Is Color Next Limited Resource?

Color: The Next Limited Resource?

As a designer, it is important to be aware of the trending colors, and how they are being applied in products and work produced today. What really isn’t being discussed by the design world at large though are the limitations being set on color. Color is as free for us to use as the air we breathe… or is it?

The color palette is shrinking. It could affect the foundation of design for everything from websites to fashion. The fate of businesses and billions of dollars ride on choosing the right one. We’ll take a look at how color is becoming the next limited resource.

Limit: One Spectrum per World

Color is limited by what our eyes can see. It’s the visible light spectrum (wavelengths of light) our eyes can detect.

On one end of the spectrum lies red (longer wavelengths) and on the other blue (shorter wavelengths); everything in between those are the colors we find in nature.

The visible spectrum.

The visible spectrum.

Although this spectrum we have available is limited, we still do have a lot of choice when it comes to color. We attempt to reproduce this spectrum in printing, monitors, paintings, and so on. The difference in the way a monitor displays color versus a printed brochure is a world away and more technical than most people would want to worry themselves with.

One company is responsible for connecting this vast chasm of color. Pantone.

Color by Any Other Name Would Be Pantone


If there is anyone that could say they own color, it would be Pantone. They have a monopoly on it in the truest sense. Every color you have ever seen used has been indexed and named by Pantone.

What Pantone has done is not a bad thing; in fact, it has done the world (especially designers) a favor. They have taken color from a chaotic Tower of Babel scenario with everyone talking about colors in very different ways and brought us all on to the same page. Literally. Their paint chip and fabric swatch books sit on the desks of designers everywhere.

Pantone’s system allows for a design agency in Chicago to make sure the color they specified for a brand is printed accurately in a magazine by publication in Europe, and looks the same in television spot being created by a firm in Los Angeles.

As J.C. Herz of Wired put it, “If color is a language, Pantone is the Oxford English Dictionary.”

The Battle for Color

For companies, color has become one of the most important identifiers. More often than not, colors are how you recognize and associate products to that brand.

Marketing research has found 80% of visual information is related to color. It’s not just a green, a red, a blue, or a magenta. It’s “Starbucks Green”, “Coke Red”, “Gap Blue”, and “T-Mobile Magenta.”

Separating colors from their brands is close to impossible.

Separating colors from their brands is close to impossible.

The inseparable color and brand association (above) have become a legal reality. Brands are putting a stake in the spectrum and claiming that color for their own use. An infographic of what this looks like was in Wired magazine in June of 2003.

Wired infographic.

Wired infographic showing the “color location” of the world’s biggest brands.

T-Mobile owns the color Magenta

The most interesting and polemic story of a brand buying and claiming a color space is with T-Mobile (Deutsche Telekom). They have trademarked the color magenta.

Yes, T-Mobile owns the rights to magenta.

They have been enforcing this over the years suing companies like a book-on-demand publisher, and most recently, in the blog Engadget Mobile.

T-mobile magenta.

To clarify, companies like T-mobile can only trademark in the industry sector that they are registered in. So T-Mobile has trademarked the color magenta in telecommunications. The blog COLOURLovers says that this means, “you just can’t use the color magenta around anything to do with phones, digital media… oh andjust about anything on the internet.”

What’s in a name?

What's in a name?

In addition to a trademarked color, some companies are also trademarking the actual name of the color.

The insulation company Owens–Corning, known for their The Pink Panther commercials, have registered the term “PINK” (in capital letters only) in reference to its insulation.

UPS is one of the best-known companies of the world, shipping us our goods ordered from across the world to our doorstep. They trademarked the slogan “What canBrown do for you?”

The Europe-based mobile network operator and internet service provider, Orange, uses the color Orange both in its logo and as the trademarked company name.

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