The Money of Color

Trendiness gets commercialized, and hues are no exception. 

Every year, Pantone, a design consultancy based in New Jersey, singles out one color and declares it “Color of the Year.” This year’s color is "Radiant Orchid," whose purple reign will end in December, when next year’s color will be announced. The company also issues seasonal color palettes, and today, it was announced that next spring’s is a collection of subdued natural hues dubbed "En Plein Air."

The style guru Tim Gunn bemoans the practice of pronouncing a certain color king: “It’s rather arbitrary. It’s the fashion and retail world’s wanting people to buy new things,” he has said. How can a single color, a specifically unique shade of one of the six that compose the visible light spectrum, reflect 365 days?

Gunn is onto something: The color of the year is chosen according to economics as well as design, says Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, the company’s in-house forecasting team. “It sounds a little woo-hoo,” Eiseman acknowledges. “But the human eye is fickle … We start to seek out new information about a replacement and what will intrigue the consumer’s eye the next year.”

Of course, the most visible influence of the color of the year is found in fashion circles, not economic ones. There are guides about how to wear Radiant Orchid, and product lines manufactured in partnership with Pantone.


But branding, more subtly, uses color to its advantage, and the fingerprints of Pantone’s obsession with forecasting can be spotted on everything from Tiffany's to Starbucks. Color helps to forge some strikingly firm mental associations: Republicans are red, Democrats blue. Mention pink, and many will think of the bubblegum hue of breast cancer’s ribbons. In fact, the Susan G. Komen Foundation has so successfully tied itself to the color pink that several other campaigns against diseases have adopted their own colors.

Color is frequently employed as a way for brands to build a sense of exclusivity. Tiffany’s robin’s-egg-blue, for example, is unmistakable. And the signature fire-engine red Louboutin soles were apparently signature enough to be grounds for a lawsuit against rival Yves Saint Laurent.

Radiant Orchid, this year's color, might seem like a lush, romantic choice, but it’s quite the opposite: Its selection has a lot to do with the stagnant economy it debuted in. “We’ve been concerned about the economy since 2008, about how to attract the consumer’s eye and get them to buy something new if they are counting their pennies,” says Eiseman. “I know that sounds very manipulative, but this is what gets an economy to work, to get people to buy.”


Pantone’s selection process for color of the year takes months, and sometimes even years. Eiseman says the process that eventually pinpointed Radiant Orchid began at least five years ago, when there were some preliminary forecasting meetings. Over those months and years, Pantone’s researchers traveled extensively, noting color trends in different parts of the world. Even though any two researchers spanned different parts of the globe, they managed to identify similar trends. “My compatriot from Milan looks at my board and it’s nearly identical, even if we’re thousands of miles apart!” Eiseman exclaims.

She insists that Pantone’s researchers don’t simply “[shoot] darts at a wall of color samples.” Instead, they take inspiration, for example, from the art world, popular films, and massive global events like the Olympics or the World Cup.

Louboutin’s red and Tiffany’s blue are somewhat narrow anecdotes, but colors and their tones can be commercialized more broadly. Take brown, for example. “Up until the '90s, if you showed certain shades of brown to people, they associated it with earth or being dirty,” Eiseman told me. “'Earth' can mean 'gardens,' which can be positive. But 'dirty' is not. Occasionally, you got ‘chocolate,’ but for the most part it wasn’t [desirable].”

Café culture changed that. “Starbucks sold coffee in wonderful earthy colors, with beautiful names,” Eiseman says. “We saw a change in reaction to brown. Instead of ‘dirt,’ we got ‘rich,’ ‘robust,’ and ‘aromatic.’” She also notes the importance of the critically-acclaimed, sepia-toned 2000 film Chocolat, which, while not a blockbuster, captured the attention of a number of designers. Brown was just the demure color to capture the dotcom comedown of the early aughts, or at least it was for young people—Eiseman says older people weren’t open to seeing brown in a new light.

The colors favored in the U.S. can be unexpectedly influential on a global scale. Western weddings are characterized by their emphasis on the color white, and they’re the model that Hollywood broadcasts to the world. Traditionally, in Chinese culture, white is the color of mourning, but it’s taking on new meanings. “Young Chinese brides traditionally wear red for prosperity and good luck, but recently, many get married in a second ceremony wearing white and flowing veils,” Eiseman says. Similarly, female college graduates in China have begun wearing white wedding gowns instead of traditional robes.

As an Indian-American, I’ve observed the rise of white as a wedding color firsthand. My Facebook feed has shown South Asian wedding outfits, which have traditionally favored vermillion as the color of marriage, increasingly turn to creams and pure whites. There haven't been any Radiant Orchid sightings to report yet, but I'll be looking.