Managing your brand’s color

Maintaining your brand identity and color assets across a variety of media — such as catalogs, point-of-purchase, direct mail, Websites and more — is no easy feat. The integrity of the corporate branding must remain consistent no matter what output medium or application is being used.

The folks who routinely work with multiple media channels understand the importance and challenges of brand color consistency. Are logos and product photos going to look the same in print as they do on the designer’s monitor? When consumers view these images from their home computers, or even on their cell phones, are they all seeing the same shade of teal blue or fiery red?

Most electronic monitors use an RGB (red-green-blue) color model. All colors viewed on an electronic monitor are combinations of these three primary colors, and they are created by projecting light out from these devices. The print medium color model is CMYK (cyan-magenta-yellow-black), based on these four primary ink colors. Printed color is generated by reflecting light off the substrate and responds to ambient light differently than does a monitor.

When analog printing processes first collided with digital technologies, some of the greatest challenges included translating computer-generated RGB color into the printing industry’s recognized CMYK. Although color management has come a long way since then, ensuring branded color consistency between electronic and print media is still a tricky business.

Developing standards

The obvious answer to matching colors from one medium to another is to develop a common definition of color that everyone can use. Pantone was among the first to attempt this by developing the Pantone Matching System (PMS) in the 1960s.

Basic PMS colors offer 1,114 selections, with the CMYK formulas for each already determined. So a particular color might be defined as 10% cyan, 50% magenta, 30% yellow and 10% black. Pantone assigns each predetermined color an index number for easy reference, so that designers can select a PMS color and printers can match it using the CMYK color formula or even premixed inks in popular Pantone shades. The company’s color compatible spectrum now includes 2,058 new Pantone “Goe” colors, along with compatible software that reproduces PMS colors on computer monitors.

While using PMS is one way to ensure color matching, it’s limited to spot colors. PMS can’t be applied to an image that uses a wide range of colors or color blends — including any type of color photography or graphics that incorporate graduating shades of color. About the time PMS was developed, the printing industry began hammering out broader standards to support accurately reproducing this type of continuous tone color using the CMYK color model.

The most widely accepted standards in the printing industry today are GRACol (general requirements for applications in commercial offset lithography) and SWOP (specifications for web offset production). Both cover a wide range of printing processes that include certain color standards, so that a premedia or printer employing them understands color theory and knows what’s necessary to reproduce CMYK colors to customer specifications.

Your own standard — the proof

For many marketers, the printing industry’s production standards have no more meaning than the certificates that hang on your mechanic’s wall. What they want to see is a finished proof that exactly matches their designer’s concept. The proof is the standard for each and every project, no matter what type of technology is used to print or display it. Because most designers now use computers rather than paper and ink, color management processes to translate RGB into CMYK are critical.

If a marketing department or designer specifies black-and-white with PMS 321 spot color for an application, a commercial printer will know exactly what they’re talking about and should be able to match it. But often an Adobe PDF file is all a printer has to work with, perhaps accompanied by a low-resolution inkjet or laser printout. These are only as accurate as the devices that produced them.

The printer can simply make the printing plates, put them on the press, and see what comes out — and then usually try again, tweaking the press until it prints something that resembles what was requested. But this is wasteful and time-consuming, and not time most print buyers want to pay for.

Device calibration is much more reliable and repeatable. A global organization called the International Color Consortium has developed a standard to compare and define the color output of electronic devices. With this, we can define the designer’s color monitor or inkjet printer as outputting perhaps .05% more red, .30% less green and 1.2% more blue than the standard. This would be the monitor’s ICC profile.

Ideally, all devices can be calibrated and adjusted to meet the ICC standard. Calibration across all the devices involved in producing a printed piece is one way to ensure precise color matching, and it should be done on a regular basis to correct any “drift” away from the standard.

Similarly, both sheetfed and web offset presses use a profiling process called fingerprinting. From the moment the first job rolls off a printing press, all of that press’s many parts are subject to wear.

A press may eventually lay down a slightly thicker ink film in the center of the sheet, for instance, or the pressure of one cylinder may vary a bit from the others. These variations can change the color of a printed image. Fingerprinting a press defines all these variations and, as with ICC profiles, allows for calibrating them to meet the required printing standard.

Today both hard-copy prints, like Kodak’s Approval and “soft” proofs or “virtual” proofs, which are viewed over a computer monitor, are available. Hard-copy proofs are produced using information from ICC and press profiles and should match whatever the designer had in mind.

Soft proofs require calibrating the monitors that produce and display them — even if the monitor is in the corporate office. The data and algorithms used to produce the proof must be stored along with it, creating a benchmark that can be used to produce the same results each time.

A few tips

First, be aware of the impact of the substrate you choose. Uncoated papers absorb more ink than coated papers, for example, the same color usually will look darker on uncoated paper, and often the image edges are less crisp.

Some coatings or varnishes may give the printed image a slight color cast or a dim appearance. Make certain the proof you approve is printed on the same kind of substrate you’ve specified for the whole job, and that it’s finished with the coatings or varnishes you want.

Once a piece has been approved for printing, store the digital file carefully so that a master copy will remain unchanged. Images such as logos or trademark graphics can be created in a variety of sizes for routine applications and stored centrally, but accessible to users.

Working with an external supplier with premedia expertise can help. Look for someone with a printing background, not only a computer whiz. Even though your files are digital, they must be processed to suit the technical requirements of ink on paper.

No single easy-to-use software package has yet replaced the skill and expertise necessary for precise color management for high-quality printed output. Many commercial printers offer prepress or premedia services, but these may be limited to preflighting files for computer-to-plate operations or to managing color on-press only. Dealing with cross-media color files may be beyond their capabilities.

Finally, look for a supplier you enjoy working with, because you may be seeing them often. The value of a supplier who understands your inhouse system and is willing and able to cooperate with you to achieve the best printed results may be the most important factor of all.

Frank Defino Jr. is vice president and managing director of Tukaiz, a marketing communications service provider.

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