Color is important in every visual medium, it’s not just there to make things look pretty. Meaning and intent can be conveyed through color. Just watch your favorite movie (that was filmed in color, of course), and look at how color is used to evoke feeling from the audience. For an example, look at The Empire Strikes Back (which I picked because it was the last movie I watched), the blue tones of the snow planet Hoth convey the feeling that this is a cold, desolate environment. Later on in the film, when Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader begin their duel, the scene is dominated by red tones which conveys the heat and danger of the situation.
The same way color says so much in film and photography, it says a lot in icon design. If you don’t get your colors right you could give your work an unintended meaning. As designers we work so hard to make sure that we’re communicating through design effectively, but what if our tools aren’t giving us an accurate picture of what we’re doing? How can we do our best work?
The Display Problem
As digital designers, we spend a lot of our time staring at computer displays. Modern computers use LCD panels, but this technology comes with some minor problems that isn’t readily apparent to the average user, but can have disastrous effects on design, both digital and print.
Not all LCD panels are created equal. While manufacturers do their best to produce consistent color balance and richness in each panel they build, there will inevitably be some variation. Because of this, it’s likely that out of the box your new display will not produce 100% accurate color. As a result, finding that one exact shade of blue can turn into a frustrating affair when you look at your work on another screen.
So you bought this fancy new display, but now you’re worried because I just told you that it’s not going to produce accurate colors. That’s okay, because you can actually calibrate the color on your screen through software on your computer. What this software does is change the color values your computer is sending to the display to compensate for the display’s color variance. The best part is this software is probably built into your computer’s operating system.
If you’re using Mac OS X, open up your System Preferences. The first item on the second row will be an icon labelled “Display”. In there you will find a variety of options depending on the make and model of your display, for example screen resolution, refresh rate, and rotation, and under the “Color” tab a list of color profiles and a button that reads “Calibrate” That button is where you will find the tool to calibrate your monitor.
I’m not really a Windows user, so rather than risk giving you inaccurate information I found Microsoft’s own guide to color calibration on Windows 10 PCs.
Both tools walk you through manually calibrating your display through various options. While doing the calibration it’s good to have some sort of guide, like an image or test pattern. I personally like to use the Lagom LCD monitor tests as a starting point, and I’ve had very good luck with them.
While using your computer’s built-in calibration tools are convenient and easy, they’re not 100% fool-proof. Because you have to make the adjustments manually, you’re probably not getting the absolute best color accuracy. For most cases it’s not a problem if your colors are ever so slightly off. However, if you really want to go above and beyond, or have multiple displays to calibrate, there are hardware tools that will actually do everything for you. As a disclaimer, I’ve never actually used one of these devices, but the most popular model on Amazon seems to be the Spyder5.
These devices work by attaching to your display and measuring the color values the screen. They do this by displaying predetermined images on the screen via software you install on your computer. Because the device knows exactly what the color values of these images are, it is able to calculate the screen’s color variance and use that to calibrate the display automatically.