Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The (Many) Only Colors

What are the official colors of Michigan State University? Green and white, right? Well, sort of.

White, yes, but which green? Is it a dark forest green, a bright wintergreen or something closer to emerald, grass or turf? Anyone who has ever browsed the Student Book Store can tell you that merchandise is rarely, if ever, the same shade of green. Come to that, the football team's helmets and home jerseys are often different colors.

Turns out, MSU's official shade of green is Pantone Matching System 341, which is printed at left. Again, sort of. See, colors look different from monitor to monitor, so you may not be seeing what I'm seeing as I form this post. The official color, according to the folks at University Relations, is therefore only expressable in print - though President Lou Anna Simon does get as close as she can on her official website. Thus, anyone who tried to answer this age-old question through Wikipedia gets a close, but not quite correct answer.

It's no wonder fans are confused on this point. Take, for example, the following picture at of Idong Ibok kissing the floor of the Breslin Center.

Ibok is sporting no fewer than four shades of green on one MSU uniform. His shoulders are slightly darker than his pants. His pants are close, but not quite the same shade as his name. And it's all a good deal darker than the comparatively light double-zero on his back.

Heather Swain, assistant vice president of University Relations explains:

"When it comes to apparel and much other merchandise... the MSU mark is allowed on items that come in a variety of colors to allow for fashion and to ensure broad appeal (profits support a scholarship fund). In addition, not all athletics uniforms are the same green, in large part because the fabric used by various suppliers varies a bit in color."

On Ibok's Nike uniform, the shirt is a slightly different material than the pants, ditto for the name and number. That's why one sees four shades of green. Swain's explanation also explains the bizarre phenomenon of MSU's football jerseys and helmets never matching.

The other intriguing thing to me is that the university sanctions not just the unintentional variances, but the intentional ones as well. Exhibit A1 on this being University Relations' own website, part of which is backed by something resembling spearmint.

As it turns out, MSU doesn't much care what one does in terms of color (that's why you see those stupid light blue and white MSU shirts) with one exception. According to the University's Merchandising Color Graphic Standard (yes, there is such a thing), "concepts whose color executions are confusingly similar to the color palates of competing Big Ten Conference institutions will likely be denied."

And that's why, while MSU departments may use all shades of green under the rainbow, they'll never mock up a university website in maize and blue.


  1. I don't know about anybody else, but I don't buy these excuses. I mean, superficially, they're right; the Pantone Matching System is meant for print matters, and does not translate exactly into web or fabric applications. What I don't understand is why they aren't working as hard as they can to ensure consistency, even if it is an unattainable goal. Most everybody tries to achieve "perfection" in (at least some) things they do, even if "perfection" is generally an unattainable goal. We wouldn't be having this conversation if the university was trying as hard as it could, and subtle variations crept in anyway. But that's not it at all; they just aren't trying.

    There is an enormous amount of work that goes into color matching. Apple Computer did some very early work in the matter with its ColorSync technology in the early 90s, and Microsoft recently added similar functionality with the Windows Color System in Vista 2.5 years ago. There is a market for Color Matching Modules (e.g., Adobe CMM). There are a variety of technologies/methods for expressing color (e.g., RGB or CMYK numerical values). I am not a color scientist or graphics professional, so I am no expert, but it seems like with all of those tools and technologies at hand, the school could be trying a LITTLE harder to enforce some consistency -- at least in the uniforms/jerseys, if nothing else.

  2. I agree with Adam. When you buy an MSU t-shirt, it should be the same green as every other t-shirt, jacket, jersey, hat, etc. in the store, or at least as close as possible. I own several MSU t-shirts, none of which are the same shade of green and none of which are the same shade of green as my MSU hat.

    MSU is missing a vital branding opportunity. You know UM's colors when you see them. The same goes for OSU, ND, Oklahoma, etc. Differentiating between color shades isn't that difficult - take the different shades of orange used by Tennessee and Florida, you'll never mix those up. "MSU green" should be as recognizable as those colors to anyone walking down the street. I've had enough of wearing a forest green MSU shirt with a kelly green MSU hat.

  3. How about a research project for TOSSS? I can think of two:
    1. What are other schools doing to ensure more consistency? Michigan (PMS 7406) and Iowa (PMS 115 or 116; can't decide, possibly both) have similar but distinctive yellows. Actually, one of the big branding accomplishments in college sports is (in my view) how the oranges used by Tennessee (PMS 151) and Florida (PMS 172) can be so similar, and yet so different.
    2. What do people in the field of color matching and color science have to say about what can be done to translate ink-on-paper color matching (Pantone) to other arenas, such as web or fabrics?

  4. I think becoming a Nike school has helped quite a bit. Remember the days when the football team wore the bright Kelly green and the basketball team wore the darker forest green? I think you have to chalk up a lot of the remaining differences on the Nike apparel to fabrics/lighting/etc.

    Anyway, I agree wholeheartedly that the university should do more to ensure that apparel manufacturers are using approximately the same green