SMPL Q&A: 4 questions on the language of colour with Steve Owen

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SMPL Q&A is a blog feature in which we interview experts on all things relevant to branding, design and simplicity. In this Q&A we speak with Steve Owen, executive creative director in EMEA, on the evolving role of colour in today’s brand identities.

What are the key considerations you take into account when first applying colour to brands?

Consider the mood you’re looking to evoke, the environments in which the brand will be experienced and how the intricacies of the medium—be it print or digital—will affect the brand experience. Now, more than ever, considering the ‘ownability’ and ‘standout’ potential of colours is crucial. This is in large part due to ease of navigation on smartphones (being able to pick the app out quickly when scanning a home screen) and providing a unified and clear experience within an app or digital environment. Brands are once again trying to own a single colour. Take Spotify and their acid green or Airbnb with that dusty pink. Since there are only a finite amount of ownable colours, one of the most important initial considerations becomes whether the brand already has one, and, if not, where we can find it.

Is there a stage at which you bring colour theory into a branding project? How do you go about testing different options?

Brands don’t exist or communicate in procedural or linear ways, and we don’t interact with them in a static or defined manner. Because brands exist as a rich mix of elements and ideas, we work alongside strategists from the outset to rapidly prototype potential holistic brand ideas and core thoughts. As we build these early messaging ideas and experiential concepts, we explore how they come to life; the visual language they may adopt, the tone of voice they might consider. Essentially, we beta-test brand concepts to ensure they’re real world ready. Colour exploration is a vital part of this process, and should evolve in tandem with the other branding decisions that reflect the core of the brand’s offering.

What tips would you give a designer trying to select the perfect colour scheme for a new brand?

 Always think of the end user. It’s easy to design only for the client, giving them a palette they feel comfortable with. But now we’re living in a B2Me world where even the most corporate organisations must connect with individuals through social media and other direct channels. Ownability, ease of navigation and communicating the right personality are vital. And simplicity beats complexity every time.

When, and in what branding situations, does it pay to break the rules?

The rebel in me says every time! Of course there are instances where it’s difficult, the FMCG world being one in particular where semiotic category cues are rife. For example, biological washing powder is always green in the UK, and change would only create confusion. Outside of this area, the brands that are winning are those that actively choose to stand out rather than conform. Creative use of colour is a prime tool for differentiation. When considering a brand design scheme, use your instinct and ask yourself: Does this answer the client brief? Will it help the customer navigate the brand? And, most of all, is it a simple, smart and original solution?

Steve Owen is the executive creative director in EMEA. Follow him on Twitter: @Steowen

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