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Why color management is important in packaging
By Barry Sanel, CPP
If you are reading this, you probably fall into one of four categories: designer, buyer, packaging engineer or a component supplier. Each of these roles has distinctly different goals in the journey to getting packaging on shelf. These goals can sometimes seemingly conflict with one another. The best color management strategies are both effective and efficient for all parties that engage packaging development.
Let’s look at each of these roles.
Package designer: It’s your job to create packaging that meets the design brief and pleases not just the brand owner, but ultimately the consumer. The methodology is initially purely in the computer environment likely using three-dimensional renders to sell in multiple design styles early in the process. At this point, color management is not really that important. Or is it?
It’s a really good idea to start thinking about color outside the computer environment and what packaging you are designing will look like in the real world; What is the primary package? Is it going to be a folding carton, corrugated box, flexible bag, label, aluminum can? All these components described above are printed using different substrates, print-processes and equipment by suppliers that have different color management capabilities.
The reason this is important is any flat or three-dimensional packaging renderings that are shown to the brand owner will be observed on a smart-phone or business computer. You can expect these devices are using transmissive LCD screens to output color in red-green-blue at various bit-depths, and these observations are rarely, if ever, seen in a color-managed environment. Second, color management is not in the mind of the brand manager you are selling to.
In addition, you are also at the mercy of how different people perceive your designs on different devices. I have been in circumstances where two brand people were comparing the color of the same art on two different laptops next to each other or, even worse, sending me a color match request to a photograph taken on their phone.
Color strategy must be part of the design conversation to establish the ideal color aim, if it does not already exist. This aim will follow the design from your hands though the commercialization process that you may or may not have the ability to impact. A strong color management strategy at this stage will minimize compromise on color.
There also needs to be an awareness by designers of the output conversion of the desired color to the printed piece. At this point you are probably saying, “Why not just use four- or six-color process?” Many spot colors cannot be effectively reproduced by process colors. The six-color process has a wider gamut but is still limited by the increased number of print stations available to the print process. Color use in small text reproduction typically found in packaging also is limited.
How about color specification guides? Guides can be useful when specifying color, but they are not a standard. They are inconsistent considering the books are different when shipped, and through wear and tear from handling and age. Also, they usually are printed on optically brightened paper, making them appear artificially bright. That is great for designers, but it can add variable results in printing.
Once color has been specified, it is Diageo’s color strategy to commercialize packaging using color-exchange format data (.CxF) as a more robust solution to using guidebooks. I continue to find books with suppliers that are more than 5 years old. Recently, I visited a printer that was using books printed in the 1980s.
Object color aim can only become a standard if the brand owner agrees early on that the physical guidebook chip will be only a starting point and understands, that the final color will be the printed component and depending on the packaging category, led by the primary package seen by the consumer.
Note to designers: Over-specify color as guidebook numbers, RGB, CMYK, and Hex Code, all at once in an artwork document is a strategy that can lead to confusion. Various formats deliver different color results and assume some level of calibration to work. Unless you can reconcile physically with the brand team, it creates real confusion with technical people and suppliers. Align early and stay with one strategy.
Packaging buyer: Finding and working suppliers who can print to the specification, deliver value and on-time deliveries to your production site can be a challenge. The best suppliers use a strong color management program and follow it consistently. Make sure color management discussion and process is baked into supplier onboarding activities!
The best suppliers understand color standardization using modern peer-reviewed strategies. Some of the standards used in packaging are, but not limited to:
Many suppliers claim to be certified (IE. ISO or G7), but it is important that the right people within organizations purchase, read and understand peer-reviewed documents. It is critical to have alignment to which guideline documents will be consistently followed.
Packaging engineer: It’s your job to engineer packaging and create a specification with the right structure, materials, adhesives and coatings to successfully run down a production line. Consider that color management is important to engineering; a good example is defining color using full spectrum color-exchange format spectral curve (Cxf) data over loosely defined color chips.
In addition, consider that engineering materials, embossing, inks, foils, print process and varnishes are all elements that can impact color. Perform line trials using printed components with artwork that is as close to the finished piece as possible to avoid risks that may impact color, and then share the trial results with the brand owner.
Packaging supplier: Suppliers who successfully manage color have less internal downtime on changeover and deliver more consistent packaging which positively impacts the bottom line. All too often color management is tagged on as an afterthought during the print process at the suppliers’ peril. Make sure to understand the package design intent and impact of color.
Consistent packaging is a key element to brand equity because consumers do not have visibility to the print standard. It’s not something you will get consumer calls over, either. Inconsistent packaging erodes brand equity and consumer confidence.
Years ago, I worked in the pressure-sensitive label printing industry and each branding company I printed labels for had completely different color requirements and ideas around color management, some of which were driven by proprietary reasons. It’s extremely difficult (and costly) for suppliers to manage completely different strategies this way.
If, as a printer or packaging supplier, you take the time to focus on color management, you will become a top ten printer in your category. As a supplier, it is important to have alignment between ink, print quality teams and your customer, educating both internally and externally on what good color management is.
Spending a little time think about these points and consider that deliberate and thoughtful color management is important to successful packaging development from all perspectives. Not only will it help you in your journey to create great packaging, you will experience less delay and compromises. Doing so is both effective and efficient.
It is Diageo’s North America’s graphics commercialization strategy to educate all internal and external groups on color management and define open peer-review standard operating procedures, while aligning key stakeholders on these same concepts.
A word about the Brand Owners Council: Diageo belongs to a group of like-minded global CPC companies called the Brand Owners Council, run by the Association of Print Technologies https://printtechnologies.org/. The council’s strategy is to use a single cross-company open, peer-reviewed color management schema for packaging to make it easier to manage color for all the groups mentioned above. For more information on the Brand Owners Council, contact Steve Smiley.
The author, Barry Sanel, is an IoPP member and Senior Graphics Services Manager at Diageo.