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Archive for the ‘Color Theory’ Category

Custom Printing: Who Chooses the Color of the Year?

Monday, September 28th, 2020

Photo purchased from … www.depositphotos.com

Who chooses the Color of the Year? I know these words are reminiscent of the Academy Awards. And now, the envelope please. The winner is chartreuse.

But seriously, color is extraordinarily powerful. In most cases a full-color photograph will grab your attention more quickly than a black and white photo (depending, of course, in large part on the surrounding images). The same is true when you consider the specific green of Starbucks or the orange of Home Depot or the multi-colored Apple logo. In all cases, the color ensures immediate brand recognition.

Colors touch people’s memories, their emotions. People associate certain colors with certain attributes (perhaps a deep purple with opulence, or an orange with an upbeat disposition).

In different cultures, however, the same colors might have opposite connotations, a good reason to do research when designing a logo.

Or think of fashion and interior design. Look at Vogue magazine. Observe the particular colors of the clothes the models are wearing, or the colors of their interior surroundings. Colors make powerful statements about people.

But who chooses these colors? Who says, “This year, Chili Pepper, Pantone 19-1557, is what everyone should bring into their fashion color palette”? (Actually that’s a much easier question, and the answer is Executive Director of the Pantone Color Institute, Leatrice Eiseman. The year in question for “Chili Pepper” was 2007.)

The Backstory

It is within this context that a dear friend and commercial printing colleague asked me about the Pantone Color Institute’s yearly color choices, and more specifically about who makes the selections.

To begin with, what is the Pantone Color Institute, and what is Pantone, in general?

If you’re a graphic designer or commercial printing supplier, your desk is probably no farther than four feet from a PMS swatchbook, which lists all PMS colors. These can be mixed (like a baking recipe) from a limited number of colors (13 base pigments plus black, although for a while, from 2007 to 2013, Pantone used fewer colors—10 plus clear coating—for the Pantone Goe System).

These mixtures of pigments create a much larger color gamut than CMYK (the traditional four-color printing ink set, which has at various times been augmented with such colors as orange and green to expand the universe of printable hues). Color builds of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black cannot match the rich and varied hues of an RGB (red, green, blue) computer monitor. This can be a problem if you have specific corporate colors for your logo, for instance. In such cases (that is, if you want to match a particular color that cannot be achieved with a CMYK build), you use a PMS book to select a specific, mixed color. The Pantone Color Institute creates this book of color swatches and curates the annual Color of the Year selection process.

Pantone colors have the incredible benefit of allowing printers all across the globe to communicate color choices, standardize custom printing press output on either coated or uncoated papers, and even translate specific printed colors (reasonably closely) to colors generated on computer monitors. This benefits print production workers, fashion design artists, product designers, and interior designers such as wallpaper designers and upholstery designers, such that everyone involved can have a common language for describing color: on paper, plastics, or fabric. The color scheme is even used by florists. (I once saw a sports car with a vanity plate that read, PMS 185. And the owner of the car was right.)

As an interesting historical note, Pantone began in the 1950s in New Jersey at M&J Levine Advertising (Mervin and Jesse Levine). The Pantone Matching System includes 1,114 spot colors plus metallic and fluorescent colors (as per Wikipedia).

As an interesting optical note, you might also want to Google L*a*b color, which is in fact the most accurate “device independent” description of color, presumably even more accurate than the PMS system (according to Wikipedia). But the Pantone Matching System is exceptionally comprehensive (i.e., it offers a wide color gamut). It is also a standard that is understood everywhere.

The Color of the Year

When I read about how the Pantone Color Institute selects a particular color (or colors) each year, it reminded me of how popes are chosen in Rome. (The description had that tone of gravitas.) Apparently “in a European capital, a secret meeting of representatives from various nations’ color standards groups” selects a color for the following year “after two days of presentations and debate.” (Wikipedia, Pantone).

The key underlying the color of choice is the association of colors to events, approaches to life, and emotions. (That is, the color reflects the current zeitgeist, the temper or tenor of a particular period in history.) For instance, the Pantone Color Institute, headed by Leatrice Eiseman, as noted earlier in this article, chose “Honeysuckle” in 2011 (PMS 18-2120), because “in times of stress, we need something to lift our spirits. Honeysuckle is a captivating, stimulating color that gets the adrenaline going—perfect to ward off the blues” (Wikipedia).

This also reminds me of a wine connoisseur speaking of the “notes” and the “finish” of a particular wine.

Here’s another quote from Leatrice Eiseman:

“I look for ascending color trends, colors that are being used in broader ways and broader context than before…. In this case, Radiant Orchid descends from the purple family, which is kind of a magical color that denotes creativity and innovation…. [The] backstory to purple is that it inspires confidence in your creativity, and we’re living in a world where that kind of creative innovation is greatly admired. In the world of color, purple is an attention-getter, and it has a meaning” (a comment by Leatrice Eiseman about Radiant Orchid, PMS 18-3224, the 2014 Color of the Year).

What We Can Learn from the Pantone Color of the Year

  1. Color has a huge effect on people. People often have an intensely personal connection to a color.
  2. Color influences people’s moods and emotions through print design, interior design, package design, product design, fashion design, etc. If you’re a designer of any kind whatsoever, it absolutely behooves you to study all aspects of color, from the optical to the artistic to the psychological.
  3. Warm colors (like red and orange) appear to advance toward the viewer. Cool colors, like green and blue, appear to recede.
  4. Each person sees a slightly different color when they look at the same item. Based on my reading, it appears that women see color better than men do (when I used to approve print book covers in-person, on press, I would often take a female colleague to the printer with me for this reason).
  5. Color is a function of light and the components of your eye. Therefore, red paint in a closed metal can is not red. It’s black. That’s why a red car looks grey at night.
  6. Some people get as specific about the attributes they pair with certain colors as other people get with their description of a fine wine. Therefore, if you’re choosing a color, or colors, for a corporate identity, it’s wise to get feedback from many, many people.
  7. Assume these pairings of colors and attributes will change from culture to culture, from nationality to nationality. When preparing colors for a corporate identity, show your work to diverse people from multiple groups and cultures.
  8. Realize that there are different standards used to define color. PMS is just one, granted the most popular. Once you tell a printer to use PMS 199, PMS 286, or whatever, that is a contract. He has to match it. (Granted, the color of the paper substrate will affect the look of the color.)
  9. Google the differences between color created on screen (with light) and color created with inks, paints, pencils, and markers. The former is called “additive color.” The latter is called “subtractive color.”
  10. RGB color (created with light) provides a larger color gamut (a huge range of different colors) than colors created with CMYK inks. The specific mixtures of inks comprising PMS colors can allow you to match significantly more hues than if you only used CMYK commercial printing inks.

Commercial Printing: Thoughts on Color Reproduction

Sunday, September 13th, 2020

Color is tricky. Not only does everyone see it slightly differently (from my reading and experience, apparently women see color slightly better than men). Not only does color look different depending on surrounding light (color seen in sunlight differs from color seen under fluorescent light, which differs from color seen under regular incandescent light). But color even varies from what you see on your computer monitor to what your commercial printing supplier can provide in a print job.

Wow. Why even try to learn about color? Because you can understand it and control it to a reasonable degree with a few key concepts and rules, and color enlivens a poster, banner, print book cover, and any other commercial printing project.

Your Monitor vs. the Printing Press

The first rule of thumb is that color on a computer monitor is created with light: red, green, and blue phosphors. In contrast, color on your commercial printing job is created with cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink. Inkjet printers and laser printers also use the CMYK color space.

What you need to know about this is that the two color spaces (RGB and CMYK) do not match exactly. And what this means is that you can create colors within the RGB color space, on your computer monitor, that your custom printing supplier cannot match.

Therefore, here’s the first rule of thumb to use in your own graphic design work. Adjust your photos in the RGB color space (or the CMYK color space), but always convert the files to CMYK before placing your images in your page composition file (i.e., InDesign). This way, you will see any color shifts on your computer monitor before the job goes to press.

At this point I will suggest a caveat. Always request a physical proof for color work. It’s worth the extra cost from your commercial printing vendor to see a replica (for offset lithography) or exact copy (for digital printing) of the final printed output. This is because however close you come to matching colors on your computer screen to your expected final output, they will never match precisely.

That said, you can calibrate your monitor to make it more accurate. You may want to research this online. It usually involves extra software and hardware to analyze and then adjust your monitor. If you choose to do this, you will also want to consider the ambient light (room light). In printers’ prepress departments, there are no windows (no sunlight changing the perceived colors onscreen), and there are hoods on the monitors to keep any room light from changing the perceived color onscreen. Beyond this, often the walls of the prepress department (and the walls in the viewing booth where you can check press sheets in your printer’s plant) are painted a neutral gray for the same reason.

Two More Color Models: HSV and HSL

You may have a PMS swatch book from which you choose match colors for your print design work. Better yet, you may even have a PMS color to CMYK color “bridge” (a color swatch book that includes PMS colors alongside their closest possible 4-color process builds). You can use these, along with the color applications in InDesign and Photoshop, to tell your computer, your monitor, and your custom printing vendor exactly how your colors should look. Then your printer can send you a physical color proof (as opposed to a virtual, PDF screen proof) to show you how your final printed output will look.

But beyond the CMYK and RGB color models I have described, you may also want to research two more color models online. HSL (hue, saturation, lightness) and HSV (hue, saturation, value) color models are very similar. They are both representations of the RGB (red, green, blue) color space that creates color on your computer monitor. HSL is more a reflection of human color perception, whereas HSV represents how colored paints create color.

What makes these two color models useful to a graphic artist is that they help you visualize the hue (the named color, like red or blue) as a position on a circle of colors.

To illustrate this point, imagine this color circle as only a cross section of a cylinder (like a thin slice of a carrot cut out of the center of the root vegetable). At the top of the cylinder is the color white. At the bottom is the color black. Midway is gray.

If you pick a position on the circumference of the circle (let’s say a particular red), and you move up and down (lengthwise) on the surface of the cylinder (up to white or down to black), the particular red you have chosen will get darker or lighter. That quality of lightness or darkness is called “value” or “lightness,” depending on the model (HSV or HSL).

How is this relevant to a graphic designer? It models the transition of a specific color from a lighter to a darker version, and it helps you understand how this happens (by adding black or white). This is true whether you’re a printer or a painter.

The next quality has to do with the purity of a color. It is called “saturation” (the “S” in both the HSL and HSV models). It is also called “intensity.” It has to do with the vibrancy, purity, or amount of uncontaminated color, or hue, within a particular color you have chosen. (The purest color includes no gray; it is just the pure hue.)

If you go back to the model of a cylinder with the colors all around its circumference and white at the top and black at the bottom of the cylinder, you can imagine gray in the center between the black and the white. Imagine moving inward, from the outside of the cylinder to its core. (Or, again, you can picture this as a circle, a thin slice of the cylinder, like the thin slice of carrot mentioned above.)

All the way around the circle you see all the colors of the rainbow. These are the purest (most saturated) versions of the color. But as you move inward, the gray in the center contaminates the colors, makes them less pure, less intense. This is fine. You may want these more neutral colors. Certainly they show up in most if not all 4-color photographs, at least to some degree.

But if you are a graphic designer or a printer, the way these two color models can help you understand, analyze, and specify color is by demonstrating how color behaves, how you can add white or black to lighten or darken a hue, and how you can make a color more or less intense (i.e., saturated), by not adding (or adding) gray.

(As an aside, you can also tone down a color, or reduce its saturation, by adding the complement of that color to the mix. Complementary colors are exactly opposite one another on the color wheel: the outside surface of the cylinder noted above. For instance, you can desaturate red by adding green, or you can desaturate blue by adding orange.)

Other Color Models

There are many other color models. You may want to Google “CIELAB,” “Munsell,” and even “color models” in general. Some color models replace the cylinder I described above with two cones, one on top of the other, joined at the widest part with either end coming to a point (picture a child’s spinning top). Keep in mind that these are only approximations of the reality of color.

If you understand these color models at least somewhat, you will find them referenced in everything from the color picker in your word processing software to the more detailed versions in page layout and photo editing programs. Therefore, you will better understand why you need to specify numerical values to define these colors, or how you can change a color by dragging a pointer over a rainbow colored circle in a graphics program.

But before I stop, I want to describe one final color model noted above. CIELAB, often known as LAB or more specifically L*a*b. This model is useful when you’re touching up color photos in Photoshop because it separates the value (light vs. dark) of a photo from its color information. The “L” stands for “lightness,” while the “a” and “b” channels represent the “green vs. red” component of the color and the “blue vs. yellow” component of the color respectively.

What makes this useful to a designer is that you can adjust the black component of the photo without altering the color, in order to sharpen the image, remove noise (a grainy appearance in a photo), and correct other image flaws. Of course, it is important to translate the image back to RGB and then to CMYK (or directly to CMYK) before transmitting your job to the printer.

What You Can Learn from This Discussion

This is highly conceptual material. It will probably give you a headache. So here are a few take-aways to consider.

  1. Color on the monitor (created with light) is defined within the RGB (red/green/blue) color space.
  2. Color created with ink or toner is defined within the CMYK (cyan/magenta/yellow/black) color space.
  3. These two color spaces do not exactly match. CMYK commercial printing cannot approximate all RGB colors you see on your monitor.
  4. Therefore, check your images in CMYK and hand them off to your printer (within the InDesign file) in CMYK format.
  5. If you study other color models, you can learn to alter color to make it lighter or darker, more saturated or less saturated.
  6. If you study (and use) the L*a*b color space, you may find it much easier to fix color casts, sharpen images, and reduce noise in photos than by using the traditional curves and levels commands in the CMYK or RGB color spaces.
  7. Always convert images to CMYK, no matter what color space you start with.

Custom Printing: Useful Thoughts on Choosing Color

Monday, June 9th, 2014

Understanding color and using it well in your commercial printing and web design can be a major challenge for some and a natural, intuitive process for others. For me it took a lot of study, but I was fortunate to have found many useful books on color over the years. I would encourage you to do the same. When done with a critical eye and observant personality, learning about color can be a rewarding life challenge.

In this light, I recently paged through Digital Color and Type by Rob Carter and found a few choice facts about color that may help you choose color schemes for your own custom printing design work.

What Is the Difference Between a Monochromatic and Achromatic Color Scheme?

I used to mix these up, but here’s a helpful clue to avoid confusion: Monochromatic (“mono,” meaning one) color schemes are based on a single color (or “hue”) along with its tints and shades (i.e., the addition of white or black).

An achromatic color scheme, on the other hand, has no color (a-chromatic, from the Latin for “without color”). If you’re designing with an achromatic color scheme, you’re using white, black, and any number of grays.

Aside from being able to communicate well with a commercial printing supplier, it helps to understand these two terms if you design or coordinate the design of printed materials. Both color schemes will provide a consistent “look” to the piece you’re designing. Another term for such consistency is “color harmony,” which is based on the idea that keeping colors within a design piece to a minimum of related hues will provide a sense of unity to the design.

Use Colors That Work Well Together

Rob Carter includes a brief aid to choosing colors in Digital Color and Type. Carter lists some rules of thumb to get you started:

  1. Choose a dominant color, and then add only a few other hues to this dominant color.
  2. Choose colors with a common element. (It will help you to study the color wheel to learn what colors can be mixed to create other colors. This includes mixing primary colors to get secondary colors—i.e., blue and yellow create green–and mixing primary with secondary colors to get tertiary colors.) Carter goes on to say that harmony can result from using colors that are side by side on the color wheel or colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel (i.e., both similar colors used together and dissimilar colors used together can create color harmony).
  3. Pair vivid colors with their tints and shades rather than with too many other vivid colors. This will unify the design and avoid the vivid colors’ competing with one another.
  4. Pair achromatic colors with “pure hues” (Carter), tints, and shades. (Stated differently, black, white, and gray go well with any other color.)

Most of the rules in this section of Carter’s book focus on choosing a dominant color and then augmenting your color palette with less vibrant hues. Carter also encourages readers to study the color schemes (primary, secondary, tertiary, monochromatic, achromatic, complementary, split complementary, analogous, neutral, and incongruous). Starting with this knowledge base, readers can then experiment.

Consider Both the Type and Its Background (and Strive for Readability)

The color of a design element only exists in relationship (and in contrast to) other areas of color. When you’re setting type in a color, be mindful of the background. Carter notes that “You arrive at the most legible combinations [of colors] when you strive for strong contrasts of hue (warm vs. cool), value (light vs. dark), saturation (vivid vs. dull), and combinations of these (Digital Color and Type, p.16).

Moreover, the extent of contrast in the value of a background area and the type placed over the background will do more to ensure legibility than will any other contrast in the above-mentioned list. (Another way to say this is that dark type on a light background–or light type on a dark background–will be easier to read than a mid-toned type of any color on a mid-toned background of any color.) And to a graphic designer, legibility is crucial.

Carter does note that it is easier to read darker type on a lighter background. However, to create a particular graphic effect for a custom printing project, it’s quite acceptable to position small amounts of lighter type on a darker background.

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