism all over.

William Wordsworth: … when all at once I saw a crowd, a host of golden daffodils.

It’s cold and it’s hot, it’s lemon and custard, it’s spring flowers and autumn leaves, it’s sophisticated and brash – yellow is a paradox.

In food packaging, yellow is both the chicken and the egg. “There are well-established colour codes that food producers loyally adhere to,” says Colin Mechan, creative director of Cheltenham design group FLB. “Poultry products are yellow, lamb is green, beef is red and for some reason pork is blue. Refrigerated dairy products tend to be blue too. It’s the same with crisps – red for plain, green for cheese and onion and so on, but occasionally we see someone breaking out. Pepsi’s change to blue, for example, was a bold attempt to be different. And there was Walker’s, which achieved a coup with its crisps when traditional colours were switched around and suddenly cheese and onion flavour appeared in blue bags.”

Mechan is a firm believer in the emotional power of colour, and recently used yellow as the key colour in packaging for a range of Sun Valley prepared foods.

“The pack had a black wrapper which showed off the product photograph really well and provided a good contrast with the food inside, but it was felt to be too aggressive and the company wanted to readdress that,” he explains. “We took the brand name as the starting point. Sun Valley has very powerful brand equity, and to focus on the idea of sunshine we chose a rich yellow as the base colour. However, instead of using that as a single flat colour, we animated it to perform like sunshine.”

Mechan has used the label shape, colours and photography to build up a subtle, sunny kitchen “story” on the label. “The wrapper has two curved, cut-out ‘windows’ at the top edge to show off the product. From here the label has graduated colour, like sunshine bursting into a room. A glowing halo, created in a Scitex system, emerges from behind the bottom of the Sun Valley logo and continues behind the photograph of the food product – like a beam of light hitting it. To add just a little more emphasis to the yellow in the product, it was photographed with a yellow gel on the lights.”

To focus attention entirely on the product, the edges of the “room” are considerably darker than the middle. And to get the very best printed result, yellow was specified as a special colour, along with an orange tint. Says Mechan: “Using such a literal translation of the brand name has made the yellow a very emotional part of the packaging.”

Mechan usually uses yellow sparingly. “Because it’s a colour with such high visibility, I think of it as a violator – a flash for promotions, a highlighter. If you slap magenta over the top to create type in a rich red and place it against black, you’ve got the brightest combination imaginable. I also think of it as essentially a fun colour,” he says.

Fun was certainly uppermost in the minds of London consultancy Skidmore Turnbull when working on stationery and promotional material for the new satellite and cable quiz channel Challenge TV. “We were given the logo – the blue and red question mark on yellow – and took it from there,” says creative director Treve Ripley. “We used yellow liberally and the effect is deliberately cheesy, brash and cheeky. It’s a reflection of the channel’s style and target audience of families and children.” Ripley adds that yellow is a favourite on countless family and children’s shows – it’s almost become the colour of family entertainment.

The printed material includes letterheads, Trivial Pursuit-style business cards and a bright yellow folder. “The rounded corners were to reinforce the idea that this is a company that’s friendly and approachable, bright, attractive, fun and charismatic,” says Ripley.

The large areas of yellow, particularly on the folder, provided a printing challenge. “We tried proofing it in four colours and it looked terrible, too muddy, so then we specified yellow, a good strong Pantone 116, as a special colour and that made all the difference – it’s more expensive because it involves another pass through the machine, but it’s got the cleanness and brightness we were looking for.”

At the other extreme, the most sparing use of yellow can have an equally powerful effect. For its recent move across London, Lapot Design sent out change of address cards in the company livery of black and white – but with yellow as an accent colour. The front of the black card simply bore the words “swapping precincts” – into this were woven yellow highlights picking out “SW6” and “EC1”.

“We’d never attempt to show a yellow on white, but when shown against black, yellow becomes really bold,” says Kate Hutchison of Lapot. “Although the company colours are black and white, we do use yellow occasionally to attract attention. For example, we issue press releases on a self-coloured Fabriano Ingres 614 giallo oro paper. It’s also used in proposals – the covers are black and title sheets inside are yellow.”

London consultancy Roundel Design has chosen yellow as an integral part of its corporate identity and, in complete contrast with Lapot, uses the colour on white. “We use it on the back of our stationery,” says John Bateson. “It’s an ideal colour if you want to avoid show through – darker colours like red or blue make the front of the sheet rather gloomy.”

Bateson adds that while the company has used yellow for years, it has changed over time: “In the Eighties it was a warmer, muddier colour. However, for the Nineties we have moved towards the cleanness of chrome yellow.”

Yellow in highlighting, and as a warning colour, is well understood by Roundel through its work on railway colour systems. “Back in the Sixties, train buffer beams used to be red. Then yellow was discovered as a more visible colour, but only when used in contrast with a dark background,” says Bateson. “Since then, it’s been adopted as a standard safety colour and has moved outside railways to organisations such as the Automobile Association.

“In the railways, yellow is also adopted internationally as the colour of first-class travel – perhaps it’s the closest colour to gold – and we used it recently in work for the Hong Kong railway system. However, because it’s such a high visibility colour, it must be used with respect.”

Colourful language

It seems to have been an incredibly long time coming, but at last that most colour-conservative of all industries – white goods manufacturing – is letting go of its icy grip on polar white.

“We’re in a catch-up situation in this industry. We’ve been very naive about the potential of colour, but have recently realised that the consumer is quite a long way ahead of the industry and the retailer,” says Mark Quigley, strategic planning manager at Hotpoint.

“Taking our cue from the motor industry, we produced a range of new machines in interesting, more rounded, organic shapes and tested them for consumer reactions,” says Quigley. “People said they liked the new designs, but could they have them in colour? We approached a number of consultants and chose Haydon Williams. He was already working for a kitchen furniture manufacturer, so he knew the market area. He was also working with short and long-term industries, such as sports equipment and cars, and so we felt he had a good overview.”

Hotpoint had enjoyed success with its refrigerators in bright blue, red, green and charcoal, and suggested to Williams that those colours transfer to washing machines. “‘Absolutely not, he said’,” says Quigley. “‘While people don’t mind buying coloured fridges, they don’t want every box in the kitchen to jump out at them.’ It was a good point.”

The colours to emerge were a warm white, natural linen and a very dark, metallic grey called Mercury. “The linen is intended to work well with the natural wood finishes found in so many kitchens, while Mercury is ideal for the more high-tech kitchens with lots of stainless steel,” says Quigley. The machines were also given special laminate tops. Instead of using existing laminates, Williams worked with ink and paper manufacturers to devise bespoke laminate patterns to work closely with the machine body colours.

Although acknowledging it had to change, Hotpoint was unsure about how the notoriously conservative trade would react to the new colours. “We completed our presentations just before Christmas and the response was very good,” says Quigley. “Then we launched the items to the trade in a show in February, complete with a video of Haydon Williams explaining the reasons for the changes. The response was fantastic. The first machines arrived in shops in March, and already we are seeing a tremendous consumer reaction which looks set to add 2 or 3 per cent to our share of the market sector.”

Hotpoint has been quite taken aback by the results, which it is convinced have won long-term strategic advantage as well as reinforcing brand identity. “When we started the project, we had no idea of the scale of opportunities out there,” says Quigley. “After years of selling our machines on performance and reliability, we have now opened up a whole new marketing opportunity by also selling on style and colour. The addition of colour has been dramatic.” The relationship with Williams continues and work is in progress on other areas of Hotpoint’s production, including cookers and dishwashers.

For Williams, the best news in recent years is the significant sea-change in thinking by manufacturers. “Where people once thought of colour as an add-on, they now call us in at the research and development stage of a project,” he says. “There is better understanding of how colour can be used – people know there’s much more to it than just saying that red is for fast food.”

Based in south west London, Haydon Williams International predominantly employs designers and experts in textiles. “We specialise in the texture and finish of products, their aesthetic appearance and their emotional appeal,” says Williams. “I can’t say that a particular red or blue is in fashion this year, it depends on the market, the application and the product. A colour consultant takes a logical approach to the analysis of the market, followed by intuitive jumps and technical problem-solving. This is all combined with commercial awareness.”

The consultancy works closely with the client manufacturer’s technical departments -“they have forgotten more about process than we’ll ever know” – and marketing staff – “they’re likely to be the ones to approach us in the first place. They’ve seen the competition and feel they should be addressing change more vigorously. That, typically, is when we get called in.”

Williams believes attention to colour can work for all products, from cars to cast-iron: “It’s part of your sales armoury, and is disregarded at your cost.” However, the sophistication of the market should never be under- estimated. “The consumer is very alert to colour use. For example, it’s no good trying to use garish colours on children’s products just because they’re for a young market. Children are very discerning, and garish colours are now associated with cheapness. One of the challenges when working with lower-price products is to make them look really good.”

Materials and technology are a vital part of the equation, says Williams, who adds that types of colours considered undesirable or impossible two or three years ago are now being put to use. “A perfect example of this is the car market where we are seeing many more interference colours – the refractive two-tone effect achieved by layers of base and transparent overlays.”

While the best consultants clearly have a great deal to offer, they can be difficult to find. Dale Russell, a designer, colourist and partner at Russell Studio with clients including BT, Ford and Ideal Standard, says that there are really very few specialists around – especially those with expertise in new product development. “Every job I’ve had has come through recommendation and word of mouth. It’s a very small world and, because we know each other, we have an agreement that if we are approached by someone who wants advice in a field outside our own, we pass them on to someone who can help.”

But if you don’t know Russell or one of her colleagues, where do you start? An obvious choice might be to contact the Design Council, the Chartered Society of Designers or the Design Business Association… but you will be disappointed. A call round these offices proved fruitless; perhaps a revamped Design Council design register should include some names? The one helpful suggestion came from a receptionist…

“Have you tried Yellow Pages?”

Colour training

The Colour Design Research Unit at London’s South Bank University has been been established as a colour resource centre and offers consultancy and training. Unit head Hilary Dalke, who has experience as a designer, manufacturer and lecturer, has recently worked on a variety of projects. These include corporate identity with design groups, and compiling colour trends in the domestic interiors business for PVC producers. Colour training is aimed at designers, retailers, sales personnel and technical directors. Courses include the one-day Introduction to Colour in Industry, which covers areas such as colour and food, colour in surface-pattern design and colours that sell. For further details, contact Hilary Dalke on 0171-815 8176.

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