Color. We all love it and use it in a multitude of ways to express ourselves.

Color can be a simple form of personal expression via our clothing, personal adornment, homes and vehicles. Or, it can be used as a cultural expression of identity and loyalty to things such as schools, sports teams or countries of origin. In business, color is used to convey personality and powerful energy and emotion — Coke’s brilliant red, Google’s playful primaries, Amazon’s golden smile or Nike’s cool blue.

As an Art Director I’ve used color for many years to help businesses establish their identity and reinforce their brand. A carefully considered color palette is an important way to convey information about a company. Color can establish the character and mood of the business in brick and mortar and online environments, be utilized to strongly identify products and services and can make a business appear trendy and hip, reliable and secure, or technical and innovative.

It used to be a straightforward exercise to select an array of perfectly mixed colors from a Pantone swatch book, build clear color relationships between them and then move confidently into further brand development. Over time those strict Pantone color specifications and CMYK conversions expanded to include the RGB and Hexidecimal interpretations but not much more. Times have changed.

Multiple factors are influencing how businesses apply their corporate colors. Most importantly, many clients are passing on creating traditionally printed collateral materials in favor of digital communications. This includes using color for online presence management (OPM) and the branding of social media platforms, digital advertising campaigns, websites, email, enewsletters and blogs. It also includes short run direct digital printing or the use of color desktop printers at work in favor of offset printing on a press.

What’s an agency to do? How does the design team specify color in a way that allows for all of these variables? Adapting the palette for each device hardly seems rational and at worst could become cost prohibitive for our clients. Creating an expectation that the colors will match each other in every application is also unrealistic.

When establishing color guidelines we must now, more than ever, make businesses aware of the reality of color shifts. This creates a realistic baseline from which to determine a successful color “match,” including up to a 15 percent color variable for onscreen or digitally printed materials. In fact, a fundamental issue for contemporary color standards should be the fact that colors are no longer precise but relative.

It’s not the fact that colors shift that is the real problem, it’s the unrealistic expectation that they won’t.