Understanding Color—in Print.

Understanding Color—in Print.

There was a time when print was the only game in town. And it wasn't that long ago. But, as we all know, times have changed. Unfortunately, many in the print business seem to long for yesteryear instead of embracing what has become the "new norm." This has created a slew of opportunities to educate and facilitate print as a formidable component of any strong communications strategy.

To be completely honest, it seemed to me that in-depth, complex conversations about color had pretty much gone away. If I had to put a timeline on it, I would say that 15-20 years ago, everyone was obsessed with color. We'd go through rounds and rounds of "loose color" to get it right. And it was expensive too! And we would run a lot of solid PMS colors on press to ensure the desired color was "spot" on (pun intended).

But that too seemed to fade away over time. Until approximately 2 years ago, I feel like I spent very little time explaining the difference between CMYK and RGB. Solid PMS colors and colors built out of process. Coated vs. uncoated stocks. And the impact all of these factors had on the final printed product.

Then, what seemed like all of a sudden, I started to notice a lot of custom CMYK blends in many of our clients' style guides. Truthfully, I didn't really notice them until we had a particularly difficult purple we were trying to achieve and the 'standard' conversion just wasn't desirable to our client. But no one pointed that out. So, unfortunately, it wasn't until something came off press that our client basically said "that isn't what we were looking for!". Hmmm. And what was tough about it was that they weren't aware that the CMYK values within their style guide were custom—it had been created by their agency. So it was never really a specific topic of conversation.

OK, new rulemake sure to take a look at all CMYK values in style guides to see if they simply indicate the standard conversion, or something different. That fixes that!

Well, kind of. It sure brings to light the fact that someone behind the scenes understood the difference between solid and process colors. Enough to know that they didn't like the standard conversion and chose to come up with their own custom blend. But that makes me wonder, exactly how did they do this?

This is where the complexity begins.

Enter the designer. A peculiar type. I can say this because that's me! Now, admittedly, my time spent 'hands on' has diminished over the years. But creative direction, conceptualizing and guiding internal and external clients through these processes is still very much part of my every day.

And a lot of people are going to think I'm making a mountain out of a mole hill here, but, trust me, that's not my intent.

But the reality is that as we have moved more and more away from print, we have become 'digitally' grounded. Everything we do is based on what we see on a screen. And the color theory behind what you are seeing on a screen is the exact opposite of the theory on how you achieve color in print.

Monitors, scanners, cameras etc…all produce and display color in the RGB color space. RGB is based on the primary colors of light—(R)ed, (G)reen and (B)lue. This is an additive process. In other words, you start with black (0) and you add color to ultimately achieve what you are looking for. As you add color, colors get brighter and brighter until you achieve white—which is 100% Red, Green and Blue. RGB has a much greater color gamut (a wider spectrum of achievable color). Basically, RGB imagery tends to have greater 'pop' to it.

The CMYK color space, on the other hand, is a subtractive process. It is based on the primary colors of pigment—(C)yan, (M)agenta, (Y)ellow and (K)ey (or black). In order to achieve white, you must 'remove' all color (ink). White, is the absence of pigment. As you add ink, colors get darker and darker until you achieve black. Because of the lesser color gamut, CMYK images can tend to look a little dull.

So now, back to our screens. Today's designer tends to start the design process sitting at a computer. Looking at a monitor. And, as we just discussed, they are viewing their creation and making their color selections in the RGB color space. This is fine if your end result is a digital application. However, if you are designing for print, this can be a big mistake.

When designing for print, you must have a Pantone Matching System (PMS) book. Choose your color palette and make your specific color selections using this book. Once you've decided, simply load the desired colors to your swatch palette. Keep in mind, the color swatch you load within your layout program may not look exactly like the color you chose in your PMS book. That's normal (they won't be WAY off though). Again, you are looking at an RGB monitor! Just know that, in print, you will achieve desired color based on the selections from a PMS book.

I think we'll leave it at this for now. This is a basic overview of the primary color spaces that we, as designers, are exposed to. And the importance and significance of making color selections using a PMS book for print design. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out. I'll tackle additional color details in another post!

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