Four hundred years ago, a philosopher named Rene Descartes sat alone beside a fire with a quill pen and a parchment scroll. As he watched the flame, he decided not to believe anything. He would doubt all that he had ever found certain. The warmth of his fire, the scratch of his pen, the light from a dripping candle — all an illusion, he declared, until I can prove to myself that they exist.
The only thing that cannot be doubted, Descartes quickly realized, is that I exist: that very thought proves itself. I think, I am. Cogito ergo sum. There’s a start, there’s a glimmer of reality. But such a lonely reality! If the only fact I can be certain of is my own thought, then maybe there is no we, no you, no wall, no window, no bird singing outside. That idea is called solipsism: the belief that only oneself truly exists. Solipsism spawns fear and apathy. If only I exist, how could anything else matter?
Descartes wouldn’t settle for that. He cleverly built up a real world around himself using logic and his idea of God. The first pieces of furniture in his new house of truth were two ideas: shape and color. Everything that the mind can imagine, he declared, has shape and color.
Let’s talk about color. We can skip the discussion of whether what I see as yellow, you see as blue, dude, how can we ever know?? Let’s agree that everything visible has color, and there are infinite possible colors, just as there are infinite human personalities. Color happens when light, which contains every possible color, collides and then bounces off of an object, say a light blue “dolphin” glassybaby. Chemicals in the lit object absorb a portion of the colors in that light, in this case the reds and greens and yellows. The light that remains unabsorbed bounces off the object and into your pupils: that is color.
Once the color hits, it causes all kinds of reactions in your brain: colors invoke old memories, colors attract your eye, and colors change your mood. A bright blue sky exhilarates, green fields envelop with a sense of peace. Exposure to certain shades of pink will calm your heart rate, reduce aggressiveness, and suppress appetite.¹ Colors also acquire cultural associations and significance. California is the golden state; Washington is evergreen. Light blue is for baby boys, pink for little girls (or so we have been told).
The Romans associated a certain purple with royalty. Back then, color came strictly from sources in nature — and purple was rare. Roman emperors wore mantles of “Tyrian” purple (named after a city of Phoenicia, which literally means “land of purple”). In addition to the color’s rarity, it was highly valued because the purple dye got brighter in the sunlight, rather than fading. Like black socks that get cleaner. In this case, intrinsic qualities of the color (rarity and vigor) pre-empted and caused the association with royalty. Purple was the rightful king.
Legends told how Tyrian purple was discovered: Hercules was walking his dog along the beach in the Levant, off-leash, and the dog was being a dog, nibbling at every edible-seeming thing around. On that day the beach happened to be strewn with thousands of a particular type of sea snail, which the dog found delicious. After the walk, Hercules did a double-take: his dog’s mouth was stained a dark purple, and flecked with little bits of sea snail shell. The color, it turns out, came from a venom that paralyzed the snail’s prey. Word spread, and soon the Phoenicians were boiling the sea snails for hours in enormous vats, extracting the newfound fashion and selling it to Mediterranean nobility.²
Since ancient times, then, people have obsessed, associated, and profited with color. That much has not changed. What has changed, though, is the number of colors humans can manipulate, the ways we produce those colors, and the speed at which color trends change. Consider Pantone, the color company, cultural descendants of sophisticated Phoenician snail-boilers. Pantone has made colors into a language with a seventeen-hundred-shade vocabulary. Seventeen-hundred colors! 1,700!
Designers can use this extremely precise language, the “Pantone Matching System” (or “PMS” for short!) to find and reproduce the exact same color in any context. For instance, Canadian law states that every Canadian flag should be produced with the same particular, Pantone-defined hue of red.³
It seems that no sea snails are harmed in the creation and classification of all Pantone’s colors. They are mixed from fourteen different pigments, and can be expressed as RGB values, which denote the exact levels of red, green, and blue in any color, and thereby generate them on a computer screen. The Phoenicians had to check on their boiling snails by tossing in a fleece every few hours to get the color they wanted; today, we can just choose three numbers. But as easy as it is to generate a color in our kaleidoscopic new world, it’s just as hard to choose the perfect color or palette. You can’t just say, “I wish to look noble, I shall don my Tyrian robe and laurel wreath,” anymore. Because purple is all around: the University of Washington, the “Fed” in FedEx, the Yahoo logo, and so on. Every time a FedEx truck drives by with its purple Fed, it dilutes purple of its royal associations and replaces them with shipping company associations.
With every company, person, and profile picture trying to stand out, the world of color is chaotic. Amidst the chaos, Pantone offers, every year, an archetype: their Pantone “Color of the Year.” The color is supposed to express the zeitgeist, the spirit of the time.
For 2016, there are not one, but two Pantone colors of the year: rose quartz, a soft pink; and serenity, a light blue. Or, as defined by the PMS, PANTONE 13-1520 and PANTONE 15-3919. On their website, Pantone states that the two colors symbolize balance and openness. Remember how blue is supposed to be for boys, and pink for girls? Well, our culture only decided that very recently, and if Pantone is right, our collective minds are changing. Genders are becoming, at least in the fashionable and artistic sphere of Pantone’s orbit, more equal and more fluid. As gender norms change, so do gender colors, and the very idea that genders correlate with colors could become outdated. Pink could be a color for boys, men, women, girls, everything in between; a color for everyone. And blue, too. After all, color is universal: our man Descartes told us that everything imaginable has it.
Today we can put almost any color on almost anything. With great colors come great responsibility. Physically, color is just a subtraction of certain wavelengths from white light. But like music and food, color possesses enormous significance in all human cultures. Colors connect ideas on a semi-conscious plane: purple connects royalty with FedEx.
In this sense, colors truly are a type of language. Using language, it’s important to choose words carefully, to make them effective and beautiful; it’s also important to say something worth saying, something true or funny or heartfelt. The same goes for colors. Good colors are beautiful and effective, but great colors must also use that beauty and effect well.
The idea behind Pantone’s choice of rose quartz and serenity is certainly worthy of those colors; it adds positive meaning to them, and the colors likewise represent the idea well. When a color and the ideas inside it benefit one another and benefit the world, that’s called “giving color craft.” Whether generated by three numbers, boiled out of a thousand snails, or shaped in molten glass, well-crafted color provides beauty and provokes connection.
Cheers to a colorful 2016, may every color be given craft.
– mericos rhodes