Using colour in your projects: it’s trickier than you think

3d colour swatch

Richard Cowdery

Lead Digital Developer

Posted on March 7, 2016

We started this year talking about colour and why it matters to your business. Even when you’re not a designer, having an understanding of colour and its impact can make a big difference to your projects. We’ve already drawn attention to some of the predicted colour trends for 2016 and offered some suggestions as to how you could develop your own palette of colours. Now we want to delve a little deeper.

Colour’s journey doesn’t stop when you have a winning combination of shades all picked out. You need to be able to put them to work in a context. At Talisman, it’s often our job to make that happen.

Whether we’re dealing with printed brochures or a website, making sure the colours of our project look as our clients intended is hugely important. The problem is, that even when provided with exact shades, it can be a surprisingly difficult thing to manage.

Printed colour

We create printed items by putting ink on a surface material. By using four process colours – Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (known as the CMYK model, with the K standing for Key) – we can produce an enormous variety of shades by overlaying dots of colour. This is known as subtractive colour – the less ink we use, the more the surface will show through.

colour in financial marketing printing

But the CMYK system is not always enough. Sometimes those four inks are not capable of recreating certain colours. When this happens, we need to use spot colour – think of those bright lime greens and vivid oranges you sometimes see.

Spot colour uses a specially mixed ink made up to the precise shade that we want to use – much like a tin of coloured paint in a hardware store. Depending on the design, a printed item could be made entirely from spot colours, or use them in combination with CMYK colours. The more spot colours you use, unsurprisingly, the more it costs, so they are usually limited to 1 or 2 per job.

pantone colour printing in financial marketing

The benefit is that spot colours are much more reliable. The colour in the tin is exactly the colour you’ll get. Pantone is a colour system that takes advantage of this exact transferability, allowing printers and designers all over the world to use the same colours and get the same results.

Alongside these colour systems, international printing standards have been established to make sure your final printed product looks how you intended, regardless of which paper stock, printing press or country produced it. This involves careful calibration of monitors, scanners, software, plate setters, proofers and printing press – literally everything in the production workflow.

What’s important to realise is that the colour you see isn’t as simple as someone pressing ‘print’. It takes time, skill and investment to get colours looking right.

Digital colour

Colour used in digital projects, on the other hand, work to an entirely different process.

Digital colour is created by changing the brightness of three colours for each pixel on a computer screen: Red, Green and Blue (RGB). RGB is known as additive colour because we add light to create the colour. When we set all three colours at their maximum brightness (full light), we get a white coloured pixel. When set to their dimmest (no light), we get a black one.

A typical LCD screen is made up of millions of these pixels and by changing the RGB value of each one, we can create the colours and image we want.

rgb pixel colour

Just like designing for print, we can calibrate our screens and applications to make sure that what one person sees as red looks the same red on somebody else’s screen, but this relies on the individuals involved. Once the final item is created and displayed on multiple computer screens, mobile phones, smart watches, games consoles, laptops, tablets, digital displays, etc., everything depends on the setting of each device.

Is the screen you’re reading this blog on calibrated? Is your TV at home? To make it even more complicated, many other factors also come into play: the make of the equipment, how old the device is, what angle you’re viewing it at, how long the device has been running, the lighting in the room, and so on.

Letting go of what we can’t control

It’s an aspect of colour that’s rarely considered, but when using colour in your digital projects, it’s important to realise the big picture: we have very little control over how something appears on a digital device.

So what can we do? Well, the answer is not much, but when picking your colours, just bear it in mind. Your run of 10,000 brochures can look the same to every reader, but with digital we don’t get to control the whole experience. We need to leave room in our plans for people to experience our colours slightly differently.

The effect of a great, well-chosen palette won’t be diminished, but we may not get that perfect shade looking identical to every customer, every time.