Selecting a Color Palette – Expert Advice

by | Jan 2, 2007

It’s not hard to persuade a designer that color matters. But persuading Fortune 500 companies? You might be surprised. Color consultant Leatrice Eiseman has carved out a major career in helping companies “make correct choices in colors that sell.”


“Color trends should never replace the inherent ability of a designer to create color combinations, but simply provide a jump start to their own fertile imaginations and to demonstrate that they are ‘on top of’ trends.”

Leatrice Eiseman, Color Consultant


Author of The Color Answer Book, Colors for Every Mood, and the Pantone Guide to Communicating with Color, Leatrice jets around the country consulting with businesses on color strategy, forecasting color trends, and raising the profile of color in general. Scott Chappell cornered her with some questions.

Q: In your seminars you talk a lot about the psychological and emotional aspects of color. Do you think the meaning and psychology of color is a learned behavior or are we genetically predisposed to have specific responses to different colors?

Leatrice: Both of the above!  Most of our response to color is learned through our cultural background–however, there is evidence that points to a collective memory or prehensile retention that creates more than a psychological effect.  For example, how can we not respond to red?  Our eye is inevitably drawn to it as it represents symbolically fire and bloodshed–warning signals that humans have always responded to. That is stored in the memory bank, and passed on from generation to generation, so that today red creates a physiological effect of increased adrenalin flow, a quickening of heart rate and pulse.

Q: Where should decisions about color palette occur in the design process?

Leatrice: Way up at the top.  I believe that the essential design should come first and then the appropriate color is selected.

Q: We couldn’t agree more, but clients can be hard to convince. What are some resources that a professional designer can use to support or sell their color decisions?

Leatrice:   I think it is important to use credible resources like myself (she says modestly) and especially books that help to support choices. My book, the Pantone Guide to Communicating with Color (Grafix Press) contains credible information that can help to substantiate color combinations and explain the psychology behind each color family.  It is important to make that kind of reasoning part of the rationale when delivering to a client. That always helps to make a stronger case. There is also a chapter on where and how to look for trends that would be helpful in answering the first question posed above.

Q:  Can you tell us about the process of color forecasting?  Who decides what the “in” colors will be? And how do they decide?

Leatrice: Essentially this is done by color forecasting “experts” (such as me) who belong and contribute to color forecasting groups such as the Color Marketing Group or the Pantone View Color Planner.  I also do a home furnishings forecast that can be translated into usage by the graphics industry. This is available on the Pantone Web site (http://www.pantone.com) under “fashion and architecture”.

Q:  Are color trends medium-dependent?  If you consider the visual communications like Web and television and print, and consumer goods like cars and clothing and television–what is it that makes colors more “relevant” or “appropriate”…or just “work” in one medium and not in another?

Leatrice:   I find that there is a bigger crossover than one might think. The only real issue is visual contrast as on the Web and in print, legibility and visibility is of major importance.  But the forecasts can be used as a guideline. As I state in my talks to graphics and print people, color trends should never replace the inherent ability of a designer to create color combinations, but simply provide a jump start to their own fertile imaginations and to demonstrate that they are “on top of” trends.  It also helps to refresh one’s work or concepts.

Q: Can color trends only be validated by established brands?  Is there significant risk to being ahead of the color trend curve if a business does not have a well-established product or identity?

Leatrice:   Yes, there is a risk in being ahead of the curve.  On the other hand, the innovative use of color might be just the thing to create more attention to your brand. And it can certainly earn more attention in the press for the brand.  Even though Apple was widely known, they took a step way ahead of anyone else in the computer world when they introduced the iMac.  They will never sell as much as the PC makers, but they earned more market share when they introduced their colors.

This post was authored by NoD staff. Notes on Design is a design industry blog sponsored by Sessions College for Professional Design.

If you are interested in learning more about using color, Sessions College offers a Color Theory course and many other graphic design courses for students at all levels. Contact Admissions for more information.

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