October 13, 2014, BY Matt Hughes

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Did you ever wonder why there are so many gray and black cars in the parking lot of your local grocery store, or how the latest fashion lines all seem to feature the same palette of colors each season? This fall, Bucknell School of Management students got a hands-on lesson in how and why automotive, apparel and other companies select the colors that they do, using materials from the world's leading color management company, Pantone.

Pantone's business involves assigning alphanumeric codes to many of the 16 million colors the human eye can perceive, providing a reference so the color can be reproduced in any medium, be it paint, fabric, metal or plastic. The company is also a member of the Color Marketing Group, an industry board that decides and promotes the next hot colors, two years in advance. After Bucknell Professor Seth Orsborn, Markets, Innovation and Design, met with Pantone representatives at an industry conference last summer, the company agreed to donate color swatches and an educational color tool to his class, allowing Orsborn's students to gain a professional's view of the colors around us.

"Companies like Pantone are supportive corporations — they support designers regardless of the designer's industry," Orsborn said. "It's good for these students to be familiar with the types of tools that they might encounter when they graduate from Bucknell."

Travon Martin ’15 asks a question to Professor Seth Orsborn

Orsborn's class, MIDE 302, is an intensive studio design course, a rarity for an undergraduate management program. He said it is the only undergraduate course of its kind that he knows of at an American business or management school, and that the practical skills his students take away from the course will give them a leg up in the corporate world. The lesson in color was a stopping point in a broader design curriculum that incorporates a semester-long design project and keeping a daily sketchbook to hone visual skills.

"Bucknell is a balanced university; we don't just focus on the theoretical," Orsborn said. "There's a lot of learning that happens through touch, by repetition or iteration when you're building things or creating or drawing, and you just can't learn those things if all you do is think about them."

The Pantone exercise introduced students to the systems used to classify colors, including Pantone's own proprietary system, as well as color theory, which dictates which colors tend to look good in combination. While it's simple enough to learn the rudiments of in an afternoon, color theory plays into the design of virtually all consumer products, said Orsborn, whose own academic research is focused on color. Cars, shoes and fashion accessories, for example, tend to come in crossover colors — mostly earth-tones that are so named because they pair well with almost anything. When clothiers choose colors for upcoming lines, they start by choosing the skin tones they will be designing for.

"It's something that you might not interact with explicitly, but you will interact with it in some way or another, regardless of what industry you work in," Orsborn told his class.

Orsborn's students tried their hand at the latter activity, using Pantone skin tone color swatches to find their own skin tone and choosing colors they thought matched. They also sorted colors by hue, saturation and value on their own color wheel, and brainstormed the color choices they might make for a variety of consumer products.

"I love color, so I absolutely loved what we did today," said Kate Rolfes, a junior markets, innovation and design major. "I do a lot of art, and I want to go into something creatively focused, so I definitely will do a lot with color no matter where I end up. I'll be going home to Google 'jobs at Pantone' after this."

Even for junior Shiri Levine, the only colorblind student in Orsborn's class, the exercise was eye opening.

"I think it's worth learning about from the perspective of buying and marketing, and how much color influences the choices businesses and marketers make every day," Levine said. "I'm definitely going to think about it much more, and realize that when I'm choosing color there's more to it than just what's pretty."