It is time to take play seriously. In an age colored by uncertainty and upheaval, consumers are yearning for meaning, searching for a deeper understanding of themselves and the world around them. Amidst the overwhelming concerns about our environment and the instability of the political and cultural landscapes, many are returning to the basics of play to find deeper, more positive connections through interaction, exploration and experimentation. From essential to joyful, art for art’s sake is seeing a renewed appeal, and fun and happiness are reigning over practicality and utilitarianism.

For a long time, fashion has held sway over provocative design intended to challenge and drive aesthetic shifts. However, the post-austerity era shifted design attitudes to become more essentialist. The overall design landscape became homogenized, as designers played it safe by catering to good taste conceptions. In a backlash, design direction and color palettes are becoming more expressive and challenging, at times verging on bad taste. Recent catwalk shows have taken on increasingly joyful aesthetics.

Veteran provocateurs such as Henrik Vibskov, Walter Van Beirendonck, Vivienne Westwood and Jeremy Scott are being joined by new upstarts such as Collective Das Leben am Haverkamp and Charles Jeffrey. Even Calvin Klein, historically associated with essentialist, non-confrontational minimalist aesthetics, has embraced the playful and the bold, with creative director Raf Simons and artist Sterling Ruby transforming the catwalk and recent interior store designs, respectively.

While our hunger for play speaks to our need for joy, play’s color and design aesthetic is not limited to the brash and bright. There are many different aspects of play, from experimentation and interaction, to the world of handcrafting. It is the role of play in invention and creation that is driving upcoming color trends, four of which we highlight below.

Happy Accident

A Happy Accident inspiration image.  Courtesy image.

One manifestation of play is the unbridled embrace of imperfection. Taking a more disruptive approach, designers are subverting material choices and applications in order to create something contrarian. Discarding the need for standardization, uniformity and consistency, designers are instead turning to experimentation, highlighting unregulated color, spontaneous patterns and unpredictable color combinations in their designs.


Surrealist and Dada influences that speak to our need for pure joy and happiness express another avenue of play. Promoting a playful sense of interactivity, designers are encouraging personalization where users can create their own compositions, customizing pieces and parts to create vastly different outcomes. This playful immersion even seeps into our virtual worlds.

A Playground inspiration image.  Courtesy image.


Hyperreal influences reflect another dimension of play. As the boundary between digital and physical continues to blur, new color treatments — suggestive of movement and transformation — are lending trippy effects to fashion, product and space design. The influence of digital experiences in our lives has changed our expectations of color. We are demanding that physical colors, like our screen-based color experiences, are dynamic, fluid and interactive. Applying the aesthetics born out of digital design to tangible real-world products, color finishes dance and shift. Toying with the interaction of movement and light, color is not solid and color treatments create dynamic interactions that appear to transform or evolve over time or with motion.

A Dreamscapes inspiration image.  Courtesy image.

New Native

Another aspect of play speaks to the idea of adopting, layering and blending other cultures with one’s own. This adoption, a testament to the contemporary consumer whose influences and interests are not anchored to their backgrounds, is not about cultural appropriation but is instead a celebration of mixed influences and cross-cultural fertilization. We are becoming more nomadic; our urban centers, already cultural melting pots, are becoming increasingly diverse.

Blending traditional and cultural heritage through years of globalization, and the movement of people and product, has resulted in a design aesthetic that is a mash-up of influences that are impossible to pin down to any one starting point. Abandoning preoccupations of provenance, ad-hoc curation translates into color and designs that are indiscriminately playful. The result is a montage of influences: old and new, traditional and experimental, synthetic and organic.

New Native inspiration image.  Courtesy image.

Laurie Pressman is vice president of the Pantone Color Institute. The information here was extracted with permission from Pantone’s Viewpoint Colour 03, “The Play Issue.”

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