Yellow & Gray: What the PANTONE Colors of the Year Say About Our 2021 Outlook

By Tracey Pattani, CEO, BSSP

2020 was a year covered in chaos and a constant stream of perspectives trying to find sense in it. A dark year for sure.

The holiday season offered respite and felt special because it re-centered us on gratefulness, family and the little things that matter most.

Now, we are back in the midst of all the weighty noise fighting for our attention. Yet, a very interesting signal pierced through as 2020 came to a close.

A few weeks ago, Pantone announced the 2021 colors of the year: Yellow and Gray.  Or rather, PANTONE 17-5104 Ultimate Gray and PANTONE 13-0647 Illuminating.

Yellow and Gray.  Two colors that in ordinary times are fine, not striking. In fact, a Dulux paint survey once found that yellow is our least favorite color. Yet now it couldn’t be more meaningful.

A simple and perfect decision instantly understood by all. Two colors that express one foot in our feelings of sadness and gloom and one foot in our feelings of hope and optimism.  What immense strategic value this brings in reminding us about the importance of resilience and finding opportunity.

A key role for leaders in 2021 and beyond will be to model these values.  To demonstrate that for every gray setback, there is an illuminating comeback. That new opportunities arise out of forced and unwelcome change. And leaders must be given the space by their stakeholders to manage this ebb and flow, as long as it is moving in the “bright” direction.

There’s also a hint of confluence in Pantone’s choice. Two colors joining together to create ultimate, illuminating meaning.  Our business is to look at things from different angles, coming from different people, of different colors, and combine those thoughts in a way that is new and hasn’t been considered.

There’s a great reminder in here that often the best insight is found in the quietest of signals. You have to look closely. You have to listen carefully. Last year, I was overwhelmed by the nonstop headlines of loss and change. When this little piece of Pantone value somehow got my attention and made me think about this balance of emotion and experience in a renewed way. I found something interesting in it.

It even lends us a new language for checking in with each other.  Are you feeling Team Yellow or Team Gray today?   Understanding how individual moods are shaping the discussion can shed light on the unseen emotional obstacles affecting the team and ways to help them move forward.

Now that’s interesting.