Addressing Color and Prepress Challenges: The Road to Color Riches
Perfect color in wide-format printing can often prove elusive. Misaligned expectations, improper file preparation, inconsistent viewing conditions, overlooked maintenance, and knowledge gaps all conspire against printers seeking to deliver quality and efficiency. Yet simple steps can help minimize headaches while maximizing the potential of these powerful production technologies.
As a color consultant who spends much of his time in printing operations, helping them either troubleshoot existing color problems or build foundations that minimize them, Jim Raffel, color management consultant/trainer and CEO of Colorcasters, has a strong understanding of the color and prepress pitfalls that can become limitations on growth and profitability. He has developed a broad view of what should be addressed, though too often is not.
Asked to list the top five color and prepress challenges he addresses in wide-format shops, Raffel, with some thought, offered the following.
1- Prepress File Preparation
Design files come to wide-format companies in a variety of formats, some of which are difficult to work with. Raffel advises companies to switch to a PDF workflow — particularly PDF/X format. “It typically takes away problems that the layers designers create can cause for us.” The result, he says, is a file that is truly ready to be sent to the printer.
While Raffel provides the broad view for this article, it is important to also look at a wide-format producer to see how they work to manage color and prepress on a single-shop scale. Tyler Birch, press operator at Atchley Graphics (Columbus, Ohio) works daily to keep the presses running, deliver prints on time, and manage color at the wide-format company, which focuses on vehicle graphics, interior branding, event signage, and trade show displays. Birch has a strong, personal commitment to quality, and works to produce great results with the tools he has available.
Regarding prepress file preparation, Birch describes the files and formats the company receives from customers as “all of the above. Sometimes color spaces aren’t being honored, and spot colors can be mislabeled and misnamed.” While Atchley Graphics is often forced to “make it work,” Birch says, a file is occasionally sent back to the customer. For instance, if an incorrect spot color is used, the company reaches out, asking, “is this the target you want?” Birch says effective communication is critical in this area.
2- Device Dependent/Independent Color
A common pitfall, Raffel says, is when a company creates a color swatch book in InDesign or Illustrator to show to customers to pinpoint workable spot colors and set color expectations. That’s all well and good, he says, until a different machine is used to create a production job and the colors are different. While printing to a color standard such as G7 would certainly help harmonize color among devices, that standard is not broadly “standard” in wide-format shops.
Addressing this problem at Atchley Graphics, Birch says, is often an issue of knowledge. Machine-to-machine color may vary, designers need education about color spaces, and customers need to know about color limitations. “We’ve had to educate internally,” he says, “and have developed a good CMYK color target — but values will be different on different devices, when temperature changes, even time of day.” He says the shop is working to use device-independent colors — stepping closer to the use of a standard.
3- Understanding White Point
“In production,” Raffel says, “people do not understand white point.” This reality is complicated by the color shifts found in some common substrates used in the wide-format segment, which may shift a bit yellow or a bit blue, based on their chemical components. For shops that serve a lot of product areas — Atchley Graphics is a good example — using a wide range of substrates is common. To manage that volume, Raffel recommends creating color profiles for the most used substrates, then using white point measurement to control the rest.
Birch says that for rigid substrates, particularly PVC and polystyrene, the company has seen “huge color shifts, particularly in those that use optical enhancers and brighteners.” Enhancers and brighteners, despite what our eyes may tell us, don’t make a surface more white — they instead cause the surface to fluoresce, often with a subtle blue shift. To keep things in check at Atchley Graphics, Birch says the company talks with its suppliers to make sure the white point of the product they’re ordering is in keeping with their production goals. Further, he said the company is, “working to narrow down the number of substrates we use, and we’ve cut down or consolidated products that have the same or similar applications.”
4- Inappropriate Viewing Conditions
The lighting conditions under which wide-format printing is produced and approved is often substandard. “Less than 10% of companies have D50 light anywhere in their building, and that’s disappointing,” Raffel shares. The International Standards Organization’s ISO 3664 standard dictates a D50 light source should be used for viewing print. Further, ambient light sources should also be considered. Raffel shared two instances where ambient color in a production area — one where ceiling venting was painted red, the other where an accent wall was painted purple — caused visible color shifts, and likely headaches for those seeking to correct them.
While he says Atchley Graphics has not undertaken “a scientific effort to control lighting,” Birch says the company works to ensure its production area lighting is consistent and bright, and that ambient influences are kept out of the shop. “Our brand color is blue, and we try to keep that from seeping in.” While he says the shop has what he calls “a makeshift light booth,” he would like to see more consistent lighting in the facility. That said, he recognizes that effort is one among many priorities for management to consider.
5- Equipment Maintenance
“It’s getting better out there,” Raffel says, referencing the state of equipment maintenance in the wide-format segment, “but there are a lot of manufacturers that put a machine in place but don’t provide the training to keep it running.” The connection between routine maintenance and the topic of this article is rather simple: “Shops that follow prescribed maintenance produce higher quality print,” he says, “and that makes my job easier from a color perspective.” A well-maintained machine, for which maintenance documentation is available, will be easier to troubleshoot when color goes awry.
“I’ve recently been getting into total productive maintenance … scheduled maintenance,” says Birch, who says he works to, “keep the machines wet, get particulates out, and add lubricants and solvents as needed,” all on daily, weekly, and monthly schedules. Further, he uses color targets with each of the shop’s three wide-format devices to monitor consistency. Another preventive approach: He also keeps track of production area temperature and humidity to prevent conditions that can lead to unwanted color shift.
Education is Essential
Raffel strongly touts the value of training, describing it as “everything.” In his work, he says, “If you give me a press operator who is trained on the piece of equipment, then I can train them about color.” It is those operators who have been trained on the mechanical aspects of the printer and the variabilities of color, he says, who can see printing issues and pursue a course of action. He urges wide-format companies to bring people from other wide-format companies into the shop — outside perspectives can be particularly helpful.
Because of his strong commitment to training, Raffel is very active in helping PRINTING United Alliance build out its iLEARNING+ online training platform, which covers a variety of topics — including color.
Birch strives to educate co-workers about the importance of color management — another proactive approach. “I’ve talked with other press operators who think it’s below them to have to educate others.” He says those operators end up making file corrections themselves when they could be working to prevent color-related production issues from occurring.