Do designers really need millions of colours, asks Erik Spiekermann

We’ve come a long way from Henry Ford and his any colour ‘so long as it’s black’ line. Pantone’s system, now half a century old, offers more than 10,000 colours and is bigging up an ‘enigmatic purple’ for 2014 (18-3224), while digital screen colours now run into the millions. Maybe it’s all gone too far, say Erik Spiekermann. Erik Spiekermann set up MetaDesign and FontShop, and is a teacher, author, designer and partner at Edenspiekermann


By Erik Spiekermann

In 1909, when the Model T was the only model made by the Ford company, Henry Ford said: 'Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.'

In 1963, Lawrence Herbert created a system of identifying, matching and communicating colours to solve the problems associated with printing accurate matches. He realised that everybody sees colour differently. This led him to produce the Pantone Color Matching System, a book of standardised colours, printed in the shape of a small fan so one could spread the samples and compare them next to each other.

Today, 50 years on, there are 1,677 solid PMS values for spot-colour and 2,868 for 4-colour printing, 3,000 Pantone paints, 2,100 colours for textiles and fashion, plus metallics, pastels and neons. The anniversary colour for 2013 was Emerald, a 'luminous, magnificent hue, the colour of beauty, new life and prosperity'. Emerald looks very green to me, and I always thought that green was the colour of money, but then I am a typography guy who doesn't venture much beyond black and white. This year we get PANTONE® 18-3224 Radiant Orchid, a 'captivating, magical, enigmatic purple', from the other side of the colour wheel. I have no idea what that means for the fashion world or anybody else's for that matter, but I thought it interesting that 2009, the year of the financial crisis, stood under the influence of 14-0848 Mimosa, a 'warm, cheerful shade that sparks imagination and innovation and expressing hope and reassurance'.

Apart from the convoluted grammar in that statement, in retrospect it shows that colour predictions are as accurate as fortune cookies.

Radiant Orchid

Pantone's 2014 Colour of the year, Radiant Orchid

If the thought of a system with more than 10,000 colours frightens you as much as it does me, do the maths when it comes to working out all possible combinations available to us digitally and it gets really scary. The lowest common denominator for VGA monitors used to be 4-bit, that is 16 colours (1-bit means off and on, aka black and white, so 4-bit is 2 to the power of 4, = 16, and on so on), with all Apple Mac hardware offering 24-bit or 17 million colours (16,777,216 to be exact). That equals 256 shades for each RGB pixel, which sounds very reasonable until you do the maths: 265x256x256.

This system is called True Color in tech-speak. Apple simply says 'millions of colors' - meant as a promise, not a threat. Since the human eye can distinguish a mere 10 million colours, True Color is quite an overstatement and physically not necessary. That hasn't stopped the HDMI spec from going as far as 48 bits, (281.5 trillion colours), giving us more than 17 colours for each dollar of US Gross Domestic Product for 2012 ($16.244 trillion)! There is, of course, no relationship between the inflation of technically possible colours and the amount of money produced by an economy.

These days, millions, billions and trillions are thrown around so readily that we have forgotten what they really mean, a fact that is exploited by people with a vested interest in spending other people's money. We just don't register numbers anymore with less than nine zeroes. Life is colourful enough without counting the shades, halftones, transparencies, hues and saturations possible. Millions of colours don't improve the quality of the TV programme, just as colour photographs in newspapers haven't advanced the standards of investigative journalism.

Lawrence Herbert's invention over 50 years ago standardised communication between designers and their various suppliers and we should be grateful to him. Perhaps we could learn to allow more colour into our discussions, into religion, politics and opinions. 4-bit would go a long way away from divisive black and white.

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