For most of us, color isn’t something we put too much thought into. The sky is blue, grass is green, snow is white. But once a year the people of the design community all end up discussing a singular hue: Pantone’s Color of the Year.

This year’s color is every bit the conversation starter as previous choices. But the conversation we’re having about it is a little more, well, meta.

Very Peri, as Pantone has dubbed the shade of 2022, is “a new Pantone color whose courageous presence encourages personal inventiveness and creativity.” The tone is meant to reflect “the global innovation and transformation taking place” in a world that is increasingly lived in a digital space. “The complexity of this new red-violet-infused blue hue highlights the expansive possibilities that lay before us.”

All this is well and good for Pantone to say. But as an organization whose annual color choice has, by their own account, “influenced product development and purchasing decisions in multiple industries, including fashion, home furnishings, and industrial design, as well as product packaging and graphic design,” they don’t include much to back up their emotional and cultural claims. Most of what Pantone has to say about the relevance Very Peri has to today’s mood is not as definitive or concrete as they let on.

A (Color) Spectrum of Emotion

The way we feel about colors has a lot to do with culture. Colors are woven into our cultural norms and shorthands through generations of associations in stories, myths, and rituals. White is seen as pure and clean, the most common color of wedding gowns in the U.S. Black is worn to funerals to signify loss and mourning. But in much of the world, wedding gowns are often red to signify luck and femininity. For some, white is worn to funerals and never for nuptials. All this is to say, while we may all see the same colors,* we think about them differently.

“Color perception is very scientific in its nature,” Brent Smith, Well Done’s senior art director, observes. “But from an emotional perspective, there’s a high degree of cultural relativity with the way people emotionally connect with color.” When any single group assigns a color to specific feelings and emotions, it’s important to remember that we bring our own baggage along to that connection.

How that plays out in marketing isn’t always clearcut. “If you asked someone what feeling red evokes, the answer is likely anger,” postulates Chad Wysong, a designer for Well Done. “But I’m not sure that same emotional connection is relevant when I’m grabbing my red box of Nestle hot cocoa off the grocery store shelf.”

“To a designer, color is a tool,” Nicholas Reese, Well Done’s junior art director adds. “The feelings we associate with any one color isn’t as important as how it’s used. Using a vastly different color than the competition can help you stand out. Color shouldn’t be considered in a vacuum, but in relation to how well it works in a particular application.”

So when Pantone tells us that “PANTONE 17-3938 Very Peri is a symbol of the global zeitgeist of the moment and the transition we are going through,” our designers’ reaction was a little more than skeptical. “Whatever color Pantone selects will end up being used by lots of designers, just because it’s been chosen,” points out Chad Von Borstel, a production designer here at Well Done. “So whether or not it’s particularly suited for being used at this time and place, it will regardless be a trend. It’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Brent adds that a lot of Pantone’s description of their color of the year is, “conjecture about what we think as marketers this color lends itself to,” rather than an unchanging reality. “To me, this color is all about creating new conversations, be it in the digital or physical world. What is called blue by some might be purple to others and vice versa. It’s not about who is right or wrong about a particular color, but that we’re engaging in conversations around individual interpretation.”

A Choice for These Unprecedented Times

Will the interest in color trends be different in the metaverse when everything you see has been selected by web designers? That’s likely what Pantone is hoping, having created a wholly new color for its Color of the Year specifically with our online lives in mind. As far as its use in our current digital world, our developers have some concerns.

For one, it’s not very user-friendly from an accessibility standpoint. From Junior Developer Eric Rees’s perspective, Very Peri “works only at the baseline of what’s acceptable for accessibility for basic white and black.” When he checked the contrast, Very Peri scored a 5.14 contrast ratio. Contrast is an important metric for accessible text on websites—the lower the ratio, the more people with poor vision will struggle to read text. “Five is a passing score, but the lowest rating. There are much higher levels that you can achieve.”

Another factor that plays into designing for a more digital life is consistency. “Color is increasingly flexible in the digital age, which is both helpful and challenging,” Chad Wysong says. “Maintaining consistency in colors across physical and digital media can be tricky, and takes a careful, stringent approach. You can never count on colors appearing the same on different monitors.”

While this particular color might have drawbacks for designers and developers, as a tool to spark conversations, Pantone’s Color of the Year gets the job done. “The fact we’re having this conversation speaks volumes about how smart it is for them,” Joe Black, Well Done’s associate creative director, points out.

Since 2013, there’s been a significant jump in interest in the Pantone each December when the color of the upcoming year is announced. And here we are, talking once again about their flagship color forecast and how it may affect our work in 2022 and beyond.

Does it matter whether Very Peri captures the global zeitgeist? Maybe that isn’t as interesting a conversation as the one it starts about our relationship with color, culture, symbolism, and digital spaces.

 

*This is a total aside, but really interesting: We may or may not all see colors the same way! There are an estimated 300 million people in the world with color vision deficiency. One in 12 men are color blind (8%) and one in 200 women are color blind (0.5%). The most common form of color blindness is the inability to distinguish red and green but there’s also blue-yellow color blindness, which makes it hard to tell blue from green, and full color blindness. On the other side of the genetic lottery, there’s a genetic mutation that has given a few humans an additional receptor—meaning they may be able to see thousands, if not millions, more colors than most people. And that’s just thinking about color from the perspective of humans.

There are lots of animals that see color in a vastly different way than we do. Humans (mostly) have three color receptors while butterflies have five. The mantis shrimp, a deep-sea creature, has an exemplary sixteen different receptors! You can hear all these crazy facts and more in this wild Radiolab podcast about color.