What Came Before Munsell & Pantone?

Author: Shoshana Burgett, Pink Elephant Productions

For centuries artists and designers have known that color is as important to design as the design itself. Most designers are familiar with Pantone’s reference books or CSI, but when did it all begin? You might think it began with Pantone or Munsell.  But it started centuries earlier. Here is a brief look at the evolution of today’s color reference guides.

Traité des couleurs servant à la peinture à l’ea
1692 – Traité des couleurs servant
à la peinture à l’ea

More than three centuries ago, a Dutch artist by the name A. Boogert  created a book of colors.  While little is known about the author, scholars believe the book titled, Traité des couleurs servant à la peinture à l’ea, was used to teach aspiring painters how to mix watercolor paints to create certain hues and change their tone by adding one, two or three parts water.  The book is described as an “illuminated mirror of painting, in which we treat all kinds of watercolors with the description of their preparation and their mixture, which is very useful to represent and color the engravings and drawings from nature.”

This book is thought to be one of the earliest example of a comprehensive guide to colors. At almost 900 pages, it is an impressive showing of multiple colors in differing shades. What makes the book unique is how Boogert names the shades, including their listing in an index. 

Only one copy of this handwritten book exists, and it’s on display at the Bibliothèque Méjanes in Aix-en-Provence, France. In 2014, historian Erik Kwakkel shared the content and images of this fantastic book with the rest of the world.

Inside page of a 1907 Munsell Color Atlas
1913 –  Munsell Color System

Albert Munsell was an artist and professor of art at the Massachusetts Normal Art School, now the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Munsell devised a numerical scale to identify a color, rather than use  traditional naming conventions which can be easily misinterpreted. Munsell wanted to create uniformity in the way a color is described and differentiated. The Munsell Color System is a color space that specifies colors based on three properties of color: hue, value (lightness), and chroma (color purity). Brands and designers can purchase the Munsell Book of Color in vibrant to neutral colors and in glossy or matte finishes.

Munsell first published his research in 1905 in the book  A Color Notation. In 1915 he followed up the research with the Atlas of the Munsell Color System. He then formed the Munsell Company in 1917. Today, the Munsell color theory and standards (or color tree) serve as a reference for a wide variety of uses besides color branding. Munsell’s novel and scientific approach continues to be used today across a range of industries for classifying soils, rocks, and artifacts; grading produce; and specifying color based on government standards.

1927 – RAL

RAL is a well-established color system, primarily used in Europe. RAL non-profit LLC is a subsidiary of the German RAL Institute and is managed by the RAL gGmbH in Germany. 

In the early 1920s, German manufactures and their customers needed to exchange physical samples to describe a color. In 1927 the Reich Committee for Delivery and Quality Assurance created a collection that consisted of forty colors, naming it the RAL 840. RAL is an acronym for Real Authentic Likeliness. Sometime in the 1930s, the system was revised to a four-digit number called RAL 840 R. The R stands for revised. The group updated the system again in the 1960s to include tints, RAL 840-HR. As with the other naming conventions, numbers alone did not meet user’s needs, and RAL was updated to include a naming convention.

Today the palette of RAL colours includes a total of 2,528 shades. The RAL system consists of  RAL D2,  RAL K5 Semi Matte, RAL K7 Gloss, and more. Each is focused on interior décor, fashion accessories, paints, varnish, and powder coating.

Pantone Studio iPhone App Lets You Identify Colors from Inspirational Images
1963 – Pantone Matching System

Did you know that Pantone originally started as a print business, not as a color reference guide? It wasn’t until Lawrence Herbert joined the company and he noticed how hard it was for designers, agencies, and printers to communicate color. Herbert had a chemistry background and worked with inks.

One of Herbert’s accounts was a nail polish company. He modified a printing press to create multiple ink wells to print the labels for a nail polish client. While split-fountain inking had been in use for a while, no one had ever modified a press with so many colors on a sheet at one time. Herbert saw a bigger opportunity and began refining and consolidating his pigments to a defined set.  He wanted to create a system that would allow designers to color match specific colors when a design enters the production stage, regardless of the equipment used to produce the color.

In 1963, Herbert formally introduced the Pantone Matching System with 500 colors. It was not long before Paul Rand, Herb Lubalin, Massimo Vignelli, and other graphic design industry leaders were using these unique colors in their typographic and creative logos. Over the next few decades, Pantone became the industry standard for color specification in printing and graphic arts. Most designers associate Pantone with their coated and uncoated PMS color guides – but they offer much more. There are Pantone guides for fashion and product design (known as TCX or TPX/TPG) which is available for textiles, coatings and pigments, and plastics. The Pantone guides are offered as books, fashion and home fan guides, color chips, formulation guides, CMYK guides, extended color guides, etc. Pantone also offers a countless number of colors from core colors, seasonal guides, neons to pastels.

For designers, Pantone integrates with many Adobe design tools to make selecting, designing and communicating color easy. The Pantone Studio App  allows users to create and share color pallets from inspirational images taken on their phones. Users can also use the app to interact with color and material.

Many in the industry consider Pantone the leader in color reference guides and communication. Companies, agencies, sport teams and universities across the globe use it to define their brand and product colors and to create seasonal color pallets.

1999 – Color Solutions International (CSI)

CSI is a subsidiary of Dystar, a dyestuff & chemical manufacturer. CSI evolved when Dystar realized there was a need to communicate color between the design and supply chain. CSI guides are primarily used in the fashion and home décor industries.

As part of a pigment company CSI positions itself slightly different from Pantone guides. CSI combines a visual reference with a master electronic standard in the form of spectral data. According to CSI, this makes it both a design tool and a tool for reproduction in manufacturing. CSI’s primary product is the Color Wall, which consists of 4,000 2×4” color ribbons. CSI also offers color books including the Color Wallette and ColorWall Colors for Print Design, which is integrated with Adobe’s Textile Designer plug-in.

2013 – Archroma

Archroma is a merging of the Textile Chemicals, Paper Specialties, and Emulsions businesses from Clariant Corporation. The company can trace its lineage back to 1886 with Kern & Sandoz which produced textiles dyes. The Color Atlas by Archroma is a physical and digital color library of 4300+ shades developed on cotton poplin. It is used in the fashion industry. Archroma also offers the Color Finder mobile app that allows designers to search the company’s core range of colorant products and first see useful technical and application information.

Swatchbook digitizes both color and material, placing them in the cloud for designers to access.
2017 – Swatchbook

This newcomer is a cloud platform for visualizing and sharing materials. While it does not position itself as a color reference guide, Swatchbook focuses specifically on the challenge of choosing a color on a particular material. The Swatchbook cloud library helps creatives, brands and their supply chain make faster decisions. Using their vast digitized material library, creatives can design and evaluate materials and identify which supplier can produce their products within a specific price, quality and time frame required.

2020 and beyond

From a 15th century index of color to today’s digitization of color and material, artists, designers, and creatives have always faced the challenge of how to communicate color intent in design and production. Luckily there are many solutions designed to improve color communication (beyond those mentioned in this article).

As I look beyond 2020, I anticipate new technology advances in the way color and material appearance is communicated. Color and material characteristics will be seamlessly integrated into design tools and digital workflows allowing designers to focus on creating innovative designs without worrying about color and material requirements.

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