Written by: Roger Poteet & Tabitha Yelverton | Published: September 23, 2020
A brand’s identity is synonymous with its color(s). Think Coca-Cola red or Walmart blue. Now imagine a light brown UPS truck pulling into your driveway or a dark green John Deere mower cutting your neighbor’s lawn. Just the thought of it is strange, right?
To maintain the consistent brand image consumers recognize, the printing industry strives tirelessly to minimize printed color variation. A printer needs a color target and a way of comparing the expected color to a consistent and approved color target. Published color books (printed or digital) are oftentimes used as the standard to compare printed products, but there are many factors that impact the reliability of these books as a color benchmark.
PMS (Pantone® Matching System) or GCMI (formerly the Glass Container Manufacturer Institute) publish the most common color books. It’s important to keep in mind these books describe themselves as a color guide, color specifier, or a color communication tool. These books are great as a visual reference to discuss or communicate a desired color to others, but to use them as an unwavering color standard is risky.
Let us explain by highlighting seven color book variables (in no specific order) that could lead to inconsistent results, disgruntled clients, and negatively impacted profits:
There is variation in the substrates used by each edition of the color books and there are differences between the color book’s substrate and your printed product’s substrate. Paper substrates differ in smoothness, wood fibers, porosity, holdout, recycled content, and brightness. Plastic film substrates vary in the plastic material, surface tension, treatments, and opacity. Metal substrates fluctuate in characteristics such as finish, grain, and color.
2. Printing Process
There are different printing methods such as flexographic, gravure, digital, offset, and letterpress. These different printing methods give different finishes and ink film thicknesses.
3. Printing Ink
Some ink properties that can cause variations in printed color include ink types (such as solvent-based, water-based, paste, or UV-cured inks), chemistry, pigment combinations, the thickness the ink is applied (or ink film thickness), and end use performance requirements.
The equipment factors that influence color include sheet transfer type, press width, ink metering type, age of equipment, printing processes, press room environment (such as humidity or dust), and operator skill level.
5. Image Transfer
The amount of ink transferred from the printing plate to the substrate can vary due to plate type, durometer of the plate, plate process method, line screen, dot shape, cylinder finish, and more.
6. Color Evaluation
After being produced, a print must be evaluated by the printing press operator or quality department. The same is even true of published color books. When the color is visually evaluated, it can be influenced by the printing press operator’s skill level, capabilities, and even by the environment, such as surrounding colors and lighting. Those using a color book as a visual standard additionally should consider the age and wear of the color book. If you measure your target with an instrument from a published color book, you are still risking the validity of that measurement as a true representation of the expected color by a client.
7. Transmitted Versus Reflected Color
Lastly, visually comparing transmitted color (like a computer screen) and reflected color (like the printed color book) is not a reliable comparison. This means that the graphics as designed, viewed, and specified from someone’s computer may not reproduce the same visually in an actual print production process.
Ignoring these variables can lead to wasted resources, time, money, and worst of all, a brand disappointed in their printed product.
So, how does a printing company remove these issues preventing consistent color?
The answer is to use digital color measurements to define a color standard.
With advances in technology and color science, printers can utilize digital color measurements to create custom color targets and provide quantitative specifications using the three-dimensional color space.
Unlike printed color books, digital color specifications do not degrade with time nor do they have all the potential variations explored earlier.
Now, this doesn’t mean your old color books have to be tossed in the trash — they can still serve as an initial aid in color selection. If your client agrees on a visual color target using a particular print process and substrate, that visual target can be translated to a digital value for all to use and include a defined tolerance for color variation that’s acceptable to the printer and brand’s final product. Many organizations have excellent digital color comparison tools and software available to assist in this process.
Ultimately, to keep brands and your clients happy with consistent color on their packaging and products, printers must maintain color accuracy and precision. Digital color measurements simply achieve better consistency in print production.
Consistent color leads to fewer wasted resources (time, materials, money) and more happy customers!
Business Marketing Manager
Poteet Printing Systems, LLC
9103 Forsyth Park Drive, Charlotte, NC 28273 USA