The world’s most prominent products are recognized by their brand colors, and according to Kissmetrics, 85 percent of people say color is the primary reason they buy a certain product. Therefore, it’s important for brands to define their colors and maintain quality on a global scale. But for designers, communicating and defining color isn’t easy. In fact, the journey from the original product color that starts in design often gets lost or altered en route to production.

Why does this happen? Let’s take a minute to step into the shoes of each side of this messy middle. To oversimplify: designers can tend to view color in terms of brand equity, emotional power and lifestyle aesthetic. On the other side, converters may view color with concerns about feasibility, cost, and repeatability. With that in mind, it’s easy for the production side to to believe that designers have their heads in the clouds and for designers to think that packaging converters, for instance, have their feet too firmly stuck in the mud. See the potential for disconnect?

In 2015, the Pantone Color Institute survey found that 86 percent of designers had little to no knowledge of the manufacturability of color in their workflow. This could mean that most designers surveyed had never asked their production counterparts what is needed in terms of color specification to produce the desired outcome.

Even if designers relay color to the production team, even stating a specific color value like HEX or L*a*b is not enough. Color values can vary based on the target substrate. Colors look very different, for example, when printed on bright white carton board versus brown kraft! Incomplete descriptions cause headaches for production, creating constant back-and-forth communication about what is desired and what is practically achievable – what we call “the messy middle”—resulting in longer lead times, higher costs, and lower quality. The battle for design color versus achievable color costs businesses anywhere from 10-20% of production costs, without adding any value.

To illustrate, consider this coffee cup design (See Image 1): The designer specifies one Pantone color that is the target for both the cup and the brown kraft sleeve. No issues, right? Not exactly.

In this case, the same exact color on white carton board and brown kraft is now two different colors that don’t match. For true achievability of color, designers need to consider the printing method, ink system, as well as the type of material that will receive the design. 

It would be hard to find designers that are rushing to visit a print house where their product is made to learn more about materials and printing methods and which colors are very hard to achieve using different production processes.

And while packaging converters face daily manufacturing challenges and have a wealth of knowledge that could help designers understand how to create achievable color, they are not typically a part of the creative process. With many prepress and production projects and many deadlines, time is of the essence; production relies heavily on designers to get color right the first time around. It is safe to say that both designers and converters would like to get designs to market in a timely fashion.

There are designers who prefer to have visibility to all the constraints under which they are designing right from the start. This should include constraints on color achievability from the manufacturer of the eventual product, whether that’s a cup or a sleeve or a plastic bottle or a box. Too often the constraints are present, but invisible until later in the process after the handoff to production. With a better understanding of achievability, designers can make intentional color decisions in the design process instead of subsequently making trade-offs with production on what will actually work.

So in an ideal world, a designer should specify a color once for each target substrate and printing technology. Seamless execution should occur from prepress to production based on those specifications, and the color should remain consistent across the entire product life cycle, regardless of the substrate or printing technoogy even in a complex global supply chain that includes multiple coverting plants.

Sound impossible? It's not. Designers and their print production counterparts can align to provide achievable color that can be produced efficiently and consistently, every time.

Achievable Color Standards

Designers need tools to interpret color to determine how to achieve target colors for each intended substrate.  They can’t simply work from one single physical reference. This is most easily accomplished using digital color references—spectral values, or the DNA of the color—in conjunction with the physical reference. In PantoneLIVE, for example, there are master and dependent standards that help designers—and their production partners—achieve this.

  • Master Standards are digital values of the color found in the Pantone Formula Coated Guide. These colors are commonly specified by a brand manager.  Of course, Pantone Master Standards cannot always be achieved with every printing process on all materials.
  • Dependent Standards show which colors are achievable (and which are not) and what a Pantone color will look like using different combinations of printing process, ink system and substrate.

For instance, using PantoneLIVE, Pantone colors are pushed to designers in Adobe Illustrator, to see whether a color is achievable. The designer can view the design file next to a simulation of how it would be produced based on the printing technique and substrate in order to anticipate the fidelity of the design. All of this is delivered directly to the designer’s desktop with tools that will also show the impact of different lighting conditions, too.

In the case of our coffee cup example, if the designer were using a dependent standard system like PantoneLIVE, it would be easy to notice that the yellow on the bright white board would be a different yellow when printed on the brown Kraft sleeve. (See Image 2)

By incorporating dependent standards into the design process, designers can manage their own expectations of what Master Pantone Matching System (PMS) colors are achievable and when dependent colors or techniques are required to achieve a more optimal design intent.

Beyond design, dependent standards enable production professionals to receive more accurate numerical color specifications for ink formulation and print instead of trying to figure out the effects of material and method on color through trial and error.

Cleaning up the messy middle

Color management tools and a common language of color that extends to production help resolve the conflict between design and production.

Using tools that show how different colors will appear on different materials helps anticipate results and avoids the dreaded messy middle. Sending those same digital color references to production will cut down on the cycles of proofs and result in more effective expectation setting. With realistic and achievable color standards available in the design phase, both designers and those producing the designs will have the tools they need to execute the right color the first time, every time.