As a lover of color, it’s hard to resist the simple beauty of Pantone cards. The square of color and number has become an iconic image reproduced in all sorts of ways, like postcards and on mugs. Graduating students sometimes even decorate their caps with their favorite hue. Every year, Pantone picks a color of the year. For 2018, it was Ultra Violet 18-3838. How did this system get started?
The origin of color systems
For as long as artists have been painting, we’ve had some sort of color theory and eventually color systems. It was as much a scientific undertaking as a creative one. In 1611, a Finnish astronomer developed a color system that was 3D. He drew spheres with light colors at the top, dark colors at the bottom, and neutrals in between. Naming colors was tricky and often confusing. What exactly is “baby blue?” Babies aren’t blue, at least human ones. We know color systems date back to at least 1686 with a book called “Tabula Colorum Physilogica,” and in the 19th century, one man tried to use birds to help differentiate between colors. Robert Ridgeway published “A Nomenclature of Colors for Naturalists,” which eventually included over 1,000 colors identifying colors by birds. For example, there was “Jay Blue” and “Warbler Green.” The system never took off, however.
The Pantone Matching System is born
Before it became associated with a color-matching system, Pantone started out as a printing company in New Jersey. When Lawrence Herbert came on board in 1956, he realized that designers, printers, and ad agencies were having trouble identifying colors based on their names. When you call a color “fire engine red,” a printer may picture a different color than what the designer does. Reprints were too common and too expensive. Herbert decided a number system would be the most efficient and upon buying Pantone in 1962, he launched the first Pantone Matching System guide in 1963. It began with just 10 colors. Using numbers takes out the guesswork – you want a specific color, just give the number, and everyone with a Pantone guide knows exactly what you mean. Pantone uses special, hand-mixed inks, so if you want to be absolutely sure you’re color-matching with a Pantone shade, you need Pantone ink.
Pantone in culture
Other color systems exist, but none are as widely-known as Pantone. People who aren’t designers or artists know of it. This is because Hebert really wanted Pantone to become the universal standard for color. In 1986, the company opened the Color Institute, which helps designers and brands learn to use color in powerful ways. Experts will travel the globe, soaking in fashion, electronics, and more to forecast what colors are going to be hot. Today, Pantone probably sells millions of chip books every year. In 1986, Color of the Year launched in 2000, and every year, the color is picked to reflect and impact current trends. For those who can’t access the Color Institute, there’s the MyPantone app, which pulls color from user-uploaded photos and identifies the Pantone shade.
Interested in combining Pantone colors and history? Check out Pantone: The Twentieth Century in Color, a book by Leatrice Eiseman, color specialist and Executive Director of the Color Institute, and Keith Recker. The beautiful coffee table book explores Pantone shades and its impact on a century’s worth of art history, ads, industrial design, technology, fashion, and more.
Getting popular shades of color like purple is easy now, but people used to go to great lengths (and pay high prices) for pigments.