OOXML Hacking: Font Themes

Font themes are one of the simpler theme elements in Open Office XML, but for some baffling reason, Mac Office users can't create one. It's odd enough that the only Mac program that can create a color theme is PowerPoint, but even it can't provide an escape from Calibri and Arial! So I'm going to show you how to do it on your own.

Let's start with a dead-simple font theme. Here's the minimal file that Office will read:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8" standalone="yes"?>
<a:fontScheme xmlns:a="http://schemas.openxmlformats.org/drawingml/2006/main" name="Test">
  <a:majorFont>
    <a:latin typeface="Arial"/>
    <a:ea typeface=""/>
    <a:cs typeface=""/>
  </a:majorFont>
  <a:minorFont>
    <a:latin typeface="Arial"/>
    <a:ea typeface=""/>
    <a:cs typeface=""/>
  </a:minorFont>
</a:fontScheme>

Important Note: If you copy and paste this sample, you must change the non-breaking space characters to ordinary spaces. I need to use non-breaking spaces to format an HTML page, but Office will refuse to display your font theme if you don't search and replace them with regular spaces.

You can create this in any text editor, including TextEdit in plain text mode (don't try this with an rtf file). However, by default TextEdit will change the necessary straight quotes to smart quotes, producing a file that Office will not recognize. If you're using TextEdit, make sure you visit both TextEdit>Preferences and Edit>Substitutions and turn off Smart Quotes in both locations. A better alternative is the free version of BBEdit. When you visit this link, click on the Download link to get the free version. If you do any significant amount of XML editing, the paid version of BBEdit is well worth the $50 price tag.

The most common font theme problem is using smart quotes (Hex 201C + 201D, Decimal 8220 + 8221) other than plain straight quotes (Hex 22, Decimal 34). But you can also ruin a font theme by using non-breaking spaces (Hex A0, Decimal 160) instead of regular spaces (Hex 20, Decimal 32). Even though a font theme is encoded in UTF-8, you should only use plain ASCII characters for the text. XML has a low tolerance for non-standard characters.

Now that you're set up to edit, copy and paste the font theme file. The <a:latin> tag is the standard font for your theme. <a:majorFont> is for headings and <a:minorFont> for text. Fill in <a:ea> with a font that supports Chinese or Japanese (ea stands for East Asian), if you want to support those languages. The <a:cs> tag stands for complex scripts: Arabic, Thai, Hebrew and many more. For more detail on non-European language support in font themes, please see my article XML Hacking: Font Themes Complete. Or you can just leave those tags blank if you have a predictable user base that won't require them.

A common mistake is to get too specific with the font name in font themes. The name is only the base font name as displayed in Powerpoint's font menu. "Open Sans" will work, but "Open Sans Extrabold" will cause Word 2011 to display a blank space where the font theme should be, while Word 2016 will simply ignore the entire file.

Save the file as a text file with a .xml ending and give it the name you want to appear in the user interface. "Brandwares.xml" will appear in the Font Theme menu as Brandwares.

For Office 2016 or 2019, save this file to Users/YourUserName/Library/Group Containers/UBF8T346G9.Office/User Content/Themes/Theme Fonts. For Office 2011, save it to Users/YourUserName/Library/Application Support/Microsoft/Office/User Templates/My Themes/Theme Fonts. In current versions of OS X, the user Library is hidden by default. To open it, hold down the Alt key, while clicking on the Go menu and choosing Library.

Once it's correctly installed, it will show in PowerPoint's Slide Master view under the Fonts dropdown. A new Custom group will appear at the top of the list, with your font theme in it. Once you apply it and a color theme to a presentation, you can save as a theme file and distribute that to your users, it will contain the font theme you just created. Happy hacking!


Font Themes - An Alternate Method

March 2017 edit: If you have any problems creating a font theme from scratch, here's a workaround. Open an existing font theme that come with Office and edit the font names to the ones you want to use. These files are the verbose style discussed in this article: XML Hacking: Font Themes Complete. For most uses, you only need to set the a:latin font in the a:majorfont and a:minorfont sections. Here's where you can find the Microsoft Font Themes:

Office 2011 for Mac - Open Applications/Microsoft Office 2011/Office/Media/Office Themes/Theme Fonts and copy any of the XML files.

Office 2016 or 2019 for Mac - Open Applications, then right-click on Microsoft PowerPoint and choose Show Package Contents. Open Contents/Resources/Office Themes/Theme Colors and copy any of the XML files in there.

Here are the locations for 32-bit versions of Windows. If you're using a 64-bit version of Windows, check the same path inside C:\Program Files (x86).

Office 2007 for Windows - Open C:\Program Files\Microsoft Office\Document Themes 12\Theme Fonts.

Office 2010 for Windows - Open C:\Program Files\Microsoft Office\Document Themes 14\Theme Fonts.

Office 2013 for Windows - Open C:\Program Files\Microsoft Office\root\Document Themes 15\Theme Fonts.

Office 2016 or 2019 for Windows - Open C:\Program Files\Microsoft Office\root\Document Themes 16\Theme Fonts.

Too complicated? We can help! Brandwares is a full service template creation service for all Office programs. Contact me at production@brandwares.com

OOXML Hacking: Table Styles Complete

Custom Table Styles are probably one of the more detailed hacks you'll have to write. See the constructions details in my previous post. Besides the basic table format, there are 6 optional format layers you need to at least consider. In a minimal table style, you'll need to include at least the Header Row, First Column and Banded Rows. Most users will expect to see these options. Total Rows, Last Columns and Banded Columns are less requested, you only need to include them if a design or client specifically requires them.

As mentioned in part 1, if you haven't hacked XML before, please read XML Hacking: An Introduction. If you're using a Mac, you should also read XML Hacking: Editing in OS X. In addition, an essential companion to this pair of articles is the post on setting Default Table Text, which is set in a different XML component..

Let's take a look at how our work appears in the PowerPoint interface. First, we'll insert a plain vanilla table. By default this takes on colors and fonts from the current PowerPoint theme:

Default Table Style

Next, we choose the Table Tools>Design tab, open the Table Styles gallery. Up at the top a new Custom section has appeared with our new custom table style:

Select Custom Table Style

Select the custom table style and the default table changes to match our design. This screen shot has all formatting options turned off, so effectively we are seeing the Whole Table formatting only.

All Options Off

Options: Banded Rows and Header

Using the options panel in the upper left corner, we can add some of optional formatting layers we created in XML. First, let's turn on banded rows. If you remember, we only formatted odd-numbered rows, so the banding only changes rows 1 and 3 in our example:

Banded Rows

Next, we'll leave banded rows on and also add the Header row. This row doesn't count as part of the table body, so the banding moves down 1 row:

Banded Rows and Header

Options: First and Last Columns

Next, we'll turn off banded rows, leave the Header as is and add the first column:

Header Row and First Column

Here's the table with First and Last Columns checked:

First and Last Columns

Options: Header and Total

And finally, Header and Total Rows:

Header and Total Rows

As you can see, with some pre-planning, one table style can cover quite a few related table looks. The layer options for different features make the table useful for many different purposes and the options panel makes it fast and easy for users to try different combinations. This feature is a major advance over tables in PowerPoint 2003 and earlier, which were quite crude by comparison.Table styles work the same way in Word, PowerPoint and Excel. While Word and Excel include table style editors in their interface, PowerPoint needs to be hacked to create them. Happy hacking!

Of course, if the process is too complex, we're here to help. The current price on a custom table style is US$120. Just email me production@brandwares.com

Cross-platform Fonts from Small Foundries: Beware! - Best Practices

Specifying fonts for electronic documents creates more hassle for clients and users than designing for print or web. This is because desktop applications need to have the font installed on each computer creating the documents. The cost can be high and installation by the client's I.T. department is usually required. But these are technical hurdles that can be overcome if the client buys into a perceived necessity to have a different look than the competition.

There are 2 inter-related problems that crop up next: font families and cross-platform use. Font families are grouping of fonts that are linked so the user can switch between regular, italic and bold variants by clicking on attribute buttons. This is different from standard usage in the design world, where single fonts predominate. Designers are used to switching to a bold or italic look by picking a different font from the font menu, rather than by clicking on a bold or italic button. I've previously discussed font family issues here.

Windows vs OSX Linespacing

Same font, same document, different platform.
The small-foundry font displays and prints with tighter linespacing on a Mac (at right).

Today I'm focussing on the awful things that can happen when font families are specced for use with both Windows and Mac OS X. Surprisingly, it is not easy or simple to create families that work well on both platforms. The most popular software used by independent font designers doesn't do this correctly, though we have filed numerous bug reports with the company. The net result is that if you spec a font from a small foundry that is going to be used on both Mac and Windows, it's very likely not going to work. It's not universal, there are some very skilled individual font jockeys who have the knowledge and skill to do it right. But you're only going to find out the hard way, by buying the font and trying to use it.

Let me clarify, these fonts will work fine on either Windows or Mac. We can set up a template to make it work for either platform. You only see the anomalies when you move a document from one platform to the other.

Brandwares can provide fonts for your client's project. Our service includes speccing the correct family groupings and supporting installation and troubleshooting. This includes working with the foundry to create correct families for cross-platform fonts.

I also encourage designers to ask your client the Mac/Windows question sooner rather than later. Call the foundry and ask if they can test on both platforms. I've known type designers who only own a Mac and don't have any way of testing on Windows. When files are going to be used on both, speccing fonts from a large foundry is a good solution. They use different software and we have never seen a bad Mac/Windows family from one of the big companies. But the most practical solution is to stick with the wide variety of fonts that come free with Microsoft Office. They are high-quality faces, already installed and FREE! Your client appreciates a bargain, too!

Windows Macintosh Font Test

Testing Light and Regular font families from a small foundry.
Windows on the left, OS X on the right.
Yes, they're supposed to be the same. No, they're not.

WordLab to Brandwares

Finally, the transition of 2 companies into 1 is complete. We began planning the merger more than a year ago. We started with rebranding WordLab to match Brandwares. With the completion of the process, all WordLab content has been folded into the Brandwares site. The aspect that has required the most detailed planning has been managing the SEO for both sites. Our goal was to ensure the summing of as much link juice as possible. I think we pulled it off. We're getting more total hits now with one site than the 2 previous sites received separately.

Brandwares for Complete Workflows

Brandwares' strengths have been in web development, especially math-intensive intranet applications for financial institutions. The angle that WordLab brings is a strong focus on desktop applications like Microsoft Office and Adobe Acrobat. Combined, our new company can create and support complete workflows. These provide strongly branded information from every major software group in a company. This unified approach gives our customers both higher office productivity and stronger brand identity in every communication. I look forward to helping your company achieve exactly those goals.

Calculating RGB Tints - Best Practices

Theoretically, there is no such thing as RGB tints. Color theory uses "tint" as any lighter hue of a color. Often this will be explained as what happens if you mix a color with white, though anyone who has spent any time mixing colors has noticed that adding white pigment changes colors in other ways than simply making them lighter.

In the commercial art world, tint is nearly synonymous with screen, because the traditional way of creating lighter shades of a base color is to print it with a halftone screen.

Because of this tradition, brand guidelines often augment a base set of colors with a subset of pastels referred to as tints or screens. This all makes perfect sense in a print-oriented world. However, when you move into digital display color, there are no screens any more. So how do we interpret brand guidelines for RGB-only software like Word, PowerPoint, Excel and the web?

Brand guidelines now normally include RGB numbers for the base colors of a brand, but tints rarely have an RGB equivalent. The designer just specs 20% of PMS 286 and lets you figure it out.

A Calculator for RGB Tints

You can do it with Illustrator, but it's a little roundabout. You create an RGB color, save it as a swatch, being sure to over-ride Illustrator's efforts to keep turning it into CMYK. Then you can spec a percentage of the swatch and finally find out the RGB value of that percentage.

Or you can just use the handy dandy RGB Tint calculator on this very web site. Simply enter an RGB or hexadecimal color value, then the tint percentage, and you get an instant readout of the new color values along with a preview of the color appearance. In addition, it makes a useful RGB-hexadecimal convertor, though there are plenty of other ways to do that operation.

This is a tool we developed for our own template creation work, but you may as well get some use of it too. Enjoy!

Logo Production Secrets - Best Practices

In my last post, I covered some basics on logo production for use in Word, PowerPoint and Excel. This post will continue that topic with some trade secrets, tips and tricks to make logo production easier.

Let's start at the beginning with the file that's to be turned into a graphic. Is there a black element in the logo? If there is, you need to do some special handling. In most design programs, black is not necessarily black. Most artists, coming from a print production background, assume that applying C0 M0 Y0 K100 will give them black. If this was a logo you were actually printing, it would. But you're not.

You're going to translate this logo into RGB, which is the only color model used by Word, PowerPoint and Excel. (If you use Office on the Mac, the color picker makes it appear you are choosing other color models, but behind the scenes your choices are all translated to RGB.)

If you watch the color values in Illustrator, when you change C0 M0 Y0 K100 to RGB, you'll see that you do not get black (R0 G0 B0). You get dark grey, something likeĀ  R35 G31 B32. Shake off that print mentality! The rule of thumb is: on all designs destined for Office, change all color values to RGB, preferably using the Pantone Color Bridge values.


Logo Production Trade Secret

The trade secret for this piece is a shortcut that will save you lots of time at the cost of some system setup. For most logos, we do not use the Illustrator file that is linked to the final art. Instead, we use a PDF of the final art, since the logo has been placed at its final size here. To get our logo file, we resize the PDF to get the total number of pixels we want, make a screen grab of the logo, then paste it into Photoshop.

Here's the theory behind what we're doing. The screen grab is at screen resolution, but our final file must be print resolution at 600 d.p.i. (For PowerPoint, we use 384 d.p.i., which is exactly 4 times the default Windows screen resolution. This displays beautifully and still prints well.) So we're enlarging the PDF to get the number of pixels we need on the display. Then when the screen grab is pasted into Photoshop, we tell it that the resolution is 600 d.p.i. If our math is right, the final logo will be exactly the same physical size as the final design, but at a high resolution.

Here's the system setup part. The calculations are a LOT easier if both your screen and Acrobat are set to 100d.p.i. If you're using Windows, setting your screen to 100 d.p.i. means opening your Display control panel, clicking on the Setting tab and the Advanced button. On the General tab, change DPI setting to Custom setting and try 104%. On most systems, that will get you 100 d.p.i.

Non-Retina Macs should already be running at 100 d.p.i. Now open Acrobat and choose Edit>Preferences>Page Display. Under Resolution, choose Use system setting, which should say 100 pixels/inch. OK out.

You should be good to go. Open the design PDF with logo, set the zoom to 600% and choose the Edit>Take a Snapshot command. Draw a marquee around the logo. Here's a cool tip: even if the logo does not fit on your monitor, drag the marquee over to the side of the window, forcing the graphic to scroll. Acrobat captures all parts of the selection even after it has scrolled off to the side! When you let go of the mouse, the screen will blink, indicating that the image is on the clipboard.

Now switch to PhotoShop. Choose File>New and the suggested size should match the area you just grabbed. Change the resolution to 600 d.p.i. Paste the logo.

Now crop it. Our practice is to do the initial crop leaving one pixel of background clear on the top and left sides of the image. This compensates for Word 2003's propensity to display the logo on-screen looking like the top or left is "clipped", even though it prints fine. Crop the right and bottom edge to contain the faintest shading of the logo and no more.

Cropping in Logo Production

Left: raw screen grab
Right: initial crop - 1 pixel top and left, no clearance right and bottom.


Minimal File Size with Precise Sizing in Office

Word, PowerPoint and Excel can only measure to 1/100". So if your logo is big or small by a few thousandths, Word will resize it vertically or horizontally to make it fit. Your logo will be slightly distorted. So now we're going to add back some of the background. In PhotoShop, choose Image>Canvas Size and change the units of measurement to inches. Round the numbers up to the next highest 1/100 of an inch, so 1.999 becomes 2.0, 12.742 becomes 12.75, etc. Set the canvas addition to flow to the right and bottom, as in this screen shot:

Canvas Size in Logo Production

Dimensions rounded up to next 1/100", canvas set to increase right and bottom size.

Click on OK. In the Layers palette, choose Flatten Image. Now follow the steps from last week's post: choose Image>Mode>Indexed Color, set Palette to Local (Adaptive), reduce the colors to 8 for each color in the original logo (so a 2-color logo will use 16 colors), set Forced and Dither to None, click on OK. Save as PNG for most uses.

There you have it, your first professional Office-ready logo file! It will look good and print sharp, it will be size-accurate and the file size is tiny. Congratulations!

March 2017 edit: This article is still relevant if you must use bitmap-format logos. Vector-based logos offer significant advantages, like not getting blurry when image compression is used on the file. Here's the state of the art: Best Quality Logos for Office

JPEG Logos? Fail! - Best Practices

JPEG logos are the automatic choice for most artists when a client needs a wordmark in Office. It's the worst possible format.

JPEG seems to be the all-purpose file format where the designer realizes they need to place an image with a smaller file size than a full-scale EPS or TIFF. The JPEG format is fine for photos and photo-like graphics, such as graduated tone areas. But it has 2 things going against it for flat color line art: lossy compression and the RGB color space.


The Disadvantages of JPEG Logos

Lossy compression renders flat color as a pixelated and sharpened hodge-podge where every pixel can be a different variation on the original color. You've all seen this on blowups of low-quality JPEGs where weird textures are introduced to areas that were formerly smoothly shaded. Lossy compression does reduce the size of the file, but at a visual cost. When you're dealing with flat color, this visual cost is all too noticeable.

The other down-side to JPEG is the RGB color space. While admirably suited to photos, it's simply not needed for line art logos. The RGB color space means thousands of color definitions are stored in the file, even for a logo that started as 1 color when it was a happy piece of vector art. This bloats the file size

The net result is a fuzzy, textured logo that is just too big. Then the client wonders why their letterhead template is over a megabyte before they type one word. Instead, let's go back to first principles and figure out how to do this right.


The Alternative to JPEG Logos

The average logo starts life as an Illustrator file colored with one or two colors. How can we keep it as close to that original as possible?

Let's start by throwing out the RGB color space. We don't need millions of colors, we only need a few. Let's use Indexed Color instead. With indexed color, only a few color definitions need to be stored in the file, so the file size goes way down. It goes down so much, that we can now increase the resolution of the image to get better sharpness.

Let's go through it step by step. If you're using Adobe products, it takes 2 steps to get to indexed color. First you have to export the logo from Illustrator as RGB, but to a file format that is not lossy, like TIFF. Then you open the RGB file in PhotoShop and reduce the image to indexed color.

Open a test logo in Illustrator. Start with a one-color version to make life simple. Now use the File>Export command with the following settings:

Save as type: TIFF
(Click on Save)

Color Model: RGB

Resolution: Other 600dpi

Anti-aliasing: Art Optimized (Supersampling) - assuming logo text has been converted to curves.

Check LZW Compression and click on OK

Now open the TIFF in Photoshop. Choose Image>Mode>Indexed Color and the following settings:

Palette: Local (Adaptive)

Colors: 8

Forced: None

Dither: None and click on OK

The format to save in depends on which version of Office your client is using (you did ask, didn't you?). GIF format stores more compactly in Office 2003 and earlier. PNG has a smaller file size in Office 2007 and above. The difference is not huge and PNG has the advantage of remembering its resolution, so you could safely just stick with it if you're not sure. GIFs always import into Office under the assumption that they are 72 d.p.i., which means your logo have to be reduced to the correct size after placing in Word or PowerPoint.


The Proof That JPEG Logos Suck

Are you skeptical that it's worth the trouble? Here's an enlargment of a typical artist's result at left versus a Brandwares logo on the right:

JPEG Logos with RGB Color

Enlargement of a typical artist-supplied 300dpi RGB JPEG.

OK, it's obvious the indexed color image looks way better. But the other benefit is that it's also much a much smaller file size. Typically, the crappy-looking JPEG will be 8 (yes, eight) times larger! I know, file size may not matter to you, but it does to your client. They have to pay for storage for thousands of documents based on your template. The rule of thumb is: if your letterhead is bigger than 100kb, you're doing something wrong. Ours range between 40kb and 90kb.

High-res Indexed Color, the alternative to JPEG Logos

Enlargement of a Brandwares 600dpi indexed color PNG.

It's not a lot more work to give your client a superior product. Forget JPEG as a logo format, just use it for photos. Indexed color PNGs are the way to go for line art.

March 2017 edit: This article is still relevant if you must use bitmap-format logos. Vector-based logos offer significant advantages, like not getting blurry when image compression is used on the file. Here's the state of the art: Best Quality Logos for Office

Brand Guidelines for Office - Part 2

In my last post, I covered speccing RGB colors for brand guidelines, colors that are becoming more important as we shift away from a print world. Today I'm going to talk about font specifications, an area that is also commonly misunderstood by designers.

The trend I see over and over is that designers will either specify fonts that are trendy, or fonts that are unusual. Useability seems to be way down on the list of font attributes in a designer's mind.


Trendy Fonts: Curse of the Brand Guidelines

Examples of trendy fonts include Gotham at the moment, Frutiger for the last 10 years and before that Helvetica. Remember when everyone used Helvetica for everything? Thank god those days are over. Trendy fonts are both a stylish and safe choice. After all, if everyone else is using it, it must be hip and it must be good!

In reaction to the safe, stylish choices, some designers choose to be bold iconoclasts and spec fonts that are quirky or odd. These are designers who want to be remembered for their bold choices and their ability to define new directions.

But hmmm, what's missing? Are we forgetting something? Oh right, the needs of the client!

As soon as you start to work directly with the client to implement guidelines in the real world, you immediately notice a number of drawbacks to the choices of fonts:

  • Most designer fonts are not embeddable in Microsoft Office. Word and PowerPoint only allow TrueType fonts to be embedded, but most fonts in use by designers are PostScript or OpenType.
  • Even when the fonts are embeddable, often the resulting document is not editable because paranoid type foundries have crippled the fonts.
  • Specifying a designer font for corporate documents means that the fonts would have to be purchased for all users in the company (a huge cost) and then installed on each desktop and laptop (a giant hassle for I.T.).
  • If the client emails documents to clients or partners for collaborative input, the designer fonts are silently substituted and the whole appearance of the document falls apart.

After we walk designers through the steps above, their usual decision is to spec designer fonts for printed pieces (an ever-shrinking piece of the brand pie) and Arial and Times New Roman for everything else! Well that certainly leaves the client looking anonymous! What was it they hired a designer for again?

This is so sad, but folks, it doesn't have to be this way. It's 15 years since the only choices were Arial or Times New Roman. Microsoft Office comes with a wealth of fonts that are installed with the software. Yes, some of these are crappy, there are are many gems in there too.


Brand Guidelines That Show Your Client Some Love

We've created a list of useful fonts that come with Microsoft Office. These are useable text fonts, we didn't include display faces, script fonts or faces that only have one weight. Our list tells you which Office versions have which fonts. Our list gives you clickable previews of the whole font.

Microsoft Office useful fonts for brand guidelines

Part of our PDF showing useful fonts that are installed with Microsoft Office.
These are the best fonts to choose for user-filled text.
Contact us for the full PDF that shows full-font previews.

Drop me an email and I'll send you the full PDF, updated for current versions.


Significant Advantages for Your Client

There are significant advantages to speccing these fonts:

  • They come free with Microsoft Office and are already installed on every computer. This saves your client a boatload of money and installation hassles.
  • Since these fonts are are most computers that have Word, collaboration is possible. Your client can email a document to their clients or partners without fonts being substituted. The document remains fully editable.
  • You can still achieve a distinctive brand identity for client documents with only a few moments research.

Desktop-generated documents are the vast majority of documents created by your client, dwarfing the few printed pieces they may create. It's time to jump out of the print-oriented mindset and find ways to brand your client in every document from every source. Creative use of available fonts is one way to get there!

Brand Guidelines for Office - Part 1

Brand guidelines are an essential part of establishing worldwide graphic standards for any large company. When they are done right, they're an effective way to propagate the corporation's standards to remote markets. Unfortunately, when they contain errors, those errors are almost impossible to correct in a systematic way.

Brand guidelines are a top-down or hierarchical means of propagating the corporation's brand. One design firm sets the standard, the standard is approved by head office and then distributed to subsidiary designers. There are two weak points in this structure that can lead to branding errors, if not disasters.

The first weak point is at the graphics company that creates the standard. Brand guidelines are a lot of work and many hands are required to meet the deadline. All too often, tasks that are deemed "less important" are farmed out to junior designers and approval of their work can be perfunctory under pressure. Even when senior people are working hands-on with specifications, their familiarity with all the end uses of the guidelines can be hazy or rooted in old practices that are no longer relevant.

Vulnerability number 2 is at the approval stage by the client business. This is a yawning chasm, because there is often a huge knowledge gap between the designer and the client. More often than not, the client looks over the pages, gets all impressed and loses any sense of critical analysis of the content. If there are errors in the document, they are unlikely to get caught here.


Brand Guidelines must include RGB

One of the ways that I discern expertise in a design company is by how they specify RGB equivalents for the colors in brand guidelines. As with many aspects of the design world, color specification had its roots in defining standards for print applications. The dominant model was and is the Pantone Matching System and it's poor brother in process color, the CMYK equivalent. PMS and CMYK numbers have been the main modes of color specification in brand guidelines for decades.

RGB equivalents to Pantone specs are relative newcomers to the party. They've really only become commonplace in the last 10 years. RGB colours are vital to web and mobile applications, but they are also the native color model for Microsoft Office. Even Adobe Acrobat, when queried as to the color of an element, reports back in RGB. Let's face it, the digital realm is RGB and the digital realm is the future. So let's get it right!

Getting it right sounds easy, but there is no universally accepted equivalence between Pantone or CMYK and the RGB color models. It's notoriously difficult to compare monitors with ink swatches. Each software vendor has come up with their own conversion tables. Adobe provides swatches for 10 different versions of Pantone colors. Between coated vs uncoated, process vs solid and color bridge vs solid to process EURO, its amazing anyone gets any colors picked at all! The RGB numbers that you get out of these models is all over the map. I've seen blues that were supposed to resemble the rich deep blue of PMS 286 that looked more like a robin's egg!


The RGB in Brand Guidelines Can't be Invented In-House

Even worse is the plucky designer (I've spoken to more than one!) who tries to make up their own RGB colours by invented new combinations on their monitor. They either forget, or have never learned, that Mac displays and Windows monitors show very different results, and that in the Windows world, color uniformity is only a theoretical dream. The colors you pick on your Mac monitor are guaranteed to look different on your client's PC.

Needless to say, this is a hazardous way to pick colors for your client's web site and office documents. I've seen it too many times: a Pantone 486 that looks like salmon on the web, a Pantone 116 that comes out lemon in Microsoft Word. This is not a brand identity, this is brand suicide!

If anyone is listening, I'd like to suggest a solution that has worked well for my company and my clients: the Pantone Color Bridge swatch books and Pantone Color Manager software. It's not that I'm an avid fan of Pantone, but I have found that the RGB values are, on average, across platforms and displays, closer to the appearance of printed PMS colors. It's also a simpler process than trying to choose from a multiplicity of software color models.

With the books, there's one for coated colors and another for uncoated and you have the reference swatch right in front of you while working. With the Pantone Color Manager software, you have access to all 11,000 Pantone colors and their RGB equivalents for a very reasonable price.

If you have a branding color horror story, or a suggestion for a superior RGB conversion table, please feel free to comment. I'd love to hear from you!