What color is this, exactly?

Communicating colors correctly across the supply chain has not been an easy task because there is no standard way of classifying the intended color of spot inks. This could change soon with the new ISO standard 17972-4.

Communicating colors correctly across the supply chain has not been an easy task, yet an important one: Brands like Coca-Cola and Nivea are identified by specific colors and even a slight deviation may hurt sales if customers perceive a product to be old or damaged because of it – especially if the product is displayed on a shelf next to a package of the same brand in a somewhat different color. This is particularly relevant when special inks, so-called spot inks, are used in addition to the usual process inks consisting of the standard colors cyan, magenta, yellow and black (CMYK) that are typically described with ICC profiles.

Today, there is no standard way of communicating the intended color of spot inks. A number of proprietary solutions exist but moving documents created in one system to another has proved to be difficult if not impossible.

This could change soon: The new ISO standard 17972-4 is expected to be published soon. “This standard provides a strong connection between designers and printers to allow them to communicate effectively”, said Craig Revie, Editor of ISO 17972-4 in an email interview.

The idea for the standard dates back to 2011 when it was first discussed and has been in development since. “The biggest issue was ensuring that the standard is consistent with the proprietary solutions in use today”, explained Revie. “We want to make sure that it is easy for these users to adopt the new standard without having to adopt a completely new workflow.”

ISO 17972-4 allows communicating all relevant aspects of colors, including opacity, using CxF/X-4 data in PDF documents. CxF works with the openness of XML and across devices, applications and locations. Still, businesses will have to make some adjustments before they can work efficiently with the new ISO standard. New versions of the tools used to measure, embed and extract the relevant color information will be needed. A number of companies have already developed first versions of the necessary Adobe Illustrator and PDF tools in anticipation of ISO 17972-4.

Since colors may look differently depending on the materials they are printed on, the standard includes the most common materials used in packaging. Some materials such as ceramic tiles or black cloth and other textiles are not covered yet. “This may be the work of a future standard”, says Revie.

For more information, see this document from the ICC.