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The Rule Of Conversion

posted by Matt Ward on Dec 19, 2010.

In this article, I would like to share a recent experience that I had in working with one of by great clients. Through that story, I hope to introduce a concept that I am calling the Rule of Conversion, which is a way of thinking that I believe can be truly valuable. I know it will be for me on future projects!

Recently, I was working on a logo project for a client. Nothing unusual there. The process I followed was pretty typical for the work that I do. I started of with the little spiral-bound notebook that I call the Book of Logos and just sketched out some ideas. Some were interesting, others were horrible and, of course, the one that I liked the best in terms of pure aesthetics was also the on that I felt was probably the least relevant to the actual client.

After selecting three of the most appropriate concepts, I then turned to Illustrator, where I started rendering the logo mark and playing around with typefaces, using some of my installed fonts and even coming up with some custom lettering.

I fired off three concepts to the client. They told me which they liked best, and we went through some revisions, actually combining some elements from another concept into the selected one, while offering a range of colour options. For the typical second round of revision, I also created a smaller “icon” like version of the logo to be used in smaller spaces.

Everything went well. The client was awesome and happy with my work and I felt good about the finished product.

Now, fast forward a few weeks. No this is not one of those Clients from Hell stories of things gone terrible wrong. Everything is still cool with the client, and we’re now talking about actually doing a website. However, I did get an email asking if I could supply the spot (Pantone) colours that I used in the logo design…

That doesn’t seem like all that much of a problem right? Well it wouldn’t have been, except that I did all the design work in CMYK. Yeah, probably not the smartest decision I ever made as a designer, but it’s what I’ve been used to. Almost all of my design is done either for the screen (RGB) or for four colour process (CMYK). I almost never work with spot colours, and it looks as though I’ve picked up a few bad habits that I’m going to need to break.

As for what happened with the client—well I sat down in Illustrator and actually compared Pantone swatches against the three CMYK colours that I had used in the design until I found what I felt were the best matches. Held right up against each other, you could notice a slight difference, but they were close enough that most people wouldn’t be able to make the distinction without a direct comparisson.

A Lesson Learned, A Rule Confirmed

But I’m not telling you this whole story just so that I can make myself look bad. I’m not even telling it to you as a warning about designing logos in CMYK instead of Pantone, though that’s something I am certainly going to be looking at as I move forward. No, what I want to do with this personal anecdote is illustrate something much more generalized.

It’s something I would like to call the Rule of Conversion.

You see, as I was sitting there wading through all kinds of Pantone swatches, I had plenty of time to think. Given my circumstances, a good deal of what I was thinking about had to do with colour and colour conversion. For a long time, I’ve known that, when working in an application like Photoshop or Illustrator, it is always easier to convert from CMYK to RGB than it is to convert from RGB to CMYK. When your monitor displays a CMYK colour, it’s only ever displaying its closest RGB approximation, since your monitor (or other display) is only capable of displaying in RGB.

This, of course, means that you should see virtually no loss or change in colour when converting from CMYK to RGB in the same digital environment. Unfortunately, this is not true of the inverse, and converting from RGB to CMYK can frequently result in noticeable colour loss (especially in blues, in my experience).

As a rule of thumb, then, when I am designing something where there is even the remotest chance that I may need to use it for print in some way, I try to do all of my design work in CMYK. It does tend to result in larger files, but I like the added safety net of knowing that any conversions that I may need to do (into RGB) will be relatively painless.

Unfortunately, as my earlier story clearly illustrated, converting from CMYK to Pantone was not painless. In fact, it was quite an involved process. It would have been much easier to start with Pantone and then convert the colours to CMYK approximates later on. Granted, the colours would probably still not be a perfect match, but the conversion would be a lot simpler.

And that is the basic premise of the Rule of Conversion: design in such a way so as to simplify conversions. In our logo example, the better method would have been to start by selecting Pantone colours and then converting to CMYK and RGB, as required. This would have simplified things later on.

That being said however, the rule does not only need to apply to working with colours. It can apply to any area of design. Here are some other areas where the Rule of Conversion may be useful:

  • Create your raster-based designs at a larger DPI. It’s always easier to scale these designs down than it is to scale them up.
  • For the same reason (and where appropriate), design shape-based design elements in scalable vector format.
  • When working in Photoshop, use non destructive techniques such as layer masks, adjustment layers and layer styles, or adjustable elements such as colour or pattern layers.
  • In web design, use stylesheets to apply to control presentational design elements to an entire site. It’s always easier to maintain a single stylesheet than it is to edit inline elements on individual pages.

A Soft Rule

There are probably some others areas that apply which I haven’t considered, but when I use the word “rule” when talking about the Rule of Conversion, I am using it in a somewhat lose or soft context. I am not necessarily referring to a hard and fast, unbreakable rule that needs to be the foundation of all your designs.

Instead, the Rule of Conversion is more of a way of thinking about a design problem. Instead of just diving head first into a project, step back and think about it and ask some important questions:

  • What is the scope of the project?
  • Is it possible that the design will need to be converted or modified in some way later on?
  • Will your design decisions facilitate these changes, or at least make them as quick and simple as possible?
  • Will your design decisions make it difficult or even impossible into a particular format?

If I had asked myself all of these questions when I was starting out with my recent logo project, there is a very good chance that I would have foreseen the possible need for Pantone colours in the future, and built that eventuality into my design by selecting specific colours from that library and working from there. Then I probably would have included the Pantone numbers with the final package that I sent to the client, and I never would have received the follow up email in the first place.

A lesson well learned. From now on, I’m going to keep the Rule of Conversion more firmly in mind with every new design project that I start.

What about you? Have you ever run into a situation like the one I described above? How did you handle it? What did you learn from it? How do you start a project and/or handle conversions?

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Also from Echo Enduring Media:

An Unfolding Tale

About the Author

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. He is also the Creative Director for Highland Marketing, a creative direct marketing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow Matt on Twitter

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Dec 19, 2010

Kevin says:

Thanks for sharing your most recent post. I too have run into similar problems in the past. We can sure learn a lot from our mistakes.

Dec 20, 2010

Amber Weinberg says:

There’s nothing wrong with doing logos in CMYK, and in fact…99.99% of the logos you’ll do will never be in Pantone. Pantone is expensive to print and unless you’re working with a larger client, most clients don’t know or can’t afford them.

Next time, I would probably just ask if they’re wanting custom Pantone colors…or do what you did above and just match them up later on…you can almost always get them pretty exact and Illustrator has a matcher I believe (or I’ve seen one where you can type in the CMYK and get the closest Pantone)

Dec 20, 2010

Jenn says:

Read this post just in time, glad you put it up. I’ve been wanting to get back into doing print work and logos after so many years of doing mostly web design. I know all the rules, but being a little rusty I would have completely forgotten to use pantone colors! thanks for the reminder I bet you just saved me some trouble!

Dec 21, 2010

Chris says:

Any logo artwork I do is always supplied with multiple color versions: vector CMYK for commercial press uses, rasterized RGB jpgs at various sizes for web and office use, vector spot color for commercial press use, vector grayscale for black and white commercial press use, and 100% black and white vector line art for uses such as embroidery, where halftones aren’t available.

Also, make sure you’re using a tool such as Pantone Color Bridge swatches to pick colors, otherwise you may pick a Pantone color that isn’t within the gamut range of CMYK printing, making an accurate conversion to CMYK impossible later. This tool will show you accurate spot and CMYK colors side by side in print, so you will be able to see any differences between CMYK and spot versions immediately before choosing.

Dec 22, 2010

Dec 22, 2010

Blaine Shaw says:

Since I am designing/ comping a logo while looking at a screen, I design in CMYK, which like you said does a fine change to RGB. When I am happy with the look, the next step once client choses logo is to choose PMS colors and get them in front of client to sign off on. The point is this: the PMS colors are for going to press and look horrible and inaccurate on screen, so why would I spend my comping time looking at horrible colors nothing like what I want the final product to look like? To start in PMS mode is to take it to too refined a level too soon, and you need to have a looser palatte to keep the creative juices flowing. You do have a PMS swatchbook right? Plug those colors in and you will see that they render difft on screen than for final printed ink.

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