Colour Management, the Final Frontier


People in fashion are precious about colour, particularly Product Managers, who are sourcing products globally, using different factories, in different countries, sometimes for the same product colour way.

At the time, I was running a small in-house photographic studio which the company had invested a good sum of money to get the right environment, equipment and team to produce good quality photographic shots for e-commerce.

So the phone rings – an irate Product Manager opens up the conversation with “Have your guys been drinking?, the Lip Red product is miles off, needs to be warmer, 20% more red at least!” – long story short, I invited him down to the studio and placed all of his Lip Red product on one rail. The colour variance was substantial, even accounting for the difference in fabric.

As he sat down, I wheeled over the rail and asked him which shade of Lip Red he preferred? – “Ahh I see” was his response

The starting point for each product was the same - a pantone reference, so what went wrong, how could we change the process to improve consistency, save time and reduce the number of lab dips to complete? – Maybe its time to put some science behind a primarily creative process and enforce Global Colour Standards!

To start, and there is no use pretending otherwise, color is a fantastically complicated process. In the design world people often associate a “color” with a swatch in a fan book or a square of fabric. While these server as good sources of inspiration for communicating color intent within an organization, it’s really just one small part of a much larger color communication workflow.

One of the more challenging scenarios is trying to achieve the same color across multiple products on dissimilar materials. Yet even in a seemingly simple scenario of matching a product to a Pantone swatch many of the fundamental challenges are the same, chief among them is communication of intended appearance. Notice that I say appearance and not simply color. There is a reason for that as I’ll explain.

When we look at a material we are actually evaluating the confluence of many different physical and environmental properties such as texture, gloss, transparency and ambient lighting. The net visual result of all of these factors is what we think of as color. Change the texture of a material or swap out fluorescent lighting for LED bulbs and more likely than not our experience of that material’s color will also change.

Without getting into the science of color too much, when we specify color for a product we are describing the interaction of an observer, a material, and light. In order to really have any chance of effective color communication we need to be able to control for some, if not all ofthese variables. Thankfully the first part of this equation is fairly standard, in most cases color will be evaluated by a human ( good luck if you have mantis shrimp as colorists). Depending on the product range we have to work with we may have dozens to hundreds of different materials we could work with. That leaves us with lighting.

Like material choices there are an endless variety of light sources including daylight, various forms of fluorescent, LED, and numerous incandescent sources. To account for the potential combinations of light and material would be nearly impossible, and for this reason most color management workflows standardize color evaluation relative to a single, or set of, light sources. With these limits in place we now have a set observer, limited range of lighting conditions and our selected range of materials to consider as we communicate and evaluate color.

The (seemingly) simplest form of color communication is to take a given color reference, often a pantone swatch, send it to a supplier and have them use this visual reference to evaluate the product color. Does it match? Yes! Great we’re done.

If only life were so simple.

Even with a limited set of variables, one material evaluated under an agreed upon light source, achieving a consensus on color matching (as with politics) becomes more difficult as more people become involved. Color judgement is influenced by a raft of psychological and physical factors including age, experience, workload and even the day of the week (a lot more colors get approved on Fridays). In addition to the human factor there are maintenance issues such as using old bulbs or a faded copy of the color standard that are hard to monitor. Rarely will a color match ever be perfect so there’s always the question of “What is good enough?”. Tolerances for acceptability should, and do, vary dramatically by product type, production process, and price point. Then there’s the matter of how to quantify and communicate color correction. Is it too red or too yellow? By how much? 5%, 10%...what do those terms even mean?

At the end of the day an approach that relies on visual references and subjective comments often produces a costly (in terms of time as well as money) cycle of submission, ambiguous written corrections and resubmissions.

Thankfully there are emerging workflow paradigms that can address a number of these challenges and support a more holistic view of color.

Taken together we refer to this approach as Color Lifecycle Management when it implements the following methods and platforms:

  • Centralized digital color library providing single source of truth for color
  • Integration and accurate use of color across all products referencing color
  • Digital transmission and objective evaluation of submissions
  • Web based platform for communication

The first item on the list may seem deceptively simple. In almost every business there is a shelf brimming with swatch books and fabric standards. In some cases these are new and well organized. In many cases however they are a mix of old and new, missing and outdated references. Over the years I’ve lost track of the number of swatch books and standards I’ve pulled that differ substantially from one another due to fading, wear and reformulation.

Using these physical color swatches as a means of communication may work well for presenting color at product development reviews but they quickly lose their value when color needs to be applied to a digital file or communicated outside of the business. This is where the value in having a digital color library becomes apparent.

A properly managed and maintained digital color libraries provide a single source of truth for color across the business. Apparel designers, colorists, e-commerce, packaging designers should all be able to access and reference the same color standard. Using a digital library doesn’t mean abandoning physical standards, just that the digital definition of color is “truth” and the physical standard is an attempt to match that source of truth.

A good color management system should make it easy to import colors from standards providers, vendors, or allow custom colors to be defined and added to the library. Another benefit from this approach is that, like any asset management system, information can be sorted, grouped, searched and tagged with additional information. This can help cut down on the need for dye-to-match requests by making it easier to find colors that have already been developed. Such a system can also provide an indication to designers that certain colors may not be achievable on a given material, helping to eliminate mistakes upstream before they become costly production nightmares.

Having a digital library of colors also makes it much easier to exchange color with the tools used for actual product design and development. Different software packages treat color very differently. Many of the textile design suites can render color very accurately given the proper color data, a format that would be very different from how color would be represented on a website. It is therefore necessary for the digital color library to be able to manage, convert and export color in a manner that is appropriate for the application where it will be used. It would be incorrect to say that it is a simple task to coordinate color exchange across a range of 2D and 3D design tools but once implemented the benefits are often very significant. Eliminating the need to adjust color for different platforms can save hours and even weeks of time as well as reducing or eliminating the number of unmanaged color palettes floating around the business.

Where the benefits of CLM really start to generate a massive ROI is when we apply it to color approval. As discussed earlier, visual evaluation of color can be very subjective. Even if we have a controlled environment and experienced colorists to evaluate the product color, it still requires shipping a physical sample from the vendor to an agent, or back to the business. The fixed amount of time and shipping costs are especially frustrating when the color is obviously unacceptable to the client. The primary solution to this challenge is to employ an objective method of evaluating color using a spectrophotometer.

Much like the human eye a spectrophotometer records the interaction of light and material in the form of reflected light. From this information a color management system can translate this data into a digital color value. Spectrophotometers come in both handheld and benchtop models and range from <1k to more than 20k. The main benefits provided by a decent quality spectrophotometer are objectivity and consistency. If done correctly the result of every color measurement provides objective, quantitative feedback about how close a sample is to a standard.

Spectro’s are widely used by colorists to evaluate lab dip submission. Some vendors also use these devices to evaluate product before it is sent to the client. When CLM is implemented by both brands and suppliers it enables color targets, as well as tolerances and all other needed technical information, can be communicated digitally (although they may be supplement with physical standard) to a supplier. The supplier can then measure that sample using a spectrophotometer and recorded the results as a digital file. With CLM these measurements can be made available to the client, allowing them to make pass/fail judgements immediately after the vendor submits the results. Not only does this remove days, if not weeks, from the approval process but both client and supplier are working off of the same objective information.

That is not to say that the goal is to replace visual evaluation completely. While this is possible in many situations, CLM will produce universal benefits as an early warning system to identify production problems, eliminate the need to send very poorly executed samples, and track vendor performance. All of which provides significant and immediate improvements in efficiency and time to market.

A good CLM implementation makes color accessible to all parts of the business and extends into the supply chan. By linking the specifier and producers of a product’s color more closely a number of the common communication challenges can be reduced or eliminated. Visually evaluating color requires skill and experience but is ultimately a subjective process. By relying on objective measurements, and quantifiable results as much as possible a greater emphasis can be placed on related decisions such as alignment to other products, importance of color to the consumer, time and cost. Seamless color exchange between software is becoming even more common as products move in and out of 3d design tools and are represented in both print and digital catalogues. Without a central digital color library it becomes very challenging to ensuring consistent color.

Color is such an important aspect of every product, this is especially true with apparel and home goods. Ensuring accurate color across a global supply chain while controlling costs and embracing the push for an ever quicker time to market is not an easy goal. To manage all the complexity of product color in an increasingly competitive market requires embracing new ways of thinking about old problems. Because color touches virtually all aspects of a business it is often easier to approach it with piecemeal solutions. This results in partial solutions and silos of communication, creating new problems. With CLM solutions are put in proper perspective by including all stake-holders and acknowledging the far reach impact of many color related decisions. This strategic shift in thinking about color produces a more integrated, agile and efficient workflow that should deliver cost and time savings.

DeSL is a leading provider of CLM solutions. Among the many benefits our platform provides:

  • Unrivaled color accuracy for CAD prints
  • Color achievability warning for design and production
  • Color palette and trend analysis tools
  • Best-In-class color library
  • Integration with 2/3D design, CAD, and print systems
  • Color approval tools for solids and prints
  • Support for a wide range of color measurement instruments
  • Vendor score cards and customized KPI reporting
  • PLM integration
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