Who is responsible when color goes wrong?

I, like you, have ordered printing.  I have ordered it online, over the phone, by email, and in person.  I have also designed pieces that needed to be printed, and worked behind the scenes preflighting, plating and proofing jobs on press in an actual print shop, the smell of ink hanging thick in the air.  (“What smell?”)  I’ve been on all sides of this equation when something hasn’t printed the way I, or someone else, thought it would.

We are almost as emotional about color as we are about money.  Yet, in business, we restrain ourselves to make rational decisions about money.  In print, we must exercise similar restraint as it relates to color.  A range of colors is called a gamut.  The gamut of colors available to print is much smaller than the colors you can see on your monitor, which is in turn vastly smaller than the number of colors your eye can perceive on a bright Spring day playing hooky from the office.  (Don’t think about that right now.)

This means that just because you want it, doesn’t mean you can have it.  Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.  By no means will this post educate you on the very complex topic of color management, but, I argue, you should know enough to be taken seriously by both your designer AND your print service provider.

Dirty Little Secret #1:  Your designer isn’t sure how the color’s going to turn out, either.  This isn’t universally the case, of course, but most designers work in Photoshop in RGB.  These are the colors you can see on your screen, but it is not possible to print them all.  Why would they do that?  Photoshop is where most designers get their start, we are all comfortable in it, and working in RGB allows more bells and whistles than CMYK.  For the most part, as long as they convert to CMYK (the limited print color space), all will work out, but not always.  Designers assume prepress technicians will alert them if something looks wrong.

Dirty Little Secret #2: Prepress techs handle hundreds of different files.  They have minimum standards that must be met, and a deadline to keep which is YOUR deadline, and your rack cards need to go in your carry-on, and they won’t hold the plane!  Much of prepress is automated in PDF workflow, and production artists rarely enjoy calling graphic designers to tell them their art doesn’t look quite right.  Printers assume that the designer knows what they are doing.

So if everyone assumes that someone else is going to take responsibility for it, and your idea of color is the only one that matters, you should be vocal from the beginning that you are “Color Critical”.  Beyond just saying it, here are some steps you can take to help drive the point home:

  • Ask your designer if the printer uses SWOP or GRACoL calibration standard.

    You don’t have to know what that means, but your designer should, and asking puts the printer on notice that a critical job is coming.

  • Ask for 2 proofs on actual stock.
    A digital proof is not an exact match, but every job that goes to press has a printed piece that accompanies it to “go by”.  If you like the color, keep one, sign the other and return.  Make sure your designer knows you are expecting color as close as possible to the provided sample and that you are keeping a copy for reference.

  • Do a press check.
    These cost extra.  If the run is long, the budget large, or your butt sufficiently on the line, ask to see the actual printed piece before the entire job is run.  Your designer will love being your chaperone to the print shop.  (We don’t get out much.)  Your printer will want to get you out of there as soon as possible.  They will pay extra attention to your job in prepress and make sure every “T is dotted” to ensure limited down time on press.

A little bit of knowledge and some chutzpah go a long way towards getting the outcome you really want, a perfectly printed piece.


  • Good information Martin! Color is ambiguous as every person sees color differently. Pantone printing is a lot less complex than the introduction of CMYK. The conversion of RGB files to CMYK is can easily create undesired results (and frequently do). Additionally, no CMYK press or digital machine is created the same. You have a lot more continuity with offset press, but more and more people are going with digital on demand. They desire shorter runs and sometimes variable data. The digital copiers are not as adept at handling the RGB files as an offset press system will. I think an important question that many designers fail is to ask their printer for the ICC profile of the machine to which their piece is going to be printed on.

    • Kelly, you are certainly correct. But you are very well informed on this subject. From the designer’s perspective the ICC profile is key, as well as the Distiller settings used by the printer. I was tailoring this more to people who don’t think they need to know about color at all because their designer will take care of it. Too many taking shortcuts out there. Thanks for taking the time to respond.

  • You can resolve this porelbm by specifying the correct Pantone or spot color for the job. If you are planning to print the letterhead and envelopes on an uncoated or letterhead type paper, then you should specify the spot for all the items in the uncoated spot color. Then when you print on the digital device, enable the Spot Definition or Spot On feature. Print the business cards and check that the Pantone is close to the uncoated book. If adjustments need to be made, adjust the actual spot color on the RIP to match the book more closely. See Run Spot Run.

  • The accuracy limiattions of CMYK printing are that the results can vary sometimes greatly depending on the range how it is calibrated and the particular color you are trying to print. There are also colors that cannot be reproduced using the CMYK process such as metallic and very bright colors. Inevitably the colors shift when processed in CMYK and this could be a cause of the color out of spec youre experiencing.

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