Jessica Helfand | Essays

Into the Pink

In Western culture, new baby girls are welcomed into the world with rosy pink layettes. Over time, the pale hues of infancy fade away, giving way to more keenly saturated pastels as a child creeps toward toddlerhood. Later, pink is frequently summoned for balloons at birthday parties or streamers on bicycles, for hair ribbons and ballet costumes and Hello Kitty accessories. True, there's Pink Floyd and the Pink Panther (and yes, even Picasso had a pink period) — but at the end of the day, the color pink basically telegraphs the XX gene. Progressive thinkers (and the designers who love them) may resist such a gendered historical reading of color but there it is: a girly cliché.

Recently, however, the paradigm of little-girl-pink has shifted, supplanted by a new, more purposeful pink: it's a color that conjures a still-female, yet altogether different message. Today, pink is the color of breast cancer awareness.

In the coming year alone, more than 200,000 individuals will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and 40,000 will die from the disease. What began with a small pink ribbon has grown into a big pink empire, raising funds for research through the sales of a million different pink-branded products — and more impoortantly, boosting awareness of an extraordinarily pervasive health issue. Everywhere you look, there is evidence of an astonishing range of partnerships that reveal themselves with more pink things: Neenah Paper, Coach Watches, Wrangler Jeans, Barbie Dolls. The idea that a color has come to instantly represent an extraordinary cause is a brilliant example of the power of design.

And the brilliance here is in the simplicity of the idea: the notion of co-opting a color and making it your own.

Today, thanks to efforts that some are calling "punk capitalism", the color red is being used to help combat the AIDS epidemic. Working with The Global Fund and launch partners American Express, Converse, Gap, Giorgio Armani and Motorola (and "branded" — if indeed you can brand a color, which it appears you can — by Wolff Olins) Product (RED) is the brainchild of Bobby Shriver and U2's Bono. It's an idea that combines social idealism with grass-roots capitalism, but most of all, it's an idea that works because it's instantly recognizable: merging simplicity with ubiquity, you communicate while you saturate. (Personally, I also love the appropriation of all those verbs.) Pretty basic. And brilliant. Were it not for the celebrity heft included in the campaign (Kate Moss, Jennifer Garner, Steven Spielberg, to name a few) it smacks of the kind of original, if slightly idealistic "better-living-through-design" thinking that characterizes the best in graduate school thesis projects. It's deeply entrepreneurial, this Red project, yet it manages to also be rather enchanting. Their manifesto explains the simplicity of their win-win concept — a business model, with heart:

"(RED) is not a charity. It is simply a business model. You buy (RED) stuff, we get the money, buy the pills and distribute them. They take the pills, stay alive, and continue to take care of their families and contribute socially and economically in their communities. If they don't get the pills, they die. We don't want them to die. We want to give them the pills. And we can. And you can. And it's easy. All you have to do is upgrade your choice."

Certainly, other brands have long claimed red as their own (Coca-Cola and Newsweek spring to mind), but this (Red) is different: it claims no material ownership, and paradoxically, might even be described as a kind of anti-brand. (A red iPod nano is still an iPod nano.) Still, red is quickly becoming pervasive, largely due to the instant, global, recognizability of a single basic color.

Which is, of course, highly subjective: one man's red is another man's blue. Or in my case, silver. Many years ago as a young designer, I made a presentation to a client for an identity I'd been working on for ages. The identity itself consisted of two colored squares, side by side, upon which the corporate moniker was to be superimposed. The diptych approach had been approved, but the coordinating colors proved something of a challenge. I paced my presentation slowly, eventually unveiling a particular option that included a silver, metallic square — which I had optimistically (and wrongly, it soon turned out) predicted as the favorite. My client frowned. "I don't know about the silvah," she whined to her partner. "The silvah doesn't send me. Does it send you, Oiving?" Irving wasn't sent either. But the silver itself was indeed sent — straight to the cutting room floor.

Where interpretation is concerned, no color is more subjective than a primary color. Take blue, for instance: the color of the sky, of the sea, of royalty and flags and navy regalia. With something old, new and borrowed, it's the only color allowed to penetrate the sanctity of wedding white. "True" blue, as it is often called, is the elder statesman of the primaries perhaps because it so unequivocally projects a kind of implicit nobility. Blue says classicism, strength. And wealth.

Many years ago, I remember Paul Rand telling me about a project he was working on for American Express. He created a series of sketches to demonstrate potential color variations for their platinum credit card, and one of them was instantly recognizable — almost jarringly so — as the trademark aquatic blue of Tiffany & Co. It seemed kind of sneaky, this notion of using a color that so instantly conjured the identity of another company: but that, Mr. Rand assured me, was exactly the point. Tiffany blue said expensive, rich, elite: to cue the audience through the inflection of this particular shade was genius.

Genius it may have been, but Rand's client disagreed. (Speaking of the cutting room floor — and rather comforting to know that even Mr. Rand endured defeat, isn't it?) Yet the idea stuck with me. Like breast cancer awareness pink, Tiffany blue says you can't afford me. Like Product (Red), it immediately connects to an idea — in this case instant elegance, pure luxury, exalted status — the grandfather of bling. Interestingly, "Tiffany Blue" is actually trademarked: it's Pantone Number 1837, which corresponds to the year Tiffany & Co. was founded.

Which makes (Red) and (Pink) all the more remarkable. "Mere colour," wrote Oscar Wilde, "unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways." Unallied with form it may be, but when color connects to an institution, a purpose or a cause, something extraordinary takes place. It goes far beyond branding, because it hints at the emotional degree to which we respond to something that transcends language. To speak to the soul may seem a lofty goal, but it is by no means an impossible one.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Business, History, Politics

Comments [26]

Can you really talk about pink's recent history without mentioning rapper Cam'ron's co-option of it a couple years ago? Jon Caramanica wrote about this for the New York Times, as did many others. Cam'ron eventually gave up pink for purple, I think, but I wasn't following the story very closely.
dan visel

Some ruminating thoughts:

Public color vs. private color. In response to the global notion of the meaning of color; the honor, nobility, wealth, compassion, and awareness color can imbue (im-hue), I find that color is seldomly private (except in my memory of things and in dreams). I think this illustrates my point the best: I invited friends over to my place to show off the design, the color on the walls, and the careworn knicknacks conditioning the interior experience, only to be on the receiving end of this comment: "Wow - you're whole color thing - it's so pottery barn". I was devastated. No! I screamed (not really) It's not "them". This color is "me".

How can color in it's ubiquitous abstracted commercial platform, conversely signify the personal?
Jessica Gladstone

"it claims no material ownership, and paradoxically, might even be described as a kind of anti-brand"

The primary association of red in the 20th century, of course, wasn't a brand, a company, or a product. It was a movement: communism. Is this re-association with AIDS only possible because we're now a generation removed from the Cold War? Surely in the 1980's nobody would have promoted a "RED" campaign for anything.

Question: how many things can one color mean in the same cultural context?


If we want to continue the discussion, I offer another color: brown. One one hand, I think of a large, multinational shipping company (come on, you know who I'm talking about)and on the other I think of something unpleasant stuck to the bottom of my shoe.

I would have to disagree that color is seldomly private. In my opinion, although there is a push to "brand" a color for a particular corporation or charity, color still remains quite personal. In my circle of co-horts, I am known for Magenta. It sometimes shows up in my work or on my clothing, but it is linked, in my oh-so-small world, to me. It is my branded color. How much more personal can it be?

We may culturally share a The meaning of color, no matter what its intended communication, will always be up to the observer and their particular viewpoint.
James D. Nesbitt

James Naisbitt's comment,

We may culturally share a The meaning of color, no matter what its intended communication, will always be up to the observer and their particular viewpoint.
Posted by: James D. Nesbitt on November 17, 2006 04:50 PM

highlights an essential aspect of using colour to commuicate a value or quality. It's highly contextualized culturally and socially - in different cultures, the very same colour may indicate almost exactly opposing views. For example, in India, pure unsullied white without ornamentation is the colour of mourning and death. No bride would ever dream of wearing such a colour, so much so that Indian Christian brides choose shades of cream with gold or silver accents. Similarly, red and gold are extremely auspicious colours in both India and China. All brides wear some hue or combination of these two shades.
Niti Bhan

Think Pink!

Joe Moran

punk capitalism


Per James Nesbitt's comments:
"I would have to disagree that color is seldomly private. In my opinion, although there is a push to "brand" a color for a particular corporation or charity, color still remains quite personal."

Like most anything that has emotional context and can trigger emotional responses, color has private associations as well as public ones: our inherited associations and our private connotations inform each other other. Mythologist Joseph Campbel said that "the myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth."

Color, too, is its own mythologic character: we internalize it, react to it, and spit something out i response to it. In turn, we are further shaped by cultural meanings which have been spat out by our ancestors, colleagues, and children. We shape the world and it shapes us.

To say anything is public without being private is almost meaningless. They always shape each other.

Amber Simmons

Jessica, you say color transcends language, but as Niti Bhan has pointed out, different colors have different meanings in different cultures, so even if color does (in some instances) transcend language, it does not transcend cultural differences. In light of this Jessica, perhaps a more powerful tool than color would be a tool that transcends all cultural differences? Carl Jung would easily have been able to show you what some of these things are. You could learn something along these lines from the underlying patterns of religion too.

You also comment about how great it is that color can really come to be inextricably connected to something like an institution, purpose or cause, tying your comments up with the following quote by Oscar Wilde: "mere colour, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways." You're missing something here because in that quote Oscar Wilde is talking about color that's "unspoiled by meaning". The institutions, purposes and causes to which you refer all have meanings. Therefore the colors about which you talk are not the 'mere colours' Oscar Wilde is talking about. He would disagree that color, when used in the ways you are talking about, 'can speak to the human soul'.

©7 of Spades
7 of Spades

This may be apocryphal, but I've read that pink was the color little boys were dressed in at the beginning of the 1900s. Light blue was for little girls. Somewhere the preferences switched.

Nathan is correct. Pink was the color for boys and blue was the color for girls well into the 1920s. There was a good article on child rearing practices in a 1930s issue of Fortune I read. They pointed out that there had been a lot of changes in child rearing practices, especially those involving babies. Apparently, some time in the early 1900s, pink fell out of favor for men and boys. The marketing consultants carried this change down to baby clothes, arguing for consistency in purchasing patterns. (You'll notice that they also trashed the cute little dresses that toddlers wore. Apparently Hemingway was just too precious.)

Remember, the 1920s and 1930s were extremely consumer oriented. In the pre-1920s rural society one made clothes for the baby. In the post-1920s urban society one bought clothes for the baby. Marketing and advertising were emerging as specialties, and an modern graphics designer would find them familiar today. Of course child raising guilt with the broad range of taboos and dos for expectant and new mothers dates back much further.


Speaking of reclaiming the color, don't forget the direct action and fierce righteousness of Code Pink, women against the war in Iraq. They've been highly visible in the last few years. Given recent election returns, perhaps highly influential, too.

Say PINK aloud. It's a short perlunk.
Say CHARTREUSE aloud. It's a gentle sigh.

ahh Pink! A lovely color that bears no relation to it's verbal expression. And the verbal expression of chartreuse does nothing to prepare one for the citron yellow-green it is attached to.

What is pink but rose, rhubarb, salmon, terra cotta, red rock? How much black do you have to add before it stops being pink?

And what about blue? Where does powder blue stop and robins egg blue begin and power blue pick up? How much black do you add to give the hue gravitas?

If we look closely at living things around us we will find expressions of color represented in unexepected and powerful ways.
Eunice Ockerman

Picking up on Niti's point about how colour 'highlights an essential aspect of using colour to commuicate a value or quality' pink has also been associated with the gay movement . . .

I recall listening to a radio discussion a couple of years ago (on the BBC no less) between marketeers and advertisers, about how brands could target the "pink pound", ie the disposable income of gay couples, who are (apparently) invariably wealthier than their heterosexual counterparts.
Tim Masters

I think colors develop meaning or symbols from the natural world. We associate colors with femineity, because in nature those things are that color. Masculinity in nature has its colors, and so on. I don't think designers or artists created these color associations.
Nathan Philpot

Speaking of personal color associations, that turquoise/aqua/whatever is the color I most closely associate with Satan/Lucifer/the Devil/whoever. I hate that color. I can't explain why, I guess I just find it abrasive and obnoxious.

My color, á la James Nesbitt's comment, is orange/yellow. If you laid my portfolio spread out on the ground and took a picture from way up high, it would have a fairly warm tone.

The timing on this article was pretty convenient for me. I was thinking more and more about people marketing color, as well as people marketing charity. Perhaps this is the start of a color coded charity era. "The proceeds from this benefit will be donated to Pink, Red, Yellow, Periwinkle, and PMS 1837..."
John Ellis

I would hope that, if you laid my portfolio on the ground and took a picture from way up high, its colour would reflect the diverse brands represented, not my personal preferences...

Are we forgetting the ultimate? BLACK. How it can state everything from class to heritage to power to strength. And as the saying goes "when in doubt use black". :)
Premjit Ramachandran

Color has played a role in defining anything from levels (ie, Homeland Security to even evil categorizations (Nazi concentration camp badges. The use of pink by the gay community actually comes from the Nazi's use of pink to signify male sexuality. To see it's meaning turned around in this way show's the portability of color and meaning. In other words, what one color may represent today it may no longer represent tomorrow.

By the way, how did designers and artists become so associated with the color black? Anybody?


Color reads quicker than words or images. Upon encountering a color, we immediately categorize and decode what it might mean; it is our "first impression". Is it stronger to use color that people already have associations with, or to use unfamiliar color that will create a new association?

"By the way, how did designers and artists become so associated with the color black? Anybody?"

I'm gonna guess it has something to do with not having to wash one's clothes that often. :)
Aaron Rester

I recently read a quote from Sandy Lerner, the co-founder of Cisco Systems (and a true character in the best sense of the word), that sums up the problem with pink and little girls. To paraphrase, she said that the amount of pink a girl wears as a child is inversely proportionate to her future earnings.

We associate pink with softness, sweetness, and inocuousness. Little girls are encouraged to crave My Little Pony and Hello Kitty and wear endless amounts of pink lace, fake fur and patent leather.

I think there's a connection. Smart, independent girls shake off this pink haze early on. They instinctively know that it paints them as submissive and weak.

Maybe the coopting of pink by the breast cancer awareness campaign and others can turn the tide and remove the stigma. But as long as we continue to foster the Pink Princess model of girlhood, I have my doubts.

I like your comments Janemar, but wanted to put this idea out there: I heard a segment about the newish character "Abby-Kadaby" on Sesame Street. This particular character is a fairy in training - who loves to wear pink and purple, lace and frills, sashes and ribbons - the epitome of girly girldom. Sesame Street peeps defend this antiquated girlish model and defend her rite among potential role models as saying, "this is what girls like, give them what they like, stop forcing them to reject girliness for other types of empowered character color". I don't agree with such surrender however. I think they know what sells. That Disney princesses - Barbie - and those things you mentioned above - move product off of shelves.

I once was told that pink was the least popular color in the world with regard to product. In terms of awareness however, it's pulling out from the pack.
Jessica Gladstone

janemar, you may enjoy this book, if you've not already come across it,

niti bhan

Colors rotate. Color is part of a "trend" and trends rotate through time.

Trend color now: bright orange (cingular/vonage)

Next Trend color: mint/lime green

..youll see.

I agree with Chris. Mint/light green is coming up. Look at this blog's sidebar!

When we decorated our baby room (girl), it was a cheerful yellow all the way, with light blue accents. I hate pink.
Fine Art Guy

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