According to Wikipedia, the notion “Black is Beautiful” originated more than a hundred fifty years ago in 1858, in a speech by teacher, doctor, dentist and lawyer John Swett Rock to an audience of African Americans. The prevailing idea in American culture at the time and perpetuated by the media, was that black skin and features are less attractive or desirable than white features. The idea that blackness was ugly was highly damaging to the psyche of African Americans, manifesting itself as internalised racism. The Black Consciousness Movement encouraged men and women to stop straightening their hair and attempting to lighten or bleach their skin. The central purpose of the movement was “to make African Americans totally and irreversibly proud of their racial and cultural heritage.” Deepak Manchanda explores issues associated with use of black in packaging design.
Among the various colours, the colour black holds a special, powerful position. The colour black, wherever it shows up, carries a lot of “baggage” of pre-loaded imagery for most people. By its association with the “forces of darkness” it arouses a sense of dread, superstitious omens, danger or mystery. By the fact that its “simply not a colour” and “therefore nothing at all” reduces it to the level of a starkness that is used to assert irrefutable facts, that is, to simply put things in “black and white.” The derived association with simple, “no nonsense” is once again projected as a symbol of focused intent, seriousness and thereby an expression of masculinity. No wonder then that in a constant parade of colours, many designers feel black stands out as “refreshing”. The “mono- chrome look” keeps “coming in” for various reasons: nostalgia for things past, an aura of dreamy mysteriousness, or simply frugality in a depressed economy. People have different reasons for choosing (or rejecting) black. Some are individualists who feel that choosing black makes an individual stand out from the crowd. Others, into (or out of) fashion, may simply be economic minded and point out that black “goes” with any colour and therefore makes an ideal choice for people who don’t have many clothes. Either way, there is a potent mystery, glamour or quiet elegance about black that makes it a style statement like no other.
Is black packaging an equally potent fashion statement?
The unbeatable style statement created by black makes it a compelling reason for many brands of liquor and wines to prefer to use it to communicate their distinction and premium quality. In turn, the same air of sophistication and elegance that is used to convey a certain quiet, elegant masculinity for wines and spirits is also associated, by contrast, to an equally powerful aura of femininity. This contrast can easily be observed in the packaging of perfumery and glamour related personal care brands, where the use of black is seen frequently. Tobacco and high-end confectionery products are also often seen in black, perhaps as a sophisticated expression of fulfilling desires that are normally a taboo. In addition to such categories, many professional equipment or gadget brands use black on their packaging to inspire credibility and a “seriousness aura” for their products.
What kind of black?
With growing acceptance that black adds elegance, sophistication, seri- ousness or just personality to a brand, there is an uncompromising de- mand to present black the way a designer visualises it. Most printers when faced with the task of printing a flat black surface tend to ask: “what kind of black?”
In a typical CMYK print process, the “black” generated by mixing cyan, magenta and yellow primaries is generally considered unsatisfactory. For one, in small print areas it adds avoidable complexity of print registration. On the other hand for large print areas the idea of creating black by overlapping 100% C, M & Y is obviously expensive on ink consumption as well as needlessly “over wets” the substrate. For these reasons black is used as a “colour” in CMYK processes but offers little satisfaction to a designer in a situation where a “rich black” is needed.
A rich black is often regarded as a colour that is “blacker than black”. While this may be nonsense from the point of view of colour theory ,the difference can easily be observed on the printed surface. The difference can also be apparent in backlit (also known as “translite”) pieces, where rich black more thoroughly blocks the light from coming through. Obviously the use of rich black has to be based on a full understanding of the printing conditions, including the inks, printing press and especially the substrate – paperboard or film. The use of excessive amounts of ink may result in print surfaces that are not fully dry before they come into contact with other surfaces, leading to avoidable quality defects.
Clearly, all blacks that are printed are not equal and I found this differ- ence very vividly illustrated in an excellent article: “The Professional Designers Guide to using Black”, by Andrew Kelsall. (See: http://www.an- drewkelsall.com/ the-professional-designers-guide-to-using-black/ for the full text of the article.) In the article, Andrew attempts to document every conceivable type of black that is destined for print or web, and advises how it should be used as well as common mistakes that can be avoided.
A typical CMYK print system demands that black is achieved by a com- bination of all four process inks (Neutral Black – C40 M30 Y30 K100) but in many cases this is just not considered “deep enough” or involves the problems of print register or substrate “wetting” which can lead to the effect of a “muddy black”. For this reason there are other blacks on offer, as de- scribed, for example by Andrew: Flat Black – C0 M0 Y0 K100; Designer Black – C70 M50 Y30 K100; Cool Black – C50 M0 Y0 K100; Golden Black – C0 M0 Y60 K100; Warm Black – C0 M60 Y0 K100. If the print system can allow the use of additional print stations, and for large ink coverage areas, the use of “spot black” colours is preferred and there are several shades of spot colours for black that are available from the ink suppliers. The growing popularity of the CMYKOG (or Pantone Hexachrome) system also allows the creation of a rich black that can live up to design expectations.
Rich black – or richer by black?
Coke Zero, a new soft drink, recently launched in USA in all black pack- aging is reported to be targeted at men of all ages. The distinct black packaging, combined with a stronger, more Coke Classic flavour, different sweetener and irreverent marketing gives Coke Zero a USP that appeals to men who have become more calorie conscious with age but still want more flavour than available from Diet Colas.
On Indian retail shelves, quite inexplicably there seem to be just a handful of product categories (brands) that one might say, “dare” to appear in all black packs. Among the ones with most popular recall is definitely Axe Deo (HUL). Other notable black packs that could be easily recalled in a poll among my friends and associates were: Johnny Walker Black, Vatika Black, Oil of Olay, Fizz – Appy & Grape and Lux Supreme. A startlingly short list indeed! Of course, one could add a few more brands from categories like fragrance, clothing, speciality tea, office stationery, condoms, masculinity pills and maybe incense and yet the list would be remarkably short. From a packaging designers standpoint this appears to be a ripe op- portunity to create visibility and personality for brands that is being under utilised.
Thelegendaryfearofblack,inaway,Ithinklimitsthisopportunityandin turn saves the printers a lot of headache.
But — and this appears to be almost universal – it is commonly observed that there is a conscious (or unconscious) “fear of black.” Most brand own- ers I know tend to believe that if their packaging goes into black, their business would somehow surely go into red!
The above article was originally published in the September-October 2009 issue of Packaging South Asia.