SCIENCE WORLD

STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: PS4.B

CCSS: Reading Informational Text: 7

TEKS: 6.3B, 7.3B, 8.3B, P.7C

Colorful Sneakers

How design choices can influence what customers buy

AS YOU READ, THINK ABOUT why you might prefer an item of a certain color over others.

Inside a shoe store, a rainbow of colorful sneakers line the walls. There’s everything from brightyellow- and-purple trainers to old-school white tennis shoes. You’re scanning the rows when suddenly your eyes land on a pair of lime-green high-tops with black details. These shoes seem to say: “I’m the perfect pair for you.” And that’s not far from the truth. Companies spend a lot of time considering how colors might connect with customers.

Inside a shoe store, a rainbow of sneakers lines the walls. They’re every color, from bright-yellow-and-purple trainers to old-school white tennis shoes. You scan the rows. Suddenly you spot a pair of lime-green high-tops with black details. These shoes seem to say: “I’m the perfect pair for you.” And that’s not far from the truth. Companies spend a lot of time thinking about the question: How might colors connect with customers?

NIKE

EYE-CATCHER: This Nike Volt sneaker comes only in neon lime green. But which of the colors in the sneaker rainbow above is your favorite?

“Colors evoke emotion,” says Deborah Hernandez, a certified color specialist and professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. “Colors can make us feel things. And wearing a specific color can reveal how you’re feeling.”

People usually decide whether they like an item of clothing within seconds of seeing it. If its color doesn’t immediately “speak” to them, it’s likely they will pass it by. That’s why it’s important for designers to choose the right color scheme for sneakers, T-shirts, skateboards, posters, or anything else they’re creating. To do that, they rely on color theory. Part art and part science, these guidelines explain how to combine colors to create the most appealing and stylish products.

“Colors evoke emotion,” says Deborah Hernandez. She’s a certified color specialist and professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. “Colors can make us feel things. And wearing a specific color can reveal how you’re feeling.” 

When people spot an item of clothing, will they like it? They usually decide within seconds. Its color must “speak” to them immediately. If it doesn’t, they’ll probably pass it by. That’s why it’s important for designers to choose the right colors for anything they create. That includes sneakers, T-shirts, skateboards, and posters. To do that, they rely on color theory. These guidelines are part art and part science. They explain how to combine colors to create the most appealing and stylish products.

COLOR DECODED

The origin of color theory dates back to the 1660s, when English physicist Sir Isaac Newton conducted a series of experiments using prisms. Newton found that these transparent crystals would refract, or bend, white light and separate it into a rainbow of hues. This range of colors is known as the visible spectrum. Scientists later discovered that light travels in waves. They also found that each color of light has a different wavelength, or distance between the peaks of neighboring waves. Red light has the longest wavelength, and purple light has the shortest.

Color theory got started in the 1660s. That’s when English physicist Sir Isaac Newton did a series of experiments. He used clear crystals called prisms. Newton found that prisms would refract, or bend, white light. As a result, the light would separate into a rainbow of colors. This range of colors is known as the visible spectrum. Later, scientists learned that light travels in waves. They also found that each color of light has a different wavelength. That’s the distance between the peaks of neighboring waves. Red light has the longest wavelength, and purple has the shortest. 

Newton arranged the colors by their order in the visible spectrum—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet—to create the first color wheel (see Color Combos). This disc would prove to be more than just a useful scientific tool to organize colors. Artists and designers found that they could also use the color wheel to devise the perfect palette for everything from paintings and advertisements to products and movie sets.

The order of colors in the visible spectrum is red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. So Newton placed them in this order on the first color wheel (see Color Combos). This disc was a useful scientific tool to organize colors, but it became more. Artists and designers found it useful too. It helped them plan the perfect colors for paintings, ads, products, movie sets, and more. 

MORE THAN A FEELING

The color wheel not only organizes the visible spectrum but also shows how colors relate to one another. These associations help designers mix and match colors to achieve certain effects, like grabbing viewers’ attention or altering people’s moods.

Complementary colors, for example, lie across from each other on the color wheel. These colors strongly contrast one another, causing both to stand out when paired together. Designers might use complementary colors like blue and orange, for example, when they want their styles to be noticed. Analogous colors are found next to each other on the color wheel. People often associate these hues with nature. For instance, red, yellow, and orange can remind people of fall foliage, and shades of blue and green can make people think of the ocean or forest.

The color wheel doesn’t just organize the visible spectrum. It also shows how colors relate to one another. That helps designers mix and match colors to get certain effects. They might try to grab people’s attention or change their moods.

For example, complementary colors lie across from each other on the color wheel. These colors strongly contrast one another. When paired together, they both stand out. Designers might use complementary colors to get their styles noticed. For example, they could pair blue and orange. Analogous colors are next to each other on the color wheel. People often connect them with nature. Red, yellow, and orange can remind people of fall leaves. Blue and green shades can make people think of the ocean or forest.

RUSM/GETTY IMAGES (WARM); SEPPFRIEDHUBER/GETTY IMAGES (COOL)

WARM VS. COOL: Reds, oranges, and yellows make people think of warmth and autumn. Blues, purples, and greens make people think of cold and winter.

One half of the color wheel contains “cool” colors, like blue, green, and violet. “Blue is the most popular color worldwide,” says Hernandez. “It’s calming and soothing like the ocean. Think of the blue and green scrubs worn by doctors and nurses—they give a sense of calmness and healing.” The other half of the color wheel consists of yellows, reds, and oranges—colors thought to energize and motivate, and even stimulate your appetite. That’s why so many sneakers include these vibrant hues and why so many restaurant chains use these colors in their logos, says Hernandez. Recently, eyecatching neon colors have become extremely popular in sneaker brands because they scream “high energy” to customers.

Half of the color wheel contains “cool” colors, like blue, green, and violet. “Blue is the most popular color worldwide,” says Hernandez. “It’s calming and soothing like the ocean. Think of the blue and green scrubs worn by doctors and nurses—they give a sense of calmness and healing.” The other half of the color wheel contains yellows, reds, and oranges. These colors are thought to energize and inspire. They may even stir up your appetite. That’s why so many sneakers include these lively colors and so many restaurant chains use them in their logos, says Hernandez. Lately, eye-catching neon colors have become extremely popular in sneaker brands. That’s because they scream “high energy” to customers. 

PERSONAL PREFERENCES

Color theory isn’t the only factor designers consider when coming up with winning color combos. They’re also influenced by pop culture, like movies, TV shows, or video games. Recently, Nike released a pair of mismatched sneakers inspired by the movie Space Jam: A New Legacy. One shoe’s color scheme matches the brown and tan colors of Wile E. Coyote and the other’s mimics the blue shades of the Road Runner. Social movements also play a part in how we think of colors. “When I see the rainbow flag colors in a design, I think of LGBTQ+ pride and the importance of equality,” says Hernandez.

Designers use color theory to come up with winning color combos. But that’s not all they consider. They also look to pop culture, like movies, TV shows, or video games. Recently, Nike released a pair of mismatched sneakers. They were inspired by the movie Space Jam: A New Legacy. One shoe’s colors match the browns and tans of Wile E. Coyote. The other’s copies the blue shades of the Road Runner. Social movements also affect the way we think of colors. “When I see the rainbow flag colors in a design, I think of LGBTQ+ pride and the importance of equality,” says Hernandez. 

NIKE (SNEAKERS); COURTESY OF WARNER BROS. PICTURES (ROAD RUNNER, COYOTE)

ROAD RUNNERS & COYOTE KICKS

The right shoe (left) of this mismatched pair of Space Jam-inspired sneakers references the colors of the cartoon character the Road Runner. The left shoe (right) of the pair references the colors of the cartoon character Wile E. Coyote.

People also have personal color preferences that reflect their culture and backgrounds and even the places they live. For instance, in hotter climates, like the U.S. Southwest, people tend to prefer clothes in warm colors. But those who live in colder climates, like in Scandinavia, prefer cool colors. In the end, most designers aim to create products with color choices that are attractive to a diverse group of people, says Hernandez.

When Hernandez teaches her beginning design course about selecting colors, she first tells her students to “go wild.” Then she advises them to refine their ideas so the products they design appeal to 90 percent of people. Designers have more leeway with shoes, though, says Hernandez. Shoes aren’t the focal point of an outfit—they’re usually meant to add a pop of color. So “people are motivated to be more daring with their sneaker choices and step outside their comfort zone,” says Hernandez.

People also have personal color preferences. These can reflect their culture, backgrounds, and even the places they live. One example is climate. People tend to prefer clothes in warm colors in hotter climates, like the U.S. Southwest. But people living in colder climates, like Scandinavia, prefer cool colors. So most designers try to create products with color choices that attract a wide range of people, says Hernandez.

Hernandez teaches a beginning design course about selecting colors. First, she tells her students to “go wild.” Then she tells them to adjust their ideas so their designs appeal to 90 percent of people. But designers have more leeway with shoes, says Hernandez. Shoes aren’t the focal point of an outfit. They’re usually meant to add a pop of color. So “people are motivated to be more daring with their sneaker choices and step outside their comfort zone,” says Hernandez.  

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