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Mastering color management

January 1st, 2009 / By: / Graphics

Creating the colors your customer wants.

The growth of digital inkjet printing for fabric graphics is a reflection of the versatility of this technology and the unique demands of producing images on fabric. Taming the wild beast that is color management certainly involves another relatively new technology—ICC color profiling—but this digital tool is only a small part of the color management puzzle.

Nothing is perfect

Color, as with any custom product, can be derailed by miscommunication and misunderstanding between customer and vendor. No reproduction process has yet been invented that can produce any print job without compromise. Limitations are not only found in the color gamut that process can output, but also with the compatibility of substrates, size restrictions, availability and cost. Understanding the capabilities of your manufacturing process and being sure that it is communicated clearly to clients is an important part of planning any job.

What do you want?

You first need to understand what your client is trying to achieve. Your customer will always have an expectation, even if he doesn’t express it. Don’t be afraid to press for details when your client’s vision is not entirely clear to you. For a print shop that may have mastered the technological details of color management within its manufacturing process, the number one reason for customer dissatisfaction is failing to meet the customer’s expectation by not even knowing it.

How to get it

Traditionally, expectations in graphic production have been expressed by using proofs. Proofs can work both ways. A customer can supply a vendor with a proof that clearly shows how she intends an image to look. A printer can produce a press proof that explicitly shows the product of its manufacturing process. In both cases, proofs are a visual contract between client and vendor.

Another common communication tool is Pantone colors. Pantone Matching System is an ink mixing system developed for traditional offset printing. It provides designers and printers with a set of predetermined colors that can be achieved by using the Pantone base ink set of 14 colors. This custom mixed ink can then be assigned to its own plate at press and a perfect color match is achieved.

The very prevalence of this standard system has helped to create its secondary use. For non-Pantone ink sets, such as four-color inkjet printing, Pantone specification provides a visual reference of expectation on which both designer and printer can agree. However, an inkjet printer only has a base set of four inks—cyan, magenta, yellow and black—so it is important to communicate clearly to a client how close a particular Pantone color can be simulated in your manufacturing process.

At the extreme, there are metallic and fluorescent colors within the Pantone family. It has been my experience that every client who has submitted a digital file specifying a metallic Pantone color has truly expected that color to be produced, regardless of the machinery’s capabilities. This special request may come up once every hundred jobs, but it may be from a client who represents 10 percent of your business.

The subcontracting choice

An alternative to forcing a compromise on the ultimate intent of a graphic is to subcontract work to a manufacturer whose specialty can truly meet the needs of your client. Digital inkjet is an extremely versatile medium, but it is not the master of all. Screen printing can produce a variety of rich solids, including truly metallic colors, on a wide variety of substrates. Direct application of vinyl films or even embroidered graphics can achieve effects not possible with direct digital imaging.

Contracting work to another vendor specializing in a different imaging technology is a way to increase the color gamut of the services you offer without investing capital in work that is requested only occasionally.

What expertise can do

As competition for printing dollars heats up, there is increasing pressure to accept any challenge a customer may present. Failing to communicate expectations for either the client or manufacturer will create unwanted surprises that can only hurt the relationship in the long term. Emphasize what your expertise can accomplish rather than what your machinery cannot do. This serves not only to educate your clients, but ultimately creates trust and respect for your services and judgment.

Roberto Santos is print production manager for Fabric Images, Elgin, Ill.

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