Gamut Warning: A Colorful Approach to Dispersed Knowledge

Red is everything to the Coca Cola Company. But not just any red—it has to be Coke Red. That unique combination of hue, saturation, and brightness is the company’s promise to thirsty patrons around the globe to quench their thirst with a delicious and refreshing Coca-Cola. So it better be the right red.

Found almost anywhere in the world besides a Pantone Swatch Book, the famous red is so coveted by the corporation that it has even been described as the “second secret formula.” Why the obsession? You know it when you see it. Would you recognize a Coke at first glance without its iconic red label?

Color is perception; and how a brand is perceived by consumers is everything to the success of a brand. But catching the eyes of consumers with color is easier said than done. Achieving the same chroma across varying media and color gamuts is a central problem in the world of advertising. As print and digital technology evolves, the science of color management grows in prominence and sophistication. Color management is the translation of colors across different media and substrates to produce uniformity. It’s matching the sum of the Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow inks to the sum of the Red, Blue, and Green lights. It’s minimizing the color difference between magazine, newspaper, and billboard advertisements. It’s an invaluable tool in this era of global consumerism, but it is not a solution.

We—as humans with our limited intellectual gamut—have a tendency to seek centralized order through objective fact and scientific data. Yet nothing in this world is black and white. Such a concept is illustrated by F.A. Hayek in The Use of Knowledge in Society, when he acknowledges the implausibility of monochrome centralization in a society composed of varying shades of gray. He identifies the fundamental problem of society as the effective utilization of dispersed knowledge. Because all knowledge of the function of society cannot be condensed into one mind—or even an oligarchy of minds—a system of decentralization is essential in insuring that the “knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place will be promptly used.” It’s up to the “Man on the Spot” to make the subjective decisions related to his realm of expertise.

While Hayek agrees that objective science and “economic calculus” are critical in the study of the knowledge problem, they are not the solution. A centralized order—no matter the intricacy of the human design—cannot adjust for the one-off instances in a timely manner. Rather, it is a decentralized system of overlapping individual decisions that most effectively solves society’s problem of dispersed knowledge.

Color consistency, in much smaller scope, is the same way. Just as society cannot be consolidated to a numerical set of data, color ultimately cannot be dictated by a centralized consortium and its quantitative standards. Due to diversity of situations and dispersed knowledge, there is no uniform method for each process in the greater economic order nor the field of color management.

While 53.1083 L, 80.0934 a, 59.461 b serve as a helpful frame of reference for the designer or press operator, color is ultimately determined by personal perception. Even when ISO standards are strictly enforced, the color can still look “off.” Pigments fade, presses age, and paper varies. No scientific calculus by central planning could ever account for these variations. It’s left up to the individual press operator or digital strategist—the “Man on the Spot”–to determine the ideal formula for the specific situation using their unique knowledge set. In the end, it’s the local, subjective decisions that determine the success of a globally cohesive brand.

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