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Successful color management (Part 1)

Feature, Graphics | March 1, 2011 | By:

Managing color successfully can save your organization time and money, and a little work up front can make life easier in the long run.

Editor’s note: X-Rite Color Services partnered with Fabric Graphics on a two-part series about the challenges involved in communicating color, the human aspect of viewing and perceiving color, and how to overcome these obstacles to achieve accurate color in your workflow. Some of the following information comes from X-Rite’s Fundamentals of Color and Appearance (FOCA) seminar, which introduces the basics of color management and explains the human factors that are involved in judging color. This one-day seminar is built for quality control and assurance professionals, lab technicians, parts suppliers, manufacturing specifiers, or anyone who evaluates and approves color.

Color management entails using hardware and software to achieve optimal color reproduction in a specific workflow. The process relies on standard International Color Consortium (ICC) profiles that contain information about the color characteristics of each of the devices in the workflow, including digital cameras, scanners, monitors, proofers and printers. These profiles are used by design or editing software to make decisions on the best color conversion each step of the way, resulting in predictable final color.

The goal of color management is to reproduce accurate and consistent color across each of your devices in a predictable, repeatable way. The color gamuts of all devices are different, and the color you end up with depends on each of the devices that are producing it. Two of the exact same cameras can capture different colors. Then factor in monitors, which use the additive color model, and printers, which use the subtractive color model, and you can see the issue. The devices don’t speak the same language, making it difficult to achieve the desired color on screen or in final production.

A typical color-managed workflow involves a service provider who takes a digital photograph or scan, views and edits the images on a color-calibrated monitor, makes a proof, some edits, and then sends the images to a printer. To use color management in this type of a workflow, each of the devices must be calibrated and profiled, an appropriate working space must be selected for the editing software to do the color conversions between steps, and custom profiles will do the rest.

The benefits

The benefit of color management is the confidence of knowing that what you see on screen is what you’ll get in print. Novice users can get good results without a lot of color knowledge, and professionals have a great starting point for making manual color corrections.

When you bring optimized color into your workflow from a profiled camera or scanner, you will reduce or eliminate the need for extensive color correction. Softproofing is a great benefit of color management. When you set up softproofing, what you see on the display is a much better representation of what you get in print. The colors you output on your proofer are accurate, so you don’t waste time and money sending the wrong colors to print. Plus, you can utilize low-cost or one-off proofing devices that match a larger format printer or a printing press.

The challenge of communicating color

We experience color every day. Usually we describe a color by developing a mental picture, then use adjectives from experience to describe it. It’s up to the other person to correctly interpret what we’re describing.

Communicating color is subjective. Most people don’t consider our inherent inability to visualize, remember and discuss color. We get by with basic descriptors such as “green grass” and “sky blue,” but in the business world, where big companies need their logos to be reproduced accurately and the customer is always right, it is a big issue.

The appearance of color can change based on the size and shape of an object and the lighting conditions. You know this if you’ve picked a paint color from a swatch at the store. The perfect color on a two-inch swatch can look completely different when spread over the walls of an entire room. Plus, stores are generally illuminated with fluorescent tubes, while most houses are filled with incandescent bulbs and have windows filtering in daylight. This paint example holds true for many dye and print industries, including fabrics, pharmaceuticals, automotive and graphics.

We’re only human

We “see” color in our minds, but our eyes are not a very dependable gateway. There are many physical and psychophysical factors that play a role in how we perceive color, including background effects, color memory, fatigue and color deficiency.

Since we perceive color in the context of the entire visual field, contrasting colors and backgrounds can compete with the actual color you are trying to judge. Light booths and measurement instruments remove these distractions and are necessary for judging color. A colorimeter or spectrophotometer views only the target as seen through the aperture and measures the reflected light from the targeted sample area. It is not aware that surrounding colors exist. However, in a battle between what the instrument says and how a customer perceives a certain color, the customer often wins.

Human color memory is bad. Even if you can remember all 20 items on your grocery list, there’s something about human vision that makes it impossible to remember color. Our poor color memory is one of the reasons humans have devised methods of analyzing, measuring and communicating color. A good colorist will always place sample and standard adjacent to each other in a controlled lighting environment when making visual comparisons.

Simply staring at a strong color for longer than a few seconds can cause over-stimulation, sending unbalanced color information to the brain. It’s important to rest your eyes prior to viewing color, view quickly, then rest your eyes again.

While it’s rare that a person will have completely monochromatic vision, there are several common color deficiencies that humans deal with. In fact, one in 13 males and one in 300 females exhibit some degree of color deficiency. The most common is “red-green colorblindness,” but there are many others. Some deficiencies are inherited, and others are caused by injury, disease or age. While the science behind color deficiency is an interesting topic, what’s important from a fundamental perspective is that anyone who is judging color needs to be aware of these deficiencies.


Industries and variables differ, so it is impossible to delineate a full and complete set of color communication challenges for everyone. What is most important to remember is that failure to pay attention to these details will result in inaccurate color results, and cost your company time and money.

Part two of this article, which will provide technical and practical ways to implement color management into your workflow, will appear in the May/June issue.

Mark Gundlach is an X-Rite Color Expert and the manager of Training and Curriculum Development. He is a certified Apple Color Management Pro and Color Management Trainer and has over 20 years of experience working in photography, design and print environments. As an advocate of a fully digital workflow process, Gundlach used his experience as a system integrator to install and train photo labs, studios, ad agencies and sign shops on color management, prepress production, digital sign making and digital workflow best practices.

X-Rite serves a range of industries, including printing, packaging, photography, graphic design, video, automotive, paints, plastics, textiles, dental and medical. The company develops, manufactures, markets and supports innovative color solutions through measurement systems, software, color standards and services. X-Rite Color Services offers a variety of training services, including seminars offered throughout the United States and Canada that provide the latest information on important topics like color theory, process control and color management. The most popular is the “Fundamentals of Color and Appearance.” During this one-day seminar, X-Rite Color Experts provide a practical approach to help you understand and manage color quality. Visit, or call 888 439 4403.

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