The Biggest Problem Designers Have

Mar 5 · 8 min read

Soda, Beer and Gluten-Free Baking: Using color and material to craft the designers vision

On the surface, color seems straightforward. Something inspires designers, they then capture that into their mood boards and kick off their designs. During their design rounds, they specify a color and then hand it to a supplier who, through formulation, starts building the recipe for the product. This sounds simple, right? Unfortunately, anyone who has designed a product and taken it to market is familiar with the details and nothing is ever that simple.

Anyone who has produced something knows it’s not that simple and has scratched their head wondering why the color they chose doesn’t meet their expectation’s when they get the sample back. There are a lot of different variables that go into achieving the desired color. What you see is not what you may get because one of the most significant variables in design is the base material. A sample may come from a piece of cloth or a photo seen in a magazine. You might be able to produce a specific color on one type of material and not at all on another. Each material or substrate (paper, textiles, plastics, glass, metal, ceramic, etc.) has its challenges.

As a graphic design graduate and now responsible for customer insights for X-Rite Pantone, I am often asked why it’s so hard to get the color right across different materials. Many designers, product managers and their marketing counterparts, I speak with, understand the importance of color — how it defines a brand, impacts purchasing decisions, and creates emotional connections with customers. Yet getting consistent color remains a top challenge across many industries, and the reasons why can be complicated.

Over the past few months, I’ve been trying to come up with simple analogies to help explain the challenges of color across three of the most common materials — paper, textiles, and plastics. I’ve found the best analogies focus on cooking and the varying degrees of difficulty involved in the recipes.


Generally speaking, people think of paper as flat and two-dimensional. According to a recent X-Rite Pantone survey, our customers indicated that Matte, Coated, Uncoated, Recycled and Kraft are the most commonly used media, in that order. While getting color right on these substrates is not without its challenges, it may be the most straight-forward.

As an analogy, I compare paper to soda. Making soda is reasonably straightforward; it’s a recipe of soda water, syrup/flavoring, and food coloring. Today, creating soda is simple enough that it has even gone mainstream. There are inexpensive devices that allow consumers to make their own at home. The same goes for print, where people order photo products, business cards and a range of designed materials online. Home inkjet machines have designers, craft designers, and consumers to create a variety of products right from their home.


The analogy I have for textiles is beer. The recipe is more nuanced. Beer includes barley, water, hops, and yeast. Like textiles, water is a crucial component of making beer. Beer is affected by the quality of the ingredients, including the water, which constitutes 95% of the ingredients. Hops and barley vary by region, and each creates a unique flavor. The same occurs for regional dye pigments. Using these components and different yeasts, I end up with varying flavors of beer and types. Just like soda, the recipe is relatively straightforward, but some additional complexities are introduced. People can make beer at home, but they need more than a single appliance to do so.

Textiles are more complex. Not only is achieving the desired color a challenge on different types of textiles, but designers pay close attention to how the material appears. For example, the industry uses the term ‘hand feel’ to describe how the material not only looks but how it feels in your hand and drapes. This ‘hand feel’ is an essential part of the design and sign off process. Even if the color is right, the overall appearance of the material may not work in the final design because it’s too reflective, too rough on the skin or does not fold correctly.

With textiles, the challenge becomes three-fold:

  • Achieving the right color
  • The right material behavior and
  • The right material characteristics in manufacturing.

As a result, there are many different variables. For example, natural materials have color and texture variations, dyes vary by region, and even water quality can play a role in the results. Different textiles absorb dyes differently — cotton materials do not react well with neon or fluorescent dyes, and so synthetics like nylon or polyester are required. And the list goes on…

Because of all the variations that go into color and appearance for textiles, it can take many tries at finding and approving the perfect textile for a design application. For example, a furniture manufacturer can go through several rounds to determine the right leather and dye recipe to produce a specified dark black color consistently.

The emergence of virtual material appearance technology, such as X-Rite’s Total Appearance Capture (TAC™) ecosystem, can help speed the material approval process by providing the tools to virtually render, not using generic color and material from a software application but providing the software the final color and material to render. The ability to scan a material and realistically visualize how the material will appear and reflect light in virtual design allows designers, marketers and product managers the capabilities to make more informed decisions without and reduce the prototype costs to one.


Of the three materials, plastic is the most complex. First, there are many different types of plastics, including Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), high-density polyethylene (HDPE), Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), Polypropylene (PP), Thermoplastic polyurethanes (TPU) and more.

Companies who work with plastics primarily focus on the engineering and compliance requirements, accounting for the numerous regularity requirements and use cases for plastic. This can include FDA approval for direct or indirect food contact, the ability to withstand high heat or cold, and the material’s flexibility and resistance to breaking.

Designers who use plastics care about the functionality of the design and user experience, including how a consumer will hold the product, where batteries fit, and how items or components work together to create a single design. Color is essential, but it is secondary to these requirements.

When it comes to managing color in plastics, there are many factors to consider. First, color pigments are chosen based on the types of plastic and the performance requirements. One example is Kayak yellow, which is a pigment used on some boats but not safe for food contact or other uses.

More recently, special effect colors have been added to a number of plastic applications, like the cosmetic packaging. Today’s injection molding technologies have improved allowing designers to apply textures and pearlescent to plastics during the molding process for added appeal and differentiation. This adds another layer of complexity to plastics as these special effects and textures impact both color and appearance.

My analogy for plastics is gluten-free baking. If three people are each asked to follow the Nestlé® Toll House cookie recipe, the results will be close but with some variation. As long as the recipe is followed, things will work fairly well. But gluten-free baking is very different. It is a science within a science.

In lieu of flour, non-wheat products are blended together. Each blend has different weights and reacts differently to fats and proteins. If the three people referenced above made the same recipe but all used different flour blends, none of the cookies would be the same. Some may fall apart and crumble, some may be greasy and some may turn out fine.

The same is true in the plastics industry. A masterbatcher delivers the base pigments, in this example rice flour. For the masterbatcher, it is about accuracy in providing a consistent set of base plastic pigments or compounder to his or her customers. A compounder and molder, though, works with what he has at that point in time. This means there may be material differences from the initial quote to the final order or reorder. His ‘flour’ recipe changes each time based on price and availability, makes consistency one of the biggest challenges. The injection molding firm uses the smaller compounded pellets created to make the final product. Besides, the compounder or injection molder must control time and temperature in the process to deliver accurate color that meet engineering specifications.

Just like cookies are taste-tested, a final plastic product must go through a quality control process to make sure it meets expectations. Over time, I expect we will see plastic samples compared against a digital rendering as a faster, easier and less expensive way to verify color and appearance meet expectations.

Bottom line

Whether you are making soda, beer or taking on the challenge of gluten-free cooking, it’s all about ingredients, processes and following recipes… and in some cases, a little bit of fine-tuning.

While these analogies might not be perfect for understanding color management, I hope they highlight the varying degrees of complexity that can go into getting color and appearance right on a given material. The one thing that is consistent in each of these examples is the importance of understanding the base material. There is a term suppliers use called ‘Best can do’, which translates to this is the best I can do with the color, material, costs and time-frame.

Color may seem easy but it is complicated when it enters the production phases. While companies may not use the word, it really comes down to “achievability.” Can the desired color be achieved based on the material, pigment, manufacturing process and application requirements?

Product designers are frustrated when they choose a color but the final product does not meet their requirements. When it comes to color, you need to begin by thinking about the end product. If your end product contains many different types of materials, it’s important to think about color in a holistic manner. Automotive exterior, automotive interior, athleisure garments, footwear and others are examples of this. The end product, which likely consists of many different materials, needs to mesh in both color and appearance for an attractive and usable end product.

Luckily there is a wide range of solutions available to address the unique challenges that come with materials such as paper, textiles, and plastics. At X-Rite Pantone, we have tools in our wheelhouse like PantoneLIVE™ and Pantone Digital Specifications for industrial applications. Solutions like Total Appearance Capture allow us to go beyond color to better understand the complexities and textures of materials, helping to take virtual design, prototyping and consumer marketing to the next level. The future of color management is exciting!

Keep these analogies in mind as you work to get color right across all of your materials: Consider the complexity of your materials, the manufacturing process, and the criticality of color — the recipe, the method and the final product — and you will be on the right track toward color success.

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This was first published on LinkedIN July 22 2018


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Strategist I Customer Insights I Marketer I Market Intel I Competitive Intel I Industry Trends I Personalization I Speaker I Educator

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