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Top Ten Tips: Colour Management for Graphic Designers

I help all kinds of companies and individuals with colour management but I do have a soft spot for graphic designers because I started my working life as one. When I began in the business everything was still done black and white and the colour was added by a experts at a repro house. These days it is down to the designer to get it right, but if you follow these ten tips managing your colours and getting the results you and clients want can be relatively easy.

1. Calibrate & profile your monitor

Most design studios I walk into are packed full of iMacs. iMac screens tend to be very bright and they aren’t designed for colour accuracy but I do see the appeal of the powerful cost effective all in one Apple Mac for studios on a budget. I won’t advocate that you replace all the screens with more accurate ones like the EIZO ColorEdge range but you should invest in a decent monitor calibration solution to enable you to make more informed colour decisions on screen. Something like the ColorMunki Display or Spyder5Pro will improve the accuracy of the iMacs and bring down the level of brightness so that you have a better match between screen and print. If you are doing very colour critical work you might want to think about getting one colour accurate monitor for the studio to use as a colour proofing workstation.

2. Check your application colour settings

Adobe software comes with a set of colour management defaults called North America General Purpose 2 that are OK for US based designers. If you are in the UK or Europe then changing to the Europe General Purpose 3 setting will set a CMYK working space that more closely matches average European printing standards. If you open Adobe Bridge and choose Color Settings from the Edit menu you can change to colour settings of all the creative suite applications at once. This will ensure that as files go from Photoshop to Illustrator to Indesign they are treated consistently. It is also very important that all the workstations in a studio are set to the same settings to avoid colour changes as files are opened by different designers.

3. Don’t view proofs or prints under office lights

Standard office lighting is not good for viewing colour. Fluorescent tubes, energy saving lightbulbs and halogen or tungsten spot lights all output odd combinations of light wavelengths that are very different to daylight. It is likely that a proof or a print job will look different under artificial light compared to daylight. Daylight is spectrally very even and good for viewing colour, even if it does vary with weather and time of day. Train your staff and your clients to take a print to a window and examine it there. Or you could invest in a proper colour viewing station with controlled standardised lighting, like they have a most printing companies.

4. Renew your pantone books

Pantone regularly updates its colour formulations based on new printing standards and often releases new colours and ranges of swatch books. Also swatch books can fade over time if they aren’t put away properly. I know they aren’t cheap but do replace your books every couple of years to keep current. This can also apply to your software as older versions of the Adobe suite contain older Pantone libraries. If you specify a colour and the printer prints it differently to your expectations because they are using a newer formulation it could cost you a lot more than a new set of swatch books.

5. Be careful what colours you choose

One thing that certain Pantone books and your Adobe software will show you is the difference between the colour printed with Pantone inks and the colour printed with CMYK inks. Some colours change a lot and some not so much. Just be aware if you design a logo with a really bright orange or vivid dark blue, for example, that those colours may not print so well with CMYK inks. Your design will need to work when printed on a range of different devices and even when converted to sRGB for a website.

6. Talk to your printers

The single most important colour management tool is the telephone, or I suppose these days an email. If you are supplying a job to a printer then ask them how they want the data supplied. What printing standard are they using? Do they want you to supply images as CMYK or as RGB? Do they have an ICC profile they want you to use. How do they want you to create the PDF? There are a lot of things you might accidentally do to make a printers job harder. Most good printers welcome being asked and will have the answers ready. If they don’t then you may better off sending your work elsewhere.

7. Manage customer expectations

Many of your clients may have very little knowledge about colour and print. They may look at a design on a laptop screen and comment on the colours. They may supply a print out from a standard office printer and ask you to match it. Whilst the customer may think they are always right it’s important for you to educate your clients to avoid them having unrealistic expectations. If you are showing them an early stage design on a monitor, even a calibrated one, then say the finished print may be slightly different and that they’ll get a proper colour proof to sign off later. If you show them a rough laser print out then tell them the final print will be different. And also, as noted above, always look at prints with them in daylight and explain why.

8. Bring proofing in-house

These days proofs from a printing company are usually produced on Epson inkjet printers. They use the larger models and run them from specialist RIP software. They also probably calibrate and profile them to match industry print standards. Whilst it would take a lot of investment to match what a printing company can do Epson often make smaller versions of the printers that use the same inks. With a bit of good colour management and the right proofing paper these cheaper printers can be made to produce proofs very close to those from your print supplier. In-house laser printers and copiers are inherently more variable for colour but even those can be colour managed to produce better early stage proofs.

9. Get a tour of a printers

One of the most useful mornings I ever spent as a young designer was being shown around a printing company and getting an understanding the whole printing process. If you have a regular printing company that you use they will happily make the time for you and you’ll learn how your choices impact on print quality; how paper stock choice can enhance a job, why choosing black backgrounds with a total ink coverage on 400% is a bad idea, why bleed and trapping are important, and many other things that will make both your and their lives easier.

10. Colour manage your web browsers

Most web browsers do not colour manage images and colours very well. They do not use monitor profiles properly and make assumptions about the colour spaces of images. This means that a design on a website may look very different to a print job. The most colour accurate web browser is Firefox, but even then you have to make a little change to the settings to get the best colour out of it. Type about:config info the address bar of Firefox, ignore the warning and then type gfx into the search box. Double click the gfx.color_management.mode entry and change the value to 1. Firefox will now assume all colours and content that isn’t tagged with an ICC profile is sRGB. It will also handle tagged images (those with profiles embedded) correctly, so you should see the colours the same as in your design software.

Colour Management for Graphic Designers

If you’re a graphic designer and need further advice about colour management, require on-site profiling or training, to help you profile your monitors or your printers, then please get in touch. Or if you have any questions please comment on this blog at the bottom of the page.

Rob :

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  • I was pretty pleased to find this page. I want to to thank you for your time for this fantastic read!!
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  • This reminded me how some used to come up to me and say the colors are different on your monitor than mine!