The Colour Guide Pt1: The Importance of Colour Communication

Colour communicates. Colour sells. Colour is the sizzle that drives the sale of virtually every consumer product in the world. It evokes a wide range of emotions that draw the buyer to the product. As design, graphics, and imaging professionals, we know that colour is a crucial part of the selling process because it is such an important part of the buying decision. If we use colour effectively in the manufacturing and marketing of an item, potential buyers will perceive added value in that product.

This article is an edit taken from "The Colour Guide and Glossary" from X-rite, Author Unspecified. The document does not appear to be available from their new website, but was previously available as a download. It has been edited to be specifically relevant to the wide format print industry. 

To use colour effectively, it must be kept under tight control. The colour workflow begins with the designer’s ideas and the customer’s specifications. From there, these colours must be communicated among several different individuals who will render and reproduce the colours on many different devices. At each stage of production, output from the previous step becomes the input for the next process. Every exchange brings the colour into a new colour space—from photographic film to monitor RGB to CMYK process proofing and printing on a variety of systems. And every evaluation is made by a different viewer under new viewing conditions.  The Challenge: Colour Communication Consider the many different individuals who “pass the baton” of responsibility for keeping the customer’s colour specifications intact: 

  • Content Specifier/Client Defines message; determines image concept; provides general or specific colour and paper specifications. 

  • Graphic Designer/Photographer Provides image, art, and page files; and printed or digital colour specifications.

  • Pre-Press Service Provider Provides final colour-separated films; colour break information; printed or digital colour specifications.

  • Printing Company Provides final printed piece; meets colour specifications. (the last two generally are under the one roof of the Wide Format Printing Company) 

As we strive to create dazzling, high-quality colour documents and designs, we struggle to control colour at each production phase. Each viewing situation presents its own interpretation of the same colour. For example: 

  • Our original scene contains a wide range of natural, vivid colours. 

  • A photograph of the scene captures much of the scene’s colour; however, some of the dazzling tones are lost when the image is scanned into RGB data. Still more colours are lost or changed when the scan is displayed on a monitor—and the scene appears slightly different on different monitors. 

  • As we move our artwork between imaging, illustration, and layout programs, the colours are specified in different ways. For example, specifying 87% magenta / 91% yellow produces a slightly different colour in Photoshop™, FreeHand™, and QuarkXPress®.

  • When we print our artwork, the colours get colour-separated from RGB data into CMYK data. The colours are interpreted a bit differently on different devices—on our laser copier, our trade shop’s proofing system, and on press. When we check our output, we view the colours under different lighting conditions that affect colour appearance in different ways. Also, different individuals perceive colours based on their own vision skills and memory. 

The common question throughout this process is: which device is telling the truth? Unfortunately, no individual viewers, programs, or devices can reveal the true identity of a colour. They simply perceive the colour's appearance, which can be affected by lighting and other factors. 

The Solution: Colour Measurement and Control Measurement is the key to total production control. Consider this: we measure size in inches or millimetres; weight in pounds and grams; and so on. These scales allow us to establish precise measurement standards that can be repeated in the production process. This ensures that all manufactured items are identical and within our quality tolerances. Using measured colour data, we can do the same for colour—we can monitor colour at each stage of production and check the “closeness”of colour matches using repeatable, standardized numerical data.

So, what properties of colours allow them to be discretely identified and measured? 

Please read The Colour Guide Pt 2: Understanding Colour where we'll examine how colour happens in nature and in our minds; how it is reproduced on screen and on paper; and how colour can be communicated as reflectance values (spectral data) and as three-dimensional values (tristimulus data)..