Are Adobe and Pantone playing for colour?

Are Adobe and Pantone are playing for colour?

We were surprised to open Illustrator the other day and get a warning that the Pantone colour palettes would be vanishing from the app.

There’s always been something clunky about the way Illustrator handled spot colours, but I always thought it was more to do with Adobe’s attempts to broaden the App’s appeal, with relentless feature bloat, than anything else.

Then around the time, the Coronaviruses started stalking us, a new plug-in appeared, Pantone Connect. Was there hope for a better system of colour management? In a word, Nope.

It was a clunky, poorly executed thing. What you might expect from early beta. But it wasn’t and isn’t. At its current eighth version, the app is still slow, bloated and basically useless. It was free to explore during the covid lockdowns, so you could check colours, CMYK breakdowns etc, just like you could on the old Pantone website. The plug-in appears to be a poor version of the Pantone website in a palette. It’s a clear sign of where we’ve got to when a look-up chart that used to be a couple of hundred kilobytes now needs a constant internet connection and oh ye, only works if you pay.

While Pantone is not the first to pursue a subscription business model, all software seems to be moving that way. There are normally some benefits, extra features, or useful workflow added. But not with Pantone Connect, it’s worse.

While I don’t begrudge software companies charging for decent apps, I can’t help feeling Pantone’s more graft than most. If this was an app for just picking colours nobody would use it. Designers only tolerate it as it’s now the only way to pick Pantone colours.

Don’t take my word for it check the reviews of the plugin. They must be really feeling the pinch from the move away from print generally and the switch of what’s left to digital printing. And even though nearly every Guidelines isn’t complete with spot references most clients never use them or actually need them. It’s really only packaging projects that use spot colours these days.

As with all these things it started slow, when they removed the proper CMYK conversions from the look tables and we just got the LAB to CMYK conversions, useless! Then there were the serials numbers on the swatches and books to access the miserable Pantone Colour Manager to get your hands on the new colours. Now it seems they’re changing formulas in a sort of forced obsolescence.

Now is all this leading somewhere? I think it is. The reason Illustrator’s swatches have been so clunky has been because of licensing issues. Adobe and Pantone have been bickering over it for years. It seems to be coming to a head.

Adobe has spent the last few years looking at additional revenue they can get from designers, ways to increase value and lockin. Images and fonts are handy. Better ways of sharing proofs and managing changes ok. It’s great that I can spec a font from Adobe and a client or anyone with an Adobe licence can access it and use it freely. Designers like it, and clients love it.

What about colour? Could Adobe see colour as another lock-in? I think maybe they see this as an opportunity. Their only response has been “Watch this space”.

Remember Adobe made InDesign free with their other apps? In a couple of years, Quark Xpress all but disappeared.

It seems strange that Adobe would let the Pantone colour standard go if it needed it. Either Adobe doesn’t think it’s relevant anymore or it’s working on something to replace it. Interestingly you can still use current Pantone colour palettes in apps like Affinity’s Designer app, which costs less than a yearly subscription to Pantone Connect.

It would be interesting if I was to ask clients to pay extra to use Pantone colours. What would they say? I’m sure they’d value the benefit of Pantone’s years of IP development and colour systems. Surely they’d see worth as they do for specialist stocks, typefaces or photography. We’ll have to see how the cards fall.

Derek Carroll

Derek is the Creative Partner at Truly Deeply, a brand agency with 25 years of experience working with brands to position them for growth. His deep expertise is in creating beautiful, effective and unique brand identities that bring strategy to life and resonate with audiences. Derek has extensive experience developing consumer, business, community and government brands.

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