Color in Design Strategy: An Interview with Clark Fairfield

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Color in Design Strategy: An Interview with Clark Fairfield "November 7, 2016
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How does color make us feel, and what role does it play in design and marketing? PCI Art Director Clark Fairfield talks color strategy.
By Heidi Phelps, Content Manager, PCI.

The Pantone Color Institute predicts a fall season dominated by light and airy blue hues to inspire a feeling of tranquility, strength, and optimism. These blues, paired with “anchoring earth tones,” are intended to promote a grounding sense of peace and order during chaotic and stressful times. Since I am an admitted Color Nerd, the Pantone report had me thinking about color psychology and the role of color in design and marketing.

Extensive research has been done on how color affects our mood and feelings. But as consumers or clients, how does color impact our response to a brand or product? When designing a campaign, how does color contribute to the overall message?

To explore these ideas, I sat down with Clark Fairfield, Emmy Award-winning Art Director at PCI. Clark came to the D.C. area in February from Los Angeles, where he worked primarily in the fashion and entertainment industries. Here’s what he had to say about the role of color in design strategy.

Phelps: First, let’s talk about your background in fashion and entertainment. What role did color play in marketing and branding for these industries?

Fairfield: My career began in the Washington, D.C. Metro area and continued for 20 years in Los Angeles, California, where I worked as Creative Director and Senior Designer for post-production, agency, PR, and special event companies. I worked with a wide range of clients in fashion and entertainment, from The Walt Disney Company to Rodeo Drive brands like Versace and Tiffany & Co.

Strong color branding was always a strategic component to the design process, not only to maintain brand integrity, but to express a mood, attitude, level of sophistication, or a season for a fashion collection. Color theory and usage is a science in itself for fashion and entertainment. The exact hue or saturation of a color can evoke a completely different feeling for a brand.

Even cultural differences have impact on the colors used.  A color that denotes happiness and is uplifting in one culture could mean something totally different in another. Color must be a conscious choice. In fashion and entertainment, it’s not enough for a designer to use a color simply based on personal taste; you need to express the right attitude and mood. For luxury brands, it’s critical for color to play a strategic role in the design process.

Phelps: Now that you’re at PCI, client projects span a wide range of verticals, from government and healthcare to financial institutions and global enterprises. What are the differences in how you approach color when designing for fashion or entertainment versus a government or healthcare system?

Fairfield: When it comes to color selection, fashion and entertainment brands can take more risks with their color choices to stay on or ahead of trends; government and healthcare systems tend to pick safer, more traditional color palettes. I hope to push the boundaries of less traditional color choices in the government and healthcare markets by using my experience in fashion and entertainment to bring a fresh approach and new eye to color strategy.

In a study titled Impact of Color on Marketing, researchers found that up to 90% of snap judgments made about a brand can be based on color alone.
 I believe that the role of color in branding hinges on the perceived appropriateness of the color being used, regardless of the brand.

Phelps: As an art director or designer, would you approach color selection differently for a short-term project (a summer marketing campaign, for example) versus a long-term project, like a company rebrand or year-long campaign?

Fairfield: For any design challenge, the first question I ask myself is: Does the color “fit”? Color theory was a major component in my formal training and remains an integral piece of the design process for me. Seasonal campaigns can be more “on trend,” fun and playful when it comes to color, while I would consider a color approach for company rebrands to be long lasting, classic and timeless. Color choices for both should be seen as a strategic and holistic approach to a campaign or brand message. The psychology of color as it relates to persuasion is most interesting to me, and a strong aspect of marketing.

Phelps: Have you found yourself captured by color, yourself? Where have you seen color used to great effect?

Fairfield: Color is critically important in branding. I take color cues from everything around me. Even as a kid, color in nature always grabbed my attention and it continues to capture me on a daily basis. Staying in touch with current color trends, historic trends, and future trends is a passion of mine. The one legendary brand I’ve worked with that has captured a strong color brand is Tiffany & Co. Since its introduction to the market in 1845, the color now called “Tiffany Blue” evokes luxury, quality and sophistication at first glance. I was honored to design for Tiffany’s 100th anniversary event — a truly memorable experience.

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Color’s impact on human emotion plays an integral part in the process of designing or promoting a brand’s identity. An audience’s reaction to certain color palettes can differ by culture or industry, and strongly affect a designer’s ability to evoke a particular mood, feeling or message.

And now a question for our readers: What colors do you respond to positively? Are there colors that make you feel rage? Where in the media (TV, magazines, websites) have you seen color used particularly well? Share your thoughts with us on Twitter!

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