And the title of “World’s Ugliest Color” goes to: Pantone 448C! Also known as “opaque couché,” the drab hue of greenish brown has drawn endless comparisons to baby poop.
Researchers first discovered widespread repulsion to this particular tone in a 2012 study intended to help the Australian government come up with unappealing packaging for cigarettes. The agency GfK Bluemoon had 1,000 smokers select the colors they found most visually repellent. Respondents overwhelmingly associated Pantone 448C with words like “dirty,” “death,” and “tar.” The Australian federal government initially referred to the color as “olive green,” but changed their terminology to “drab dark brown” after the Australian Olive Association expressed concern for the reputation of olives.
After the study, Australia made Pantone 448C the predominant color on its mandatory plain packaging for tobacco products. It was an effort to “kill the glamor” associated with smoking, according to the World Health Organization. Plain packaging policy dictates that a standard color and font style be used for all tobacco packaging, and prohibits logos, colors, brand images, and promotional information other than brand and product names. Since 2012, smoking in Australia has, in fact, decreased. Starting May 31, France, Northern Ireland, and Great Britain have begun implementing similar plain packaging guidelines for tobacco products.
What should artists and designers make of this research on opaque couché? Does drab greenish-brown deter art buyers the way it’s been said to deter smokers? Do artworks prominently featuring hues in the family of Pantone 448C also evoke “dirt,” “death,” and “tar”? Does using the so-called World’s Ugliest Color automatically result in the World’s Ugliest Art? Of course not.
A brief tour through art history yields countless examples of famous artworks that make heavy use of opaque couché and its close relatives. For starters, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” wears a dress and shawl in a shade quite similar to Pantone 448C.
Unsurprisingly, Vincent van Gogh’s “Olive Trees Against a Slope of a Hill” (1889) features swaths of the color formerly known as olive green.
And in Edvard Munch’s “Puberty” (1894–95), a girl sits naked in front of a muddy, greenish-brown wall awash in variations on Pantone 448C.
There are, of course, plenty more examples of this defamed hue figuring prominently in famous artworks. As the Pantone Color Institute — which did not contribute to the 2012 study — told Cosmopolitan: “At the Pantone Color Institute, we consider all colors equally. There is no such thing as the ugliest color nor is there such a thing as the most beautiful color. … With that said, we don’t consider PANTONE 448 to be the ‘fugliest color in the world,’ as our color word association studies show PANTONE 448 is a color associated with deep, rich earth tones.” So, even if it helps you quit smoking, don’t quit sludgy greenish-brown.
Colors aren’t inherently ugly. They are, however, sometimes used in ugly ways.
See studies by Stephen Palmer of Aesthetic Sciences on the WAVE theory of colour preference. Humans have a defined preference for and against certain colours, and it is universal.
Completely ex recto hypothesis: the association Australians experienced with the color has nothing to do with the color, but everything to do with movies. Olive green is a common color in military uniforms such as those typically worn by soldiers in World War One movies — hence the association with “dirty” and “death.”
Interestingly this colour was used in on the bottom half of many psychiatric hospital corridors, with a dark cream on the top half. Sometimes there was a dividing line. When I saw the colour again after many years I just saw endless empty corridors with my feet echoing, and vague sounds coming from behind locked doors. However I still retain a fondness for it!
There are different interpretations of Pantone 448 C
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