Image: Pantone

Since 1999, the Pantone Color Institute has unveiled its annual Color of the Year ranging from vibrant offerings like Living Coral in 2018 to comparatively more pedestrian fare such as Classic Blue in 2020. Earlier this month, Pantone revealed its selection for 2021 choosing, not one but two colors: Pantone 17-5104 Ultimate Gray and Pantone 13-0647 Illuminating. (For visualization purposes, imagine a silver-strewn gray and a muted daffodil). Color is core to aesthetics and branding efforts across industries and this annual palette selection could impact product design from fashion to technology. So what does the annual selection mean for tech?

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What’s in a color? Perception, time, and technology

Color has a profound impact on human decision-making, influencing everything from our mood to the perceived passage of time. Red light makes it seem as though time is passing slowly with blue light causing the opposite effect; as a University of Winnipeg researcher explained, that’s why many casinos cast red light inside.

In the retail space, a color associated with a product line or a company’s overall brand image could determine whether or not a consumer adds a product to the digital or physical cart. A University of Loyola study found that color increases brand recognition by as much as 80%. From physical hardware to software programs, there are myriad palette considerations at play across the tech industry.

“Those in tech want to be relevant. Communicating a message in a visually appealing and relevant way increases engagement and effectiveness,” said Laurie Pressman, VP of Pantone Color Institute, via email.

Attracting potential customers with a vivid color scheme or a conspicuous coloration switch may be the difference between a product flying off shelves or collecting dust in storefronts.

“Companies need their colors to be relevant, otherwise they do not engage or resonate with the consumer and they sit in inventory,” Pressman said.

Michael Worthington, professor at the California Institute of the Arts and UI and UX design instructor on Coursera, provided a bit of history about Pantone and the emergence of the color of the year selection as a trendsetting bellwether of sorts.

“Graphic designers have used Pantone for decades (it was originally developed as an ink matching system for offset printing), but now the color of the year is one of the ways Pantone has moved into a cultural and ‘taste-maker’ space,” Worthington said via email.

In the tech sector, Worthington said that he believes the color of the year selection mostly impacts branding and UI design, but these choices will also depend on the maturity of the business and other intangible considerations.

“Newer tech companies and startups developing their visual identity might well be thinking about what is a cool and contemporary palette. But color is always contextual…sunshine and pebbles on the beach might reflect these colors for one company, while for another they might be custard and cardboard,” Worthington said.

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Image: Pantone

To determine the color of the year, Pantone deploys a “global team of color experts” who search the world seeking “new color influences” from sources like films in production, emerging artists, traveling art exhibits, sporting events, new technologies, and more, according to Pressman.

“The emotional aspect of color is also a large aspect of our decision making as we want to ensure that the colors we select reflects what is taking place in our global culture at a specific moment in time,” Pressman said.

“With color and context so intertwined there really are reasons why a color family or individual color comes into prominence when it does, and for the most part the popularity of a color is symbolic of the age we live in,” she continued.

As far as symbolizing a period of time, an ongoing modern plague and related global economic disruptions have largely defined 2020. Months into the coronavirus pandemic, millions remain unemployed and many businesses have shuddered or struggled to stay afloat.

Pressman said there was “no way” to capture the moment of 2020 with one color on its own and the two colors also represent a sense of combined strength.

“The selection of two independent colors highlight how different elements come together to express a message of strength and hopefulness that is both enduring and uplifting, conveying the idea that it’s not about one color or one person, it’s about more than one. And to truly move forward, we need one another. This became abundantly clear as we moved into the second quarter of 2020,” Pressman said.

How Pantone’s dual color of the year selections will impact industries has yet to be seen. Perhaps these colors will influence designers coding the latest apps or the patterning of hardware series yet to hit shelves. But the indeterminacy of both color and context will be central to their perception among consumers. At any rate, Worthington sees these color of the year selections as a potential nod to a time beyond the coronavirus pandemic.

“They remind me of muted danger!! Black and yellow are nature’s colors of danger (think bees!), but this color pairing is danger under control — a toned down danger, one that is under control,” Worthington said.

“Perhaps the perfect timing for a post-COVID color pairing… the vaccine is coming… the danger is fading… dangerous shouting black-and-yellow receding into calming muted yellow and neutral grey,” he continued.