Pantone Picks Two Colors of the Year for 2021: Ultimate Gray and Illuminating

Pantone Colors of the Year for 2021: Ultimate Gray and Illuminating

Color enthusiasts look forward to Pantone’s annual introduction of the Color (or Colors) of the Year. The company selects colors that have begun to appear in pop culture, modern art, film, and more. But Pantone’s choices also have an impact on the world of design, interior and otherwise. The company’s color selection inspires design choices in several industries. The two colors chosen for 2021 – Ultimate Gray and Illuminating – may seem like an odd pair, but they’re an apt characterization of our current times.

A Brief History of Pantone’s Color of the Year

Pantone was founded in 1963, and it considers itself to be a global color authority. It operates as a color consulting service for a number of industries, but it’s best known for consistency. The Founder, Lawrence Herbert, developed the Pantone Matching System. This unique system enabled the company to make sure colors stayed consistent across multiple formats. For example, a business with a blue and yellow logo will want to make sure the logo’s colors are exactly the same on T-shirts, on printed flyers, and on their customers’ computer screens. Pantone can help them do that.

But while the company has been around for some time, Pantone did not start naming a Color of the Year until 2000 (the first one was a demure blue called Cerulean). The idea for selecting a color at the start of each year came from a conversation between a few employees, and it has since turned into a meticulous process leading up to a celebration of sorts.

Part of Pantone’s selection process involves looking for colors that have had an impact on the world through a variety of influences. Their experts look for emerging color trends in fashion, in film, and even in sporting events. They examine color choices in home decor, whether those colors are chosen for wall colors or accessories.

Photo collage of gray and yellow trendy colors in 2021

Pantone’s selection committee doesn’t so much choose the Color of the Year as much as it spots it. They pay close attention to the dominant color palettes at Fashion Week in London and New York. They visit art exhibits and keep an eye on the world of interior design. And they also see what color trends emerge in everyday life.

Most of the time, Pantone only chooses one color. But in 2016, they chose two. That year was marked by Pantone’s choice of Rose Quartz and Serenity. Rose Quartz is a calm pastel pink, while Serenity is a peaceful blue with just a touch of gray. Part of the reasoning behind the selection of these colors (and behind choosing two colors instead of one) was the company’s support for gender equality.

The 2021 Colors of the Year

For 2021, the selection committee has chosen two colors once again. The surprising pairing of a deep gray and a sunny yellow.

PANTONE 17-5104 Ultimate Gray

Pantone color 17-5104 Ultimate Gray

PANTONE 17-5104, otherwise known as Ultimate Gray, likely wouldn’t have been selected as a standalone Color of the Year. After all, many of us pass by colors like this in our daily lives without paying notice at all. Still, as far as neutrals go, this is a balanced one. It’s lighter than slate but darker than the pale grays often seen on walls. It’s dark enough to be noticed, but not so dark that it becomes suffocating or depressing.

Grays like this one tend to have a calming, almost dampening effect on viewers. Gray is elegant yet understated, and its businesslike appearance often carries a message of authority. Since most people associate gray with age, this color may make viewers think of wisdom.

Pantone describes Ultimate Gray this way:

Ultimate Gray quietly assures, encouraging feelings of composure, steadiness and resilience.

PANTONE 13-0647 Illuminating

Pantone color 13-0647 Illuminating

PANTONE 13-0647, also called Illuminating, is in many ways a polar opposite of Ultimate Gray. While gray runs the risk of being passed over, bright yellows like this one can become overstimulating if overused. But Illuminating’s energizing power makes it suitable for eye-catching art and welcoming interiors alike. Like Ultimate Gray, Illuminating is a color of balance. It’s bright enough to grab a viewer’s attention, but it doesn’t have the blinding quality that many bright colors do.

Most of us already associate yellow with happiness and optimism, but it also has an energizing effect. It’s often tied to the development of creative thoughts.

Pantone describes Illuminating as:

A bright and cheerful yellow sparkling with vivacity, a warming yellow shade imbued with solar power.

The combination of these two ostensible opposites is a surprising one, but it’s a pairing with ample subtext.

What’s the Significance of These Two Colors?

The two gray and yellow colors of the year 2021 on a tropical background with palm leaves

Often, the Pantone selection committee chooses colors that parallel the cultural zeitgeist of the year they were chosen. In 2017, the color was Greenery, a deep green meant to symbolize both new beginnings and a need to reconnect with nature. The selection committee saw the new year as a move into a new era, and their springlike choice reflected that.

In the case of 2021’s Colors of the Year, the choice is especially meaningful. After a year of turbulence and uncertainty on just about every level, many people were looking to see they weren’t alone in what they felt. They also needed hope.

That’s what makes the choice of Ultimate Gray and Illuminating so timely. Even Pantone itself refers to the choices as “A marriage of color conveying a message of strength and hopefulness that is both enduring and uplifting.” Ultimate Gray carries much of the strength of this message. Its understated color is reminiscent of that of a rock or a cliff. The enduring stones of Stonehenge come to mind. That quiet strength has been essential for people weathering the past difficult year, and it’s reflected effectively in this beautiful shade of gray.

Illustration showing the contrast between the colors Ultimate Gray and Illuminating yellow

The contrast between Ultimate Gray and Pantone’s other Color of the Year, Illuminating, is stark. While Ultimate Gray offers a reassuring, calm presence, Illuminating is bursting with energy. This cheerful yellow also has some power to it. It doesn’t have the demure quality of a pastel, but it also avoids the often-grating nature of neons. It’s reminiscent of sunlight, and its encouraging glow is a fitting choice for the times. Illuminating is ideal for people who want to incorporate a little brightness or hope into their homes or creative projects. Pantone explains that this combination is essentially “A message of happiness supported by fortitude.” That sums up the contrast nicely.

Leatrice Eiseman, who heads Pantone’s color consulting department, offers some additional insight into these color choices. She notes that choosing two colors, and two fairly opposite colors at that, was a nod to how much the world needs solidarity at this point in time. She says of the choice, “Our connections and relationships with others give us the emotional support and fill us with gratitude.”

While the yearly color selections are typically based primarily on emerging trends, this year’s selections seem more message-driven than they have before. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In troubling times, people the world over can always use a message of hope.

How Can You Incorporate These Colors?

If you’re interested in keeping your color schemes as on-trend as possible, you might want to incorporate Ultimate Gray and Illuminating into your daily life. Luckily, these are colors that lend themselves to interior decorating, and they’re also at home in almost any kind of design project.


Living room interior in 2021 colors Ultimate Gray and Illuminating yellow

When it comes to interior (or exterior) decorating, both Ultimate Gray and Illuminating shine. Ultimate Gray may be better suited to more traditional interiors. Its stone-like shade makes it ideal for more modern interiors. Plenty of people prefer neutrals when decorating an interior, and neutrals like this one make accessorizing easier.

Of course, a neutral interior by itself runs the risk of looking overly drab. Ultimate Gray does well when accented with brighter accessories. Whether it’s a warm-colored couch or just a few throw pillows, some energizing colors like Illuminating can create a balanced look. For those looking for a more calming space, Ultimate Gray also pairs well with cooler colors. Deep blues and greens come to mind.

For designers looking to create a bright space, Illuminating may be a viable interior color, too. The sense of warmth it imparts may be too much for some rooms, but kitchens and smaller nooks do well with it. Illuminating is also a great color for a front door. It’s bright and welcoming without being overwhelming, and it offers a refreshing departure from what we see as “normal” door colors.

Pantone also advises designers that the juxtaposition of Ultimate Gray and Illuminating can work very well when used for interiors. In particular, this combination is great for offices. Ultimate Gray supports calm and focus, while a burst of Illuminating is energizing and can support creative thought.


3d graphic design with yellow and gray geometric forms

Whether it’s graphic design, advertising, or even social media, this balanced color combination is an optimal choice. In advertising, Illuminating catches the eye while Ultimate Gray creates a sense of reassurance and authority. For social media influencers or just regular people getting on board with this emerging color trend, Pantone even offers social media filters for Facebook and Instagram. And if you want to explore palettes incorporating these colors and more, Pantone offers several intriguing color palettes that can be used in a variety of design applications.


Woman and boy wearing yellow and gray fashion colors of 2021

Illuminating and Ultimate Gray pair well in the fashion world, too. Pantone notes that this combination goes especially well with activewear designs. For instance, this combination looks great on athletic shoes. For a more understated look, jackets, scarves, and other types of outerwear can be primarily Ultimate Gray with just a touch of Illuminating.


Abstract art using Illuminating yellow and Ultimate Gray colors

It may seem prescriptive to recommend that artists let Colors of the Year shape their choices, but modern artists who want to make a statement may want to utilize them at some point. Artechouse, an immersive and high-tech take on the traditional art museum, paired with Pantone to release the Colors of the Year for 2021. The art house developed an immersive, augmented-reality experience centered around both of these colors and released it at their New York location. They created a similar event for the release of the 2020 Color of the Year, Classic Blue.

Final Thoughts

Pantone’s Colors of the Year stand out in more ways than one. The fact that 2021 is only the second time the company has chosen a pair of colors speaks volumes. This particularly poetic choice is an apt summary of uncertain times, and that subtext won’t be lost on those in the design world. But the pairing of Ultimate Gray and Illuminating is an incredibly useful one. Whether a design uses them equally or just adds a shock of yellow to an understated backdrop, the art, design, and fashion that stems from these colors will be something we can all look forward to.

Ultimate Gray
Hex #939597
RGB 147, 149, 151

Hex #F5DF4D
RGB 245, 223, 77