How Pantone Mastered the Science and Business of Color

Rose Arenas
Rose Arenas
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Growing up as the daughter of a graphic designer, it wasn’t uncommon to see little rectangular chips of color around the house. These little white paper boxes with color blocks and funny names were pinned to cork boards and taped into the underside of client folders. They were cut out of books and found their way to the floor during a busy project where you would accidentally step on them if you weren’t looking. I’m pretty confident a few of them still live in the back of a desk drawer somewhere.

It wasn’t until I was older and joined the profession myself that I looked through my dad’s old supplies and found stacks of fanned color guides and bound books filled with handwritten notes about suggested client printing colors. This was Pantone®, a system and language of color that has dominated the design field for decades. But Pantone has become more than just little blocks of color in books. From licensing and products to consulting on market trends, Pantone has come to dominate the economy and market of color.

The History Of Pantone

Pantone was born in New Jersey in the 1950s under the commercial printing company M & J Levine Advertising. During that time, an employee named Lawrence Herbert noticed how difficult it was for designers and printers to communicate through color names alone. Too many variables and inefficiencies resulted in many mistakes, requiring reprints and extra costs. So, using his knowledge of chemistry, he systematized and simplified the company’s pigments and production of colored inks.

With the success of his system, Herbert purchased the company in 1962 and radically changed its direction. In 1963 he changed the name of the company to “Pantone” and established the Pantone Color Matching System® (PMS). For the first time there was a standard that allowed any designer to identify a specific color and a printer could accurately produce an exact match. It meant perfect color-matching across companies and guaranteed quality control.

Herbert strategized to quickly establish his Pantone Color Matching System as the international industry standard. He went on a rapid product push to beat out competitors that were trying to establish their own color-matching systems. As a result, today Pantone is the graphics industry standard due in part to this widely successful marketing campaign.

The Branding of Color

While colors are an integral part of a brand’s visual language, names are essential to a brand’s verbal language. Words, terms, and phrases speak for the brand’s identity. It’s why you remember McDonald’s “I’m Lovin’ It” campaign slogan AND its golden arches. When these visual and verbal elements work well together, they reinforce one another, strengthening a brand’s story and its cultural impact.

Pantone understood the importance of naming and brought that to the forefront of its brand. Once every creative industry realized there was a reliable color-matching system, they needed it. Part of Pantone’s success stemmed from naming their colors beyond the standard alphabetical/numerical code. Suddenly, there was “Classic Blue,” “Tangerine Tango,” and “Rose Quartz.” Interesting names gave colors a personality, which appealed to industries like fashion, textiles and even Silicon Valley. All adopted Pantone colors as their colors of choice for mass-produced product lines. In 1986, Pantone established the Pantone Color Institute TM, a color consulting and trend forecasting group of experts who have since helped companies with color direction and creating custom color standards for their brands.

Pantone was no longer just the color authority – it was now a “creative partner” to companies who wanted to speak the language of color the way Pantone did.

Does Pantone “Own” Color

According to Pantone, “the right color can sell products and ideas more effectively by 50-85%.” And as the color experts, they would know. Today the Pantone Color Matching System has become the de facto standard worldwide for organizing, selecting and reproducing exact colors in both print and digital media.

But being the major player in the color space also has its concerns.

Controlling Color Trends

The leading color trend forecasting groups are the Pantone Color Institute and the Akzo Nobel Global Aesthetic Center (Dulux). Together they wield significant influence over a broad range of design industries, from fashion to graphic design to interior design, and set seasonal color trends for consumer markets.

Pantone’s yearly Color Trend Forecasting report holds the greatest power, predicting the colors industry professionals will use in the year ahead. This includes the announcement of the Color of the Year – a specific color chosen by Pantone every year since 1999 suggested to be “on-trend” for commercial design. The Color of the Year has been an effective tool to draw media attention to the Pantone company, especially in the last few years when news outlets now cover the announcement feverishly every December.

Color trends have long been associated with the fashion season and used to push more consumer spending. Pantone uses the Color of the Year to tap into current consumer trends and help designers create products that will appeal to customers. Companies like Apple even use these color trends to design premium products that come with a more expensive price tag (the “Rose Gold” iPhone, for example).

We’ve previously talked about how colors affect us and the psychology behind using color theory to define our world and the stuff in it.

Pantone will claim their color trend forecasts are based on months of research by several field experts, which may be true. But when one company dominates the color market, is the culture influencing colors and trends, or does Pantone decide for us what should be used and when? When has the tool gone beyond just being a tool and now chooses how consumers should feel?

The Color of the Year

As previously mentioned, Pantone’s Color of the Year is a highly effective marketing tool the company uses each year to promote its brand. 2023’s color is Viva Magenta 18-750, which the company markets as “a hybrid color, one that comfortably straddles the physical and virtual in our multi-dimensional world.” Its announcement has been followed closely by a line of product placements and collaborations with other brands, including a nod to the “metaverse” (that became a trend in 2022 due to Facebook’s name switch to Meta) by calling their campaign the #magentaverse.

While I feel the marketing push to say magenta (which has long existed before the digital space) is a color significant of our “new virtual world”, may be a little too out there, there is some truth in Pantone’s choice to choose this color due to our lifestyle trend towards incorporating more living things into our homes. Plants, florals and living outdoor spaces have become more culturally important to us over the last few years. Magenta’s red undertones connect us visually back to things that already exist in nature – from flowers and plants to animals and other organic matter.

Color theory tells us that red is an advancing but also stunning color on the color spectrum that calls people to pay attention or immediately take action. Magenta, which has red undertones, exerts that same strength and power but never boldly dominates the space it’s displayed in or startles viewers. With its mix of warm and cool undertones, this color straddles the line of being both soft and powerful, motivational and yet still comforting. Magenta is a color that can cut through all of the collective clutter of information and images without being negatively alarming.

The Cost

Pantone’s primary product is the Pantone Guide, a series of cardboard swatches bound in beautifully photographic “fan decks.” However, these Pantone Guides aren’t cheap. Because of the standardization, fortunately, the guides do not change extensively and only need to be replaced every few years. But designers and smaller specialty companies may need to purchase several different guides tailored to each industry, which can add up. The tools become costly and not everyone can access them. And not every company can afford Pantone’s color consulting services.

And as of November 2022, disagreements between Adobe and Pantone have left users in the dark about the future of color in their work. Pantone has now set up a paywall to use their color books in standard designer programs, leveraging their monopoly over color in several creative industries.

I’m Probably Still Going to Want a Pantone Mug

I’ve since claimed my dad’s old Pantone color guides and used books. They have a prominent place on my mantel of historic graphic designer tools. Even though they’re now several decades out of date, it’s still interesting to look back on how the profession has changed and how much Pantone, as a company, has grown with it.

Now it’s about the “Pantone Lifestyle”— Color of the Year, the Pantone Hotels, the Pantone chip photos popular on social media, the Pantone Mugs, and the constant move tie-ins. It appeals not just to designers but also to people and companies who want to portray themselves as design-centric and in the know about color and quality. Around 15% of the brand’s business comes from the Pantone Universe of licensed products.

Whether you see them as pushy or genius, Pantone remains the color expert. And that’s not changing anytime soon. So, I might as well buy that Pantone mug.