PantoneLIVE, Hitting a Cloud Near You

We all know this particular game of Printing Telephone: DeepPockets Company calls you up with a juicy assignment to redesign a beloved brand’s packages, printed collateral, signage – the works. You labor (wo)manfully into the wee hours, turn around a brilliant concept, secure the client’s approval and then ship your designs into production. You’re printing in various locations globally, using multiple processes to churn out a bewildering variety of pieces.

Your team schools and schools the onsite printing manager at each location as to exactly how to color-match everything. Cut to the disastrous final reel: your woefully color-mismatched packages, brochures and all the rest, grouped like a guilty Exhibit A on a conference table, an angry client team arrayed all around it. How can you never, ever relive such a scene?

Enter PantoneLIVE, just announced today. It’s a cloud-based color service providing brand managers, designers, and everybody in a printing-production team with instant access to brand colors. In effect, PantoneLIVE aggregates and makes public all the rubber-meets-the-road experiences at printing presses worldwide, capturing the exact specifications that work perfectly for printing a given brand’s colors across multiple substrates and processes.

Maybe you’re one of the lucky souls in the design-slash-branding game who’s never been burnt by such a scenario. In which case, you might be asking: “How hard can it be to print a color accurately? You’ve got the Pantone / PMS number already – isn’t that all you need?”

Explaining this calls for a concrete example. Take Heinz Beanz, a well-loved staple of any British kitchen. Instantly recognizable on the grocery shelf in an iconic turquoise can, Heinz Beanz branding has to be printed on paper (can wrappers), thin plastic (shrink-wrap around multi-can packs), thicker plastic (labels on “Fridge Packs” in glass jars), thickest plastic (“Snap Pots”, portable cups o’ beans similar to yogurt packaging) – the list goes on. That turquoise is key for brand recognition, so much so that companies will defend their copyright turf if competitors try to infringe on an iconic color-to-product association. (See my post, Can You Own a Color?)

Green is a notoriously finicky color to match accurately (one of the reasons it’s often considered an unlucky color – see my post Irish Eyes Ain’t Always Smiling: The Contradictory Meanings of Green). Also, different printing processes are at play to print all these substrates – the fancy word for the material to be printed on. Even with a universally recognized Pantone number, Heinz Beanz print jobs called for experienced folks to eyeball the color-match on-press,  manual correcting their process to match the ideal shade in practice. If you’ve got a great eyeball on the job, marvelous – but if you don’t, whole print runs may need to be chucked at ruinous expense because the colors don’t match the brand standards (or each other). However, when an especially good match on a tricky substrate-printing-process combo is achieved, those data specifications can be captured and shared via PantoneLIVE for others to use.

PantoneLIVE improved color-match accuracy for Heinz about 50%, which is no slouchy improvement. (See the full Heinz Beanz / PantoneLIVE case study here.) Other trial runs of LIVE allowed brands to reduce the proliferating numbers of inks in stock, all without reducing the variety of colors produced as the end result. A beans-loving American (this one) might say: “Hot diggity dog!”

Beanz Meanz Heinz by Jon Hamilton-Fford, $22 and up.

PantoneLIVE is a joint project with best-of-breed partners in manufacturers’ inks, printing presses, and packaging providers. It’s also the company’s first product of a new division, called Pantone Digital Business Unit. It’s a bold idea whose time seems overdue, with pricing that’s affordable enough for anyone who deals with large brands to ensure color accuracy.

Speaking for color fans everywhere, we’ll be curious to see what Pantone plucks out of the cloud next.


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4 thoughts on “PantoneLIVE, Hitting a Cloud Near You

  1. Iain Pike

    Thanks Jude for the head’s up on this question from Johanna.

    In short, PantoneLIVE is comprised of a few interrelated concepts that I will explain:
    1) PantoneLIVE is a central, cloud-based, secure database of color data. The “secure” part means two things a) that users subscribe to access PantoneLIVE color data and b) some of the data access is additionally granted from a Brand Owner.
    2) The color data is spectral information from real ink on substrate samples, which has been measured with a specific instrument response (called XRGA), and associated metadata (further information about the color, either descriptive or technical). Included among the data are the PANTONE PLUS Master color libraries, but also some new digital color libraries with unique and valuable features.
    3) Pantone has worked with SunChemical (a division of DIC, the largest ink company in the world) to create representative color matches to all of the PANTONE PLUS colors with full consideration for typical inks, substrates and printing processes used for packaging decoration and printing. Folding cartons are typically printed on a recycled carton board, flexible pouches and bags are printed via flexography with solvent-based inks on clear or white polypropylene, and labels are often printed on plastic or paper substrates using gravure or flexographic print processes. In many cases, some of the PANTONE PLUS colors (which are printed using lithography on white, coated enamel paper) cannot be fully achieved using common package printing processes and materials. Therefore, PantoneLIVE is also an extension of the PANTONE PLUS formula guide into several new mediums in order to show a realistic, feasible color standard which designers can select with the confidence that a package printer can achieve the target.
    4) Since the color data is spectral, it can be used to provide an exacting, useable description of the original color. It can be used, for instance, to render the specified color to a computer display in Adobe Illustrator via a PantoneLIVE plugin called PantoneLIVE ColorBook. It can be printed with high correlation to on-press results using a digital inkjet proofing system like Esko FlexProof. In addition, it can be used in conjunction with a color formulation system like X-Rite IFS to mix a spot-color ink recipe from commercially available ink bases (and account for a specific substrate and print process).
    5) A caveat is that this exacting digital description is powerful when used within a well controlled and color managed network of imaging technologies. It requires some basic underpinnings and technology, which many (but not all) suppliers of packaging pre-media and print services already have.
    6) From a benefits perspective, obviously, digital communication of color is instant, whereas use of analog color samples can be slower (but more tangible). You may also be surprised to find the amount of effort that goes into coordinating color communication on a packaging or decoration design; some of this is because the specified color is not achievable. In other cases the ambiguity of the color specification requires checkpoints and evaluation cycles that consume resources. Sometimes the lack of clarity around the capability of the print process results in unrealistic expectations in design, so the resulting work doesn’t meet the original expectation. And often varying materials or processes yield non-homogeneous color results at the store shelf, reflecting poorly on the brand and it’s quality.
    7) To take advantage of these benefits, several brand owners have already started working with PantoneLIVE, and have designated subsets of the PANTONE PLUS color range, or custom colors, to palettes along with associated metadata (like a brand, product or promotion). These often include dependent colors as well, which help to align the full supply chain around realistic and achievable brand color expectations. These palettes reside in the Pantone Cloud and when access rights are granted to suppliers, everyday apps like Illustrator or Esko PackEdge display these palettes within the relevant color picker, and contain various levels of related color-management structure to represent the color accurately.
    8) Benefits are not just for brands. The use of PantoneLIVE has shown significant savings in prepress, design and converting operations as well. We have several more case studies in place that will share the details of these initial users, which include some of the largest and most successful packaging and design service providers in the world.
    I know this was a long-winded response, and yet only a short summary of what makes up PantoneLIVE and how it works. I hope that this thread will help you and others to catch on to the idea and consider how it might be of use in your work.

    –Iain Pike, Market Director Pantone Digital

  2. Jude Stewart

    Good Q, Johanna. I’ve asked Pantone to weigh in on this directly, but here’s my stab at an answer (from one degree of remove): I believe Pantone LIVE is a big database of specifications in the cloud, consolidating best practices and individual settings for printing equipment, inks, etc. across the globe. They’ve partnered with the major ink manufacturers and leaders of printing-press equipment to make sure LIVE covers most major configurations for printing at the outset. I suppose you would call LIVE less of a “product” and more a subscription service.

  3. Johanna Goldfeld

    This sounds like a great concept, but WHAT IS IT, exactly? I looked at the case study and gather that it essentially uses a spectrophotometer to check color that goes to a central online repository?? The online video from Pantone on this is remarkably vague.
    Seems like a huge challenge with all the variability in equipment, and would require serious color training for a lot of printers. I would love to know what others think or if they understand the service  in the first place!