21st-century trends

“Classic Blue”: How colour forecasters accidentally chose the perfect colour for the year 2020

5 Mins read

“One flap of a butterfly’s wings can affect the direction of the wind, and that is going to affect the forecast. Imagine how many butterflies would be there to affect the colour forecast”, says Montaha Hidefi, colour archaeologist and VP for colour forecasting at Color Marketing Group (CMG). 

In December 2019, Pantone named “Classic Blue” as the colour of the year 2020, characterising it by its calming and relatable nature. They describe Classic Blue as “suggestive of the sky at dusk”, it’s a deeper and darker shade of blue, which can be obtained through natural dyes. “It’s the colour of the sky. It’s the colour of the sea and that sort of ozone-y feel that you get from the fresh air that is the colour of blue, embodied in a smell”, says Dr. Julie King, Deputy Dean of Creative Industries at the University of Wales and author of various papers discussing colour forecasting and culture. When Pantone created the first colour of the year in 1999 for the year 2000 no one knew how popular the concept would be two decades later. “Even spray paint for metal […] is putting a colour of the year out there”, says Montaha about the buzz around the colour of the year trend. 

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Credit: Pantone

Twenty years later, colour forecasters such as Montaha try to determine what colours will be “trending” in the future, often one to two years in advance. In all areas of our culture, colour forecasting plays an important role – cars, paints, architecture, interior design, cosmetics, or fashion; all these industries rely on colour to appeal to its potential customers. Have you ever wondered how companies come up with specific colours? Why iPhones are only available in certain colours, and why they change between editions? How Pantone decides on one colour that represents a whole year? These are all things that colour forecasters work on. 

How did Pantone come up with the perfect colour for one of the most tumultuous years in the 21st century? “Goodness knows how they actually managed to pick that, but they did exactly the right thing”, says Julie about Pantone’s (perhaps) best colour choice yet. Julie is in awe of their accidentally perfect colour trend to represent 2020, “they did exactly the right thing. […] Suddenly everyone’s away from the workplace working at home and looking for loungewear athleisure things that are making them feel more safe and secure and comfortable. And blue really fits that.”

Classic Blue proved to be popular, showing up in houses, beauty products, and on runways around the world. In interior design, the colour appeared mostly on walls, but also on chairs, couches, pillows, and decorations as eye-catching furniture pieces in otherwise neutral-toned rooms. The beauty industry used the calming colour mostly in eye-makeup such as eyeliner, eyeshadow, or mascara, but Classic Blue also makes an appearance in the form of nail polishes, lipsticks and even hair dye. Fashion brands seemed in love with the calming blue and many of the major fashion houses showcased the colour in their collections for 2020. Balenciaga, Marc Jacobs, Gucci, Comme des Garçons, Louis Vuitton, Moschino, and Chanel were the most well-known brands utilising Classic Blue in their luxury women’s and menswear. 

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Credit: Pantone

“Personally in 2020, I did not see blue anywhere. So I did some research. [..] And apparently 70% of the denim sold in 2020 was blue. But that’s only for North America. Maybe it was different in Europe or in other parts of the world”, says Montaha. In a way, classic blue was exactly the kind of colour that was needed in 2020 but no one had bought (except apparently in the form of denim). Interestingly, these beauty, design, and fashion items mentioned before were all showcased in 2019 for releases in 2020. The collections these companies produced for 2020 were worked on throughout 2019 – unaware of the pandemic and sales drop that were yet to come. 

Brands will work together with colour marketing firms such as CMG or Pantone to get a leg up on future colour trends months before the general public will know about them. “Once we understand that colour plays over 80% of the decision making in buying a product, then we understand the importance of colour to promote products,” Montaha tells me. Brands have understood this significance, which explains the clothes, makeup, and interior designs released in the particular colour of the year just before that new year arises. 

The process of colour forecasting is quite complex and involves looking at different parts of our culture. “Just like the weather forecast, we are looking into how the colour will develop into the future. So we look into that line of colour. [..] The direction is influenced by a lot of things by society, by culture, by environment, by science, by technology, by politics, by economics,” explains Montaha. However, since they have a development period of up to two years in advance, the colour can still be adjusted which gives these companies a little bit of wiggle room. “Things might happen between now and the forecasted years. And when those things happen, they are going to affect the forecasts. But that doesn’t mean that the forecast is wrong”, says Montaha, explaining that they can adjust the colour’s temperature or brightness along the way. 

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Credit: Pantone

Different cultural sectors have different trend cycles – a car manufacturer might have a new model every four years but a fashion house has a collection at least twice a year. In CMG all companies that are members get access to the colour forecast two years in advance. “Because we don’t sell that forecast to outsiders […], the members, depending on their market segments, are going to take the forecast and apply it accordingly.” In fashion, this is often four times a year, having to constantly keep up to dates with the newest trends. But, wait, don’t the big fashion houses create the trends? “Some of them wouldn’t admit it, that, yes, of course they do get help from colour forecasters,” says Julie. She adds, however, that many fashion houses also have in-house colour experts and trend analysts. Fashion houses “do rely heavily on Pantone”, confirms Montaha.

Looking back on different colours of the year, the well-known fashion houses always seem to have at least some pieces that feature the chosen shade. It is undeniable that at least some collaboration between fashion and colour forecasters is going on behind the scenes. Although Julie says that some fashion houses will always have some core colours that fit the brand, no matter the trending hue: “When [Karl Lagerfeld] was at Chanel, his favourite colour was pink, and so pink was always in some form or another in every collection.” She also gives the examples of Giorgio Armani, a brand that often sticks to neutral and refined colours, while a brand like OFF WHITE uses a bold and punchy colour palette. “I think the fashion houses will be looking at trends. But they don’t want to be seen to be following colour trends. They want to be seen to be setting their own or establishing their own mood,” says Julie. 

“We’ve been indoctrinated from a very young age about colour”, explains Julie when asked about the importance of colour in our culture. Colours are perceived differently in various places around the world, metaphorically but also literally. Colours can affect moods and convey feelings. Common sayings like “I’m feeling blue”, “they’re green with envy”, or “I’m seeing red” prove that. People colour-organise their desks and argue over which colour belongs to which school subject. Maybe colour has become such a mundane part of our lives that we forget how much importance lies in it. We are constantly surrounded by it but yet we hardly ever think about why certain things exist in specific colours. Perhaps that’s why Pantone has had such a success with its ‘Colour of the Year’ concept, it finally makes us think about colour and its impact on our culture and surroundings. 

Picture credits: Pantone PR

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