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Navigating To Complete Color Workflow Management

The explosion of digital imaging and printing in the sign industry has left many in the business in something of a conundrum. Here's this wonderful new machine on the floor that did such incredible things at the tradeshow, but how do you make it do them, do them consistently, and do them profitably?

By Mike Adams, Correct Color

After all, most people in the sign industry have no real background in the language of these machines. Most sign veterans probably started out painting signs. Most newer sign folks probably started out cutting vinyl. Only the few who have done some silk-screening typically have any background in the technology and the procedures that make these machines print.

Clarke Systems Architectural Signage Systems Wayfinding ADA

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  • What's unfortunately true with digital imaging, is that the entire process of getting an image ready to send to a large- or grand-format printer is almost exactly the same as getting an image ready to send to a lithographic press. This is rather dissimilar to the traditional methods of making signs.

    A while back I stopped in to see a major solvent machine dealer, who will remain nameless, in a major city that will also remain nameless, on the advice of one of their customers, who had given me the all-too-familiar sign-maker's lament, "They sell you these machines and tell you all the great things they can do, but then they just abandon you."

    When I repeated what his own customer had said, the guy kind of bowed his back a little and replied, "Hey, we don't abandon anyone." We spoke for awhile about color management and the new machine they were carrying and all the wonderful things it could do, then I asked him how he dealt with his customers on all the "front end" or application aspects of color management.

    And this guy who "doesn't abandon anyone" answered, "Oh, we don't get into that. They'll never get all that stuff. It's just over their heads. Besides, we've found that a good printer profile can cover a lot of sins." He had several different samples of the same image printed on several different media hanging in the showroom. He motioned to them, going on-and-on about how closely they all matched, as he strung together some words and phrases he'd heard before that sounded impressive, that he was almost using correctly, offering the images up as proof of what he said.

    Of course, my Interpretation of what he said is as follows: Hey, I don't understand that stuff and it's all way over my head. If I try to learn it, I'll probably feel dumb, so it's just easier to say my customers are too dumb to get it.

    I've always related ICC profiles to roadmaps. "I make you roadmaps to color," I tell folks, "then I put them in your glovebox and show your applications how to read them."

    But a few months back, I bought a new Dodge Magnum, yeah it's got a Hemi. It also came with a GPS navigation system. Then it occurred to me the other day that a GPS system is a much better analogy to color management than a roadmap. The GPS feature is seriously cool; there's a screen right there on the dash, and it always shows you right where you are. After all, if you don't know where you are, you can't very well figure out how to get where you're going. If you want directions somewhere, you enter in your destination and it maps out your exact route, from where you are to where you're going.

    Now you can tell it just to show you where a place is, and this seems pretty obvious, but it might not be to someone who would tell you that "a good roadmap will cover a lot of sins," the bottom line is, it can't tell you how to get where you're going unless it knows where you are.

    Of course that's where the whole GPS System comes in. It shows you where you are, and then it maps out a route from there, to the place you want to go. Along the way the screen always shows you just where you are along the route. Not only that, but the system saves destinations you've entered, so that they're all on file; all you have to do is call them up, and wherever you are, it can always map a new route from right there. One RIP manufacturer has actually caught onto the GPS analogy, just to back up my point.

    Continuing the GPS analogy, you could say you've got an input profile (where you started), a monitor profile (where you are), and a printer profile (where you're going.) Now with accurate color management, once it's all in place, it is every bit as easy and elegant to use as that cool little device on my Magnum's dash.

    However, I can assure you that I didn't make the CD with the maps on it, or program the computer that makes it work. And while I can tell you that there are satellites involved with this cool little James-Bond-looking bubble device on the car's roof where the computer listens to the satellites, I'm not about to tell you that I understand how it all works. But it does work, to the point that now when I get into a car without it, I almost feel as if I've lost a set of eyes.

    As it stands now, setting up color management correctly isn't a simple cakewalk. There's a tendency to believe that everything high-tech is "digital" and just makes sense. And in some cases, to compound things, the help files and tutorials are translated into English by humans whose first language is something other than English.

    The unfortunate outcome in many cases is that it's difficult to string all the color management in all your applications together to make it all fit right. More importantly, it only takes making one wrong turn anywhere on a route to make certain you'll never get to your destination. One incorrect setting in one application equals one wrong turn.

    Clarke Systems Architectural Signage Systems Wayfinding ADA

    Add to this that some RIP manufacturers treat their RIP profile engines' ICC profiles output like state secrets, so that you can't export them into your system color folder, or your designers' system color folders, or your clients' color folders, for other applications to use. But that's another discussion. Assembling all the pieces and setting up color management correctly involves a steep learning curve. Since I do this for a living you might think I'm biased, but I truly advise and believe most people should consult an expert for help. It's no sin I assure you.

    The good news is color management only needs to be set up once. Once it's setup and in place, it's as reliable and easy to use as GPS navigation.

    So what's required to have true, complete and correct color management?

      First: You must pick a color-space you want to work in, hold to it, and design your workflow around it.

      Second: All the monitors in your color workflow must be calibrated to display, as closely as possible, to a common white point that they can all achieve without being stretched past their limits, and then profiled.

      Third: Every one of your applications needs to be set to export and tag files in the color space you select as your workflow space.

      Fourth: Every one of your applications needs to be set to expect the color information in your files to be in your workflow color space. Some of this is redundancy, but it is necessary, because some file types won't carry an embedded profile tag, and if you have any applications anywhere left making assumptions or running back to their defaults, then that can be a bad thing. Think the wrong turn without changing the directions again.

    Think of the above steps as the "front end" of color management. They can be frustrating; they can be tedious, and if they're not done absolutely correctly, the outcome is the same as though you didn't do them at all. The good news however, is that aside from staying on top of keeping the monitor profiles up to date, this process only needs to be done once. Again consider seeking out the services of a color management professional to guide you through this process.

    This all becomes the foundation of your ability to produce consistent correct color. Without a solid foundation, you're likely to get inconsistent results, regardless of how good your printer profiles are. Keep in mind that once it's all put together, I have yet to find anyone in the industry who cannot grasp how to use it.

    After all of the above complete, you're ready for custom profiles for your printers.

    In order to be completely color managed, and get all the capability you can out of the machines that you paid a good bit of money for, you should have a separate ICC profile for each of your machines in every set of conditions in which you use it: Every media you print on that machine, in every resolution you use for that media.

    That might sound like a lot of profiles, and it can be. But it's important to remember that a profile is a snapshot of how a device reproduces color when it's in a certain set of conditions. Any variable in the conditions will render the profile to some degree invalid. These are the variables that you are considering: atmosphere; machine; media; ink; resolution; dithering pattern; and density. To get the most out of your investment in your printer or printers, each machine needs to be profiled in every condition in which you expect to use it.

    There are several variables in the profile-making process. While printing and reading patches will always get you a valid ICC profile, it won't necessarily get you a good ICC profile. There are ink limits to consider, ink splits, types of linearization, different spectrophotometers, different profile-making engines and different profile-making software as well. There is also the issue of whether to make a profile with your RIP's internal profile-making engine, or to use third party software and import the profile into your RIP.

    Then there's the whole issue of black generation. In color separation, red, green and blue translate predictably to their opposites of cyan, magenta and yellow. However, black is an artificial addition that is not a natural part of the separation, and the software must be told how to add it. In any conversion from RGB to CMYK, or even from one CMYK space to another, the issue of black generation has to be addressed. And black generation can make or break a profile.

    There are entirely different schools of thought on how to make profiles. You can get color geeks into some blood-on-the-floor fights over which method is correct. But my own personal answer to just about all of life's problems can be summed up as: Put more ink on it.

    Okay, maybe that was hyperbole, but the fact is that on any media with any printer, ink equals gamut, period. You may have some special workflow requirements such as drying time or cost of ink that might make you want to limit ink short of achieving maximum gamut, but "short of achieving maximum gamut" is the key phrase. You're leaving part of the capability of the machine you paid for, and often your customers are paying you for, behind in the trade when you do.

    So what is "maximum gamut"? Maximum gamut is that point in a combination of ink, media, resolution, dithering pattern and density when a machine is putting down the maximum amount of ink it can while still being able to be properly linearized. A machine that is not properly linearized will not be able to hold neutrals. This is why so many printers have such a hard time hitting greys and producing black-and-white images. Linearizations are part of the profiling process in all RIP's, and they're part of the package in any "off-the-shelf" profile that might come with your RIP or that you might download online. However linearization is very much location-dependent, as temperature and humidity can affect linearization curves greatly.

    So the ideal, in my opinion, is that point at which a machine is laying down all the color it possibly can, while still being able to properly linearize and hold neutrals. That's maximum gamut.

    All of the above may sound daunting, and frankly it can be. It's money well-spent to hire a color management expert to teach you this process and to make your profiles. A profile isn't just a profile; experience does make a difference, and once your profiles are in place, they define the limits of how you print, for good or bad.

    Once done correctly, however, they're in place and always available. And you'll be able to print just like you saw your printer print at the trade show, and in some cases even better. With this all in place you'll be using every bit of capability that you paid for when you bought your printer.

    You'll be able to print any image on any media you've had profiled on your printers with absolute color-fidelity from machine to machine (such as color-critical butting panels on a bus wrap). Or just like Mr. I Won't Abandon You, be able to print any image on any media with the only differences in color from one print to another being the white point of the media, and the actual color gamut available to that particular media.

    At this point, what's left to do to give you a complete color navigation system is to take your printer ICC profiles and load them into the color folder in all your color workflow computers, then make soft-proof presets in all your design applications. Once this is done, regardless of your working color space, at any time you can always see your work through the profile of whatever printer on whatever media you're going to use; with very close fidelity to how it will actually print.

    In other words, complete color navigation, from beginning to end, right at your fingertips.

    You can even take it one step further and have your machine profiles and named soft-proof presets set up in your color-critical clients' computers (their monitors will need to be profiled, of course) and what you'll have then is your clients creating files in an environment where they see them as you'll print them.

    Thereby color navigating your customers' right to your door, so to speak.

    Just like a GPS system on your dash, once complete color workflow management is in place, it's in place. Just as you need to get a new CD occasionally for your GPS system, some things such as monitor profiles and linearizations need maintenance, and you might occasionally need a new media profile or two; but for the most part, it's just there and it works, and the difference between before and after can best be summed up as the difference between guessing where you're going, and knowing where you're going.

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