Lawrence Herbert had a problem. In 1962 he bought a small printing company in New Jersey that made display cards to help shoppers choose the right colour of tights.
Herbert’s company had to individually mix the colour for each card because the subtle differences in shades of beige were impossible to buy off the shelf from an ink maker.
This was time-consuming and prone to error. Colours are notoriously difficult to accurately describe at the best of times. When there are only small differences between them it becomes almost impossible.
All too often items had to be reproduced because the shade or tone was wrong, sometimes dramatically so.
Sensing an opportunity, Herbert renamed his company Pantone and set about developing a systematic way to categorise distinct colours with numeric codes.
Pantone produced a now iconic narrow stack of cards with spot colour blocks printed on one side, fixed at the top so they could be spread open like a fan.
Although not the first of its kind, the Pantone Matching System was adopted broadly, and effectively became the universal language of colour.
As a result it was possible for brands to ensure their logo, packaging and advertising were consistent. And so the Starbucks mermaid is the exact same shade of pine green in New York and London as it is in Buenos Aires and Tokyo.
The US government even chose a Pantone red to define the colour of the bands on the Stars and Stripes. And Ben and Jerry’s picked a Pantone for their brownies.
Over the last few years the company has grown from a specialist tool of the trade for designers into a mainstream entity.
Every year, amid great fanfare, the Pantone Colour of the Year is announced, and column inches are filled with excitable commentary from trendspotters about how greenery (2017), or radiant orchid (2014), or tangerine tango (2012) will soon be on everyone’s walls and logos and iPhone cases.
After Prince died Pantone even introduced a special shade of purple in his honour.
And apparently choosing the right colour of tights is much easier now too.