Getting Color Right: Art or Science?

Ninety seconds. That’s how long it takes most of us to make decisions about people and products. According to a study titled Impact of Color on Marketing, “about 62-90 percent of the assessment is based on colors alone.”

Here, we talked to two color experts — Gordon Gizowski and Keith Kasyan — who live and breathe color for Fuse clients. They offer a rare view from the press room floor and explore what it takes to achieve consistency across different mediums — from rigid plastic and flexible vinyl to glossy postcards and vehicle wraps.

 

Metamerism Simply Explained

Let’s say you own two blue shirts, identical in every way except that one is more vibrant than the other. You prefer the more vibrant one, but under the incandescent light in your closet, they look like exactly the same color. When you take them out of the closet and hold them up to the window, in the sunlight, it is easy to spot the difference. This is because the light in your closet is “warm” (3,000K), whereas daylight is “neutral” or “cool” (between 5000K and 6500K), casting hues of varying degrees.

Gordon, a press room manager at Fuse, describes this anomaly as metamerism (pronounced ma-TAM-erism). Metamerism is the basic building block for color matching. The reason is simple: a color's spectral reflective curve (referred to as the color’s “fingerprint”) appears different under different light.

Consistent color then means reproducing color under a standard lighting condition, within tightly defined parameters.

In many instances, variances are probably something "the average person wouldn't know,” Gordon says. They wouldn't know, that is, until they see a color that looks "a little off."

Gordon gives this example: “We recently had a client who wanted us to print a job using fade-resistant pigments in the ink on a reprint. Turns out when they got the job back to their office, it looked unusually red to them. After looking into it, the printed piece showed a color shift under the fluorescent lights -- more than expected, due to the pigments.” 

The way customers experience color in your logo, signage, floor graphics, banners, point-of-purchase displays, packaging, direct mail pieces, swag, and even online all impacts how people relate with and recognize your brand.

We see the value of color consistency firsthand from brand leaders like Tiffany & Co. (who doesn’t love their blue?), Starbucks (green=coffee) and Target (the classic red bullseye is in the top 20 most recognized symbols in the world).

Color interpretation also can differ among the viewers themselves. Gordon points out that a group of people can see color the same way under different conditions, but one or two individuals may see it differently because of their unique perception of color. Light can also change based on the angle you're looking at something. This is called geometric metamerism. We see this happen often with signage printed on plastic.

 

The Most Asked Question

Beyond light, other factors influencing color complexity include different substrates (the base materials being printed on), types of printing presses (offset vs. digital) and ink varieties, as well as the viewing device screens.

While color management software certainly informs the printing process with useful data, it also takes an experienced eye on the shop floor to create the right formulations for consistent color. 

If your head is spinning a bit, you’re not alone. According to Keith, a prepress expert at Fuse, the most often asked question from brands about color is: "Can you convert spot to process, or vice versa?"

His answer: "yes and no." He continues, "With some spot colors, there will never be a good match, no matter what you do. They are simply outside of the process color gamut. Other spot colors can be matched very closely. When conversion is needed, we prefer to convert spot colors to CMYK from within our workflow. This maintains consistency and confirms that we are using the most up-to-date conversion tables from Pantone, Inc."

Three Essentials for Color Management

Keith cites three essential things brand leaders should do to prepare files for print. (If you don’t know these terms, no worries. See below.)

  1. Work in CMYK mode across all applications and platforms.

  2. Use a proper ICC profile for converting RGB to CMYK (one that incorporates a dominant black in neutral grays).

  3. Adhere to the ISO standard for proofing (as specified in the GRACoL® protocol, which stands for General Requirements for Applications in Commercial Offset Lithography).

Keith points to Fuse's digital press and wide-format departments both printing to the GRACoL standard. As a result, printed pieces and their colors match what comes off the litho presses, which in turn also match Fuse's proofing devices. Color measurement tools like X-Rite spectrophotometers ensure metameric matches.  

"Everything is locked into the same standard so we have managed color across all devices in all departments,” he says.

One example is the iconic and well-known Little Caesars brand, a Fuse client. Keith says that orange is printed as a spot color on the litho press. "In order to make a close match on our digital devices," he says, "we have come up with specific formulas for each device. This is technically not a function of the 'color management' system, as we have tweaked this formula outside of the ICC profiles." The result? Little Caesars fans feast on the same orange wherever they engage with the brand.


 
RGB  (red, green, blue) color space is used for screens. RGB is an additive color space, meaning that you start with a black screen and add variations of red, green and blue light to create colors. When all are combined, the result is white. RGB color space includes more vibrant colors than CMYK because thanks to the light.

RGB (red, green, blue) color space is used for screens. RGB is an additive color space, meaning that you start with a black screen and add variations of red, green and blue light to create colors. When all are combined, the result is white. RGB color space includes more vibrant colors than CMYK because thanks to the light.

CMYK  (cyan, magenta, yellow and black; also called process colors or four-color process) involves ink. CMYK is a subtractive color space. You start with a white sheet and, by adding variations of cyan, magenta and yellow ink to absorb light, you subtract the types of light waves being reflected back to your eye. When all three colors are combined, all light is absorbed and will appear black.

CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black; also called process colors or four-color process) involves ink. CMYK is a subtractive color space. You start with a white sheet and, by adding variations of cyan, magenta and yellow ink to absorb light, you subtract the types of light waves being reflected back to your eye. When all three colors are combined, all light is absorbed and will appear black.

PMS/Spot Colors : Pantone Matching System® (PMS) or Spot (sometimes referred to as solid) colors differ in that there is no mixing of colors in the printing process. Instead, colors come as pre-mixed recipes. With spot printing (specifying a specific PMS), the result is uniform, consistent color –from job to job and printer to printer.

PMS/Spot Colors: Pantone Matching System® (PMS) or Spot (sometimes referred to as solid) colors differ in that there is no mixing of colors in the printing process. Instead, colors come as pre-mixed recipes. With spot printing (specifying a specific PMS), the result is uniform, consistent color –from job to job and printer to printer.

 

 Color: Art or Science?

Keith says that with the proper tools and knowledge, color is measurable and reproducible. "Therefore," he says, "it is more science than art. However, because color is subjective and each person experiences it slightly differently, color is intuitive on some level, which would make it an art." Today, brand leaders strive to excel in both.

Charisse McAloon