Lauren Nassef

Sonu Mathew has traveled the world developing research for her color forecasts. The senior interior designer for Montvale, N.J., paint manufacturer Benjamin Moore & Co. has found that inspiration can strike in places that most designers might never have time to visit: the informal booths outside of the Milan furniture fair, for instance, or a small-town glassmaker.

“I found in Estonia, under a bridge, a woman who was knitting these really great little socks,” Mathew says. “At the time, there was a focus on Baltic nations and the colors and the handiwork coming from that side of the world. That influence does come into interiors. It could be a pattern on the socks that turns into an architectural pattern on a window. There’s this long domino effect that I think is really quite beautiful.”

Welcome to the florid, fresh, and occasionally flummoxing world of color forecasting. With companies from auto manufacturers to clothing designers eager to follow the latest consumer preferences, international organizations such as the Color Marketing Group, Stylesight, and WGSN can charge hefty membership fees to provide analysis on the latest color and style trends. And a number of architectural-product and -finish manufacturers conduct their own forecasts, pulling in research from fashion, culture, and products experts worldwide to help design professionals find inspiration and understand the context of those trends.

“The whole idea of color forecasting is providing an ongoing resource for inspiration,” Mathew says, “especially in a world where architects and designers are not getting to every show or every market, or they don’t necessarily have time to go online and read what’s happening with their counterparts around the world.”

Color forecasting is not a static science. Fluctuations in color forecasts are partially driven by the inherent human need for change, says Leatrice Eiseman, director of the Eiseman Center for Color Information and Training in Washington and executive director of the Pantone Color Institute. The fashion world, for instance, realized long ago that they wouldn’t sell many clothes if they always offered the same colors. That leads to the second, more commercial reason that colors shift: “You keep the economy stimulated, and people wanting to purchase something that’s new,” Eiseman says.

The Color Marketing Group’s tagline is, “Color sells, and the ‘right’ color sells better.” Color forecasting is market driven, but that focus can be off-putting to designers, says Margaret Portillo, professor and chair of the Department of Interior Design at the University of Florida’s College of Design, Construction, and Planning. “With color forecasting, there’s always this push for the new and the latest, and so it’s almost encouraging a throwaway mentality, in thinking certain spaces—to look fresh or new—have to have that edgier palette.”

Designers might also wonder where each year’s color palettes come from. “In some ways it’s like reading the horoscope,” Portillo says. “The methodology behind selecting those colors is often pretty obscure.” Color forecasters say that they usually track the success of their predictions anecdotally, by seeing what pops up in the market rather than through sales figure or statistics. It’s an area ripe for academic research, Portillo notes.

Eiseman has heard skeptical questions about the color forecasting process before. “I think when you tell people ‘I’m a color consultant’ or ‘I’m involved in forecasting,’ they think it’s a group of people that sit around and we discuss what color needs to be hot, and we form some kind of cabal to make that happen,” she says. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Color specialists do in fact meet to discuss colors, says Texas-based Jackie Jordan, director of color marketing for paint manufacturer Sherwin-Williams Co. She and a number of her colleagues—a color marketer with a fashion background, experts from the global product-finishes group and the Latin American group, as well as an outside textile-industry specialist—convene for several days at the company’s headquarters in Cleveland to present their research, hone their predictions, and develop the stories that put the colors in context. They also discuss the research that drives their forecasts.