Ah, COLOR! Where would we be without it?
Even the colors that we casually label as “black” or “white” have a color cast to them if you look closely. There are MANY different shades of white and black, some warmer, some cooler. And — popular book titles notwithstanding — there are at least 50 shades of gray. Those who study the physiology of color perception tell us that the human eye is capable of distinguishing roughly 10 million different shades and hues. And although color is a highly subjective thing to describe in words, unless a person is clinically color blind, most of us perceive colors in pretty much the same way.
Still, color as such is an abstraction. Aside from comparisons with natural objects like grass, or sky, specific flowers (dandelion yellow, lilac purple), or items with which we’re all familiar, like “Coca-Cola red,” one does have to ask: how, REALLY, would you describe a color in words? It’s an interesting question.
Colors in Design
As a designer I get to make color choices and to creatively combine colors all day long! It’s a pure, almost guilty pleasure. When it comes to colors, I’m like “a kid in a candy store.” The benefit to YOU as my client is that I also use color on a professional basis. I don’t just pick the colors I happen to like personally. Yes, the selection of colors has a subjective component, but in the end I’m choosing colors on your behalf based on knowledge, understanding, goals and objectives, commercial considerations, and years of experience and training.
One of the top questions I ask when I’m about to design a logo, for example, is “what color or colors would you absolutely NOT want to see in your logo?” The answer to this question is often more valuable than its opposite, though I do ask that one too. But it’s also my job to advise you on color choices, not just for logos, but for any design. The “time-honored and traditional” process of designing a logo involves working up the logo to “function” first in, for example, the “classic” combination of black, white, and red. This is a good test to see if the logo can be rendered using a very limited palette and relatively few colors. The reason for this exercise is also to investigate whether the logo will still “carry” or be “readable” if it should happen to be reproduced in black and white, or in a single color. This is an important capability for every logo to have, even in today’s context of low-cost color printing and logos that might appear almost exclusively on a computer monitor. If a logo can’t “hold its own” when printed out in shades of gray, chances are that it’s not an ideal design solution. A decision to go with a heavily color-dependent logo design has to be made with eyes open to the fact that the logo may not perform its task perfectly in all the many contexts in which a typical logo must appear. If such limitations are to be accepted, they need to be understood from the start.
PSYCHOLOGY OF COLOR — Colors have an emotional effect on the viewer, and part of my job is to understand the effect that a color choice has on what the design expresses, such as blues and greens being more “calming” in their affect while reds, yellows, and oranges tend to convey a strong sense of “energy” or even of “danger.” Color consultants — especially those allied to the building and interior decorating business — are quite familiar with the emotional impact and effects of color in the environment. The hues of pink and orange we see combined in the branding of a famous purveyor of coffee and donuts were actually revealed by researchers to have the effect of stimulating the appetite, hence their selection for that brand. Of course culture is also a factor in how colors affect the viewer, and colors have many and disparate symbolism in different cultures. Good designers, especially if they design for multinational audiences, do well to be very mindful of the symbolism of colors.
COLOR IMPACT : FAR AND NEAR / COOL and WARM — Most people are familiar with the color perception basics such as the fact that cooler colors (blues, greens) appear to “recede” from the viewer while warm colors (reds, yellows, oranges) are more “energetic,” and appear to be “closer” to the viewer than neutral or cooler colors. In their more vivid forms, adjacent contrasting hot and cool colors can have a nearly “dazzling” effect on the viewer. There is a long history of artists either consciously or subliminally taking advantage of these factors of human color perception.
All this tells us that color choices are neither arbitrary nor non-influential when it comes to design.
COLOR PERCEPTION AND MEDIA — One important aspect of color has to do with the different ways in which colors are presented to the eye. Sometimes it helps my clients to understand the design process if they’re more familiar with these methods of presenting color. To simplify and list them in brief, these consist primarily of what are termed the “colorspaces” of CMYK (or process), “Spot,” (such as PMS), and RGB (pixels on digital devices).
CMYK refers to the ink colors specially formulated for what’s called process printing — essentially, commercial printing — and the letters stand for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black. These four colors, also often referred to as “process colors” are laid down by printing presses in combinations, layers, and in tiny, tiny dots to achieve a remarkable range of colors when printed on paper or other substrates such as fabric, ceramics, plastics, or other surfaces.
“Spot” colors refer to inks that are formulated such that the ink itself actually IS the color. So the color: red, blue, green, orange, or whatever, is the actual color of the ink itself rather than the color being achieved by combining a mix of ink layers laid down to create red or blue, etc. You may have heard of spot inks such as those from the well-known ink color vendor: Pantone®. Often a company will settle upon a very select palette of specific “spot” colors as the standard for their “corporate” colors, and/or logo.
The process and spot colors are almost exclusively viewed by means of reflected light. That is, the light bounces off the surfaces that have these inks printed on them, and so the color is visible to the eye.
The colors in images that appear on computer monitors or other device screens are defined in terms of RGB colors. “RGB” refers to the three basic essential colors of LIGHT: Red, Green, and Blue, which can be combined in various proportions to create MILLIONS of colors. You may also have heard these expressed as the “hex” or “hexadecimal” color values. RGB and “hex” are the same colors, but just expressed in terms of a different numbering system. The RGB or hexadecimal values represent the mix or levels of the red, green, and blue color components depicted by the pixels on a computer monitor or other electronic device. These colors are almost exclusively viewed by means of transmitted light: that is, colored light emanating from the surface of the device and made visible to the eye much like colored light appears through a stained glass window, rather than by means of light “bouncing off” of an ink-covered surface.
Not all colors can be created equally by these various methods. The range of possible colors that can be presented by each of these methods is often referred to as their color “gamut,” which is basically the range of colors that are possible in each medium. These different colorspaces are capable of presenting different ranges of colors.
To give one example: shades of blue are well represented in the RGB colorspace, and can often be quite lovely and vivid. The same is true for blue spot inks that can depict some of the most amazing and saturated shades of blue. On the other hand, certain shades of blue can be difficult to achieve in the process (CMYK) color range. Although offset printing and other print processes are improving all the time in their technologies, IN GENERAL, shades of blue, for example, are more muted in the process colorspace than they are as spot or RGB colors. It’s the nature of the medium.
SIDEBAR: There certainly ARE spot inks that are metallic or fluorescent, but these are an entirely different “critter.” Suffice it to say that process or spot inks can sort-of resemble these special “colors,” but nothing in the process or RGB colorspaces can truly take the place of a metallic or a fluorescent.
Moving among these different media and color gamuts is not easy, and “pinning down” a color within any one of them is kind of like a game of color “whack-a-mole.” There’s lots of technology devoted to color matching across media, and color calibration, but it’s still not perfect simply because of the inherent differences between the media.
So what does all this mean for YOU and the designs that are created for your business?
Here are a few facts worth knowing —
SPOT vs PROCESS — For a color that is selected based on a spot color, you need to be aware that when that color is printed by means of the offset printing method, it will come out far closer to the color that you chose if the printed piece is printed using FIVE colors: the 4 process colors (CMYK), PLUS the actual spot color ink. Of course, we can always print the closest possible match to the spot color using the process color mix from within the CMYK color gamut, and thereby save the cost of running an additional ink color on press, but there will likely be some difference. The best that the process color mix of CMYK can do is “emulate” the color of the “spot” ink. In general, there will be cases in which the process color result will be less saturated than the actual spot color would be.
COLOR MATCHING — It can be a challenge to match colors across media and materials. Although every effort is made to make the colors on your web site “match” the colors that appear in your printed materials, or on your t-shirt or mug, the nature of these various media makes it nearly impossible to achieve an absolutely exact match in every circumstance. This is even more true in the case of RGB colors, because EVERY computer monitor actually projects colors slightly differently, depending on the make and age of the monitor, how its calibration has been set, and even the influence of ambient light when the monitor is being viewed.
CONTRAST AND READABILITY — When I design for you, I have constantly in mind the factors involved in the use and choice of colors for the sake of both the media by which the colors are presented AND for the sake of factors such as readability. If I’m choosing a color that I know will be appearing in a printed piece, I am aware that the representation I am seeing on a computer monitor is in many ways NOT the same as how the final printed piece will appear. If I select a process color for some element of the printed piece, I do not select it based on what I see on a computer monitor except in very general terms. Even though my computer monitor is well-calibrated within itself, it is still not the same as the process-ink-on-paper will be, so I refer to other reference tools to make certain of how that color will actually look when PRINTED! [True color control to press is rather technical, and involves having consistent color profiles and viewing layouts on monitors in a commercial printer’s prepress department that have actually been calibrated to THEIR presses. But again, that’s a whole other topic unto itself.] I often see printed pieces where I can tell that the designer did not take this disconnect between colors on a computer monitor cf. colors on a printed piece into consideration, and it’s clear to me that although they thought the contrast between a background and text, for example, was sufficient based on what they were seeing on a computer monitor, the resulting printed piece did NOT have sufficient contrast for good readability.
COLORS ON THE WEB — There are a lot of different computer monitors out there! I keep this in mind when choosing colors for a web site as well. One must be aware that the colors chosen based on how the site looks on ONE monitor may not accurately represent how those choices appear on the thousands of other monitors that are out in the world, so care must be taken when selecting colors for a web site to take this into account, or readability may be sacrificed. I have seen many web sites and emailers where text has been set against a background, and the color choices (not to mention font size and weight!) were not well-considered, resulting in areas of the page being virtually indecipherable! Brown, green, red, or blue text on a black background, for instance, is highly problematic, as not all monitors will provide sufficient contrast to allow that type to be readable.
PRINT VS. ONSCREEN — If you like an image or photograph based on how it appears on a computer monitor, you need to be aware that it will very likely not look exactly the same when it appears in print. The image viewed on the computer monitor is being transmitted to you as light in the RGB colorspace, so the printed version will have undergone “translation” into not only process and/or spot colors, but also to an entirely different medium of reflected light bouncing through layers of ink off of a substrate of paper that has also its own color cast and ink-carrying characteristics.
COLORS ON PAPER — Colors (BOTH spot AND process) printed on uncoated or matte finish paper are generally less saturated than when those SAME colors (whether it’s a spot color or a CMYK mix) are printed on a glossy or coated paper stock. Again, it’s the nature of the medium. Essentially, the inks tend to “soak in” and literally spread a little, and light is less intensely reflected from an uncoated paper surface than from a coated or glossy paper. The “soak in” characteristic of a particular paper stock is referred to as “ink holdout,” which means that the surface of the paper is literally more or less resistant to the ink soaking or spreading. Papers with “good ink holdout” hold a sharper dot of ink at the microscopic level, so the image or color printed on them generally appears both more saturated and sharper. That being said, there are some absolutely lovely non-glossy papers in coated or silk finishes that have excellent ink holdout and a completely elegant look. These papers are coated, but not glossy, so their harder surfaces can hold the ink out even though they are not glossy, per se.
COATINGS AND COLORS — Varnishes and other kinds of coatings can enhance colors that have been printed under them, and these coatings can achieve wonderful and interesting textural or light-reflecting (or non-reflecting!) effects. The varnishes themselves can contain tints of color, and the effects possible with these kinds of coatings (treated as an additional color in the printing process) can be amazing. Needless to say, the characteristics of these coatings also affect the color of the inks beneath them.
Colors are a wonderful thing, and I sometimes wonder if people fully appreciate their awesome capacity to perceive them. Not all species have our ability to perceive colors in such a wide gamut. I hope these descriptions have been useful to you as an educated consumer of design. The more you know about how these factors can affect a design, the better we can communicate about the design work that you need.