February 15, 2009

Never Mind the Bollocks - Warhol Style

When the customer pointed at the dark green background in the cover art and asked, “That’s blue, isn’t it?” I knew I was in trouble.

The stated problem was very familiar. The colors on the printed page didn’t match the colors on the customer’s computer screen. But this was a new twist. Not only was the customer unhappy with the color, but we lacked a common frame of reference to even discuss what the color should be.

According to the Wikipedia article about color blindness, 8% of Caucasian men are red-green color blind. There’s another form of color blindness, called tritanopia, that affects both men and women, but only in a small percentage of the population.  There is another phenomena, that affects lots of men my age, who become unable to distinguish between dark blues and blacks.  I think my customer had all of this, plus a defective monitor on his computer and a faulty pair of 3D sunglasses.

Color blindness notwithstanding, reaching the color expectations of customers can sometimes be like trying to find an answer to the existential question.  If I define the color of the sofa pillow as red and you define the color of the sofa pillow as red, but we’re not seeing the same thing, then is the sofa pillow really red? Does the word “red” really have any objective meaning?

We opened his booklet on one of our machines.  As we scrolled through the pages, he described the vivid colors he was seeing.  I was missing it. What I was seeing had all of the brilliance of the vintage pink Sex Pistols album. The photos were over corrected to magenta.  Blues were purple. Faces were red. What a mess!

Even with all of the whiz-bang color management tools on the market today (and without a color blind customer), trying to achieve consistent color is tough. Worse yet, the problems seem to change with every workflow within a printshop. Press color actually seems a little easier to manage. At AlphaGraphics, we use an Epson proofer with a color profile that fairly accurately represents the color gamut (printerese for spectrum) of our press on the paper we use for proofing. If the paper we actually print is similar to the proofing paper, the proof and press print match fairly well. If the paper is substantially different, that can be another story.

In an ideal world, we would actually profile the press to each different paper stock we use. The difficulty here is that it is prohibitively expensive and assumes that printing conditions never change. Bad assumption – the output of a printing press can change with temperature, relative humidity, chemistry of the solutions used in the press, ink chemistry, mechanical adjustment, press operator ailments and potentially even the political climate (I once had a pressman blow a job while listening to Rush Limbaugh).

You might think that digital printing would be easier, but it’s not. On the positive side, it is possible to print a single copy to check. This is economical, practical and reliable means of proofing digital printing.  Machine settings can change, but with good file preparation and periodic calibration, the color should remain relatively (not exactly) consistent from one day to the next and even from one print run to the next. You will note that the word “economical” was used, not the word “free.” There is a definite cost involved in the time to  produce a a digital proof, even if the materials and labor are less expensive than cranking up a printing press. I short, you should expect to pay for digital proofing.

The negative side of  digital printing is that there are so many output possibilities. Let’s assume that a customer presents a Microsoft Publisher file that he would like to have digitally printed. Photos are embedded in the file and are both RGB and CMYK. Most digital color machines actually print in CMYK mode, so ultimately the output will have to be converted somewhere. This is tantamount to Russian Roulette for printers.  Here are the options:

  1. We can convert the file to a .pdf using Publisher’s color management features . . . very dangerous!
  2. We can output the file directly from Publisher to the digital color press . . . almost certain disaster!
  3. We can output the file to a postscript or .pdf and use a utility to convert from RGB to CMYK . . . iffy.
  4. We can output the file to a .pdf with out conversion and let the RIP (raster image processor) on the color machine have a fling at color conversion. This sometimes works.
  5. We can ask the customer to send us the photography as separate files, color correct the files and then plug them back in to the Publisher document; replacing the mishmash that was originally sent. This works, but is time consuming and expensive. And many times the customer doesn’t understand the expense, because they had already placed the photos just where they were supposed to be.
  6. We can tell the customer that the resulting print is “supposed to look like that.” Only works if the customer is both colorblind and naive. We don’t try this one.

The unfortunate truth is that this is typical of more and more of the files that companies like AlphaGraphics have to deal with on a daily basis and there is no silver bullet. Lot’s of time we have to experiment to get the color right. Guess what? We have to charge for that, too.

Where is all this heading?

Poor Richard’s Tips for Photography:

  1. 300 dpi (dots per inch) resolution at finished size. Always. This means big files, not the stuff you pull off the internet.
  2. CMYK color mode, not RGB. RGB is for your computer screen. CMYK is for the printing press . . . even digital ones.
  3. If you do not understand numbers one and two, call your printer. Or spend a little more money and send them your photo files separately. They’ll color correct and place them into your document the best way for printing.

Finally, if you’re colorblind, don’t trust your own judgment and never try to adjust the color on your photos. Ask someone else to work with your printer and to approve the proof. Preferably someone who can make a distinction between green and blue.