Getting the Color Correct

A wide spectrum of factors ensures today’s print service providers must place more emphasis on color management than ever before. After all, now that audiences for their large-format work can get within inches of that output, IBM blue better be the right shade of blue, and Coke red the right shade of red.

Color management is crucial for brand identity colors like Kraft orange, said Jim Summers, president of Hingham, MA-based GMG Americas, a wholly-owned subsidiary of GMG GmbH & Co. KG, based in Tuebingen, Germany, which makes software for color management and has clients that include design and advertising agencies, publishers, and brand managers.

It’s also important to companies that have no well identified brand colors, because they still want color to be consistent. “You want to manage consistency of color, and even if you’re not matching between pieces, you want the color you’re printing today to match the one you did last year,” said Summers.

Other reasons for the greater acceptance of color management have a great deal to do with competitive pressures and a maturing market, said Dean Derhak, Salt Lake City, UT-based product director at ONYX Graphics.

ONYX has seen wide adoption of color management for two reasons, Derhak said. First, print buyers face higher color quality demands and second, shops recognize they can differentiate on the basis of their color quality.

“We also see that color management has become easier for shops to implement, particularly with RIPs that have integrated color management systems,” he added. “It used to be that shops had to purchase third-party color management tools and then figure out how to work them into their RIP workflows. But the better RIPs today have integrated color management and easier color profiling, so the learning curve is much shorter.”

Jennifer Elliott, director of marketing and graphic arts for X-Rite/Pantone, the Tewksbury, MA-based company serving industries from graphic arts, retail paint, and automotive to photography, film, and entertainment, also sees burgeoning acceptance. Color management may still be in its infancy, she said, but it is growing because more information about the technology is accessible online and in print trade publications.

“And manufacturers are providing a lot more education,” she added. “It’s like all technology. If you think about what a personal computer was 20 years ago versus today, everything is easier, more accessible and affordable.”

Is color management widely accepted? Summers believes it is. In larger shops, populated by people who know the business and have been in it for a long time, there is an awareness and acceptance of color management, he said. These are typically shops with more than $3-4 million in annual sales and equipment that isn’t limited to one brand of printer. “They don’t just have a Mutoh, Mimaki, or HP, they have all of those and more,” Summers said. “The issue becomes much more apparent in such settings.”


Production Advances, Prepress Gains

Understanding color management begins with realizing today’s wide-format industry puts a greater level of technology at the command of print service providers. With a wider variety of printers and inks and a broader range of substrates available, more applications are possible. And the larger array of applications makes color management far more important, Elliott said.

“The business opportunities in wide-format are always growing,” Elliott said. “Color management has traditionally been very difficult in wide-format because of the scale [of the output]. It’s always been seen as difficult, complicated, and expensive—and that’s no longer the case.

“Customers now realize there are color issues critical to their success, and that wasn’t always true. Think of billboards; you look at them from 40 or 50 feet away. But now there are many more applications for wide-format to allow the user experience to get much closer to the output. There are applications for wide-format printing that allow for a much closer user experience, and that‘s making it absolutely essential for wide-format providers to manage color.”

Fortunately, she added, for every advance on the production side of the ledger, an equal number of gains have been achieved on the prepress side.

In approaching color management, print providers should start with several basics, including spot color matching, monitor-to-print match, proof-to-print match, and the ability to match color across multiple printers, Elliott said.

“They want to be calibrating monitors, linearizing their proofing machines and printers, and should be creating what are called color profiles. You can just calibrate your display so the color on your monitor is good, then get into relatively low cost packages that combine spectrophotometers and profiling software.”

Those packages permit users to define color profiles for their proofing machines and printers that allow them to better control and predict the output from their printers, Elliott said. And the cost is increasingly affordable.

There are, for instance, colorimeters with prices starting at $99, and spectrophotometer packages that begin at $499 and go as high as $1,600. As their needs grow, providers can automate these systems, adding components that allow for greater automation of their prepress functions, Elliott reported.

The software chosen should be easy to use in building and creating media profiles, including the ICC, Derhak said. It should also offer flexibility and control to enable settings to be modified for more advanced users, he added.

“The only way to achieve highly accurate color management is to have a unique profile for each printing condition, which includes calibrations and ICC profiles for individual ink and media combinations,” Derhak said.

Peter Supry, president of ErgoSoft US, the Nashua, NH-based North American marketing arm of its Swiss-based parent of the same name, which supplies the RIP software to support vertical printing and also created its own ICC profile creation software, also sees profile creation becoming simpler.

“Ten years ago, it was a very difficult process to make profiles for digital printing,” he added. “The software was very embryonic at the time, and was considered by many to be black magic or voodoo. In today’s world the process of building these profiles is quite simple. Basically, to create a profile for hardware requires a spectrophotometer, which in 1999 was between $2,000 and $8,000. Today, a spectro will start at just around $499.”

The biggest change in color management has been an increasing awareness of the need to manage color, and an awareness of the ability to do so, Summers said. “What has really changed is people used to go into PhotoShop, edit the heck out of the files to get the color correct, and that’s not the way to do it. People have said, ‘We know there’s an issue, we know there are tools, and there are different ways to go at the process correctly.’”


The Key is Understanding

Like the others, Supry feels that color management is increasingly essential in today’s marketplace. “Color consistency and accuracy are things everyone wants to have,” he said. “They need to have the colors accurate to what the original color is. And they need the consistency so three months down the line, they’re getting the same color they did on day one. But there are a whole host of variables that can interfere, including the temperature and the pressure of the heat press, the relative humidity in the room, and where the paper was stored.”

It would be great if obtaining the right hardware and software was the only thing necessary to get a firm grip on color management. But that’s not the case, Supry noted. He believes the terms “ICC profiles” and “color management” have become buzzwords too many in the industry do not fully understand.

“Many people feel, ‘I just built a profile for my printer and my medium, and everything will work smoothly,’” he said. “But these ICC profiles are nothing more than tools, and if you don’t know how to use them, it ain’t going to work. If I buy an $8,000 digital camera and begin complaining to my photographer clients that my shots look like heck, they’re going to remind me that just because I bought an $8,000 camera, that doesn’t make me a photographer.”

Supry feels graphic design artists are given too few lessons during the course of their formal educations in how to help solve and eliminate problems of color management, which, in his words, “happen to be the worst problems out there.” Considerable waste results simply because graphic artists and printers attempt to match colors without using tools offered by ICC.

“The production side of a business and the graphic design side of that same business need to communicate both verbally and digitally in order to achieve the accuracy of the color they’re trying to produce, and to attain the consistency of product from day to day,” Supry observed.

Summers believes companies need people and training to support the overall process that will be put in place. “You need some level of expertise,” Summers said. “You need a viewing environment that’s controlled, to measure and view it in a predicable way. The third thing you need is the right software and setups in your software, within your workflow. And the last is you need a way to measure the particular a spectrophotometer. In many wide-format shops they may have something other than a spectrophotometer. These are more expensive, but their unique aspect is they look at color in the same way as the human eye—measuring color appearance and color perception.”


Other Elements of Workflow

In addition to workflow components mentioned, it’s very important to have physical color standards, such as the Pantone Formula Guide, Elliott said. “That gives them an easier way of agreeing on a color with a customer,” she noted.

“Let’s say you want sky blue. How do you know what you see as sky blue is the same I see as sky blue? The formula guide assigns individual numbers to colors. So you have that printed sample coming from a reference book, printed on different papers and with different inks than what your digital printer will produce. That’s where the color management process comes in. You want to control digitally the representation of the analog color that you see in the guide.”

The final component of the process should be user knowledge, Supry said. “Because it’s easy for anybody to make a profile now, it doesn’t mean they understand what this profile can do, can’t do and what it won’t do for them.

“And they need to understand how to use these profiles in their workflow. They can get help from people out there like me, or they can turn to parties such as consultants who can train them.” Supry also recommended reading what he calls the best book on the topic, the late Bruce Fraser’s Real World Color Management, which he calls a valuable aid to color management novices.

The Future

Color management will continue to gain in importance in the years ahead, in part because print providers will never be free of the challenge of dealing with different substrates and different consumable materials in production. “The ink you buy this week may not be exactly the same as the ink you bought last month,” Elliott said. “I do think color management will become ubiquitous in the wide-format market, because the tools will become so accessible.


In addition to Wide-Format Imaging, Jeffrey Steele’sarticles have appeared more than 2,000 times in such publications as the Baltimore Sun, Barron’s, Boston Globe, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Columbus Dispatch, Dayton Daily News, Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, Harford Courant, Indianapolis Monthly, Los Angeles Times, Modern Luxury, New York Daily News, Omaha World-Herald, OrlandoSentinel, Press-Enterprise of Southern California and Consumer’s Digest’s Your Money magazine.