What the colored shapes on the product packaging mean

Today, product packaging contains a lot of information, including nutritional information, recycling codes, promotions, and more. So you might not pay much attention to the seemingly random line of colored circles or squares you can find on the bottom, back, or inside fold of food and other items today.

They are not a secret code and they do not mean anything in relation to what is inside the package. Instead, these circles and squares are referred to as “printer color blocks” or “process control patches”. They are there for printers to verify color accuracy and print quality on plastic, paper and other packaging on products that consumers receive.

For example, here is a stack of color blocks as well as a variety of different shade blocks. They match all colors used on Clorox Disinfecting Wipes.

Anna Weaver

As print engineer Meg Schiraldi explained to Reader’s Digest, “Most printers only use four colors: cyan (blue-green), yellow, magenta, and black. But some printers have additional colors like orange, green and purple. This helps them match difficult colors like Home Depot orange and FedEx purple. This is why you may see more circles printed on some packaging – they must check every ink color!

CMYK inks (cyan, magenta, yellow, and key/black) are called “process colors” because of their common use and the way they combine the four colors to create different tints in an inexpensive way. Printers may also include different shades of “spot” colors, which are premixed for consistency and provide a wider range of more accurate and distinct colors, such as metallic shades. These can be brand specific, like the Home Depot Orange mentioned above. Spot colors can sometimes appear on packaging as different shades of the same color.

“Color blocks are essentially a tool to understand how a printer is printing at any given time to ensure consistency,” Bridget Christenson, public relations manager for General Mills, told Slate. “Blocks provide very technical information about printing conditions that allows printers to adapt quickly.”

You might think a carton of Diet Coke cans would just be red, white, and black. However, the color blocks from these printers on the bottom flap of a Diet Coke 12-pack show that there are a few other nuances added.

Anna Weaver

These are the color blocks at the bottom of the carton for a sparkling water brand.

Anna Weaver

And these circles provide the same service for a small bag of a Cheez-It Crackers product. Color blocks can also come in lines and other shapes.

Anna Weaver

If you want an even more in-depth explanation of these print marks, Nathan Nagele, a teacher and self-proclaimed “educational technologist,” has a great video below explaining it on YouTube.

Slate also explained other brands on food packaging that may have puzzled you. If you noticed a circled U and D next to it, those letters actually relate to the product inside. This U in a circle is actually OR – short for Orthodox Union, a type of kosher certification. The D indicates that the food contains dairy products.

Additionally, the small sniper cross lines that you may have seen on the flaps of packaging help printers ensure that colors are aligned correctly during the offset printing process.

Who knew?! Have you noticed those colored circles and squares on things you’ve purchased?

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