Sunday, August 20, 2006

Crazy for color

Monday, August 07, 2006
Crazy for color
Right hues mean lots of green to GM, carmakers
Brett Clanton / The Detroit News

Have you heard? Blue is making a comeback. Green is so yesterday. And red is moving out of its lowbrow yellowy stage into a richer, blue period.

Or so says a highly specialized team of General Motors Corp. designers whose job it is to predict color trends.

Drawing from pop culture, economic trends and the buying patterns in other industries, the team spends its days trying to solve such riddles as how to make a better silver or what the "new" black will be. But there's at least one big headline in the color world these days.

"Blue is going to be the biggest story for '07, '08 and '09," said Christopher Webb, a color designer who works in an airy studio at GM's Tech Center in Warren that seems light-years away from the factories that build the automaker's cars and trucks.

The notion that a group of designers is paid to ponder the future of red and yellow may be vexing to some at a time when the world's No. 1 automaker is bleeding money, shedding thousands of jobs and closing plants just to survive.

But the business of forecasting color trends may be more important than ever to GM and other automakers.

Research shows that nearly 40 percent of consumers will defect to another brand if they can't find the vehicle color they want -- and GM is not about to miss out on sales simply because it picked the wrong paint color for a new Cadillac or Chevrolet.

In a break from the past, however, GM is trying to be more judicious about how it selects colors for the 9 million vehicles it sends out into the world every year.

The automaker used to think nothing of spending millions on developing slightly different colors for its individual brands and vehicle lines. Now, GM is paring down its international paint palette to help build stronger brand identities and bring more cost-saving uniformity to manufacturing.

At the same time, GM and other automakers are leading the way in developing high-tech finishes that add depth and texture to neutral paint colors, which tend to be the most popular.

Slowly but surely

The greater attention to color comes at a time when consumers are demanding more style from the everyday products they buy. Sharp color and design have suddenly become selling points for everything from kitchen utensils to washing machines at Sears.

But staying current can be tough for automakers, which must lock in vehicle designs and paint color choices about three years before a car or truck hits the market.

"People will sometimes treat us like the fashion industry," said David McKinnon, vice president of design at DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group, who oversees the Auburn Hills-based automaker's color lab. "Well, fashion can change in three months. We need three or four years. It's not a fast process."

At GM's color lab in Warren, the small design team just completed color selections for the 2009 model year and has begun working on 2010.

Housed on the second floor of the tech center's design building, the lab is a giant circular room where bulletin boards are covered with magazine clippings. Fashionably dressed workers labor amid a sea of nondescript car models perched on waist-high poles and painted in the dozens of colors GM has at its disposal.

"Gunmetal Metallic," "Lunar Quartz," "Antique Bronze" -- the colors go by a host of names that are printed on tiny labels below each model. But this is just the current lineup. Cabinets and storerooms flanking the lab store color swatches that span GM's nearly 100-year history.

Livelier hues

During a recent visit, the designers were excited about what they see as a "return to color" in vehicle paints and other consumer products such as cell phones and home appliances.

But don't expect an explosion of green, yellow and purple cars on the road in coming years. The trend is more about infusing neutral shades with more color so they have a richer, more complex appearance.

"Believe me, we want to have more colors," said Helen Emsley, GM's global director of design, color and trim.

But at the end of the day, more than 50 percent of consumers still select silver, black, beige or white when they go to buy a vehicle, she said.

To liven up those perennial -- some might say boring -- choices, GM is adding microscopic flakes to the paint that seem to change color in the light. One of the first applications is on the new Cadillac DTS sedan, which comes in a hue-shifting "Titanium" gray that can look almost green, or even violet, at times.

Despite a $1,000 extra charge for the high-tech coating, Titanium now accounts for 9 percent of DTS sales, compared with 6 percent in a regular gray.

But bolder, louder color choices also are gaining strength, particularly as interest grows in vehicle customization.

When Japan's Honda Motor Co. launched its boxy Element SUV in 2003, for instance, a rusty orange quickly became the most popular color choice, luring 20 percent of buyers.

During the past two years, blue broke into the top five vehicle color choices, and red made gains in 2005.

Perception is everything

Experts say color shifts go in cycles and could be driven by an improving economic climate or political and social trends. During the 1990s, for example, when the environmental movement rose to prominence, green was the most popular car color choice. In the past six years, silver has dominated -- a possible nod to the increasing role of technology in daily life.

"Let's face it, there are only seven colors in the spectrum," said Leatrice Eiseman, author of "The Color Answer Book" and executive director of the Pantone Color Institute in Carlstadt, N.J. "But it's what you do to those colors, the way that people perceive of them, that makes the difference."

GM's color designers routinely meet with their counterparts from other industries to ensure they are not blind to trends. Nike, Nokia, Herman Miller -- they've all been to Warren to trade thoughts with the world's largest automaker.

But one of the team's biggest missions in recent years has been to cut the waste and streamline its own processes.

Emsley said that when she took over the studio a few years ago, she asked her team to find every vehicle paint color GM used in North America, and stick a sample of each on a wall in the lab. The tally: 111 colors.

"I remember standing back and looking at this wall and saying, 'What the hell?' " said Emsley, who has since trimmed the number to around 60 colors at a savings of millions per year.

Karen Surcina -- color marketing and technology manager for DuPont Automotive Systems in Troy, one of the world's biggest vehicle paint suppliers -- said it can cost "hundreds of thousands of dollars" or more to develop a new color.

But a growing number of industries are willing to pay handsomely if adding more color means drawing more buyers.

In recent years, DuPont has received requests to develop colors for everyone from a golf cart builder to a home window maker. But the oddest inquiry may have come from a casket producer, which hoped to use color to spruce up an otherwise macabre product lineup.

While the company is happy for the business, Surcina said working with coffins would not be her first choice.

"I'd rather put color on cars."

You can reach Brett Clanton at (313) 222-2612 or bclanton@

© Copyright 2006 The Detroit News. All rights reserved.


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