• 09
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    Pantone Colors and Hex Codes: How Do We Name Colors in 2018?
    Featured image by iboy_daniel via Flickr

    As we dive deeper into our series about design (follow the links to read our articles about logos and color psychology), we realized that the language we use for color is something worth exploring further. When we talk about colors, it can be hard to verbalize specifics. We can say that we want something to be mauve, but is the mauve we’re thinking of the same color someone else is visualizing in their head?

    To avoid potential discrepancies, people have created systems that describe specific colors. There are many of these systems in use today, but in the US, we primarily denote different shades in two ways: using hex codes and Pantone chips.

    Creating Pop Culture from Pantone Colors

    In 1963, the Pantone company released a system that would allow designers and printers to establish consistency in the realm of color. They called their innovation the Pantone Matching System.

    Instead of using names, Pantone uses numbers. As mentioned above, this system uses “chips,” rectangular pieces of card stock with different colors on them. Each chip also has a unique number on it that corresponds to the color it shows. This allows users in industries of all types to request specific shades and hues rather than making best guesses.

    Decades after creating the Pantone Matching System, the company became cultural trendsetters. In 2000, Pantone started to release their “color of the year” series. After consulting a small group of experts, the company announces a specific tone based on different things that happened that year in categories like entertainment, the economy, politics, technology, and fashion. When they announce their color for the year, they also publish a press release explaining why they chose it. This year, they picked ultra violet, saying:

    “A dramatically provocative and thoughtful purple shade, PANTONE 18-3838 Ultra Violet communicates originality, ingenuity, and visionary thinking that points us toward the future.”

    While these colors are not scientifically chosen, industry professionals often look to them for inspiration. After a color is chosen, one can often find it in movie posters, TV ads, and on runways.

    Pantone inspired art

    Wall art inspired by color swatches // Image by crazyoctopus via Flickr

    Introducing the Internet

    In the age of the Internet, every aspect of technology is run on complicated codes. There are codes that format paragraphs, codes that run video players, and, of course, codes that correspond to colors. Hex codes are widely used to translate colors into something an Internet browser (or computer monitor) can read.

    Much like the system Pantone created, hex codes use numbers and a select range of letters to specify colors. A hex code, as you may have guessed, is six characters long and begins with a hash symbol. While each hex code may appear to be a unified unit, it’s actually comprised of three couplets, the first corresponding to the amount of red in a tone, the second to green, and the third to blue.

    In order to create the level of detail required for a full spectrum of color, hex codes use all ten numerals as well as the letters A–F. For example, ultra violet would be #604d8d. Designers can plug these codes into their software to call up a specific color, making the process of matching much more automatic.

    HEX code artwork

    A playful rendering of a hex code // Image by Blake Burkhart via Flickr

    What’s the difference?

    The relationship between hex codes and Pantone Matching is similar to the difference between reading a dictionary and a book of poetry. Pantone seems to be more interested in what colors mean and, abstractly, what they can represent. On the other hand, hex codes have no story. They’re much more mathematical and unfeeling.

    What’s fun about Pantone is how much thought and creativity they put into everything they do. They’ve released color palettes to represent different decades, saying that the colors of the ’70s were inspired by the decade’s recession, which lent itself to conservative, earthy colors. However, in the modern age, color chips are a lot harder to use when designing in Adobe.

    Neither system is better than the other, but knowing what each one is comprised of and how best to use them can help us all communicate color in the most precise ways imaginable.

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