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.

Pantone shades of yellow.
Yellow Iris, Lemon Zest and Solar Power, some of Pantone's shades of yellow

Courtesy Pantone.

In an airy studio on a high floor of the London College of Fashion, featuring a long conference table, white walls, and a view to an adjoining patio—where, a sign warns, bees are being kept—the hues you will see in two years are being divined by a pan-European group of colorists.

“What do we say about blue?” asks David Shah, a British-born, Amsterdam-based designer who heads the meeting on behalf of Pantone, the quietly ubiquitous American company that maintains color standards for publishers, designers, and the fashion world. “Blue took so long to come back. It came back last year in a watery story, it’s here this summer in an indigo story—what are we doing about blue?”

“A good navy,” says a French woman with short blonde hair, “is going to fulfill the role that black used to fill, because black is now launching into another dimension.”

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“How do we see black now?” Shah interjects. “As a dynamic color?” There is excited chatter. Black has shed its cultural baggage as a negative color. The Italians “did a big statement” about black. The big Yohji Yamamoto retrospective down the road at the V&A. The noncolor that is all colors. Exciting new materials that help black transcend its blackness.

So the new black is … black? Leatrice Eiseman, a color consultant and the sole American at the meeting, (the sole “pragmatic American,” as she describes herself), speaks for the first time. “What I fear about making a general sweeping statement about black is that we know we’ve been there—who doesn’t know about black? What’s new about it?” Animated conversation ensues.

Twice a year, in some European capital, in a room purposely chosen to be drab and sparse—so as not to influence the color mood—Shah gathers a stable of colorists, each of whom works with his or her own country’s national color groups (who traditionally have worked with textile companies and others to set color standards), as well as consulting with companies ranging from Airbus to Zara to Union Carbide. Where the rest of us see black, these are people who talk about the “family of black.” Over two days, they will each pitch a palette concept, organized roughly around a theme that has been chosen in advance (this time, it’s “unity”), that they believe will be dominant in Spring/Summer 2013. The results are published in Pantone View, a $750 publication that is purchased by companies across a broad consumer landscape, from fashion designers to supermarket chains to the floral industry. (“Everybody’s into white flowers at the moment,” Shah tells me, “there are definitely movements, even in flowers.”)

While the Pantone meetings are traditionally secret, I was invited to the Summer 2013 meeting on the condition that I not reveal the colorists’ identities. (Shah and Eiseman’s names are real; I’ll refer to everyone else present at the meeting by their nationality.) And so as to avoid influencing the discussion, I have been asked not to reveal my own identity as a journalist. Instead, I am vaguely portrayed as a functionary of X-Rite, the corporate parent of Pantone.

The meeting is a high-concept show-and-tell fused with a cultural anthropology seminar, with Shah alternately playing the role of interlocutor and air traffic controller. Like novelist William Gibson’s trend-hunter Cayce Pollard, Shah can unleash a torrent of cultural memes on command. Expounding in one instance on the “unity” theme, he riffs: “We’re talking a lot about community, neighborliness, moving from macro to micro economy. The whole ‘rurban’ thing—local food, local chocolate. At the same time, the simplification of things, reducing complications. Don’t make any instruction manuals—things should be intuitive. Computers that will think for you, read your gestures, actually tell you when to go shopping. You go into Gap, it starts suggesting products for you, connecting your friend’s taste to your taste. It’s all about choosing together.” He pauses, a quick intake of breath, before firing: “How many people use Twitter here?” “Oh, God,” retorts the Frenchwoman.

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