The Fourth Wall

10.22.08 A Rose is a Rose is a Rose

With all of this blogging lately about color it’s time for me to introduce you to one of the designer’s most primary and useful tools-of-the-trade, and explain why clients too should consider owning at least a portion of the Pantone guides to color.

First, a few general lessons about color. Did you know that color is not really absolute? We all think we know what we’re talking about when we say “red,” but beyond the fact that there are zillions of hues of red, our eyes might see (and our brains might perceive) these hues differently. Some of this is physiological and psychological, to be sure, but even simple and absolute things like lighting (which can be cool or warm), context (ie, what color surrounds the red?) and material or substrate (is the color printed on shiny coated paper, being viewed on a computer, a piece of fabric?)… will have a PROFOUND affect on our perception of that color.

This complex and tricky situation–essentially, controlling color perception among those who are concerned with it–is Pantone‘s raison d’etre. In every professional creative field, from specifying color for graphic design, such as brochures, Web sites, etc., to fashion and interiors, Pantone provides a printed set of standards that help us discuss and actually perceive color in a more consistent way. So that maybe, une rose est une rose est une rose.

In today’s cost-conscious, digital world, we designers are producing fewer and fewer color proofs of our work for clients, saving time and money, and opting instead to email pdf’s that for viewing on monitors. Monitors, which are variously calibrated and reproduce color in a special and different way (RGB, or Red, Green, Blue) is a subject for a whole other post. For now, just trust me… your monitor is not a safe way to view color for print.

Along with proofing by pdf, we are also buying and managing far less printing on behalf of our clients; clients are opting to navigate this hugely complicated terrain on their own in an effort to keep costs internal. For all of these reasons, please (please, please) consider buying the Pantone Color Bridge Set. At $179, it’s not cheap, but will save you piles of money on ibuprofen alone. It may also save you thousands of dollars in print materials that turn out differently than you expected because you viewed a pdf of your company brochure on your monitor. Let’s dig in to this, shall we? I suggest a cup of coffee.

Ok, ready? I know that you are!

Pictured above is a complete set of Pantone guides that we bought in 2000, admittedly lightyears ago in terms of our industry. This set probably should have been replaced because of color fading alone, but having kept ours undercover they remain in like-new condition. For most clients, the entire set of these (over $500) is way more than you’ll need, but if your company can afford it, I’d recommend the whole shebang (the CURRENT set, not the slightly outdated one we own). Explanations of these tools follow.

The 3 guides above represent the complete Pantone Matching System, commonly referred to as PMS. Your organization probably has corporate PMS colors and possibly even an expanded palette of same… part of the graphic standards (along with fonts or templates perhaps) developed by a professional designer (we hope) to keep your materials consistent and cohesive among outside and inhouse designers alike.

PMS colors are PRE-MIXED INK FORMULAS. Think of paint that you buy for your walls or home… these colors are professionally mixed in controlled environments, and when specified for your brochure, can be counted upon to be relatively absolute. The books above fan out to show you the full range of these available SOLID colors, printed on uncoated, coated (shiny), and matte (coated, but dull) papers. Why? Because these substrates profoundly change the way many PMS formulas will appear. You can see this illustrated below; I have the three books open to the same page. The difference between uncoated and coated (either shiny or matte) is particularly apparent.

The reason to own this set of books is so that you and your designers can discuss PMS colors, and even paper specifications to some extent, while viewing these things in the same context (remembering again that the colors will shift in sunlight, warm or cool fluorescents, etc…). So when we say: We are thinking about PMS 265 for your logo… you can look that up in your book and say: Oh, I like that very much!

Remember, we can NOT show you what a PMS color will look like by printing on our sophisticated studio inkjet printers. These printers use CMYK to print color, not premixed inks. If the studio inkjets used the actual PMS inks, we’d have thousands and thousands of cartridges (one for each of those 6,000 colors!) residing here in the studio. Obviously not feasible. Let’s explain further.

Pictured above, the Pantone Process Coated and Uncoated (same substrate issue) and the Solid to Process guides. Let’s tackle process first and then the whole solid-to-process conversion ordeal (about which, there is some shocking news! A virtual cliffhanger if you will).

Process refers to printing in CMYK, which stands for Cyan (blue), Magenta (hot pink), Yellow (yellow) and Key (Black). This is the printing process used for all materials that contain color photos; essentially a pattern of dots in varying percentages of all or some of these FOUR COLORS will make up every hue seen on the printed piece. To the naked eye, the dots blend smoothly together, looking under a magnifying glass or “loop” will show you the pattern of dots.

Sometimes, process printing is combined with Pantone printing… a company may have a budget for a 5 (instead of 4) color job, so that their corporate color (PMS 265) remains absolute. But, if budget doesn’t allow for the addition of this 5th color, we will be converting your PMS color to its CMYK equivalent. And that’s where things get tricky.

The first two books pictured above show you JUST a selection of CMYK process colors. Because the combinations are close to infinite, even the thousands of builds shown can be frustratingly limited for us. Still, if we stick to one of these, we can talk to our printers and our clients in the same absolute color language.

The last book, solid to process, shows the conversions from Pantone or PMS to CMYK, side by side. In the photo below, the PMS or PREMIXED pantone color is in the bottom row. In the top row is Pantone’s best effort at replicating that color in CMYK process. Or is it? READ ON, my friends. And, prepare to be shocked.

In what can only be called hugely scandalous, Pantone has CHANGED the CMYK builds, unbeknownst to me until the very morning of this writing. Let me say that again… Pantone has CHANGED the CMYK builds!!! A client, having just this week taken my advice to purchase the NEW Pantone Bridge guides, pointed this out while we were discussing colors. And boy, was my face RED! PMS 032 Red, for those in the know.

So, if you own the Solid to Process book, THROW IT AWAY and purchase the Bridge, pictured below. If you own nothing at all, purchase the Bridge, pictured below. Mine is on order!

Here’s what you’ll get and really, it is all a non-designer needs: The same presentation format as the Solid to Process guide, but (heretofor unpublished) on BOTH coated AND uncoated paper. And, most importantly, with Pantone’s revised, updated, new and improved conversions that promise to be a closer match between PMS and Process. Whoooohooooooo!

Get it? If not, don’t worry… this is the stuff of big headaches, for sure. Just go back to the beginning of this endless (but hopefully not pointless) post and read all of this again. Or call me, I’ll try to help. Because an educated client really makes the best partner for brilliant design and printing results.

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