Just as we’re starting to feel winter’s icy bite, Pantone’s annual Color of the Year announcement injects a much-needed shot of springtime. 2017’s shade is Greenery, Pantone 15-0343, “a fresh and zesty yellow-green” as described in their release.
Every year, Pantone’s Color of the Year (COTY) provokes debate, inquiry, delight in some quarters, inspiration in others, with a reliable sprinkling of outrage: at the color chosen that year, at the very premise of a “Color of a Year”, at whatever creative conspiracy theories certain curmudgeons like to nurse.
I’ve interviewed Lee Eiseman, Executive Director of the Pantone Color Institute, multiple times about the COTY and posed those very questions. She and I spoke about the 2016 dual-color choice, Rose Quartz and Serenity; 2015’s color Marsala, and so on all the way back to 2012. Along the way, Lee has managed to counter quite convincingly nearly every one of its critics’ presumptions as to the role of whim in their research process (surprisingly low), whether COTY is a self-fulfilling prophecy (yes, but not entirely), and what Pantone intends by naming a Color of the Year (merely a creative prompt, not a blanket directive, and a conversation-starter about color).
While it’s undoubtedly a good PR move for X-Rite, Pantone’s parent company, the Color of the Year does spark legit conversation: both in words but also in creative responses from designers, who often seize on the color as a productive limit. From furniture to housewares, websites to packaging, cosmetics to the runway, the Color of the Year eventually permeates palettes throughout the year it heralds. The canniness of Pantone’s choices often becomes clear in retrospect, as one notices how the new shade combines well with pre-existing color palettes and consumer purchases, eventually stamping an era.
So why Greenery for 2017? “We felt it was time to do something that paid homage to nature, how rejuvenating it is to commune with nature,” said Eiseman in a phone interview. “It’s not a new idea. But we’ve never celebrated those yellow greens, like tender shoots after a long winter.” 2013’s color Emerald was the last time Pantone chose a green, a very different choice from Greenery. “Colorists will understand” the significance of the difference, Eiseman noted. “We look at the nuances. Emerald does have yellow undertones, but leans to the bluer side. It represented at that point jewel tones and symbolized a luxurious feel. This [year’s] color is more [about an] organic approach.”
Of course, Greenery evokes thoughts of leafy nature – but it’s downright surprising to see how accurately the shade reflects not only most deciduous trees, but also the greenery we eat out of salad bowls. Among Greenery’s many global inspirations, Eiseman cites the Japanese practice shinrin yoku, or forest bathing, encouraging people to talk a walk through the forest to relieve stress. “In urban settings, that’s not always easy to do,” she remarked. Instead of (or in addition to) forest-bathing “we’re seeing more people bringing green inside” in the form of vertical or roof gardens, wall-mounted planters, abundant houseplants and, of course, green-dominated interior design.
Perhaps the single most trenchant point in Greenery’s favor is also super-obvious: “It’s Mother Nature’s most ubiquitous neutral,” as Eiseman put it. “It’s not a color you think to combine with other color’s, but it’s a great mixer. There’s never a time when we say about a colorful hibiscus or a hydrangea: oh, what a terrible combination with those green leaves.” Of course! Considering Greenery in this light, one can easily imagine green becoming the new denim or khaki.
It’s always interesting to see how Pantone’s Color of the Year manifests across different sub-categories of design. The most farflung usage I could think of was cosmetics: how does Greenery play directly contrasted against one’s face? Really well, actually. Eiseman reminded me of a common makeup trick, using green-tinted concealer to neutralize ruddiness or dark circles under the eyes. Greenery brings out the pink in one’s cheeks; crops up as a witty temporary hair dye, either all over the head or as an ombre effect; and plays equally well in nail polish. “Who’s painting their toenails plain old red anymore?” Eiseman laughed.
As author of the book ROY G. BIV: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color, I’m always attuned to green’s many associations with luck (or lack of it). Green is traditionally considered a verboten color for magazine covers, cars, even hats to married Chinese gentlemen. (Here’s my two–part exploration of the color green for Print.) Greenery’s emerging popularity is so far flouting these rules – which I found both surprising and encouraging. Like any color fan, I’m always rooting for the odder shades. (I love highlighter-yellow, a cousin of Greenery, so much I once wrote an homage to it.) Eiseman’s like me, keen to see how “younger designers who’ve thrown out the rulebook for color” are doing with shades like Greenery, how they’re pulling these “outlier colors…into more general usage”.
To be sure, Greenery as symbolic of the year’s mood also suggests less comforting interpretations. You could say the color reflects the queasy aftermath of Trump’s presidential win, or the artificial foliage we’ll all have to settle for after climate-change-deniers run the EPA for eight years. Startups today favor Greenery for their logo colors, a preference that recalls a similar yen for leafy-green logos in the early 2000s dot-com boom – and bust. The pale shade, verging on US-dollar-celadon, matches the color of a 100-euro bill, now declining with perilous speed in value. Greenery may well “signal individuals to take a deep breath, oxygenate and reinvigorate,” as the press release on COTY 2017 notes. But it might also signal it’s time to hyperventilate into a brown-paper bag.
That said, Eiseman and the Pantone team take grumpier interpretations in stride. In our repeated conversations, Eiseman has stressed how color choices are less prescriptive – and restricted – than ever. Tracing Greenery’s lineage through recent decades of color trends, including avocado’s dominance in the 1970s, she noted that, until quite recently, product manufacturers “could dictate to average customers what colors to use. People were fearful of using anything but the prescribed color.” Not so today. “We always have some people who hate the Color of the Year,” Eiseman remarked equably. “But it’s all about keeping an open mind, and [considering the color] as a jump-start to creativity.” Nature is beauty allied to raw materials; so, it seems, is Greenery.
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