Art Direction

Painting by numbers

March 3, 2006

When we were children we were exposed to visual stimuli of all types. As we grew, we captured much of what we saw in the world around us and committed it to memory. As we developed still further, we found that we could transfer many of these memories onto paper using pen and pencil, crayons, watercolor paints, and oils.

Some of us discovered an innate talent for visual communication through painting. Others of us found that the creative tendencies were focused in other areas, maybe music or some other form of expression. To stay with the painting analogy a bit longer, those of us not possessing this talent but interested in painting pretty pictures found some level of equality by utilizing the "paint by numbers" approach and following the color designations on the printed outline of the "painting" and the matching numeric identification of the paint palette.

Having been part of the latter side of artistic life, I must admit that the body of work I turned out via this method was quite acceptable, having been framed and hung on a wall in my parents' home. From a distance one could not distinguish my sister's freehand artistry from the "paint by numbers" of my creation.

The difference, of course, is that the artistic approach of my sister allowed her to impart her own interpretations of her subject on the canvas, taking her time, achieving a unique result. My finished product, on the other hand, could be matched to that produced by any other kid whose parents bought him the same paint-by-numbers activity set. Where my sister's result could not be exactly duplicated even by herself, mine could be reproduced by her or by any of my friends or anyone painting the same subject by the numbers.

I've taken a bit of liberty here to illustrate the point that printing, and more specifically flexo printing, is evolving into a method driven more and more by science and less and less by art.

Not to say that the process will some day be devoid of artistic input, far from it. But the point I'm making is that as with the "paint by numbers" equalizer, printing by the numbers provides the repeatability and the consistency of reproduction that is so critical to most consumer products companies (CPCs) seeking to retain the equity of their brands yet service regional and local manufacturing or distribution centers. The print side of the process will become more stable, more predictable and certainly more repeatable as scientific technique and measurement become more commonplace in the flexo printing process.

Color management and print reproduction verification are tools which we can use to direct, develop, monitor, and deliver the consistency the CPC is seeking. And playing by the numbers means within a print process as well as across print methods, so that color consistency can be achieved when a label is printed litho, the intermediate folding carton container is printed rotogravure, and the corrugated shipping container is direct print flexo.

Without a sound approach to color management beginning with the design and continuing to the printed piece, the CPC should expect mediocrity and less than consistent brand identity at the retail level.

Spectrophotometry has eclipsed the use of densitometry over the past several years. It provides a more identifiable, consistently scientific and measurable means by which to quantify and communicate color among all those having a stake in the final outcome of the product packaging scheme.

It puts everyone on as even a plane as possible.

Trade shop role

The following approach has been undertaken by a prepress solutions provider who shared his thoughts with me. It's one approach of many out there, but the adoption if this is paying dividends to all involved.

As is the case with many consumer products companies, the development of "brand colors" by the design firms working with them on new product development and promotion is out of control. Most, but certainly not all, of the design agencies have a limited printing and converting background from which to draw, and even if they know printing, it won't be flexo printing, for example, so therefore the knowledge of the subtleties and nuances of label, flexible packaging, folding carton, and corrugated segments is nearly nil.

Compounding the confusion in this area is the fact that the consumer product company doesn't necessarily employ the talent needed to address these idiosyncrasies as well as they should be addressed.

The packaging trade shop is the key element inside the loop that has the ability to assist the consumer product company in developing a comprehensive plan, understanding the variables, controlling the color standards and analyzing the capabilities of the print providers in order to manage and deliver the brand equity so important to the CPC. The packaging trade shop is not likely to take the same path to extinction that its grandfather, the offset separation trade shop, unfortunately took. The variables and differentiators of the various print media employed by the producers of printed packaging materials requires that an entity exist in the center of the process to facilitate the brand equity and consistency for the consumer products company. In a general sense, the packaging trade shop will be the asset manager for the CPC.

In this particular case the trade shop will enter the project timeline at the design development stage once the brand managers have determined the basic characteristics of their product's identity, how they want it presented to the market and what the general color scheme will be. At this stage, the trade shop is not necessarily taking over the design stage, although this happens from time to time as the trade shop adds this capability to their process. More often than not, the trade shop is working in a consultative role, providing the team with feedback on the prepress and production end of things. Most important, it has a hand in communicating the right information about the nature and characteristic of the print media and the selected printer.

This is not the forum for a detailed discussion of color management and the reach of its application, but more a high level look at the basics involved to organize the process and the nature of how it works to enable the consumer product company to realize improved print quality and color consistency across all packaging components.

Spot color management

A look at the range of spot colors required by today's brand managers, as developed by the designers, makes it clear that a managed process is needed.

Take, for instance, the example of three components of the product packaging scheme: labels printed via UV litho, a folding carton primary package printed via rotogravure using solvent based inks, and the outer corrugated shipping container printed via direct print flexo using water based flexo inks.

The CPC brand manager and the design house decide on the color scheme. There will be common graphic elements which appear on all three components. The brand colors are depicted and agreed upon through the use of a Pantone color guide (which is on coated or uncoated stock printed by offset lithography - a loose guide at best).

In order to manage the color, all printers are required to submit their best match to the color target to the trade shop. The trade shop analyzes these submissions and works back and forth with the printer to get a match as close as possible to the target. Once all drawdowns are finalized as being the best the printer can reproduce under production conditions, the data is analyzed via a spectrophotometer and the color standard is developed using the lowest common denominator. In other words, the corrugated shipper printer may not be able to reach the saturation and chroma levels of the UV litho printer, but the litho printer can come down to the corrugated converter's level and control his process. That's an example.

Now that the color standard is established, all of the spectral data associated with this project is archived, and the new brand spot color is identified as a specific color for that consumer products company.

As time moves forward and projects continue to be developed and completed using this method, the new spot colors become the library of color from which the designer selects his palette of brand colors. Now the designer understands what the capability of the various print processes and printers are, so the prepress house is receiving truly printable file layouts. In the long run, this process will contribute to the bottom line of all involved.

The consumer products company will achieve the brand equity positioning it wants so dearly, the designer will be more accurate in his prediction of graphics for the brand managers, the trade shop will have a more streamlined and efficient workflow due to the more acceptable file layouts, and the printer will be confident in his ability to match the target. In so doing, the printer will become more efficient and print at a higher level of quality and predictability.

The scientific approach

So back to "painting by numbers": My sister was a talented painter and created many nice originals by applying her art and talent. She was never asked to reproduce these originals so there wasn't any comparison or consistency issue to consider.

The packaging printer, on the other hand, needs to employ a more scientific approach. The global marketplace dictates that packaging and brand recognition is critical to acquiring market share worldwide.

The consumer product companies deserve the consistency they seek. We as a printing community are responsible to adopt the technical capabilities and develop the human talent still needed to manage and promote these systems.

We need to deliver the results we are capable of achieving and strive to apply the scientific method to our processes on an ongoing basis to ensure that we are delivering a consistent packaging solution to our clients for years to come.

Patrick J. O'Brien is president of Premier Sales Ltd., in Peacedale, RI, USA. In addition to consultation services, Pat calls on nearly 30 years experience in the flexographic printing and converting industry to assist clients with sourcing technology and equipment systems from a worldwide network of manufacturers. He can be reached at 401-783-0817 or via e-mail at The web site is

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