COLOR IS PROBABLY one of the most important tools in the event producer's toolbox — the proverbial equivalent of a carpenter's screwdriver or hammer. It's versatile and flexible and, depending on the occasion, can be scaled in a number of different ways. Dramatic use of a single color can deliver a real knockout punch when guests arrive at an event. A more subtle application of color is like a velvet hammer: soft and powerful at the same time.

Over the last few years, color has been more important than ever as a tool because the broad economic downturn has required all of us to be much more creative in designing memorable events with shrinking budgets. Fortunately, technology and lighting have given us many more options and new effects that integrate color and can double as decor.

COLOR EVOKES EMOTIONS

Why is color such a popular and crucial tool in the event business? Because color evokes our strongest emotions, and events are intensely emotional and personal by their very nature. There's no mystery behind the names of some of the most familiar colors: baby blue, navy blue, royal blue. How about forest green, mint green, kelly green? Or fire-engine red, hot pink, lemon yellow? We all can call these colors to mind with little prompting.

So there is a universal, emotional response to color that we as event producers leverage as we create the setting for every event. For instance, red is a stimulant: It conjures up power, energy and passion. It stimulates the appetite — both literally and figuratively. Yellow is bright and cheery and communicates vitality and health (think smiley face). Blue is a cool color, refreshing and tranquil. Green is the color of nature, so it inspires feelings of calm, renewal and freshness. Bright yellow and orange produce very different emotional responses than pale yellow and peach.

The way in which colors are combined also adds to the response. For example, combining jewel tones — as the name implies — invokes “rich” color. Other factors such as cultural traditions and life experiences add to the basic human response and make things more interesting. It's a little like layering veils over a white lampshade — the result is a colorful tapestry, reflective of a vibrant history or experience, which is very moving and can evoke powerful emotions for event attendees.

CHOOSING COLORS

For me, choosing colors for an event requires taking into consideration a number of key pieces of information. For example, who is giving the event? Is this person a “colorful” character with a vibrant personality? What is the guest profile? What is the primary reason for the event — customer appreciation, retirement, product launch, wedding reception? Is it formal or casual? Have the hosts or clients already determined the kind of event they want, such as a Mardi Gras theme or a Halloween party? Even that information doesn't have to be limiting when choosing colors for an event. Consider how surprised and thrilled guests would be to arrive at a Halloween party themed entirely in red, because it is set — figuratively at least — in Hell.

Once I've done my intelligence gathering, I often choose one or two colors — sometimes three — that I consider as the predominant palette. How I arrive at these specific colors involves a second set of factors, such as what flowers are at their peak at that time of year, or a corporate identity or logo with strong color associations (IBM blue, UPS brown, Ramada red).

Often the venue or a feature of the venue influences my color decision in one direction or another. Sometimes it's a positive feature like a beautiful piece of art — a sculpture or painting to incorporate into the landscape of the event. Sometimes it's a negative feature that needs to be reckoned with, such as the color of the carpeting or walls. In every case, this information serves as a “filter,” impacting the final selection of colors. In the end, gathering this information saves time and literally sets the stage for a successful event.

COLORFUL PROPS

There are a number of ways that color can be woven through an event. Lighting, table coverings, equipment such as stemware, plates and chairs, drapery, floor coverings, flowers and other decorative items such as lamps, banners and rented artwork can all be used as color “props.” Details and accents are another way to weave color through an event. These include items like candles, tassels and napkin ties, cocktail napkins, bowls of colored stones — even jelly beans placed around the room.

Don't overlook the attire of your service staff — or even your guests — as another creative and surprising way to introduce color that also provides a constantly shifting “color-scape” at an event. An essential element for the success of San Francisco's popular Black and White ball is that guests dress in black-and-white attire only. Thousands of people milling around multiple venues in black-and-white fashions adds to the central theme, involves the guests and provides movable and delightful decor.

Add to that a specialty cocktail created for the event or an entire menu themed around one or two colors, and you've evoked a response from your guests not soon forgotten.

EDIBLE COLOR

Theming an entire event around one color is fun and certainly challenging, and requires un-bridled creativity when it comes to designing a color-themed menu. Certainly, fruits and vegetables lend themselves well to a single color theme. Gourmet foods are constantly evolving their selections, and it's very easy to get pasta in an array of colors — and shapes, for that matter. (Even ketchup and chocolate syrup are appearing on grocery store shelves in a rainbow of colors to entice kids and tap their mothers' pocketbooks.)

Specialty drinks have been around for ages and come in a variety of colors — from blue martinis to green Midori cocktails. Consider using a large, clear glass vase filled with lemons as a centerpiece or table riser, or bowls of jelly beans in a single, thematic color. The options are endless!

The key to “edible” color is not to get too carried away. Food has to be visually appealing as well as appetizing. Creating “eye candy” for the event is one thing. Maintaining good taste — that is, appealing to the palate and not just the palette — is still essential. So, if the thought of eating something “black” or “blue” pushes the limits of good taste, my advice is: Forget it.


Gary Baker is creative director for Melons Catering and Event Planning in Sausalito, Calif., where he has provided the vision behind the award-winning events that Melons has produced over the years. The company's Web site is www.melonscatering.com.