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Michigan State University

Color Codes: Standards, Selfhood, and the Rise of Seeing by Numbers

Wells Hall C640

April 5, 2024

Film, Talks, Panels, and Presentations

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April 5th 2:00-4:00pm

Wells Hall C640

The modern color models (which include the Munsell, Ostwald, and Pantone systems) are part and parcel of everyday life under digital capitalism, yet too often they are viewed as a set of neutral design tools rather than social or political technologies in and of themselves. In this presentation, she uncovers a radical transformation in the mediation of color over the course of the 20th century, one in which corporations and institutions attempted to reconfigure the chaos of human sensory experience into a set of measurable and commodifiable data points – what she calls seeing by numbers. Moving from the commercialized color chart’s ties to eugenics and the techno-utopianism of Pantone’s Color of the Year, she shows how the color standards that calibrate today’s digital interfaces remain entwined with Western-centric, often racialized progress narratives that date back to the turn of the century. She asks: How can understanding the critical history of modern color standards help us rethink how we engage with the colorful interfaces that surround us?