Color Matching Systems III: On-Screen Color & Printing Specifications

The third article in a series about color, color matching systems, and best practices. See Part I and Part II.

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Jessica Peterson, proprietress of The Southern Letterpress.

It all began last year in New Orleans listening to my friend Jessica vent about a particularly frustrating color she was printing for a client on her Vandercook SP-15 letterpress. This was a Pantone color, and happened to be in the numeric range of some I’d had trouble with as well, 7422U and 7633U.

We got talking about color challenges in design for the graphic arts before desktop publishing, which resulted in an exhibition and artist’s talk, Color Matching Systems.

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Artist’s talk during the exhibit “Color Matching Systems”. From left to right: Yuka Petz, Robert Valley sharing color matching nightmares with clients, the author (in black and white) and Jessica.

During the artist’s talk, we talked about clients looking at color from all sorts of places found on their computers (and peripheral devises) and evaluating choices on-screen for print jobs. This doesn’t work very well, but how do you tell that to a client? Many of whom are designers (and should know better.) Marketing and sales 101: Never talk down to a client, you’ll offend them. The challenge being… how to give clients what they want and not go broke press proofing, or doing jobs over, in the process.

I wanted to figure this out and share the information.

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Color chart from a clothing label website that I found during a random search for what my client was referring to in the 7400-7600 range.

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Another website illustrating Pantone colors from the 7400 – 7600 series.

I did a lot of research, talked with friends who introduced other friends, and I came up with this series of articles about color. The first revealed origins of color matching systems. Article II explained color responsibility and best practices. This article further discusses color management in digital environments and concludes with a revised list of color management best practices for print.

My research began at home. When asked about color profiles for digital art, Julia Sevin, president, AIGA New Orleans chapter, said, “I did a lot of looking online and the upshot was that color profiles and color space in the digital environment aren’t worth the time it takes to fuss with.” Wow, I thought, this flies contrary to what Michael Riordan, Program Chair, Media Arts & Technology / Media Sciences at Rochester Institute of Technology had said when I interviewed him. Riordan counsels building digital files strictly by the numbers. I needed clarification to understand what Julia meant by quipping it’s not worth the fuss. She clarified: Julia was saying that historically, for her clients a super high quality color experience was unessential. Julia’s criteria are totally different from what might be used in an academic setting. Both manners of color management are valid; understanding client expectations is critical, which is one of the best practices in Article II.

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Best Practices for color management in print from Article II.

There are many clients for whom paying attention to color space and color profiles is crucial. If I were the client, I would demand the best color fidelity possible. For example, last year I purchased ad space in our local Junior League magazine in the hopes of expanding my business. I bought a full-page, 4-color ad, but was dubious about this decision because the issues I’d seen had really lousy color reproduction. In good faith I created my ad using original photography thus was able to control the production. I hounded my sales rep for printing specifications, a request she’d never been asked before. It took rounds of emails with various levels of in-house expertise in their production department and, at last, I had guidelines. They worked! My ad reproduced magnificently!

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Two of six screen captures specifying profiles and color settings provided by the publisher of the Junior League of Greater New Orleans magazine, Lagnaippe in 2015. Click to enlarge.

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Four more screens provided by Lagnaippe magazine for exporting my ad built in Adobe InDesign as a press ready PDF to the publisher’s printing specifications.Click to enlarge.

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Main illustration from the Lagnaippe ad produced with their specifications.

Figuring out acceptable levels of color accuracy is a topic Laure Leplae-Arthur, adjunct teacher at Mount Mary University in Milwaukee, learned first hand. Students in her Portfolio & Presentation class had a tough time understanding the relationship between colors reviewed on-screen, color laser print-outs used in class evaluating their designs, and the results achieved at local printers.

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Original color laser print-outs from Laure’s class and an example of her business card engraved on 3 different color papers.

What they saw on-screen looked very different from their printouts, and miles away from the effect and colors achieved at commercial printers with commercial papers. She was thrilled being able to take her class on press where they got to discuss their design goals directly with the printer and better understand the relationship of their design to what happens in the printing process.

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Brian Hart of Hart Engraving, third generation, small shop printer in Milwaukee. Here he is as he explains to Laure’s students some fine points about the printing process and how it differs from what they have experienced on their computer monitors.

The lessons learned in Laure’s class we can add to our Best Practices list: Get printer’s specifications to set up your files and go on press because printers love discussing their craft.

To verify, I asked Don Burdge, President of BurdgeCooper and The Ligature, national specialty printing company, about color matching and satisfying clients. They are in the currently being G7 certified for offset and digital work. For specialty jobs, such as letterpress and engraving, they match on-press. The message here is that if you’re using a commercial printing company, talk with them about your design. Best yet: Go there! There’s nothing as beneficial for print production outcomes than being on press while your design is being produced to trouble shoot issues, discuss color challenges, and learn what actually happens from digital files to real ink on paper.

In conclusion, and to wrap up this three-part series, here’s the final list:

Best Practices for Color Matching in Print Design

  1. Assume color responsibility.
  2. Get printing specifications from you printer and make your art to those specifications.
  3. Pay attention to lighting conditions in which you, your client, and printer specify and evaluate color.
  4. Keep your color library current and provide vendors with samples from your library.
  5. Understand expectations about color and how exact a color needs to be.
  6. Go on press.

    T3929-newMore resources on color: 

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