Color-nerds, rejoice! ‘Tis the season when we learn Pantone’s it-color for the coming calendar year. In 2019 it’s Pantone 16-1546 Living Coral, a vivid, warmly saturated shade between pink and orange.
Why “Living” Coral?
“It’s good that you picked up on that,” says Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute when we talked by phone. Not only does this name designate one coral among several in PMS’ gigantic color naming system, “the Color of the Year (COTY) choice draws on symbolic meanings and is connected to the world at large, social issues, the pressing stuff in this day and age,” Eiseman explains. “Whenever coral appears under the sea, they feed and nourish fish. It’s imperative that we preserve our coral reefs as part of the ecosystem. So that certainly influenced our choice.”
I like the idea of emphasizing a color’s fragile connection to vitality. It implies, correctly in the case of coral, this color is literally the blush of the ocean’s health. Pollutants actually steal the roses from coral’s cheeks. Color’s beauty is tangled up in its momentary qualities, its now-ness. Especially in nature, it’s never constant or permanent. (Also, tbh: “Dead Coral” as the 2019 color isn’t likely to move any merch, Pantone-themed or otherwise.)
Color bridges the digital and natural worlds
2019’s choice also reflects a shift in our collective way of seeing: Instagram. Smartphone cameras are the lens through which we view the world now, and that way of seeing is both documented and shared via social media. In the press release, Eiseman remarks: “Color is an equalizing lens through which we experience our natural and digital realities and this is particularly true for Living Coral.”
When I asked her to elaborate, she said: “People spend lots of time on their computers and phones now, looking at beautiful photos. We see the world through our mobile phones. The digital and natural worlds vie for our attention on a grand scale. We used the word ‘humanizing’ because this color is so warm, it injects the idea of touching into pictures. There’s a tactility there in how we connect to others.”
In his BBC TV series and book Ways of Seeing, art historian John Berger explains how looking at art is a political act. (Do yourself a solid this holiday season and binge-watch Berger’s entire BBC series. It’s smart, sexy visual literacy that’s aged remarkably well.) Today, looking at others’ Insta feeds is an act of shared humanity but also, perversely, its opposite – a preening, unreal performance of a FOMO life. We crave evidence of realness in all the impossibly perfect photos.
To all the color-lovers (and -haters)
In addition to writing ROY G. BIV: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color, I’ve interviewed Eiseman numerous times about Pantone’s Color of the Year, and written about colors of the year as a marketing gimmick to boot. I’ve been to the COTY rodeo before. And yet, much as one might want to write the latest COTY off as nonsense, Pantone displays a consistent canniness in their annual color choices.
Aware that hate-reading about the COTY is a seasonal sport for some folks, I asked Eiseman what pushback she anticipates about Living Coral as 2019’s choice and what she’d say to counter that critique. When people don’t like the Color of the Year, she says, “it’s usually a very personal reaction that wraps around an individual experience with that color. Maybe they over-ate too many coral-colored Skittles as a kid and suffered the after-effects,” she laughs. “Then forevermore you think of that color as something distasteful. But for most people, Living Coral won’t provoke that reaction.”
Color sparks dialogue
For designers and creatives seeking to widen a client’s color palette and encountering resistance, Eiseman advises working through negative color reactions together. “Engage them in conversation, get them to tell you exactly why they don’t like it,” she says. “Then guide them down the path of what else that color might represent. It opens up a whole discourse of what a color can mean to many different people. Before you know it, you’ve got a convert.” She laughs again: “It’s almost like being a color therapist.”
Pantone stays mindful of how each year’s color interacts with pre-existing palette of colors out there. True to form, 2019’s color plays well with Ultra Violet (2018’s pick) and Greenery (2017). Color may serve as a buying catalyst, but the new stuff should freshen up the old stuff, not clash with or supplant it. Similarly, Living Coral “reads” well globally across cultural contexts. “This color is revered in Italy and the Mediterranean,” Eiseman remarks – a golden association that infiltrates into the chilliest reaches of Northern Europe. In Latin America, they totally get vibrant, warm colors like Living Coral. In Asia, this shade is a fabulous contrasting color. When you contrast this color with cooler tones, like blues and greens, it’s a striking and necessary balance.”
Color into the future
2019 marks the end of our second decade of this millennium. Shouldn’t we start feeling a sense of the specific chromaticism of this century? Will Pantone designate colors for each decade in future? Eiseman has written The Twentieth Century in Color, which distilled the iconic palette for each decade in the previous century. She promptly put the kibosh on that idea for future decades. “The 1950s was the last decade you could attach a color palette to: frothy pinks as women returned to the home after World War II,” she says. Beginning in the late 80s to early 90s, “we saw more relief from color rules,” Eiseman says. “If you pinned the gray-grunge palette on the entire 1990s, you’d be doing the decade a disservice.”
Hail, then, Living Coral and the temporary color-moment it embodies. May 2019 come in juicy-rosy for all of you, too.