Tighten your suspenders (or garter belts), color fans. The 2016 Pantone Color of the Year (“COY”, in colorist parlance) could knock you flat for multiple reasons. In a first in COY’s 15-year history, Pantone has selected, not one shade, but two. And these two particular shades are bound for frenzied controversy, heated debate, and Interwebs bashing-and-praise galore: Serenity and Rose Quartz, a gender-bending duo of pale pink and blue.
“It’s important to us, as always, to query how people and manufacturers are using color right now — to read the feel of the public,” Lee Eiseman, Executive Director of the Pantone Color Institute, told me in a phone interview prior to the COY announcement. “We look at the history of where we’ve been with color and ask ourselves, is this a time for change? Our feeling was: yes.”
I’ve interviewed Lee numerous times about Pantone’s Color of the Year selection process and the rationale behind specific shades. (See 2015, Marsala, and 2014, Radiant Orchid.) What’s come through loud and clear is that Pantone’s Color of the Year is arguably most interesting as a conversation-starter, never as a dictum to be blindly obeyed. Their selection process pinpoints colors that seem ascendant across design disciplines globally — fashion, interiors, housewares, packaging and product, graphic design and more — but not yet completely dominant. They choose a color reaching a tipping point and give it a public nudge, so we all finally notice it and talk it over.
Whether you find the Pantone COY a PR stunt — and yes, it’s definitely a little bit that — you have to admire their prescience and boldness. They’re the Charlie Rose of color: sparking unbeatably interesting and provocative conversations. So consider the COY — for 2016, let’s make that plural — as merely starting points for future palette-creation, whether reactionary or embracing or ironic or slanted towards some other mood or context.
So why these two particular colors? Eiseman calls Serenity “THE perfect blue for this year: very calming, it imparts a feeling of relaxation and tranquility. By pairing it with Rose Quartz, you’ve got two gentle tones — but that pink is a beautiful mineral that comes out of the earth, which gives it strength.” She thinks of pinks as “compassionate and composed, but also warm and embracing — we wrap ourselves in pink, so to speak. Putting these two colors together, you get a whole clearly greater than its parts.”
So how should we expect designers to use the two colors? Eiseman imagines each color will gain traction singly, but “the strength is in their combination,” she remarks. In some cases, like textiles, that will take the form of patterning — literally interweaving the two shades closely for an ethereal, otherworldly, or icy effect. In other instances, the two shades might come to “read” as a single shade much like other iconic combos do: turquoise and orange signaling the tropical, say, or red and green for Christmas. Just as the LGBTQ community has remixed the gender binaries of pink and blue to an iconic pale lavender, it’s interesting to note how Serenity alone suggests a hybrid, post-gender-normative purple.
One thing that mildly irks me about Pantone COY backlash is that it’s always monologuing in nature: bitching about the very concept of COY, or fulminating design conspiracies that signal Mind Control and end-of-days. True, not every ranter can call Pantone and demand a thorough explanation — but since I’m in the lucky position where I can, I tried to anticipate some of the complaints we’ll hear in 2016 and get Lee and her colleague Laurie Pressman, VP of the Color Institute, to address them.
First: it’s too gender-bending!
“Gender blur and equality is huge today,” says Eiseman. (True.) “More people than ever are using pink, and women never had a problem with blues. Younger consumers don’t have those same objections and biases that their parents and grandparents do. They don’t attach the same-old ideas to a color combo” that predominated before. In other words, only oldsters will worrie about the gender-bending associations of this combo — and youngsters will revel in Boomers’ and Gen X-ers’ discomfort. Consider the millennial penchant for dyeing their hair gray: it’s a powerful inversion of the status quo, an assertion of your generation’s ascendancy, writ in color.
Objection two: it’s too babyish!
“Am I concerned it’s going to look babyish? No, context is everything,” Eiseman notes. “It’s all in the design and fonts you use, or spot colors that give the palette some sophistication. You can take the quietness of those two colors and add excitement — you might try a Lime Popsicle or Silver to add a metallic glint. Or add Old Rose for a more nostalgic look. Or use Fondue Fudge for a richer packaging look.” All valid points. Another way 2016 differentiates from previous COY announcements is in the sheer variety of complementary palette shades released.
Related to the babyish charge is one of passivity. I’ll counter that objection myself: I find these two shades absolutely boss when wielded knowingly. It’s an indisputable power move, to seize the colors of passivity and rock them like a CEO or head-of-state. Something about these shades signals unruliness, wit, a defiance of narrow rules, that’s often associated with transcendent power. That said, not everyone is color-confident enough to pull this move off without considerable assistance. Designers, consider your work cut out of you.
Now for a fourth objection: will we regret buying more durable items in these fly-by-night shades? Could Serenity and Rose Quartz become the “avocado and rust gold” of the 2010s? Here’s how Eiseman countered this suggestion: “Serenity is a very easy, comfortable blue. For younger and older consumers alike, it fits naturally into the kitchen. This pink is refreshing and works well in a modern or traditional kitchen. It’s not like those all-pink kitchens of the 1950s; this will be only a splash of color. Electric greens [in recent years] are more trend-driven in nature. We don’t see these shades falling out of popularity.” It’s true that these two shares are almost un-really outside of time: 1950s-ish on the one hand, but again: to Eiseman’s point context is king. That said, I won’t be ditching my Vitamix on a whim.
Clearly Pantone has grown well beyond a swatchbook company. I asked Laurie Pressman to address how the Pantone COY has influenced the company’s direction, and she ticked off several milestones related to its expansion into color consulting. Pantone has partnered with New York Fashion Week since 1993; launched the COY in December 1999; and turned themselves into a consumer product with the 2000 launch of Pantone UNIVERSE. More diversified than ever, Pressman characterizes Pantone as embracing its inevitable mission to name all the shades, standardize their usage, and then advise brands on how to wield color to move ever more delectable merch. “We’re not afraid of the pushback [COY gets],” Pressman notes. “We’re confident in what we’re doing and why we’re doing it…. We live in a very visual culture, increasingly so. All of social media is visual. People express themselves with color, and [Pantone has] become the one-stop shop of color, from inspiration to implementation.”
There you have it, folks! Fire away with your comments, complaints or reactions—we’re eager to start the color conversation here and now.