Rainbow Connections: What’s the Story Behind Color of the Year

Step aside New Year’s resolutions. It’s time to talk about the color of the year.

As one year fades into the next and drab winter lingers at the window, there’s still one fixture that arrives on the scene vibrant: the color of the year. Like setting goals or intentions for the year ahead, choosing a color of the year serves a similar purpose. Will it signal relaxing times ahead? Be a balm to soothe tense nerves? Or electrify a milestone year?

If you find your New Year’s resolutions losing steam a few weeks into 2021, set your sights on the color of the year instead. It could be the motivation you need that helps frame the future in the right mindset. While a few color-happy businesses and organizations have latched onto the “color of the year” trend, the Pantone Color Institute is perhaps the best known for this tradition.

For more than 20 years now, Pantone’s Color of the Year announcement helps us sunset one year and look ahead to the next. Leading up to the announcement, Pantone colorists look to various industries, lifestyles, and locations, among other inspirations. The reflection and discussion results in a color that will reflect and set the—ahem—tone for the year ahead. This year, Pantone gave us two colors of the year:

silver macbook pro on yellow table

“PANTONE 17-5104 Ultimate Gray + PANTONE 13-0647 Illuminating, two independent colors that highlight how different elements come together to support one another, best express the mood for Pantone Color of the Year 2021. Practical and rock solid but at the same time warming and optimistic, the union of PANTONE 17-5104 Ultimate Gray + PANTONE 13-0647 Illuminating is one of strength and positivity. It is a story of color that encapsulates deeper feelings of thoughtfulness with the promise of something sunny and friendly.”

Cool Colors. But Why?

In picking two selections for 2021, Pantone was not indecisive, but instead gave us a metaphor, shared New York Times chief fashion critic Vanessa Friedman. “Get ready for Ultimate Gray and Illuminating. Or, in normal-speak: the light at the end of the tunnel,” Friedman wrote.

The first time there was a joint color of the year was 2016 (perhaps another year of anxiety and turbulence, albeit not quite the same): “Joined together, Rose Quartz and Serenity demonstrate an inherent balance between a warmer embracing rose tone and the cooler tranquil blue, reflecting connection and wellness as well as a soothing sense of order and peace.”

That Pantone picks out a color of the year goes back to the meanings behind the tint, but also emphasizes Pantone’s own history as a keeper of colors. Pantone itself is a business, with roots in advertising and printing, and which is known for being home to the Pantone Matching System. The system is a sort of language or catalogue that allows for universal identification and matching. (How does Tiffany & Co. get that trademark robin’s egg blue right every time? Pantone knows.)

And so, in picking a color of the year, Pantone is also adding to its historical scrapbook. Leaf through the color swatches of yesteryear, and you will get a peek into the cultural moment. For the 2000, it was Cerulean Blue, when a fresh millennium was ahead. In 2006, it was Sand Dollar, a neutral to relax economic concerns.

Paint Your Theory

As artists and art critics can easily agree on, swatches carry meanings. Thoughtful graphic design drives on emotion as part of expression and message. But even those without formal training in color theory can pick up on or have personal preferences for the hues that make them happy, sad, angry, uneasy, or calm. It’s one reason why butter yellow, a color that can boost appetite and energy, is a good pick for the kitchen while deep blue helps provide serenity in the bedroom.

But, specifically in marketing and communications, color matters. It could be the difference between an ad campaign resonating with a certain demographic or falling flat. While graphic designers should be well versed in color theory, it is also something to explore and understand for anyone in marketing.

“Color theory is a science and art unto itself, which some build entire careers on, as color consultants or sometimes brand consultants,” according to Smash magazine. “Knowing the effects color has on a majority of people is an incredibly valuable expertise that designers can master and offer to their clients.”

On a broad level, warm shades like red can indicate deep emotions, energy, and excitement. Cool hues, like green, are often calming. But dig deeper, change the shade or the audience, and you’ll find that red could stand for the luxury of rolling out the red carpet or the danger of a warning label. And green could mean nature or money.

Color Me Intrigued

The study of color, color theory, and giving meanings to colors are nothing new. In your high school physics class, you probably learned about Isaac Newton and his experiments with light and prisms. And before Newton, there was Aristotle, who believed color “was sent by God from heaven through celestial rays of light.” While Newton eventually offered a more scientific solution, the ancient Greeks still had their own fashion moments of who could wear what color and when. Dark purple, for example, has long been associated with royalty.  

Today, of course, people generally have more freedom with what they can wear and when. But the choices people make still tell certain stories. Consider sports teams. An athlete might want to wear orange to feel alive with energy, or red to increase enthusiasm and performance. Of course, when the Kansas City Chiefs take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Super Bowl LV, both will have red as part of their team colors. But that simplifies things, doesn’t it? After all, each team has special shades worn in concert with different shades.

And in the fashion world, forecasters want to know what we’ll all be wearing in the future. (Remember the cerulean blue sweater scene in Devil Wears Prada?) What will be the “in” this spring or two years from now? Consumer goods and fashion experts are willing to take a guess. Similar to its color of the year project, Pantone also looks ahead to forecast fashion colors for future seasons.

So, the next time you discuss the visuals you want to include in a social media post or marketing campaign, think beyond shapes and sizes. What colors will you use in your marketing in 2021?

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