2 Pro Tips on Color (You Never Knew You Needed)

by | Aug 22, 2016 | Uncategorized

Color is important! But with so many rules, technical terms and theories surrounding color, how do you even begin to ensure that this valuable design element is going to cooperate? These two tips can start you on the path to chromatic victory.

Out of Gamut – Otherwise Known as “Ugly When Printed”

The Breakdown: The little dots that make up images on-screen are red, green and blue. Cleverly referred to as the RGB color spectrum, these dots are used to display everything you see on computers, televisions, smartphones and virtually every other form of digital media. Printers, however, use a totally different color spectrum called CMYK, which is produced using cyan, magenta, yellow and black.

Obviously these are very different colors to start out with, and swapping colors between RGB and CMYK becomes complicated for this reason. Skipping over all of the math involved – and there is a whole lot of math – the process boils down to this: How far outside of the desired spectrum is the color you want to swap out?

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You can see in the handy diagram above that CMYK and RGB color spaces don’t lie atop one another very neatly. Most notably, the points of our little RGB triangle extend well beyond CMYK’s limits for red, green and blue. Which actually makes perfect sense if you think about it.

When you have a color that doesn’t fall inside the sweet spot where the spectra overlap, it is referred to as an “out-of-gamut” color. This, my friends, is where all of the issues arising from color conversions originate. Check out the images below to get a better idea of what I mean.

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Here we have a breathtaking ocean scene captured in beautiful Bora Bora. Kind of makes me want to take a vacation just looking at it.

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The picture above is the exact same image, but I’ve mapped it to reveal all of the pesky out-of-gamut colors. All that gray stuff? Those are the places where colors will have to change because CMYK doesn’t have the ability to reproduce them accurately. It looks like the whole ocean is going to get an impromptu makeover when it hits the printer!

The printer will estimate the closest color match to compensate for this, so at least it won’t entirely erase the water on us. Sadly, algorithms have yet to develop to the point where they can appreciate a good ocean view, and most of the time, letting your printer handle this task leaves your beautiful image totally washed out.

The Pro Tip: Very rich blues, bold reds and bright greens will always look brilliant on-screen, but they’re in greater danger of becoming muddy or dull when printed due to the color conversion process. Keep this in mind and remember that printed proofs are a must if the final color output is going to be important.

Black Is a Lie – A Bold but Unnatural Lie

The Breakdown: Black is appealing because of how strong it is, and our eye is easily drawn to it. Everyone loves a black crayon, right? That’s why it’s the first one to go into every kid’s coloring set. But black isn’t a natural color, and by that I mean it doesn’t actually exist in nature. This is why our nature-loving human eyes find it so difficult to ignore.

But I see black all the time, you cry. To which I say nay! When we see dark colors, we tend to mentally label them all as “black.” But we’d be wrong maybe 90 percent of the time. Even coal isn’t actually black.

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Whatever. Coal is definitely 100 percent black, right? Nope.

Shadows are not solid black either. Check out the difference between the examples below.

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The shadow in the image on the left was built with pure 100 percent black. It comes off kind of dull and flat, leaving the edge of the apple standing out starkly against it, almost like it’s hovering. On the other hand, the shadow on the right borrows from the surrounding colors, which are more of a reddish-brown. It has a much more muted effect – softer and more natural despite being equally dark.

The thing about color is that all colors come from light. When light hits an object, the colors contained in that light are either reflected or absorbed. Whatever bounces back into our eyes is what our brain translates as the color of the object.

But black doesn’t reflect anything because light doesn’t contain any black. Black isn’t cool or warm, it doesn’t have any complementary colors, it contains no information from the ambient light and it doesn’t have tone or vibrancy. It’s just … black.

The Pro Tip: When selecting colors for any project, avoid using plain old black. Even the body copy doesn’t have to be solid black! Go wild. Experiment with swapping it out. For example, opt for a very dark shade of one of the existing colors in your palette. If you’re using photographs, you could also try sampling the darkest colors of the images. You’re likely to be surprised at how things start to feel more tied together from such a simple substitution.

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Gillian Hardy
Integrating high-energy creativity with a concrete foundation of technical skills, Gillian is an avid artist and illustrator with more than 10 years of experience in graphic design and print production. She graduated at the top of her college program in Canada and has honed her multifaceted skills through a diverse project background, including everything from identity development for locally owned startup companies to overseeing the production of provincial government collateral materials and global clients in medical and other industries.

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