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Shaunacy Ferro

How Pantone Comes Up With New Colors for Its Authoritative Guide

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Shaunacy Ferro

“Color,” Laurie Pressman says, “is the language of life.”

This is just one of many color-related phrases that Pressman, who serves as the vice president of the Pantone Color Institute, repeats like mantras: red is passion and energy; blue is seriousness and stability. Purple is royalty. And according to Pressman, purple is having a moment, a fact that is reflected by what’s happening on the floor of Pantone’s Carlstadt, New Jersey factory on the day Mental Floss visits in late 2016.

Pantone—the company behind the ubiquitous booklets of color chips and formulas nearly all designers use to choose and create colors for corporate logos, products, clothes, and more—is the world’s preeminent authority on color. In the years since its creation in the mid-20th century, the Pantone Matching System has become an icon, enjoying cult status in the design world. But even if someone has never needed to design anything in their life, they probably know what a Pantone chip looks like.

The company has enough die-hard fans to justify selling notebooks, mugs, flash drives, watches, and more, all made to look like entries in its signature chip books. There are blogs devoted to the color system. In the summer of 2015, a local restaurant group in Monaco launched a pop-up Pantone Café where everything patrons saw—and ate—was labeled with the Pantone code that described its color. It proved so popular that it returned again the next summer.

Samples of Pantone colors arrayed on a table

On the day of our visit to the factory, the industrial printing press is whirring, spitting out gleaming sheets of oversized white paper striped with dark lines of color: oranges, reds, pinks, purples. They accumulate at one end of the printer, which is so large that it requires a small set of stairs to access the walkway where the ink is filled. A color specialist occasionally swipes a finished page out of the neat pile and places it on one of the nearby tables for quality inspection by both the human eye and special color-spectrum-measuring devices under bright, white lights.

The printing press in the 70,000 square foot factory can produce 10,000 sheets an hour, churning out press sheets of 28 colors each. Between projects, the press has to be shut down and the ink channels cleared to prevent any cross-contamination of colors. As a result, the factory prints just 56 colors per day—one run of 28-color sheets in the morning, and another batch with a different set of 28 colors in the afternoon. Depending on how it sells, the average color in Pantone’s graphic design palette gets printed about once every four months.

Today, one of those colors is a pale purple, released six months earlier but just now getting a second printing: Pantone 2453.

For someone whose experience with color is mostly limited to struggling to put together outfits that vaguely match, talking to Pressman—who is as stylish as her background running Pantone’s Fashion, Home + Interiors department would suggest—sometimes feels like taking a test on color theory that I haven't prepared for. Not long into my visit, she gives me a crash course in purple.

Purple, she says, is the most complex color of the rainbow, and it has a long history. Before synthetic dyes, it was associated with kings and emperors; Tyrian purple, the highly sought-after dye that could make purple clothing, was made from the secretions of thousands of marine snails and so pricey that even some emperors couldn’t afford it. The first synthetic dye was a purple—mauveine, discovered accidentally in 1856 by a British university student named William Henry Perkin. While purple is now available to the plebes, it still isn’t very widely used, especially when compared to a color like blue. But that may be changing.

A Pantone employee stands in front of an industrial machine

Increased attention to purple has been building for several years; Pantone named Radiant Orchid, “a captivating, magical, enigmatic purple,” its Color of the Year for 2014. Traditionally, market researchers have found that men tend to prefer blue-based shades. But now, “the consumer is more willing to experiment,” Pressman says. “You're seeing a whole reevaluation of color no longer being typecast. This whole world of purple is open to men and women.”

Pantone 2453 joined the company’s famous color standards system in March 2016, one of the 112 new colors added that month. These new colors don’t come out of the ether, and really, they don’t even come straight out of the brain of one of the company’s color wonks. Sometimes they’re inspired by a specific object—like a silk scarf one of those color experts found at a Moroccan bazaar, a piece of packaging found at Target, or a bird’s feather. Other times, new colors are informed by more general trends about what’s becoming popular.

Whatever its inspiration, every one of the colors in Pantone’s iconic guide can be traced back to the same place: forecast meetings with Pantone color experts that happen years before the colors even make it to the company’s factory floor.

 
 
 

When Pantone first got started, it was just a printing company. In the 1950s, Pantone was making color cards for cosmetics companies, the car industry, and more. Its printing experts hand-mixed inks to create swatches that were the exact shade of the lipstick or pantyhose in the package on the shelf, the kind you look at while deciding which version to buy at the department store. All that changed when Lawrence Herbert, one of Pantone’s employees, bought the company in the early 1960s.

Herbert came up with the idea of creating a universal color system where each color would be made up of a precise combination of base inks, and each formula would be reflected by a number. That way, anyone in the world could walk into a local printer and say “Make it in Pantone Color X” and end up with the precise shade that they wanted. In 1963, Pantone created its first color guide, changing the direction of both the company and of the design world.

Without a formula, churning out precisely the same color, every single time—whether it’s in a magazine, on a T-shirt, or on a logo, and no matter where your design is made—is no simple task.

“If you and I mix acrylic paint and we get a really cool color, but we're not monitoring exactly how many parts of red or orange or yellow or whatever [it’s made of], we will never be able to replicate that color,” explains Molly McDermott Walsh, Pantone’s then-communications director. (She has since left the company.) The Pantone color guides allow anyone with the right base inks to recreate specific colors easily on any standard machine. As of last count, the system had a total of 1867 colors created for use in graphic design and multimedia in addition to the 2310 colors that are part of its Fashion, Home + Interiors color system.

Among designers, Pantone’s guides are iconic. Most people don’t think much about how a fashion designer figures out what shade of blue their newest shirt will be, but that color has to be created; very often, it’s created by Pantone. Even if a designer isn’t going to use a Pantone color in the final product, they’ll often flip through the company’s color book anyway, just to get an idea of what they’re looking for. “I’d say at least once a month I’m looking at a Pantone swatch book,” says Jeff Williams, a vice president of creative at frog, an award-winning global design and strategy firm that has worked on everything from Honeywell’s smart thermostat to Audi’s backseat entertainment system.

But long before a designer like Williams begins brainstorming, Pantone’s color experts are trying to predict the colors they’ll want to use.

 
 
 

How the experts at the Pantone Color Institute decide which new colors should be added to the guide—a process that can take up to two years—involves somewhat abstract inspiration. “It’s really about what's going to be happening, to be able to ensure that the people using our products have the right color on the selling floor at the right time,” Pressman says.

Twice a year, Pantone representatives sit down with a core group of between eight and 12 trend forecasters from all over the design world, an anonymous group of international color experts who work in product design or fashion, teach color theory at universities, or are associated with institutions like the British Fashion Council. They gather in a central location (often London) to talk about the colors that seem poised to take off in popularity, a relatively esoteric process that Pressman is hesitant to describe in concrete detail.

One of those forecasters, chosen on a rotating basis, picks an abstract theme before each meeting to get the brainstorming started. For the planning session for Autumn/Winter 2018-2019 trends, the theme is “time.” Everyone draws up their own color forecasts inspired by this theme and brings four or five pages of images—kind of like a mood board—with relevant color combinations and palettes. Then they gather in a room with good light, and each person presents their version of where the world of color is heading. “It’s a storytelling exercise,” Pressman says.

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Often, the trend they see as impacting the future of color isn’t what most people would consider design-related at all. You may not connect the colors you see on the racks at Macy’s with events like the financial crash of 2008, but Pressman does. When she heard the news of the Lehman Brothers collapse, her mind immediately went to color. “All I could see in my head was a selling floor filled with grays and neutrals,” she says. “Everybody was fearful about money—they weren’t going to want to be spending it on bright color.” Instead, she says, people would be looking for solid colors, something comforting. “They were all of a sudden going, ‘Oh my God, I'm scared. I'm going to look for the colors that are going to make me feel stronger.” The Pantone palette expanded accordingly, adding colors like the taupe Humus and grays like Storm Front and Sleet.

Trends are constantly changing, but some themes continue to crop up over and over again. When we meet in September 2016, Pressman references “wellness,” for example, as a trend people keep coming back to. Just a few months later, the company announced its 2017 Color of the Year like this: “Greenery signals consumers to take a deep breath, oxygenate, and reinvigorate.” The 2016 Colors of the Year, a pink and a blue, were meant to represent wellness, too. Those colors, Serenity and Rose Quartz, were also meant to represent a blurring of gender norms.

The latter trend is one reason why, according to Pressman, purples are gaining ground in the color world. Which brings us back to Pantone 2453.

 
 
 

When Pantone is creating a new color, the company has to figure out whether there’s even room for it. In a color system that already has as many as 2300 other colors, what makes Pantone 2453 different? “We go back through customer requests and look and see exactly where there's a hole, where something needs to be filled in, where there's too much of a gap,” explains Rebecca Sexauer, a color standards technician who works in the textile department. But “it has to be a large enough gap to be different enough to cause us to make a new color.”

That difference isn’t an abstract judgment call—it can be quantified. The metric that denotes how far apart two colors sit on the spectrum is known as Delta E. It can be measured by a device called a spectrometer, which is capable of seeing differences in color that the human eye cannot. Because most people can’t detect a difference in colors with less than a 1.0 Delta E difference, new colors have to deviate from the closest colors in the current catalog by at least that amount. Ideally, the difference is twice that, making it more obvious to the naked eye.

“We’re saying, ‘OK, the purples are building,” Pressman says of the process. “Where are the opportunities to add in the right shades?’” In the case of Pantone 2453, the company did already have a very similar purple, Sheer Lilac. But Pantone still had space in its catalog for the new color because, unlike Pantone 2453, Sheer Lilac was designed for fabric.

A woman's finger points to stripes of color on a Pantone press sheet.

There’s a reason why Pantone makes separate color guides for fashion and graphic design: Though the colors designed for paper and packaging go through a similar design process, dyes and inks don’t transfer perfectly alike across different materials, so a color printed on uncoated paper ends up looking different when it dries than it would on cotton. Creating the same purple for a magazine spread as on a T-shirt requires Pantone to go back through the creation process twice—once for the textile color and once for the paper color—and even then they might turn out slightly different, as is the case with Sheer Lilac and Pantone 2453.

Even if the color is different enough, it can be scrapped if it’s too difficult for other companies to make exactly as Pantone does using typical printing presses and fabrics. “There are some really great colors out there and people always ask, ‘Well, why don't you have that in your guide?’” says Pantone product manager Michele Nicholson. “Because not everybody can replicate it.” If it’s too complicated for a designer to churn out the same color they chose from the Pantone guide reliably, they’re not going to use it.

 
 
 

It can take color standards technicians six months to come up with an exact formula for a new color like Pantone 2453. Even then, once a new color does make it past the color forecasters and technicians to solidify its place in the Pantone palette, those color chips and fabric swatches aren’t just printed and shipped immediately.

Everything at Pantone is about maintaining consistency, since that’s the whole reason designers use the company’s color guides in the first place. This means that no matter how many times the color is analyzed by the human eye and by machine, it’s still probably going to get at least one last look. Today, on the factory floor, the sheets of paper that contain swatches of Pantone 2453 will be checked over, and over, and over again.

These checks happen periodically throughout the entire manufacturing process. They’re a failsafe in case the final color that comes out isn’t an accurate replica of the version in the Pantone guide. The number of things that can slightly alter the final look of a color are dizzying: that day’s humidity, a little dust in the air, the salts or chlorine levels in the water used to dye fabrics, and more.

A puddle of purple ink that has just been mixed

Each swatch that makes it into the color guide starts off in the ink room, a space just off the factory floor the size of a walk-in closet. There, workers measure out exactly the right amount of base inks to make each custom color using a mixing machine programmed with Pantone’s formulas. These goopy piles of base inks are then mixed by hand on a glass tabletop—the process looks a little like a Cold Stone Creamery employee churning together ice cream and toppings—and then the resulting color is checked again. The mixer on duty swipes a small sample of the ink batch onto a piece of paper to compare it to a sample from a previously approved batch of the same color.

Once the inks make it onto the factory floor and into the printer’s ink channels, the sheets have to be periodically evaluated again for accuracy as they come out, with technicians adjusting the ink flow as necessary. The pages have to be approved again after the switch from printing on coated to uncoated paper. A day later, when the ink is fully dry, the pages will be inspected and approved again by Pantone’s color control team. Eventually, after the printed material has passed all the various approvals at each step of the process, the colored sheets are cut into the fan decks that are shipped out to customers.

Everyone at Pantone who makes quality control decisions has to take an annual color test, which requires rearranging colors on a spectrum, to check that people who are making quality control calls have the visual ability to distinguish between the slightest variations in color. (Pantone representatives assure me that if you fail, you don’t get fired; if your eyesight no longer meets the company’s requirements for being a color controller, you just get moved to another position.) These color experts’ ability to distinguish between almost-identical colors verges on miraculous for anyone who’s ever struggled to pick out a particular shade of white stationery. Their keen eyes ensure that the colors that come out of Pantone’s printer one day are as close as humanly possible to the ones printed months before and to the color that they will be when a customer prints them on their own equipment.

Ink samples posted on a bulletin board

Pantone’s reliability comes at a cost, though. Printers typically run on just a few base inks. Your home printer, for instance, probably uses the CMYK color model, meaning it mixes cyan, magenta, yellow, and black to make every color of the rainbow. Pantone’s system, on the other hand, uses 18 base inks to get a wider range of colors. And if you’re looking for precise color, you can’t accidentally mix some extraneous cyan ink into your print job. As a result, if a printer is up and running with generic CMYK inks, it will need to be stopped and the ink channels cleaned to pour in the ink mixed to the specifications of the Pantone formula. That takes time, making Pantone colors more expensive for print shops.

It’s worth it for many designers, though. “If you don’t use Pantone colors, there is always that wiggle room when you print it out,” according to Inka Mathew, a Houston-area freelance graphic designer and creator of the blog (and book) Tiny PMS Match, which is dedicated to photographs of objects placed over the Pantone swatches of the identical color. That wiggle room means that the color of the final, printed product might not look exactly like it did on the computer—and sometimes, she explains, other color printing models just won’t give her the color she needs for a project. “I find that for brighter colors—the ones that are more intense—when you convert it to the four-color process, you can’t get exactly the colors you want.”

Getting the exact color you want is the reason that Pantone 2453 exists, even if the company has dozens of other purples. When you’re a professional designer looking for that one specific color, choosing something that’s only a similar version isn’t good enough.

 
 
 

Later, in one of the color labs on the ground floor of Pantone HQ, the color specialists have gathered together some of the product packaging that proves that the market really does want a color like Pantone 2453. That light shade of purple—or something very close—is on everything from potty-training underwear and haircare products to McDonald’s ground coffee and light bulb packaging.

An array of purple packaging sits on a white counter.

These companies haven’t come to Pantone directly for their branding inspiration, serving as an “I told you so” for all those color forecasters who started pushing for new purples several years ago. While companies may have already been using something similar, now that Pantone offers it, a greater swath of designers can use it confidently, knowing that they can achieve that exact color across platforms and geography. You can expect to see more of Pantone 2453’s pale purple on shelves soon, if you haven’t already.

Outside the all-white color labs, the hallways and offices at the company’s headquarters are painted in a variety of vibrant Pantone colors. Pressman’s office just happens to be painted a grayish purple. This, she says, is a coincidence—she just wanted something calming.

All photos by Shaunacy Ferro.

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[h/t Co.Design]

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