Designer's Guide to Color

February 23, 2005

Introductory Essay by James Stockton,
Chronicle Books,
1984, 135 pages, illustrated.
Price: $9.95

"We cannot think what we cannot say":
Ludwig Wittgenstein:
Tractus Logico-Philosophicus
, 1921

To name a thing is to know it. The very first job that God gave Adam was the naming of the animals. The naming of things creates orderly systems out of disorder.

The dictionary definitions of colors sound like this: "Taupe: A brownish gray that is paler and slightly yellower than chocolate, duller and slightly redder than mouse gray, and duller and slightly redder than castor." I invite you to use this description when speaking with a printer. The only people who take this sort of talk seriously are those who "practice to deceive" like interior decorators and the nice lady who "does your colors." The verbal description seems clear, but isn't really useful, and can mean almost anything. An obvious refuge for the charlatan.

The trained eye can clearly perceive millions of distinct colors. There isn't really an adequate language for color, and we find ourselves reduced to caveman grunts and squeals.

By printing screen tints of four basic colors, the illusion of a wide range of colors can be created. A clearer, if less poetic, taupe recipe would go something like this: "30% yellow, 20% magenta, 10% cyan & 30% black." In reality, it is difficult to control printed screens, which are made of small dots, to tolerances of less than 7%, and 17% is considered acceptable. Although beyond the pale of good printing, a gain of 25% is often seen in cheap four-color work on uncoated stock. To keep the dot crisp, and as close as possible to the ideal original, the printed thickness of the ink is kept within strict limits. Although greater density yields an increase in saturation, it also creates an unwelcome increase in the size and shape of the dot. In addition,if a first pass of ink is too thick, succeeding colors will not adhere properly, and the final printed piece will look muddy and weak. Thus the number of colors attainable by four-color process is not actually infinite, but is more on the order of two hundred thousand colors using screens of 5% increments. This is a reasonable fraction of the perceptible colors and is enough to satisfy anybody.

In his book Designer's Guide to Color, James Stockton has made a delightful stab at the language of color using 90 basic screened colors, each combined in ten or twenty color schemes, yielding 1134 combinations. Each color is broken down by 10% tints, and can be approximately reproduced by any good printer. The quality of printing is comfortably within the limits of good commercial standards, which gives the viewer a clear idea of what can be expected from following these formulas.

The Pantone Matching System has been around for a long time, and provides a language of five hundred colors based on mixtures of basic colors of known values. It is limited and inaccurate, but better than nothing. Almost everyone in the graphic arts uses it. A major complaint against the PMS system is that the printed result often does not match the swatch in the sample book. The exotic printing process used for the samples, the rapid deterioration of the colors, and the lack of precision in mixing from the formulas conspire to disappoint most designers, most of the time. The usefulness of the Designer's Guide to Color would be greatly increased if future editions were to clearly relate its 90 basic colors to existing PMS colors. When using this book in specifying printed tints, the designer is probably going to have to do this anyway, so Mr Stockton can save his audience a bit of trouble by doing it for them.

The illustrations are reproduced in interesting two- and three-color combinations that are stimulating to the eye and will assist the designer in pursuit of new ideas. The text discusses the differences in printing and inks that can be expected from printer to printer, and gives useful clues to help the user avoid the usual snares and pitfalls.

Since the text is secondary to the illustrations, I will refrain from blowing my stack about the truly pitiable, illegible typography. Wrestling with a page of inadequately leaded Stymie Light, letterspaced too tight and justified ragged right, makes this reviewer break out in a bad mood. Fortunately, the text is brief, entertaining, well-written, useful, and can be taken in small doses. The typography does no harm to the meat of the book, which is page after page of stimulating color combinations, each with a key to effective printed reproduction.  

Winter, 1986

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