Wired.com has published an interesting article on Pantone’s phenomenal business (see Living Color). For those who don’t know the company, Pantone Inc. “is the world-renowned authority on color and provider of color systems and leading technology for the selection and accurate communication of color”.
The article describes how influential Pantone has become by setting the standards for reproducing colours in the commercial world.
We don’t tend to think of paint chips as information infrastructure. Yet when everyone in the world is using the same ones, they become a communications protocol. The effect is equivalent to that of any network standard - it amplifies the scale and interconnectedness of how things get made. It greases the wheels of big, fast global culture.
Though Pantone doesn’t sell inks, dyes, or paints, it has come to hold a monopoly on color. Of course, frequencies of light, like naturally occurring sounds, are free for anyone to use. But Pantone owns their names - or, more specifically, their designated numbers and spectro-photometric descriptions. Ultimately, printers and manufacturers have to translate those numbers into atoms - pigment, dye, or varnish. In order to check that the final product matches the design spec, there needs to be an agreed-upon point of reference. And that’s what Pantone sells, to designers of every kind and a thousand ink licensees in 65 countries - a standard reference, in the form of $3,600 cotton-swatch binders, $150 fan decks, and $300 chip books. The Pantone system is embedded in 3-D modeling software and applications like Photoshop and Quark, as well as monitors and inkjet printers.
Having exploited the network effect produced by the need for colour standards, Pantone decided to capitalise on the demand for colour trends.
For years, officials at Pantone fielded calls from designers and color forecasters. What’s the haute new hue? Why has purple been increasing in popularity? What will be the color of the new millennium? After answering more than a few of these calls, Leatrice Eiseman, director of the Pantone Color Institute, the company’s research and information arm, decided that Pantone should stop giving out free advice.
So what is the color of the new millennium? As it happens, I found out last year (a bit late I admit, but I thought it would be good for at least a thousand years). According to a story published in April 1999 by creativepro.com, Pantone decided it should be Cerulean Blue:
The official color of the millennium is Cerulean Blue PANTONE 15-4020 TC, the color of the sky on a serene, crystal clear day, says Pantone, Inc., the world’s leading authority on color and color trends.
Lifestyle movements suggest that consumers will be seeking inner peace and spiritual fulfillment in the new millennium. This is a paradoxical time in which we are heading toward an uncertain, yet exciting, future, and also looking back, trying to hold onto the security of the past. In this stressful, high-tech era, we will be searching for solace and Cerulean Blue produces the perfect calming effect.
Despite Pantone’s attempt at setting definitive standards, I found several different interpretations of the colour Cerulean Blue:
- first, there was the hexadecimal value cited in the creativepro.com article, which I assume came from Pantone, – #9BC4E2;
- second came #0B2BD7 from a Japanese web site, the name of which I cannot read;
- then I found the tile on the right from Pigments Through the Ages;
- and finally I found Fashionclick.com using #6699FF on an article about Pantone’s colours for 2000.
I don’t know what those colours look like on your screen, but they are all different on mine. Clearly, there is still a need for a standard.
The last example is web safe (only 216 colours are web safe, i.e. those that display accurately on all computers) and probably the closest web safe match to Pantone’s official tone, so I think we can discount it straight away, despite the fact that it matches the clothes pictured on the web site quite closely. I don’t know the source of the Japanese colour, but it’s darker than most of the skies I see so I’m inclined to eliminate it too. The first example, which bears Pantone’s stamp of approval, is significantly lighter than a clear blue sky, so I prefer the colour tile provided by Pigments Through the Ages, which seems quite realistic to me.
Unfortunately, cerulean may become that lighter, washed out blue in future given Pantone’s influence, but I’m not too concerned. It just so happens that cerulean is the only word in English that can be derived from all the letters in my surname, and I’m quite happy with the idea that from my name you can get to a clear blue sky, even if we can’t agree on the shade.