Mac Life Review posted 10/27/09 by Jon Phillips
We'll get this right out of the way: Pantone's foray into the App Store is a success -- myPantone is slick, clever and imminently useful. But we can't describe the killer utility of the app without first getting into the whys and hows of Pantone itself. So, color experts, please excuse the preambling primer. We just want to get newbies up to speed so that they really understand what Pantone's iPhone app does -- and does not -- have to offer.
The app includes nine virtual Pantone fan decks that allow you to search by name or Pantone number, or browse with finger-swipes.
There's No "Sorta" In Perfect Color-Matching
Pantone makes color-matching systems that have become essential to the world of design -- from graphic design to clothing design to furniture design and more. Because accurate color reproduction on paper, fabrics, plastic and other surfaces can be so hit-and-miss, designers often need to work within reliable, never-changing "color spaces" to ensure that the color they want to see reproduced is actually the color that is reproduced. In practical terms, this means spec'ing the relevant elements in a computer design document with a specific Pantone color code.
Let's say you're designing the logo for a Fortune 500 company. Hell, let's say the logo is for a local moving company, because companies of all ambition-levels want their logos to look consistent on letterhead, outdoor signage, T-shirts, everywhere.
When it comes time to decide on a specific logo color, you open up your Pantone swatch collection -- it may take the form of a splayed-out "fan deck" or a book of perforated paper chips -- and decide on the color you want. That color has a code. For example, 636 C for a particular variant of light blue. Now, when it comes time to have your logo printed in the real world, you define the blue in your document file as Pantone 636 C, and the reproduction service will use the precise mix of inks, pigments or whatever to achieve the exact color you specified as it appears on the medium they're printing on. In short, the Pantone color-matching system ensures that 636 C looks the same wherever it appears, be it in your Pantone fan deck, or on a business card or billboard.
So that's how Pantone color matching works. That's why it's so useful. That's why Pantone has become the leader in color standards.
All of which leads us to a little irony intrinsic to the myPantone app: It shouldn't be used for precise color matching. Color accuracy is not what it's all about.
myPantone: The Color Fanatic's New Inspirational Friend
Here's the deal: The iPhone's screen isn't designed for color accuracy. It's designed for the best possible display at a small size, low price, and modest power requirements. The upshot is that even though myPantone contains virtual fan decks of nine different Pantone color libraries, a designer could never depend on the iPhone to perfectly represent how a particular myPantone color swatch will print in a real-world situation.
In this screen you get to choose which color system you want to work in. Shoot, we get inspired just seeing the covers of the virtual fan decks! But we're geeky that way.
Of course, this is also an issue when viewing Pantone colors on regular computer displays, because even the best displays have to be precisely calibrated for the best-possible color accuracy. But the iPhone's innate screen color accuracy isn't anywhere close to that of, say, a 30-inch Cinema Display, nor does the iPhone have any screen calibration control -- unless you count the Brightness slider.
But, hey -- whatever. The app is a virtual goldmine of incredibly useful tools and features, for professional designers and color-minded hobbyists alike.
For starters, the app includes nine complete virtual fan decks: Formula Guide/solid coated; Formula Guide/solid uncoated; Formula Guide/solid matte; GoeGuide/coated; GoeGuide/uncoated; Fashion+Home/cotton; Fashion+Home/paper; Pastel Formula Guide/coated; and Pastel Formula Guide/uncoated. Given that individual fan decks (the ones printed on paper) start at about $60, you can see how much value this app provides, even if you just use myPantone in a casual way, like surveying color options in a conference room with colleagues. Again, you shouldn't use the app to make final decisions on one Pantone color versus another; it's not a replacement for printed Pantone color guides. But myPantone can provide you with a huge head start in making color decisions, thanks to its wealth of helpful features oriented around color cataloging and inspiration.
Swatch Details Like You've Never Seen Before
Once you've chosen which virtual fan deck to use, you can opt to sort it in one of two ways: with either a Visual sort (with all colors arranged chromatically, like a rainbow, from red to violet) or a Classic sort (with colors arranged according to Pantone's own rather scientific -- and obtuse -- numerical grouping system). This sorting feature is something that's just plain impossible to do with a paper fan deck or chip book.
With your sort decision completed, you can finger-swipe your way through the fan deck to browse for a particular swatch. Once you find a swatch that suits your fancy, you can double-tap it for a larger-version swatch that consumes most of the screen. This larger view will also give you the color's Pantone number code, along with the color values for RGB, L*a*b* and HTML conversion. Pro designers already know the convenience of having all this info by one's side.
The largest swatch view possible provides a large virtual color chip – just don't assume that what you see on the iPhone is what you'll get on printed material.
If you want to save the particular swatch for future reference, or just want to explore more possibilities with that swatch, you can drag it into your palette collection at the bottom of the screen. The app provides slots for 10 different palettes, and each palette can contain five swatches. Even better, you can view and share your palettes in a bunch of cool ways: Email it yourself or a friend; upload it to your account on Pantone's community website; beam it to another iPhone; or view it on an assortment of virtual wallboards. You can also tap into the iPhone's GPS to define the location where the palette was created.
With your new favorite swatch snuggled firmly in a palette, you can tap it again to bring up its Color Details—another feature that just isn't feasible with a real-world fan deck. Color Details shows you a medium-sized image of the swatch, along with a row of its closest color neighbors in the Pantone collection. This "color neighborhood view" is perfect for narrowing down the precise shade or hue that floating around in your mind's eye. You also get notation on which page the swatch appears in the real-world paper fan deck, and a button that lets you record a voice memo about the color.
Hit another button under Color Details, and up pops a screen of more swatches that bear contextual relevance to the one you've been digging into. For example, the swatches under Cross-Reference show you analogue swatches in other Pantone color systems. Blue Coral 19-4526 TPX may not have a perfect (or even close) analogue match in every system, but this cross-referencing feature will be invaluable to pro designers nonetheless.
At the top of the screen, the Color Details feature give you the other colors that surround your swatch in the fan deck. Those swatches at the bottom of the screen are simply a collection of swatches we gathered by hand.
And then there are the Harmony groupings, which use Pantone's own mathematical algorithms to reveal traditional color-wheel harmonies (complementary, analogous, triadic, etc) applicable to your swatch. This might be the single-best feature for folks intimidated by making color choices. Whether you want to explore "matchy-matchy" (analogous color combos, like Evergreen and True Navy) or "stark contrast" (split-complementary combos, like Evergreen and Pesto set against Oxblood Red), the Harmony choices will keep you moving around the fan deck like a free-associating fool.
The mathematically driven harmony suggestion under Color Details are great for color newbies. We just wish those crazy symbols were explained somehow.
Take a Picture, Extract a Color
So far, we've explained how myPantone works if you've already found a color you're interested in exploring. But what if you want the app to tell you which colors to explore? Enter the color extraction tool, which is rather unceremoniously labeled Image on the app interface. Here you can either snap a photo with the iPhone's camera, or grab a photo already in your phone, and then hit Auto-Extraction to set the magic in motion. The app will digitally dig into your image, identify its five most dominant colors, and then generate the five swatches that most closely map to those dominant colors.
Auto-extraction does a pretty fair job of identifying close Pantone matches for the colors in your photos. Just be aware that the lighting conditions in which you shoot will have a profound result on extraction accuracy (see the next set of screenshots for living proof!).
This little trick presents some interesting opportunities. For professional designers, myPantone color extraction can provide close (though not perfect) information for matching elements in a photo with colors in a Pantone library. This can come in handy when, say, you want your coverline type to be filled with whatever Pantone green most closely matches the grass in your cover photograph.
Color extraction also offers benefits to the aesthetically challenged color newbie. Let's say you want ideas for colors that will be harmonious with your particular light-blue wall paint. You can take a close-up photo of the paint, hit auto-extract, and then receive not the single color that most closely matches the paint, but a group of colors that work with the paint in an aesthetically pleasing fashion. Did Pantone intend for a single color to generate four or five complementary swatches? We don't know (more about that in a moment). But extracting multiple colors from what is ostensibly a single color is both a positive feature (because the harmonious color palette offers inspiration) and a negative feature (because these results remind us that the color extraction function is unreliable, and highly influenced by the light conditions in which photographs are shot).
The app doesn't include any documentation on how color extraction works, and, in fact, one of myPantone's very few faults is a lack of documentation and help screens. Pantone's developers designed an interface that's pretty darned intuitive, but we still encountered a number of features that deserved more explanation than, well, zero explanation.
The big field of green you see here is not a myPantone swatch. It's a close-up photograph of the top of a Pantone Flight Stool spec'd in 15-0146 TPX. This photo was shot in poor lighting conditions. The app's auto-extraction tool generated four color matches from an ostensibly single color, and none of the matches are 15-0146 TPX.
Here's a wider-angle shot of the Flight Stool – we wanted to prove to you that it was indeed spec'd (and labeled!) as 15-0146 TPX. Again, Auto-Extraction couldn't find this specific color in the photograph. But we blame hardware limitations, not Pantone.
While we really want to see documentation, help screens, and even color-theory reference materials in a version update, we really can't fault Pantone for the app's lack of color accuracy, either in the way it renders colors, or in its function for extracting colors (which, by the way, uses nearly the same algorithms that are employed in Pantone's handheld Color Cue 2 extraction device, which currently sells for $249). The Pantone app developers did a stellar job in side-stepping the iPhone's hardware limitations, and simultaneously making the best possible use of its unique hardware opportunities.