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How Pantone created a universal language for color

Color fans.
Anne Quito
By Anne Quito

Design and architecture reporter

This article is more than 2 years old.

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Is that off-white paint ivory, pearl, bone, eggshell, eburnean, ecru, cream, flax, or beige? Ask anyone who’s ever argued about the shade of a wall: Describing color with words is a near-impossible task.

That’s why professional designers cite alpha-numeric codes from big color directories to communicate the exact color they want. Japan has the TOYO Color Finder and Germany has its HKS color chart, but New Jersey’s Pantone matching system is the most widely-used system. Pantone’s founder Lawrence Herbert called it a “universal language of color.”

Pantone, once a technical tool for the design and printing industry, has become a pop culture icon through some genius marketing and countless independently generated memes. Pantone color chips have been reincarnated as mugs, cell phones, underwear, smoothies, and even a 3-star boutique hotel in Brussels. Name it, it’s likely been Pantoned.

But the most popular of Pantone’s annual self-promotion schemes happened this morning with the crowning of (📣drumroll please) Ultra Violet as the 2018 color of the year.


The color conspiracy. Pantone’s color of the year is part trend prediction, part self-fulfilling prophecy. Determined by a top secret cabal of experts, the annual selection (since 2000) is spearheaded by the consulting department known as the Pantone Institute. Months before the announcement, Pantone collaborates with various brands to unleash an avalanche of products in the exact hue they specify. Never mind if it’s flattering (let’s not forget the ghastly Serenity blue lipstick from 2015) or particularly unique—the point of color-themed matched products is to be “on trend.”

Pantone says the color of the year program is the one moment in the year to encourage the general public to reflect on the importance of color in their daily choices. This year they’ve partnered with Saatchi Art to select works of art that feature Ultra Violet, like this portrait of Prince by Angie Jones.

Angie Jones / Saatchi Art / Pantone
Swatch to watch.


1,867: Total number of colors Pantone has formulated for graphic designers who create logos, print publications, and product packaging. There are 2,310 Pantone colors for fashion and interior designers.

$7,395: Price fashion designers pay for a Pantone cotton swatch library. A complete set of color specification books for graphic designers costs $1,620.

$625 million: Amount paid by industrial conglomerate Danaher Corporation in 2012 to acquire Pantone’s parent company X-Rite.

80%: Increase in brand recognition when color is introduced.


Don’t call it purple.  Since we’ll have to live with a lot of Ultra Violet next year, let’s make sure we’re talking about the right color. Violet is not purple—it’s deeper with more blue tones. Purple has more red in its composition.

In optics, violet is considered a “spectral color,” which means it’s among the seven colors that the human eye can perceive in the electromagnetic spectrum. (It has a wavelength of 380–450 nanometers.) Purple, on the other hand, is a combination of two spectral colors, blue and red.

Get it right.

Technically, Pantone’s 2018 marquee color’s name is a misnomer. “Ultraviolet” is not a color that most humans can see because it’s outside the visible spectrum.

Only individuals with a condition called aphakia (the absence of the lens of the eye) can perceive ultraviolet as a color. French painter Claude Monet is the most famous of these rare seers. Scientists conjecture that Monet, known for a spectacular amount of violet-toned paintings like the Water Lilies series, was able to see ultraviolet after undergoing a procedure to remove the lens of his left eye at age 82.

Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Violettomania: Water Lilies, c. 1915–26


How Pantone became one to swatch. An enterprising ink mixer transformed Pantone from a supplier of color swatches for the cosmetics industry to the household brand we know today. In 1956, Chemistry graduate Lawrence Herbert secured a job as a color matching specialist at M&J Levine Advertising. Six years later, he bought the company’s printing division and invented a system to standardize color. The Pantone Matching System gave graphic designers and printers an objective measure for standardizing color. He later developed a second color system for home interiors and fashion.

In 2007, X-Rite paid $180 million to acquire the family-run business. Pantone has dabbled with various apps, but designers mostly rely on paper and fabric swatches when specifying colors.


Quartz’s Adam Freelander visited Pantone’s color factory in Carlstadt, New Jersey in 2015. It was eye-opening.


Can a company own a color?  Yes. A riveting landmark legal battle between two rival dry-cleaning supply companies settled this question in 1995, paving the way for companies to trademark their signature colors. Coca-Cola is red (originally Pantone 484), Starbucks is pine green (Pantone 3298), and robin egg blue (1837 Blue) is exclusive to Tiffany’s.

To trademark their colors, companies need to prove that it’s a crucial element that distinguishes their product. There’s plenty of research showing that it’s one of the most important factors for brand identity.


Life in the Pantone universe. Pantone-branded merchandise ranges from tacky to sublime. Among the most unique and useful items is a line of Pantone Universe hospital scrubs in Japan. Hospital workers wear different Pantone color scrubs for each day of the week to help patients languishing in long-term care recognize what day it is.

Courtesy of Pantone
Hospital scrubs.


Signature colors. Only five people in the world have ever had their own Pantone colors: Jay-Z has a pearlescent blue, real estate CEO Sherry Chris commissioned a bright pink, fashion designer Jason Wu claimed grey, the late British fashion designer Richard Nicoll has an elegant blue, and Prince has Love Symbol #2—but don’t confuse his signature shade with Ultra Violet!

“Our selection for the Pantone Color of the Year 2018 had already been confirmed before the Prince estate came to us to develop a signature purple shade that was exactly the same as his purple piano,” Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of Pantone’s color consulting division, told Quartz.

AP Photo/Chris O'Meara
Purple Love.

Though not an official commission, Pantone Institute VP Laurie Pressman selected a rusty orange called “Golden Flame” as Donald Trump’s defining color. “If you ground up all the colors [from his portraits] and blended it all together, it might come to a color like that,” she told Fast Company. POTUS’s color suggests “sturdiness, strength, endurance, vibrancy and gregariousness.”


Which is NOT a Pantone color?

  • Cloud Dancer
  • YInMn Blue
  • Minion Yellow
  • Rosewater

*Find the solution at bottom of this post.


Pantone employees are required to take a nerve-racking eye exam every year. The Farnsworth-Munsell 100 hue test involves arranging color palettes in the right chromatic order. A misplaced block counts as a mistake and a score below 70 is an indicator of color blindness.

Employees say they abstain from caffeine the day of the exam because it can affect the capillaries in their eyes. Those who score low on the Farnsworth-Munsell test aren’t fired from Pantone. They’re simply moved out of color decision roles.

Color blindness, by the way, is quite common: Protanopia, or red-green color blindness, can be found in 1 in 12 Caucasian men and 1 in 200 Caucasian women. Many companies—including Pantone—haven’t designed accommodations for this color deficiency, making many common resources and instruments difficult to read.

In 2015, the Jets wore head-to-toe green and the Bills wore all red. This confused a vocal segment of the 13 million Americans who suffer from red-green color blindness. Ironically, the National Football League’s “Color Rush” gimmick was meant to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its first-ever television broadcast in color.


“Calvin Klein kept a Pantone chip in the kitchen to signal to his chef what color he wanted his coffee to be,” Lawrence Herbert’s daughter Lisa told the New York Times.


Tim Fraser Brown

The afterlife of Pantone chips. Pantone recommends that designers replace color specimen books annually. This means that there are a lot of old color books and chips lying around. Some crafty designers have made magnets or greeting cards from the discarded chips, but Tim Fraser Brown, a British graphic designer with lot of time in his hands, went a bit farther. In 2008, Brown and his colleagues spent four nights recreating Édouard Manet’s “Bar at the Folies-Bergère” with 5,000 used Pantone chips. They called their masterpiece “Manetone.”

The correct answer to the quiz is YInMn Blue—a bright blue hue created by accident in a University of Oregon lab—is a Crayola color.

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