The Wonderful World of Color and Data

Color and data have long been bedfellows. Artists spend years, entire careers, exploring and understanding color, but computers have no trouble analyzing the phenomenon, it seems.

RGB, CMYK, hex code and more are precise representations of color. Every character or value represents some aspect of the color, from hue to saturation. But what does this intersection of art and technology enable? How does mixing digital efficiency with individual artistry empower people and businesses to paint in the world around us?

Color, managed.

One place this enhanced understanding of color powers decision-making is in the novel field of color management. EC2I, an Essex-based creative production agency, offers color management services to clients to ensure that the colors consumers see in magazines, online, and on the product itself, all look the same.

“That’s the art of color management, replicating a color across multiple different substrates,” said Alan Cansick, a marketing technology specialist at EC2I. “We analyze color swatches, fabric swatches, paper substrates, and we utilize that data when we’re retouching and color matching.”

One arena where this color consistency is vitally important is branding. A color can be powerful enough alone to evoke feelings, and spark action. So, it’s critical that the color looks the same on the page, screen, or product.

“Coca-Cola red, no matter where you are in the world, is instantly identifiable, whether that be in print, online, or at the point of sale,” said Cansick. “The reason is that they’re able to measure the characteristic data of a screen or the print process, and then make adjustments and predict exactly how that color is going to reproduce on a certain type of paper.”

“We have full-blown consistency wherever a color is deployed,” he said.

Cansick explained how previously, this work was done by color masters, which would do all this work with the naked eye. Pupils would be trained in-house by color experts on the intricacies of color while attending a school like the London College of Communication, where they would learn about the wider industry of printing. Part of their training included exams where pupils were required to identify a color’s exact RGB or CMYK value with no digital assistance. Today, Cansick can achieve this color consistency through a technique called spectrophotometry, where a device measures light absorption or the number of chemicals in a sample.

That data is collected and added to EC2I’s library which catalogs innumerable color and material combinations to reproduce color in any environment. The company even has a sample room with physical samples collected over the years and controlled lighting to offer the best service to their clients.

“They used to call it witchcraft, they used to say, ‘how on Earth do you do that?’” said Cansick, “But the truth is that it’s taken over 25 years of capturing color data, material data, and then replicating that color.”

Predictive product colors

Replication isn’t the only use case for data and color, the data can help choose colors that will capture consumers’ eyes and imaginations. Western Digital’s industrial designers use data from all over the world to select colors for the MyPassport drives because they recognize that color turns utilitarian technology into an expressive statement.

Over a decade ago, Alfonso Calderon, director of industrial design at Western Digital, and his team were tasked with livening up the company’s product offerings for the back-to-school season. Inspired by hyper-seasonal offerings, the team decided a splash of color would be their approach.

“The trick is that we can’t just pick a color out of thin air, though,” said Calderon, “we’re picking the color a year in advance because we want to launch right in the middle of a trend.”

Originally, Calderon and his team did this by hand, arranging physical color boards on the floors of their offices. Magazine clippings from fashion, sports, tech, and pop culture were neatly sorted into piles of color, offering a birds-eye view of the future of color. Over the years, particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the team from meeting in person, this process transitioned into a digital, data-driven enterprise. Excel sheets of RGB values are constructed with some automation assistance and digital tools, but the team still trusts their eyes.

A sheet of color exiting a computer screen and hands of a designer looking at the data of color

“As we sort, we see all of these thousands of images of yellows; 5,000 images of just yellow,” said Julia Gronewold, an industrial designer on Calderon’s team. “I usually just use my eyes at first, but then as it gets into the exact detail we use data to figure out exactly what we’re looking at.”

“Eventually, the tone I’m looking for just emerges,” Gronewold said.

While the data powers their thinking, the team also harbors artistic sensibilities. Their work lies at a tricking intersection of artistry and design. Only by balancing them can the team choose an appealing color while achieving their business goals.

“[Designers] understand what an artist is, and we have the skills that an artist has, but I think it’s about how you use those skills,” Calderon said. “Being an artist means doing whatever you want; being a designer means fulfilling a need for somebody else. It’s a similar skill set, but you’re using those skills in a different manner to achieve a different goal.”

Green is good

While it may sound persnickety—choosing between RGB(124,252,0) and RGB(127,255,0) may seem arbitrary, frivolous even—there is real business value in color consistency. For EC2I that value comes in cost savings for their customers.

“This is exceptionally important to fashion retailers who are selling color fabrics to their clients through catalogs and online ads. Most people buy clothes based on color because they’ve got shoes or a bag that would match,” Cansick said. “If there’s no color management and the fabric looks blue in the ad but turns out to be green, customers will send that product back, costing the seller millions, absolute millions.”

For the industrial designers at Western Digital, data-driven color selections have helped increase sales and customer satisfaction. They now implement their process for several of the company’s consumer products.

Beyond the brass tacks though, there’s the nascent question of the relationship between art and technology. Both the folks at EC2I and Western Digital speak of their work existing in some sort of middle ground between artistry and technocracy. Technical know-how was vital, yes, but they still relied on their eyes for intuitive decisions, what they could only describe as “feel.”

Color will remain an immutable part of artistry, the focus of some peoples’ lives, but technology helps us better understand our wonderful world of color.

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