Ever Wonder How a Color of the Year Is Decided?
I shadowed the experts to find out.
Updated Sep 29, 2021 6:41 AM
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I walked into a room covered in paper. Magazine clippings, gradient paint swatches, and posters dotted with scribbled words like embolden and disruptive littered every available surface. I hadn’t accidentally stumbled into an art class—I was crashing PPG Paints’s annual internal color of the year selection event.
The Global Color Forecasting Workshop is a two-and-a-half-day process. Hours of presentations and brainstorms culminate in one decisive pick for the following year’s trending hue—yes, we’re already talking about 2021. Day one is for “homework”: Experts from 11 countries and every industry under the sun—environmental studies and chemistry, architecture and engineering—share findings about the current atmosphere in their respective areas. (One woman, from Singapore, was on a mission to bridge the gap between cookware and color.) Day two is deliberation time.
I arrived right in time for the palette-building segment on the second morning, and was greeted by a room of people animatedly debating the difference between two shades of terracotta, holding up paint stickers to see how the light bounced off them. I don’t know what I expected—solemn figures gathered around a table, voting on tints in hushed tones so as not to sacrifice the sanctity of the process, maybe—but the lively exchange was pretty much the opposite.
Not that there isn’t a science to landing on the color of the year. The 18-hour (give or take) workshop is the last step after several months’ worth of picking apart the psychology of our current time to see how it relates to color. On this day, wellness—going beyond CBD skin care to encompass our impact on the environment—was a big theme (the workshop was held just weeks after the Australian fires). As a result, one proposed palette starred calming, earthy hues. The rise of fast fashion and consumerism was another discussion point, which manifested itself in a collection of more traditional colors (think: navy and brick red) that paid homage to the return to antiquing.
The group came to a clear consensus on the final shade, but that’s not always the case. Three years ago, when PPG announced Black Flame as its trending hue, the room was divided. The panel had originally picked a yellow, but since their deliberations coincided with Brexit and the 2016 election, they made a fast (but nevertheless contentious) pivot to something more shocking that reflected the international mood. “The controversy was how we knew we were onto something,” explains Vanessa Peterson, PPG’s color design manager in consumer electronics.
What does all this have to do with how we interact with the color of the year on a personal level—aka selecting paint for our homes? I can’t reveal any state secrets (i.e., what PPG’s 2021 color is) just yet, but I can provide some expert-sanctioned insights that will make your own decision-making process a bit easier.
Think About the Vibe You Want to Create
Now’s not the time to debate specific shades. Similar to how PPG evaluates societal influences first, start by creating a mood board of everything that’s inspiring you in a broader context. Does your hectic 9-to-5 schedule have you craving downtime? Do you work in a creative field and need something lively and vibrant to energize and inspire you? Settle on an overall feeling, then work on filling in the specifics.
Look for Inspiration in Unexpected Places
“It starts with a story, then we need to see it validated,” Dee Schlotter, senior color marketing manager at PPG, explains. Getting into the latter is all about finding the specific details that inspire you—and going beyond a Pinterest mood board.
Schlotter looks at what’s happening in the tile world, in flooring and materials, and even in fashion to narrow down a palette to one specific hue. So if there’s a sofa you saw at a design fair or a new shoe collection whose coloring speaks to you, use that as a jumping-off point and match it to a paint swatch.
Keep in Mind How It Will Translate
You might love that bright citron—but it won’t quite work in a room. For example, one palette under consideration at the workshop was ’80s-themed Technicolor. In the end, Schlotter had to pick a duller chartreuse than what the team had actually been seeing, because that particular shade would have overpowered a room. As a general rule: Yellows and purples expand on the wall, so opt for a softer tint. After all, trending colors change yearly, but your living room shouldn’t have to.
See more color stories: What Paint Color to Choose Based on Your New Year’s Resolution Who Would’ve Guessed That a Lego House Would Have the Best Paint Ideas? For a Truly One-of-a-Kind Fireplace, Grab Your Paintbrush