How I Snuck Into a Pantone Color Forecasting Meeting—and What I Learned

The way things look.
April 27 2012 6:33 AM

Sneaking Into Pantone HQ

How color forecasters really decide which hue will be the new black.

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But another common refrain in the color community is that colors, in part because of the economy, are sticking around longer. “We’ve learned to kind of ebb and flow with colors,” says Eiseman, “to punch them up a little bit when people get a little more accustomed to them, bring them down a little bit, soften them, make them a little more sophisticated so that the color evolves.” As Mirabile says, “it’s a lot easier to be right about green when there’s no perfectly right green.” At the meeting, one of the British colorists argued things were returning to an older rhythm, in which “colors used to hang around seven to 10 years.” Sounding almost wistful, he pronounced “we always give up on things too soon. How many times did we say it’s the end of brown. It hasn’t ended yet!”

Shah allows that every so often, when his group bets on black, the wheel will stop on red. “I think we are 80 percent correct in terms of mood, not in actual verifiable color,” he says. “I think the way we saw greens, for example,” a few years back, “we saw it in a much more organic herbal way—it ended up being much more military. We got the wrong handle on the message.”

Complicating things are the sweeping structural changes that have rippled through the world of fashion and media. Where color used to begin with the fiber producers and the color spinners, and trickled through a whole chain of trade shows and production processes, this arrangement was first upset by the rising power of retailers—who, as Shah describes it, “went right to the beginning of the chain”—and then by fast-fashion chains like Zara, who shrank the lead times that had long made forecasters useful. Not to mention the Internet, with its bevy of style sites and trend bloggers. “Colors and trends on the runway are now seen simultaneously by consumers and the trade,” says Kevin Carrigan, global creative director at Calvin Klein. “As a result, they are adopted much faster on all levels.” Companies across the board have gotten more color-savvy. “Take J.C. Penney shirts,” says Mirabile—a category that once upon a time might have been manufactured in unsophisticated, outmoded colors. “They look beautiful. They’re doing what Izod’s doing. They’re not lagging behind anymore.”

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But Harrington of the Color Association also notes that “as the consumer becomes more aware of color, they need more guidance.” And so might designers. “If you take the Pantone flip guide,” the company’s full catalog of colors, rather than its whittled-down forecast, “there’s 2,000 colors in there,” says Cirkus. “Your head will explode. There’s no direction. As a designer, the sky’s the limit.”

And this is what was happening in London: A search for meaning, a drive for a narrative, a glimpse into the maelstrom of the global mood. When I asked Shah about the colorists’ prepared statements, with their seductive sweep and cool urgency—why didn’t they just show colors, I wanted to know—he answered: “When people present color cards they’re often so wrapped up in the colors, they forget how to tell the message of colors.” And having sat through the meeting, I see what he means. In the forecasters’ pairing of tints and stories there was an assurance of something real, and not merely apophenia—finding connections and “patternicity” in unrelated things—the affliction that haunted fictional trend-hunter Cayce Pollard. The forecasters have an intense ceaselessly twitching antenna for color, but like meteorologists, they can’t make the weather, all they can do is try to read the signs in the air—a whisper of street fashion in Shibuya, the tides of unsold jumpers coming back at Uniqlo, the onset of a consumer mood darkening like clouds—to see which way the wind will blow. And the collective effort to look ahead is a burden forecasters take seriously. At one point, as he presented his collection of whites, the Italian colorist spoke of the book The Black Swan—which he had mistaken for the inspiration for the film of the same name. “It’s a nightmare, it’s all about the unpredictability of events. We can’t do any prevision with intelligence. That was my anguish, my anxiety.”

But such doubts do not last. “Color has been more important than silhouettes—will it still have that power in 2013?” Shah asks. “Yes, but adding a layer of complexity, and shapes that are astonishing,” answered a British colorist without pause. The others nod.

“We put seasons and dates on things,” Shah told me the day after the meeting. “This color is for Summer 2013,” he says, accenting each word with a beat. “People still need a direction. People may want to do things closer to season, but you still need to start someplace. People always need confirmation. Even if you’re as strong as Zara, they need a start.”

Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.

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