Updated: Feb 1, 2022
Today we’re talking all about my favourite thing in the world: colour. And more specifically, the rainbow! I arrange books on my bookshelf according to the rainbow. I designed my bathroom to be all white except for all of the shampoo bottles and other things on the shower shelf which, naturally, I’ve lined up in a rainbow. If I could live my life in a rainbow I would take that option.
There’s so much to talk about when it comes to colour, but I want to stay focused because I could talk about this stuff for hours. Specifically, I’m going to look at the surprisingly flawed concept of the ROYGBIV rainbow, how a million different colour are made using paint vs using printing ink, as well as some fun and frivolity along the way, such as a look at the one and only Pantone Barbie and a colourful read with my three year old. Finally, I’m going to give you some tips for working with colour, specifically when it comes to text for print.
Basic Colour Theory
Let’s start with where we all start with colour theory: kindergarten. Let’s review some basic colour theory and for this I will use a favourite read in the library of my preschooler: Mouse Paint.
You now have a good review of the primary colours of paint (blue, red, yellow) and the secondary colours (orange, green, purple). If you’re a curious toddler and you decide to see what happens when you mix all three primary colours together, that’s when you get... mud brown. But that mud brown experimentation gives us a very good clue as to why, in printing, we need more than just three primary colours. We also need a fourth colour: black. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Additive vs. Subtractive Colour Models
Colour requires light. Colour is wavelengths of light. Without light, there is no colour. It’s helpful to understand the two systems at work that break down how colours interact with one another in different mediums - namely light and ink on paper. These are referred to as the additive and subtractive colour models respectively.
The additive colour model uses light. Red, green and blue (RGB) light work like the primary colours we learned in kindergarten. In equal parts, the primary colours of light, red, green and blue light make white light. Imagine three overlapping circles of R, G and B added together to create white in the centre. (If you can picture it or Google it, Ontario’s Science Centre logo is the overlapping RGB image - however it’s missing some additional information which we’ll get to in a second so that Ontario’s trillium flower lies in the middle - very clever designers, but not super accurate...) But what are the secondary colours of this model? What do equal parts blue and green make, for instance? Blue light plus green light equals cyan, a sort of bright light blue colour. How about equal parts blue light plus red light? Magenta! (A kind of hot pink colour.) Lastly, equal parts green light and red light? Yellow! Cyan, magenta and yellow are the secondary colours that can be made using RGB.
What about the other colour model I mentioned? The subtractive colour model refers not to light, but instead to ink on paper. The primary colours of the subtractive colour model are cyan, magenta and yellow (interesting!). In equal parts (in theory) they should create black, but instead they create a dark muddy brown due to pigment impurities. But in theory it creates black. The additive colour model created the opposite when combined, white. Last question: what are the secondary colours of the subtractive colour model? Magenta ink plus yellow ink in equal parts makes… red. Yellow ink and cyan ink in equal parts makes… green. And cyan ink and magenta ink in equal parts make… blue. R… G… B… The two systems are the exact inverse of one another! It’s how our eyes perceive colour on screen (additive) and in print (subtractive).
These colour models help to explain how CMY came to be instead of using the primary colours of paint - blue, red and yellow. CMY better connects to the RGB system of colour, which matches the way the cones in our eyes filter and see colour. CMY together creates a larger possible gamut (number of reproducible colours) than can be achieved using blue, red and yellow.
ROYGBIV is a hoax
Picture a rainbow. Although it may be obvious to say that the rainbow (also called the visible colour spectrum) can be divided into individual colours (red, orange, yellow, and so on...), the way in which it’s commonly divided is quite arbitrary. @theatlantic asks us to rethink our belief in this well-loved and widely taught taxonomy, as it turns out that it’s much more subjective than scientific. Although many cultures throughout history have evidence of subdividing the colour we see in a variety of ways (commonly black and white and a couple of additional colours), when Newton separated white light using a prism, he decided that he could identify seven distinct colours: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet or ROYGBIV. 🌈
Mr. Newton, it’s nearly 400 years later and we have questions.🙋🏼 First, why seven? Well, he believed that there should be seven so that comparisons could be drawn between the visible colour spectrum and musical notes in a scale: Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti. 🎵
Second, why did he identify two distinct types of purple? Indigo AND violet? ☂️🌂 (Which, if you look closely, you’ll notice even the rainbow emoji is sporting. 🌈) Newton decided that he could identify two specific hues within the purple part of the spectrum, however there’s arguably more area covered in the transition from green to blue than in purple. Perhaps a better (and easier to remember) acronym may be ROYGOBI (olive or ocean) 🍸🌊 or ROYGABI (avocado or azure)🥑🗳. (But I’m a traditionalist, so if I ever have a son, his name shall be Roy G. Biv Varma.)
However we want to subdivide the visible spectrum, how do we actually print a rainbow of colours? If there are only four colours (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) what is this magic that allows us to take four colours and make a million? I’m going to dive deeper and let you in on a little trade secret about how us printers do it. We call these “process colours” and they’re pretty magical… or at least tactical…
CMYK secret agents
CMYK: cyan, magenta, yellow and black.
Aliases: The Process Colours, The Subtractive Colour Model, Team Rainbow.
Mission: Reproduce the Visible Colour Spectrum.
OK team. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to reproduce more than a million different colours in print. How will four mild-mannered colours achieve such a feat? Teamwork. You’re all a little transparent so when you’re layered on top of one another in varying dot sizes, you can make all the colours in the rainbow. Technically, Cyan, Magenta, Yellow - you can do it alone, but in equal parts you make more of a brown than a black. So we’ve called in the big guns for this mission - Black’s attention to detail gets the job done right.
P.S. Black ink, your identity will need to be kept a secret. We’ll call you ‘K’ for ‘key colour’.
Let me explain how CMYK printing (process printing) works. There’s two variables at play here: colour and dot size. In offset printing (the way most books, magazines and other everyday items are produced), the image that you see is an illusion. Hmmmmmmm? An illusion? If you look at a printed document up close using a magnifying glass (we call them loupes in the printing industry), you’ll notice a whole lot of teeny tiny dots in a grid pattern. Imagine insect-sized graph paper: thousands and thousands of tiny dots that are all aligned in rows, invisible to your naked eye (called a ‘halftone pattern’). All of the rows and columns make individual square cells and imagine every dot sitting in the centre of these cells. The size of the dot in the cell (or the percentage of that cell that a dot takes up) will determine the lightness or darkness of that colour on the printed sheet. Additionally, the presence of cyan, magenta, yellow, and/or black ink in that cell will change the final colour. Printing ink is transparent, meaning that when we overlay one process colour on top of the other we can see the colour underneath and it’s mixed with the colours overlaid on top. If we want to achieve a purple hue, it will require mixing cyan and magenta, for example. Depending on how dark or light we wish the purple to look can be achieved by adjusting the dot size. But keep in mind that we just have to play with pretty pictures on screen when working in Photoshop or Illustrator or InDesign. We don’t have to worry about individual process colours or dot sizes, because whatever we design will be translated from pixels on screen to dots on paper by various software and hardware between your computer and the final printing press. But by playing with these two variables, dot size and four process ink colours, over one million colours (more or less) can be achieved on the printed page! That’s some good return on investment: 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 1,000,000.
But CMYK process colours aren’t the only available system for producing colour in print. Another colour system is the Pantone Matching System, otherwise known as PMS or spot colours.
Pause this audio for a minute and search your space to find a printed package. It could be a cracker or cookie box, for example, or tissue boxes work well too. Open all the flaps and colour swatches (little squares of printed colour) will be revealed. These are present on the page to give printers a consistent place and way to measure colour on the fly. In the world of packaging, you might see the four process colours hanging out and/or you might see a variety of spot colours that you can identify on the front of the package. For example, I have a tissue box that I’ve just dissected to find it’s guts: cyan, magenta, yellow, black, plus a royal blue and dark pink. If I turn the box over and take a look at the logo, I can see that it’s the royal blue colour and the dark pink appears above and below it.
But Pantone colours aren’t used for every job. They’re most often used to replicate specific brand colours (think Coca Cola red, TD bank green, Barbie pink), as well as in packaging and labels printed using flexographic printing that often use many spot colours on a single job. Pantone inks are also used when the desired colours aren’t achievable using process colours, such as fluorescent and metallic colours.
There’s 11 base colours that make up more than 1000 colours in the Pantone library. The base colors include: yellow, warm red, rubine red, rhodamine red, purple, violet, reflex blue, process blue, green, black, and transparent white, which looks clear.
The Pantone swatch book looks a lot like a book full of swatches you might find when choosing a paint colour for your wall. This is similar to paint swatches at the hardware store. When you decide on a colour to paint your kitchen, a series of base colours are mixed, following the formula to create the desired colour.
When a designer chooses a Pantone colour to use in a project, the shop where it’s printed may choose to mix the colour in-house using the base inks they have in stock or order a pre-mixed can of the colour from Pantone directly. There’s pros and cons to each method (time, cost and quality - consistency of colour - being the big three considerations), however many shops will mix their own.
It’s also important to note that Pantone colours should be used as “guides” and not perfect matches. There are so many different variables that make colour look different from one place to the next including substrate (printing on white paper versus printing on an aluminum can are two different beasts), lighting, age of the swatches you’re comparing to, the expertise of the person mixing the colour, and so on.
One of my favourite things in the world is Pantone related. Her name is Pantone Barbie...
She’s wearing a fabulous asymmetrical gown swathed in swatches of her signature Barbie pink: Pantone 219C. She’s wearing white strappy pumps with her signature Pantone number written on the side and her signature colour appearing on the bottom. So naturally when she goes to work (as in WERK) you get a peek at her pink pumps.
She’s draped in platinum blonde hair with a tinge of purple iridescence cascading midway down her back. Pantone Barbie is just as comfortable running a printing press as she is strutting down the runway...
So naturally, she sits on my shelf poised and ready for action beside a replica Gutenberg press. And it’s my very favourite thing. I paid far too much for her... and I don’t regret it for a second.
Another interesting Pantone brand story is that of Tiffany & Co.’s signature robin’s egg blue, which is a hallmark of their brand. Consumers know and love their brand colour and ensuring it’s consistent across all printed pieces (boxes, marketing materials, signage, etc.) is critical to portraying themselves as a luxury brand. A Pantone colour is used to achieve their very specific colour needs and maintain consistency in comparison to trying to achieve the colour using a combination of CMY - three variables make inconsistencies more likely.
Marketing guru, Seth Godin, has a long-standing incredibly popular blog and on May 10, 2018, he wrote about the value of a brand’s story to establish it’s worth to consumers. He used the example of Tiffany’s:
“Walk through the diamond district in Manhattan and in the course of one block, at least a dozen men will stop you and ask if you're hoping to sell a diamond ring.
A few blocks away, Tiffany will happily sell you a diamond ring.
Buy a $7,000 ring at Tiffany's and walk over to one of these guys and you'll be lucky to get $1,000 for your new ring.
That $6,000 is what you paid for the story.
It's the cost of the box, the lighting, the salespeople, the architecture and most of all, the special feeling.”
Tiffany’s signature colour is a huge part of their brand story and since 1998 their robin’s egg blue has been registered as a colour trademark and its produced as a custom colour for Tiffany & Co. with the number PMS 1837. 1837 for the year they were founded and this colour has been used since the first Tiffany’s Blue Book in 1845. Now that’s the power of colour in branding!
Pantone colours are used by a variety of industries, such as the printing industry, designers and the fashion industry. Every year Pantone carefully chooses a colour of the year based on macro trends in design, fashion, society, and culture, which they’ve done every year for 20 years. Late in 2019, classic blue (reminiscent of the sky at dusk) was chosen to represent 2020. Looking back on the colour choice and rationale now, it’s quite fitting. In an article from CNN Style, Laurie Pressman (fitting name), Vice President of the Pantone Color Institute who selects the colour of the year, indicated that a similar colour was chosen in 1999, when the uncertainty of Y2K loomed over the world. "We were moving into Y2K and wondering: Is the world going to fall apart?" said Pressman. While the world didn’t fall apart in 2000, it feels a little like it’s done so (perhaps just been turned on its head) in 2020. Pressman further explained the classic blue colour choice “...that offers the reassurance, confidence and connection that people may be searching for in an uncertain global milieu…” referring to the instability in regions around the world like the United States, United Kingdom, Hong Kong and Syria. Her statement takes on whole new meaning when reflecting in late 2020.
The final piece of today’s episode involves colour considerations when dealing with text. Colour is a great way to add visual interest to a design, however can or should colour be added to text?
Yes and no.
Black-only text is by and large always used for body text for a number of reasons. First, the strong contrast it provides on white paper is good for readability and accessibility reasons. Second, it’s less expensive to produce than two or more colours, due to the fact that only one printing plate is needed in conventional printing and there’s only need for a printing press that can accommodate only one colour. Because there’s only a single colour, that also means that makereadying the colour (getting the printed piece up to quality) is that much faster and therefore less costly than text that’s more than a single colour. Finally, the overall print quality is improved because there’s no registration to worry about (registration in regards to the aligning of two or more colours on top of one another). Colours that aren’t in register with one another look blurry and low quality. The biggest type no-no when it comes to colour is having all four process inks present in body text. Hopefully this issue wouldn’t slip by a prepress department who ensures the file is ready for printing, however if it somehow happened to be missed, your job would haunt your press operators' nightmares for a long time. What a mess to try to print all four process colours over top of one another and have them align at such small sizes! It’s just not practical or feasible or necessary.
In short, for body text, only use one colour. And that colour shouldn’t be magenta or cyan or (for goodness sake) not yellow. It should be black. Keep in mind that although black text on white paper is optimal for contrast, white text on black printed background (knockout text) is not recommended for long passages. While it has the same level of contrast, it’s much harder to read for sustained periods of time, not to mention the heavy ink coverage on both sides of a page can impact the quality of the final piece.
For headline or larger type, colour can be used, but it’s best to stick to two of the four process colours if possible. (Your printer who has to register thin serifs will thank you.) A nifty piece of advice I recently received is to ensure that one of the two selected colours is a solid colour. For example, on screen you might be able to achieve a lovely mint green colour for your magazine story headline all about decor trends in the homes of the rich and famous. The colour you’ve chosen looks perfect on your computer screen and it’s made up of 80% cyan, 10% magenta, 55% yellow and 5% black. However… in print your minty headline text looks soft and blurry and this time, it’s not a registration issue - let’s assume that the colours are all sitting on top of one another beautifully. Nothing the printer does makes it any less blurry - what’s happening? Because the process colours are all percentages of solid colours (tints) a halftone screen of tiny dots is the result on paper in offset printing. Your letterforms are made up of these tiny dots and therefore will always look soft and blurry. The solution is to ensure that one of the process colours chosen is at it’s solid value - 100%. This results in the printing plate containing what’s called ‘line art’ (clean, crisp lines of text) versus a halftone image (tiny dots making up the letter). The resulting line art 100% solid text will have hard edges and look crisp and clean.
Colour is everywhere and to me, I find it just as magical the way we can reproduce colour in print as it is in naturally occurring phenomena like rainbows. Key takeaways from today include: be skeptical of even the most agreed up on things in this world because they aren’t necessarily as they seem (here’s looking at you, ROYGBIV), most printed materials in this world are an illusion made up of dots to fool our naked eye into seeing a rainbow of colours when there are only ever four colours present and Pantone was really onto something with the rationale for their 2020 colour of the year… somehow this episode turned into one giant conspiracy theory, but colour is still awesome, nonetheless. Annnnnnnnnd it’s fun to stay at the YMCK!
Talk Paper Scissors Theme Music: Retro Quirky Upbeat Funk by Lewis Sound Production via Audio Jungle