The Visual Culture of Color: A Brief History of Color Matching Systems

Enter the Typography & Lettering Awards—deadline Nov. 18!


Did you ever consider the colors on your smartphone or tablet? Color is an interesting subject for designers. It’s something I think a lot about because the idea of a full spectrum visual culture only recently occurred, relatively speaking. And being able to specify individual spot colors, those finite, immutable single colors outside of the CMYK paradigm, is a fairly new notion, too.

Black and white gouche illustration for 1953 Tabasco newspaper ad

Figure 1 – Black and white gouche illustration for 1953 Tabasco newspaper ad. Courtesy McIlhenny Company Archives, Avery Island, LA.

I grew up in a world of black and white: Newspapers, TV, and most books were devoid of color. When I was 17, more than half of all North American residential TVs were still only black and white. In 1982 when I was 28, USA Today was the first newspaper to embrace 4-color printing. With some exceptions, for approximately one-third of my life, “color” was printed to complement black ink on white paper.

Black, white plus one spot color (red) advertisement, Illustrated Sunday Magazine of The Daily Picayune, August 23, 1908

Figure 2 – Black, white plus one spot color (red) advertisement, Illustrated Sunday Magazine of The Daily Picayune, August 23, 1908. Image courtesy of J.S. MAKKOS / NOLADNA.COM.

Black, white plus one spot color (red) instruction manual for Hermes portable typewriter ca. 1960.

Figure 3 – Black, white plus one spot color (red) instruction manual for Hermes portable typewriter ca. 1960.

Until the middle of the 20th century when color matching systems for printing inks were universally adopted, matching a specific orangey-red ink in a San Francisco print shop with exactly the same orangey-red ink in New York was nearly impossible without physically shipping that pot of ink across the country.

 Investigation for a compliment to client’s branded color standards, Pantone solid uncoated 327 U and 299 U.

Figure 4 – Investigation for a compliment to client’s branded color standards, Pantone solid uncoated 327 U and 299 U.

A universal color matching language for spot color didn’t happen until 1908 when the first color catalog, a swatch book of ink colors, was developed in Japan by Toyo Ink Manufacturing Co., Ltd. In America, standardization was not popularized until 1963 when the Pantone Matching System palette of 500 three-digit colors was launched. Over time, the efficacy of commercial printing color matching systems, such as Pantone and Toyo remains. Today a PANTONE Plus Series solid uncoated Warm Red U chip in New York will look the same as another one in San Francisco, thousands of miles away.

Figure 5 - My Pantone library.

Figure 5 – My Pantone library.

There are two caveats to this color matching miracle: As with any printed sample, PANTONE chips will appear the same provided they are fairly recently published and viewed under identical lighting conditions; more about these later.


Need help building a color palette? Check out these 10 free online tools.


Designers working with color have more to consider than technical issues alone. When asked to discuss color perception in a general way, visual culture scholars Jessica Helfand (founding editor of Design Observer and 20+ year design educator at Yale University) and Ellen Lupton (curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum and director of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art—MICA) responded similarly: Color is contextual.

Color is highly contextual in a formal sense (literally, how we perceive value against the juxtaposition of one color and another) but also in a cultural sense.” —Helfand.

“… color triggers emotions and enhances our other sensations, including taste, smell, and sound.” —Lupton.

Figure 6 - Ca. 1970’s model Hermes 3000 manual in full-color reproduction, front.

Figure 6 – Ca. 1970’s model Hermes 3000 manual in full-color reproduction, front.

Figure 7 - Ca. 1970’s model Hermes 3000 manual in full-color reproduction, back.

Figure 7 – Ca. 1970’s model Hermes 3000 manual in full-color reproduction, back.

Think about the emotional response we have to cosmetics and personal products packaging. Ted Owen, V.P. Package Design, Clinique Laboratories talks about packaging/human interaction as much as he does the challenges of color standards and color stability. Clinique is a The Estée Lauder Companies Inc. brand and Lauder corporation maintains an archive for packaging and production standards, a resource Owen relies on for keeping colors consistent. Managing color is complicated.

“It [color] is affected by light conditions as well as by the ink on the page or the calibration of your monitor. Color affects everything we look at, both in our area of focus and in our peripheral vision. Color is thus both figure and ground.” —Lupton.

Today, we have screen resolution and print variability to contend with. And then there are all those goofy names! All of these influence—and are influenced by—subtle shifts in human perception.”—Helfand.

Figure 8 - Color literacy is critical in many areas of study and commerce. For instance, the Munsell Soil Color Charts are used by practitioners in agriculture, forestry, archeology, geology, and other professional and scientific fields referring to color samples with the same vocabulary. The Munsell Color Company was co-founded in 1917 by Albert H. Munsell who was dedicated to color theory and systems for communicating color. The company is now owned by X-Rite, also the owner of Pantone.

Figure 8 – Color literacy is critical in many areas of study and commerce. For instance, the Munsell Soil Color Charts are used by practitioners in agriculture, forestry, archeology, geology, and other professional and scientific fields referring to color samples with the same vocabulary. The Munsell Color Company was co-founded in 1917 by Albert H. Munsell who was dedicated to color theory and systems for communicating color. The company is now owned by X-Rite, also the owner of Pantone.

Figure 9 - Munsell Soil Color Charts in use by University of New Orleans archeologist at dig site on Royal Street, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Figure 9 – Munsell Soil Color Charts in use by University of New Orleans archeologist at dig site on Royal Street, New Orleans, Louisiana.

At the end of the day, Owen reminds us, it’s not enough for a product to just look good. Successful design is about how a consumer responds while reaching for and holding a product in their hand.

How’s a designer supposed to think about the age of a Pantone chip and a client’s feelings simultaneously? To come up with a few helpful tips, I interviewed experts in various color technology fields including Pantone and X-Rite, Konica Minolta, Moo.com, Rochester Institute of Technology as well as principals in specialty printing companies working with letterpress, engraving, bordering and edging. Stay tuned next month for best practices and more compelling thoughts about designing with color.


T3929-newMore resources on color: 

COMMENT