Pantone and the Commodification of Color

Pantone survived the death of print by recognizing its inherent value to the world beyond just print design. It found itself at the center of conversations about color ownership.

Pantone Book

The Pantone Matching System began as a set of purchasable books composed of thin-paneled bound color chips. Each color is named and identified using the print ink system of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black. Pantone books allowed designers to match colors more precisely. Before this, colors were hard to match given the natural variance of printers, paper, light exposure, and house styles. The system created a common language that allowed designers, printers, and clients to agree on for an exact color. Fan books changed the conversations from the subjective—“This is much more of a sunshine; lighter than ochre, but darker than marigold”—to the precise— “we’d like Pantone 150.”

Today, Pantone is still used in print shops and design agencies, but rarely. More famously, Pantone has become known as the arbiter of color. Pantone awards the Color of the Year; 2015’s is the delectable “Marsala”. In doing this, they are staking claim that they are the go-to source for trending colors. While their monopoly over color ties loosely to their origin, Pantone has managed to create permanence by making strategic multidisciplinary partnerships and facilitating intellectual ownership over color.

Your friend Print dies, so you make new friends

Your average agency Pantone book is probably of age. The “death of print” with the birth of the internet and the internet of things is well-documented (the resurgence of boutique printing presses is a topic for another day). But Pantone, in a Cher-like resilience, instead opted for another tour.

Purple Cher

Pantone made friends with makeup house Sephora, creating what might have been its most significant foray into the non-designer public audience. Together, they have empowered fashionistas worldwide to proudly wear the Color of the Year on their eyes, lips, and fingernails[1]. Sephora and Pantone partnered to promote not only the color of the year, but also the entire Pantone Universe makeup line. Fashion magazines and blogs love (to hate) a single designated color for an entire year. It’s right up the same alley as celebrity “Man of the Year” nominations, but less abs.

Joining with Sephora makes sense since it introduced art principles like color theory to a vain arena. No one wants color vibration or clashing (unless there is a level of intentionality like with Lady Gaga), especially on their face!

It connects two trend-conscious worlds through a common love of highly specific seasonally relevant nomenclature. What apparel calls Breast Cancer Awareness Pink, Pantone calls Pantone 232. What nail polish calls Russian Red, Pantone calls Pantone 485. Pantone’s presence in fashion nullifies a level of propriety from makeup brands. Forget testing if Loréal’s or Mac’s Russian Red is better, just ask either house to deliver a perfect Pantone True Red (color of the year in 2002[2]).


Design purists might cringe at the thought of fashionistas taking over their color bible, but perhaps their snobbery neglects a higher goal. Fashion and design all fall under the realm of art—Pantone has effectively created a universal language by which to speak of colors. This is the ultimate goal of design—to seek a common ground and to facilitate communication.

Pantone Unnecessary

Conversely, have we taken too loose an interpretation of art? Pantone’s partnerships have grown beyond practical application into a realm of a kitschy, color matched lifestyle. One could live life in Pantone Cyan from the morning toothbrushing routine to contact lens removal at night.

You could spend that day at the Pantone Hotel in Brussels, Belgium, where the entire hotel is dramatically decorated with the conceptual (photographs taken to allude to a specific color), to the literal (Pantone mugs to drink coffee out of).

Pantone Desert Highway

Just another sell out story?

As a designer it’s hard not to have a visceral reaction to this. Beyond just the cachet of saying “I stayed at the Pantone Hotel,” is there inherent value Pantone is offering to the design community or the education of color? The building’s exterior is visually impressive, and some design details are thoughtful. Other design-savvy pundits complain there are missed opportunities to connect, “It would also be cool if they painted the doors according to their numbers in the Pantone system (or at least have a detail in that color)” said one reviewer. Another reviewer complained that her “yellow” room theme was a feeble attempt, “a yellow throw across white sheets.” Perhaps Pantone could have better embraced the architectural opportunity to bridge the gap between traditional print design and 3D environment.

Past the hotel lobby and tchotkes, we should assess whether through their far-fetched partnerships, Pantone still provides the very service they promised, color matching. Extending the service from just printed materials to paint colors for interior designers and fabric swatches for textile designers just makes sense. While Pantone has established itself as an everlasting presence amongst the design community, it has not transcended into a place where the word Pantone is wholly synonymous with color, such as Xerox for copying, Kleenex for facial tissues, or Googling for search.

Even though Pantone’s claim to color is within a limited group, there are very serious ethical questions that arise by defining colors. Brands are excited about the possibility to own a color. Brand guidelines often include a Pantone number to designate a brand color but this type of ownership could open the doors to prospective legal precedence for ownership of even-scarier things.

Color University

Colleges experienced this battle when Louisiana State University, the University of Oklahoma, Ohio State University, and the University of Southern California sued an apparel company that created unofficial gear with phrases that alluded to the universities’ athletic successes in university colors. The court ruled “‘color schemes along with other indicia’ that are strongly associated with a college can violate trademarks if they confuse the consumer[3].” That says something pretty impactful. Public perception of a brand—the ability to associate a color to a university, for example—can dictate ownership. In a similar case, University of Texas, who claims Pantone 159, shut down two iPhone apps that employed the use of “Burnt Orange” and the word “Texas” in their names[4].

UT Orange

Where this becomes further complicated is when a brand stakes claim on a non-specific color. In this case, it was, “Burnt Orange.” Do green and gold belong to the Oregon Ducks or the Green Bay Packers? Could one take Pantone 3415, and the other Pantone 3416? Does it matter, when the legal precedence is for the untrained audience to decide?

Brands are in favor of the legal precedence. By popularizing the color, they should be able to protect their inherent brand characteristics. Companies trademark a Pantone color to ensure their recognizable colors are uniquely theirs. Tiffany Blue or Pantone 1837 is on everything from their own bags, boxes, and bows—words synonymous with that robin’s egg blue. Louboutin Red or Pantone 18-1663 TPX defines the fire engine red soles of those stellar heels.

Red and Blue Pantone

An ethical debate

Though these examples merely influence commerce, the ethics of owning something as ubiquitous as color could set a frightening precedence for the rest of the world. Think about the ramifications for something a bit more personal, like genetics. A strand of DNA that defines a particular trait could be ownable and one day transferable by a company.

Undoubtedly, Pantone continues to play a key role in these conversations. Pantone managed to survive the print apocalypse and even firm its stake in the digital era. They found friends in high places who were on the up and up (a makeup company, hotelier, and gift company). They found true permanence by not holding onto what people once needed (color matching), but instead adapting to what people now wanted. A simple color chip, a number that helps to define your unique place in the world as a person or a brand. You could say Pantone “sold out” to survive; they ditched their fan book origins and instead peddled something that nobody should own—color. Say what you will, I think Pantone demonstrated the mark of a company that understands that brands too must evolve.

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change. –Charles Darwin

Darwinism Pantone

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