The Frozen French Fry Standard and other shocking news in the world of color

Years ago I learned there is a color scale for dirt. I had no idea, until I fell in love with someone who was studying soil science, that an entire major revolves around the color of dirt and a pricey Munsell book that defines 300 or so shades of brown.

Today I found out there’s a Munsell standard color scale for frozen french fries. OK, so frozen potatoes come in 300 or so shades of tan, but what does it all mean?

When Albert Munsell defined his color system a century ago, he set out to classify every color that exists according to its hue, value and chroma. That’s the same as color, shade and brightness, if you are someone who is content to call Munsell’s 5.3R 6.1/14.4 simply “red.”

A few years ago I took a class from Leatrice Eiseman, who wrote the lovely Pantone Guide to Communicating with Color. She told a hilarious story about looking for a red bra in Hollywood, and having a hard time finding just the right color of red to satisfy the movie’s director – until someone enlightened her about the Pantone Matching System. PMS for short.

Aha! There’s a way to communicate an exact color beyond the more colorful but far less accurate way that many people use: You want red? Do you mean blood-red or more of a fire engine red? Cherry red, brick red, rust red or ruby red? Scarlet? Crimson? Or more of a mauve?

If you make lipstick, “reddish” is not going to cut it. Pantone solved this vexing problem by simply numbering all the colors it could print. A Pantone guide is a narrow cardstock flipbook with page after page printed with tints of color. There might be 10 pages of yellows that gradually turn into 10 pages of oranges that deepen into reds and so on. Simple red is PMS 032, whereas PMS 200 is the exact shade of my lips on a cold day, also known as blood-red.

Several states and nations have legislated PMS numbers for their flags, such as PMS 193 and 281 for the red and blue colors of the American flag. If the colors aren’t right it’s not like you wouldn’t recognize our flag, but any designer who ever expected a sophisticated burgundy and got candy-apple off the press will tell you that Pantone is essential. We use Pantone numbers to specify an exact spot color made from a specific mix of pigments. More generally we specify a PMS# to try and get regular CMYK process colors to come off the press close to our desired colors.

You know process color from your own inkjet printer, which has cartridges containing Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black ink that magically mix into all the colors of a printed rainbow. If you’re printing professionally you might tell the printer that the logo should match PMS 221, although you’ve given them a CMYK file, and you have a good chance of getting something close to the actual burgundy you want.

The problem is that every scanner, digital camera, monitor, printer and press delivers color in its own way. The same colors printed on glossy paper look different when printed on bond, different in sunlight and desklight. Add to all those variable a bunch of different color models – Munsell and Pantone, CMYK and its digital cousin RGB (aka subtractive and additive color mixes) and many others, from L.A.B. to CIE and XYZ – and you might wish for a simpler time, when a big box of crayons was all you had to have to be happy.

xRite, the huge corporation that makes the Munsell Standard Frozen French Fry Color Scale and all things related to measuring and controlling color, bought Pantone in August 07 for $180M.

I’m amazed Pantone could be had for so little. My one little Pantone “Solid to Process Coated Guide” identifying only 1,089 PMS colors and their CMYK equivalents cost more than $120, and it’s supposed to be replaced every year. I keep it in a drawer away from the light, and suspect most print designers do the same because there is just so little call for superduper color precision.

The craziest color control I’ve ever seen for a brand is United Parcel Service’s trademarked “UPS Brown” which is something like PMS 476. Page after page of their brand usage guide dictates all manner of specifics, but wash that uniform one time and it might fade to 463, unless someone threw in a red bra that turns it sort of 506ish.

Cadbury has trademarked the color purple, a royal shade of purple that speaks to the richness of its chocolate and the imperiousness of the attitude that one can own a color. I guess it’s comforting to think we have such precise control over something so fleeting and fancy free as color. It’s like the best answer I ever heard to the question, “What’s your favorite color?” The answer was “sunshine.”

Gaia Graphics & Associates… creative by nature ~