Colour Management in Design Files Streamlines Product Packaging Production

International brands sourcing production from Southeast Asia (SEA) frequently rely on SEA OEMs to source product packaging. Maintaining product packaging design and colour management integrity across international borders can be challenging.



In addition to ensuring the clarity of images and text in design files, making sure that colour requirements are communicated precisely is vital to making certain that the final product package conforms to the brand’s colour standards. Additional benefits of maintaining the integrity of design files include adhering to project deadlines and containing costs. (In the unfortunate event that there is a lack of clarity in design files, additional time is required when pre-production people need to ask the brand questions about how to proceed. The additional time required by the packaging supplier to clarify ambiguous directions will typically be charged back to the brand, thereby increasing costs.)


Proactive Colour Management

Aspects of colour that need to be carefully managed when creating packaging graphics include the following:

  • RGB vs CMYK
  • Specifying the correct Pantone Color for the paper type
    • For example: Coated vs. Uncoated
  • Colour variations that are related to the differences in the type of substrate
  • Using PMS Black (or 100%K) in lieu of Rich Black Pantone


RGB or CMYK? Designing for a Display versus Designing for a Product Package

Two widely known colour models are RGB (red, green, blue) and CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black). 

When designing for digital display, like on a computer screen, RGB colours are used. CMYK colours are used for digital printers that print on physical materials, like a product package.  Graphic designers can either draw upon a wide variety of predesigned colours or can combine existing CMYK colours to create customized colours for your product package.


Sometimes design files are accidentally sent by a brand to an SEA product factory while using RGB colours in the design file. Before these files can be sent to the SEA product factory’s packaging supplier, the Pre-Press Coordinator needs to contact the brand to have the colours converted to CMYK. This extra communication step is an inefficient use of time, can delay production of your product packages, and will likely increase overall costs.


A best practice to avoid this type of ambiguity during file transfer, is to work in the RGB mode (while using color proofing) and then convert the document to CMYK colors once the design is complete (and before sending the file to the SEA OEM or packaging supplier).


Use Standardised Colour References


Pantone colour systems provide a standardized, universal “language of colour” that allows brands and product packaging manufacturers to precisely communicate exact colour requirements. As Pantone is a universally accepted colour standard that’s been adopted internationally, Pantone colours can be used to reliably convey exact colour intention when a brand’s graphic designer communicates product packaging requirements to a SEA product factory. The SEA OEM can, in turn, communicate these specific colour requirements to their packaging providers.


Use Colour Standards Designed for the Receiving Surface (Substrate You Will Be Printing On)

Pantone has two distinct colour systems. The Pantone Matching System (PMS) is designed for printing graphics on packaging, print, digital, and screen printing. The Pantone Fashion, Home + Interiors System (FHI) is designed for use in apparel, fabrics, soft goods, cosmetics, paints, leather, and accessories.


Ink colors will look different on different substrates, a black will look completely different on kraft vs. a white top coated liner.

When designing the product packaging, the designers should use PMS colours for paper (Coated or Uncoated), not textiles. This will ensure that the brand’s colour expectations are understood.   


Although an experienced packaging professional can help a brand convert from the FHI system to the PMS system, the most efficient way for this communication to occur is by having the brand design and transmit all product packaging graphics using the PMS system.


Colour Standards Need to be Adjusted for Variations in the Printed Surface

The materials used to make a product package vary and these variations impact colour decisions that are made when designing graphics. Variations in corrugated packaging substrates include kraft paper, virgin materials versus some percentage of recycled materials, coated corrugated and uncoated corrugated.


Variations in the chemical composition of printed surfaces impact multiple aspects of the appearance of the colour. For example, differences in the absorption rates of assorted substrates impact the vibrancy of the colours in the graphics.


Experienced packaging professionals understand the nuances of colour selection relative to how the colour will appear on the printed surface. Our experienced team of packaging professionals can manage the process of executing your design to ensure that product packages conform to your design requirements.


Rich Black Pantone

Rich black is created from CMYK colours. When including rich black in a design, the cost and practicality of using rich black need to be considered. Because multiple CMYK colours are used to create the black, rich black is expensive to use and can also clog up printing equipment. Product packaging suppliers often prefer not to use rich black because of these two factors.

To contain costs and minimize the risk of clogging printing equipment, it is best to select a pantone black, that is all black, to use when printing black graphics. Pantone offers numerous choices of black.



Graphic designers who provide design files for product packaging need to consider the downstream impact of the files they provide regarding the clarity of the content and how easy or difficult it will be for the product packaging suppliers to interpret the intent of the design files. Colour is particularly vulnerable to misinterpretation. Potential mismatches between the colour selected and how it performs on the particular substrate that will be receiving the colour is another area of concern.

An experienced packaging professional, who understands the care that brands take when developing product packaging designs and who also understands the complexity of transitioning from a design concept to a tangible and durable product package, can help bridge the gap and perform pre-production quality checks to make sure that product packages will remain true to design intent and conform with brand guidelines.




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