A Crash Course in Color Management
For anyone putting ink on, well, anything, managing color is of the utmost importance. That is, of course, if your client cares about that kind of thing (which they should). Brands choose their color schemes very carefully. It’s their entire aesthetic identity. And if their branding isn’t consistent across different media, that painstakingly curated identity goes out the window.
When you’re working with more than one decorator or using more than one printer, managing color can be a daily job that requires discipline and consistency.
“The biggest challenge with color management is that second word: management,” says Jay Roberts, UV printers product manager for Roland DGA. “Within color management, maintaining consistent color output is the goal. To assure consistent prints, the first step is to make sure that your printer is mechanically clean and that nozzle tests have been performed. Then, during the test print phase, I recommend turning on Print Marks to ensure that you can later reproduce each print that you create. If you are consistent in your process, your output will be consistent.”
If you’re doing the printing yourself, the maintenance can get complicated. Printing industry consultant Ron Ellis said that it’s easy to calibrate your printing machines to match each other, but figuring out when they’ve drifted and re-calibrating is a daily chore, or at least at the beginning of each job.
“If it’s lower quality work they’re going to check a lot less,” he said. “But generally, different machines have different requirements. ... Inkjet tends to be a lot more stable, so that tends to take a lot less checking. But it really depends on the type of printing and the type of customer you have.”
It’s hard work, but it’s necessary.
“Color management benefits all printers,” says Jordan Gorski, executive director of Idealliance. “From commercial, publication and packaging printers, to promo product, screen printers, wide-format signage and anywhere ink is put on a substrate in a controllable manner.”
The good news is that there are plenty of technological innovations that have made color management easier. For starters, many printers have color management and calibration capabilities built into the software.
“So, instead of having someone out to measure by hand and do all sorts of manual work, newer printers will do the color management and sometimes calibration automatically,” Ellis says. “That’s a big deal because it makes checking it every day easier. You don’t have to do it manually.”
Roberts, meanwhile, said that Roland DGA offers a few particular programs that make life easier on the modern decorator.
“Products like Roland DG’s VersaWorks 6 offer the ability to internally optimize color,” he said. “You can even run a Density Control Target Print targeting color from one printer to another, thus ensuring the most accurate shared visual appearance among your devices. In addition, third-party handheld colorimeters like the X-Rite i1Basic Pro3 dramatically simplify color measurement. These are fantastic tools that can help print shop owners maximize their color management capabilities.”
Your clients’ branding is probably more intricate than just a black-and-white image. Most companies are very particular about the exact colors they use, so your printer needs to be able to match it perfectly.
Advancements in ink make it easier to print a wider gamut of color, thus making printed products more appealing and perfectly representative of your customers’ branding. It could also introduce new ideas to your clients, who might want to upgrade their look to match current printing capabilities — something they might have always wanted to do, but could never get right due to printing methods of the past.
“With the larger color gamuts available on modern digital printers, users can explore the vibrancy and ‘wow factor’ of each color,” Roberts says. “The corollary to this expansion is that, now, the color management process includes these new colors. So, if you are trying to match a previous print created without the benefit of the newer ink colors, you’ll need to align your color profiles to that shared color space. Of course, that is also an opportunity to show your client a test print with the new, expanded color gamut to see if they are ready to upgrade their print appearance. They may say yes. Or they may say they love the new color, but let’s keep it the same for now and maybe they use the larger color space next time. Either way, you’ve introduced them to how much brighter and more vibrant their prints can be with today’s ink options.”
At the end of the day, the name of the game is consistency. You want to achieve consistency across printing methods and across machines, and you also want to make sure you’re consistently using the same color mix across jobs.
“When your printer is mechanically clean and ready, there is no right or wrong way to achieve good color management,” Roberts says. “However, it’s important to stay consistent. It’s best not to employ a ‘flavor of the month’ option that varies from one mode of color mixing to another (i.e., RBG to CMYK) within a specific print run. Instead, pick a color mix and stick with it. Also, remember to linearize your printer to the specific substrate you are using. Staying consistent in your workflow will help you deliver consistent, color-managed output and will keep your clients coming back to you for all their digital print needs.”
“The hardest part in color management is consistency,” says Gorski. “From job to job, the complexity of the technology imparts variation, and on top of that, each technology has an inherently different appearance due to inks, substrates (fabrics, paper, board, etc.), lamination or finishing — and that’s just what we control. Lighting, environment and how the product will be seen/used is out of our control entirely as printers. This is why it’s also imperative for those print buyers to understand what is realistic and achievable, and how they can best describe that output across all of their manufacturers, and every time the job is run.”
“Color management is pretty important, and the more automatic and built-in you get, the more likely you are to use it,” Ellis adds. “The hardest part is the discipline of checking and making sure it matters. For some people, probably 80% of the market, they don’t care about color and it’s not that big of a deal. But if you do start learning about it and having your staff get good at it, it’s going to help make you a better printer.”