8 Tips for Specifying Colors for Consistency Across Products and Digital Media
Companies that want to have a consistent brand image across materials and product lines need a good strategy to deal with color. A brand's colors shows up on their marketing materials, their website, phone apps, and their physical products. If it's not tightly controlled across different media it's easy to develop an inconsistent brand image which can reflect negatively on the company. When a company arrives at a trade show or has multiple product on the same retail aisle without their colors matching it can indicate poor quality control at best to lazy management at the worst to potential customers. Here are 8 tips to avoid that fate!
#1 RAL vs Pantone
RAL and Pantone are two of the largest and most specified color companies that exist. They are extraordinarily useful to designers to discover and specify colors for different products, graphics, logos, etc. Even when it comes to specifying a color for a product they are still the gold standard, but they are not the same. Some global regions tend prefer one color standard to another so as a designer you might be asked to find the equivalent color in the other company's directory. Unfortunately this is not possible. Each company formulates and publishes their own colors and they do not collaborate on a standard so it is impossible to match between companies. Your best best is to pick one and stick with it for color consistency. This color specification, whether you choose RAL or Pantone, is the lynchpin to your company's color strategy. That color in RGB or Hex values should be applied anywhere your brand colors are used digitally.
#2 Texture Can Effect What You See
Color is reflected light and the level of gloss can affect the amount of light that is reflected back to you causing a technically correct color to look darker or lighter than your choice of Pantone or RAL. This is especially relevant on a plastic part with an applied texture or powder coated metal part. When this problem arises, it is imperative to start with your specification and adjust by trained eye to find the closest match possible to your company's specification.
#3 What's Under the Paint Matters
Whether you are painting metal, plastic, wood, or paper the substrate matters. Different substrate materials have different color characteristics. For instance, steel has a much warmer tone than aluminum and the same paint on each of these materials will effect the color. The only way to get around this is to use a primer, but keep in mind that white primer will work differently than grey primer. In order to keep you colors consistent make sure that you have a paint specification and sample (specific blend from your choice of manufacturer) for each substrate that you paint.
#4 Who's Eyes Should You Trust?
Designers all think they know color, but some people are just better at it than others. It's important that a company identify who can detect subtle differences even if it's not the designer. The way to figure that out is to administer a color acuity test to people who you can depend on to look at color chips. There are a couple different ones out there, but it is important not to use a screen based test as screens are not all created equal and they could be calibrated incorrectly. Once you know who has the color superpower in your office, use them to help detect color inconsistencies in your samples.
#5 Light Sources Matter Too
Don't forget to inspect your colors in different lighting environments! Sunlight, florescent, and LED's all render colors differently to our eyes. You want to find a color that matches under all those different lights. Using a light booth like the one pictured above is a good way to test different lighting environments.
#6 The Sample Chip Becomes the Production Standard
It is important to color match samples with your suppliers before you head into production with your product in order to establish a baseline. This is the time to translate your Pantone or RAL color to a production sample and to identify the exact paint code/mix and gloss level (or plastic resin mix) with the specified texture that best matches your color spec on a sample chip. It is important to use your super powered employee's eyes to help with this along with the technology described below in #7 to make the match. These sample chips, once validated to match your Pantone, will become what you use to test every product that comes off the production line and keep things consistent.
#7 Color Spectrophotometers and Gloss Meters are your Friend in Production
So how do you prove that your sample is equal to your production part every time? You use a color spectrometer and a gloss meter since you probably have other important tasks for your super powered employee's eyes. Most color spectrophotometers (such as X-rite) have a compare function which allows you to take a reading of your sample chip and compare it to your production part. The reading that matters is ΔE. You want the ΔE reading to be less than 1, anything over that indicates that a color difference will be visible to the average human eye. It is also important to ensure that your gloss levels are equal.
#8 Specify a Paint or a Resin from Your Choice of Manufacturer and Don't Change It
Once you choose a supplier and the preferred color option that matches your color spec (and you have gone through all the testing to prove the color is correct and repeatable), apply that solution to existing products, and new products. This is an instance when if something "ain't broke, don't fix it". If you need to change suppliers for a paint or resin, make the change for everything moving forward and go back through all of the steps we discussed above. I find that it is best to choose large multinational suppliers as well so that you can be sure that parts produced in different locations will match.