How PSPs and sign shops can achieve cost-effective colour?

Achieving good colour and spot colours reliably and consistently is easier than you may think, says Gudrun Bonte, VP Product Management at SAi. There are a number of practical measures that can be taken and that will directly affect the bottom line.


What constitutes good colour depends on who you’re talking to—it’s rather subjective and depends on what a particular customer is willing to pay for. While that measure should not be an excuse for second-rate work, it will help print service providers (PSPs) focus on what they are trying to accomplish. It’s as simple as that. Yet, PSPs and sign shops frequently tell me that producing consistent, predictable colour and matching spot colours is a perpetual challenge for them.

  While there is no excuse for bad colour, in most jobs there are colours that are critical and others that are not. Corporate and brand colours are very important and investing time getting them right is worthwhile. For these colours, PANTONE Color references are needed but for other parts of the job ‘memory colour’ will be perfectly acceptable. By memory colour, I mean those colours that we all identify with objects: apples are usually red; lemons are usually yellow; limes are usually green. Unless the job is focused on a particular variety of those fruits, then a fairly wide spectrum of colour variation will be acceptable.

It begins with the brief

Asking key questions when a job comes in is a huge help in understanding what the customer wants. Which colours are important? What is the PANTONE reference for those colours? Do you have a swatch or example of the result you are looking for? Is there a preferred substrate? With that input, printing a successful job – quickly and more profitably – immediately becomes easier, but don’t underestimate the impact that the final substrate will have on the colour. This, too, will need to be accurately accounted for.

Software harmony

Ensuring that the colour management settings are consistent throughout your workflow is essential. The colour settings of the design file received need to match those of your own design and RIP software. Unfortunately, this cannot be done automatically and each programme needs to be manually set. The industry recommends using sRGB for RGB input/workspace profiles, and GRACol 2006 Coated for CMYK input.

The next imperative settings are the ICC media profiles. Doing this not only ensures achieving the desired colour output, but can save ink, and extend the longevity of print. It is also your best guarantee of consistency and repeatability. The correct media profiles should be easy to find – and taking the time to find them will pay dividends. Printer manufacturers and resellers have extensive databases of profiles as do RIP providers and media websites. Even with this information, it is still possible to produce unsalable print if the wrong assumptions are made.

Profile settings are specifically tuned not only to the media type but to finish (matte, gloss), ink, print speed and output device. Choosing the wrong setting can result in unsalable waste. If you can’t find your exact substrate, ensure that you choose the nearest one possible, remembering the speed and resolution criteria.

For businesses that are doing a lot of work using the same media, building your own profiles that suit your workflow and equipment is highly recommended and not as difficult as many fear.

Hitting the spot

Apart from colour settings, output consistency and reliability, reproducing accurate spot colours is a major headache for a lot of PSPs and sign shops. The above recommendations will go a long way towards making this easier, but to ensure accurate spot colours you can draw on three basic tools. First, you can visually check the colour; secondly, you can use spot colour matching software; and finally, you can use colour measurement devices.

Using the correct methodology can make eyeballing a powerful tool. The first step is to check the quality of your output by printing a test sheet and looking at the colour scales. Check the grays: these should be made of equal proportions of CMY. Next, evaluate the hues; they should be consistent in their transitions both along the colour, and across the different colours. Finally, look at your primary colours and ensure they are where they should be.

Next, use of PANTONE Color charts and printed samples will also help you achieve accurate spot colours. However, your chart must be printed on the same media as the final job, otherwise there will be unacceptable variations. Colour matching tools, such as that found in SAi Flexi software, are fast and easy to use. Given a target PANTONE Color, users can bring up the colour mapping chart and compare it to a swatch printed on your output device on the final media. The swatch is then compared to the colour map – which looks like the grid of the game ‘battleships’ – and the X and Y values of the best match are entered into SAi Flexi so that the desired colour will be automatically achieved.

Inexpensive colour measurement devices are now available that can work with a mobile phone app and provide both L*a*b* and Delta-E values. For many companies, investing in higher-end devices will deliver a very rapid ROI and significantly reduce ink and media waste. Each of these procedures should become part of the routine of PSPs and sign shops and be the foundation of training new operators. While seemingly basic, these can define the difference between saleable & unsalable print, and profit & loss.