An introduction to colour


So colour’s, colour right?? If only it was that straight forward. Colour is one of the most complicated areas of the artwork and print process. It is a common mistake for clients to think that what they see printed out from their laser jet printer is the exact same colour for the finished brochure, leaflet or poster. Colour has two warring camps, a bit like the sharks and the jets from Westside story, they know about each other and they come into conflict on regular basis, both with their own stories and reasons for why they exist. Neither is wrong or right, but rather fit for their very own purpose.

Firstly, print uses a different colour system to your TV. TVs use Red, Green and Blue channels as they are light emitting, where as print uses CMYK or Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black, which are light absorbing.

Images taken on a digital camera use RGB and are then converted when they are ready for print (I’m not going to go into all the technical details as this would be a very long blog). Most colours can be reproduced using CMYK, however, certain colours just don’t reproduce the same (such as bright orange) and in this case, we can use what we refer to as 'Spot colours'. These are premixed inks, a bit like when you go into B&Q and pick 'Forest Glade' for your hallway. The benefit of these is that you get to accurately colour match your choice of colour. Printed text is always sharper as the colour isn’t made up of different levels of CMYK overlaid on each other.

To find all the colour combinations for both CMYK and Spot colours, there is an industry reference device called the 'Pantone Swatch', which all printers and design agencies use. This reference tool shows what a certain colour will look like on a gloss paper, silk paper, matt paper or uncoated paper. It will also show you what a colour looks like as a spot colour directly compared to its equivalent when made up out of CMYK. See the example below to compare - the Spot colour is on the left and its equivalent CMYK version, is on the right.

Colour Comparison

Colour is very important, it tells us when to go, when to stop and when to beware. It helps us relax, it helps us feel vibrant. It can let people know when we are sad, and when we are happy. Colour plays a very large part in how we communicate on a daily basis, and using particular colour combinations can make certain things more legible than they would be, were they just printed in black and white. The most legible combination, from a reading perspective, is black and yellow, which is why all of our toxic danger symbols make use of this.

When an object is coloured differently to what we expect, a great deal of confusion can arise - for example, green ketchup, red brussel sprouts etc.

Companies spend a lot of money making sure that their corporate colour is always the same, no matter what it appears on and great lengths are taken to maintain this consistency across all media types. A great example of this is Cadburys and their very own shade of purple. They adopted the Purple colour (or Pantone 2685C to be precise) in 1905, hoping that the regal association of the colour would make the consumer think they were taking part in a rich and indulgent experience when eating their product. Other companies colours, such as UPS (brown) and Tiffany’s (light blue) are also trademarked. Now you might ask how it's possible to trademark a colour and you’d be right to question the process, but not completely right. If I was selling you a car in Cadbury purple, it would be fairly obvious that I’m not trying to piggy back off or masquerade as an associate of Cadburys. But if I tried to sell you a chocolate bar, then it’s a whole different story and these brands will, and have, rigorously defended themselves against this kind of usage.

Colour permeates everything in our life, even down to helping us establish how well we know someone, by whether we know what their favourite colour is.

So next time you compliment someone on how blue their eyes are, you can try the other line of “Your eyes are so Pantone 285C”, and see how far it gets you!

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