At one of my first jobs, the company color was Pantone Reflex Blue. Then oddly enough, my next job also had Pantone Reflex Blue as the company color. I think I could recognize that color anywhere. Unless you work in design, or with designers as I did, your first introduction to the ubiquitous color standards put out by the New Jersey-based Pantone was probably on an iPhone case, mug, at the makeup counter or on a bottle of nail polish. Or possibly on the paint for your home or the upholstery for your furniture. Pantone’s color system has become the lingua franca of color.
In addition, Pantone’s color chips have become a graphic trope: always a simple band of color framed by a white bar with words and numbers in Helvetica printed on the bottom band. This a technical design used by designers to communicate colors to fabric dyers and printers. So, how did this color standard make its way onto home goods, nail polish, makeup, and more?
In the Beginning There Was Color Chaos
Ever notice how colors can change color depending on lighting, the medium they are on, and your own perception? My gray cabinets seem like the lightest gray possible this side of white in bright light, but in shadow they look much darker. The precise shade can seem subjective.
Enter the Pantone color standards. In 1963, Lawrence Herbert, an American chemist, developed a system to standardize color and specified the exact formula for each shade. So, despite changing light, medium, or even perceptions, this formula ensured that the color was always the same. This system became the foundation of Herbert’s company, Pantone. The name says it all: “pan” meaning “all” and “tone” meaning “color.”
In the beginning, Pantone was a printing company. They specialized in color charts for the fashion, cosmetic, and medical industries. When Herbert joined the company, he realized how difficult it was for ad agencies, designers, and printers to identify colors by name alone. While everyone agrees that the sky is blue, is everyone able to describe the color called sky blue?
In the printing business it is even more complex. There are blue-based purples and red-based purples. There are warm and cool shades, darker and lighter tones. Mistakes and inefficiencies caused by reprints caused Herbert to create an objective, numeric color language that would be understandable to any printer anywhere in the world.
The Pantone Matching System gave printers and graphic designers an objective measurement for standardizing colors. Herbert then developed a second color system for fashion and home interiors.
Pantone Color Palettes and Color of the Year
Standardized color is critical in a globalized world, where color is an important part of brand identity and consistency is essential for brands. Starbucks’ pine green (Pantone 3298) and Coca-Cola’ red (Pantone 484) are recognizable everywhere in the world because they are the same everywhere in the world.
Pantone’s dominance as the world’s color standards company is due in part to its longevity and in part to its smart marketing. It’s hard to separate the two. The annual color of the year announcement is more than the company showing off its ability to forecast color trends, but also about its talent for understanding how societal changes influence our color selections.
What began as the Pantone Matching System became the Pantone Color Institute, the Color of the Year, Color Palettes of the Year, Pantone Hotels and Cafes, makeup, lipsticks, and even movie tie-ins (say hello to Minion Yellow).
The Pantone Color Institute’s Fashion Color Trend Report does more than predict the top colors that we expect to see in all areas of design. It ensures that when you choose a color, the one you get is the same one you saw on the sample or in the showroom. Interior designers now look to Pantone not just for standardized colors, but for inspirational palettes that inform every area of design. It has become global shorthand for the countless varieties and significance of color in the human experience.