I used to be excited when it was to time to announce the Pantone Color of the Year. In 2016, I was working my first job at a trade publication covering apparel and eagerly soaking up any pertinent information about this new industry. I didn’t know much about Pantone, but the buzz around the office made it clear that it was some kind of important authority. The moment before the announcement felt like the lead-up to an awards ceremony or tournament final. When the press release arrived that day in 2016, it declared there were two colors, Rose Quartz and Serenity—essentially, baby pink and baby blue. The announcement celebrated the union of the two colors, which Pantone said reflect “connection and wellness” and affirm “gender equality and fluidity,” as well as “an open exchange of digital information.” Oh, I realized, taking in the buzzwords: This is bullshit.
Last week, Pantone took its latest stab at progressivish branding. In collaboration with a Swedish menstrual cup brand, the company announced the debut of a color called Period. In its words, this is “an original shade of red that represents a steady flow during menstruation.” It’s unclear what the exact terms of the partnership are, but as with so many new Pantone colors—like the custom ones it’s made for everything from Macallan to LG—this one seems to have been grafted onto a preexisting marketing campaign. Pantone routinely receives positive media coverage for gesturing at the zeitgeist with a well-meaning hue, in this latest case one to destigmatize menstruation. It’s hard to say what difference it will make in that regard. But what Pantone’s press-generating new colors invariably do is serve Pantone’s business interests—while further diluting a brand that’s looked faded for a very long time.
Though many people know Pantone has something to do with color, the average person would probably have difficulty pinpointing what exactly it is that the company does. Pantone began in its current iteration as a printing company in 1962, but the core of its business quickly became the Pantone Matching System. Before this, there was no easy, universal way for designers, clients, and printers to communicate exact shades. Pantone’s system filled this need by assigning a code and formula for more than 1,000 colors and creating a universal system.
On the surface, this system seems like a useful service, but ultimately it’s become a way to try to make color a private business. It does provide a standard for various industries around the world, but Pantone considers the colors and color formulas to be its intellectual property. This means that they can’t be openly shared, so in order to speak this language of color, you have to shell out for a guide, which will cost you around $650. This system has also become the basis for litigation, making it easier for corporations to sue other corporations for colors trademarked using the Pantone codes: Hershey has sued Mars over orange, Louboutin has sued Yves Saint Laurent over red, and T-Mobile has sued a whole variety of companies over magenta.
There are other systems for classifying colors, but by arriving early and expanding widely, Pantone, now a subsidiary of the color-management corporation X-Rite, has become the authority. In 2000, Pantone began designating its Color of the Year, with the “Pantone Color Institute” using the dubious art of trend forecasting to choose a color that captures the cultural vanguard. Pantone claims to use psychology and economics in its deliberations, but the result inevitably just mixes some pop culture references with buzzy topics in a transparent effort to appear cutting-edge. In its announcement of Ultra Violet as the Color of 2018, Pantone invoked Prince, David Bowie, and Jimi Hendrix, who, Pantone said, used shades of Ultra Violet “as personal expressions of individuality.” Though it’s true that purple may have played some part in these musicians’ aesthetics, it felt like a land grab to annex these musicians’ choices into a single, proprietary hue. That same press release also mentioned the cosmos, mindfulness, and “it” foods like açaí, shamelessly trying to distill the New Age–y trend that Goop had by that point been capitalizing on for a decade.
Over the years, Pantone has launched a huge range of collaborations, debuting specialty colors that range from “Ultra Black” to celebrate a single from rapper Nas to “Minion Yellow” for the release of the spinoff film. Pantone fashions itself an omniscient oracle for trends, but there is little evidence of it pushing culture forward; instead it resells the same product in new colors, each named after a piece of IP or a Twitter trending topic from three years ago. With each press-release color, the company makes itself better known to consumers, whose dollars it then captures with a line of lifestyle products, including mugs, flash drives, phone cases, and even a chain of hotels. Pantone long ago became a kind of shorthand for the design-conscious individual to flaunt their knowledge in the same way people use Moleskines or Blackwing pencils.* At the same time, through aggressive growth and trademarking, Pantone has burrowed itself so deeply into our economy that everything from the packages our fries come in to the knickknacks you find at museums generates money for the company.
In short, Pantone’s history looks a lot like a long con. Somehow, it has maintained a reputation as a design-world institution and a diviner of trends, when what it’s really selling is an outmoded system—at a time when colors can be described in code—decorated with a lot of meaningless ornament.
Still, I don’t see Color of the Year going anywhere anytime soon. It’s an appealing concept in uncertain times, when we’re looking to nontraditional sources to help us figure out what’s coming. (The future will be draped in Living Coral? Why not.) But the truth is that declaring something the most 2020 color doesn’t make any more sense today than does matching hues using a $650 book. You can’t pinpoint a single most important color in the vast landscape of internet culture any more than you can elevate just one album or TV show or TikTok. There’s really just one thing Pantone’s annual pick has in common with so much of the culture it seeks to reflect: It’s sponcon.
Correction, Oct. 10, 2020: This piece originally misspelled Moleskine.