How can I ensure that the color on all my four-color jobs is consistent?

What steps and measures can be put in place to ensure that materials printed four-color process across different suppliers for the same client are consistent in colour? Obviously there will be many factors like different machines, different inks, etc. The suppliers will be all based in Asia. I guess that there will not be a 100% accurate way, due to the variables, but I would be interested to hear how others manage such a problem to minimize differences.

S. W.

The color management you are seeking to do has some special problems. Not insurmountable if your printers are flexible, but still not easy. Color management can be difficult even in "closed loops" situations. Even within the same printing company, there are variations in the color output of every individual printing device, and from day to day there can be environmental effects that change the printing capabilities of the same press on different days.

Color profiling can at least give you a fighting chance at color consistency. By finding the printing characteristics of each individual device and comparing them by printing samples of colors with known values, a profile can be made to adjust for the differences in each machine's output. That means different devices at different locations can match their output. Under the best of circumstances the color "matches" are never perfect, but then again you are likely be able to detect SOME shifts in color from the beginning of a print run to the end of the same run on the same press. So we are really talking about keeping color shifts "within tolerance".

The special issue you face is that Asian printers often do not use the same inks, papers or other important parts of the process that American printers use. You may also have already found that European printers operate under different standards. It may be that your Asian printers will use inks formulated to US standards and print to "SWOP" or some other print standard commonly accepted in the US, but probably not.

The best approach would seem to be to find out what standards your printers will be using and get copies of their ICC profiles. You could then view your files in their color space under their print conditions (i.e. ink sets) to make sure that what you think you will be getting will match what they can actually print.

The good news is that programs like Photoshop will allow you to view the files you are sending out in virtually any color space. If the color sets your printer will use is not found among the defaults, you can plug in their ICC profile. Try viewing any file in some of the dozens of different color profile spaces Photoshop ships with. Some of these standard profiles don't make huge color shifts, but others can make a dramatic change in the color! It is not impossible that the same files will vary in color from printer to printer not because they are not printing to a standard, but because they are each printing to DIFFERENT standards. Going through this process can show you if such a situation will arise, and you will even be able to see what difference it might make in terms of the ability to match colors from printer to printer. Get all of this information BEFORE you send out any files.

Request contract proofs from each separate printer and view them side by side under accurate color lighting. Remember though, when you get to the proof stage and start trying to revise colors, it may already be too late. It's much better to know what you are going to get before you send out the files.

If you send files to five Asian printers without first viewing them according to their color profiles and without knowing what inks they are all using and what print standards they are following, you are almost guaranteed you will get five different results. Of course if you sent the files to five US printers with the same laxity of controls, you would probably get the same results.

If you ask the printers (ANY printers) for an ICC color profile and they have no idea what you are talking about, maybe you have selected the wrong printer for a job where color consistency is critical.

Stephen Beals is a digital pre-press manager and has been writing for major print publications for many years. He is the author of A Practical Primer for Painless Print Production. He can be reached at
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