Interview with Timo Rieke

Putting the question: an interview with Professor Timo Rieke.

Colour Feeling 2021+ by RAL is a tool for designers. Professor Timo Rieke explains why there is a whole range of colours instead of one trending colour, what “reThink” and “Create” mean and why it is important for colour researchers to think in terms of history.


RAL Colour Feeling 2021+ reThink und Create
RAL Colour Feeling 2021+ reThink and Create © RAL/IIT

Professor Rieke, colour is a fascinating phenomenon with countless facets. In conjunction with RAL, you have taken the keywords of “reThink” and “Create” and deliberately avoided promoting a single trending colour. Instead, you have developed a “colour space” for Colour Feeling 2021+. What are the benefits of this?

Professor Timo Rieke im Zoom Interview.
Professor Timo Rieke in a Zoom interview. Photo: ndion © Timo Rieke

Professor Timo Rieke: Colours are rarely used solely by themselves or because of their strikingness. The RAL Colour Feelings range was conceived as a tool for designers and architects, and for it to be used optimally it must be able to adapt to different ways of working. People who design do not want to just accept someone else’s narrative; they want to design a context and develop a connection – with surroundings, with architecture, with a product, with their own brand language and so on. These things are more possible with a colour space than with individual, trending colours. The difference is this: the colour space as a whole is a tool.

How did these colours in particular come about? First you collect a vast amount of things, data and keywords. How do you manage to condense it into a colour space?

RAL developed the themes of reThink and Create with Institute International Trendscouting (IIT) and a team of international designers. First, a trendscouting workshop at the Faculty of Design at HAWK University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Hildesheim provides the basis. Roughly 20,000 images from trade fair visits, design blogs, journals and magazines are viewed and analysed. These insights are coupled with information about megatrends and social phenomena, and are then sorted by colour and style category and combined into clusters. This is an intense communicative process. We used to do it by hand, though now we do it using digital solutions. The entire thing has been going on twice a year for more than ten years and it gives us a relatively accurate feeling for developments in the market and beyond. Specifically, it means that the colours selected for the trend report are based on well-founded observation and analysis of trends in society, technology and design. What is important is that the period studied is not just the present day. It considers the last 50 years. If we were to do trendscouting without this wealth of experience, it would definitely deliver less-convincing results. The process only gains value when it is repeated.

RAL Colour Feeling 2021+ Farben
RAL Colour Feeling 2021+ colours © RAL/IIT

Does the transition from watching to recommending have a secretive or even mystical aspect to it? How does the critical step take place?

ReThink was created based on the idea that people search for solutions and reflect on the world’s issues during a crisis. ReThink does not at all mean just a reaction. It is also meant to be an appeal to redesign the world – and when it comes to colour, this is even quite feasible. There is of course a secretive point within this process which we refer to as fusion in our method. The overall product is created through communicative teamwork, and creative potential and experience are needed for this. We have simply worked on this topic for a very long time, which is why we are confident that we come to the correct conclusions. We will likely – and hopefully – never be rid of the almost mystical aspect in everything here, otherwise we could get some form of artificial intelligence to calculate it all for us instead. If we were to lose our sense for such things, I think we would be in a world that we no longer want.

Why do you tend to recommend subtle pastel and earthy tones rather than vibrant colours? Is this a result of crisis, upheaval, reappraisal or your analysis? Is the present day loud in a different way to the 1970s, for example, when plastics drew attention with bright, lurid colours?

That is an excellent example of how the context of societal and technological development leads to specific colours and colour spectra. These days we have a very different situation in society, perceive things differently and face different challenges. Accordingly, the colour tones we have selected are the results of our scouting process. Vivid colour palettes still exist in the market, of course. However, calm harmony in particular seemed to us to be trendsetting. Colour is often confused with colourfulness, and colours that do not convey artificiality have been around for a very long time. They are often more popular than the exalted colours that might be recommended for advertising or marketing. The avant garde’s current exercise in restraint is a relatively new thing. Attention is not everything, and marketing departments are noticing this. People want to see content.

That sounds very optimistic.

Our colour scheme does not compensate for what we inflict on nature; all of us know what we are doing to it. It should be seen as a call to design and develop with awareness.

However, with megatrends such as digital transformation and artificial intelligence, you are confronting rather abstract worlds that are now strongly in the foreground. How does this tension present itself in the discussion about trending colours?

We speak a lot about society in order to understand what colour design means in the first place. Choosing colours is easy in comparison. In doing so, you can also send a message and convey an attitude, and that is something that has to be learned. Currently it is the combination of natural tones with extremely strong accents, a combination that also reveals the ambivalence and ambiguity of our time. In this instance, the nature we fear losing as well as the technology that offers enormous opportunities. How are we to choose? Can we integrate both into our actions? Are we forced to pause? Or are we at the beginning of a new renaissance?

RAL Colour Feeling 2021+ Farben+Schattierungen
RAL Colour Feeling 2021+ colours + shades © RAL/IIT

What would be needed for such a renaissance?

By renaissance, the first thing I mean is a reference back to the things we have already developed. It also means pausing and thinking about the attitude we have for design issues. This involves aspects such as sensuality, slowness, thoughtfulness and naturalness. If you design in context, you have to think historically, which is more obvious in architecture than it is in product design. However, even product design develops based on historical experiences. Even a purely technical innovation has to integrate into a historical context and translate into products. There have been intelligent descriptions of what a sensible and sustainable life could be like since the 1950s. At the same time, we have also been extremely driven by technological development over the past 50 years. I think we now need to pause for a moment, not to become technophobic, but in order to design it sensibly.

It is easy to imagine the flowing harmonies of the colour space in architecture and interior design. It is less easy for product design.

That is correct. We have consciously taken a more thoughtful direction with reThink. We could always have done another trend report with a strong emphasis on digital worlds, something that interior design would almost disappear in. The homes in it would be white or black and white; the thing bringing colour and excitement to the space would be the screen – all the fantastic worlds that pop up when you switch on the screen. After all, your surroundings should not be too much of a distraction from this great digital world! This is the other side, a direction which operates more technologically and through experiences. It will likely lead to us actually entering virtual 3D scenarios at some point and spending a large part of our lives there, too. We are setting a countertrend with reThink and it is just as relevant. The two exist simultaneously, which again shows our ambivalence.

You are consciously talking about “rethinking”, not about changed feelings. Should the colour scale mute emotions rather than rouse them?

Muting or rousing, that is always a question. I think it would be more accurate to talk about what colours support. They are about supporting specific scenarios and being used in a serving way. Colours are not an end in themselves; they do not seek to incite people to do something. It is a frequent misunderstanding that painting your office walls green makes you more relaxed at work. This is a fallacy. It does not work if the overall context, interior design and lighting design are not considered. In general we see that workplace environments are becoming much more homely, and that means more muted colours. This also affects technology and product design, which, I would say, are gaining a more human colour scheme. Like when technical smart-home devices fit into an interior’s colour scheme, for example.

RAL Colour Feeling 2021+ Anwendungen
RAL Colour Feeling 2021+ applications © RAL/IIT

What do you think is the most important aspect of the current reThink and Create narrative?

The most important aspect is the Create, although the reThink needs to come first in order for a sensible context to be created. The task is to discuss historical and societal contexts and, based on that discussion, develop an attitude for designing the future. This is then also expressed in colour and material and surface. I hope that we can provide help here. We have, for instance, tried to develop applications based on sociologist Andreas Reckwitz’s ideas about the value of cultural goods. That is how we ultimately obtain colour profiles with maximum difference and precise distinction, and which have clear practical relevance.

Are there colours – or possibilities for using the colour spectrum – which make you particularly excited?

I am constantly inspired by the colour matrix and the possibility of making combinations. Being able to come up with entire colour stories is the exciting bit. I get somewhat disappointed when I only have one colour in front of me. For a colour designer, things only really get started when there is a second colour – and they become interesting when a third one is involved. Colour only gains purpose and comes alive when it is in a tangible space with light and shadow. The colour tone on the colour chart or the colour of the paint in the bucket, neither really says much; they may look attractive where they are but they only come to life when put in context. For us to plan this, on the other hand, we need the colour charts and colour design tools so that we can illustrate the achievable spectrum of colour tones.

Does that mean you do not have a favourite colour?

My favourite colour is absolutely context-dependent. A blue might be wonderful in one place and then be completely inappropriate somewhere else. What I love are situations of colour, whether planned or accidental. What I hope, though, is that we can provide stimulation to design our environment consciously with reThink and Create.

RAL Colour Feeling 2021+ Kombinationen
RAL Colour Feeling 2021+ combinations © RAL/IIT

What role did your collaboration with materials manufacturer Covestro have in your opinion?

We shared the colour tones with Covestro at an early stage, and material samples were created based on them. We and RAL find it important to assess new colour standards on real materials on different surfaces with various feels and textures. By getting science, design, colour standard organisations and industry to work together, we can offer a good service to anyone who uses specific materials. We provide the narrative for this and invite everyone to cooperate on it.

So, reThink and Create together mean designing responsibly and with an awareness of history.

Yes, that is very important. The theme of responsibility is apparent in this, as is the theme of trust, which we have described in the series. The prefix “re-” reflects our attitude of seeing history as an academic approach, interpreting it in a contemporary context and reflecting it into the future. For me, as someone from Hanover, this “re-” does not mean going backwards. According to Kurt Schwitters, it means going along with the plan for the future and recognising that we are involved in this plan ourselves.

What did Schwitters say about that?

He made an interpretation of the name “Hanover”. In German, it is spelt “Hannover” and, read in reverse, it can be broken up as “re von nah”. If the “re” is interpreted as something like “backward”, the English translation of Hanover spelt back to front is “backward from close by”. Schwitters concludes that this could be correct so long as the translation of Hanover spelt normally, front to back, would be “onward to afar”. I think this can be a good motto: “onward to afar”. However, before we all dash forward with reckless abandon: think about reThink and Create.

RAL Colour Feeling 2021+ Leporello
RAL Colour Feeling 2021+ Leporello © RAL/IIT

Learn more about the Colour Feeling 2021+ on the RAL website.


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