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Controlling Color Management for Signmakers

Color mapping, color calibration, color profiles and more advice on making sure a sign’s colors match up from design through installation.

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MANY OF YOU NO doubt remember “The Dress.” In 2015, people couldn’t agree if it was blue and black or white and gold. Who knows what the real answer was, but millions of people perceived it differently. Woe is us, but that little dance plays out with signs all of the time. You email a proof, get approval and the customer just isn’t pleased with the colors in the final sign. Is there a way to avoid this? Probably not completely, but you can mitigate the issue by instituting a color management process.

So, why is this difficult? As “The Dress” shows, we all do not see colors the same. The best we can hope for then is color consistency. A good way to ensure this is to offer the customer a limited palette of colors for choosing the design. Many raster image processors (RIPs) and design software include Pantone spot-color libraries. You can print swatch books on the target media and have clients select colors. The resulting design should represent what you agreed upon.

What happens when photographic images are introduced? Now you’ve opened a whole can of worms. The image will have to be incorporated in the design. The designer views this on a monitor, which is creating colors using an RGB (or variant) color space. Now, if the design gets passed from one designer to another, do the images even match? Joe may be working in a dark office and has his monitor brightness low, while Gwen may be on the well-lit production floor with a brighter monitor. Each of these factors affects the colors.

Next the design is RIP’d and output to the printer. This involves mapping the RGB colors to CMYK, the color space the printer understands. RGB has a much wider gamut than CMYK and the image will be mapped to fit the smaller gamut. You may just cross your fingers and hope for the best, but is there a better way?

Profiles in Color

The best method to reduce color issues is to have all of the devices, inks and media calibrated to match. This can be an involved process, but necessary if you want to provide the best color-matching to your clients. This article is too short to cover all the phases in the process, but here are some of the steps you can take.

Calibrate all of the monitors involved in the process. You can find calibration devices under $200 that can get you situated. In some cases, you may find devices that can work to calibrate monitors and create printer profiles.

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Speaking of profiles, this is really where you can get in trouble – or save the day. You may have used the inks and media from the manufacturer of your printer and noticed that you had good color matching. Now you want to save some money and get new media and inks from third parties. Wow! The prints do not look a thing alike. You will need new ICC profiles. Some media manufacturers provide them, but they’re usually based off of the printer’s native ink.

To fix this issue, you need to create your own profiles. Luckily, most RIP manufacturers have add-ons or include color management in their package. You will have to acquire the measurement equipment, though some RIP publishers offer the equipment in a bundle.

The other factor to include is training. You must learn how to implement and use the system correctly. With these tools you can satisfy essentially all of your customers. If you make this investment, you should see increased customer satisfaction, lower costs in reprints and the end of your color-matching frustration.

PHOTO GALLERY (6 IMAGES)

Chris and Kathi Morrison own and operate The Image Specialists, a full-service graphics company based in Clements, CA. Chris is also a Microsoft-certified systems engineer. Contact the Morrisons at [email protected].

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