Brett examines the Power of Color.
One of my many jobs as a designer is creating color. It is a hard aspect to describe, especially in the automotive world where it is as much of a science as it is a design element. In footwear it is more about selecting from a palette and applying to the theme you are looking to achieve. Over the past decade the number of colorways on a shoe has dramatically increased. The colorways have been used to celebrate accolades of athletes, mark national holidays and on the more formal side provide the customer with more options to match outfits or team uniforms.
Like many of you, I am constantly checking my footwear websites to find the latest and greatest product shots. Seeking to find what is coming next. Everyday we are flooded with posts on the next limited release in Nike Basketball, particularly the LeBron 9, the KD IV and the up-and coming Kobe VII. The LeBron was released on October 25th and we already have nine variations and it hasn’t even been two months. The KD IV has had more of a typical release with only two available since its release two weeks ago; but more are coming. The Kobe VII has yet to release and we already know there are at least three colorways to be based off of animal personas and from the catalog photos that came out a while back there are at least ten more to come. This has me thinking what is more important, form and function or color and material?
I feel if you were to ask a product designer that question they are going to answer form and function. Which should be the correct answer. They are hired by footwear companies to create product that solves a problem. They create product that makes the athlete perform better. They create product that makes the consumer perform like elite athletes. By nature they are taught to question, to rethink, never align with the thought that everything should stay the same because they are inclined to believe that they can make things better. When they apply color they are using the color as a way to accent their performance. Color is a secondary story to them because it does not factor in as a way to make the user better.
I believe color can be used in multiple ways. The two most significant ways are as a story or as a function. Right now, the most popular way color is used is as a story. Companies, Nike in particular, are using it as ways to not only gain revenue but also build hype around the release of their products. Take for instance the LeBron James line. The LeBron 1, officially known as the Air Zoom Generation, released in the fall of 2003. The life of the shoe featured five mainstream colorways:
-White/White-Midnight Navy-Varsity Crimson
Fast forward to last season the LeBron VIII featured 17 colorways, including the LeBron signature variants that came out; the V2 and the PS (I chose to focus on the VIII because I can examine the full release as opposed to the IX that has yet to have a full product life):
-Retro/Black-Pink Flash-Filiment Green
-White/Midnight Navy-Varsity Red
-White/Sport Red-Metallic Gold
-Cool Grey/Cool Grey-White
-White/Black-Glass Blue-Chilling Red
-Team Red/Metallic Silver-Black-Hot Red
-Cool Grey/Orange Blaze-White
-Cool Grey/White-Dark Grey-Electric Grey
That is more than three times the amount of colorways in eight seasons! They added special editions to help build their product line with the “China” edition giving a nod to Nike’s fast growing consumer base overseas and the most popular release, the “South Beach” edition, launched first to Miami area retailers to signify LeBron’s offseason move.
As I mentioned there is varying reasons for this influx in the amount of color options but the number one being the marketability of “Player Exclusive” footwear. As the phenomena of “blogging” and discussing footwear blew up in the 2000’s on websites and message boards across the Internet, sneakerheads became more and more inclined to wanting the “limited” edition shoes that only the players received. Footwear companies, again particularly Nike, took notice and thus found ways to make money by offering consumers limited releases. This practice took footwear in a new direction; a less serious direction. Gone were the days of making a product that focused on performance and in came the way of creating a performance product that met everyone’s needs. Now you could look great on the court and make an even greater impact off the court with your outfit.
While working with New Balance I was involved with more arguments about color than anything else. Color has much more of an effect on the consumer than the pattern or aesthetics of a shoe. Think about what you first notice when you walk into Foot Locker. Is it the shape of the shoe? Is it the crazy expensive white cordura nylon or is it the shiny, bold, black patent leather? You probably picked the latter. Now add into the fact that shoe is surrounded by 25 other shoes that are not color blocked the same and make that shoe stick out like a sore thumb and you learn what the focal point of the retailer is. Next weekend’s instance is the reissue of the “Concord” Jordan XI. I should also note that the original Air Jordan XI that released in the fall of 1995 only saw three original colorways for the mid-top. Three! For the most coveted shoe of all time. Three!
Also while at New Balance, I learned first hand of the dramatic effect the retailer plays in the role of color. Not only are they placing your shoe at liberty on their wall of product (and in New Balance’s general case, that spot is located at the bottom near the floor) but they are influencing and picking where your logo is at, where your color is placed, and even what colorways they want from you because they “know” what their consumer wants. What do I mean by influence? I mean telling you what you are going to do because if you don’t they won’t sell your product. Why do you think the new Air Jordan 2012 has a Jumpman the size of the moon on the quarter of the shoe? It’s not because it flows well with the design, it’s perhaps in part because Foot Locker wants everyone that walks in their store to know right away that it’s the new Air Jordan.
Color is an element that can make or break a product. A couple of weeks ago on my tumblr blog I referenced the distaste I have for the new Kobe VII. It doesn’t look like a pure shoe to me but more of a gimmick. In my opinion it is the best example we have seen of Nike taking their profit margins higher by offering packages similar to a car. You can get the standard version that you might roll your ankle in or you can get the all-new “supreme” version that offers stability and premium materials. It is a great story, but I just don’t like the shoe… until I started playing with their Nike ID App for Facebook and completely changed my mind. While I still stand by my feelings that it is a gimmick, it amazed me what color did for the shoe.
Also from my “Form | Function | Philosophy” blog, I had focused on critiquing the “Wolf” version of the Kobe VII. Which is dressed in the colors of Wolf Grey, Black and Total Orange. The shoe looks incredibly long, and the painting on the midsole looks cheap. The shoe also looks choppy to me, but then when I was on the Nike ID App I had the opportunity to really create a colorway that is more holistic and saw what makes the shoe great: that you can play up the different stories the designers focused on. You can set off the heel clip to really show how well they intend for you to be supported or you can focus on the midsole and how it cradles your foot. While I still don’t think the shoe is perfect, the potential color options could save it for me.
The best execution of using color as a function right now has to be on the Nike CR Mercurial Vapor Superfly III. The shoe features a “disruptive graphic treatment on the left and right side” meant to confuse defenders with the direction of which way Cristiano Ronaldo is going. If you can’t see his feet, how can you follow the ball?
The moment I saw the shoe, it instantly reminded me of the “dazzle” camouflage used primarily in World War 1 that was created by artist Norman Wilkinson for the British Naval Academy. The pattern wasn’t what most would describe as camouflage but more of a graphic of intersecting shapes that were meant to confuse the opposing navy. The graphic did nothing to hide the ships. The idea was that the colors and shapes would distract from knowing where key points of weakness, such as the bow and the stern were. It also made it difficult to identify the type, size, speed and the direction the ship was heading. While I have no idea if this is what Nike’s soccer team was inspired by, I thought it was great execution that makes the aesthetic more than just a graphic but an element of performance.
I don’t even play soccer but I want that shoe. The colors are dope and the pattern is fresh, there is nothing like that product on the market. It is as much of a work of performance art as it is a sculpture of craftsmanship to me. But if I am not willing to wear it on the field, am I buying into the fact that athletic shoes aren’t just performance footwear? I don’t know, I guess I leave that question to you. Is it the performance of the shoe you buy? Or is it the color of the shoe you buy?
Let me know in the comment section and follow my tumblr blog!
P.S. Nike, release the CR Mercurial Vapor Superfly III as an indoor shoe!
Brett Golliff is a Lead Designer at General Motors and former Designer at New Balance.