The 80/20 Rule also Applies to the most Popular Paint Colours

It’s called ‘The Pareto Principal’ and it means that in anything a few (20%) are vital and many (80%) are trivial. Or 20% of the people own 80% of the wealth or 20 percent of the defects cause 80% of the problems. Project Managers know that 20% of the work (the first 10% and the last 10%) consume 80% of your time and resources.

You can apply the 80/20 Rule to almost anything, from the science of management to the physical world.

And you can also apply it to wall colours.

See the sofa above? I walk into a room with this sofa in it and I immediately know which 3 [butterscotch] colours I would pull out to see if they would work:

BM Lady Finger, Sisal, or perhaps Tawny Bisque.

And the next time I come across a ‘butterscotch colour sofa again, or a tile, it’s the same colours. That’s it (ok there are 3 others I would also consider but I don’t pull them out these days because they are just a little too orange and with the brown trend, no one is responding to them so I’ve toned them down with the ones I’ve quoted).

Same thing if I need a fresh green, I have three to choose from. The over 2000 colours that are in any given fan deck? We only really use 20% of them over and over again.

See the colours on the left? Well you can’t see them all that well in the above photo, but mostly they are used for kids room colours or (as I tell my students) those yellows, on pillars in a parkade to signify caution– too screaming bright.

The ones on the right? Way too many pinky beige’s and cold blue grays, so there are a few greens, yellows, purples and blues to choose from.

The ones in the middle that I’m sitting in front of? Those are the Designer Classics and the Heritage Colours, these are the ones we use over and over.

The other day, I decided to paint up some new samples so I thought I’d do a tutorial on my dining room table to show you a good way to do it when you paint yours at home!

First you need a poster board. This one is already cut in half because I’m going to paint 4 colours on it but if you are painting one for your own testing purposes, better to at least paint the entire half of the board. The bigger the better.

Take some green painters tape and tape it all around. To save on tape I left the 4 outside edges—I’ll cut them off anyway.


Here I am drying them with my blowdryer to speed up the process. I used to use cute little rollers to paint on the colour but they only last for maybe four times and then I have to throw them out so now I just use a paint brush. They dry way quicker. Wash out the paint and then shake it until you don’t see any more water, then it’s ready for the next colour.


Here’s the finished paint sample with the second coat still drying. I’ve taken the tape off (better to do it before it dries so it doesn’t start taking the paper with it!) and now I’m writing the colour names and number on the bottom of each.

I chose Dove White (I don’t have that one in my collection yet), Abingdon Putty, I rarely specify this colour because I don’t have a bigger sample of it but people rave and rave about it—they say “sometimes it looks gray, sometimes green and sometimes taupe” I know, hard to believe it’s the one on the lower left. Then because grays are becoming the new brown I also selected Stonington Gray and Rockport Gray.

And here they are the next day. I leave them out to cure a little before I stack them all up and stick them in my sample bag (otherwise they start sticking together if I do it too soon!).

So relax about knowing every single colour already. All you really need for colour confidence–right now–is my list of 40 large neutrals and 10 whites, click here to find out how you can buy your very own set, way cheaper and easier than painting them all up individually!

And a tip for the designer’s reading this post? All those paint samples you buy with your client and paint on the wall—don’t do it! Instead, take the extra time and paint out the samples on poster boards and you will have the start of your own collection for the next client!

Related posts:

Must-Have Tools for Colour Consulting

Insider Secrets to Testing & Selecting Paint Colours

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A Day in my High-Heeled Shoes

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  1. Great post, and great tip on the paint boards. A great way to save time and energy on having your favorite colours at your fingertips for next time.

  2. You are so right about the 80/20 rule with paint colors. Only about 20% are the most often used colors and the rest are there for their 'rack appeal'. Nice post and I completely agree that sample boards are the way to go.

  3. Developing Designs

    You nailed it, it's so true, & the colors you selected look so yummy. I just used white dove on some cabinets and they will look dreamy when they get installed.
    Though, sometimes frustrated, I am finding there is a new challenge in picking color, that is the mandatory change of switching to CFL light bulbs. It seems the original 20% is gonna need some tweaking 🙁 Have they changed your decisions on any colors you have selected?

    • Lighting is in transition, and we are on our way to LED. (CFL, you can get warm, and sunlight, and that helps)

      LED is measured in Kelvin, not watts. It comes in a spectrum of colors, so it is indeed going to be a learning curve for us all. Even lighting professionals are still sorting it out, so if you feel bewildered, you are normal.

      Currently, what is out there says we probably want to buy 2,700 Kelvin, which is more like an incandescent.

      And now, Philips is selling a lighting kit of four bulbs, controllable through a smart phone, where people can choose the color of light from a full palette. You can make it cool morning light, warm afternoon light, on and on and on and on, till your head spins.

      Light is important, you are correct. It will be a while before things are at a place where we feel like we ‘get it’, is my bet.

      Back to CFL, just buy the Warm ones. Take the time to select the right bulb, then, KEEP THE PACKAGING so you know what you want next time.

  4. Erika @ BluLabel Bungalow

    Maria, I just learned of your blog recently and absolutely LOVE IT! Your posts are so informative…I've got to take some time to get caught up!

  5. I am new to your blog, but wow you have lots of great info. I need a lot of color help! But if Karena and Ruthie are here, I am in. I am going to take a look around your site now, "color" is not at all easy for most of us non-pros.

  6. I CANNOT miss your blog posts….it would be like cutting class at school…I learn SO MUCH from you and enjoy myself at the same time. You are in my top 5 blogs that I go to without fail. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with us over and over and over!

  7. I went to Maria's class in Atlanta last week and can't tell you how much I enjoyed it. I am still absorbing, a week later, with ohs and ahs. Meet wonderful people…..It was worth every minute. I didn't want it to be over. I am looking forward to keeping in touch with everyone especially Maria.

  8. Maria,

    You are the best. I used to live in Toronto and should have know about you when I was there as I could have taken your class. Now I'm near NYC. Come here please!

  9. I have used 11 x 14 cardstock to paint BM samples on, thinking I should try to order tabloid size 11 x 17 instead. It’s pre-cut and I find it does not buckle at all. I put the 8 1/2 x 11 ones in plastic sleeves and soon they are very flat.

  10. Another great post. You keep knocking them out of the ball park.

    I took your advice, and after I painted the guest room, painted a huge sample of that paint on white core foam. I have taken it with me to pick out bedding, and boy did I feel smart. It worked like a charm.

    Today, I needed to pick out upholstery material for a side boudoir chair, so I grabbed the board of wall paint, the chair, and off we drove.

    I was able to find a MOST GLORIOUS color for the chair seat, and could NOT have done it without your sage advice on a big swatch of color. (And knowing which undertones to reject and to look for. You would have been so proud of your student!)

    I also took your advice and made sure i was looking at the colors the way they would be in real life (fabric on the seat cushion, board of wall color vertical. it really DID make a difference).

    I have the chair and new fabric home, and as squealing with delight. If I may say so, I nailed it. Or, WE nailed it.

    ALL Kudos go to you — I have been reading your blog for years, and it is now paying off, as I am choosing colors and a palettes, and see it all come together.

    You are a STAR!