Finally, A Good Way to Specify and Manage Pantone Colors for Packaging Applications

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First off, a brief disclaimer: I am in no way associated with, or have any legal ties to Pantone, X-Rite, or Esko, or any of the Danaher companies other than that as a customer. I am just a part-owner of a folding carton converting company that prints a lot of color critical items.

For years we have had to rely on commercial print color specifications such as GRACoL or WOP for 4-color process printing even though the majority of our products are printed on paperboard substrates: CRB, CUK, SBS, or LBC. And, in packaging, most of the cartons printed also have one or more Pantone, or “spot” colors specified. For these spot colors, we most often rely on the Pantone color library for our starting point to arrive at a specific color match. In both cases, we are attempting to match a standard using commercial grade papers with paperboard substrates that have entirely different absorption properties and a totally different shade of white.

Practicing advanced color management technologies and using tight process controls, we have long ago mastered the ability of matching our press sheets to a CMYK inkjet proof. However, when a customer specified a particular spot color, the pressman just referenced a Pantone book, and matched it as close as possible, using their best judgment while taking into account the different shade of white. Over time, brand owners began pushing for more color predictability and consistency on press leading to modifications of the ink formula as necessary to better match the specified Pantone color on the specified stock. Following this method, we produce a color swatch mixed with a unique formula, that has its own unique identification number, which can now be evaluated in advance and then approved by the customer.

I have heard horror stories from brand managers who have seen product samples of their corporate colors coming in with all sorts of crazy and inaccurate color shades. A ‘bright red’ corporate color may be printed some shade of pink by one vendor, but then a shade of maroon by another. It is hard to believe that this can happen in this day and age, but we live in a global economy in which products are made all over the world, and the cartons are printed close to the source of production. Not every folding carton converter uses best practices for color control.

Although our printed cartons will always match the approved swatch, the one problem with our own solution of using a custom ink color to match a color standard is that the new color formula becomes our own proprietary mix. No other printer has access to our formula, or is even aware that the new color formula exists. They would need to get a hold of a swatch and then measure it with a spectrophotometer to get the color values. Another limitation of this practice is predicting how the color will appear at various screen increments. Tints and vignettes are very popular on most consumer packaged goods.

Two different printers developing color standards independent of each other can lead to a color variability problem called the Error Stack. Although the two different print providers could each formulate an ink swatch that is within the defined delta E color tolerance level, their Lab* values may fall on opposite sides of the master color. By the time the ink is formulated for production and the job gets printed, the same color printed at different facilities could easily be within 2.0 delta E of the target, yet be >3.0 from each other.DSC08597

To take into account how the different shades of substrates and printing methods affect the printed color, Pantone has developed a cloud-based service called PantoneLive. Starting with the color values of the numerous Pantone colors archived in their digital library referred to as master colors, Pantone has reformulated them to arrive at a best possible match on different paperboard, flexible, and label substrates, and on different printing methods including flexo, litho, and gravure. The new color formulas are called dependent colors.

The dependent colors library was created the old fashioned way. The entire Pantone library colors set were printed on the various defined packaging substrates under tight controls in actual production facilities. The colors were printed in solids as well as tints ranging from 10% up to 90%. The results of the test were later validated in a study conducted by Clemson University.

No matter how much science and testing you throw into color management, there is no escaping the fact that color preference is still a highly subjective and emotional attribute and may also be affected by outside forces such as context, viewing conditions, light exposure, coatings, dry-back and other uncontrolled variables. Nonetheless, I feel that Pantone has developed a good tool to give designers and brand managers a more accurate and controlled method for specifying spot colors. We will continue to make ink draw-downs on the specified stock for customer approval and a press match, but the new PantoneLive library gives us a much more reasonable start than just picking a color out of the printed Pantone book.

Author: Nicole Hannover

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