Pantone played it safe and still missed the mark by picking Classic Blue as its colour of the year for 2020, says Michelle Ogundehin.
After the debacle of naming Living Coral as its 2019 Color of the Year (COTY), a shade supposedly based on the natural pigmentation of healthy ocean coral, despite this being in perilously short supply, Pantone played it safe for 2020. Its hue for the start of the new decade is Classic Blue.
Described variously as "elegant in its simplicity", "reflective" and "an anchoring foundation", it's unsurprising really. Such an influential global institution, professionally dependent on industry recognition of its colour sense, couldn't afford another such politically insensitive misstep. And, seeing as blue is routinely cited as one of the Western world's eternally favourite colours – no doubt because it instantly recalls cloudless summer skies and warm calm seas – it couldn't go wrong with such an inoffensive pick. Or could it?
Certainly, the dominant narrative in many other 2020 COTY camps has been green. Whether dark or bright, neon or dusky, colour companies and trend forecasters from Dulux and WGSN to the US-based Behr paints, plumped for the colour intuitively associated with regrowth and rebirth. Green reassures us at a primal level and speaks of optimism.
Crucially, it's representative of the wider ecological story that's top of the cultural agenda right now. In this way, green chimes with the zeitgeist and its ascension of the colour charts is born of authenticity, not marketing.
Such an influential global institution, professionally dependent on industry recognition of its colour sense, couldn't afford another such politically insensitive misstep
Nevertheless, blue is arguably the most democratic of colours. It literally means all things to all people, with a welter of associations depending on the precise tone in question, hence its universal appeal. Consider the psychological meaning of navy – solid, upright, commonly representative of quality and dignity (expensive designer goods are often packaged in such tones for this reason) – which is quite different to that of light blue, which tends to evoke comparisons with the sky, implying serenity and calm.
In between we have a whole spectrum of brighter, more upbeat mid-tones which recall the colours of an idyllic Mediterranean sea, thus watery connotations abound, think cleanliness, liberation and unbounded freedom.
Pantone's Classic Blue is pitched somewhere in-between these mid sea blues and the falling ink of a dusky sky. A move away from the strictures and conformity of the darker shades, but just short of the happy-clappy-vibes simplicity of a child's paint-box blue.
Blue is arguably the most democratic of colours
It's more of a full-fat, deep blue, but still very much within the canon of unapologetic colours customarily favoured by Pantone – remember 2017's Kermit Green and 2018's violent violet? According to Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Colour Institute, Classic Blue is "a boundless blue evocative of the vast and infinite evening sky" while also being a colour that challenges us to "think more deeply, increase our perspective and open the flow of communication".
Except what sort of communication might that be for blue is nothing if not replete with contradictions. After all, despite all the positive sea and sky symbolism it's also traditionally associated with woe and depression as in "to have the blues". This phrase is assumed to be derived from the 17th century English expression "the blue devils", which described the hallucinations of an alcoholic in the grip of cold turkey. In fact, "blau sein" is still slang for drunk in Germany.And what of The Blues themselves, the very manifestation in music of melancholia underscored by narcotic addiction.
Regardless, Eiseman was quoted in the New York Times asserting that young people don't associate blue with sadness anymore, saying: "I think that's kind of an older generation reaction". I beg to differ. Although I'll concede that Classic Blue is definitely more in-your-face moody than down-in-the-mouth glum.
On the other hand, there's its associations with sex. Blue movies denote pornography, and a certain invigorating little pill for men was also coloured blue. Then again, the Virgin Mary was historically depicted garbed in blue as a show of holy respect and devotion, but this is primarily because, way back when, blue pigment was made from crushed Lapis Lazuli, highly-sought after and more pricey than gold.
I'll concede that Classic Blue is definitely more in-your-face moody than down-in-the-mouth glum
In Greece blue is believed to ward off the evil eye, and yet in the Middle East and Latin America, it's the colour of mourning. But pivot again and mid-blue tones are frequently used for many corporate logos and uniforms as they're thought to prompt feelings of trust and loyalty, which is probably also why they're included in 53 per cent of the world's flags.
Throw in idioms like "blue sky thinking" to suggest unfettered creative thought and "blue blood" to infer someone of aristocratic heritage, and it's clear that blue is far from straightforward.
Interestingly, for this year's presentation, Pantone sought to further elucidate its colour choice with a fully immersive sensory installation. Classic Blue therefore has its own soundtrack ("a nostalgic song that takes us to a place of comfort and familiarity"), a fabric ("a soft, velvety texture to print on"), a tea ("a wellness oriented, elegant and expansive berry melange with subtle citrus notes") and a scent ("a fragrant contemplation of where sky and sea meet"). All yours to purchase in limited-edition runs (albeit the track can apparently be downloaded for free): colour as a complete consumer experience!
For sure this acknowledges that colour has the power to impact a lot more than just the visual side of our lives, it is, in the words of Laurie Pressman, vice president of the Pantone Color Institute, "a way to express and affect ideas and emotions".
In this supremely anxious and confusing era where rage and rebellion have become the action of choice, it's just not the moment to champion escapism
But this is also precisely why, for all their potentially flighty assertions, COTY announcements end up carrying such weight. It's natural for people to want to belong and feel "on-trend", therefore sales of this colour inevitably rise and the prophecy is duly declared a success. However, because it's driven only by a carefully orchestrated media grab for attention, bolstered by feverish bandwagon jumping as brands small and large scramble to display stock in the now newly requisite it-colour, it does not mean it can be taken as a true indication of the state of the nation.
For in choosing blue, so seemingly popular and uncontroversial, I think Pantone has missed the mark once more. Although it's not alone this time. PPG, the Pennsylvania-based American Fortune 500 paint conglomerate, has just named Chinese Porcelain as its 2020 COTY. A blend of cobalt and ink blue, it's a cooler, more sophisticated version of Pantone's Classic Blue, characterised as redolent of "calmness and restful sleep while also offering the spirit of hopefulness – a precious commodity in a restless world." Indeed.
Dee Schlotter, senior colour manager at PPG Paint expounds: "The need for simplicity and escapism from technology is in part, the reason that consumers are craving blues like Chinese Porcelain that bring us closer to natural elements such as the sea and sky".
It certainly chimes with Pantone, which claims: "Imprinted in our psyches as a restful colour, Classic Blue brings a sense of peace and tranquillity to the human spirit, offering refuge". Fair enough on both counts, but just because we hunger for something doesn't make it good for us. I'd argue instead that in this supremely anxious and confusing era where rage and rebellion have become the action of choice, it's just not the moment to champion escapism.
Rather, it's time to get real. Or as the former US Navy Seal turned motivational author, Admiral William H McRaven so memorably put it: "If you want to change the world, first make your bed". Unfortunately, we appear to have made ours rather badly, so in the tug of love between green and blue, I'm on the side of planting our collective feet (and a lot of trees) firmly on the ground, not having our heads in the clouds. Either way, storms are indubitably ahead, so where would you rather be?