Michelle Ogundehin: "Pantone's colour of the year Living Coral is naive"
Living Coral is Pantone's colour of the year for 2019

"Pantone's colour of the year harks of naivety, not optimism"

Pantone's Living Coral shade can't be a harbinger of positivity, says Michelle Ogundehin, when real coral reefs are being devastated by global warming.


Pantone has determined that its colour of the year for 2019 is Living Coral, a sort of pinky peachy Instagram sunset sort of colour apparently based on the natural pigmentation of healthy ocean coral. This seems an unfortunate symbolism, as headlines rage about climate change and the associated destruction of reefs worldwide. But more on this later.

I'm always amused to read the inevitable crop of articles that immediately appear after such a pronouncement, championing its validity with an array of random products plucked from assorted image banks and quoting breathlessly from the press release, phrases such as "sociable and spirited, the engaging nature of Living Coral welcomes and encourages lighthearted activity".

To say I'm dubious that this is little more than a marketing ploy by one of the world's biggest colour companies would be something of an understatement. And here's why.

Any serious trend prediction has to be rooted in the cultural context, in other words, a rigorous examination of where we've collectively come from and an assessment of where we might be headed. True, Pantone acknowledges that these are turbulent times, saying "we are seeking authentic and immersive experiences that enable connection and intimacy" as a reaction to "the onslaught of digital technology and social media increasingly embedding into daily life".

Living Coral is loud and strident, recalling cheap toilet roll colours and the sort of bridesmaids dresses that people refer to as meringues

And uncertainty and change is nothing if not a provocative catalyst, especially in the creative sector. Except what we also know from history is that, in times of real strife, consumers retreat to the familiar (think comfort food and big knits) and they seek out affordable treats. That's why sales of lipsticks and magazines tend to rise during a recession – it's the escapism factor.

As Trump was inaugurated and Brexit hovered on the horizon here in the UK, the dominant trend in colour terms had been a set of what I'd called The New Neutrals.

These were a world away from default magnolia or overly trendy taupe, and one step up from the mid 90s white-with-a-hint-of-hues, but not as scary as full-on saturated colour. Think shades with a resolutely retro flavour, for the familiar, but also a tentative step towards colour, for the treat. Picture dusty pinks, lavender, pistachio green and indeed peach.

But this peach was muted, subdued, and muddied with grey. In short, it was a faintly old fashioned yet beautiful hue that recalled 1950s Miami and probably the easy comfort of your grandmother's sitting room.

In contrast, Living Coral, officially described as "an animating and life-affirming coral hue with a golden undertone that energises and enlivens with a softer edge" is, to my eye, loud and strident, recalling municipal tiled bathrooms, cheap toilet roll colours and the sort of bridesmaids dresses that people refer to as meringues.

This shade is simply too saccharine, bright and ripe to be remotely relaxing, let alone a harbinger of the "playful" positivity we supposedly need right now. It's trying too hard to be upbeat. If I were to get technical about it, I'd say it has too much yellow in it (overtly warm but with an underbelly of malice, reminiscent of the skin-staining jaundice and malaria) and not enough blue (universally associated with calm and clarity).

There is nothing remotely convivial about this tone to me

Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Colour Institute is quoted as saying: "With consumers craving human interaction and social connection, the humanising and heartening qualities displayed by the convivial Pantone Living Coral hit a responsive chord."

While she's absolutely right in her observation of an increasing need for IRL human connection, I heartily disagree with the latter sentiment. Even given the lovely little video that accompanies the Pantone announcement, which features a goldfish swimming past an (un)naturally bright piece of coral, there is nothing remotely "convivial" about this tone to me.

In short, I think it's quite revolting in the way that Pantone's colour of the year for 2018 was too. Who can forget the supposedly "complex and contemplative" Ultra Violet, rapidly dubbed Ultra Violent Violet for its overwhelming vivacity. And the year before that, Greenery aka Kermit Green. Neither hinted at what was to come with anything approaching accuracy.

And yet, on trills the press release: "Representing the fusion of modern life, Pantone Living Coral is a nurturing colour that appears in our natural surroundings and at the same time, displays a lively presence within social media." What does this even mean?

Up to 60 per cent of our remaining reefs are now at risk of being lost

Until the release of this press release, I'd not seen it cropping up in online trend reports, and we do not often see this distinctly unmellow shade in the natural world either. Sadly, we'll certainly not see much more of it in the coral reefs that Pantone alludes to, due to the devastating effects of global warming and pollution.

As a result of these utterly manmade disasters, much of the world's coral, a living breathing organism, is being reduced to bone-white skeletons. Why? Because the increasing water temperatures cause the expulsion of the pigment and life-giving algae, zooxanthellae, that live within the reefs, a phenomenon known as bleaching. And according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), up to 60 per cent of our remaining reefs are now at risk of being lost. So while Pantone claim its choice of colour harks of optimism, naivety might seem more appropriate.

But the brand isn't alone in attempting these sort of predictions. Dulux launched its 2019 colour of the year a month or so ago, and plumped for a shade called Spiced Honey.

Smoother, cooler and decidedly more workable than the Pantone offering, it too was attempting to find a colour that was a salve for our current global ills. And in so doing it was closer to the mark, albeit mostly for the accompanying palettes that supported the colour, as otherwise it's hard to see Spiced Honey as anything other than quite a nice brown. It definitely lacks inspirational appeal in isolation.

However, by inadvertently referencing by hue hitherto humble materials like cork, hemp, sisal and bamboo, it was at least pointing in the right direction, as these materials are certainly fast tracking their way into the higher echelons of design.

A single colour cannot really be proffered as representative of the current clime and context

The issue is, in such incredibly complex times, a single colour cannot really be proffered as representative of the current clime and context.

For beyond issues of tonal subjectivity, I feel our present age is unique. This is a moment in which the pillars of establishment are being overturned, from governments to constitutions to the culturally embedded privilege of the white male. The people in the trenches are shouting to be heard – consider the Remain campaigners in the UK to the French gilets jaunes – and they are having an effect.

As such we are in a time of intense reaction as opposed to considered response. Arguably, those who have previously been unheard, and conveniently unseen, gave us Trump, Brexit and the #MeToo movement. But what they didn't give us were the solutions to any of the above, which is the distinctly uncomfortable space in which we now sit. Perhaps then, only in its discordance, is Pantone's allegedly "vivifying and effervescent" Living Coral, vaguely en pointe? It certainly lacks the "nurturing" quotient intended.

However, considered calm is on the horizon. I say this with optimistic conviction, because nature abhors a vacuum and action always follows reaction, but we won't see the results of this particular pendulum swing until early 2020. Instead, right now and into 2019 is a time for the continued calling out of an endemic societal hypocrisy and that requires more subtlety and nuance than one-dimensional colour trend statements. Especially one that's emblematic, by association, of mankind's systematic destruction of the natural world.