Color me accurate

May 01, 1999 9:30 PM  By

According to a 1998 study from research firm Cyber Dialogue, 76% of frequent Web surfers felt that “seeing exact color of the product you’re shopping for” was somewhat to extremely important. And nearly 6% of respondents who purchased goods online said they returned the products because the color was different from what appeared on the screen.

And therein lies the problem of color management on the Web: No two computer monitors produce the same colors onscreen from the same digital files. Specific lighting conditions, such as artificial light vs. sunlight in the room in which the monitor is located, can also alter the consumer’s perception of color. Colors can differ 10% or more-enough to make a beige sweater appear yellow online or blue shoes look black.

“We can’t control the color on consumers’ monitors,” says Judy Neuman, director of electronic media at apparel and home goods cataloger Eddie Bauer. “Even the green on my screen may looks different from the green on the screens within my own department. Add the entire online universe, and color management becomes a huge challenge.”

“The computer monitor and the keyboard are the two least evolved elements of Internet delivery,” says Bill Lederer, president of Art.com, a one-year-old online cataloger of posters and prints. “The technology grew up quickly, but there’s been little progress in these areas. We need smart terminals that will almost calibrate themselves according to each customer’s browser, operating system, and the software used for the Web image.”

But until that happens, catalogers must rely on other means to represent accurate color online. Aside from color-correcting every scanned image and investing in top-of-the-line color monitor systems to ensure the best quality on the cataloger’s end, Art.com believes the most important element is to offer an exceptional guarantee. “Online consumers are willing to accept that the image on their screen might not be an exact representation of the product, but with a strong guarantee, we can convince them to [take a chance on] a purchase,” Lederer says.

Working in a fully digital environment, including digital photography, also helps keep color consistent online. By using digital photography, there’s no need to convert the images from CMYK (used in print) to RGB (used on the computer screen), which can reduce sharpness.

“More catalog clients are using digital images that were never intended for print,” says Gordon Obrecht, manager of operations for Elgin, IL-based R.R. Donnelley Online Services, the Internet solutions division of printer R.R. Donnelley & Sons. “So we can work with photographers from the beginning of the capture process.”

An online color standard A color space is a method of breaking down a shade into its most basic color components. The RGB color space, for instance, breaks any hue into percentages of red, green, and blue. But depending on the devices used-scanners, digital cameras, and monitors-and the manufacturer of the devices, the three basic colors may be defined slightly differently.

The International Color Consortium (ICC), a nonprofit group of 60-plus manufacturers, including Microsoft, Adobe, and Netscape, believes that the creation of sRGB, a standard of the three basic colors, could solve the problem of online color variances. In other words, every manufacturer of every computer monitor would code the color red identically. ICC has already created standard color profiles for the print environment.

“sRGB is as close as we can get to reproducing accurate color across different platforms and devices,” says Tim Kohler, senior engineer of color research at Canon Information Systems, a division of Canon, and former ICC chairman. “While existing ICC color profiles work well in the printing world, they’re impractical for the Web because most browsers will not support them, and attaching profiles to Web pages increases the file size.” A 17K GIFF file, for example, will double in size when an ICC profile is attached.

Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard are including sRGB profiles in upcoming versions of their operating systems and browser software. But sRGB won’t ensure color consistency until all manufacturers are on board.