As I compose this month's blog, the weather in Nashville is the coldest it has been in years. The wintry mix of ice and snow has been challenging to navigate for this part of the country, where even the threat of snow can cause panic and school closures before the first snowflake falls. As the chill in the air and absence of vibrant colors from the landscape has many of us longing for Spring, what better topic to write about this month than, well, color?
Color is one of the most exciting tools in the tool box for a designer and artist like myself. When someone refers to "all the colors of the rainbow," I think, "Why limit the palette to only those colors?" Humans are forever trying to categorize colors. The mnemonic device used to remember the order and specific colors of the rainbow is Roy G. Biv (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet), but what about all the colors that fall between the letters in that acronym? I'm certainly not the only person uninterested in limiting the number of colors to Mr. Biv’s name. Creative writer and illustrator Ingrid Sundberg has gone so far as to create her own color thesaurus. How about “butterscotch” to describe a yellow? Or “cerulean” to describe a blue? Color options are infinite!
That is, unless you're a designer.
If you've ever collaborated with a designer, you may have received a little lesson in color that tends toward the technical, one that when explained could put the most intelligent person to sleep even in the height of their day. But a big part of what we do as designers is making sure all aspects of color are the best they can be.
There are limitations to this endeavor. Hue, vibrance/intensity, tone and value all can be affected by variables such as the screen they are viewed on, the light they are viewed in, the color that surrounds them, and/or the paper on which they are printed.
And then there's the color space used. “What is a color space?” you may ask. Well, here's the more technical aspect of color management you will encounter when working with a designer.
There are three types of color space I deal with regularly as a designer: CMYK, RGB, and spot color. Here's a brief breakdown of each of these:
The CMYK system is used in offset printing and often, but not always, with digital printing. CMYK is a subtractive color mode, which means you subtract light from a piece of paper by adding more and more color: i.e., the more ink you add, the darker everything gets. The letters in CMYK stand for cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, and each of these is given a separate plate on the printing press. (The "K" in CMYK stands for “key” because in four-color printing, cyan, magenta, and yellow printing plates are carefully keyed, or aligned, with the key of the black key plate.) Typically, the colors are printed in the order they are named in CMYK although that is not always the case. CMYK is able to produce the entire spectrum of visible colors due to the process of half-toning. In this process, each color is assigned a saturation level and miniscule dots of each of the colors are printed in tiny patterns. This enables the human eye to perceive a specific color made from the combination. In order to improve print quality and reduce moiré patterns, the screen for each color is set at a different angle. If you were to look at CMYK printing under a strong magnifying glass or loupe, you would see the individual dots of each of these colors. Try it!
RGB, on the other hand, is an additive color space. It is used for digital viewing (television, computer screens, etc.) and is what digital cameras typically shoot. Its acronym stands for the primary colors red, green, and blue. In this case, unlike the CMYK model, black is the absence of color. The more color added to the black viewing screen in the form of pixels, the lighter it gets. Today, with the predominance of 24-bit displays, it enables most users to see 16.7 million colors of HTML RGB code, a quite voluminous thesaurus of color indeed! In web page design, there are 216 so-called ‘web-safe’ RGB colors represented by hexidecimal values. Quite simply, the web-safe color palette consists of the 216 combinations of red, green and blue. The mere addition of light from the screen makes this whole color system appear very different from CMYK.
The appearance of color is something we take for granted in our daily life but there really is an art and science to it. Stay with me just a bit longer. I've only got spot color left to explain.
In off-set printing, a “spot color” is a single ink color that is printed using a single printing plate. Thousands of unique colors have been given names or assigned numbers, creating a kind of universal language that allows designers to match any specific colors from different locations without contact with one another. You may have heard of the Pantone color system, but in some rare cases a color derives from another less-used system. Now, as in any printing process, specific spot colors can vary when printed on colored paper, paper with a different finish (such as coated or uncoated), and/or according to the other colors printed alongside them. Even weather and humidity levels can affect a color’s accuracy and drying time. Of course, there are instances when the colors in the Pantone spot color system don't have the "perfect" color a client is asking for. In that case, a custom color may be called for. That's exactly what happened with a recent job where we mixed a special dark chocolate color for a brochure cover, which even had to be adjusted while the job was on press.
You'd think with all these color systems, we’d have it down to a science. Well, it is a science, but it isn't an exact science. Adjustments are often called for. Converting colors across color systems can be quirky: for example, a Pantone red spot color may translate quite differently when converted to CMYK. The same goes for RGB conversions. Despite designers’ constant effort to control these, we occasionally must surrender to the limitations of the translations, finding the best result possible within those limitations. That’s where the art comes in. Not every computer screen is color calibrated the same way. And when printing offset, ink density often needs adjustment on the press. Luckily, technology is only improving. But the process still calls for the resourcefulness and creativity of a skilled and experienced designer.
Working with color is a sometimes difficult yet very important process, but it's one that as a designer I embrace. Do you need assistance with color selection or have questions about reproduction? Get in touch. It's what I love to do!