September 4, 2015

Earlier this week, Google unveiled their new sans-serif identity, ditching the familiar serifs for which the company has been known since its inception for a cleaner, simpler look:

Google's new logo on its iconic homescreen.

Among the population in general, and particularly among designers, reviews have been mixed. Some herald this as a fresh new direction, perhaps the emblematic tech company boldly being unafraid to leave behind the conventions of the past to embrace the present and future. Others…well, others thought it might have been better.

That’s an understatement, really. Barely 48 hours had passed since the announcement when, with a cursory search of the word “Google” in Dribbble, I came upon pages and pages full of graphic designers posting their ideas for a “fixed” or “better” version of Google’s new logo. Here’s just a small glance at everything that was out there (believe me—there were hundreds more, and again, this was less than two days after the new identity system was announced):

Designers scrambling to "fix" Google's new logo Designers scrambling to "fix" Google's new logo

To say that this behavior was limited to Dribbble would be inaccurate. The announcement was made on Tuesday, and before the day was even over there were slews of articles, some thousands of words long, popping up all across the internet, many of which filled with righteous indignation over Google’s decision to go with something so supposedly unoriginal, plain, radically different, or just bad (in the opinion of the writer, of course).

Accusations cropped up. Some said Google had copied their new logo from an old Gymboree mark (as though two colorful sans-serif capital Gs ought to look unmistakably distinct):

Others accused Google of simple unoriginality (as though a few cherry-picked modern sans-serif logotypes wouldn’t look similar when they’re all shown side-by-side in black):

While still others thought it was just plain poor, like this typographer.

In the case of Google, I’d like to go on a small tangent and point out that Google is really playing their own game here. In terms of identity, their needs are radically different than pretty much any other company on Google Earth. They don’t really have competitors, at least not like most brands do. Sure, there’s Apple and Microsoft, but for the most part, Google has already won every game it’s playing. Google is the 800 lb. gorilla; it sits wherever it wants. It doesn’t need to worry much about being confused with, or looking worse than, any another company. Short of Google changing their logo to, say, a swastika, people aren’t going to stop using Google products. We’re still going to use google.com for searching (which everyone will still call “Googling,” even if it’s not technically accurate), we’ll still use our gmail accounts, we’ll still look to Google Maps any time we need directions somewhere, and on and on. Even the least plugged-in among us probably still has their life impacted by Google a dozen times a day.

Google’s problem wasn’t that they needed the greatest logo ever; their problem was that they needed a unifying identity system, and that problem has now been solved.

So in terms of branding, Google doesn’t really have to listen to anybody, least of all an upset designer on the internet.

But tangent aside, and not specific to Google: any time a new design comes out, there is bound to be discussion about whether or not that new design—pardon the pun—misses the mark. Sometimes this discussion will be heated. Sometimes it will even become such a cacophonous outcry that the brand behind the design decides it might be best to take a step back. (Gap, anyone? For the record: I don’t think it was as bad as everyone else did. So the aborted logo redesign was plain. What is Gap, exactly? Gap sells khakis and business-casual button-ups. If that’s not Helvetica in clothing form, I don’t know what is.)

I’m not necessarily saying Google’s new logo is the greatest thing ever (though that’s beside the point: Google’s problem wasn’t that they needed the greatest logo ever; their problem was that they needed a unifying identity system, and that problem has now been solved.) And I’m not saying all the feedback that emerged from the design community was unwarranted or inaccurate. That typographer above makes some reasonable points. Many designers did.

But the problem was, they made these points and registered these reactions instantaneously and without regard for what makes graphic design more than subjective window dressing: the how and the why.

Emotion vs. Thought

Graphic design is a tricky thing. It’s both art and science, subjective and objective. It’s part left-brained rationality and part right-brained creativity. It’s a merging of thought and emotion. And this is what makes reacting to graphic design such a careful balance of immediate reactions and delayed reactions.

When we present designs (and especially redesigns or entirely new names) to clients, we always tell them: register your immediate reactions, think about them and remember them. But don’t put too much weight on them and don’t let your immediate reaction kill an idea before it’s had a chance to grow on you, because—and this is important—the human brain is wired to reject things it isn’t accustomed to.

You know why movie sequels are so popular? Because people want things that are new, but they don’t like things that are unfamiliar. So it is with design; we say we want things to look fresh and new, but our brains really don’t like anything we’re unfamiliar or uncomfortable with. It’s just part of human nature. That’s why we lash out at new logos and new identities; like it or not, no matter how consciously aware we are of it, there’s an animal part of our brain that screams out “I don’t like it!” like a toddler refusing to try a new food.

The human brain is wired to reject things it isn’t accustomed to. You know why movie sequels are so popular? Because people want things that are new, but they don’t like things that are unfamiliar.

But fortunately for our primitive brains, time changes perception. We all have things we didn’t like at first but grew to love as we came to understand them better. (For me, pretty much every one of my favorite albums is one that I didn’t like at all on first listen, while most of the albums I loved right off the bat I now find completely uninteresting.) Every time Pepsi changes their logo it seems like a radical shift for a little while, but before long, it looks weird when you spot the last version in the background of a movie.

We’ve all tried something we hated at first or met somebody we didn’t like at first impression, only to realize over time that either we were wrong, our perceptions were wrong, or we’ve actually changed. Design requires this type of delayed reaction. It requires you to live with it and get to know it on a deep level, not just a surface emotional reaction.

Emotion screams out at first impression. It’s irrational and unhesitant, but it’s fast. Thought takes time. It’s careful and logical, but it doesn’t happen quickly.

And that’s one reason why you shouldn’t be writing scathing blog posts about new logo designs or remaking them to “fix” them within the first hours of their existence. But there’s another, more important one:

The Message You’re Sending

Even if you were able to immediately and completely process a new design at first glance and be ready to write a comprehensive blog post about it on first impression (and just to reiterate, you can’t. But even if you could), there’s still a good reason why you shouldn’t.

If you’re a designer, you undoubtedly tell your clients the same thing you were told as a design student, namely: no matter how simple the end product, design is hard work, and aesthetics aren’t the whole point. To come up with something that looks good, something somebody likes, is at best tangential to the main point. We’ve all chanted the mantra a thousand times: design is about more than appearances. It’s about problem solving and communication. And problem solving and communication generally require days, weeks or maybe even months of intensive research, ideation, brainstorming, creation and revision.

Whether the result of real problem-solving design work is something anybody likes is beside the point. The question is, does it succeed at meeting the project goals? Does it solve the problem?

And you don’t know the answer to that question.

Whether the result of real problem-solving design work is something anybody likes is beside the point. The question is, does it succeed at meeting the project goals? Does it solve the problem?

You didn’t see the brief. You weren’t there for the meetings. Odds are that you have only a casual knowledge of the client in question. You didn’t see all the ideas that were pitched and you weren’t part of the discussion on why some failed and others succeeded. You didn’t weigh the advantages and disadvantages of this color or that font. You didn’t present the final iterations, you didn’t hear the client’s feedback, and you didn’t have to find a way to merge each and every last one of those requirements and limitations into a single, cohesive entity.

That gives you absolutely no right to critique anything except the subjective aesthetics of the design you’re seeing.

And I’m willing to bet money that you hate it when somebody does that to your design.

Remake somebody else’s logo design all you want, but know that it’s utterly meaningless, because you get to do whatever you want and the original designer didn’t.

“Well, sure I wanted to change this, but the brief required…”

“Yeah, I would have liked to explore typefaces more, but the budget…”

“This color definitely wasn’t my first choice, but according to our audience research…”

These are all sentences you can’t hear because you get the luxury of seeing the final product without any knowledge whatsoever of how it came into existence. Remake somebody else’s logo design all you want, but know that it’s utterly meaningless, because you get to do whatever you want and the original designer didn’t. They had deadlines, budgets, parameters, meetings, goals, briefs, revisions, concerns and loads of client feedback. All you have is a starting point that somebody else already created for you and a social platform full of people willing to click the “like” button.

Remaking somebody else’s logo without knowledge of the full process behind it isn’t design; it’s doodling.

Don’t Cheapen Design

Taking somebody else’s work and toying with it is a fine exercise for somebody who’s learning. But it’s little more than plagiarism if you’re telling an audience that this, in terms of real design, has any substantial meaning or value whatsoever.

When you show the world that you can supposedly take something existing and make it better in a single day, the message you’re sending is, “design is effortless. It takes very little time, thought or energy. It’s cheap, petty, subjective and shallow.” You strip design—and every other designer out there—of their value and the respect that they deserve.

Don’t do that. Don’t cheapen what we do. Don’t give the world the message that what we provide is easy, quick and mindless.

Design, at its best and as it ought to be, is absolutely none of those things.

April 1, 2015

One of the most difficult things for me to learn in my transition from the classroom to a professional branding agency was how to properly handle color output. Sure, I learned in my classes how to open the swatch palette and find the Pantone swatch I wanted, but how to properly utilize that swatch and ensure its consistency across all print and web mediums—this was something new to me.

Don’t get me wrong; I had great teachers. But little in a classroom environment compares with the task of creating a comprehensive logo and stationery package for a real-world client. (Plus, the print overview course at my school was an elective that I didn’t…er, elect.)

Trust me: it’s no fun having to redo 300 logos because you didn’t get the colors exactly right. So I decided to write this post in the hope of saving you some from some of the pitfalls that I failed to avoid.

An explanation of spot colors

Let’s refresh ourselves on the printing process.

As you probably know, most color printers create color by mixing cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks. This is called CMYK, 4-color, or “process” printing (and by the way, the K in CMYK stands for “key,” as the black color plate was once referred to as the key plate, in case you were wondering). Cyan plus magenta equals blue, magenta plus yellow equals red, and on and on. CMYK is very popular because it’s cheap, and most colors can be recreated decently within the process printing color range, also known as a “gamut.”

Even the best process printers are mixing inks on the fly to create a limited range of color, and that can often result in inconsistency.

(Side note: some printers add extra inks to the standard CMYK—most commonly a light cyan and a light magenta, but sometimes others—for better color reproduction, especially in photos. If you’re serious about home printing, a 6- or 8-color printer can be a very good investment.) But regardless, there is a limit to the color precision of process printing. Even the best process printers are mixing inks on the fly to create a limited range of color, and that can often result in inconsistency.

That’s where the Pantone Matching System, called just Pantone or PMS for short, comes in.

Pantone inks are special inks that are each created prior to printing.

Inks such as this are called “spot” colors. They aren’t combinations of cyan, magenta, yellow and/or black created during printing; they’re precisely and individually mixed beforehand, kind of like paint. Spot colors are also like paint in that they are applied by the printer in a flat uniform layer, as opposed to the tiny halftone dots created by more traditional printing methods like CMYK. This makes spot colors much, much more consistent than process color.

Think about it this way: if you were going to paint a wall in your house green, which would create a more consistent result—buying a bucket of cyan paint and a bucket of yellow paint and mixing them together as you went, or just buying green paint to begin with?

The latter, obviously. That’s why spot colors are so great.

There are drawbacks to spot color printing, however.

In short, spot color printing is the best way to ensure color accuracy and a high-quality print, but because of its nature, it’s difficult and often expensive.

Most pertinently, spot colors each require their own ink well during printing. Let’s say you have a project that you want to print in standard CMYK, except that your client wants their two-color logo printed with the two appropriate spot colors. That would make this a six-color job; cyan, magenta, yellow and black plus the two specified spot colors equals six. So unless your printer has two extra spots for ink (and it almost certainly doesn’t), this unfortunately means that the job will need to be handled by a professional print shop—and for that matter, will probably not be cheap.

In short, spot color printing is the best way to ensure color accuracy and a high-quality print, but because of its nature, it’s difficult and often expensive. Even large companies usually reserve spot color printing only for the most important printed materials, or those that only require one or maybe two colors.

Pantone® is more than spot inks

So you probably can’t print actual Pantone inks on your own, but there’s good news:

Each Pantone swatch in the book includes CMYK, RGB and HTML values to reproduce that swatch color as accurately as possible in standard print and onscreen applications.

Pantone swatches include recommended CMYK, RGB and HTML values

Always be sure to use the CMYK, RGB and/or HTML values recommended here on the Pantone swatch. Avoid converting by any other method.

What this means

Unless you or your client are actually shelling out the money to print spot inks, the best way to reproduce those glorious Pantone swatches as accurately as possible is to replace every spot color swatch in your document with its appropriate, Pantone-recommended CMYK swatch, found in the Pantone swatch books. (There are online resources to locate these values as well, but they may not always be 100% accurate.)

Why must you do this? Because spot color swatches in a design program aren’t meant to be printed correctly by a process printer; they’re meant to register with the printer as the proper spot color.

In other words, because the input doesn’t match the output.

Swatch-Panel

As shown in the image above, standard color swatches (such as the “Dark Red” swatch) are indicated in the InDesign swatch panel by a checkered box icon to the right of the swatch name. Spot color swatches (like Pantone swatches) are indicated with a small dot icon in the same position. If you are using any spot color swatches in your document and you are not going to be printing those with true spot color inks, you must convert those spot color swatches and all instances of those colors in your document to standard CMYK values for best results.

Here’s what happens otherwise:

If you send a document with spot colors to a process printer, the machine will check to see if it has spot color inks loaded up. When that check comes back negative, rather than just ignoring those colors in your document, it will automatically attempt to translate your spot colors into some combination of cyan, magenta, yellow and black ink.

Color conversion is not like converting celsius to fahrenheit or liters to gallons; it’s not mathematical, and there is no perfect formula for converting any given color into a new color space.

This is where problems arise, as whatever method seems right to the computer will often not be correct to the eye. Color conversion is not like converting celsius to fahrenheit or liters to gallons; it’s not mathematical, and there is no perfect formula for converting any given color into a new color space.

Put another, less technical way: sending a document with spot colors through a standard 4-color process print is a little like translating the same sentence into a new language over and over. The end result might look passable, but it will almost certainly be missing the finer nuances of the original source material.

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 11.59.07 AM

In the print popup window, select “output” on the left and see how many inks are in the ink section. If it’s more than the basic four process inks, you’ll want to convert your spot colors to process colors for optimal print results.

If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.

This is where I went wrong as a student and as a rookie professional.

So we’ve established that we need to change our spot colors to process colors before we send our document to print. But that’s easy, right? Just switch the color panel to CMYK sliders and copy whatever values are there. They should be the same values as what’s listed in the Pantone swatch book, right?

That’s what I thought, too, but I was very wrong.

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 12.02.15 PM

Here’s the color panel with a Pantone swatch selected.

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 12.02.28 PM

If you open the panel menu and change the color to CMYK…

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 12.02.37 PM

…you will not end up with the correct CMYK values for your Pantone swatch.

Changing the document color mode and/or the color mode in the color panel of a design program will NOT change a spot color to the appropriate CMYK, RGB or HTML value. You must get those from the Pantone swatch book and enter them manually. (There are easy ways to do this using the tools in the swatch panel, but I won’t go into that here.)

20150401_142813

Take the example in the above image: the recommended CMYK formula for Pantone 132 C is 9/38/100/32. That’s very far from the values that InDesign dialed up for me in the color panel in the screenshot before that. (A telltale sign of improperly converted CMYK swatches is that they involve decimal points, e.g., the 13.04% black shown in the color panel screenshot above. No Pantone swatch’s recommended CMYK value ever calls for decimals.)

Coated or Uncoated?

You may have noticed every Pantone swatch has a suffix, usually either “C” or “U” (though there are others). These two initials stand for coated and uncoated, respectively, and indicate the type of paper for which the swatch is best suited.

You may have also noticed that in general, when you print something on uncoated paper—say for example cheap office copy paper, or that nifty artsy craft paper—your colors and images tend to come out darker than they do when you use a smooth or glossy stock.

That smoother paper is “coated” stock, and its smoothness allows ink to sit neatly on the surface of the paper. This helps the ink display its hue and brightness better than uncoated paper. (This is why photos are usually printed on high gloss paper.)

Uncoated stock, on the other hand, absorbs ink. No matter how white the actual paper is, things printed on uncoated stock tend to darken as the ink sinks below the surface.

So how can you ensure that the same base color printed to both stocks will still be consistent?

Compare the coated and uncoated versions of the same Pantone swatch, such as Pantone 186 C and Pantone 186 U below. (Fun fact: that’s official Husker red. Know your audience.) You’ll notice that the uncoated swatch is a bit lighter. This is because of the darkening that occurs when printing on uncoated stock. The same Pantone spot color will look a bit different on coated and on uncoated stock.

The uncoated version of PMS 186 is noticeably lighter than the coated version.

Uncoated swatches (right) tend to be slightly lighter than coated (left) to offset the natural darkening effect that uncoated paper has. Notice that the CMYK values are all lower.

So if, for example, your brand color is Pantone 109 (bonus factoid: that’s the yellow I’m using on this site), and you’re trying to mimic the look of the Pantone 109 spot color on coated stock, use the values from the Pantone 109 C swatch. Likewise, if you want to mimic how Pantone 109 looks when uncoated stock is the final destination, use the CMYK (or RGB/HEX) value from the Pantone 109 U swatch.

[EDIT: It’s worth noting, as I left out of the original version of this post: the actual Pantone ink formula for a coated swatch will be exactly the same as the ink formula for an uncoated swatch. The CMYK, RGB and all previews will be different between the two, because they’ll be designed to match the result of printing that specific spot color formula on the given paper type, but the actual spot colors are identical. They will, however, inevitably vary; you can’t expect to print one ink on two different kinds of paper and have them look identical. Therefore, if you’re looking for the same literal color to be printed on both coated and uncoated stocks identically, it may be best to try to manually match swatches, not rely on the same Pantone number for both applications. Thanks to Dave for mentioning this to me in the comments below!]

Dammit, gamut!

Have a look through a Pantone swatch book and you’ll notice each individual swatch has two side-by-side samples. The left sample is printed with true Pantone ink (which, by the way, is why Pantone books are so expensive; printing hundreds of spot colors is no cheap or simple task). The right sample, meanwhile, is appended with a “P,” indicating it’s printed with process color.

…CMYK has a limited gamut (color range) and simply cannot reproduce all colors with 100% accuracy…

You’ll see that these side-by-side samples of spot color and process color are not always an exact match, with the degree of discrepancy varying from swatch to swatch. This is mostly because CMYK has a limited gamut (color range) and simply cannot reproduce all colors with 100% accuracy, so this is not a foolproof system. Also, as mentioned earlier, spot colors print a solid layer of ink, while process printing creates color with halftone dots. Still, the values listed on these Pantone swatches are generally your best bet for at least getting as close as possible.

The same swatch in PMS and CMYK can come out very different due to gamut restrictions

Due to the limitations of the CMYK gamut and halftone printing, some colors will be more consistent than others when translated from Pantone.

When choosing colors for a client, I often try to find Pantone swatches with as little discernible difference between the spot and process sample as possible, since most clients will rarely (if ever) be printing with a true Pantone spot color ink.

One tip worth noting: a CMYK value that has at least one ink at or near 100% will usually give you a richer and more consistent process color output than a swatch with process colors all at low or mid values.

OK, so what about RGB and HTML color?

The RGB and HTML values accompanying each Pantone swatch are the values you should use for digital media—for example, using a Pantone color in an onscreen presentation or as a color for a website.

A quick refresher on RGB vs. CMYK

RGB is the color mode of virtually every electronic display, from your phone to your computer monitor and probably your TV, and it is effectively the opposite of CMYK. In process print, the paper starts white and brightness is subtracted with colored ink until eventually you reach black; conversely, in RGB, the background of a display is black by default, and colored light is added until eventually white is created.

HTML (also called HEX) is exactly the same as RGB. They’re the same thing; HTML/HEX just uses a different method of entering the color values. (Hex is short for hexadecimal, a digital numbering system that includes 16 basic single-digit numbers rather than 10.)

…deep, dark colors can be an issue in RGB since by default there’s always at least a little bit of light creating and illuminating the colors your eye perceives on a backlit screen. Conversely, bright whites and neons tend to be problematic in the world of paper and ink, where adding color necessarily means darkening to a certain degree.

RGB/HTML/HEX has a different gamut from CMYK/4-color/process, and while the two mostly overlap, there is still a narrow range of specific colors that can be printed but which cannot displayed accurately onscreen and vice versa. For example, very deep, dark colors can be an issue in RGB since by default there’s always at least a little bit of light creating and illuminating the colors your eye perceives on a backlit screen. Conversely, bright whites and neons tend to be problematic in the world of paper and ink, where adding color necessarily means darkening to a certain degree. Also, this is a good point to mention that you cannot actually print white using a standard printer, since there’s no way to mix colored inks together and create white. Anything you designate as white in your document will just be the plain paper color.

(Print and screen also have different resolutions, with print generally being much higher, but that’s another topic altogether.)

What this all means

If you want to mimic, for example, Pantone 109 C onscreen, you should input the RGB or HTML value from the Pantone 109 C swatch. What you shouldn’t do is pick a Pantone spot color swatch and then export that in a jpeg, or use the eyedropper tool or something like that. Again, this takes precise color control out of your hands and leaves it to the assumptions of a computer algorithm. Always use the values on the Pantone swatch.

Note that just because you manually set your swatch’s CMYK value to what’s on the Pantone swatch doesn’t mean the RGB is correct, too. To the contrary; as I mentioned earlier, there’s no precise way to convert colors from one color space to another, so if your color is correct in one color space, it’s wrong in the other. Calibrate for your intended purpose. And remember that to properly output RGB color, your entire document should be set to RGB color mode.

What to provide to your clients

This depends somewhat on the client and the intended use, but in general, if you and/or your client are serious about accurate and consistent color reproduction, you should be providing your client with a suite which includes every permutation of their logo dialed up in each of these color modes (and with multiple file types for each):

A note about black and white

White is easy. It’s all colors at max in RGB, and all colors at zero in CMYK. Even the computer won’t mess that up. But black, on the other hand, works a little differently.

If you dial up black in RGB mode, you’ll get a slightly different black than you would if you hit the black swatch while in CMYK color mode. RGB black is 0/0/0; that’s simple. No light = black. But in CMYK, if you try to do the opposite and crank up all four process inks to 100% each, you will get a very rich black (the one called “Registration” in InDesign’s swatch panel), but you’ll also waste a ton of ink if you max out every color in your printer to create black.

I could go further into this, but for now, just know that standard CMYK black is dialed in as 0/0/0/100, and you should generally just go with that for things like black body copy. You can make your blacks darker and richer by mixing the four process colors if you so choose, but at the expense of more inks being used on every single instance of black coloring.

So does this mean that I should give my client two sets of black files?

If you want to be incredibly picky, you can. But it’s generally safe to assume that a client’s only use for a black logo is in print. There isn’t any restriction on color in onscreen media—no cheap print jobs, no costly ink, no black-and-white newspaper ads—so it’s probably ok to only make black logos using whatever CMYK black formula you settle on.

Great! I read this whole thing, so now my colors will always match perfectly, right?

Well…in a word, no.

Properly utilizing Pantone colors is your best chance at fighting color discrepancy, yes. But this should be considered more of a loose guide to a journey with many variables than any guarantee of success.

The fact is, every printer is different. You could send the same file to ten different printers and get ten slightly different results—or even use the same printer all ten times and wind up with variances.

All paper is different, too, and paper and ink are both sensitive; conditions like temperature, humidity, light, and even the mere weight of the paper can affect printing results. But even a perfect process printer in perfect conditions couldn’t replicate every single color the eye can perceive with 100% accuracy; that’s impossible. And even if it weren’t and all your print materials were perfectly matched, every screen in the world would still be different, capable of being modified to display color differently and to be brighter or dimmer than the one you’re looking at.

Color isn’t a precise studio recording you can play back at will; it’s an ongoing live concert.

Put bluntly, there is no true perfection in color reproduction. You won’t achieve it. Color isn’t a precise studio recording you can play back at will; it’s an ongoing live concert. The same notes may be played on the same instruments night after night, but the production is always unique to some varying degree.

If color is extremely important to you, your only solution may be testing and tinkering over and over and over until you finally get acceptably close to the results you desire. But hopefully, now you have the tools to avoid some of the pitfalls along that journey, to get as close as you can, and to explain to clients, when necessary, how that whole process works.