We're all familiar with Pantone's color chips, cheery blocks of color labeled with a numerical code. Pantone chips are icons of design, lately found everywhere from Christmas ornaments to coffee mugs. But who is Pantone, and why have their colors taken on such authority?
Pantone started off around mid-century printing color guides for cosmetic companies. They would use around 60 different pigments and mix them to match the colors they were looking for. At that time, colors were not yet standardized, so different printers had to kind of make vague guesses to match each other. The example people love to cite is Kodak. Remember that orangey-yellow of Kodak packaging? Since colors weren't standardized, that yellow would look slightly different depending on where it had been printed. The company found that customers would opt not to buy Kodak film when the packaging was slightly darker than usual, since they thought it looked less fresh. The company needed their branded color to be consistent so that their sales could be consistent. So the demand arose for a new system of standardization for color printing.
In 1956 a young chemist named Lawrence Herbert started working part-time for Pantone to make some money before heading to medical school. He soon got so interested in his work at Pantone that he decided to skip medical school. Instead, in 1962, he bought the printing division of Pantone and began refining the color matching system.
Using his chemical expertise, Herbert found a way to reduce the basic building blocks of printed color: instead of starting with 60 pigments and mixing via trial and error, as had been the protocol, he now worked with only 10 pigments, and created standard 'recipes' for printers to follow in order to achieve uniform results. This crucial development was called the Pantone Matching System, which is somewhat unfortunately known as PMS.
Herbert quickly expanded Pantone's reach into other industries beyond printing, like textile design and fine arts materials in the '60s, and digital computing in the '70s and '80s. By 2001, they had expanded their color palette to 1,757 distinct hues. Constantly improving their technology and making licensing agreements with other producers, Pantone's colors are more varied and dynamic than other color techniques, meaning that the company is able to produce unusual colors like fluorescents (after a licensing agreement with Day-Glo). Pantone also works to make their colors consistent and available across all platforms, so colors can match on textiles, printed paper, digital materials and other media.
The importance of Pantone in corporate design and branding is evident from the Kodak anecdote. Think about how much we associate colors with brands! Coke red, UPS brown, Tiffany blue, Hermes orange… And for those of us who aren't concerned with branding, we still want the color of the bedspread in the catalog to match the color of the bedspread when it comes in the mail.
At Apartment Therapy, we get pretty excited about Pantone's annual Color of the Year announcement. This is basically just a marketing move for Pantone, but like any good trend forecasting, it often is a genuine reflection of the zeitgeist, and a helpful guide for some manufacturers. (You can read Cathy Horyn's interesting Times article about it from 2007 here). Pantone has lately also marketed itself to the general public with merchandise, making its color chips a kind of insidery design status symbol.
Images: 1. Blair Urban; 2. Paul Giambarba; 3. Apartment Therapy; 4. If It's Hip It's Here; 5. Shoeling; 6. Apartment Therapy.
Originally published 1.5.12 - JL