The secret psychology of sneaker colors

Aqua blue, sour lime and grape purple. Electric orange interspersed with fluorescent pink. Printed in gray suede and cheetah mixed with white and gold. These aren’t descriptions of a minimalist’s worst nightmare, but rather new color combinations from Adidas, Reebok, and New Balance. And they are nasty by design.

In the age of endless scrolling and the era of sneaker culture, where the competition to create the hottest, rarest and most sought-after kick is more intense than ever, the shoe that faces nuances with the most force stops the traffic – at least on the Internet. kind. As a result, manufacturers of athletic shoes are increasingly becoming aficionados of this ancient art: color theory.

The links between color and emotion have been studied for centuries, from color coding Carl Jung’s personality traits to focus groups evaluating ways in which candy colors can affect flavor perceptions. Pharmaceutical companies color their pills “cold” or “hot” depending on the desired effect (hypnotics are often blue or green, antidepressants yellow), and we use SAD lamps in winter to replicate the energizing qualities of a sunny day. .

It’s no wonder that sneaker brands have departments dedicated to handling tiny changes in shade, as well as engineering the visual equivalent of a crime scene so you can rub each other online. . It is their mission to create feelings and speed up business.

“Between 70% and 90% of the subconscious judgment on a product is done in seconds on color alone,” said Jenny Ross, head of lifestyle footwear design and strategy at New Balance. “It can turn us on or calm us down, it can increase our blood pressure. It’s really powerful. “

So while the bread and butter of most brands remains the foundation – the Nike Air Force 1 was the best-selling sneaker of 2020, and its default is all white – the parts that fuel the roll and the buzz. continuous are the limited edition collectibles that tap into our subconscious to create desire.

Sometimes the triggers are obvious: the use of Varsity Red, for example, sparks nostalgia for collegiate Ferris Bueller; gold and purple are reminiscent of a Lakers game; and white is associated with racket sports. But in fashion, color is also your mark. Fendi is yellow, Hermès is orange, and Tiffany is blue. Thus, sneaker brands switch between their basic colors and wild experimentation.

New Balance, for example, is rooted in gray, omnipresent in every season, evocative of the urban running shoe, riffing on concrete. “We take great pride in doing the gray well,” Ms. Ross said. “Each gray in our color ring has character and personality: Castle Rock is warm; Steel is a blue tone. With traditional models, we make sure our tanneries never go astray. They reply with precision. “

At the other end of the dial is Nike, with its neon lime color Volt, first seen at the 2012 Olympics. For some it is odious, for others a masterstroke. “It was an intellectual and scientific choice for Nike,” said Bryan Cioffi, Reebok vice president for shoe design. “The first color you read in your optical receivers is this high-gloss lime. Perhaps it is an evolutionary take of poisonous animals and signals danger. A physical thing happens when you see it. Nike triangulated this and repeated it forever.

Repetition is how you win the color game. You can see Volt and back away, but you’ll still think “Nike”. As colors, it’s a paradigm for brand marketing. “We did a comprehensive technological innovation study of how color appeared on HDTV and athletic tracks,” said Martha Moore, vice president and creative director at Nike. “We were studying the idea of ​​speed and what color complemented the vibration of the human eye. Volt is touching.

After a year of living our lives almost entirely online, pixel coloring has become even more essential. “We develop colors that appear lit from within,” Ms. Moore said. “The pixels placed side by side create new colors. They create new neutrals and complex combinations. We use intricate knits of yarns, with shiny stitches and unique reflections. “

Indeed. “We’re seeing a particularly positive response to composite pastels and bright yellow,” said Heiko Desens, Global Creative Director at Puma. “Things that speak of energy and positivity.”

This new energy is everywhere. For example, the Yeezy Boost 700 Sun shoe, which launched in January, is a surge of yellow and orange that is a world away from the beige associated with the Yeezy of yesteryear. Die-hard Rick Owens fans may own many black pairs of his Dunks, but the new season’s Geo Baskets in bubble gum pink throw a curve ball and reverse Owens’ dark aesthetic.

Bright solid colors can also be a shortcut for specific cultural references. “We are using a yellow that is forever linked to footballer Pelé,” said Melissa Tvirbutas, global head of color and material design at Puma. (Even its title speaks to the growing role of color theory.) “And it doesn’t matter how old you are. If you are a football fan, you will find out its history in two or three clicks, so that the youngest always get the reference. “

Last year, Reebok released a ‘Ghostbusters’ collaboration, “and we went in depth to find the exact colors used on the screen to be hyper-authentic,” Cioffi said. “We’re working on a launch for next year tied to a ’90s superhero TV show, and our team watched 1,000 episodes, taking copious notes like I’ve never seen before. They looked at the materials used by the dye house that was working on the costumes at the time of production.

Television and games are recurring themes in the colors of the sneakers. Some of the SEO is retro – like the Puma RSX Toys series designed as limited production “collectibles” and decorated with primary graphics reminiscent of the Rubik’s Cube. Some of these are contemporary, like a new line from Instapump Furys that have a console-style “on” button graphic on the Instapump itself.

One of the console models from Furys’ Reebok Glitch collection is executed in white and green, with a Pump button with a red ring that will be a familiar sight to die-hard gamers when their consoles are not functioning properly. “We wanted to play with the idea of ​​issues on the computers we deal with at work, on social media and with apps crashing,” said Joe Carson, the Reebok designer, who also incorporated a metal strap on this shoe. especially as a nod to the reverse side of the game discs.

Beyond the obvious, however, we all have complex personal relationships with colors. For some, these carefully chosen and configured sneaker shades and patterns may just look interesting, messy, or just pretty. But for others, they will feel something poetic, perhaps profound. This is where color theory gets deeper.

Grace Wales Bonner’s collaborations with Adidas beautifully evoke the 1970s, especially the style of the second-generation Jamaican and Jamaican community in London at that time. For her latest sneakers, the designer said her soft color palette was inspired by ‘iconic Jamaican cinema’.

“I was interested in exploring the colors that have faded under the Jamaican sun,” said Ms Wales Bonner.

Ms. Moore of Nike also noted that their mood charts for color often incorporate cineast influences. “We might want a Wes Anderson versus a feeling of Sofia Coppola,” she said.

Then there’s the hybrid version of Sacai on Nike’s VaporMax and Waffle Racer, which overlays double swooshes in “campfire orange” over “dark iris” in what Ms. Moore called “a sport authentically with a futuristic visionary touch ”. Not to mention the Puma Mirage Tech, which purposefully confronts colors from different eras in a way that resembles digital signage on DJ equipment.

“It’s a remix,” Puma’s Desens explained. “We wanted to link them to the culture of electronic music.” As an abstract expression of EDM, it is strikingly effective. It makes you feel optimistic. It’s disco.

And that’s why color theory is more important than ever when it comes to what you put on your feet. “We are considering several views of a sneaker at a very early stage in its design,” said Mr. Cioffi of Reebok. “We take a more critical look at brightness and backlighting. How does that shade of blue translate to 8pm on your Instagram feed when your phone’s battery is low? It is worth thinking about it.

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