A circular manifesto for colour

Laura Perryman and Sarah Conway discuss the demise of consumer-driven design and the dawn of considered colour.

Sarah Conway
8 min readJun 14, 2021
Innovations in organic colouring methods, featuring Ty Smyl, Studio Sarmite, Andrea Liu, Sukumo, Hannah Elisabeth Jones and Ilse Kremer. Photograph ©Colour of Saying.

From lead white cosmetics to uranium orange ceramics, the allure of colour has often led humans to take irrational risks. This century, our engagement with environmental issues has increased the desirability of ‘eco-colours’ such as cream and green.¹ But our colour processes are out of step. Paint solvents — green or otherwise — still contain high quantities of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) linked to atmospheric pollution, asthma and cancers,² and colourants containing heavy metals increase in toxicity as they move up the food chain, eventually poisoning those at the top.³

To achieve true circularity, we need to connect and resolve every part of the manufacturing process, including, or perhaps even beginning with, colour.

Materials don’t need us to colour them. In a circular economy, where the planet is our ultimate customer and client, we must take colour decisions seriously and consider if the aesthetic and functional enhancements colour brings to a material justify the environmental costs.

But colour is not a frivolity. According to studies of psychology, perception and marketing, colour is the most appealing element of design.⁴ When selected and applied thoughtfully, it offers us agency over human mood, behaviour and interaction. Commercially, colour generates consumer appeal; pragmatically, it extends a material’s life and performs a staggering variety of functions, from reflective cooling (white) to signalling safety (green) and danger (red).

We believe palettes should move towards a regenerative, circular future in which colours, materials and finishes contribute positively to the natural ecosystems of which humans are part.

The designers and brands featured here show that via colour: seductive, beguiling and endlessly irresistible colour, tackling the failings of the linear take-make-waste economy may not be such a chore. Viewed afresh, the things we have overlooked and thrown away offer a precious chance to rediscover colour nuance, abundance and even, transience.

This manifesto is a resource for designers, makers and forward-thinkers > six conscious colour directions for the twenty-first century

1. Using visibly recycled colour to engage and activate

2. Accommodating brand colour fluidity

3. Harnessing local colour identity

4. Re-evaluating problematic colour

5. Designing for colour lifecycles

6. Rethinking colour intelligence

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Because the planet must be our number one client

Visibly recycled colour will activate change

Waste is not so much a material problem as a psychological one. Waste’s abject connotations can prevent us from seeing beyond the dirty, rejected and overwhelming to the accessible, abundant and apt.

As volumes of recyclates amass, we must consider how materials are perceived and experienced, as well as how they perform. Until waste management systems become colour literate or until colours are designed to fade as products reach the end of their useful life (see section 5), the visible incorporation of coloured waste is an intelligent way to spark debate and generate excitement about the prismatic potential of the things we throw away.

Compelling provenance stories and colour and material heterogeneity come together in visibly recycled products to confer status-enhancing value-signalling to consumers. The Circular Cup, Nike’s Space Hippie shoes and Smile Plastic’s ‘reimagined materials’ invite us to make our eco-credentials visible.

>> Further Reading: Interview with Dan Dicker

To harness this trend

> Phase virgin synthetic colour out of manufacturing processes.

>> Design for colour-led disassembly and reincorporation.

>>> Reincorporate your own and locally salvaged waste colour visibly in your products to tell intentional stories.


Because reincorporated materials have colour ancestry

Brand colours must become more fluid

Colour has been a keystone of brand identity since the 1800s when Cadbury’s started wrapping chocolate in Queen Victoria’s favourite purple (Pantone 2685C). We debate our brand colours furiously, code them precisely and set them down in brand ‘bibles’ observed with pious obedience. Getting our colours ‘wrong’ is like misspelling our company’s name.

The synthetic colour we’ve enjoyed for two hundred years is predictable, repeatable and resilient. Too resilient. Our pigments outlast our material needs and desires and, because our waste management systems do not account for colour, a myriad of hues and tones are combined and condensed with each recirculation until everything is a murky black.

In the next few years, the viability and urgency of incorporating waste into commercial design will increase significantly. Until synthetic pigments have been phased out and replaced with less-harmful colour, this means designers and manufacturers will be custodians of materials with complex colour histories.

By welcoming preexisting colour as a design participant, companies like Gomi, Alusid and G.F Smith make space for nuance, diversity and serendipity, providing templates for transitional colour relationships.

>> Further Reading: Interview with Dan Dicker

To harness this trend

> Implement brand palettes that are less codified and accommodate range.

>> Investigate and apply alternatives to virgin synthetic colour.

>>> Reincorporate branded colour waste into current products.


Because local culture is the beating heart of sustainability

Local colours will enrich places with meaning

The combined traumas of the climate crisis and coronavirus pandemic have accelerated our rediscovery and reevaluation of locality. As consumers, we are increasingly interested in and motivated by stories of provenance.

Brands are embracing localness, too, drawing on resources and inspiration close at hand. Different outcomes will emerge from different environments, resulting in a proliferation of products rich in nuance and narrative.

Places can give colour meaning, but colour also gives meaning to places. By harvesting regional colour — whether foraged, grown or salvaged — designers can positively shape perceptions of territory and invite reconnections with land and landscapes.

To harness this trend

> Explore colours made within a small footprint of your production area.

>> Look to waste sources of natural or organic colour, such as food.

>>> Foster improved relationships with communities by linking regional colour with local making and manufacture.


Because industrial waste contains valuable pigments

Salvaged problematic colour will commodify waste

Like diamonds in the rough, our industrial waste conceals a full spectrum of nascent pigments. Salvaging colour from difficult waste streams is a compelling way to capture toxins in benign and beautiful ways, while plant-based colour from agricultural waste aligns colour with product life-spans.

The complex and variable composition of many industrial waste streams means that each time a colour is deployed, it produces something new. Are markets accustomed to colour precision ready to embrace colour caprice? Many designers, scientists and brands believe so, and are evolving a new aesthetic, ‘designed to fluctuate’.

>> Further Reading: Interview with Agne Kucerentaite

To harness this trend

> Embrace un-standardised colour by exploring colour processes that are not expected to produce the same result every time.

>> This trend brings science and art together. Collaborate with scientists and engineers to develop the best colour processes for your product.

>>> Experiment. Many of us know little about where colour comes from. James Logan’s Make Ink is a good place to start.


Because disposable will become deplorable and, eventually, impossible

Fading and evolving colours will be embraced as part of healthy lifecycle design

As product lifecycles come under greater scrutiny, selecting colours with appropriate lifespans will be a critical part of the design process. At the same time, more and more consumers are choosing products and services for their uniqueness and ethical credentials.

When we design with lifecycles front and centre, our colour choices change. We may have to compromise on our favourite and most vibrant colours, but exciting new possibilities come into play.

Evolving colour shifts or fades away in sunlight, reducing colour waste and creating scope for reapplication. Consumers may return items in good condition to be re bio-dyed, extending the life and vitality of our possessions.

>> Further Reading: Interview with Living Colour

To harness this trend

> Make life-cycle central to your design process. If your product will outlast your consumer’s need for it, how will you reincorporate its parts materially and chromatically?

>> Embrace and activate colour that evolves, fades and fluctuates through your brand stories.

>>> Increase the longevity of your products and nurture long-lasting relationships with your customers by embedding reinvigorating colour reapplication services.


Because necessity is the mother of invention

Revolutions in colour intelligence and intelligent colour are underway

Sustainability (meaning high-performance, low-carbon) strategies are impacting every area of design, production and consumption. In the next 2–3 years, many notable material-science initiatives will have reached market maturity, reshaping Anthropocene landscapes.

Biodesign is fuelling this movement via materials such as Bolt Threads’s Mylo ‘Unleather’, made from mycelium, and Microsilk, spun from bioengineered protein, originating from spider silk. But it’s advancing colour too. Exploratory nuances and even types of colour are emerging that go beyond traditional dyes and conventional pigments to structural colour, nanoscale colour, and colour that responds to its environment.

To harness this trend

> Consider how colour can go beyond aesthetics to perform an experience or make a difference to human life.

>> Nano-level colour means coatings are unnecessary, begetting a future of colour and material interconnectedness, where each is equal and integral to the other.

>>> Innovations like the ones included here are transforming colour, taking it far beyond what we knew it to be, showing its capacity to solve real-world challenges.


From the ancient to the Anthropocene, we are seeing a reversion to variety, nuance and locality.

With plentiful palettes of coloured materials readily available, designers and brands are working with colour ancestry to engage and activate individuals and industries.

By questioning and accounting for their colour processes’ ecological and social implications, companies are also uncovering provenance stories that add value to their proposition.

Through creative and technical ingenuity, even the most problematic colour can be harnessed to enhance the desirability and utility of materials, keeping them within cycles of regenerative reuse.

The success of these innovations will ultimately depend on how they are perceived and experienced by consumers. Through holistic design thinking brands can make it easier and more appealing for each of us to make many small contributions towards resolving vast issues.



Sarah Conway

Design Writer & Brand Storyteller. Always on the lookout for stories of colour, material and design https://www.storiesofdesign.com/