The Color of Money: Pantone

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S1: Cleo, tell the people who you are.

S2: My name’s Clellan and I work on thrilling tales as a researcher.

S1: Before she worked at Slate, Cuyo used to work at a trade magazine for the fashion industry right when she first got there. In 2015, she noticed something Pantone had just designated Marsala its color of the year, and designers responded by rushing out clothes in that color.

S2: Everyone had something in Marsala, and unless you knew that Pantone had named Marseillais, you’d have no idea what they’re talking about because they’re going, here’s our Marsala coat.

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S3: And then you go, Oh, yes, Mufleh, in case you don’t know what color Marsala is, which I didn’t, it’s sort of a deep red brown like the wine. Anyway, Cleo was struck by the fact that Pantone framed its color of the year choices as an act of trendspotting.

S1: Identifying a color that seemed to be in the zeitgeist seemed to match the moment.

S4: But then the effect was to make everyone in fashion get in line and make something in Marsella or in twenty eighteen ultra violet or in 2019 living coral or in 2020 classic blue.

S5: Is it descriptive or prescriptive, like do people really believe that Blue will have some kind of big cultural impact on us next year? Or is it just these brands saying Pantone has said this? We know that Pantone is important, so we better make a shit ton of blue stuff over time. It just became increasingly clear that we can’t forecast a trend like you can barely forecast whether no one knows really what’s going to happen. So it just all started to feel very emperor’s new clothes.

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S3: In December, Paignton named its 21 colors of the year. It couldn’t limit itself to just one. They were ultimate gray and illuminating or for the layperson, gray and yellow. The idea that gray and yellow could somehow capture the year ahead in all its anticipated complexities was for Cleo a bit much. And you could not abide that, it just felt like the last straw.

S1: Pantalones 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 what color solid colors define 20 21. What is Pantone anyway? No, really, I’m serious. What is it?

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S2: No one really knows what Pantone does. Most people are aware of Color of the year and maybe of their merchandise, but most people don’t really know what they do as a company. So I think that’s also very handy for them because they have this authority that’s kind of amorphous because people know they have something to do with color but don’t exactly know what.

S4: So what is Pantone, what does it do and why should we care about its annual color pronouncements? We’re about to shed some full spectrum light on these questions. I’m Seth Stevenson. Welcome to Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism. Today on the show, The Color of Money is Pantone 543 seat. In the 1950s, Larry Herbert worked for a commercial printing company. One of his biggest frustrations was how to communicate with his clients about their color choices, which blew exactly did they want to use in their printed materials 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 Cosmetician could talk about different colors by just pointing to the card instead of like 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.

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S6: Larry at the time recognized that having color standards like that for the print industry was a really terrific idea. There was no international standard.

S4: Ron Petoskey was a senior vice president at Pantone for several years up until 2017. And by the way, he has a confession to make about his performance on a test that all Pantone employees are required to take.

S6: Yes. So there’s a test for the Munsell Farnsworth test. And I did take it and I will be very honest with you now that I’m no longer at that time and I failed miserably. I actually was identified as being highly colorblind. So, you know, that was a dark, deep secret for 10 years while I was there.

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S1: Give Ron a break. He was on the business side. He wasn’t in what they call a color decision role. Anyway, Ron says that Larry Herbert’s insight about color reference cards led Herbert 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 talked to each other in 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.

S6: It had something like forty colors in it, and that was the beginning.

S4: 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 100000 copies of his color books, printing them at its headquarters in New Jersey. There are other regional color systems around the world, but Pantone has become the most internationally recognized standard. So now you can say Pantone three five one five CE 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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S6: Language of color is really important for anybody who makes products. Anyone who designs products 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.

S1: Over time, Pantone stopped being a commercial printer and became a weird new thing, a company that taxonomies colors. Meanwhile, pantalones 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. And 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.

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S6: If you’re a graphic designer in Brooklyn, you bought your pants on book four years ago. You sent one hundred and seventy five dollars on it. You’re good to go. At least you think you’re good to go. Pants. I would say buy a new book every year, but you’re working off of one hundred and seventy five dollar investment over four or five years.

S4: Ron Petoskey says the bulk of pantalones 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 spectrophotometer now to measure the elements that make up a color and make sure that, for instance, the red on that aluminum Colligan is the same as the red on the cardboard box that 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 dollars to the X-Rite Corporation, a company that makes spectrophotometer and specializes in the hard science of color, which beefs up pantalones, claim to be color authority. But Pantone is increasingly found more subjective ways to monetize color to pantalones. 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 use and you’ll get sued if you try to make a brand that competes with them using the same tint.

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S6: We had companies that would send us a feather from a bird and say, we love this color, we want that to be our brand color, and you create it for us, or they send us a drawing that their kid did and say, I love this color combination. Can you create a product color palette for us? So in that case, we would help them create their color and then we would create a standard for it and we might give them custom standards that they would use around the world to create their product.

S1: Pantone has also started selling a fair amount of merchandise through licensing deals, coffee mugs and sneakers and cookware and such. All of them and 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 color is just for 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 Pinto biggest marketing coup began as a bit of a lark.

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S6: It really started as a one off event at Panettone, 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.

S1: The color of the year announcement is probably what Pantone is best known for among the general public. When Pantone proclaims Sandler in 2006 or Mimosa in 2009 or Radiant Orchid in 2012, it gets coverage in newspapers and magazines and on the network morning shows.

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S7: Color watchers, they wait for this moment each and every year and it has arrived. I seriously never knew that. I’m so excited.

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S1: That’s Good Morning America Greeting Me. Announcement of the 2020 Color of the Year Classic Blue. Here’s Good Morning America covering pantalones. Twenty eighteen announcement.

S8: This is the color. It’s called Living Coral.

S1: Living for a living coral. It’s a shame. And here is Good Morning America again, covering the 2016 announcement. We could do this all day.

S8: And Pantone has announced the color of the year for 2016. Or should we say the color is for the first time. There are two rose quartz and serenity.

S1: Yes, they named two colors in 2016, rose quartz and serenity, more commonly known as pink and blue. Pantone links this classic baby boy and 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 Petoskey says has been largely successful.

S6: You’re taking world events. You’re taking creative events. You’re taking kind of site Gaist of what’s happening around design. It is a very creative product. It is not science based in any way, but we have great color psychologists who work with Pantone to come up with those colors. We had a pretty fun and large constituency of Pantone partners who would come together to come up with colors of the year or colors of the season.

S4: Naming a color of the year is sort of the opposite of pantalones, core business, which is the careful, scientifically sound codification of colors. So on the one hand, you have a Pantone setting, industry standards and manufacturing spectrophotometer, and on the other hand, you have pantalones, shadowy cabal of color psychologists reading chicken entrails and declaring each year it color. Seems like Pantone has a bit of a split personality.

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S9: I blame you guys, the media, you’ve ruined everything, just stop.

S4: More on that when we come back.

S9: I am Jonathan Adler, Potter designer color enthusiast.

S1: Jonathan Adler is famous for designing high end furniture and home furnishings. He is such a color enthusiast that he once invented a new color. He called it QAM Beige, which is a portmanteau of champagne and beige.

S10: It’s kind of a gray beige. It’s the color of Halston. It has slightly pink undertones and it’s a very loose and hedonistic hue.

S4: Because Jonathan is obsessed with getting just the right color. He uses Pantone pretty much every time he designed something.

S10: Pantone is sort of the lingua franca of the design world. You know, it’s how I communicate with vendors. It’s just we’re constantly taking Pantone chips and putting them against each other and referencing them. It’s just sort of how one communicates in the design world. It’s like it is an official color coding system. It feels almost like a government agency.

S4: But while he appreciates pantalones role as a standards body for the world of visual design, Jonathans less enchanted with Pantone side hustle, forecasting the color of the year and portraying that forecast as a divination that emerges from the primordial columnist’s.

S9: I think that 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 sort of fugue state of inspiration outcomes, this color is a lovely narrative. But the fact is they 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, we got it. When’s our color meeting for? All right. The deadline is we got to, like, cover the candidates by, like, November two. And then, you know, who’s writing the press release about the narrative, like, you know, it’s a corporate world, let’s face it.

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S1: But there’s a corporate dimension to the color of the year that goes beyond just the promotional buzz for Pantone. Maybe the color of the year isn’t an organic, infallible analysis of the colors like Gaist, but it does sort of make its own reality for people in the worlds that Pantone governs.

S9: As you get sort of lower down in the design food chain, let’s say you are a factory in China, you know, or a mill in India or whatever. I think that they probably are looking toward newsy information like that to kind of determine what they’re going to do that they think will resonate with the design community. So in a way, while it means not that much to me that the kind of 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 Wal-Mart or whatever might say, OK, green, yellow, those are the colors. And then six months later, you’ll find green, yellow and Target and Wal-Mart. And so it sort of it becomes true.

S11: But you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue. It’s not turquoise. It’s not lapis. It’s actually cerulean.

S1: Consider this moment from the movie The Devil Wears Prada, in which Meryl Streep, playing the editor of a fashion magazine, rips into Anne Hathaway for not understanding the nuanced back story of the blue cable knit sweater she’s wearing.

S11: In 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was even Celeron, wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets. I think we need a jacket here. And then Cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers, and then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you no doubt fished it out of some clearance bin.

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S1: However, this is more of a top down model of color influencing rather than the bottom up model that Jonathan Adler described. According to Meryl Streep’s Fancy Pants magazine editor, Cerulean happened because Oscar de la Renta plucked it from the ether and chose it for a collection of gowns. But the thing is, Oscar de la Renta did not show any cerulean anything in 2002. So why did the screenwriters pick that color? Well, guess what? Pantone is first color of the year was a few years before The Devil Wears Prada was made. You got it? It was. Let me do my best. Meryl here. Cerulean. So who exactly is choosing colors? For whom?

S12: Color is a beautiful thing that just exists in the world. It’s there for all of us. But when color intersects with capitalism, somebody has to set some standards and make some decisions and make some money. And Pantone has built an empire saying, why not us color me impressed. That’s our show for today. This episode was produced by Jesse Miller and Cleo Levin, Technical Direction from Merritt. Jacob Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of podcasts at Slate. June Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate Podcast Network. A special shout out to our Slate Plus members this week, it’s survey time again, which means it’s your chance to tell us what you think about Slate plus and Slate. It’ll only take a few minutes and you can find it at Slate Dotcom Survey. Thanks so much for listening and for supporting us. Next week on the show, selling diets and the anti dieting age.

S5: Nothing tastes as good as thin feels.

S13: Have you had a burger like a good burger? You mean nothing?

S12: I just don’t like food. That’s next week on Grilling Tales of Modern Capitalism.