Pantone in pop culture: From Tiffany blue to Minion yellow 2
A 2018 exhibition on 'Two million years of migration,' broke down people's skin types in Pantone colors. Image: Axel Heimken/dpa/picture alliance
Culture

A brief history of Pantone and the special colors its made for Tiffany, minions et al

Launched in 2000, Pantone's Color of the Year creates an annual buzz on the pop culture calendar, setting the tone for fashion, decor, print, and even Post-its.
Brenda Haas, Deutsche Welle | Dec 01 2022

Perhaps one of the most unforgettable monologues on color is delivered by Miranda Priestly — played by US actress Meryl Streep — in the 2006 hit film, "The Devil Wears Prada."

The film is based on Lauren Weisberger's book about her stint as an assistant to Vogue US editor Anna Wintour. Weisberger's character in the film is called Andy Sachs, and is played by Anne Hathaway.

In the pivotal scene, Sachs, who initially doesn't care for fashion, scoffs as Priestly and her staff deliberate over two seemingly similar blue belts for a photo shoot.

Eyeballing Sach's blue sweater, Priestly gives her a dressing down, telling her how designer Oscar de la Renta had popularized "cerulean" in fashion.

"You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select, I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise, it's not lapis, it's actually cerulean."

Coincidentally, "cerulean" was also Pantone's very first Color of the Year in 2000.

Yes, Minion Yellow is a trademarked color
Yes, Minion Yellow is a trademarked color. Image: Illumination Entertainment/Universal Pictures via AP/picture alliane

The language of color

Over the past 22 years, the Pantone Color Institute's Color of the Year announcement has become an event on the pop culture calendar, with media buzz building up before the first Thursday of December — when the company traditionally unveils its projected color for the upcoming year. For instance, last December "Very Peri" was announced as the 2022 Color of the Year. 

Speaking to online design magazine Stylepark in 2021, the institute's Vice President Laurie Pressman explained that the institute originally launched the Pantone Color of the Year educational program in 1999 to get people talking about color — whether they are designers or color enthusiasts.

"We wanted to draw attention to the relationship between culture and color and show our audience around the world how what happens in our global culture is expressed and reflected by the language of color," she said.

The selection process generally involves color experts from the Pantone institute who analyze trends, socioeconomic conditions, art and culture, the mainstream media and technological advancements.

The Pantone guides have made color matching easier
The Pantone guides have made color matching easier. Image: Bildagentur-online/Falkenstein/picture alliance

The right shade

Pantone began in the 1950s as a commercial printing company that produced color charts for the cosmetic, fashion and medical industries. Lawrence Herbert, a chemistry graduate, joined the company in 1956 and noticed the difficulties that designers, ad agencies and manufacturers faced in ensuring a color created onscreen is replicated exactly in end products or projects.

In 1962, Herbert bought the printing company and renamed it Pantone: "pan" meaning "all," and tone meaning "colors." And he conceived the Pantone Matching System, where colors were assigned numbers and presented on thin cardboard cards called the Pantone Guides.

These numbers tell manufacturers how much of 14 different pigments to add to create a certain color, which means that the color used while designing on a desktop will be faithfully reproduced in logos, packaging, advertising and even uniforms. 

 

Setting the tone: From Post-its to periods

Pantone has since evolved from a color standards system for designers to offering consulting and forecasting, with the Pantone Color Institute creating signature hues for brands, campaigns and even film characters. 

Whether the blue box contains jewels or breakfast, Tiffany's blue is instantly recognizable
Whether the blue box contains jewels or breakfast, Tiffany's blue is instantly recognizable

In 2001, the signature color of Tiffany & Co. was standardized and named 1837 Blue, the number referring to the year the iconic New York jeweler was founded. Pantone created this trademarked color exclusively for the brand, which means it cannot be used by any other company. Similarly, Coca-Cola has its red (484) and T-Mobile its magenta (676C).

In 2020, the Pantone institute teamed up with Swedish intimate health care brand INTIMINA to produce "Period," an original red shade representing menstruation. It was part of INTIMINA's Seen+Heard campaign that is designed to remove taboos in openly discussing periods. 

In April this year, the classic Post-it notes — used often in households, schools or the workplace — got an injection of new colors to their existing collections. 

And there are no guesses as to what "Minion Yellow" represents. According to the Pantone institute's website, the company's first ever character-branded custom color is "an extroverted, playful and warm yellow shade that sparkles with vitality" and is designed to represent "these sweet and subversive characters."

 

Clashing over color

However, critics have an issue with brands claiming exclusive rights over trademarked colors. And Pantone is often cited in legal disputes over colors. In 2019, Deutsche Telekom, T-Mobile's parent company, accused New York-based insurance company Lemonade for stealing its trademark color — Pantone Rhodamine Red U, also known as magenta.

"You're talking about the one of the three ink cartridges in every printer in the world," Daniel Schreiber, CEO of Lemonade, told US public broadcaster NPR later in the year. "The idea that a company can trademark it and own it, just defied belief and I was in a state of disbelief."

Forced initially by a German court to cease using the color, Lemonade took its case to other European courts and even created a hashtag #FreeThePink. In 2020, a French court decided in its favor and it is allowed to use the color for its business in France.

Orchid was a Pantone 2014 color of the year that also featured in fashion
Orchid was a Pantone 2014 color of the year that also featured in fashion. Image: Karly Domb Sadof/AP Photo/picture alliance

Meanwhile, 2022's "Very Peri" — a shade of blue with a violet-red undertone — marked the first time since 2000 that Pantone created a brand new Color of the Year. Previous colors were picked from its existing palette.

It remains to be seen if a brand new color will be created for 2023 when the announcement is made on December 1. 

Edited by: Christine Lehnen, Louisa Schaefer