Aqua blue, sour lime, and grape purple. Electric orange interspersed with neon pink. Gray suede and cheetah print mixed with white and gold. These are not descriptions of a minimalist’s worst nightmare, but new color combinations from Adidas, Reebok and New Balance. And they are inherently irritating.
In the age of the endless scroll and the era of sneaker culture, in which the competition for the hottest, rarest and most wanted kick is more intense than ever, the shoe that hits the colors with the greatest force stops traffic – at least in the Internet nice. As a result, athletic shoe manufacturers are increasingly becoming fluid lovers of this ancient art: color theory.
The relationships between color and emotion have been studied for centuries, from Carl Jung’s color coding of personality traits to focus groups that evaluate how candy colors can affect the perception of taste. Pharmaceutical companies color their pills “cool” or “hot” depending on the desired effect (hypnotics are often blue or green, antidepressants are yellow), and we use SAD lamps in winter to reproduce the energizing properties of a sunny day.
No wonder sneaker brands have departments devoted to manipulating tiny color shifts as well as developing the visual equivalent of a crime scene so you can get a rubberneck online. It is their mission to create emotion and speed up business.
“70 to 90 percent of the unconscious assessment of a product takes just a few seconds based on the color alone,” said Jenny Ross, Head of Concept Design and Strategy for Lifestyle Shoes at New Balance. “It can excite us or calm us down, it can raise our blood pressure. It’s really powerful. “
While the bread and butter of most brands remain the basics – the Nike Air Force 1 was the best-selling sneaker of 2020, and its default setting is all white – the pieces that fuel the ongoing churn and craze are the collectibles in limited edition tap on our subconscious to generate desire.
Sometimes the triggers are obvious: the use of Varsity Red, for example, evokes Ferris Bueller college nostalgia; Gold and purple are reminiscent of a Lakers game; and white is associated with racket sports. In fashion, however, color is also your brand. Fendi is yellow, Hermès is orange, and Tiffany is blue. So sneaker brands switch between their core colors and wild experimentation.
New Balance, for example, is rooted in gray, which is omnipresent in every season and is reminiscent of the urban running shoe that ripples on concrete. “Getting gray right is something we are very proud of,” said Ms. Ross. “Every gray on our color ring has a character and a personality: Castle Rock is warm; Steel is a shade of blue. With older models, we make sure our tanneries never get lost. They replicate with precision. “
At the other end of the dial is Nike with its neon lime volt color, first seen at the 2012 Olympics. For some it is hideous, for others a masterpiece. “It was an intellectual and scientific decision for Nike,” said Bryan Cioffi, Reebok’s vice president, shoe design. “The first color you read in your optical receptors is this super light lime. It is possibly an evolutionary uptake of poisonous animals and signals danger. A physical thing happens when you see it. Nike triangulated that and repeated it forever. “
Repetition is how you win the game of colors. You can see Volt and withdraw, but you will always think “Nike”. As for colors, this is a paradigm for brand marketing. “We conducted a full technology innovation study of how color is displayed on HDTV and sports tracks,” said Martha Moore, Nike vice president and creative director. “We investigated the idea of speed and which color complements it when the human eye vibrates. Volt is emotional. “
After a year of living our lives almost entirely online, pixel coloring has become even more important. “We’re developing colors that appear to be lit from within,” said Ms. Moore. “Pixels sitting next to each other create previously invisible colors. They create new neutrals and complex combinations. We use complex yarn knitting patterns with bright spots and glow that have never been seen before. “
Indeed. “We are seeing a particularly positive response to selected pastel colors and strong yellow,” said Heiko Desens, Puma’s global creative director. “Things that speak of energy and positivity.”
This new energy is everywhere. For example, the Yeezy Boost 700 Sun shoe, launched in January, is a flame of yellow and orange that is a world apart from the beige that Yeezy used to associate. Hardcore Rick Owens fans may own numerous black pairs of his dunks, but the new season’s Geo Baskets in bubble gum pink toss a curve ball and flip the dark Owens aesthetic.
Light spot colors can also be shortcuts for certain cultural references. “We’re using a yellow that is forever associated with footballer Pele,” said Melissa Tvirbutas, Puma’s global director of color and materials design. (Even its title speaks for the growing role of color theory.) “And it doesn’t matter how old you are. If you’re a football fan, two or three clicks will take you to their story so younger people can still get the reference. “
Last year Reebok released a “Ghostbusters” collaboration. “We’ve done a lot of research into the exact colors that are used on the screen to be hyper-authentic,” said Cioffi. “We’re working on a start for next year related to a superhero TV show from the 90s. Our team watched 1,000 episodes and took more notes than I’ve seen before. You looked at the materials used by the dye factory that was working on the costumes at the time of production. “
Television and games are recurring themes in sneaker colors. Some of the references are retro – like the Puma RSX Toys series, which is designed as limited-edition “collectors” items and decorated with primary graphics that are reminiscent of Rubik’s Cube. Some of this is contemporary, like a new line of Instapump Furys that have a console button graphic on the Instapump itself.
One of the console designs from Reebok Glitch’s Furys collection is done in white and green. A pump button with a red ring is a familiar sight to hardcore gamers when their consoles are not working properly. “We wanted to play with the idea of glitches on computers that we encounter at work, on social media, and with apps crashing,” said Joe Carson, the Reebok designer who also implied a metallic webbing strap on that particular one Schuh attached the downside of game discs.
Beyond the obvious, we all have complex personal relationships with color. To some, these carefully selected and configured sneaker colors and patterns may just look interesting, messy, or just plain pretty. But for others they feel something poetic, maybe profound. This is where color theory becomes profound.
Grace Wales Bonner’s collaboration with Adidas wonderfully conjures up the 1970s, especially the style of the second generation Jamaican and Jamaican community in London during this period. For her latest sneakers, the designer said her soft color palette was inspired by “legendary Jamaican filmmaking”.
“I was interested in researching colors that had faded in the Jamaican sun,” said Ms. Wales Bonner.
Ms. Moore at Nike also noted that her color mood boards often feature cineaste influences. “We might want a Wes Anderson versus a Sofia Coppola feeling,” she said.
Then there is Sacai’s hybrid version of Nike’s VaporMax and Waffle Racer runners, layering double falls in “campfire orange” on “dark iris”, which Ms. Moore described as “an authentic sport with a futuristic visionary twist”. Not to mention the Puma Mirage Tech, which purposely brings together colors from different eras in a way that is similar to the digital display on DJ hardware.
“It’s a remix,” explained Puma’s Mr. Desens. “We wanted to connect it with the culture of electronic music.” As an abstract expression of EDM, it’s amazingly effective. You feel optimistic. It’s disco.
And that’s why color theory is more important than ever when it comes to what to put on your feet. “We’re looking at multiple views of a sneaker at a very early stage in its design,” said Reebok’s Cioffi. “We take a more critical look at gloss and backlighting. How does that shade of blue translate at 8 p.m. on your Instagram feed when your phone’s battery is low? It is worth reconsidering. “