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Color control is an ever-present challenge in the printing industry, a quality-focused area deep with variables, measurement strategies, and standards. Even for companies operating with a singular process and a singular workflow, managing and maintaining color is not a “set it and forget it” activity. Multiple steps within both analog and digital processes can affect color and, hence, quality. For print shops employing numerous output platforms — for instance, offset, digital inkjet, and digital toner-based systems running under the same roof — the challenge of color control is compounded even more.
Discussion with customers (and the designers who serve them) about color is essential, and many companies use visual aids, such as color charts, to illustrate the capabilities (and limitations) of the technologies they use.
Mike Todryk, also known as “The Color Dude,” is a color technical specialist for IWCO Direct. He has been specializing in color management for nearly 20 years, is G7 Master qualified, and has managed color for both commercial printing and dye-sublimation. In addition to visually representing capabilities, he also recommends that print service providers (PSPs) work with customers to ensure that the color settings with which they design also match parameters for production. Further, many PSPs have added online guides or videos to help clients understand production requirements from the start.
Bill Owen, lead color specialist for Alder Technologies, has nearly four decades of experience in printing and color management, and holds certifications from a wide range of production-focused RIP and software manufacturers. He has a focused interest in calibration and color standards, and believes that a key challenge in communication is working with designers to better understand the capabilities of print.
“Not everything you can design can be printed,” Owen says. “Designers can create ‘monsters’ that can’t be produced on offset or any other printing system. They need to understand. The challenge is to control disappointment and [still] keep customers. It’s a matter of education.”
Ray Weiss, director of digital print programs for PRINTING United Alliance, has extensive experience in color management, and has worked within various platforms, including offset and wide-format inkjet. He also manages the Alliance’s highly-respected Digital Color Professional Certification Program.
Continuing this discussion, Weiss adds that one key part of color communication is “to have salespeople understand color capabilities and deliver reasonable expectations. An educated sales team means educated customers. That education needs to happen upfront.”
Understanding the Trade-Offs
Offset lithography is often seen as printing’s standard for color and quality. It is the bar by which all other printing processes are judged. And while offset (and other analog processes) has a certain “unfair” advantage in that it can incorporate custom colors, that key difference should be seen as a reality, but not as a crutch.
Todryk says that PSPs need to do all they can to mitigate the differences between offset and digital printing. “Once that has been done,” he points out, “then the conversation with the customer becomes easier.”
“Even with expanded color gamuts,” Weiss notes, “digital color is not absolute. OEMs will say that their systems can hit 90+% of spot colors, but within what Delta?” Digital color has limitations, period. It’s the nature of the technology. Weiss adds, however, that good habits, an effective color management approach, and careful calibration can help close the color gap.
Companies that have done their due diligence and pushed color control to the outer-possible reaches of the gamut may have the best chance of landing and keeping color-critical jobs, even when a PMS spot color match is not possible. And language is essential. “This is the best color the process will allow,” demonstrates a printer’s skill better than, “this is the best we can do.”
Trade-offs in printing processes, however, are a two-way street. While offset wins for color and quality, digital printing brings strong options for variability, affordable short runs, and versioning. As a PSP, the goal is to get the finished product as close as possible to what the customer wants. Here, again, effective communication becomes essential. For short runs, particularly, the bottom line of a job may be sufficient for a customer to accept the trade-off between offset and digital.
Further — and this is also a customer education consideration — is that not all processes can be used to produce all products. While the customer may want offset printing on a rigid aluminum panel, the printer knows that is not possible. What may be patently obvious to those who operate in the “printing bubble,” may require careful, diplomatic explanation outside of it. In today’s industry, where many printers call themselves “solution providers,” the goal is to help customers achieve their vision (or at least get the thing they want).
Added Complexity of Cross-Platform Work
As mentioned in the introduction, cross-platform work truly raises the bar on customer expectations, and can quickly highlight deficiencies in the processes used. Let’s say, for instance, that you’re producing multiple jobs for a customer that is going to an upcoming trade show. You are producing an offset-printed product catalog, a series of toner-printed sales flyers and brochures, and a dye-sublimation-printed table drape and backdrop for their booth. And … the customer wants it all to key off of a recognizable brand color. This represents a color management challenge of great complexity.
“In these cases, accurate proofing and honest conversations with the customer are critical to managing expectations,” Todryk says.
According to Owen, one of the first steps of cross-platform printing is to profile each device, as a way to fully understand their color capabilities. Once these capabilities are understood, a key approach is to harmonize the systems by adjusting color of all systems to match the capabilities of the system with the smallest color gamut. This is also where color standards, such as G7, can become essential.
“This is where an excellent shared appearance between CMYK elements can be obtained,” Todryk notes, “which will yield a more consistent color across all technologies.”
While the adjustment of color to the “lowest common denominator” machine may seem a bit sad (like controlling the horsepower of a Ferrari to match that of a Ford Fiesta), this is an essential step toward consistent color. Owen adds that, “In some cases, no matter what, a machine may not be up to snuff.” In that case, the lowest common denominator can be raised by repairing or replacing the machine.
Weiss advises that for cross-platform printing facilities, a must-do strategy is to drive all digital equipment from a single RIP. In so doing, companies must do needed research, find a system that works for the needs of the shop, implement, and use it. “Every new digital system comes with a RIP,” he says, “and the OEM’s training will focus only that. The ‘RIP-o-rama’ approach just doesn’t cut it.”
Color profiling of paper and other substrates is also essential for cross-platform color success. “The white point of substrates can be a challenge,” Owen says. He recommends taking L*A*B color readings for all substrates used, and creating corresponding profiles. “Some vinyls and styrene have common white points,” he offers, “while many adhesive vinyls can be bright white, and banner vinyl can be a bit grey.” Futher, for some systems, he says that variability can also exist among inksets. Hence, the need to measure, profile, and adjust regularly.
Owen adds that an additional layer of complexity for color control is added when printing on a transparent substrate, such as an acrylic sheet. Further, the varied textures and finishes of printable textiles can also present challenges. Laminate films, once applied, can also shift colors.
The difficulty of cross-platform work stems directly from an increased number of variables from the numerous inksets, substrates, and device configurations, and points to the need for mastery of all processes used and a holistic view of print. Given the complexity of the many changeable variables highlighted in this article, both of the words in the term “color management” should be approached with equal importance.
Changing Customer Expectations
The rise of digital printing technology has foundationally changed the industry. Accompanying that is a change in the expectations of those who are buying print.
“With the advent of all-digital design creation,” Todryk says, “customers have much higher expectations that what they see on the screen is what they should get on the printed piece, which, depending on how their software is set up, can be either realistic or not.” He believes that the onus is on PSPs to manage expectations. He also points to a recent study which revealed that more than 90% of brand guides failed to accurately communicate color requirements.
Owen states that soft-proofing technologies can provide a more accurate and reliable form of visual color communication. This is, of course, with the understanding that the customer’s viewing monitor must be calibrated, and that color settings correspond with settings used by the PSP. Obviously, while soft-proofing is not an option for all customers, it may an essential tool for some. Owen, as a working consultant in color management, has previously been engaged by PSPs to implement soft-proofing systems within customer facilities.
Essential Color Strategies
Companies seeking to successfully control color on a single device, or across a variety of devices, must seek training. Owen, who is involved as an instructor in the PRINTING United Alliance’s Color Management Boot Camps, recommends the programs for any company looking to understand the tools and techniques that establish a firm color management foundation. Further, he recommends controlling color through the implementation of color assurance software, which measures and monitors color, enforces strong color practices, and gathers cumulative production data.
Weiss offers that consistent, repeatable color is gained only through verification. “There is lots of verification software out there,” he says. “Set good habits, and verify regularly.” Though Weiss encourages training, he agrees that both training and integration are necessary components.
Todryk points to press standards and process control, and is a strong proponent of G7. “Everything that can be calibrated to G7 standards should be,” he says. “It is how we get the highest level of consistency across all technologies. And having process control across technologies and locations helps us maintain our hard-fought, shared appearance.” Further, Todryk stresses the need for companies to utilize GRACoL standards for coated (2013 CRPC6) and uncoated (2013 UnC CRPC3) stocks. Owen also recommends knowledge (and use) of CRPC7, an extra-large color gamut that is bigger than that achieved using GRACoL.
While many color strategies, standards, and approaches exist, Weiss adds that while differences of opinion and specific preferences exist among color professionals, they as a group are in agreement on the big stuff: the need for measurement, verification, and control.
As the experts featured in this article have demonstrated, advocating for customers and gaining the best color possible is as much about weighing expectations and discussing possible results upfront as it is about high-level standard compliance, or careful calibration and control. The limitations of process colors — even with expanded color-sets — are well-known by anyone who has worked to achieve difficult-to-reach spot colors. This is our current reality, and it will remain so as long as we use process color to put ink on paper.
In a nutshell, key strategies: do the best your processes can achieve, communicate openly before printing commences, and always maintain your processes. While printing is a craft, color is a science: measurable, adjustable, and controllable.