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Visual merchandising basics: colour

Visual Merchandising basics – Colour


Colour is a sophisticated topic in VM. It’s relatively easy to take the three primary colours (red, blue, and yellow) in the 3-colour wheel, and splash them over a window. However, whilst the result is eye-catching, it does tend to lack a certain sophistication, which is a critical part of many brands’ ‘DNA,’ perhaps rather resembling a child’s toy box instead.

For a more polished look, try using the 4-colour wheel – as used by most interior design professionals. The addition of green as the fourth primary allows for more sophisticated colour combinations, especially when we consider secondary (or opposite) and other combinations. The secondary colours of the 3-colour wheel are made from combining one primary colour and a combination of the two opposite colours. On the 3-colour wheel these are:

Red - green

Yellow - purple

Blue - orange

These can look more sophisticated if the colours are toned down a little with the addition of white to create a tone, or deepened with black to create a shade). MCM’s nautically themed S/S 13 window nicely demonstrates this with the addition of a little white.

However, using the 4-colour primary wheel, colour becomes much more interesting. Here we have two new secondary colours: a yellow spring-green, which combines yellow and green, and a turquoise or teal blue/green, made by combining blue and green together.

Here they are paired with their opposites as secondary, or complementary colours:

Red - green

Yellow - deep blue

Orange - turquoise/teal blue green

Spring-green - purple

The addition of white particularly makes these complementary colours ‘sing’: imagine a palette of spring-green, purple, and white – prettily redolent of lavender and high summer? Or yellow, deep blue, and white combined to suggest a summer beach theme?

We can make more elaborate combinations by using analogous combinations – that is, any three adjacent colours on the colour wheel – to create tone-on tone subtlety. Moving through a palette of warm yellows: from pale lemon yellow, to a clear, strong yellow, through to a golden orange-yellow, for example. Rather as carefully-placed, piles of perfect fruit in a Barcelona market suggest.

And still more if we take one primary colour and employ it with the colour either side of its complimentary colour. Known as split complimentary colour, this gives us: orange, a deep blue, and a darker green, for example. Most colour trend forecasters use combinations of split complimentary colour in their seasonal palettes, adding shades and tones for create new and interesting combinations.

Add some neutrals - cream, beige, black, taupe, white, stone, grey, etc. - and some interesting textures - wood, stone, marble, etc. - and you will have a great palette for windows or a store interior.

Remember too that ‘bright colour attracts the eye.’ In reality of course, we mean that bright colour appeals to the brain. A display of neutral-coloured merchandise - black, white, stone, taupe, grey, cream, etc. - looks best displayed against a stronger-coloured background. In open-backed windows this might be a series of coloured panels hung from the ceiling, or a free-standing, coloured panel placed behind a mannequin. Here, with a shot of colour adding interest to black and white props and black and white merchandise is a Paule Ka window.

Which brings us to colour in the store. Given that the store interior must be a reasonably neutral background for most retailers – in order to showcase the merchandise as well as possible - a little colour can create a real ‘pop’ commanding attention behind neutral-coloured merchandise.

For in-store display, the clever buyer of a boutique or specialty store will buy an extra option in a strong colour to display alongside the black version, which she/he knows they will sell most. This is especially true of evening wear, where black and neutrals form the bulk of the buy, but a red evening dress will look eye-catching on the in-store mannequin and provoke the response: ‘That’s great! Do you have it in black?’

Lastly, edit the display critically. The old adage ‘if in doubt leave it out’ works here. Remember that child’s toy box, it’s so not the look you are going for…


Action points:

• Try the 4-colour primary wheel when selecting colour combinations for windows and interiors.

• Let the colour command attention.

• Use a rainbow of colour, in rainbow order, for merchandise in many colours.

Alternatively, try alternating dark colours and light colours for folded merchandise on a table.

• Separate out the neutral colours and display them against a strong coloured background.

• Use statement-coloured merchandise to draw attention to the adjacent neutral-coloured stock.

• If in doubt, leave it out


Dr Valerie Wilson Trower writes a regular column on visual merchandising for Retail Design World