Red Isn’t Just Red: The Importance of Setting Colour Standards

Manchester, England

Having a job that works closely on colour standards might sound unusual, but for David Stewart, Account Director for Schawk’s ColourLab, it’s one of the most important. We talked to David about how colour standards are set, why they’re necessary, and his recent work with the Royal Horticultural Society.

Q: Tell us a bit what you do at ColourLab. 
I remember trying to explain to friends what my job entailed and why there is a need to measure colour and create standards. The response was usually bemusement, surely red is just red? My best analogy for this was – “we have all watched a pizza in the oven waiting for it turn the right colour that we know ensures it’s cooked the way we like it.” This is the same for any industry that has a manufacturing process. Almost everything that we touch, wear, or eat has at some stage been evaluated on its colour. In print and packaging, colour standards are really important. We offer a bespoke service to our clients that helps them establish the right colour for their product portfolio and ensure the colours are right but also achievable across the various production processes used. This saves our clients a lot of time and ensures they get the results they expect when their products end up on shelf.

Q: How are colour standards developed?
Standards were developed by users over years to visually grade where a specific item was within a process using colour. That could be quality of raw materials, or exposure to heat, or even oxidisation amongst others. As an example, there are colour charts developed for the fruit industry that show when to pick apples and pears for optimal ripeness based on how green or red they are. There are even standards for grading the maturity of cheese.

Q: What industries rely on colour standards?
When I first started working in the technology side of the print and packaging industry, I was amazed to find that there were colour swatch books for industries that would fall outside of the typical. There were specific standards that had been set for soil, orange juice, and molasses, to name just a few. Pretty much every industry has part of their process that will be evaluated for colour, and all of these will at some stage be compared to a colour standard.

Q: Tell us about a recent interesting colour standard project the Colourlab is working on.
The Schawk ColourLab has recently been working on one of these unusual colour standard projects with the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). The RHS is the UK's leading gardening charity promoting horticulture through flower shows including The RHS Chelsea Flower Show and The RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival. Founded in 1804, RHS are renowned worldwide as a leading authority on all things gardening and horticultural. The RHS colour swatch book has more than 900 colour standards, matched to a Delta E of under 0.5. This made it one of the most accurate in production—no mean feat! We worked with them to establish these colour standards ensuring that every book is within an incredibly tight tolerance. These books are then used by professional and keen gardeners to grade and evaluate plants, flowers and fruit.

Q: What’s the process like for creating this type of swatch book?
The process for an unusual project like this has to be bespoke, there isn’t really anything like this produced anywhere else for these purposes. First of all, we had to work closely with the experts on Horticulture and Taxonomy at the RHS to establish what these colours should be and then how we can replicate them accurately. We then produced digital files of each of the 920 colours and stored them in an online server for preservation of future reproduction and development. The next stage was to take these bespoke formulations and print them in a full production process to create the new RHS swatch books.

Q: Why are colour standards so valuable for gardeners and horticulturalists? 
Similar to the needs of other industries, experts in botany and horticulture need these standards for reference when grading, documenting or evaluating their subject matter, in this case it just happens to be plants, flowers and fruit. Word has started to get out about the accuracy of these books in other areas as well. RHS has even had Zoologists in North America using the books for similar purposes to evaluate and differentiate between species of Monkey!

About David Stewart: David Stewart brings more than 20 years of experience in colour management for print and packaging. Having worked for some of the leading colour management development organisations, David now brings his expertise to Schawk’s ColourLab. For more information contact: