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International Color Standards, Part 1: Setting the Stage for Increased Profits

(October 2007) posted on Wed Oct 03, 2007

International color-reproduction standards allow printers to compete globally, increase productivity, and make more money. This article digs into the foundations of standards and highlights the value of conforming to them.

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By Mike Ruff

The first and most obvious purpose of international standards is to address the challenges faced by the manufacturers of color-critical products like inks and coatings, fabrics, and decorative items. At the base level, they all have the same challenges: Different viewers of color have different opinions, different conditions lead to dissimilar color appearance, designers and printers need measurable guidelines, and clients need a method of specifying their intentions and expectations.

Without a way to measure it, color is just subjective opinion. Therefore, manufacturers needed a method of providing clients the color they expect (Figure 1). They created a standard numbering system for color. Most of the early pioneers of color theory were part-timers who were very aware of this need. Their main occupations involved mathematics or teaching, art, literature, psychology, or physics. In 1637, mathematician Renee Descartes documented the formation of a rainbow by explaining the physics of raindrops and formed the first clear theory of optics. In 1670, it was generally believed that color existed in two forms: real, as in the color of a flower, and etheethereal, as in a rainbow. But a 23-year-old scientist by the name of Sir Isaac Newton proved that white light is truly a mixture of just three colors of light: red, green, and blue.

Color science didn’t progress much from this point until in 1802, when Thomas Young laid the groundwork for determining that colors were perceived by a three-color code: lightness, chroma, and hue (L*C*H*). He proved that light was a form of electromagnetic radiation, thereby laying the groundwork for color measurement and the study of light and color. He taught us that color (visible light) was just the visible spectrum of about 400-700 nanometers (nm) in an electromagnetic light spectrum that contains much higher and lower frequencies. We began to understand that light also contains colors beyond our ability to see, but that some animal species could detect them.

Light also contains radio-wave frequency on one end and gamma-ray frequency on the other. X-rays, UV, infrared, and microwaves were just frequencies in the spectrum. Young charted the visible light portion in the middle, between infrared and ultraviolet, with a maximum intensity in yellow (Figure 2).  


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