Coats of many colours

Choosing the best colour for your new Toyota isn’t as simple as you might think, as Toyota colour designer Keiko Shishido explains

Colour. It’s probably the first thing we notice about a new car and it plays a huge part in creating a vehicle’s character. Cars have come a long, long way since the early days of the auto industry when Henry Ford said his customers’ options were “any colour so long as it’s black”. Just like exterior and interior design, colour design shapes the way we feel about a product. And there’s much more to it than picking shades from a paint chart.

Because colours are selected during the production process, car manufacturers must both set and predict new trends. Colours used in a car’s marketing, for instance, are often the highest selling for that model. And the more the bestseller is seen, the more popular it becomes.

Although conservative colours – white, black, grey and silver – tend to dominate the market, trends emerge from time to time. Certain hues fall in and out of favour and some drivers will always prefer to stand out from the crowd or make a statement with more striking colours. Vivid colours, like the bold yellow fizz seen on the AYGO x-cite edition.

Toyota AYGO, magenta, diagonal front view
Toyota Prius Plug-in, exterior front side view, aqua marine colour on wet concrete
Toyota GT86, exterior side view, yellow on yellow background

“Colour is my day-long obsession, joy and torment” Claude Monet

Understanding colour schemes, studying consumer tastes and predicting what will be popular is the job of the colour designer. It’s a role that requires creative flair, attention to detail and complex data-crunching.

“Colour design plays an important role in giving concrete shape to Toyota design,” explains Toyota colour designer Keiko Shishido. “But a colour designer is not an artist – because we’re developing a vehicle, we have to think within fixed parameters. Thinking from the customer perspective enables one to grasp customer sensibilities from contemporary trends, in-vogue colours, and the mood of the times.

“Using professional skills means that you can work on the colour design while at the same time making clear-headed appraisals of marketing data and past sales figures and meeting the unique requirements of the vehicle. You can be outstanding at one of these, but unless you have both abilities, I don’t think really good colour design is possible.

“Is this really the style of colour and material that customers are looking for? Is this really the car they want? I always make sure to run these questions through the filter of my own experience and then go back to work again on the design.”

Making sure colours work together both inside and out is a crucial part of colour design. A car’s instrument panel and steering wheel, seat fabric, ceiling, carpet and other interior fittings are made of a wide range of materials, and it is the colour designer’s job to make sure they coordinate.

“I sometimes think that what I do as a writer is make a kind of colouring book, where all the lines are there, and then you put in the colour” John Irving

Car colours reflect trends in fashion and design, with manufacturers analysing what colours are popular in those fields around the world. For more than a decade, silver was the most popular UK car colour, accounting for 36 per cent of all cars sold here, according to The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. But thanks to what has become known as the ‘Apple Effect’, white has overtaken it in the sales charts, reflecting the huge success of the Apple brand. After massive popularity in the '80s, white cars were distinctly unfashionable 10 years ago – making up less than one per cent of new cars sold. Today the figure is more than 22 per cent.

“Our everyday environment abounds with colour, in the clothes we like to wear, the interior décor we choose to relax in, and the colourful foods we like to eat,” says Shishido. “Letting people exercise the same kind of preference when they choose their cars is what Toyota’s colour design is working toward.”

Toyota Yaris, exterior front side view, red with white background
Toyota Yaris Hybrid, exterior front side view, blue on white background

“Colour has always got something mysterious about it that cannot be properly understood … a suggestive power…” Paul Klee

Another trend is the rise of ‘retro chic’. Just as fashion collections and consumer tastes are currently inspired by looks from the past, so too are car colours. Also like fashion, colour trends tend to be cyclical and vivid tones from the ‘50s and ‘60s have seen a recent revival. Even the much-maligned beiges and browns of the ‘70s are making an unlikely return. For the first time, secondhand car buyers are actively seeking out the classic ‘70s shades green, beige, yellow and gold, according to car valuation company CAP, placing them among the top 10 colour choices. A generation of car buyers too young to remember the drab connotations of ‘70s hues may be one factor, along with a desire to personalise their motoring.

Another reason for the current popularity ‘retro’ colours may be the influence of American trends. US research has shown car buyers associate brown with stability, comfort and authenticity. Colour company Pantone reports that gold, beige, yellow and orange are increasingly popular in Europe, with browns making a return in the luxury car market.

Pantone forecasts metal finishes such as coppers, bronzes and pewter will become even more commonplace and we can expect to see more organic tones including beiges and burnt-oranges. At least until the next big colour trend comes along…

Published: 28 July 2015

Information correct at time of publication.

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