Color Matching with Asian Vendor Problems?

I work for a company that manufactures Audio equipment, and everything is manufactured in Asia. Often we have huge delays because we spec a pantone number and a finish we want to see as well as a finish, and then we wait for several weeks for the vendor to prepare and ship the sample. More often than not, there is some surprise as it doesn’t turn out as we expected (its too light / dark, it looks different on a huge piano than it did as a chip in a pantone book, needs more metallic flake, etc.) and we begin the process all over. Sometimes this leads to weeks of going back and forth and can become a painful process. Ideally, we have a small product that we can purchase and ship to them and say, “match this color and finish” which is great when they can do it, but we rarely want to copy something that exists already so we don’t get this option as often as we’d like.

Does anyone have any suggestions how to facilitate this better? we are not a big company and still going through some growing pains. If there is a standard way that a lot of bigger comapanies do this, can you please offer some suggestions?

Thanks in advance.

Have a designer in China when you’re at the end of the development/sampling phase. It sounds like a hassle, and it is a bit of a hassle, but you’d be amazed how quickly things happen when you’re working directly with the manufacturers, in the factory. I’ve seen an aluminum mold get hand-hammered out overnight, a piece made from it- then make changes on the spot the next morning, and the hand-hammering starts up again. It will save you weeks of the sampling/timing issues.

I agree with Taylor. When I was doing lighting design, we had the same problem. I don’t blame the Chinese though. They can’t help that they are 12 time zones over and thousands of miles away.

What you need is either a QC guy you trust in China or maybe you should go to the factory for a couple of weeks during the process of finalizing the design. I’ve talked to companies that have QC guys in China who are more picky than the designers in Canada. One business owner told me that since he found his contact in China, he has less problems with Chinese sourced product than Canadian or American!

The alternative is to go there yourself. That way, you can make calls in hours that would take weeks of shipping samples back and forth, phone calls, emails etc.

Good luck!

I guaranteee if you go there and ask to see the pantone book, they will go to the nearest sunny window and there you will find, on the windowsill fading silently away to itself a twenty year old pantone book, in it’s death throes.


It happened to me, more than once!

There are a couple things that can help with the color/texture situation:

  • Don’t use Moldtech texture specs, use the Chinese spec. I have a Yick Sang texture book here in my office. Using their numbers removes any of the ambiguity.

  • The color problem is always going to be a problem because it’s somewhat subjective unless everyone starts buying colorimeters. I agree with the previous posts about having a trained color person in China to approve colors. I’ve been doing it for 20+ years.

  • Companies like Target have started mandating their private label vendors in China to use an approved colorant vendor to make certain all of the products are the same color. They can’t depend on each individual factory to match their color specs any more. The same is true for printing. They noticed their Bullseye logo was appearing as 25 different shades of red, so now all packaging has to come from approved printers.

You are describing two problems here

  1. Too light to dark, as compared to the target - their fault
  2. You supplied the wrong, or an insufficient color target - your fault

Solution to both problems would most likely be as suggested earlier, a designer traveling to / or based in China to work with factory to achieve the correct / appropriate Color, Material, and Finishes.

In any case, starting by supplying a sufficient color, material, and finish target will make things go much faster. A metallic Pantone chip is not made of injected molded ABS, so when they try to injection mold ABS to match a Pantone chip, they will obviously be dealing with different factors. It is not “matching” it is referencing. Work with a Color, Material, Finish expert to provide them with an appropriate target, or sample that factors in all the variables of their production method and things should be much faster, not saying you still won’t run into problems.


You are so right! The Pantone books in China are like GOLD!! The Chinese don’t understand why a book full of color swatches costs a few hundred dollars. Some factories treat the book like it’s a Gutenberg bible, keeping it in a vault, while others throw it around and let it fade. And don’t even think about replacing it after it ages!! Weird.

In shoes, color matching can be a serious issue. We try to match colors across leathers, nubucks, meshes, injection plastics, injected foams, rubbers… it can be a nightmare. Try developing the colors early and have them put together panels material swatches. It’s great when you can see 3x3 squares of each material, in 10 different “shades” of the color you spec so you can easily select the closest one.

Great advice from everyone.

The only thing I can add is to suggest you create your own spec book and material samples here. HP did this. This is also useful for the designers so they can build a brand through a consistent color pallet.

Basically, if it is just paint, you can paint your own samples. Work with an auto body shop or find an intern who can match colors and can paint samples. Then send these to your venders with the formula.

Or you can spec a Sikkins (or other paint manufactures) color.

If it is plastic you can work with the manufactures of the plastic to get custom colors and get your own injected samples to include in your spec kit.

If you need a texture, there are several spec’s out there MT and YS are just two but the JIDA has some also. Find out who your vender has access to and get the sample books to match what they can do.

Another suggestion is to hire a design firm in Asia who can work for you on ground and go to the vender. Of course the design firm has to know what you’re after and be trained in color spec’s. But this is cheaper than going yourself.

two comments-

  1. sometimes color matching is indeed the factories fault. i had an experience where we were consistently getting inconsistent color matches and i couldnt understand it, until i visited the factory and found the QC material guys matching colors under a single florescent light bulb in a dark material warehouse. i commented to the factory development manager that they needed better lighting (ideally daylight) and the problem was quickly resolved by relocating the QC room.

  2. color matching can also be a designers issue when going from a tiny paper pantone swatch to another material on a larger part. i’ve generally found from experience that (at least in shoes and softgoods) that a light color should be spec’d 2 shades lighter than you;d think (looks darker on a whole shoe than a swatch), and 2 shades darker for a dark color (looks lighter than a swatch). experience here helps in addition to having a supplier that is reliable and consistent.


we were having troubles with our hides matching our color palletes, so we bought the tannery and installed some of our people there, seriously.

vertical integration, ftw.

we have a CMF expert who constantly makes trend and pallete boards and sends samples back and forth to china. she stays about 8 mos ahead. she rocks.

My comments are much the same as the others:

Make sure the supplier has a proper light box that can be set for different lighting conditions, and that they know how to use it. It’s also worth doing the same yourself!

Have someone with a good eye for color on the ground, at the factory, sitting at a light box checking samples until they get it right. When you look at the cost of sitting someone in Shenzhen for a week versus the cost of a month or more on the projects timeline, the man on the ground will always win.

For what its worth, our CMD team spends an insane amount of time in Asia matching colour and we have a massive organisation behind us - so being a bigger company doesn’t make it any easier.