Why Exactly Do I Need to Worry About the Pantone Color Wheel?

April 10, 2018 | Jessica Ogilvie

So, you clicked on a story about the Pantone Color Wheel. Why? Well, we’re guessing that it’s because you’ve got a morbid curiosity about what the Pantone Color Wheel has to do with anything relevant to your life. Maybe you don’t worry much about the official color of the year. Why would you?

If you’re asking that, friend, you’re not alone. In fact, that’s why we’re all here today — to figure out what the hell the Pantone Color Wheel is, and how it relates to your business.

What Is Pantone?

Pantone is a company founded in 1963 by Laurence Herbert, who, according to People, “created a system for identifying, matching and communicating colors for consistency across the print and textile design industries.”

From there, the magazine reports, the company expanded to include tools that kept Herbert’s initial goals moving forward. Pantone colors are used as the industry standard so that variations in light, fabric, and eyesight don’t get in the way of precision. Herbert’s big breakthrough was streamlining exactly how colors are created; what precise mix of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (yup, your old printer ink colors!) will give you, say, pine green or fire-engine red.

The company is also famous these days for its Color Institute, which has been responsible for, among other things, heavily promoting the existence of Millennial Pink, and for announcing the Color of the Year (2018’s is Ultra Violet, ICYMI).

In addition to these color-system related efforts, Pantone has its hands in myriad business ventures. According to the company’s website, “Each year, innumerable products and services are sold by Pantone and its hundreds of licensees in over 100 countries in the graphic arts, fashion, home, interior, plastics, architectural, paint, industrial design and consumer markets.” Those products and services include printing and packaging, plastics, R&D, and much more. In other words, Pantone is every-pinking-where.

What Is the Pantone Color Wheel?

Actually, it’s pretty straightforward. The company writes on its website: “Part science, part art, the color wheel is our tool for understanding which colors go with what.” On the Pantone wheel, colors that complement one another are directly opposite on the wheel; yellow and purple, blue and orange, pink and green. And the company takes it one step further — each color has hundreds of variations (there are 1,867 Pantone colors in total) which is how 2018 wound up with Ultra Violet as the color of the year, instead of just purple.

Okay, But Seriously, Why Should I Care?

We all know that the colors we see probably have some effect on our feelings. Blue makes us feel calm, yellow makes us feel happy, and so forth. But the people at Pantone believe this with all of their hearts, and also believe that the feelings that colors stir up can be hugely influential for brands and businesses. According to their website, “color influences human thought processes, emotions and physical reactions.”

In a 2015 article in Co.Design, Laurie Pressman, the vice president of the Pantone Color Institute, explained that color creates an instant identity for companies. It encompasses “who do you want to be, where do you want to be, what are you trying to be… when you look at color, it’s your calling card… In today’s visual culture, color instantaneously broadcasts the meaning and image of a company.”

Spin the Wheel for Yourself

That doesn’t mean that you have to agonize for months over which exact Pantone tone you’ll use on your website or in your brand’s logo. But it might mean that you look at what colors brands that are similar to yours are using, what catches your eye, and what colors makes you think, before you can stop yourself, “I relate to that.” (Once you start noticing color, you won’t be able to un-notice it.)

If you’ve got a business, you’re already thinking about color, right along with fonts and packaging. If you’re a freelancer (journalist, consultant, etc.) though, you might wonder how this bears on your work. But think about what goes through your head when you visit someone’s website and they use colors that were popular in, say, the 1990s — and they’re not using them ironically. That color communicates irrelevance.

That’s probably not the message you want to send to potential clients, whether you’re a writer or photographer or creator of hand-knit goods. So take a glance at the wheel, and use it as a tool to help create and shape your identity as a business. It’s like learning another language; it expands what your business can do, and be.