These days many businesses rely on inexpensive digital, laser and inkjet printers to produce the pieces they will use for their marketing and branding purposes. For the uninitiated it can be an unpleasant surprise to find that the colors in the logo over which they have agonized in excruciating detail are not printing out as hoped, are not printing consistently from one promotional item to the next, and even seem to change color when viewed on different color monitors.
In general, photos, illustrations and complex images will seem to look and print more consistently because the vast number of colors they contain make it more difficult to notice if certain colors are varying from one monitor or output device to the next.
Achieving good results when viewing and printing images where specific colors are desired, such as logos, can be more troublesome. Here's the nitty gritty on digital color and printing to help you make good decisions about your options.
The problems begin with the variety of computer monitors we use now, and the differences in the display technologies.
Computer monitors are made by different companies each using their own technology and with their own idea of how an image should appear. They do not share a color standard, and each company puts their R&D into different features such as screen size, finish, video card performance, etc. in order to sell their monitors, as color is not always the most important issue for the consumer.
Add in the browser factor: when a website is viewed in different browsers (Safari, Internet Explorer, Firefox), even on the same monitor the site can look quite different from one browser to the next.
The same difference in color appearance holds true when you are approving artwork that has been sent to you by your designer or illustrator. There is a good chance that what you are seeing is not exactly the same as what they are seeing. That is why, for designed items such as logos, it is important to pick standard colors from the Pantone Matching System or equivalent (see below) as a final step in the design process.
Likewise, there will be color differences between images viewed on the screen and the subsequent output. Printing uses a completely different technology to render its color (see below) and the inevitable difference between the glossy, backlit screen with its high contrast and sharp color and the duller printed paper is just the tip of the iceberg.
Your printer operates on quite a different principle, that of CMYK (Cyan Magenta Yellow Black). A typical printer uses what is called a four-color process of printing, whereby each color that is being printed has been created with some combination of those 4 colors to achieve the closest possible rendition of the digital code information it is receiving. (click here for the wikipedia article with more information on CMYK.)
Although great strides have been made in printing over the past few years, particularly in the photo printers whose main function is to take the RGB images from your digital camera and render them as accurately as possible on your CMYK printer often using special dye inks and papers, there is still a vast difference in translation between RGB and CMYK.
And even when you are viewing an image in CMYK mode on your monitor (as you can in Photoshop, for example) you are still seeing an interpolation that will undergo some changes when it prints out on your printer.
Now let's add in the different technologies that each printer manufacturer uses, the different ink chemistry from one manufacturer to the next, and the different way all of those inks look when printed on different papers such as matte, glossy, bright white, etc. Paper type can greatly affect the outcome of your print job. Uncoated paper absorbs more ink, is rougher in appearance, and tends to dull color. Coated paper is shiny so the ink sits on the surface and is better suited for photography and small text. The same image printed on both types of paper will often look quite different.
It then becomes very hard to know whether your unexpected results are to be expected, whether the art files you are using are right for the job, whether the outcome is a result of digital rather than offset printing, and if the job has been printed to the best of the vendor's ability.
If you are planning on printing from a home/office printer, the first thing to do is to make sure that your designer has given you file formats suitable for printing on a regular printer as well as by a print professional.
This is fairly easy to determine: you can print high resolution JPEG files and PDF files from most home and office printers with a reasonable amount of success, and if your designer has not given you these files it will be easy for them to do so. However, do not expect professional results from your home printer. You are likely to find that the color output from your home or office printer does not look like the image on the screen.
If you are having the job professionally printed most print shops will want either the native files for the piece (meaning the format the designer worked in originally such as Illustrator, Photoshop, InDesign, etc.) a high resolution EPS file or a press-quality PDF file. And some printers may request a high-resolution JPEG or TIFF file, depending on the job.
The general consensus amongst printers is that the safest file to send is a press-quality PDF with fonts outlined -- meaning the text is no longer editable, it has been turned into a graphic object. This will reduce font-related problems with the output. Your designer can help with this.
What will not work for professional results is a low resolution JPEG (such as an image saved directly from the Internet or a low resolution setting on a digital camera), a low resolution PDF or other file type (including EPS), or a GIF file (meant to be used for the web only).
When in doubt, ask your designer for help or have them talk to your print shop directly to determine if file type is causing any print issues.
If you are printing from a home /office printer and it has been determined that you are using the correct file type, you may have to reconcile the convenience and lower price with a less professional look to the results.
If you have had a logo designed you are probably familiar with the Pantone Color Matching System. Pantone is a company that has come up with standard colors and ink mixing formulas that can be matched with pretty good success by printers printing on substrates ranging from paper to vinyl to fabric to metal.
Your designer and print shop has books showing the swatches of colors and the numbering system that they use to assign these colors as needed.
Therefore a design that specifies PMS 285 C (a specific shade of blue for coated or shiny surfaces) can be printed with reasonable consistency on glossy paper and coated vinyl by two different vendors in different parts of the country because each vendor will mix up their own inks to match the PMS 285 C color chip, and even though they may each use different types of ink they have formulas to follow.
There are a few catches, though. One catch is that there isn't a Pantone color for every color one can create on the computer, paint , etc., and so compromises must be made when selecting PMS colors.
Also, to get a color printed to match a PMS color usually means printing it as a spot color. Instead of the color being created through the four color process of CMYK (using only four inks), a specific ink must be mixed up so that PMS 285 C always comes out looking like PMS 285 C.
Spot colors are not always needed for a print job to come out well, however the best quality printing usually is done on an offset printing press, and spot colors definitely need to be printed via offset. Offset printing can be expensive, and in addition the minimum print quantities are usually high.
Into this arena has come a new breed of output devices called digital printers. Basically they are souped-up versions of your home or office printer, and they work using the four CMYK inks, toner or liquid toner. They are smaller than a typical offset printing press and easier to run so they are a good option for print shops hoping to give quick turnaround and a lower price. Although the paper options are fewer with digital printers at this time, they are an affordable option for low quantity printing.
The drawback is that print quality can be an issue in some cases, and digital printers can be hard to adjust for only one color problem. If your logo is coming out with 2 of the colors just right and the third looking off, it may not be possible to correct. After all, the digital printer is trying to make every color in the world out of just four inks. Adjusting one of the four inks to print more or less ink will affect every other color in the print job.
If the results of digital printing are far from your expectations, talk to the print shop about your options. It could be that compromises are needed for the lower cost, or that your job may be better suited for spot color/offset printing.
As soon as you know where and how the job will be printed, (offset or digitally), tell your designer. Try to determine this before the final files are prepared. It will be useful for you to find out about your printing options and costs, and your designer will be able to tailor the results to suit the output device or print method.
Substrates are the materials onto which your design is being printed. Examples are banner material, paper, a plastic mug, a sign, and so on. Even when you are printing in spot colors there can be some variation between the types of ink being used for these different substrates. Be prepared that the differences in color and texture of the substrate, the substrate material and the ink type used for that particular substrate will also play a part in determining the accuracy of the final color.
Communicate with your print shop from the start of the job. Find out what their limitations are, send them the artwork and talk about potential issues, and involve your designer if necessary. Your designer wants the job to print well and will be happy to work with your vendors.
A reputable print shop will discuss your options and give you good advice. If possible, work with a print shop whose work you have seen and admired. When it comes to online companies the same holds true -- some are better than others. Ask for samples and recommendations first.
Up-front information is the key. The more you know about your options the better prepared you will be for the outcome. In some cases, and particularly with digital printing, compromises are often part of the deal in order to get smaller quantites and lower prices.
Print shops promote their digital print business because it is fast and easy to run in comparison with regular offset printing. They can offer better prices and the quantities can be much lower. If you need specific colors to print properly, such as in your logo, ask for offset pricing for comparison.
And a 'contract proof' is an excellent option that should not be overlooked. "It's the only warranty and very cheap insurance," says a print expert with many years of experience. A contract proof is usually a Matchprint or laminate proof supplied by the printer upon which the client signs off, saying that the job is ready to print. It costs extra to have the proof made, but in the long run it can ward off expensive problems and reprints.
Many printers offer 'soft proofs' for free. These are PDF versions of the files you sent, which are great for making sure all of your information is there but are not for color matching. Consider the contract proof, even though waiting for a hard copy to arrive can add to the print time. It may be a critical part of the process.
If you think you have sent the correct files and communicated clearly with your vendor but what you received in return greatly differs from your expectations, speak up.
Problems which are usually the print shop's responsibility include misprinted items, parts of a design missing, inconsistent trimming, smearing, marks, improperly aligned printing or a print job that differs from the contract proof.
If you have agreed to have a job digitally printed however, and the colors are not to your liking, there may be little a printer can do to change the outcome. Digital printing can render great results, but there is no guarantee. Ask about proofing options when you request a quote from your vendor to lessen the chance of color surprises.
With this information on color and printing you can make some decisions up front as to where you want to spend your money for the best color matching and when it will be fine for the color to be close but not perfect.
Important branding items such as business cards, expensive leave-behinds or any item that will be scrutinized closely should all be printed to the highest standards.
Less important items such as give-aways and promotional items can be printed with more leeway.
Your website appearance will depend on the browser and monitor -- get as close as you can to your ideal and then concentrate on the content of the site.
Each year technologies improve making monitors, output devices, color matching and printing methods more in synch. We are far from uniformity at this time, and an understanding of this will help you make decisions affecting your branding, your marketing pieces and their associated costs.