The 2021 Pantone Colors of the Year, or Our Lights at the End of the Tunnel

3 min read

Black and white photo of girl on "Illuminating"-colored swing

For more than 60 years, Pantone has been the color production standard for printing, manufacturing, décor, and—of late—digital media. In ad agency libraries, you’ll frequently find the swatch guides and binders Pantone produces, which help designers identify colors for offset printing or find faithful equivalents for less costly (and somewhat less precise) process-printed pieces.

Since 2000, when it was so bold as to declare Cerulean the Color of the Millennium, Pantone has named a Color of the Year (or sometimes two) to represent the year to come. As the company once put it, color “has always been an integral part of how a culture expresses the attitudes and emotions of the times.”

Think of millennial pink or its cousin Rose Quartz, which was a Color of the Year in 2016. Or Apple beige, circa 1981—too ahead of its time to be a Color of the Year, but so early 80s, you can smell the Stetson for Men.

For Pantone Color of the Year, 2021 is another two-fer—the company perhaps hedging their bets after black swan 2020 took a rather long time to pay off its signature color, classic blue. This year’s colors, Ultimate Gray, a light gray, and Illuminate, a warm, enlightening yellow, are familiar, homey hues that will look as fitting in your upstairs bath as they will on a New York runway.

But that’s just how this year’s colors look to this writer—who is rarely invited along when his household shops for towels. I asked a handful of Well Done’s resident color theorists for their opinions.

Our Take on the Hue-some Twosome

“When establishing a color palette, I would choose a foundation or darker color and a supporting highlight color for contrast,” said Brent Smith, our senior art director. “Illuminating and Ultimate Gray are perfect examples of this rule. Illuminating provides an uplifting contrast to a much-grounded and foundational gray, in a very functional and refreshing way.”

To our senior designer, Alex Pesak, Illuminating appears to be “a light at the end of the tunnel.” But, added Alex, “Let’s not forget any roadblocks, our Ultimate Grays, that might get in the way. These colors work together, so the end result is a sense of hope and positivity, despite the obstacles. That’s all we can ask for this year.”

In a sign that hope is breaking out all over around here, production designer Chad Wysong sees a light at the end of the tunnel in these colors, too. “Illuminating exudes a comforting, optimistic clarity,” he said, “whereas Ultimate Gray feels like a reflection on what we’ve been through, and the steadiness that we’re channeling to tackle the pandemic.”

Associate creative director Joe Black sees Color of the Year as an invitation more than a sign of the times. “I don’t think Color of the Year is necessarily that important; rather, it’s really interesting to be able to have a national conversation about a singular color with people that you would not necessarily ever talk about color with,” he said. “Except that this year, there are two, which blurs the focus a bit.”

“If I had to wear an outfit incorporating these two colors,” he added, “I would go with Ultimate Gray for the shirt and Illuminating for my Zoom-appropriate parachute pants.” Coming soon to a laptop screen near you.