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Secrets of the Color Masters

Successful Businesses Leverage Color

By Thomas Franklin

Color management is the cornerstone of many successful businesses. In the world of visual communications, accurate and consistent colors are necessities. However, a color-managed workflow delivers more benefits than simply executing a color match. Achieving color accuracy the first time means less ink and media waste, less time consumed in production, and often a leaner and more efficient staff.

Color needs vary by business and customer, but firms successful at color matching all share a common trait—strict attention to detail and the use of the latest tools to turn color matching from a visual guessing game into an empirical, numbers-driven exercise.

Art, On Demand
Squirt. The word implies a careless, imprecise act. But at Squirt Printing, based in Sunnyvale, CA, nothing is further from the truth. A fine art shop that honed its color management skills to a finely grained precision that belies the corporate name, Squirt cultivates a clientele of artists and major retailers through expert color management.

President Andy Woods’ background in giclŽe printing started at what is arguably the pinnacle of mass-market art, Thomas Kinkade, where he headed up manufacturing. Tasked with bringing the Kinkade empire into the world of inkjet editions, Woods discovered a major market need.

“There were artists not involved in inkjet and I realized we could get them there. The core of our business was helping artists and galleries focus on selling art and not worry about the back end,” he says.

And if artists do anything, it’s worry about is color. “Color management ties directly into our pitch to clients,” explains Woods.

When the company first started offering inkjet editions to artists no one trusted them. But Woods says that over time the fear melted away. “There are a lot of wounds from the dye ink and solvent coating days—they made brittle prints that crack. With current inks and coating, these prints are extremely stable.”

Woods offers his customers the promise that properly produced and stored prints will last over 200 years. Typically, fine art customers aren’t looking for an eternity but more subtle signs of print quality. “To judge a print quickly, customers take it and bend it over a table edge and try to make the ink crack,” he says.

Squirt built its business on a close partnership with Hewlett-Packard (HP), which happens to be located up the street from the company. They employ HP’s custom image capture system with a Better Light, Inc. Super 6K-HS scanning back capable of producing a half a gigabyte image file. It’s managed through HP Artist Solution, a color accuracy software tool that Squirt worked closely with HP to perfect.

For output, the company uses HP Designjet 5500, Z2100, and Z3200 printers with HP inks and media. Prints are finished with Clearstar LP’s liquid laminate ClearShield Type C gloss.

The firm’s color management regime is strict. Printers are tuned and calibrated every day. Monitors are calibrated once a week. Where some may spy a faint hint of the obsessive compulsive in such a workflow, Woods sees the comfort of certainty. The process, he says, “takes any and all of the guesswork out of color matching. It allows us to run with the lights out.”

After a piece of art is captured, the company generates a proof using the same inks, media, and printer that the final print is produced and sold on. That proof, Woods notes, is always wrong. Even the best cameras can’t always capture the nuances. The file is then taken into Adobe Systems Incorporated’s Photoshop, tweaked where necessary, and a proof is produced again.

“This proofing process can be fast or slow,” explains Woods. “Sometimes a piece takes 20 proofs. If it’s a tough color range or a lot of metallic colors are used—like gold and silver, those are time consuming.”

The key is to establish a collaborative relationship with the customer to understand their needs. “We work closely with the client to get the proof as accurate as it needs to be for the channel it’s sold through,” he adds.

Finely calibrated monitors enable the company to do some soft proofing. “Soft proofing gets you close, but we still need hard copies. This field is picky. It comes down to blades of grass,” admits Woods.

Once the client is satisfied with the proof, the master color file is frozen. From there, the firm’s rigid color management process is dedicated to faithfully replicating that color again on demand.

One element that attracted Woods to HP Designjet printers was consistency. Some of the smaller vendors in the field, in the quest to constantly improve products, wind up making regular changes. HP, while offering improvements, does so in a more stable manner.

Since HP is so large, says Woods, “they can’t change as fast, plus they build a very durable product.” This is perfect for Squirt. With an established, extensive library of profiles built around media that regularly experiences consistent performance, it is hard to cope with continuous change.

According to Woods, color management does take time to learn but is picked up fairly easily depending on the level of rigor needed. What is important, he stresses, is not relying on the human eye on the production floor. Instead, it’s about the numbers.

For Squirt, color management success enabled business growth beyond familiar fine art reproductions and into the on demand business for demanding, color-sensitive brands like Pottery Barn. Just in time too, as the recession took a significant bite out of the art market, especially for less well-established names, adds Woods.

Through its Web site, Pottery Barn Kids offers customizable 35x27-inch maps for children’s rooms. Looking for an inventory-free model to offer the product, Pottery Barn linked with Squirt to produce the maps by giclŽe printing on artist canvas.

The maps, referred to as Kidlandia, are available in pirate and fairy themes exclusively from Pottery Barn Kids. Kidlandia also offers different maps through other channels as well.

Consumers create them online and send a JPEG populated with personalized information—such as the child’s name, birthday, and other family and friends’ names. It arrives in Squirt’s facilities ready to print. According to Woods, this model, of customers who need color-accurate prints on demand, is a growing niche.

Not Run of the Mill
“It’s absolutely mandatory.” That’s how Scott Minette, president, Image Mill, describes the importance of color management to his business. The Redmond, WA-based print service provider (PSP) offers a range of products for trade shows, retail display, corporate signage, and events. A color-managed workflow is an integral part of the company’s day-to-day operation, but it wasn’t always so precisely managed.

The journey toward expert color management began in 1993 when the firm hired a consultant to examine every piece of the company’s workflow, recalls Minette. “Between us, a customer, and our scanning house, we all generated different results that were just a little off. At that point we became really serious about color management,” he explains.

After a sizeable investment in consulting fees, color management equipment, and lighting—totaling $150,000, it all came together. Four months of intensive work with the consultant led to, “finally getting color dialed so that proofs coming in from our scanning house via the client were right on the first try,” says Minette.

The improvements were critical because many customer projects dealt with hundreds of images. Having to color correct and proof everything would swamp the firm’s personnel.

“Without a doubt, instituting a color-managed workflow saved us money. We had, in the early days, projects that would come in with 100-plus images and it took several rounds of proofs to dial in the color,” he adds.

Now, color management is integral to everything Image Mill does. The facility runs 5,000K lighting and has used, by Minette’s estimation, nearly every color-measurement device on the market. They currently rely on Barbieri Electronic’s Spectro LFPs alongside existing measuring devices from X-Rite, Inc. The company creates custom profiles for all ink, media, and printer combinations.

Image Mill employs a variety of printing technologies, including an imagePROGRAF iPF9000 from Canon U.S.A., Inc., EFI’s VUTEk 3360 solvent printer, Rho 800 and 351R printers from Durst Image Technology US LLC, and an HP Designjet 5000.

With regularly calibrated monitors and printers in addition to a library of profiles, the company is able to lean a bit more on soft proofing. “We only produce hard proofs as required by our customers,” shares Minette. The link between what is seen on screen and what the printer produces is tight, he adds.

Given the scope of the work and output devices at Image Mill, and the cost and time it took to institute a sweeping color management regime, Minette says that maintaining the workflow is not nearly as onerous, instead it is effortless. “It’s a simplified process now. With color, there are a thousand turns you can take that alter the final result. We created a very defined path toward the final output.”

All-American Brand
Color management is all about consistency, and consistency is especially critical for companies with products across multiple media platforms. That sums up the color needs of American Girl, LLC. Founded in 1986, American Girl produces books, dolls, clothes, toys, a magazine, and accessories for girls three to 12-plus years old. In addition to this merchandise empire, the company operates a chain of retail stores across the U.S.-—Atlanta, GA; Boston, MA; Chicago, IL; Dallas, TX; Denver, CO; Los Angeles, CA; Minneapolis, MN; and New York City, NY—where point of purchase and in-store signage is needed.

For the company, brand consistency is the watchword; their many assets must be cohesive. “Our Web, catalog, and retail signage all match, which is important for maintaining brand integrity. It also builds consumer confidence, what our customers see in print or online is the same color as the product they receive in the mail,” explains Brian Binotto, graphic artist supervisor, integrated graphics service (IGS) department, American Girl.

Ensuring uniformity and consistency across these multiple platforms and products is the IGS’ group of 25 employees’ mission.

“We are the internal prepress provider for American Girl. The process ranges from in-house photography to final RIP-ready PDFs,” shares Binotto.

“Color management is very important to American Girl’s business,” he continues. “Many of our products feature bright, vibrant colors that can be challenging on press. Color management is essential to managing color expectations so there are very few surprises when we receive the final print.”

The process is rigorous. The theme is constant checking and re-checking of the equipment. Proofing is performed on four Epson printers, which Binotto says prove to be consistent and require very little maintenance.

Each morning, the team at IGS verifies that the Epson printers are within specific tolerances. They’re also measured during each print. “We calibrate when one of these measurements fails, which we typically see happen about every three months, but have gone as long as ten.” IGS created custom media profiles.

A GMG RIP powers each Epson device, ensuring accuracy. “The GMG RIP software, in combination with a X-Rite i1-iSis, allows us to profile a media and match the SWOP 2006 profile with a max ĆE less than three and an average less than one half ĆE in less than two hours,” he comments.

Every Apple-powered workstation features an Eizo ColorEdge CG241W monitor calibrated every 180 hours of use to identical settings with the X-Rite i1Display 2 monitor calibrator and ColorNavigator software for soft proofing and day-to-day color work.

Each color workstation also has its own GTI Graphic Technology, Inc. color-viewing booth. “To ensure we maintain consistent viewing conditions, color booths, as well as our color-viewing rooms, are measured quarterly. The bulbs are replaced if they are not within 150 degrees of 5,000K.”

When it’s time for proof printing, an IDEAlliance ISO 12647-7 Digital Control Strip is used and measured with the X-Rite i1Basic. “We compare the measurements from the first proof pulled after profiling, to verify that the color didn’t deviate. The software we use for tracking this is ProofControl by GMG. If the measurement fails, the proof is scrapped and we do maintenance cleanings or start the calibration process.”

For a large corporation—American Girl folded into the Mattel empire in 1998—color management’s money-saving features are just as attractive as its ability to deliver color-correct material. “Although color management has a high startup cost, the savings are much greater. We reduced the number of color corrections, proofs, and people necessary to do the work,” adds Binotto.

The biggest challenge in color management, he notes, is not executing the workflow but putting initial pieces in place. To that end, IGS works closely with key vendors, reads plenty of books, and attends conferences.

Binotto attended the Printing Industries of America's color management conference four years ago. “I would highly recommend that anyone heading up a color management workflow attend this conference. Not only are the sessions informative, but also the contacts you make by attending are a great asset in terms of getting answers quickly for any issues you may encounter.”

Putting the Pieces in Place
PSPs agree that initial hurdle of instituting a tightly integrated color managed workflow is harder than maintaining it once it’s established.

American Girl, Image Mill, and Squirt Printing all took a chance in implementing a color managed workflow. Time and money were spent to ensure that the desired outcome would benefit both the firms and their customers in the long run.

Whether through a partnership with key vendors, industry conferences, or consultative resources, it’s possible to eliminate the waste and guesswork that results from ignoring color management. The end result is accurate prints the first time, money saved, and satisfied customers. What’s not to like?

May2010, Digital Output

 
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