School colors

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The Blue and White (Mark Holden C '09)

Columbia's official School Colors are "Columbia Blue" and white. Both colors were originally drawn from the two literary societies that were at the heart of student life in the 19th century: blue from the Philolexian Society, and white from the Peithologian Society.


Columbia Blue is defined by the Office of University Publications as Pantone 290 under the Pantone Matching System. White is defined as... white. What did you expect?

The decision to define an official color (and the choice of color) was made by Sandy Kaufman, a member of the office, during the early 2000s in order to provide guidance to other members of the University community during a period of time that featured a number of branding initiatives, such as Columbia 250, and the launch of the Columbia Alumni Association. The determination has since been codified in a visual identity guide first published in 2009, and then updated in 2011.[1][2]

For all its merits, PMS 290 presents a number of difficulties for graphic designers, primarily that reading text in PMS 290 on a light background is extremely difficult. To that end the guide recommends using PMS 280 or 286, or in the case of 4-color Process printing C: 100 M: 72 Y: 0 K, (all three of which are dark blues), black, or gray (60% black) on light backgrounds. It recommends using Columbia Blue itself (PMS 290) only on darker backgrounds, or, in the alternative, the very similar PMS 291, or PMS 284 (another light blue).

Although not included in the guide itself, preferred web-colors for each PMS color have been identified on a "Web & Identity Guidelines" page as follows: Pantone 290 (#c4d8e2)[3], Pantone 291 (#A8cee2), Pantone 284 (#75aadb), Pantone 280 (#002b7f), Pantone 286 (#0038a8), black (#000000), gray (60% black; #999999).[4] Curiously, the same site offers 32 suggested color palettes for use in designing web pages; PMS 290 (as defined in web color) is not incorporated into a single one of them.[5]

In final bit of confusion, the University specifies PMS 294 (without further definition), a color mentioned neither in the blue290 guide, or the Web & Identity Guidelines page, for letterhead and business cards.[6]

Athletics Colors

Columbia Athletics has used the similar but darker Pantone 292 for Columbia Blue on its uniforms and logo, because of the readability issue, since 1999.[7] In addition, for the purposes of Club Sports usage, the department specifies Pantone 291 (given a 4-color Process specification of C: 27 M: 0 Y: 0 K: 0) as 'Columbia Light Blue.'[8] The Club Sports style guide also identifies Pantone 2955 (C: 100 M: 56 Y: 0 K: 34) as 'Columbia Dark Blue', Pantone Process Black (C: 0 M: 0 Y: 0 K: 100) as 'Columbia Black', and Pantone Process Black (20%) (C: 0 M: 0 Y: 0 K: 20) as 'Columbia Gray.'

History of the Blue and White at Columbia

The history of the Blue and White dates back to at least 1852, when the Philolexian and Peithologian Societies each reduced their palette of society colors from two apiece (Blue and Silver for Philo, White and Gold for Peitho) to one apiece.[9] While the colors entered into general usage by students during the 19th century, they first came into prominent use by the school in 1873 "at the boat race at Springfield" according to Dean John Howard Van Amringe.[10][11]

The Philolexian Society maintains to this day, in mock indignation, the position that the school colors are in fact stolen. In 1986, one member of the society wrote a letter to the President of the University demanding $1 million in restitution.[12]

Past Attempts to Define

"Columbia Blue" had been a hard color to pin down historically. A column in the February 1949 Columbia Alumni News lamented the lack of a properly defined color, and set about to investigate. The magazine noted that it used a shade of turquoise for its cover, that the University had adopted a shade called azure for the University Shield, and that on top of that "there are the variegated blues of programs, announcements, and invitations. There is no single Columbia blue."

In the same column the curator of Columbiana described the color as "the blue of the sky close to the horizon on a clear day," but confessed that "Oh, I just tear off the a piece of the cover of the University catalogue" when requesting the color from printers, and Columbia University Press's printing office simply stated that "why, we just ask for Columbia blue."[13]

It's worth noting that the historical range of Columbia Blue in its various uses has run from Cyan to Azure, to more subdued shades of Cornflower blue.

List of colors and uses

Because of the ways colors are defined, displaying them here can be difficult. For example, while the Visual Identity Guide identifies a specific color using the Pantone Matching System, the guide doesn't offer guidance on the preferred definitions for printing in Process Color (i.e. CMYK), or Spot Color, or web colors (which are defined by hex codes).[14][15]

Below are attempts to create a visualization of the varied palette of Columbia Blue in recent use. Where hex codes were not given, ColorPic was used in an attempt to identify the color in question.

"Official" Versions of Columbia Blue

Color Name Source
Columbia Blue Columbia Blue (PMS 290) preferred web color as defined by the Web & Identity Guidelines page[4] (Hex: C4D8E2)
Columbia Blue Columbia Blue (PMS 290) preferred web color as defined by the Columbia College Visual Identity Guide (Hex: A6B7C8)
Columbia Blue Columbia Blue as defined by the Athletics Department in 1999 as PMS 292
Columbia Light Blue Columbia Light Blue as defined by the Athletics Department for Club Sports as PMS 291 (C: 27 M: 0 Y: 0 K: 0)

Other Versions of Columbia Blue

Color Name Source
Columbia Blue 3 Previously registered by Columbia at
Columbia Blue 2 Previously registered by Columbia at
Blue used on from 1999-2003
Blue used on subpages of from 1996-1999
Columbia blue Wikipedia's definition of Columbia Blue, derived from a gif of the University Shield


  1. blue290 A Practical Guide to Columbia’s Standards of Visual Identity (May 2009); May 2011
  2. Although the decision originated with Kaufman in the Publications office, the guidance appears to have been formalized for the first time by Columbia College, which created a visual identity guideline in 2008: Columbia College Visual Identity Guide. (The PDF Document Properties indicate that the guide was created in August 2008.) Note that the College guide offered yet another contrasting blue option (Pantone 295), in addition to a more colorful palette generally.
  3. In its no-longer-circulated 2008 guide, Columbia College identified #a6b7c8 as its preferred web-color interpretation of Pantone 290. Unsurprisingly this is the web-color they've incorporated into their wbesite as of May 2013.
  4. 4.0 4.1 The University Identity: Logo
  5. Color Pallettes
  6. [ Letterhead & Business Cards
  7. The Lion Enters Slick New Era, Columbia Spectator, Nov. 11, 1999. While the article suggests that the choice of Pantone 292 was determinative of Columbia Blue itself, it was actually a design-related decision to opt for a darker blue for Athletics purposes.
  8. The Columbia University Club Sports Visual Identity Style Guide mandates that club sports teams use Pantone 291 as 'Columbia Light Blue.' Whether this was meant to distinguish club teams from varsity teams (using Pantone 292), as many of the guidelines in the guide are meant to do, is unclear.
  9. It is unclear when precisely Philolexian and Peithologian first adopted light blue and white as society colors, but it can be inferred that it happened sometime before 1852.
  10. The Colors of Columbia", Columbia Alumni News, Vol. 6, No. 16, Pgs. 248-249, 15 Jan 1915. Van Amringe may have been referring to the July 17, 1873 regatta at Springfield, Massachusetts. According to the lengthy NY Times report of the event "The majority of the drivers [of vehicles travelling to the boat race site on the morning of the event] had ribbons on their horses to declare their favorites, and the big teams, that took twenty people at a time, were festooned with ribbons of every possible hue, including colors of the whole eleven competing colleges. If one might judge from the signs of the road, Yale runs very popular... The green of Dartmouth, and the purple and white of Amherst, and the blue and white of Columbia, and the maroon and white of the "Aggies," were also very prominent. So also was Harvard, but to a less degree, which seems surprising considering their popularity." A Victory for Yale, The New York Times, 17 July 1873. Though the results aren't clear, it appears that Columbia finished no higher than 7th.
  11. College Colors, Columbia Daily Spectator, 10 Feb 1880.
  12. Letter to President Sovern, 2 May 1986.
  13. Columbia Alumni News Vol. XL No. 5, February 1949
  14. By contrast, compare to Yale's extremely detailed guides on "Yale Blue" and other marks: Yale University Identity Guidelines; Yale Web Style Color Guidelines; "The Yale Brand", Yale Trademark Licensing Program; Yale Trademark Licensing; Yale Licensing - Sample Artwork
  15. Ironically, the Guide does provide a Process Color definition of Pantone 286, a recommended royal blue secondary color.