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The magic of colours

A look behind the scenes: the "Colour and Trim" department at the Volkswagen HQ in Wolfsburg

Two Volkswagen colour specialists explain the meaning of "third place", their inspirations, and colour trends.

"We waited a long time for this kind of yellow." Astrid Göring carefully pushes a small bowl of the spice turmeric aside to make space for the so-called "mood board". This display features different shades of yellow: among other things, a photo of glowing corn fields, the label from a French lemonade bottle and a fabric sample from some Italian curtains. "For our initial inspiration, we collected everything. We used these examples as a basis for the initial meeting with the paint supplier. Here we needed to communicate our idea of the final hue: with a fine character. Or, with vivid sparkles as soon as the sun shines on it," explains Astrid Göring. She and her colleague Susanne Gerken work at Volkswagen HQ in Wolfsburg, Germany in the "colour and trim" department. This is where the creative force comes up with new concepts: colours, trim and new kinds of cloth for the different Volkswagen models.

Gerken is happy: "A vibrant yellow like this wouldn't have been technically possible twelve years ago. However, a lot has changed in the composition of colour pigments. Now we can supply it at last." Together with her team, Susanne Gerken is responsible for colour design in the B-segment. This includes the Passat, the Sharan and the Arteon, for example. The yellow was shown for the first time at the Geneva Motorshow in 2013, with overwhelming response. As a result, the Golf R-Line's and Arteon's "Turmeric Yellow".

Spoilt for choice in the interior

Gerken, Göring and their colleagues decide the colour and material of all surfaces that have been designed by the interior and exterior designers. One does get spoilt for choice here with all the leather qualities, fabric types and also wood, aluminium or paint for trim strips.

Additionally, the choice of colours for the outer skin including the wheel rims is, of course, part of the process. There are also different variants of the canvas convertible roofs for the Beetle Cabrio. In short, the team needs to decide suitable materials to cover all surfaces on the vehicle - on the inside and outside. And, they do so for all Volkswagen models and markets. There is a spectrum of around 80 different exterior colours to choose from for this complex task. Here, paint is not simply paint - it comes in solid variants, in metallic finishes and in mother of pearl effects. These include classics like Tornado Red, Pure White and the spectacular Oryx White. Carefully developed colour particles then create a brilliant shine and an impressive feeling of depth.

Left: The Tiguan in Pure White.

With this large selection of colours and materials, Volkswagen is on track with the global trend towards personalisation. Alongside home and work, cars have become the third most important place in the lives of many customers and they want to design this "third place" individually just like their home. The options in this area are no longer limited to the body colour. For example, on the up!, customers can choose from several combinations and also choose the colour of the exterior mirrors, the wheels and the roof.

Here again, all colours and combinations are checked by the two designers and their colleagues. They do so at regular intervals for contemporary radiance and adapt the spectrum to new developments where necessary

Bright future for all green hues

These developments can be related to society, for example, growing mobility, digitalisation and also sustainability. They influence new colour trends, which can be seen firstly in fashion, then in furniture and later in the car world. "These changes are also perceived by our customers. Their taste changes accordingly," explains Susanne Gerken. Therefore the Volkswagen designers develop new trend colours each year. In addition to "Turmeric Yellow", other trendsetters include "Atlantic Blue Metallic" (available for example for the Touran) or "Bottle Green Metallic" on the Beetle and Beetle Cabrio.

Gerken and Göring see all green hues - from Moss Green to Bottle Green and Viper Green - as trendy colours. "Green has never been an important colour for Volkswagen. That has changed through networking and globalisation. Companies have become more transparent and tolerant. Colours are no longer stigmatised," summarizes Gerken, forecasting a rosy future for the colour, which was previously laughed at for being hunter green.

At least two years will pass from the first draft to the finished paint before a new colour joins the options, so designers more or less need to live mentally in the future. Astrid Göring finds inspiration everywhere: "I go through the world with open eyes: how far does the spectrum of an autumn sky go? What play of light and shadow does a new glass façade offer? Or I sort buttons in a box and think: these three make a great combination!"



Some colours can augment the styling of a vehicle. Others can weaken or completely ruin the styling, however. Ideally, they perfectly enhance each line, each radius and each curve in the metal. It is not until colours are combined with suitable materials in the interior that the whole package reveals its effect though. "We do not want to dress up our cars, but instead perfect them with the aid of colours and materials. We try to emphasise the details so that they support a harmonious and strong overall effect," explains textile designer Susanne Gerken. Therefore the coordination within the team needs to work precisely. Paint is a highly complex industrial product and therefore a bit of a diva:

"At the end of the development process, we cannot change anything about the colour anymore. You might select another sewing thread on the seat covers," says Astrid Göring, explaining the challenge for all those involved. Gerken and Göring work closely with their colleagues from the paint shop, materials research and production planning. Together they discuss which design aspects will be highlighted, which radiance suits the vehicle and what can actually be implemented in series production.

Not all colours suit all models ...

Solid colours without complex metallic effects suit the charisma of the up! and the Beetle. The colour Denim Blue supports the styling of the Beetle, but not larger vehicles in Susanne Gerken's area of responsibility. "The light blue would completely neutralise the large surfaces on the Touareg. It would look like a Lego brick on wheels," chuckles Göring. 

The two colour experts only have a small scope for large experiments: Within five weeks after the initial meetings with the paint suppliers, they receive a 10 x 15 cm colour tile. They work with visualisations and 3D models in order to see whether the paint actually is suitable for the vehicle. Testing paint on a full-size car would be too time consuming. The designers do not see the actual effect on the respective vehicle model until the end of the development process. This complex tuning process involves numerous requirements and specifications. Gerken and Göring need all of their experience, skills and intuition for the perfect conclusion. Close collaboration with the colleagues from Technical Development increases the prospect of success.

A pink Beetle for the Americans

Gerken and Göring need experience, skills and intuition not just with colours for models on European markets, however. They work for all global markets where Volkswagens are sold, i.e. more than 150 countries. This additional challenge limits the work on the one hand and, on the other, it provides new design possibilities. Each country has colour-specific preferences and limitations. For example, there was a special version of the Beetle in pink for North American customers - this model would maybe impossible to sell on European markets. 

Sometimes they even amaze their own colleagues with a colour. Astrid Göring pulled off a surprise with "Turmeric Yellow": in the early phase, she first checked the existing range. What could be improved? What suits the vehicle? "Yellow was missing. I was looking for a striking, brilliant colour with warm radiance, however. Then I saw the painted specimen. I thought that looks spicy. But it didn't have quite as much orange as curry powder. I thought turmeric would be great as a colour name. Nobody in-house expected it though. It then took several weeks to convince them all."


Maximum effort for a tenth of a millimetre

Regularly, Susanne Gerken and Astrid Göring meet with colleagues of other departments. This way the know precisely: the visual impression needs to work and the chemical composition needs to be hard-wearing: precipitation, ultraviolet radiation, heat and cold - just to name the main climatic burdens. Furthermore the paints need to have identical effects on different metals and plastics. Therefore complete painting of the body with all doors and lids follows immediately after body assembly as an important second step. Highest precision is necessary: robots apply the paint in layers to the bare metal.

During the refinement and painting, the bodies cover around six kilometres on conveyor belts. The paint only gains its quality once all coats have been applied. The five coats measure a total of just one tenth of a millimetre - that is the same thickness as a human hair.

In addition to the contemporary and durable character of their hues, the designers are proud of the environmentally-friendly production process: Volkswagen works almost exclusively with water-based paints. The painting process is also checked and further developed continuously. The aim is to reduce CO2emissions in order to save energy and costs.

For Astrid Göring and Susanne Gerken, this almost completes the process ... now someone just needs to a paint that repairs and cleans itself!

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