When Living Coral was announced as Pantone’s newest Color of the Year, reactions were mixed. For some, the choice carried with it an important environmental message, thanks to the fact that actual coral is mostly dying in 2019. Others, however, criticized the choice as an awkward misfire, an attempt to appear woke while pushing consumerism. And at least a few of us looked up from our ranch-dipped breakfast burritos because, wait, isn’t Pantone a music thing?

To get to the bottom of all this, we’ve wiped the Hidden Valley off our mouths and assembled Well Done’s design team: Brittany Mason, senior art director; Andrew Griswold, art director; and Taylor Streeter, designer. They were kind enough to answer a few questions about 2019’s Color of the Year, and what it means for the industry.

WELL DONE MARKETING: So exactly what is Pantone, institutionally? How did they get to be in charge of the world’s color supply?

TAYLOR STREETER: Pantone is who you turn to when you need the “actual” version of a color. It’s almost like a monopoly—if anybody in the industry wants to match colors, they go to Pantone.

ANDREW GRISWOLD: Right, when I think of Pantone, I always think of those giant color books we keep on the shelves, the Pantone Matching System®. Everywhere I’ve worked, when we needed a specific color for a printed piece we’d pull the book down, blow off the dust, and find it.

BRITTANY MASON: A lot of times, when we’re coming up with brands, we’ll actually start with the Pantone color and work backwards. The Pantone colors are universally consistent. When you’re dealing with CMYK printing, you get small variations in the mixes, so they aren’t as easy to match.

WDM: But most of the time you’re printing in CMYK, right? Is it actually possible to achieve a Pantone color? 

BRITTANY: There is such a thing as Pantone ink, but it’s really expensive to do.

TAYLOR: It’s a huge process to produce real Pantone color. They constantly remix it and test it and use a computerized system to match it correctly.

BRITTANY: When we print spot color, that’s your Pantone color. But if you’re doing a brochure or something, the Pantone prices tend to be pretty prohibitive, and a CMYK printer is more than up to the job anyway.

WDM: If Pantone inks aren’t used that often, why does anybody care what they think?

BRITTANY: The Color of the Year is how Pantone declares that this or that is important—and as an industry leader, that matters. But it can be hard to know whether it’s important because Pantone is choosing it, or if Pantone is choosing it because they see it’s on the rise.

ANDREW: It also seems as though the Color of the Year has taken on a whole new meaning, nationally and politically. Historically, it used to be that they’d select a color to summarize trends of the year, but I think that’s shifting.

TAYLOR: There is a tension in this year’s choice—they’re trying to raise awareness, and I think that’s great, let’s talk about what’s happening to the environment. But you can’t separate the company from what they represent in consumer culture. People are going to buy things they don’t need because they want to keep up with the trends. But that’s not necessarily an environmentally friendly choice.

BRITTANY: It is interesting to see how the Color of the Year can affect consumer behavior, even if people don’t know that Pantone is behind it.

WDM: It’s like that scene in The Devil Wears Prada where Andrea is like “I’m too smart to care about fashion” and then Miranda goes “Oi, but that dress you’re in IS fashion, innit!” You know what I mean?

TAYLOR: …Yes?

WDM: How useful is the Color of the Year in your own work? Does this give you something to aim toward, or—if it’s about to be ubiquitous—something to avoid?

ANDREW: If they chose the color based on what’s been popular or influential, I think that would be more useful to creatives as a barometer of what’s out there. But instead this feels more like Pantone as a company wants this color to be popular.

BRITTANY: Last year’s color was Ultra Violet, which is just such an extreme color, you’d rarely use it. Living Coral is also very saturated and intense. So it’s often more useful as an inspiration—intentionally or not, as designers we’re influenced by trends, but only to the extent we can use them to create something new.

TAYLOR: For personal projects, sure, it’s cool, but it’s a pretty out there color—I don’t think it’s going to show up in a lot of client work. But will we see this in home décor, and fashion, and interior design? Definitely. They chose Living Coral for a reason.