A few days ago, the American company Pantone, which is responsible for a standardised colour matching system used the world over, announced the colour of the year 2024: Peach fuzz.
Click start to play today’s Spell It, where we learn why, every year, a new colour ‘basks’ in global attention, and how the tradition started.
Expressing how peach fuzz brings attention to the cosy comfort the colour evokes, Pantone’s executive director Leatrice Eiseman said the shade “brings belonging, inspires recalibration and an opportunity for nurturing”.
Every year, Pantone’s colour announcement is closely tied with design trends and current culture. But what does it have to do with century-old bird specimens? Apparently, a lot, according to a December 2023 report in the National Geographic.
It all began with Robert Ridgway, American ornithologist and artist at the Smithsonian’s United States National Museum, who, between the years 1886 and 1929, was responsible for describing the country’s diverse avian life.
But before he could even begin, he had to accurately describe the colours of the birds. It might sound like an easy enough task, but when you consider birds fluttering from ambient light to direct sunlight to shade – each colour can appear different from moment to moment.
Just describing birds as ‘blue’, for instance, isn’t enough. Blue jays, eastern bluebirds and indigo buntings are all blue birds, but with very different hues of the colour. The indigo bunting’s rich azure is completely different from the jay’s soft, sky blue.
To do something about this problem, Ridgway published two dictionaries, featuring over 1,000 different colours. The books had beautifully hand painted swatches, with colours like mustard gold and peacock blue. His work ultimately led to the Pantone Colour Institute in the 1960s.
Ridgway’s devotion paid off. He is responsible for naming and describing over 1,000 species, and he even sketched and painted many of the birds with his wife, Julia Ridgway, with incredible artistic skill.
In the late 1950s, printers and advertisers found themselves in a similar conundrum as Ridgway. Manufacturers wanted to make sure the colours they used were both distinct from competitors, and consistent across time.
Noticing this unmet need, and seizing the opportunity, a man named Lawrence Herbert bought the printing company where he worked, in 1962, and created Pantone. The company’s Pantone Matching System became an industrial-scale version of colour systems like Ridgway’s 1912 volume, and similar works.
Today, when Pantone says peach fuzz, someone in Brazil and someone in Dubai know exactly the colour they’re talking about.