The Broken Colour Reference

Location – HomeClientsCase StudiesThe Broken Colour Reference

One of the most perplexing things in the world of graphic design and publishing is the field of colour management. In a nutshell, it is a process that attempts to accurately describe and reproduce colour on screen and in print. In theory, colour management sounds like a great idea. In practice, it’s far more complicated – and in many cases, colour management doesn’t work as well as desired.

When I started using a colour-managed workflow for my own work, I quickly realized that it had major drawbacks. My preference was to keep my photographs saved in CIE 1976 (L*a*b*) format, which assured a semblance of colour independence. However, everything that I printed looked either garish or washed out – and so I had to spend a significant amount of time to get a better understanding of the subject.

What I learnt was that a colour-managed workflow will not guarantee quality. Rather, it will guarantee reasonable consistency in the appearance of colours. So if the results are terrible, at least they’ll be consistently terrible.

However, not using colour management has even worse drawbacks, because both quality and consistency suffer. There are many situations where using colour management can save companies thousands of dollars in expensive output mistakes. This case study is one such example, where an entire magazine’s printing process was temporarily thrown into disarray.

The Problem

A few years ago, I was working with a customer who published a magazine where printing quality was an important factor. All major decisions about publication were made by the senior art director and the editor-in-chief. Their offices were next door to one another – however, the editor’s office had no windows and only a single desk lamp, whilst the art director’s office was flooded by a large skylight. The lighting conditions in the two rooms couldn’t have been more different, and this was not helped by the editor, who preferred to work on his computer with the desk lamp turned off.

The magazine was laid out on the art director’s production machine. The system had two identical monitors. However, the same colour looked different on each monitor. The magazine’s final printed colour standard was set precisely by what the editor-in-chief saw on his own computer screen, which was a different model made by another manufacturer. Typically, many magazines use printed proofs for colour checking; in this case however, the editor approved colour by looking at his monitor in his office with the lights turned off.

When I was onsite, the editor’s monitor did the inevitable: it died suddenly and without warning. Unfortunately, this happened right in the middle of the production of an issue, and the magazine was left without a colour reference. Consequently, the remainder of the issue went to press with mixed results, and the editor was left with the prospect of finding a new colour proofing method for the next issue.

The Solution

There was one potential solution to be avoided at all costs: a relapse into old habits. The editor could have simply purchased a new monitor, and based future issues on its colour rendition. But a new colour standard had to be established – one on a more device-independent setting involving colour management.

The first step in the process was to calibrate all monitors and printers used in the page layout and review process. This included the two monitors on the art director’s machine. Previously, he had used one monitor for photograph retouching and the other for page layout – now both monitors could be used interchangeably. Although the editor’s new monitor was a different model to the ones the art director used, it was calibrated to match. As a result, layouts could be viewed on both machines with reasonable consistency. And colour printouts matched what appeared on-screen.

A couple of other measures were taken. The colour management system was profiled against the magazine’s printing press. That assured that everything seen on-screen and on proofing printers matched printing conditions. And images destined for the magazine’s website were converted to sRGB and saved with embedded profiles to ensure that visitors with calibrated monitors would enjoy consistent colour too.

Part of any reliable colour management system is making sure that the people who have to use it understand how it works. I taught the magazine staff the basics of the subject, and how to operate within their new workflow. The result: a magazine that now looks consistent from issue to issue, both in print and nominally online. All without the risk of having to depend upon a faulty monitor.

Colour management can be a real asset. Just as long as it’s used properly.