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Who Put Pantone in Charge of Color?

The company best known for its Color of the Year is a governing body in the world of design.

A handful of Pantone color cards on grass
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Taylor Heery on Unsplash.

The following article is a written adaptation of an episode of Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism, Slate’s new podcast about companies in the news and how they got there.

Pantone’s founder once said, “God created the world in seven days. And on the eighth day, he called Pantone to put color into it.” That seems a little presumptuous. Who put Pantone in charge of color? And why should Pantone decide the Color (or Colors) of the Year? What is Pantone anyway?

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It started out as a commercial printing company. In the 1950s, a man named Larry Herbert was working there. One of his biggest frustrations was how to communicate with his clients about their color choices: Which blue exactly did they want to use in their printed materials? Oh, like a sky blue. OK, what exactly does that mean? Now it happened that one thing this printing company did was make color cards for cosmetics manufacturers, so that cosmeticians could talk about different colors by just pointing to the card instead of opening up a lipstick. Larry Herbert’s big insight was to realize how useful this type of color reference card could be if he broadened it out to include all sorts of contexts and all sorts of colors. “Larry at the time recognized that having color standards like that for the print industry was a really terrific idea,” says Ron Potesky, a former senior vice president at Pantone. “There was no international standard.”

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Herbert went on to develop a comprehensive color system in which each color got assigned a number. That way, printers and clients would have a shared reference when they talk to one another—an industry standard, so that a color would mean the same thing all the way from a designer’s vision to the printed item. Herbert printed up a book of these numbered color samples. “It had something like 40 colors in it, and that was the beginning,” Potesky says.

Larry Herbert bought out the printing company in 1962, renamed it Pantone, and dedicated himself to evangelizing for what he called the Pantone Matching System. He was incredibly successful. By the 1970s, Pantone had sold 100,000 copies of his color books, printing them at its headquarters in New Jersey. There are other regional color systems around the world, but Pantone’s has become the most internationally recognized standard—so now you can say Pantone 3515 C and pretty much wherever you are you’re going to get a very lovely, very specific shade of purple. Looking back, it’s sort of hard to imagine how color and commerce coexisted before we had something like the Pantone system.

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“Language of color is really important for anybody who makes product,” Potesky says. “Anyone who designs product not in their garage, but through some sort of a supply chain where they’re going to lose control of that color design, they need a language to use with the supplier and say, ‘This is the color that I need.’ It’s very difficult to just send them a sample and say, ‘Give me that color.’ ”

Over time, Pantone stopped being a commercial printer and became a weird new thing: a company that taxonomizes colors. Meanwhile, Pantone’s customer base expanded—not just people who needed to print things, but people who did industrial design and wanted plastic or metal in a certain color, and people in fashion who wanted color matching specifically tailored to fabrics. What Pantone sells those customers is access to its intellectual property, its library of colors and their associated numbers. Nowadays, you can find that library in digital form, but it’s still available in physical forms as well, like collections of dyed fabric samples and humble print books, not unlike the one Larry Herbert made from scratch. As Potesky put it: “If you’re a graphic designer in Brooklyn, you bought your Pantone book four years ago, you spent $175 on it, you’re good to go. At least, you think you’re good to go. Pantone would say buy a new book every year because colors fade, but you’re working off of a $175 investment over four or five years.”

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Potesky says the bulk of Pantone’s revenue still comes from selling these reference guides in all their forms. Identifying colors with precision has become a more and more scientific process over the years. You can use spectrophotometers now to measure the elements that make up a color and make sure that, for instance, the red on that aluminum cola can is the same as the red on the cardboard box it ships in, which is the same as the red on the vinyl billboard advertising it.

In 2007, the Herbert family, after five decades of ownership, sold Pantone for $180 million to X-Rite, a company that makes spectrophotometers and specializes in the hard science of color, which beefs up Pantone’s claim to be the color authority. But Pantone has increasingly found more subjective ways to monetize color, too. Pantone’s consulting arm employs color psychologists who understand how colors can sway our emotions and our attachments. They work with companies to help figure out how best to use and manage colors in product lines or in corporate logos. Tiffany blue, UPS brown, and Starbucks green are all official Pantone hues, and you’ll get sued if you try to make a brand that competes with them using the same tint.

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Pantone has also started selling a fair amount of merchandise through licensing deals—coffee mugs and sneakers and cookware and such, all of them in Pantone colors with their Pantone Matching System numbers prominently featured. In 2010, a Pantone hotel opened in Brussels. Its website says it “showcases the color of emotion with a distinctive hue on each colorous guest floor.” People who use Pantone in their work—artists, ad agency creatives, fashionistas—have come to see it as a sort of shibboleth, a way to self-identify as a citizen of the world of design. They’ve made Pantone a popular brand unto itself. But Pantone’s biggest marketing coup, Color of the Year, began as a bit of a lark.

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“It really started as a one-off event at Pantone,” Potesky says, “where some of the management at the time said, ‘Hey, this would be pretty cool. We should come up with a Color of the Year.’ And so it started in 2000 and just continued every year thereafter.”

The Color of the Year announcement is probably what Pantone’s best known for among the general public. When Pantone proclaims Sand Dollar in 2006, or Mimosa in 2009, or Radiant Orchid in 2014, it gets coverage in newspapers and magazines and on the network morning shows. In 2016, Pantone named two colors, Rose Quartz and Serenity, more commonly known as pink and blue. The announcement linked this classic baby boy/baby girl color combo to the concept of gender fluidity, an example of the company’s growing push to make the Color of the Year topical in a newsy way, which Ron Potesky says has been largely successful: “You’re taking world events, you’re taking creative events, you’re taking the zeitgeist of what’s happening around design. It is a very creative product.”

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Naming a Color of the Year is sort of the opposite of Pantone’s core business, which is the careful, scientifically sound codification of colors. On the one hand, you have a Pantone setting industry standards and manufacturing spectrophotometers, and on the other hand, you have Pantone’s shadowy cabal of color psychologists reading chicken entrails and declaring each year’s “it” color. Seems like Pantone has a bit of a split personality.

For designer Jonathan Adler, Pantone’s standards are indispensable. “Pantone is sort of the lingua franca of the design world,” he says. “It’s how I communicate with vendors—we’re constantly taking Pantone chips and putting them against each other and referencing them. … It feels almost like a government agency.” But while he appreciates Pantone’s role as a standards body for the world of visual design, Jonathan’s less enchanted with Pantone’s side hustle, forecasting the Color of the Year and portraying that forecast as a divination that emerges from the primordial color mists.

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“The idea that there’s a team of color people traveling the world and scouring the world and observing things and then just getting into some fugue state of inspiration and out comes this color is a lovely narrative,” he says. “But the fact is they’ve got to do it every year, so I don’t know, do they go into an annual fugue state, or are they like, ‘Oh, shit, when’s our color meeting for—all right, the deadline is, we got to come up with the candidates by Nov. 2, and then who’s writing the press release about the narrative?’ It’s a corporate world, let’s face it.”

But there’s a corporate dimension to the Color of the Year that goes beyond the promotional buzz for Pantone. Maybe the Color of the Year isn’t an organic, infallible analysis of the color zeitgeist, but it does make its own reality for people in the worlds that Pantone governs. “As you get lower down in the design food chain, let’s say you are a factory in China or a mill in India or whatever, I think that they probably are looking toward newsy information like that to determine what they’re going to do that they think will resonate with the design community,” Adler says. “So in a way, while it means not that much to me at the design world I inhabit, I think that it ends up having a huge impact in that some of the resources abroad that make the stuff that you will see in your local Target or Walmart or wherever might say, ‘Ah, OK, gray and yellow, those are the colors.’ And then six months later, you’ll find gray and yellow in Target and Walmart, and so it becomes true.”

Listen to the full episode using the player below, or subscribe to Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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