The importance of accurate color reproduction

Since my employer makes pretty much the best inline closed loop color controls on the planet, I got to thinking about color. We make the assumption that color reproduction is very important, and that people will always pay whatever it takes to get accurate color. Of course, the purpose of our products is to reduce that cost, but if the value of color goes down you can see there would be a problem.

Why would it go down? Why has the thickness & quality of magazine paper declined over the years? Why are car bodies thinner and more easily dented? Why is a 2×4 actually 1.5 x 3.5? Everyone’s looking to save money, and if reproducing color costs extra, eventually it will be a cost to be saved. Someone will ask why so much money is being spent keeping color accurate, and suggest that maybe there’s no real consequence to letting it slip.

Seeing as Linkedin has a nifty Q & A feature, I decided to post a question:

What is the true value of accurately reproduced color?

Both in print and on the web much effort is made and money expended to ensure that color is reproduced accurately. It’s important that things “look right”, meaning the image looks balanced. But what is the real cost of images that aren’t truly accurate?

I got a number of interesting answers, as you can see below, but I was surprised that every answer more or less suggested that color carries an extremely high value. I believe this, but I figured someone would say it just didn’t matter.

The answers:

Ken Cooper

Good question. The answer is, “It depends”. There are many aspects to consider.

1. Color has value to its owner. The amount of value will vary according to the perception and requirements of the owner.
2. Color has been shown to influence sales. Warm colors are said to sell better than cool, etc.
3. Color can and should be controlled in production environments.
4. “Good enough” color is really good enough in many cases. In others, no.
5. Consumers are influenced by color, yet unaware.
6. The cost of bad color can mean rejected orders, lower sales, etc.
7. There is also a cost when high-end color controls are used and paid for but not needed (when “good enough” is good enough).
8. Color is both objective and subjective. The question is, in a way, like asking: “What is the value of well-tuned music?”

So, yes, color does have value. Entire industries are rely on it. However, color is also a commodity. In general, our world is more colorful than ever these days, and better for it.

Clarification added 16 days ago:

Another interesting question: “What is the liability of poorly reproduced color?”

Robert Dolezal

Accurate representation of color is essential when “look and feel” elements are used to make purchase selections of items like clothing, shoes, paint, etc. and failure to accurately match color may result in higher-than-necessary returns of merchandise, shipping costs, etc. Very slight differences in the color, hue, saturation, and tint of an article of clothing (for instance) may cause the potential customer to forego the purchase.

There is even some empirical data that shows that off-color trademarks introduce doubt about the company–the Eastman Kodak yellow and Fujifilm green logos, for instance. Their business depends on consumer belief in their products’ ability to provide accurate color.

Finally, despite much effort and expense, accurate color rendition remains elusive for subjective reasons: the light in which the printed page is viewed, bounce of color off walls causing apparent off-color appearance, monitor color temperature settings (uniformly set way too high by the factory), CRT, Plasma, and CRT variations, and (of course) the source color provided. As a result, all reproduction of color except by spectral sources is only apparently accurate.

That does not mean that one should give it up as an impossible task.

In my experience, producing heavily-illustrated books, mismatching of color from image to image is much more apparent to consumers than is an overall color shift.

Randy Snavely

Ever been to a meeting when 4 or 5 people from the same company present business cards and each one is a tone or half tone different. Imagine buying uniforms or sneakers and each one is a tone off. Labels on products produced in different plants but placed side by side on a store shelf. Color consistency is critical in the marketplace as studies show off color goods sell at a reduced rate compared to on color goods.

William Cobbs

I think the two answers you recieved earlier were close to the mark. The importance of color is really a function of what it is being used for. I spent many years in the reprographics industry and I can tell you that the importance of color depended very much on the nature of the clients business and the message they were attempting to convey.

If you talked to someone in advertising or product marketing they would absolutely tell you that accurate color representation was critical. That missing a shade or a hue could have a multi million dollar impact on product sales. whereas someone responsible for business communications might not feel the same passion for color accuracy so as long as the overall message was conveyed.

One thing I can attest to is the amount of R & D investment companies like Xerox, Canon, and HP make to insure that they continually improve the output of their color reproduction devices. For companies like them producing accurate color reproductions represents billions of dollars in business opportunity.

Jim McCloskey

Imagine if you went to buy a soda, and the “Coke” cans were orange instead of red. What would you think?

Exactly. Color has immense value to a brand, and it’s not crazy to insist on perfect color matching. Consistency is worth the money.

Luca Ubertini

As a designer, for me “color” is a word that implies so many different arguments an encyclopedia couldn’t fit them. Simplifing it to the bone, if you read “color” as “light” (which essentialy is), colors are the medium you see the reality through.
But we are talking of business here, and business with color is graphic design. So, let’s just talk about 3 points in which color accuracy is critical:

1- color selection
Color is a language, and if you are paying someone to comunicate a message, not reproducing it correctly means obtaining a different message than the one you have paid for. Cheap example: you sell medical insurance, and your business were designed with a sky-blue background, that gives a calm and reliable sensation (i feel safe when the sky is clear). The prints came out to be a bit too dark and green, like a dirty sea (i feel usafe in dirt sea). A quick way to lose potential clients.

2- color balancing
Colors are accurately balanced. It is not a work of art (alone), well color balanced composition is nicer, more desiderable, and quickly spotted. Ruin this balancing work, and your desk product will fall behind others, unnoticed.

3- color consistency
You may have a color, in you logo, in your uniform, or in your mass produced good. Have two should-be-same colors mismatching, and your given perception of quality will fall to ground. Jim and Randy, above, made very good examples of this.

Have a colorfull day.

Clarification added 16 days ago:

in point 2 by telling “it’s not a work of art” I mean it’s a work of science. That’s why color wheels are for

Scott Thomas

I’m going to come in with perhaps one of the more simple answers here. The value for me is the difference between acquiring my business or not.

My company sells compact discs to disc jockeys around the world. We have a few different brands within the company, and the primary differentiator between them (aside from the on-disc content) is color. Each series has an identifying color which helps the DJs find the CDs in low-light conditions.

We work with local digital color printers to create the needed inserts for our products, and over the years we’ve learned that some “get it” and some do not. In our recent corporate move from Denver to the Seattle area, we’ve had to shop for vendors all over again — and the ones that couldn’t match our colors perfectly simply missed out on the sale.

I’ve found over the years that color, especially with small business, can be a major advantage. Competing against larger companies, we stand out because we look GREAT and often more professional than the others. Keeping the color consistent, then, is a big deal to me. If we had a great color look, but wavered on the quality we’d be just another small business trying to “play it big.”

Jeffrey Engel

Your question was about the ramifications of not having accurate colors. It is all relative. First, we know that when people view two completely different things, then people focus on each thing as two separate things to categorize. However, when people are presented two very similar things, with only minor differences, those differences can engender great debate, controversy and comparison. Earlier, someone mentioned having a corporate meeting and people from the same business having business cards that are slightly different colors causing a perception of unprofessionalism. This is one ramification: perception of value. However, at the same time, if these two people were from different departments, and the design of the cards was exactly the same, but the color field was different, this could be a positive perception if the company has introduced this concept as part of its identity and people already know this (ie, the brand already has a strong presence).

However, let’s change things a bit and pretend you’re on a clothing site. I want to buy a BLACK shirt. Problem is, there are different kinds of blacks. Warm blacks, cool blacks, etc. Imagine I’m trying to coordinate a black blazer with black pants. I bet everyone here has had the realization that this can be a huge problem if they don’t match.

This is a huge problem in the online retail environment. Accurate color representation is crucial to keep customers happy and returning to buy your products. If you do not produce accurate color, and think AHEAD of time about color combinations, you may get lots of returned items, but not returned customers.

Don’t make your customers think about how accurate colors are. Let them know they are accurate by showing them accurate color and comparing them to other items that are the same color. HELP them know they are seeing exactly what they will be getting. You will save $$ in the long run because your customers will come back, and you might even get known for your attention to detail.

Clarification added 12 days ago:

BTW, getting known for your attention to detail could even help build your brand by being a characteristic of it. You could own that word in your market space and it could be a deciding factor for many shoppers.

Gary Pool

You can’t control the color of web images. Not only does the environment flavor the color you see but most people don’t even know you can calibrate a monitor let alone do it. When I check an image I have on the web I go to the library where they never calibrate their monitors. I always calibrate my monitors and can’t do otherwise. If you want your web colors to be the same on every monitor you will have to calibrate every monitor they are viewed on.

Alan Bucknam

The real cost is the degradation and loss of value to your brand image. A sloppily-executed piece equals the perception of a sloppy organization. While I don’t think that a majority of consumers would be able to tell you “hey, that’s not the right color”, subconsciously, they will note the difference, and know something is “off”.

Jim Campanell

These answers all make great sense. Except to those that may be color-blind in one way or another. Then, all of your pains to use the proper colors go out the window.

In fact, sometimes use of color (say in graphs or documents, where color is intended to have a specific meaning) is a bad thing, in that you aren’t conveying the intended information to a subset of your target audience.

So to a large majority, your colors may convey exactly what you want. To others, well, not so much. So I wouldn’t attach too much importance to conveying information with colors. For aesthetic purposes, sure, go nuts. But not to convey information.

Séphine Laros

In the business to consumer market, image is more important to keep clients than in the btob market. The visual identity (colors are a part of it) is a good way to build or support you’re image. So look right is important, if you want your clients to come back… In the business to business the service level is more important than the image. But it’s always an combination of emotion (image) and rationality (experienced service/quality).

John Manoogian III

Great question. And instead of a business reason to support color fidelity technology, here’s a more “experiential” post on my love of color tech and specifically, color chips and weird color names: http://blog.jm3.net/2007/05/03/the-power-of-holding-a-color/

Laura Curran

Ask a UPS Marketer. UPS has a trademark on its shade of brown.

Amit Kumar

Accurate color reproduction is important to have the consistency of brand. Any visual inconsistencies are very easy to notice and color being a key part of any visual representation. In print or on website if a completely different color is used it may be done deliberately to catch attention, but if slight variation is there it may amount to being careless and can affect the brand negatively.

Louis D’Esposito

Many good points were made about colors consistency in branding. And good color balance is important to reproduced photography. Flat muddy color in print is a turn off to consumers, so its important to strive to properly prep an ad for print publication to the magazines specifications, and provide high quality proofs to the publication as well. That will give your ad an edge over the competition. Because computer screens are backlit – images tend to pop more and look brighter, so you may have to tweak your banner ad to match your print ad, but I would not sweat it because all screens have different brightness characteristics.

Most importantly we must take into consideration that colors interact with each other and will appear very different when placed upon or next to other colors. This can have a profound effect on photography as well. You may want to check out “The Interaction of Color” by Josef Albers which is available at Amazon.com. It is a short book, about 100 pages but Albers did a great job and I would recommend it to any visual artist no matter what medium they use.

Dave Walker

Accurate colour is very important, but colour can also be very subjective. If you have a difficult colour to describe (I have a pair of ski boots that are greyish purpleish), 5 people can describe the colour 5 different ways. If you ask those 5 people to make “army green”, you will have 5 very different “army greens”. This is one reason why colour correction and balance is so difficult.

One of the methods I have found to be very effective (and it has been tested in the classroom) is to describe a colour in HSV (Hue, Saturation, Value: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HSV_color_space).

Having said that, reproducing a colour accurately is very important, especially in catalogue applications. If you order a brick red shirt, you don’t want to receive a fire-engine red shirt. Also, clients know their product and I have found that if the colours are off, they are not happy. Unhappy clients = no repeat work.

Colour balancing more subjective things like sunsets and skin tones is a bit more craft than science, and there is more leeway in trying to create a mood. However, you will always want clean blacks, whites and greys – it’s a great place to start.

Take the time and if you are unfamiliar with colour reproduction, learn it. Even if you are a designer, and not a “production person” (designers always think that production is beneath them – yeah, right), you need to know how to reproduce colours accurately.

Eric worldwide

No matter what settings you use for a monitor or what hex values, color is subjective to the eye of the viewer.

Links:http://groupster.blogspot.com

Razvan Stoica

Well, the answer should be obvious. You aren’t dealing with naive audiences, most of the time – everyone has seen other websites and other prints. What follows is that an informal standard (a set of tests, if you will) exists in every man’s mind as to what constitutes “proper” printing and “proper” web design. Fail to reproduce colors accurately enough (there’s mounds of literature on what is “accurate enough”) and you will have failed one of the tests. The cost to business is your customers will think of you as unprofessional.

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