If you still rely on flowers to provide a pop of color for an event, you’re probably neglecting one of the most evocative and powerful tools at your disposal. Color doesn’t just support a mood. It is a mood. But with literally millions of shades and hues to play with, color can also be intimidating. Internationally recognized color expert Leatrice Eiseman promises you can learn as much as you need to about color and lean on an expert for everything else.
“I liken it to playing the piano,” she says. “We can’t all sit down at the piano and be Billy Joel. But we can at least learn to play the piano for our own enjoyment.”
Bainbridge Island–based Eiseman knows what she’s talking about. She’s the director of the Eiseman Center for Color Information and Training and the executive director of the Pantone Color Institute. (Yes. That Pantone.) She leads color workshops and has written 10 books on the subject. Using her piano analogy, all that experience makes her something of a cross between Billy Joel and Elton John, with a dash of Liberace, in the world of hues.
Eiseman says that early in her career people outside of fashion didn’t pay much attention to color. “When I started out I’d often meet with a bunch of engineers sitting there with crossed arms,” she says. “But people have realized the psychological impact color has. … Color is a very important aspect of any work you do across design industries.” She credits Apple with opening people’s eyes to the importance of color within its own industry. “We’d been living with putty-colored computers for ages, and the computers and tech elements were all putty or gray colored,” she says. “And then Apple came along [introducing brightly colored iMacs].”
So what do you need to know to use color effectively? First, consider the mood you want to establish. “The use of cool colors and hues such as blues can help calm and relax individuals and generate clearer and a more relaxed mind-set, great for business sessions,” says Sarah Kelly, senior event producer with Cantrav Services. She often incorporates color to set a mood. “While the use of warmer colors and hues such as ambers and reds can help stimulate and generate a more active and warm response, great for team-building or brainstorming sessions,” she adds.
You can even use color to play off of factors such as the season of the event, suggests Dwayne Thomas, owner of Portland lighting company Greenlight Creative. “There are some perennial things. If I do a fundraiser in the fall, there’s a 50-50 chance it’s going fall colors. In winter, blues tend to be more popular, and in the summer, reds are more popular.” But switching things up can work to your benefit. “We did one event in July, and it was hot as hell out,” he says. “They said, ‘Can we cool this bad boy down?’” So the planner set a palette of blues and turquoise, though it was “out of season.” It didn’t change the temperature inside or out, he notes, but it had the effect of giving attendees a sense of relief.
“Color adds an additional depth and sparks interest,” says Kelly, who suggests that planners be bold and purposeful—but not too bold. “There are two mistakes people can make, either using too much color and overwhelming guests’ senses or being afraid to use it at all and not fully committing to the event’s theme or identity,” she says. “But, as long as you stick to some basic rules such as making sure you use colors that complement one another … there’s no reason to go wrong.”
Thomas suggests a firm color limit. “We have a three-color maximum rule,” he says. “If a brand has four colors, then you do that, but you keep it in a frame. … If you do more than that, you risk looking like a circus pretty quickly.”
Of course, when you’re designing around a brand with existing colors, you may not have a lot of options. But when you do, Eiseman suggests starting with one lead color. “Then build the other colors around it.” And always take into consideration the existing room’s colors and lighting. “There is a lot of homework that has to be done,” she says. “Whatever the venue is you’ve got to take into consideration what is already there that is immovable. What could you do to draw attention away from or disguise a presence of color that really is interruptive?”
Eiseman says she’s seen some very dramatic monochromatic settings but cautions that you have to be in control of everything if you want to pull that off. “It has to be extremely well planned and coordinated,” she says, “with no hurdles in the way that could really screw up the mood.” Something as subtle as beige chairs in a stark white room, for example, could ruin the whole effect.
Thomas also says the monochromatic look should be well-thought out as well as well-executed. “Hot colors like red and orange start to create an emotional response,” he says. “If you go into a room that’s glowing red, you want to be out in about 15 minutes.”
The other big mistake Eiseman sees is making decisions based on personal feelings. As it turns out, most of us have an opinion on certain colors that the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily share. “People have got to be able to divorce their personal feelings from professional decisions,” she says. And that includes colors. “There are lots and lots of reasons people react and respond to colors,” Eiseman adds. So don’t just dismiss all shades of purple because your first girlfriend was wearing purple when she dumped you.
Working around personal color biases is Eiseman’s biggest challenge she says. “Early in my career I worked with a very, very big company. I chose what I thought was the perfect color. … Then I heard back that the CEO didn’t like that color.”
Consider using a lighting package that includes color changes throughout the event to help tell a story. And know that almost anything is possible with lighting colors today. Thanks to LED, lighting companies can do far more colors than ever before.
There are, of course, some caveats—those colors that simply can’t be provided with lighting, such as browns and olive greens. “People don’t understand there are colors you can’t make with light,” says Thomas.
Use the wealth of tools provided today by the internet. Color wheels can be indispensable, not just for selecting colors, but for defending your choices. “If you use colors across the wheel from each other, they complete each other,” Eiseman says. “They enhance each other and make for a very sophisticated setting.” You may just have an eye for the colors, but being able to talk about the color wheel and complementary colors “justifies and validates your feelings,” she says. “It arms you with information you can give to your client, so they’ll note, ‘Wow, this is somebody who really knows what they’re doing.’”
The internet can be a great resource in general, says Kelly. “There are some great websites out there where you can even build swatches and play around with different colors to see if they work together or not—for example, colourlovers.com.”
And while your vendors have a lot of expertise and can offer good advice, they should be able to help you create your vision, not theirs. “At the end of the day, I can argue all along that I know more about what your attendees want,” Thomas says. “But it’s utterly subjective. If you perceive it to be the right way to tell a story, we’ll go with it.”
Thomas also says color and lighting should help tell your story, not replace it. “We don’t want people to walk in a room and say, ‘Wow! What great lighting!’ We want them to say ‘Wow! What a beautiful event!’”
COLOR OF THE YEAR
This past December, Pantone announced its 2019 color of the year: PANTONE 16-1546 Living Coral. In a news release from the organization, it was described as “sociable and spirited,” and a color that “welcomes and encourages lighthearted activity.”
“Color is an equalizing lens through which we experience our natural and digital realities, and this is particularly true for Living Coral,” says Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute. “With consumers craving human interaction and social connection, the humanizing and heartening qualities displayed by the convivial Pantone Living Coral hit a responsive chord.”
To select a color of the year, Pantone’s color experts look for new color influences in a variety of places, including the entertainment industry and films in production, traveling art collections and new artists, fashion, and popular travel destinations. Influences may also stem from new technologies, materials, textures, social media platforms and sporting events.