Pantone: Is it correct to commodify colours?

In a world where pretty much everything is commodified or can have a value extracted from it, from usernames to nature, it may not be surprising that colour is now also skewing towards ownership – by the company Pantone.

Pantone began as a collection of colour chips that created a universal ‘dictionary’ (for lack of a better word) regarding colour. Naturally, this proved handy for designers, or even just people painting their own houses, to agree on specific colours: Pantone has a number for them all, currently with around 3,000 colours in total. 

Today, Pantone is most well-known with their ‘Colour of the Year’ awards, establishing themselves as the “go-to source for trending colours.” So far this is okay: Pantone saw a market in the ambiguous nature of colour handling and took the opportunity to create their own library of colours. However, Pantone aim to establish themselves as a design feature, having opened a Pantone Hotel in 2010, entirely relying on colour as the distinctive design choice. The hotel offers rooms in different Pantone colours, with the concept being employed slightly lazily, mostly where convenient, such as the colour of the walls and some furniture.

While Pantone do not own the actual colours, the use of their colour palette as a design feature displays their position as makers of colour. Brands such as Zara have already collaborated with Pantone on a collection, which communicates to businesses a potential to commodify something as free as a colour. This paves the path for a scary future that may commodify entirely abstract things. A parallel argument can perhaps be drawn to Disney’s attempt to trademark ‘Hakuna Matata’ a few years ago.

The major problem with Pantone persists with their Colour Of the Year Awards, in particular the year 2016. The winner in that year consisted, for the first time, of two colours – Rose Quartz and Serenity. Pantone explains that these colours reflect “wellness as well as a soothing sense of order and peace,” while the use of two colours represents gender fluidity and equality. These awards are determined through a “reading of the cultural zeitgeist,” which, as one can assume, means that Pantone directly borrowed from what was culturally relevant in 2016. 

photo from Summit Daily

If you were around the internet in 2016, in particular on Tumblr, you will remember the “aesthetic” movement, which has basically been feeding off of these two winning colours since the 2010s. In 2016, subcultural aesthetics such as Seapunk and Vaporwave also saw a massive rise.

The vaporwave aesthetic, art by Christina Wu

Vaporwave in particular stands as a subculture which directly comments on capitalism through its “saccharine caricature of corporate culture,” standing in opposition to what Pantone is doing. Yet even big platforms such as MTV have appropriated the subculture’s aesthetic and rebranded entirely with the Vaporwave colours, although they were eventually met with immense backlash. 

Fruthermore, the Rose Quartz and Serenity colours of this subculture are in line with a femme-positive aesthetic which goes against the gendering of colours while implementing the softness of these two colours in order to contest the patriarchy. These are also literally the colours of the Trans flag. Thus, such connotations to these colours are certainly more powerful than Pantone’s mere claims to “wellness,” “peace” and “equality.” Altogether this illustrates that Pantone is perhaps not using its authority as a brand particularly well, by not only blatantly appropriating from subcultures but also by disregarding their ideology in the short and bland description attributed to their 2016 winning colours.

Still, Pantone has not become synonymous with colour and does not own it. But the thought that many design institutions and clothing brands recognise their status could be dangerous with regards to a general politics of ownership. For instance, Adobe have recently announced that they will charge users extra to access Pantone colours. Is it correct for companies to profit off of mere colours? Is there potential for some colours to become unnaccesible unless purchased from Pantone?