The colour of money

Advertisers and marketing folk are only too aware of the power of colour in generating product recognition and profit. And they are eager to lure the consumer in any way they can. But designers should beware the hard sell, says Gaynor Williams, and keep h


Manchester United versus Southampton. The score is 3-1 – and it is Man. Utd who are losing. Why?

Well, apparently, it’s the colour of their gear. Of the six times the team have lost this season, four of them have been while they were wearing their grey kit. They couldn’t pass the ball, the players complained: they couldn’t even see each other. Eventually, they did the unheard of – they switched kit, mid-game.

So who told them that they could be so cavalier with colour? Like anyone else, footballers obviously need uniforms that are designed so they can do their jobs properly – that will allow form to follow function, so to speak. At the moment, all major sports seem to have bowed to the dictates of Mammon, rather than the sports themselves. So the advertisers and the sponsors call the tune, rather than the players or the fans. Footballers, in particular, are coming on to the pitch wearing the kinds of dayglo colours and go-faster graphics that would look bizarre on a Barbie doll, let alone a grown-up.

As ever, it’s the punters who lose out: the more cynical among us are already asking why, in any case, the stock-listed Man. Utd had introduced yet another 50-a-go shirt so close to the end of the season. I bet the parents who fork out for their young fans are. Anyway, we ask ourselves, is football a game or a growth industry?

The fact that Man. Utd felt they had to change colours mid-game tells us better than anything how important colour and design actually are in product recognition. Does it also suggest something about corporate greed?

Supermarket tricksters

On the subject of colour, the supermarkets have been found out. One minute, TV presenter Judith Hahn is telling consumers to watch out for the food dyes in their tomatoes and fresh salmon; the next, The Guardian newspaper runs an exposé on the ways superstores reduce you to a state of mild sedation, then manipulate your every mood.

It is a great shame that the huge improvements in food production and service to the consumer that have been made since the last war have had to become tainted in this way. The food industry is seen as Big Brother: the packaging and interior designers who work with the huge supermarket conglomerates are, by implication, Big Brother’s servants. The whole game is one of deception.

I would always choose to have a beautiful item of packaging in my home in preference to an ugly one. As a result, I have a nice collection of attractively styled but essentially useless products rebuking me from my shelves.

Yet again, designers have to beware of becoming the bogeymen in our profoundly anti-visual culture. At its best, packaging can be a masterpiece of information design (think of Lee & Perrins), and supermarket design the salvation of many a busy family, viz. the latest improvements at Asda. I notice that Tesco, meanwhile, has become the choice venue for wheelchair users because of its wide aisles and low gondolas. Designers have always told me their briefs are to make the atmosphere “clinical” and “clean-looking”. But if this is true, and supermarket lighting is expressly designed to reduce shoppers to a trance-like state (by reducing the number of times they blink), that is tantamount to an infringement of civil liberties – no matter how pleasant customers find the experience. I suppose both client and designer must keep honesty in mind as much as the hard sell.

Fundholding is dropping

Talking about the hard sell, remember fundholding? The reformation of the NHS that was hawked so furiously by doctors and politicians alike is apparently going sour.

A growing number of GP practices are pulling out of the scheme. Initially, early fundholding practices provided a bonanza for designers and architects with ambitious refurbishment and building programmes: in a survey of 539 practices, two-thirds had spent their savings on premises. This year, fundholding budgets are being cut back as the nation girds its loins for a General Election, and probably an attempt at tax cuts. So, yet another source of income for design practices is drying up.

Still, it’s an ill wind: only 14 per cent of practices had spent their extra funds on their patients.

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