“So it’s not about solids,” Shah said. “It’s about how you put colors together?”
“Exactly, and different from what it’s been before,” the woman said. “It’s almost like a counterculture type of a feeling — you deliberately use colors that would not ordinarily work together.”
“Accidental colors,” Shah said, coining a phrase.
“That’s a good way of putting it, yes,” the woman agreed.
The conclave broke for lunch, and Shah walked around the table alone, scratching his chin and muttering to himself while sorting mood boards into piles of similar colors — “editing,” he said.
Occasionally he would wince at having mislaid a board, then pick it up again and set it down someplace else. He worked hurriedly, and by the time the others returned from their meals, he was finished, having arranged the materials into precise groups from which the winning shades could be selected. That afternoon, he and his collaborators finalized the palettes. In six weeks, the forecast would be available to anyone interested enough to part with $795.
Color forecasters like Shah and his team at Pantone have tremendous influence over the visible elements of the global economy — the parts of it that are designed, manufactured and purchased — though their profession itself is all but invisible. If you’re familiar with color forecasting at all, it’s most likely thanks to a scene in the 2006 film “The Devil Wears Prada,” in which the fashion-magazine mandarin Miranda Priestly, played by Meryl Streep, explains to her young, fashion-skeptical assistant why the assistant, played by Anne Hathaway, happens to be wearing a sweater in a very particular shade of blue known as cerulean. Cerulean, Priestly explains, first showed itself a few years earlier in a collection by Oscar de la Renta and was soon adopted by a number of other influential designers 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,” she says.
“That blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs,” she says. “And it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.” In reality, it was selected by Pantone. Six years before the release of “The Devil Wears Prada,” Pantone’s forecasters named cerulean the company’s first-ever Color of the Year.
In the nearly two decades since then, as digital design and social media have expanded the ranks of color obsessives, Pantone has become not just a company but a sensation, its brand bestriding the globe like a behemoth. Its color forecasts, too, have retained their reputation as some of the most influential in the world, even as the field of competitors has grown crowded — not just with other companies but, thanks to the internet, with people on social-networking sites like Tumblr and Pinterest who have a knack for spotting color trends and enough followers to matter. For the class of fashion and industrial designers who make up Pantone’s customer base, picking the right color — and exactly the right shade of that color — can feel like one of the most important decisions they’ll make all year. Companies will pay almost anything to get it right, and the rarefied, vaguely mystical art of doing just that happens to be Pantone’s business.
For most of history, dyestuffs were derived only from natural materials like plants, minerals and invertebrates, offering people a narrow range of colors from which to choose. Only the rich could afford to clad themselves in more-exotic hues. This changed in the mid-19th century with the rise of the synthetic chemical industry. In London, in the spring of 1856, a college student named William Henry Perkin was experimenting with aniline, an organic compound he extracted from coal tar, in an attempt to synthesize quinine, an antimalarial drug then in great demand among inhabitants of the British Empire’s equatorial possessions. As Regina Lee Blaszczyk recounts in her 2012 book, “The Color Revolution,” the experiment failed but by accident produced a dark, viscous substance. It happened to stain a rag, and presto! Mauve was born. Two years later, Princess Victoria, the queen’s oldest child, was married in a mauve dress, igniting the world’s first fashion craze for a synthetic color.
More discoveries soon followed: magenta, Hofmann’s violet, Lyons blue, malachite green, Bismarck brown and aniline black. By the 1880s, dye houses in Germany, which was by then the center of the chemical industry, and French textile mills were issuing seasonal color cards and ribbon samples of various synthetic shades. When the outbreak of World War I cut off the supply of German dyestuffs, threatening the color industry with collapse, a consortium of American mills and manufacturers formed the Textile Color Card Association, which developed the first industrywide color library and trend forecast, based solely on dyes that could be manufactured domestically. After the armistice, the group continued to be a hub for the best intelligence on color trends emanating from Europe’s fashion capitals and, in 1955, renamed itself the Color Association of the United States. Similar organizations soon took form in other countries around the world.
The modern color industry had arrived, if only in a confined sort of way. Born out of the fashion business, it remained rooted there for decades even as it exerted powerful influence on distant parts of the consumer economy, such as the automotive and home-furnishings sectors. But at the turn of the millennium, the color industry’s center of gravity shifted seemingly overnight with a big bang in the field of industrial design: the release, in 1998, of Apple’s iMac G3 desktop computer.
Available in 11 translucent shades, from Bondi Blue to Tangerine, the iMac ushered in a new era in which consumers began to value everyday purchases not strictly, or even primarily, for their utility but as a form of self-expression. “That colorful plastic was everywhere in industrial design for the next several years,” Virginia Postrel, the author of several books on aesthetics, told me. “Not just consumer electronics but all sorts of ordinary objects like irons and trash cans. It was an easy and cheap way to make things look fun and fresh.” Eventually, the enthusiasm faded; Apple itself shifted its palette to neutral whites, blacks and silvers. But the larger idea that the iMac inaugurated — namely that color choices are serious business and can determine the success or failure of any product in any industry — continues to ripple through the marketplace.
Steve Jobs’s revolution in commercial aesthetics would have been impossible without another one that occurred 35 years earlier. A nagging problem had troubled the color industry from its inception: how to communicate accurately the subtleties of perception. In his 1963 book, “Interaction of Color,” the Bauhaus artist and Yale professor Josef Albers wrote: “If one says ‘Red’ (the name of a color) and there are 50 people listening, it can be expected that there will be 50 reds in their minds. And one can be sure that all these reds will be very different.” There are innumerable colors, he continued, but only about 30 names for them. And even if you could describe all of those colors, wouldn’t your sense of them still differ from someone else’s? As the British journalist Kassia St. Clair writes in “The Secret Lives of Color,” “You could no more meaningfully secure a precise universal definition for all the known shades than you could plot the coordinates of a dream.”
The man who came closest to doing just that was Lawrence Herbert. In 1956, Herbert, who had recently graduated with a degree in biology and chemistry from Hofstra University on Long Island, took a job as a press operator and color matcher at M & J Levine, a New York-based advertising firm and the parent company of a small printing concern called Pantone Press. As the company’s founders turned to other lines of business, Herbert took over the printing division and in a few short years, pioneered a cheaper, more accurate printing method that allowed him to produce a full spectrum of colors from 10 basic pigments. Not long after that, he bought out the company’s printing unit, along with its name, and in 1963 introduced the Pantone Matching System.
Herbert’s system was at once transformative and elegantly simple. It measured precisely the mixture of pigments necessary to produce a specific shade, each of which was assigned a reference number. Pantone then compiled the colors and numbers into books. Rather than provide inks directly, it sold the means by which a printer could faithfully and consistently reproduce any color in Pantone’s library. In doing so, Herbert tamed color’s mysterious nature and turned it into a commodity, in essence quantifying what had until then been unquantifiable.
Pantone and its parent company, X-Rite — a maker of color-management systems and software that acquired Pantone in 2007 — now have 17 offices and production facilities around the world and offer products used by 10 million designers and manufacturers every day. Pantone’s color library, which continues to grow by the year, contains roughly 10,000 unique shades. The company’s expansion has been helped along by globalization and the offshoring of manufacturing. With designers in Europe, say, marketers in the United States and factories in China, a company can easily communicate color choices up and down the supply chain, so long as everyone involved references the same Pantone chip — Albers’s 50 reds reduced to one.
Those chips have become the lingua franca of the visual world, and every single one of them is manufactured in a squat, two-story brick building on Commerce Boulevard in a gritty, industrial section of Carlstadt, N.J. The plant employs about 75 people, whose days are spent in the manufacture of Pantone color standards — the company’s shades applied to materials like cotton, paper and plastic. When I visited one rainy morning last August, I was surprised by how aggressively anti-chromatic the facility was — gray carpets and walls painted in a shade that a sign identified as Snow White (11-0602). The building’s blandness, I learned, is no accident: Colors are best viewed in a neutral environment in which their essence can be more easily seen.
I met Beverly Bell, Pantone’s manager of color and quality standards for textiles, in a dimly lit room adjacent to the factory floor. Nearby, an employee in a white lab coat was standing at a countertop light box, checking a fresh batch of cotton-based color standards for flaws. The box emits D65 light, which, Bell said, simulates the midday sun in Western Europe — supposedly the purest possible illumination and the industry standard for assessing color.
Such exacting controls are in place at every stage of production. Cotton swatches, for example, after being dyed, are conditioned overnight in a machine that exposes them to D65 light and a temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit at 50 percent humidity. Afterward, they are measured with a spectrophotometer, which compares colors against the Pantone standard with hyperaccuracy. If they pass inspection, the swatches are then hermetically sealed inside plastic, ultraviolet-resistant envelopes, which protect against fading. Colors applied to paper and plastic undergo similar testing.
The final quality safeguard is the human eye. Every Pantone employee is required to pass an annual exam called the Farnsworth-Munsell 100 Hue Color Vision Test. The test taker has to arrange four rows of samples, 85 in all, into descending order based on their shade. “Anyone who’s actually working with color has to get a ‘superior’ rating,” Bell said. “So that means no more than three errors.” That morning, trying my luck on a blue/purple row, I made only one mistake, and might have congratulated myself had Bell not already told me that Pantone’s reigning color-test champion, a woman named Madlin Tadros, who works in the textiles department, has never erred in 21 years.
The unremarkable appearance of Pantone’s offices belies the excitement the brand engenders around the world. Designers, regardless of their industry, always seem to have Pantone’s color books within reach, like some sacred text of a secret society. “It’s amazing when you look at it,” an interior designer told me. “I can’t imagine working with anything else.” The company’s color standards are often employed by exacting obsessives for decidedly off-label purposes too. A fish company recently enlisted Pantone to assist with a guide for sushi freshness. And Calvin Klein, according to Lisa Marsh’s 2004 book, “The House of Klein,” used to keep a Pantone chip taped to the wall next to the office coffee maker “to ensure he’d get just the right mix of coffee and milk every time.”
In the past decade, Pantone has become a consumer brand in its own right: It now licenses clothes, shoes, cosmetics, kitchenware, furniture, cellphones, jigsaw puzzles, children’s books, skateboards, key chains and thumb drives, in Pantone colors and bearing its logo. Pantone is privately owned and does not report financial information, but Fast Company wrote in 2015 that a full 15 percent of its millions of dollars in annual revenue now derives from commercial licensing.
And the cult of Pantone extends far beyond the company’s own merchandise. An online fan club of the Los Angeles Dodgers, for example, has taken to calling itself by the team’s official shade of blue, Pantone 294. An authorized Pantone-themed boutique hotel in Brussels immerses its guests in a kaleidoscopic array of colors, right down to their bedspreads and coffee mugs. Several Instagram users, each with tens of thousands of followers, regularly pair their photographs with the corresponding Pantone chips, and a Brazilian photographer named Angélica Dass has made portraits of more than 3,000 people in 13 countries, all sorted by skin color according to the Pantone Matching System.
This alchemy of color chips into cultural cachet is largely the work of Laurie Pressman, vice president of the Pantone Color Institute, a small in-house consultancy, founded in 1986. A native New Yorker with shoulder-length brown hair, Pressman arrived at Pantone nearly 20 years ago, shortly after the color industry’s iMac-inaugurated big bang, and since then has worked to make Pantone a household name. Her division produces several seasonal forecasts, as well as a magazine called Viewpoint Colour, which anticipate trends up to three years in advance. It has also helped brands — from Tiffany and Victoria’s Secret to Barbie, Schweppes and the Royal Mail in Britain — develop proprietary shades. On the day I visited, Pressman showed me an uncut sheet of soon-to-be-released Pantone chips for Love Symbol No.2, a shade adapted from the purple paint on one of Prince’s favorite pianos and commissioned by his estate after his death.
That a company engaged in the manufacture of something so intangible — and, for most consumers, so useless — as color standards could develop a widespread and devoted following among people far removed from its intended clientele speaks to a larger cultural phenomenon: a growing popular enthusiasm for color in its own right and for its own sake, free of the constraints of form or function.
Color’s liberation owes much to the rise of the internet, particularly the explosion of photo sharing on social media. As this digital revolution took shape, Pantone found itself perfectly positioned to exploit it. “Pantone did not create desire for color,” said Ellen Sideri, founder and chief executive of ESP TrendLab in the garment district in New York. “It has, though, facilitated the use of color globally by creating a common digital color language.” A result is that “our culture has become supervisual, and more than ever before. Color has become a definer of many things.”
Each December for nearly two decades, the Pantone Color Institute has tried to capture the moment in the form of its Color of the Year, which it has described as “a color snapshot of what we see taking place in our global culture that serves as an expression of a mood and an attitude.” This year’s pick is Ultra Violet (18-3838), a bluish purple that, the company asserts, is associated with the counterculture, nonconformity, mindfulness and visionary thinking, and that “suggests the mysteries of the cosmos, the intrigue of what lies ahead and the discoveries beyond where we are now.” The release of the Color of the Year occasions a media frenzy and, after it, a torrent of bandwagon-hopping service journalism: For months after this year’s selection, Google Alerts continued to crowd my inbox with articles suggesting how I might use Ultra Violet to update my wardrobe, redecorate my living room, create floral bouquets or crochet a scarf. A Swedish art director created a recipe for an Ultra Violet-colored smoothie.
Sometimes Pantone’s pick validates an established trend, as Rose Quartz (13-1520) did for the shade popularly known as Millennial Pink in 2016 — about as risky a choice as the N.B.A.’s picking LeBron James for Most Valuable Player. In other cases, like Ultra Violet, the company has treaded nearer to the leading edge, more a demonstration of power, perhaps, than astuteness. “The actual tones themselves I’ve not loved,” Jane Monnington Boddy, the London-based color director at WGSN, a tracker of global fashion trends, told me. But over all, she said, she was impressed with “the philosophy behind them and how they’ve captured what’s happening in life.”
The Pantone Color Institute is less the elite unit its name implies than a loose network of specialists drawn from Pressman’s contacts. They live in roughly 20 countries and travel the world, she told me, from the established fashion capitals of Europe to other “trend forward” cities like Shanghai, Buenos Aires, Melbourne and Cape Town, scouring the fashion, technology, houseware, home-furnishing and automotive industries for glimmers of nascent color trends. “I’m very circumspect about who I bring in,” Pressman told me. “That person has to be of a certain caliber.”
The person whose judgment Pressman trusts most lives and works in a restored farmhouse painted in the earthy red shade of Rosewood (19-1532). It is set amid towering coniferous trees along a quiet, well-to-do street on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound, about 35 minutes by ferry from downtown Seattle. The rolling grounds surrounding the house feature carefully tended gardens of hydrangeas in various colors and a rainbow of other flowering plants, each one identified, like shades in a Pantone fan deck, with a label staked into the loam. The owner is the Pantone Color Institute’s always immaculately dressed executive director, Leatrice Eiseman. She began consulting for the company in 1985 at the invitation of the founder, Larry Herbert, and since then has become its public face or, as one of her European associates put it, “Ms. Color in America.”
I visited Eiseman in July, when she was teaching her annual class on trend forecasting and color psychology at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, and she allowed me to sit in. When I met her at the museum, Eiseman, with her thick-framed glasses, jewelry and bobbed, sandy blond hair, bore more than a passing resemblance to Anna Wintour. Her long-sleeved shirt and patterned pants, precisely coordinated, offered an eye-catching blend of oranges, greens and blues, as if she meant her attire to double as a kind of couture business card.
I sat in the back row of a classroom on the museum’s second floor and watched her students file in. There were two dozen of them, most in their 20s or 30s, all but one of them women. Rami Kim, the founder of a color institute in Seoul who was on her third pilgrimage to Bainbridge, had brought along seven other South Koreans. Sitting to my right was a former nurse from South Africa, now an interior designer, who said she was hoping to learn more about color combinations, and to my left, a young woman who worked for a small family-owned party-supply company, who told me she was interested in the application of color to edible paper. The lone man in the class was a software engineer contemplating a change of careers to something “more creative.” All the students paid $1,775 for the privilege of being there, and several of them spoke of their instructor with a respect bordering on reverence. “There’s no one who can talk about color like she can,” one of them told me.
Promptly at 8 a.m., Eiseman switched off the lights and asked a student to close the blinds. “The colors will be more vibrant if we get more darkness,” she said. For the next six hours, clicking through illustrative photographs from her travels to more than 60 countries, Eiseman delivered a cascade of assertions: Kids everywhere in the world gravitate to red, blue and yellow crayons; people living near the Equator tend to prefer brighter colors; readers have better recall if texts are printed in something other than black and white; gamblers place higher bets under red lights than under blue ones; there was no word for the color “orange” in Europe until the fruit arrived sometime in the Middle Ages; blue shutters in the American southwest are meant to ward off evil spirits; many fire departments have begun painting their engines yellow-green because red, the traditional color, too often appears brown in twilight. At one point, when Eiseman paused to take questions, a young woman raised her hand.
“Are there people you can’t teach color to, people who just don’t get it?” she asked.
Eiseman thought for a moment, and said, “You get resistance from people when you’re working, people who think that color is immaterial, not as important as everything else, but you can usually find something to talk about in their background, mostly coming out of their childhood, that will trigger a response.”
The idea that colors exert powerful, often subliminal forces on the human mind is at once Eiseman’s ardent belief and her professional stock in trade. As she wrote 18 years ago in “Pantone Guide to Communicating With Color,” “some experts believe that humans have an ‘ancient wisdom,’ that throughout eons of evolutionary history going back to the beginning of time, we have an associative memory concerning space, form, patterns and colors.” Leveraging that wisdom and revealing the unspoken meanings and emotions conveyed by slight, almost imperceptible variations in color has been her life’s work.
Eiseman was born and raised in Baltimore. As a teenager, she dabbled in modeling and won a voice scholarship to the Peabody Institute, but turned it down after deciding against pursuing a career in music. A few years later she met Herb Eiseman, her future husband, a Hollywood talent agent who went on to lead the music publishing division at 20th Century Fox. The couple married and moved to the Los Angeles area, where Eiseman finished her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Antioch University and, afterward, earned a counseling certificate from U.C.L.A. She and Herb had two children, and while they were in school, Eiseman began teaching classes part time at an occupational-training center for women in the San Fernando Valley.
It was there that she began thinking systematically about color. “The concept that I developed was called the ‘color clock,’ and it was based on color as it appears in nature,” she told me. “How Monet painted the haystacks, various things at various times of day, and how the color seemed to change because of the light.” She applied the idea to women’s clothes and cosmetics, “using my students as guinea pigs to see if it really held weight.”
In 1983, she published a book called “Alive With Color.” Soon, she was fielding phone calls asking her to weigh in on the color of everything from living rooms to medical equipment. One caller was Pantone’s Larry Herbert, who invited her to meet with him in New York. “I didn’t even know Pantone existed,” she said. It turned out that Herbert, who’d seen her book, was on the hunt for someone with expertise in the psychology of color, in part to help elevate his company’s public profile. Eiseman jumped at the chance, and 33 years later, she’s still Pantone’s ambassador at large.
Eiseman believes that our reaction to colors “goes beyond the psychological into the physiological” and that colors carry inherent messages that all humans innately understand — the whispers of that “ancient wisdom.” She doesn’t deny the important influence of memory and social factors on color perception, but often, she says, “our response is involuntary, and we simply have no control over it.”
As evidence, she points to word-association tests she has administered over the years during her work with Pantone. I asked to see a sample test and some results, but Eiseman refused and said they were proprietary. You can get a feel for her methods, though, from a 2015 interview she gave to Nautilus magazine. “You take a Pantone color chip and you ask, ‘Give us the first word that pops into your mind when you look at this color,’ and you see whether that corresponds to a positive, negative or indifferent response,” Eiseman said. “If you show people a chip of Pantone Sky Blue, about 90 percent or more will respond in the same way: It’s the color of the sky, it’s bright, it’s a light color, it reminds you of that openness. It’s a near-universal response that you get.”
Last October, Eiseman published her 10th book, “The Complete Color Harmony, Pantone Edition,” her boldest statement yet on the psychology of color — and one that might rightly be displayed in the self-help section. Consider a chapter titled, “Personal Colors: What Do They Say About You?” which offers a kind of chromatic horoscope that locates truths not in the cosmos but in the spectrum of visible light. Take blue, my favorite color. “Blue people aspire to harmony, serenity, patience, perseverance and peace, and have a calming influence on other people,” she writes. “You are generally unflappable, even-tempered and reliable, a team player and good co-worker.”
Yep, that’s me down to the ground, I thought as I read it. But what about people who don’t like blue? “Perhaps you want to change your job, a relationship or even your life, and long for more excitement,” Eiseman writes. “You wish that you were wealthy or brilliant (or both), because that would enable you to have all the good things in life without working so hard.”
All that from a color? And the fortunetelling continues. Do you like green? “You are the good citizen, concerned parent, involved neighbor, the joiner of clubs and organizations.” Have an aversion to red? You may be “irritable, exhausted or bothered by many problems.” Yellow? “You are optimistic, hopeful and encourage others to do their best.” Perhaps strangest of all, though, is Eiseman’s observation about those of us who dislike blue-green shades like turquoise or teal: “A little voice inside you (was it your mother, your father or your roommate?) keeps telling you to clean up your room.”
The flip tone of these pronouncements, combined with the lack of any grounding in scientific rigor or research apart from Eiseman’s own observations, may tempt you to dismiss color psychology altogether, consigning it to the bin with other junk sciences, like phrenology or cold fusion. But a great many people take it seriously — so many, in fact, that for all my searching, I found only one person willing to question it. When I put Eiseman’s assertions to David Comberg, a senior lecturer of design at the University of Pennsylvania, he scoffed and said that color preferences are highly subjective, unpredictable and, in his experience, “primarily influenced by culture and emotion and are not easily quantified.” When we see red, for instance, are we reacting to the color itself or to a personal experience, perhaps buried in the subconscious, that we associate with it? “And what about taste, smell and sound? Artificial intelligence and neuroscience may one day answer all this, but I’m not sure,” Comberg said. “It all seems subjective and irrational.”
But among people in Eiseman’s profession, as with the hordes of credulous color enthusiasts who populate the internet, her views are not only uncontroversial but well within the mainstream. “We are born to understand that green equals calming, because it’s found in nature; red equals danger, because it’s the color of blood,” Jenny Ross, a creative- design manager in the footwear department at New Balance, told me. “Yellow equals energy, because it’s the color of the sun.” WGSN’s Jane Monnington Boddy agreed, saying, “People do have an inbuilt, preprogrammed understanding of colors, as animals do in nature.” What else explains our instinct to recoil from red-and-black snakes, she asked, or from yellow-and-black flying insects?
Ultimately, though, whether blue makes you think of the sky or Papa Smurf, by this point, color psychology may matter less to Pantone’s success than something much less mysterious. “How do you sell color?” David Shah had asked me rhetorically when I met him in London. “You can be 10 times cleverer than me. You can be much more intelligent, much more creative. But it’s Pantone, with a million Instagram followers. If you’re hidden away, even though your color is better, you don’t win the argument.”
At a certain point, Pantone’s prognostications began to take on the weight of self-fulfilling prophecies. Much like investors who base financial decisions on the assessments of Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, Pantone’s clientele seems to understand that, for all the time and effort the company expends in identifying color trends, it’s the judgments themselves, regardless of the research behind them, that matter most. “Because of our platform, we’re able to promote,” Shah said. “And it’s self-perpetuating — when people believe you’re right, they buy you. You get to be right!”
When I brought up the Color of the Year, Shah trod carefully at first — “I’m not going to say anything about what I think about this, O.K.?” — then went on: “You might go: ‘Oh, my God! That’s the most awful color in the world! Who would choose it?’ And then you’re like, ‘I better be careful, because it’s the Pantone Color of the Year, and everybody’s looking at it, and if I don’t, I could be left out.’ When you’ve got a platform like that, you can say it’s the color of my toenails! Can I afford not to do it, even if I don’t believe in it? It’s a lot of smoke and mirrors.”
Bruce Falconer, formerly an editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for Mother Jones, is the senior editor of The American Scholar. This is his first article for the magazine.