Color Confusion in China Manufacturing

  • Matching Color in Promotional and Retail Product Manufacturing

“But I gave the factory the Pantone number!”

In the trials and tribulations of China manufacturing when a buyer finds out the color of their sample, or, even worse their production is “off”, this is a common exclamation.

Perhaps not completely wrong, but not completely right.

The result is a color that is deemed different from the official Pantone. Why is this?

Is it the typical that “factories don’t care”. Or, “they didn’t pay attention”.

Or is there more to it?As always, most of my posts are geared towards the Promotional Product Industry, but undoubtedly this will ring true across the board where color matching is critical.

Going in to my 15th year of working and manufacturing from China, here are some of the basic points and lessons I’ve learned on color mixing and matching.

Guiding the Color Matching Process in China Manufacturing

Color Mixing By Hand

For low-cost industries and consumer products, the technique is typically done by hand. Generally I’m talking about the body of an item or coloring that requires adjustment by hand and personal judgment.

In the production facility you’ve got an employee who perhaps is more skilled in this area than the other factory workers, but not by much. And this employee is basically eye-balling and mixing. There is not much of a scientific process to it, but trial and error.

This mixer has to ask themselves “How much of this to add to make the color lean to this shade?” This mixer doesn’t have all the time in the world, especially if a rush production.

It’s a hard job that requires a skilled mindset, a eye for color, for shades, for nuances in coloring; almost as if one was a designer.

Instead it’s managed by a person working in a low-cost factory and as hard working and diligent as that person may be, the are not highly skilled. If they could mix color on a more consistent and accurate basis; they’d be in a different industry.

There is also some truth to it that the factory is, in general, not a great judge of color. They don’t see differences, they haven’t lived in markets saturated with different colors and objects, the kids there who are working in the factories now didn’t grow up with that humungous box of Crayolas with the 100-some colors…could be cultural, could be education.

It gets more complicated when you factor in material, textures, backgrounds....and timing

It gets more complicated when you factor in material, textures, backgrounds….and timing.

Consider Variations Due to Application:

A blue background leads to a bluer color. A matte finish makes the color darker. If you just give the Pantone number to the supplier they may use just that.

Without direction, assume the factory will not forecast results. In China manufacturing, most factories will focus on dying a color to match a Pantone, instead of visualizing the effect and the finished product to match the Pantone. Now do you see why I said, if this is done right, is truly a high-skilled position?

What you want isn’t the Pantone number. You want the color applied to that background (which could include material or color or texture) to LOOK LIKE THE PANTONE NUMBER.

Gauge and Make Provision for Variation:

Tell the factory that any variation in the color needs to be geared to this side of the Pantone card. In other words, if there is variation it needs to lean darker, not lighter. Spend time before sampling or mass production starts providing the factory some reminders on what’s going to happen to that color once applied to that material.

“A Man in the Factory”:

Having personnel from your company isn’t necessarily the end-all answer to the problem. Unless that person has a better eye for color and a background in mixing (or selecting) the best thing that person can do is give a quicker “reject” confirmation and make sure the wrong color doesn’t go forward to full production.

The worst that person can do is create more delays and tension in the process. We can tell ’em “no, wrong color,” until the cows come home but that’s not going to get the right color.

A Physical Sample:

It’s always a good idea when possible to send a physical sample to the factory of that color on that material or at least of the color. This way, along with the Pantone color, the factory has a physical point of reference. You may have to hammer home the idea that “this is the Pantone number, but on this material it should look just like this sample.”

Time on Your Side:

Obviously rush orders are more likely to have a color concern so keep this in mind when forming your timeline and control methods. A series of physical samples sent for confirmation can more likely solve the problem. But that takes time. Also I’ve seen worse cases where the sample was right and production was off because the factory then had to re-mix the color for mass production.

You may have had great success without any color disasters. But it only takes 1 scalding order to make you cover your bases.

In the promotional product industry, timing doesn’t always allow for a physical sign-off.

The result then can have you seeing red…or a variation of red.

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  • Good points.
    I also agree on the necessity for physical samples of the finished products, and to indicate “it should be pretty close to this Pantone code but if it differs it should lean toward darker/lighter”.
    It’s also good to make sure the factory has a recent Pantone book, and that it shows the right colors (many fakes out there)!

    • It’s always good to give some sort of parameter if and when possible. I never find it meaningful when buyers say that “it must be exactly like this no exceptions”. The truth is, many times I go in to retail stores here in the States and see variance in the exact same products. Different batches, different runs. Not necessarily problems, just variance. Sometimes the main buyer contact doesn’t know how to manage “differences” and by default assumes everything is problematic.

      • That’s right! Good point.
        Sometimes the problem is just what you described above: products from different batches sitting together on the same shelves. It can look bad, especially for garments. I also understand the buyer’s side…

  • Thanks Jacob, very informative article. We have come across a lot of trouble with colour matching in China, but more for packaging rather than product. For product we directly visit the injection factory and choose from actual colour plastic plate samples (the plates are usually smooth on the front and different degrees of matte on the back – this usually takes care of any variance on injection colour. Our packaging is predominantly 5C colour, and thats where most of the problems arise, as printing factories alway try to cut cost by mixing inks to save on cost. Even after approving colour proofs there are many instances where the final print is 4C. The only way to put an end to this is to nominate specific printing factories to supply all our packaging to suppliers.

    • Thanks for stopping by Prakash. Packaging and print concerning color can be tricky. Printed packaging produces very fast and if you don’t catch it…once it’s done, it’s done. I agree that you should find the specific print facilities, establish a good rhythm with them and stay with them. If a buyer is able, it’s always better to have your own elected facility instead of the one the main supplier will use (ie usually one who is cheaper or one they do business with frequently but can very well lack on quality).

      Have a great weekend in HK.