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Episode 103: Color Tells A Story with Dawn Rae Knoth -Color, Trend, & Merchandising Expert

We're not sure we could pack more useful information into one episode than Dawn Rae Knoth did in this one! Dawn Rae is a trend, color, and merchandising expert and she joins us to share aaaaaalllll the knowledge. Dawn Rae talks about how color tells a story, how designing must take all bodies into account, how aesthetics play a role in happiness, and how it feels to see a design in the wild. Curious about gear design, color forecasting, or how brands can predict future trends? This is your episode!

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Episode Transcript

Iris: Hello Outside by Design listeners. Thanks so much for being here. I am Iris from WHEELIE, and this week at WHEELIE we have been going back and forth from dawn to dusk on a bunch of different video shoots. So it's just me this week introducing our podcast guest. But we have an incredible episode this week, this one is meaty with tons of information about the outdoor industry, about trends.

And I can't wait for you to hear our special guest, Dawn Rae Knoth. Dawn Rae is an expert on trends, color, and merchandising direction. She is part of the reason why your jacket is a certain color or your backpack is a certain color. She helps brands project into the future what gear's going to look like, what colors people are going to be into. And she is a fascinating and brilliant person. This is a wonderful episode. So please enjoy this interview with Dawn Rae.

Lisa: Awesome. Dawn Rae, thank you so much for being here today.

Dawn Rae: Thank you so much for having me, I’m so excited to talk with you.

Lisa: The first question we ask every single guest is to describe where they are in the world and what you're looking at.

Dawn Rae: I am in Bend, Oregon in my home office. And I am looking outside in my backyard at a lot of Ponderosa pine trees and some junipers.

Lisa: That sounds beautiful. I love Bend. We have worked with 10 Barrel quite a bit, so it's very fun when we get to go there.

Dawn Rae: Yeah! You guys did some awesome work for them.

Lisa: They're really fun. So I'm curious, I'm so interested and I'm so excited to talk to you because you do so much work around trend and color and merchandising in this super special side of the industry that I think it gets left out sometimes when people think creative. They think digital and photo, and you have a tremendous impact on the outdoor industry.

Dawn Rae: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I hope so. I mean, in some ways, I guess, like, if you don't notice it then maybe we're doing - me and other people who do the same job - we're doing a really good job when it just works.

Lisa: Right. When you don't notice it.

Dawn Rae: Yeah.

Lisa: Yeah. So for our listeners and for me, can you describe sort of what it is that you do?

Dawn Rae: Yeah. So it ranges from smaller scale projects to big ones, but like for, kind of like the bigger kind of work that I do with clients is, I help them look out - like 18 months to two years out - on what's going to be shaping the lifestyles of their consumers. So basically just like what's going to be important to the people that already buy from them or the people that they hope to connect with. And then using that, we let those influences start to guide what that means for design, what it means for color, what it means for how you merchandise a collection or many collections within a line. Also like, what does that mean for prints and patterns and marketing, and really like, how does that influence the stories that a brand tells and how they connect to their consumers?

Lisa: Ugh, this is so cool. Like, how in the world are you making these predictions two years out? Where does all this information come from?

Dawn Rae: There's no crystal ball. Like, I think that that's like, just this sense that anyone who does what I do, we just kind of like make it up and tell enough people and so it will happen. It's not that. I feel like it's paying attention and really looking at what's going on in the world and thinking about where that's likely to take us down the road. And then fine tuning that for a particular brand. And for that particular brand’s product.

So, you know, it's one thing to look at what's happening globally. What are global issues? And then how do those translate to the outdoor industry? And then how do those translate to a particular brand? Like, what's the brand personality and what's the consumer personality that buys from that brand. So then how does that further narrow the guardrails? And just trying to make sense of that. So like, if somebody is fly fishing now, how will they approach that sport differently in two years? Or what kinds of materials will they be intrigued by or what sorts of colors will still appeal to them? And what will they want unchanged?

And then balancing that with just the logistics of running a brand and having retailers carry your product and the life cycle that products need to have. How do you marry newness with what needs to stay the same and still let it be exciting.

Lisa: Wow. How do you do that?

Dawn Rae: It's... it's some math and some art. It's all the pieces. And I think that's what I love the most about it, is that, I mean, I get to be really creative. But I also get to be really kind of mathematical and logical about, like, how do you keep a brand going from being fiscally responsible and also just like not overburdening different departments in a company. How do you do that responsibly and also not ask your retailers to continue to turn over product or discount last season and bring in next season. How do you balance that with also like continuing to innovate and be appealing? And I think that all has gotten even more important now with... I think so many more people and us hopefully as a country at some point becoming aware of how important sustainability is. And yeah, so it's a lot of… I am not really answering your question. I think it's a lot of conversations and understanding and getting input from all departments within a company to make sure that all goals are being met and that's what's going to make any sort of seasonal collection the most successful and then make a company the most successful long-term.

Lisa: Yeah, that sounds extraordinarily interesting. And also extraordinarily complex. Like what... I don't know. Like I see that you work quite a bit with Marmot. So like what, what kinds of... how many people are in your meetings or like, do you meet with different departments on different days and then you bounce all over the place to come up with some symbiotic relationship? Or how does that happen?

Dawn Rae: Well, first, I don't currently work with Marmot, but I worked with them for like the first 12 years of my business and they're fantastic. But they brought that position in house. And kudos to them, like, that was... I have a lot of wonderful relationships from that time that have continued too.

But to answer like your main question, for the most part in most of my meetings, it's usually people within the design department, or design and development, at least to get a strong point of view for the season or for the year, depending on the cadence of product releases for a particular client. But there is input at more pivotal meetings or pivotal points in the timeline.

There are meetings with sales with marketing and operations. And just to make sure that we're paying attention to all aspects. And one thing that's been cool lately is I have a lot of clients that are bringing in marketing with design a lot more. And so we're really making sure that the story of what, like, is consumer-facing really meshes a lot more with like the internal language that we're using a lot within the design department.

Lisa: Ooh, our audience and myself as well will love that. And love learning more about that. Because I'm so interested in... on your website, you reference them as color stories.

Dawn Rae: Yeah.

Lisa: So like, what does that mean and how can that translate to marketing and photography?

Dawn Rae: So specifically when I use color story, I think of it more as like a grouping of colors that work really well together that may create an outfit or may like all work on footwear together or on a backpack.

But on like a bigger definition, looking more at story, a lot of the trend decks that I do for clients, I break those into kind of usually like three or four main stories for whatever year season we're focusing on and talk about like, okay, on one hand, this is going to be a big story for your customers in two years. So, I mean, like my previous example, like sustainability, like that's just, I mean, it's been in our industry for a long time, but it's also continuing to evolve and what innovations are happening and then how it's being spoken about and how we can try to solve problems using different sorts of routes.

So it's taking that main trend and then trying to develop a story around it using color and language, verbal and design language that will really connect to the particular customer for that brand. So making sure, like, okay, if you're telling an eco story and it's going to go with these sorts of materials and they have these features, like, this isn't a fluff story. We're not just trying to like, get on the bandwagon, but we've got all this amazing innovation behind it. And then we're going to use color to help tell that story.

And that doesn't necessarily... it doesn't mean the colors have to be really earthy. It doesn't mean they have to be really vegetal or washed. What it does mean is that a brand needs to have a strong point of view on how they're using color to communicate that story. But I don't... you can do that in many different ways. And then tying that into the piece that you guys do so well, it's just like showing more visuals and video and like campaigns and really helping to drive that whole story.

And to me, I think that that is only going to become more and more important. I think it's already super critical, but it's going to become crucial, I think, in the very near future, to make sure that the stories your brand... the stories you're telling tie into the purpose of why you exist and the purpose behind what the brand wants to do. And those all have to be about more than just selling product.

Lisa: Mmm. That's a lot. That is, that's amazing. There's so many layers here. So I'm curious, like color stories on a product, right. So how many different colors are on like a backpack or something becomes a color story of that product is that's what you kind of said, or that is what you said, right?

Dawn Rae: Yeah.

Lisa: Okay. And this is all new information to me, so I'm really excited. So, I like that terminology on the color stories of the backpack. So when you are sitting down and you're going to design a backpack versus like footwear or outerwear, like what are some cool little nuanced things that like only you or someone like you would know that are just really important to the product?

Dawn Rae: How fabric, different fabrics and different materials, take color is huge. That can be such a limiter, and picking colors, knowing what materials they're going to be on helps tremendously. Because some materials just make certain colors look really dull or washed out or some colors can look really weird on some materials. If, like, the weight of the color doesn't match the weight of the material, you know, like if a color is really heavy, but a material is really lightweight, sometimes it just like feels wrong when you look at it. So I think knowing those sorts of things.

And then also thinking about, like, when somebody is buying footwear or a backpack, it's a little different... this is like a broad statement, but it's a little different than buying a shirt. Like, they're probably going to have that pair of shoes or that backpack for a little bit longer, and they're going to wear it with a lot of other things that they own. So there might be different color considerations that they would want for shoes or a backpack or a shell jacket versus a more simple, like shirt.

So considering that, or like something that's more an accessory, like a water bottle, like that's something that you can be, I think a little bit more playful with when it comes to color because it's much more of an expression item. I mean, there are certainly like many people who also just want a very functional core, low key, you know, give me black, give me gray, give me white, but, it's also a place that you can play with color more.

So yeah. Now I'm rambling a little bit, but I think it's just paying attention to what does that color need to do for the consumer every day?

Lisa: Wow. Yeah. And also, I can't even imagine the amount of thought that goes into, like, I see that you have worked with Liv cycling.

Dawn Rae: Yeah.

Lisa: Yeah. And like, you know, what has to go into like how clothing sits on a body in many different situations and many body types and kind of, how to design something so tight and intimate on a body.

Dawn Rae: Yeah, Liv is an awesome brand. I've worked with them for many years and I do cycling kit designs for them. Like I do the surface design, the prints for Liv and then for Giant, for men. God, they're such like... both brands are super awesome to work with, and it is really interesting to work with them. And they definitely consider like all the different types of people that are going to be wearing their products. And so how does the design need to be tweaked to fit that. And also like, what does that mean for pattern and prints and graphics and color placement.

Lisa: And the reflective, like,galactic reflective legwarmers are so cool!

Dawn Rae: I love those.

Lisa: How did that come to fruition and like how, how did you have to test that or come up with that?

Dawn Rae: So Liv gives a ton of like really awesome inspiration at the beginning of like any like project we engage with. So they definitely, like, filter in some cool images. And then, I take it from there and just kind of work on different concepts. And so I think their initial imagery was kind of more star scapes and the potential for reflective or like ombre type patterns.

And then, yeah, what you see is where we landed, but I love like, I love the reflectivity too, like that the design becomes such a... the aesthetics become a part of like the function of the product.

Lisa: Yeah. So when you, like, what's your approach, do you… form over function or both, or kind of, where do you land with that?

Dawn Rae: I think both. I think beautiful, long lasting design has both. I mean, I for sure think that function matters, for giving purpose for something to exist. But I think that the aesthetics of something are what make you love it or connect with it. And I think that's... I mean, going back to like us talking about story, I think it's all about connection. And we use story to connect with each other and brands use story to connect with their consumers. And I think, aesthetics are a very strong part of communicating that story.

Lisa: Yeah. And like feeling good on your bike, for example.

Dawn Rae: Yeah! Or just feeling happy, right? Like, and to find joy in that, that just because you're doing something serious or you're very serious about a particular activity you're doing, or... I mean, shoot, you're serious when you're driving your car, but like, you might want it in a fun color because that just makes you smile.

And like, why not be able to smile when you're interacting with your things or putting on your clothes or riding your bike or strapping on your skis, you know?

Lisa: Yeah. And kind of, the options for women are so much better now, it used to just be black and then it was black and pink. And now it's, I feel like I can purchase mountain bike apparel that is an expression of who I am or the way I feel inside too.

Dawn Rae: Yes, yes. Yeah. I totally agree.

Lisa: I think that's pretty exciting. What… what's your favorite? Like, what's your just personal like, “Oh man, I loved that.” Like, what's one of your favorite products that you've gotten to work on or something like that?

Dawn Rae: Oh, that's a great question. I think one of my first ones - so before I went on my own, I've been solo for 19 years - but before that I was an employee at Chaco. And that was when Chaco was still in Paonia, Colorado and small, and those were some good days. And I designed the webbing patterns. And I remember the first time I was on an airplane somewhere and somebody like walked down the aisle that had like my sushi pattern on. And I like, that was like kind of the first moment I was like, “wow, that's really cool. I did that.” And I don't know that person. So that was, that was my, I guess my first moment.

One of like the more recent ones, I've worked with Mystery Ranch for a long time. And they did like a whole like recoloring of their Everyday Carry line. We worked on that together and it just looked absolutely stunning. And like just going to OR and seeing just the array of packs and all the colors and, and also knowing the great feedback they were getting, like that felt really good. And very recently, I've been working with Oboz for the last few years and one of my favorite people in the industry to work with, Brian Kressel, he is the designer there and - or now one of the designers there. But he's super talented and some of the work that he did just launched. And it's called the Bozeman collection and I did the color for it, and it's just much more like fun, lifestyle, like, town to trail shoes. And they, they just look great and color came out great. And the designs look really fantastic. And the team there is just so amazing to work with, yeah.

Lisa: Oh, that's cool. I can identify with the kind of, I call them the silent victories, where you're out in public and you see someone interacting with your art in some way.

Dawn Rae: Yeah.

Lisa: You know, like for me, usually it's like seeing a photo I took somewhere or a campaign I worked on or like a campaign I worked on or a beer bottle at a grocery store somewhere. And then I like watch people and they, they pull the 10 barrel off the shelf or whatever. And I like to think it's for the package design, but I'm sure it's not.

Dawn Rae: It totally is.

Lisa: But I know that feeling where you sit there and you're like, “yes.” It's kind of exciting.

Dawn Rae: Totally. And then there's also the opposite feeling of sometimes by the time it got to market, it got tweaked in a little way that you're like, “Oh no, no, no, no. Those colors were really never supposed to be together, like that shouldn't have happened.”

Lisa: [laughs] Uh huh. I love that. That's fun. So when - we work with a lot of people in varying stages of their business, from entrepreneurs to companies that are growing, apparel companies and gear companies. How big do you think a company needs to be before they bring in someone like you? Like, you know, whether it's... should they be doing that early on? Or is there a certain threshold or kind of, what's your advice to people with brands and varying stages?

Dawn Rae: Oh, that's a really good question. It really doesn't... it doesn't matter. It's kind of whenever the brand needs the help. Because I work with companies or individuals that are just starting out to like, kind of almost like corporate outdoor companies as well.

They range from size and how long they've been around and whether they're owned by a parent company or are still independent. It's very broad. And I think that at some point for a lot of brands... brands that I think when they reach a certain size, they create a position internally. Or a, like, group that kind of individually might do color and they might look at like a bigger trend house or something to get like books from to help give inspiration. That can be a route.

I mean, I'm totally biased, but I see value in remaining independent and providing that service just that it's like more insight from what's going on with other brands and kind of not getting too pigeonholed within the vibe or within the walls of a particular business, but making sure that you stay open to influences going on around you.

Lisa: Mmm. How... I guess, in design and in the digital world that I work in, you either follow trends or you set trends while still trying to be classic. So how can someone decide if they're taking a risk versus like doing something from a strategic place? Like, at some point there are no guarantees because you don't know how people will feel two years out, but kind of, how do you gauge that?

Dawn Rae: Wow. That's another good one. I think like you said, you don't know for certain, but I think there's a… I think there's a pretty big gut feel. And I think, you trust that and you make sure that you're confident about how you launch that design or that color and make sure that your confidence and your love of that shows in your presentation of that product. And I think that that matters so much. But I mean, who knows, you know, like two years ago, we didn't see a pandemic coming. Right? And how much did that derail product launches, and how much feels just off now, because it's the timing.

But I think, I think there is a fair amount of trusting your gut and also looking at the history of what has worked and what has gotten the response that you've wanted or the engagement, or just made you, made your customers feel connected. And to build on that in the best way that you can two years out.

Lisa: Yeah. I have a lot of respect for you. Like you have the advantage of you've owned your own company for, you said 19 years, like you've been doing this for like 20 years or something. So you have had the ability to like, hang tough through lots of scenarios and like almost be able to sense patterns and trends and change over time. Do you find that that is something that you rely on heavily? My intuition says it would be extremely helpful in your position.

Dawn Rae: Yeah. Yes. I mean, I think that… well, I hope that hibiscus flowers never come back.

I will take, like, I actually, I don't have a problem with things being pink. I don't want, like, I don't want to shrink it and pink it, but I don't have a problem with pink. I do have a problem with hibiscus flowers.

But I do think there are cycles of trends. And that every moment is unique. And I think that even if like, you know, green is big again next year, that that may make sense for one of the clients I work with. You know, like it, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's right for every sort of product or that it's right for every brand. It's more about like, trusting what the point of view that a particular brand has and what all the other pieces that they're trying to balance.

Like, the other thing that your question made me think about is just... it does remind me of like some of the riskier chances that clients of mine have taken when it comes to especially when it comes to color, maybe like pattern too. And that even if it hasn't always been the most... like a bold orange is probably not going to outsell black in anything, but it still makes a statement and it evolves the relationship that the consumers have with that brand. And that's important that there's some like intangibles that should be valued pretty heavily when you're talking about aesthetics.

Lisa: It's hard. It's probably hard to measure. Well, I guess retail sales are an excellent indication of ROI, but also those intangibles, like, are very hard to measure the success of. And also they're so important to kind of... how do you, how do you factor that in, when you sit down to design seasonally?

Dawn Rae: A lot of times it's limited by what material minimums that a particular client has for - and it might be like across the board or for that particular style. And just, that's where usually size of a company comes in a little bit more, or just like the relationship that they have with the factory who's making their products, like, just how many SKUs can a brand have. And, you know, like in a jacket, like, does it make sense to have four colorways in this style? Yes, if it sells X amount, no if it only sells X amount. Or this is like a... it could be like a huge high-end fabric story and that might already limit color, just if it's super innovative. You know, like color might not be really available in that fabric yet. So that would limit it, but materials can and price of materials and just how many sales are expected for a particular product can limit colorways. And so then, when you're looking at, okay, I have five colorways for this jacket then probably, you know, at least like want to do one core colorway, or safe colorway, but usually with most of the companies that I'm working with, it would probably be two, likely, three kind of safer colorways and then have one that's more forward. And then maybe one that really pushes it. That's usually kind of the thinking.

And then if it's something, a product that can only come in two colorways, then maybe it's one safe colorway and one that's a little bit pushing it, or maybe it's one safe and one super progressive.

It just, it kind of depends on who the target user is and what the end use application is and how that product is being used in the line. Like, is it a big marketing push, is it a pinnacle product where you definitely want to make sure you have like a core, like, black, super stealth, awesome hardcore colorway, but then your other colorway, you want to be like really flashy and bold. Yeah. It's just, it's kind of, it's talking through all those parts to figure out what makes the most sense. And so how you use color to help that. And then a lot of times in that there's also a, you're also trying to incorporate, carry over color in products. So how do you account for that and still make sure your assortment is fresh and exciting and hangs well together.

Lisa: I have learned so much in this conversation. It's so... I love your perspective. This is one we haven't had on the podcast before.

Dawn Rae: Awesome. Well, thank you. Like, I feel like I rambled a ton.

Lisa: No, I've learned so much. Is there anything I haven't asked you that you think our audience would like to know?

Dawn Rae: Yes. So I think there's a perception that when you say the word trend, or like when you, when anyone talks about like, planning for color two years out or paying attention to color, I think there's a perception - especially if function is key to a person or to a brand - that it's fleeting, that it it's kind of extraneous, that it doesn't matter. It's superficial. And that it's something made up by other people. And I think that what I would say to that is that we all respond to things that we like. And trend and color, trying to make sense of where we'll be in two years is more about just trying to know what will we all like in two years’ time? What will matter to each of us?

And even if that is something that looks like color wasn't really considered, it probably was. If it kind of fades away in the background, then maybe that was a very intentional color choice so that it was subdued and mellow.

Lisa: It's so interesting just being on this…. it's so interesting being on this side of it. Like, I don't know, this year, I'm so excited that there's so much like, golden retriever color, like different shades of golden retriever.

Dawn Rae: Oh my God. I love that. I have not heard it called that. And that is... that is perfect.

Lisa: I’m all about it. I’m like buying so much brown and gold and yellow clothing this year. I'm all about it. Yeah. I always kind of assumed that it came from like fashion shows in New York City and then eventually would trickle into the outdoor industry or something. Like, I never really thought about like, you're an avid cyclist. Like you're out there, like using the stuff, thinking about the stuff, it's not coming from some mysterious runway in Manhattan.

Dawn Rae: Yeah. And I think, I mean, I think like that used to be... like, fashion and like runway stuff used to like, be so much more important to like, “Oh, let's follow that.” But, no, for sure not anymore. But it's also like, I mean, I do work with Simms, like Simms customers aren't ever going to be like, man, I really want that lime green something. I mean, I shouldn’t say never, but like, if like fuchsia is all the rage next year, that is just like, not... that doesn't make sense for them. Even like, golden retriever might not. It's really like, what makes sense for this person in two years? Like we all don't want the same thing.

And there are tons of different brands in our industry because there are tons of different personalities in our industry. And, so like, color is part of expressing that personality, whether you're the brand or the consumer buying. And so it's, you don't want the same thing from everybody.

Lisa: Wow. Where can people follow you online or contact you?

Dawn Rae: Yeah, so my website is So that's And then Instagram is Dawn Rae K. So it's @D-A-W-N-R-A-E-K. My website definitely is more of my portfolio of work. And my Instagram is more how I get refueled to do my work. So mostly my Instagram is a lot of family bikepacking pictures. But yeah, you can contact me through, like, my website has contact info.

Lisa: Perfect. Well, thank you so much for your time and knowledge and wisdom. I appreciate all of it.

Dawn Rae: Yeah, this was fantastic. It was lovely to connect with you and talk with you.

Iris: Thank you so much, Dawn Rae for joining us on the show. Like I said, that was a meaty episode. So much information that I never knew before, and I'm sure a lot of our listeners have learned a ton from you. So thank you so much for joining us.

To our listeners, thanks again for having us between your ears this morning - or evening or afternoon or middle of the night. I don't know when you listen to podcasts. But no matter when you listen to podcasts, please, if you haven't already, leave us a review. That helps us get to more people. Or send the show to a friend that you think might enjoy it.

You can find us at wheeliecreative on Instagram and you can DM us to let us know who you'd like to hear on the show next.

And with that, we will see you next week. Thanks so much for listening.

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