Anyone who's spent hours watching HGTV knows how exciting the prospect of a home makeover can be. While there are plenty of decisions to be made during the process, picking out a paint color might be one of the most difficult choices. But what if you could get involved in the paint-picking process before the colors even land on a palette? Paint color expert Erika Woelfel does just that in her role as vice president of color and creative services at Behr Paint.
Woelfel is the talent responsible for picking and naming the paint colors Behr offers its customers, including cool tones such as Back To Nature and Light Drizzle. For her, it's all about "connecting people to colors that feel personal to them." She names the mystery of what a color will look like in someone's home as one of the biggest challenges DIYers face, and her goal in choosing and naming the colors is to help with that issue. As she explains, "It’s all about the inspiration and storytelling, and helping them visualize what that color will look like."
Color-naming is harder than people think it is.
Woelfel leads a team of 30 people, including interior design staff, color specialists, photographers, graphic designers, production designers, coordinators, and specialists of all kinds to choose and name the 200 colors a year she hopes will speak to customers. In addition to being in charge of all things paint color, Woelfel also has a hand in packaging, graphic design, store displays, and creating content for social media — or what she calls "all that fun stuff." Thanks to the myriad of responsibilities, she confidently says, "It’s never the same day twice."
To make good on her goal of creating the colors to get Behr in your living room, Woelfel needs to be inspired herself. Her many sources of inspiration include food, fashion, pop culture, and art. One of the biggest ways she jumpstarts her creativity is through travel, and just "getting out there and seeing what’s happening in the world," she explains. When traveling, Woelfel always considers what new viewpoints she might encounter in places like China, South America, and Mexico. Although sometimes, you don't have to go far. Woelfel, who lives in Orange County, cites the Los Angeles Farmers Market and Jackalope Art Festival as two sources of inspiration right outside her own door. "There’s this culture for change," she explains. "I think that’s a great place to start looking. It can even be in your own community."
It has to tell a story.
When your job involves traveling the world for inspiration and flexing your creativity to pick and name paint colors, there's a good chance people will get the wrong idea about what it is you do all day. "Often people think, 'Oh, you just sit around and name colors all day long,'" she shares. "Actually, we don’t. Color-naming is harder than people think it is."
Woelfel and her team have a lot to consider when naming the hues. First, they need to consider whether it's an interior or exterior product. The color name also has to tick off quite a few other boxes. Woelfel explains, "It has to tell a story about the color; it has to describe the color; it has to be culturally, socially relevant. It can’t have been used before. It has to be unique and original." Since colors are never discontinued, there's a database of over 50,000 color names that can't be used.
Even though it's not all fun and games, that doesn't mean it's not enjoyable. Woelfel says one of her favorite tasks is naming interior colors, which have the most flexibility. She asks, "In two words, what’s the story of this color?" The resulting name "is a little micro-story," which can be descriptive of a mood or a place, like the light green of Positive Energy or Portuguese Dawn's sunset pink hue.
Another challenge when naming colors is aiming for mass appeal, and Woelfel admits sometimes the team has to rein in the more cutting edge names when they get going on a color. She points to beauty companies such as OPI as being part of an industry that can push the envelope when naming colors. "I wish we could get away with some of that," she says. You'll never see any super sexy paint color names like Yank My Doodle or Rub-a-Pub-Pub in the Behr offerings.
Working with chemists in the Behr Paint Lab, Woelfel says her color marketing team goes through many paint color variations before reaching the perfect hue. Numerous adjustments — like going a shade lighter or darker or making the tone warmer or cooler — happen along the way before a "just-right" hue is mixed, named, and ready to debut within the Behr Color Solutions Center at The Home Depot.
Woelfel has a degree in design from the University of Minnesota and has been with Behr since 2009. Before working at an ad agency and doing some graphic design work, Woelfel interned at a one-woman color marketing company in Minneapolis, where she was immersed in color forecasting. Eventually, Woelfel took over the business, diving even further into the world of paint colors. For about 15 years, she worked with paint companies in the United States and in places such as Australia, China, and Japan. She refers to that time in her career as "a full immersion on how paint systems are built and how colors are forecasted and how trends are forecasted for paint companies."
There’s so much more to collaboration than just individual contributors.
Woelfel says her team's passion and forecasting skills prove to be a crucial part of the business. "They’re always looking around the corner for what’s coming next." Working with a team is the norm for Woelfel now, but she says that's not the way she envisioned it out of school. "Design now has become [so] collaborative," she reflects. "There’s so much more [to] collaboration than just individual contributors."
Woelfel advises people looking for their dream job to "set goals for yourself every day, every week, every month, every year." But don't be afraid to take a chance. She explains, "I just took opportunities when they presented themselves, if it felt right for me."
When describing what it takes to succeed in a role like hers, Woelfel says, "[Have] a really keen eye. Just be curious." She calls color a personal and emotional thing for people to bring into their homes. "It's storytelling."