How Pantone Saved the World by Creating a Visual Guide


Anyone who deals with colours, fashion, design, and visual aesthetics knows what a Pantone is. In the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep explains to her fashion-skeptical assistant, played by Anne Hathaway, why she happens to be wearing a sweater in a very particular shade of blue known as cerulean.

She says cerulean was popularised by Oscar de la Renta before 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.”

“That blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs,” she says.

Six years before the release of “The Devil Wears Prada,” in 2000, Pantone’s forecasters named cerulean the company’s first-ever Color of the Year.

But Wait, What Is Pantone?

Pantone, as it is known today, started in the 1950s as a commercial printing company of M & J Levine Advertising. In 1956, they hired Lawrence Herbert, a chemistry graduate, to systemize the company’s stock of pigments and inks.

In 1962, Herbert purchased the assets and technology from the owners and rechristened the company as Pantone. Pan meaning ‘all’ and tone meaning ‘colours.’ A company that systemised all colours.

In 1963, the Pantone Matching System (PMS), a proprietary numbering system for colours used in graphics arts, was launched. PMS allowed designers to colour-match specific colours at the production stage — regardless of the equipment used to produce the colour.

PMS was quickly heralded as the lingua franca of the world of colour.

The World Before Pantone

Colour made its way into magazines in the 1880s with the advent of chromolithography. At the beginning of the 20th century, offset lithography and offset printing set a new lease of life for print.

However, working with colour was an expensive and unreliable proposition. There was just no way to reproduce colours faithfully.

Colour printing had been invented, but most printing stayed black and white.

Photography and the World of Magazines

Interestingly, it was the advancement of photography that made printing colours viable. Sharper pictures meant sharper prints.

Kodachrome, a critical invention, propelled printing in 1936. Around this time magazines made a full switch to colour.

With the television not yet being ubiquitous, the 1950s was undoubtedly the golden era of magazines. Then came the advertisements. The following ‘60s pop-culture era and the Mad Men era changed advertising. Colour was in!

CMYK Printing

CMYK is a process of combining cyan, magenta, yellow, and black to produce full-colour images. During the process, the image is printed four times, once for each colour (or plate). Once layered, the colours blend together to create the desired shades and tones.

CMYK is cost-effective and can produce life-like images, but it suffers from colour inconsistencies. If not careful, this can result in huge re-runs of prints.

Moreover, CMYK lacks intuitiveness when it comes to expressing colours. The technical nature of combinations makes it difficult to communicate shades and hues.

When it comes to orange, am I talking about an orangey-orange like the fruit or a golden-yellow-orange like that of a goldfish?

Enter Pantone

Pantone Shades
Photo by insung yoon on Unsplash

PMS had this sorted. I can now tell my agency that I want a Goldfish Orange — Pantone 166. Not only is the number universal, but I can also match it to their swatch to know how it should look in real life.

This was huge.

The Pantone colour system allowed faster and more accurate communication. The unified colour system removed the boundaries of language instantly.

“If somebody in New York wanted something printed in Tokyo, they would simply open up the book and say, ‘Give me Pantone 123,’ 123 (a daffodil yellow) would look exactly the same the world over. — Lawrence Herbert

Further, with Pantone, there was no need for multi-layer printing, resulting in better efficiency and colour consistency.

Pantone Everywhere

Once a utilitarian product for designers and printers, the Pantone Colour Guide gained a cult following amongst anyone fascinated with design.

Influencing Industries

Pantone started influencing the world of fashionfurnitureweddingsmovies, and cosmetics, to name a few. With Instagram defining the visual culture today, you’ll even find Pantone Tarts.

National Governance

In 2003, the Scottish parliament made a historic intervention and set the standard colour of their flag as Pantone 300, ending years of dispute.

George Reid, a retired Edinburgh accountant who single-handedly fought the battle for a decision on the shade of blue, said:

If you looked up at the sky today, that is Pantone 300.

Cultural Movements

Pantone helps its partners define the colours of cultural movements.

Femininity Redefined drew on a mood of fresh activism and resistance to female under-representation. They’ve got the colours for Mother’s Day too!

The Color of the Year

In 2000, Pantone announced their Color of the Year tradition. Every year, in December, Pantone names a colour for the upcoming year.

The marketing world turns topsy-turvy once it is announced.

What’s the colour this year? It is Living Coral. You can see them on Google MinisIKEA stores, and, of course, on Airbnb.

Pantone’s Color of the Year skyrocketed the Pantone Color Institute to prominence and transformed it into a household brand.

Founded in 1986, The Pantone Color Institute works with companies and helps them make informed decisions about colour for their brands or products.

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Final Thoughts

  1. No one owns colours, except for Anish Kapoor and a few trademarks, but by owning the language of colours, Pantone went on to become the global authority on colour. This changed brands and branding worldwide, as we now know.
  2. My first tryst with the business of colours was through my marketing role for Heineken in India. Internally, Heineken Green was a shade you couldn’t forget even if you tried.
  3. Homer could have found it much easier to say that the colour of the sea was 18–348, rather than the hotly debated wine-like sea.

What a colourful world we live in!


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