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Tech & Science

Being employed to invent colours

Isabelle Olsson has a fairly unique job title. Olsson is Google’s Color, Materials and Finish team leader. What does that involve? Inventing new colours to be used in Google’s vast array of products.

These colours can be used on such items such as smartphones like Google Pixels or a smart speaker like the Google Nest Mini. “Every year we work on hundreds of new colours, but maybe one or two make it,” Olson said in a Google blogpost.

More recently, four colours stemming from this work found their way into Pixel Buds lineup. The colours include Oh So Orange, Clearly White, Quite Mint and Almost Black.

Olsson believes in the importance of colours and feels like there’s a correlation between lived experiences or current settings with one’s favourite colours. “Color is the foundation for living. Look at flowers, some of which evolved to look bright to attract bees. There’s something about color that reminds us we are alive”, Olsson said.

“Colour is very personal, and so culturally specific to the setting and context we’re in. You even see different preferences depending on the climate you live in; if you’re in a hot climate you might prefer different colors than if you’re in a cooler climate”, she added.

In terms of technology and the products it produces, the range of colours used has blossomed from just greys, blacks and whites to a multitude of different shades. This has been linked with how colour affects our mood and how it meshes with our surroundings. “Tech for tech’s sake was enough, but I don’t think it’s enough anymore. There’s a reason when you go to a paint store there are literally hundreds of shades of white. We really believe that color, material and finish affect your wellbeing”, Olsson said.

Olsson added that the placement of a product and where it will be spending most of its time factors into the team’s entire process. “When we create our palette for the different product categories, we really think about where a product is going to live. Is it in your pocket or next to your bag, or is it going to live on a shelf or on that beautiful wooden cabinet you got from your grandma? We think about how we can fit in or stand out in that environment”, Olsson explained.

Olsson has noted that technology used to be hidden by the furniture of the time, the way televisions or sound systems used to be concealed behind wooden cupboards, but this has now changed, with product designers making things that either blend smoothly with their surroundings or stand out in a positive way.

She also said that the way in which colours are designed and signed off involves a process of experiencing them in a passive manner over a period of time. “We try to live with the objects and the colors we design. For instance, when we design something for the home, be it a new color or a new shape, we place it on a shelf. Then every day for a week we walk past it, and we start seeing things we didn’t previously see”, she said.

This is a process of harmonisation, where the design isn’t standalone, rather it’s part of a larger system of items, people, and how all of these interconnect. “We don’t just design something and look at it and then it’s done. We try to live with the objects and the colors. These days, we’re sending product models to our houses and living with them in our homes”, Olsson explained.

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