How to improve color quality in large format print

Achieving cost-effective color for signage

Gudrun Bonte
Gudrun Bonte, VP of Product Management, SAi

Achieving good color and spot colors reliably and consistently is easier than you may think, Gudrun Bonte, vice president — Product Management at SAi, maintains. There are a number of practical measures that can be taken that will directly affect the bottom line.

What constitutes good color depends 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 providers focus on what they are trying to accomplish. It’s as simple as that. Yet, large format printers and sign shops frequently tell me that producing consistent, predictable color and matching spot colors is a perpetual challenge for them.

While there is no excuse for bad color, in most jobs there are colors that are critical and others that are not. Corporate and brand colors are very important and investing time getting them right is worthwhile. For these colors, Pantone color references are needed but for other parts of the job, ‘memory color’ will be perfectly acceptable. By memory color, I mean those colors 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 color variation will be acceptable.

So, honing in on the important colors is a way of reducing production time and costs while still producing work that your customer will love.

It begins with the brief

Asking key questions when a job comes in is a huge help in understanding what the customer wants. Which colors are important? What is the Pantone reference for those colors? 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 color. This, too, will need to be accurately accounted for.

Software harmony

Ensuring that the color management settings are consistent throughout your workflow is essential. The color 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 program 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 color output, but can save ink and extend the longevity of the 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 unsaleable 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 unsaleable 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 color settings, output consistency and reliability, reproducing accurate spot colors is a major headache for a lot of large format printers and sign shops. The above recommendations will go a long way towards making this easier, but to ensure accurate spot colors you can draw on three basic tools. First, you can visually check the color; secondly, you can use spot color matching software; and finally, you can use color 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 color 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 color, and across the different colors. Finally, look at your primary colors and ensure they are where they should be.

Next, use of Pantone color charts and printed samples will also help you to achieve accurate spot colors. However, your chart must be printed on the same media as the final job, otherwise there will be unacceptable variations.

Color 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 color mapping chart and compare it to a swatch printed on your output device on the final media. The swatch is then compared to the color 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 color will be automatically achieved.

Inexpensive color 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 large format printers and sign shops and be the foundation of training new operators. While seemingly basic, these can define the difference between saleable and unsaleable print, and profit and loss.

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