A Designer’s Challenge: Getting Color Right

By Shoshana Burgett

“Mere color, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways.”

― Oscar Wilde

Color touches all of us. It is all around us in every waking moment of our lives. It reaches out to us emotionally, affects mood and behavior, and influences the way we look or feel, whether it is the clothing we wear, the car we drive, or the interior of our home or office.

All designers, from brand owners to fashion designers to packaging designers, use color to help create a connection with the consumer. Designers have a vision in their minds they are trying to execute. Like most things in life, the world of our imagination is broader and brighter than managing things in the real world.

Communicating and defining color isn’t easy. Often times the original color intent of a product gets lost or altered along the way from design to production. Color inspiration comes from the world around and translated into physical references using PANTONE Color guides.

For designers working with global brands, managing color takes on even greater importance. Many global brands want their packaging colors to look the same no matter where a product is sold—New York City, Berlin, Tokyo or Dubai. In fact, a recent X-Rite Pantone survey found that 41% of designers found managing global brand color the most challenging. For global brands, color expectations are high and the produced color must match the specified color with little room for error. While the same is true for regional and local brands, these companies have slightly more flexibility when it comes to color tolerances. The one thing all brands, regardless of size, have in common is that color represents the brand.


The Challenge all Designers Face with Color

Designers want to create a consumer experience using color across a range of technologies and substrates. One important question that designers need to ask: Can the desired color be achieved based on the substrate and printing/manufacturing process? For example, gold printed on smooth silk calendared paper will look very different from the gold on Kraft board or recycled board. Gold from a digital press will be different from offset or flexo because most digital presses do not come with gold toner or ink.

To put this into an everyday example, each car has an average mile per gallon. This number varies based on the make/model, type of engine, size of the vehicle, fuel used, tire pressure and even the person driving it. Color works the same way. There are a number of different factors from the inks used, substrates, printing process, to human error that impact achievable color.


Communicating and Converting Color

Once a color is selected, it has to be effectively communicated to all parties in the production workflow. Just saying you want the color “PANTONE Rose Quartz” is not enough. This color likely means something different to everyone in the workflow. Describing color as “grainy, chalky, too fleshy or needs to be pinker” can lead to confusion. These types of fuzzy descriptions have been the foundation for satirical videos, poking fun at the frustration it causes for production and manufacturing.

Using tools like PANTONE color guides provides a language for color. Communicating color with a specific reference, such as PANTONE 13-1520 Rose Quartz, provides a physical standard and supporting material to help specify the desired color across the supply chain in an accurate manner.

The X-Rite Pantone survey also found that the design community often receives requests to convert a PANTONE Color to some other color space. For example, if you are designing in-store displays, car wraps, banners, or gallery prints these items traditionally use grand format technologies. This type of technology uses the standard four colors, Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black (CMYK) or seven-color solutions which add light cyan, light magenta and or orange, green and violet. A seven color -press means a larger range of colors can be produced. Extended gamut or fixed palette printing enable designers to mimic as many as ten colors using seven-color wide format, offset or digital presses.

While designers are specifying using PANTONE references, they need tools to help with the conversion to CMYK, RGB, extended gamut, to HEX colors for web designers, or some other color space. Errors occur when designers and their suppliers don’t have a clear understanding of how a PANTONE Color converts to each of these processes. Tools like PantoneLIVE™ allow designers to virtually see what a color looks like on a material. Other tools such as a physical PANTONE Bridge or the PANTONE Extended Gamut Guide, help designers have a better understanding of what a color will look like. With the right tools for communicating color though pre-production and production, designers can have a higher level of confidence that the color they envision is accurately produced on the final product.

Getting Color Right from Design to Production


Getting color right in production is a challenge. The X-Rite Pantone survey asked designers how often the final product color met expectation. Almost 80% of people said that the final product color sometimes or rarely meets expectations. This shows the importance designers place on color accurate representation of their final product. While color errors can happen at any stage in the workflow process, there is also a lot of room for improvement. Just imagine the time and dollar savings if the color was right the first time. You would have less rework, less waste, and faster production times.

Digital color communication technologies now make it easier than ever to communicate color specifications and references across the supply chain. For example, X-Rite launched PantoneLIVE in 2012, which marked the start of a new era of digital communications. PantoneLIVE is a cloud-based solution that enables the universal PANTONE Color language to be accurately communicated digitally across the entire packaging workflow—from design concept to retail store shelves. Designers can select from Pantone Dependent Standards, which represent desired Master Standards, and see the Pantone approved best match to the Master standards, while taking into account the effect on color outcome of using various different substrates, inks and printing processes. PantoneLIVE offers 27 color libraries, each one unique to the ink system, technology and substrate being used.

Imagine being able to design on Kraft stock and understanding early on, what the target color will look like on the final product. This is exactly what PantoneLIVE enables. Global brands such as Asda (a Walmart company), P&G and others, along with their supply chain partners, are producing color-accurate packaging on a multitude of products found on the shelves today with the help of PantoneLIVE.

For designers, adding three basic steps into their process can help control color today:

1. Use the right standards.

Pantone offers many different color guides for print and packaging, textiles, plastics, etc. Make sure you are using the right guide for the project. If you are using the Pantone Plastics Guide or paper reference for a textile design, you may not be able to achieve the exact color specification due to the nature of the textile. Materials / substrates vary greatly and using the wrong reference can lead to color errors or color that cannot be achieved.

2. View color samples under a controlled light source.

It is common for designers and suppliers to view items outside in natural daylight. Natural daylight varies wildly depending on geography, season, time of day and overall weather conditions. The only way to get controlled lighting is using a light booth. Depending on the product or industry, D50 or D65 Daylight is the standard viewing condition for approvals. Designers should also view the samples under the lighting conditions where the product will appear in—store or home lighting. When viewing samples under a light booth it is also important to eliminate “background noise” for your eyes. Wearing bright colors or placing a light booth by a window can change your perception of color.


3. Remove vague descriptions and adopt digital color communication.

By communicating color digitally, using a specified digital standard which includes information on how to measure samples, operating procedures and the spectral data, everyone in the design and production workflow will be speaking the same color language. Cloud solutions such as PantoneLIVE make it easy to specify color digitally and share it with all suppliers. Using spectrophotometers to measure color provide specific data to manufacturers that can helps guide production efforts. Data is also a great resource for designers. First, it offers a means to communicate what is needed to get to the desired color. Data is used to monitor the supply chain, make color adjustments during the process and to ensure that brand colors are consistently being met. With the right measurement tools and processes in place, color errors in production can be significantly reduced, saving time and money.


It all starts with an idea. How we communicate that idea using a common language (such as PANTONE) is essential for success. Getting color right, at every step, requires the right tools and an understanding of how color will appear using different materials and processes. Starting with the basics of color communication will have positive effect on what you design … today.

Shoshana Burgett is responsible for leading X-Rite’s voice of the customer (VOC) initiative across all industries, identifying market trends and helping the company create innovative products that support emerging customer needs, now and into the future. Burgett has served in a variety of roles related to print, packaging and color management since 1986. She previously held senior management roles at Xerox and has a master’s degree from Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in variable data technology and international business, and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the School of Visual Arts.

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