Humans tend to spend a lot of time describing the world we live in. Designers spend a lot of time describing the world of design. This inquiry is arguably a part of what makes us human—wanting to understand not just the how and the what, but the why. Animals worry about how to get to the food, how to protect their young, what that other, bigger animal may do to hurt them or take their food. Humans want to know the meaning behind the how and the what—why does that animal want to hurt us? Why do I hate that other person? Why does blue mean sad and red mean angry?

These descriptions—even when only talking about the relatively simple what—can be our downfall. A color described as a Pantone number or CMYK mix is theoretically going to be identical no matter where you get it printed, no matter what company you use to do your offset printing. But that is not really true. The paper has to be identical, and even that is largely impossible—the same exact kind of paper from the same paper producer can vary batch to batch. And suppose you get the same batch of paper from the same company, then the lighting you look at the printed paper under will affect what color the eye sees. CMYK and Pantone, which are supposed to make something that is inexact into something exact instead does something far worse: it makes something inexact into something that is falsely exact. It fools us all into thinking color is finite and easy to contain.

Unlike CMYK, RGB is inherently understood to be a relative measurement. RGB describes color on a screen in an additive process of representation. Since we know that RGB only exists on screen, and we also know that all screens are different, the RGB description of color becomes a relative approximation of color. RGB accepts its inexactness. Where this all becomes a concern for me is that designers tend to think of color in these numerically described systems. It is habit to match a Pantone chip to a color we may like. We impress ourselves by remembering the CMYK mixes of colors we see. We look at books of colors, neatly contained in a finite number of pages, with a finite number of chips on each page to decide what color something should be. We understand the inexactness of an RGB color as a technical issue unable to be resolved, a divergent anomaly we have no choice but to accept.

The problem is that design is analog, but a lot of design tools are binary. I am constantly wondering how this affects how we make design, and how I can overcome—or maybe embrace, or even exploit—these conflicting existences.