Printing and Design Tips: April 2018, Issue #201

Choosing a Printer for New Color Swatch Books

A client of mine has been printing color swatch books for her business for a number of years now. They are smallish, about 1.5" x 3.5" in size and just over 114 pages plus cover. These books are bound with a screw and post assembly and then shrink wrapped.

My client sells these books as an adjunct to her business of selecting just the right colors for a woman’s clothing, make-up, and such, based on her complexion. So the books are not unlike a printer’s PMS swatch book, but for high fashion.

They have to be perfect. Unfortunately, after a number of years of being dead-on accurate in their color reproduction, the printer that had been producing the books on an HP Indigo upgraded their software, resulting in a color shift in many of the hues. A job that had gone through production smoothly, again and again, became a nightmare. Then the printer went out of business.

What to do?

At the moment, my client is coming close to reprinting her job. She has been very kind. She accepted the prior printed job as it was (she didn’t have to) and then fulfilled her clients’ orders for the color books. Although the colors were not perfect, to the best of my knowledge her clients still accepted the swatch books. However, I want my client to be happy going forward, so this is how I’m proceeding.

New Printers

I have identified two print shops that might be able to do a good job. I have worked with one of the shops many times. It is a small, mom-and-pop shop. The prices are great, and I have a lot of faith in the printer based on our long working relationship.

The next printer is a very high end shop. Interestingly enough, I specifically contacted the sales and customer service rep who had worked with me on the job in the past. When the first printer went out of business, she found a position at another specialty printer. I contacted her as soon as I knew her whereabouts, because for years she had made absolutely sure my client was happy with her color books. Interestingly enough, I have worked with her at three printers over the last 17 years.

The third printer is a local shop that focuses on specialty marketing work. I have also worked with this printer for many years and therefore trust them as well.

At this point, all three are possibilities.

The Test

Being able to produce accurate color consistently is a skill many take for granted. Over the years I have identified the HP Indigo press as my own personal favorite for color fidelity in short-run digital work. Therefore, I have included only printers with this digital printing equipment, and I have requested pricing for a color test proof.

I plan to have at least two of the printers initially bid on the job (which will be anywhere from two to six copies of 22 separate master color swatch books, each keyed to a specific hair color and complexion). However, I have also asked for prices for these color test proofs.

My client’s color palette comprises 330 individual hues, which are distributed among the 22 master copies of the swatch books. I have asked each printer to provide the cost to print these small color chips ganged up on flat 12" x 18" press sheets on their own particular HP Indigo press.

One set of these proofs will be laminated. One will not. This is because an analysis of the prior print job that didn’t go well suggests that the lamination was a factor. It was possible that the lamination changed the appearance of some of the color families (blues and purples, as I recall). So to be safe, one complete set of colors will be laminated, and one will not. I have asked my client to compare both sets of proofs to her prior, accurate color swatch books as well as to a printed PMS color bridge once the proofs have been completed and sent to her.

To further ensure color accuracy, I have noted that the colors will be slightly different in sunlight, incandescent light, fluorescent light, and perhaps even in LED light. So I have asked her to check the colors under all lighting conditions.

So everyone will be working under the same assumptions, I have also asked my client to prepare the files as she did before (one 1.5" x 3.5" page at a time with bleeds, which the printer will then lay out as PDF files on the largest press sheet his particular HP Indigo digital press will accept).

Each of these small book pages will have a single color printed on them as well as a CMYK color recipe (percentages for each of the cyan, magenta, yellow, and black liquid-based toners in the HP Indigo). This way, with 330 colors in total, no one will get confused in communicating color requirements.

My expectation is that the printers will provide slightly different final proofs, since all of the vendors will have slightly different HP Indigo equipment. Furthermore, I expect that certain color families may have color shifts. If none of this happens, I will be surprised but happy.

I also asked my client not to choose colors based on their appearance on her color monitor. I told her the printed Pantone PMS color bridge (which shows the nearest CMYK equivalent to each PMS color) will be far more accurate. (This is because it is produced with ink on paper rather than light on a computer monitor, and because two people—a client and a printer—with the same book will have the same color in front of them.)

The Potential Outcome

Each of the three printers has done work like this. One is the low bid, from prior estimates. The others will be much more expensive.

If the printed test from the low-bid vendor is completely accurate, that will be very gratifying, and my client will have a solution. The printer will be happy, too, since my client usually reprints the job every few months. If the color is off, that will probably disqualify this printer immediately. Why? Because for the prices they offer, I don’t expect a high level of attention in color correcting the files.

For the other two printers, if the color is off a bit, I will probably ask for color adjustments in prepress. Once the colors are set, however, even though they will wind up in 22 other color swatch books (some in a few of the master books, others in most of the master books), each color formula (CMYK build) will have been agreed upon. We will have a contract proof of each color, if you will. And time put into color tweaking the files will consistently benefit all of the 22 master books containing these colors, as well as all final book copies printed in the first press run and all subsequent reprints.

So all of this preparatory work will be an investment toward both current and future books. You can see why I need a trusted printer as well as a good price.

What You Can Learn from This

This is a work in progress. I’m making it up as I go, based on my 43 years in the field plus my knowledge of color theory, the perception of color by the human eye, and digital printing. But there are some assumptions I think would be valuable to consider:

1. In your own jobs, never choose color based on its appearance on the monitor. The best way is to use a Pantone PMS swatch book for match colors and a Pantone Process Build book for CMYK builds.

2. View the color under different lighting conditions (sunlight, incandescent, fluorescent, and LED). You’ll be surprised at the differences.

3. For color critical work, only use high-end printers you trust. Expect to pay more for their expertise (and time), and expect to do more than one set of proofs.

4. Remember that not all digital presses are accurate. The very same press that had produced my client’s job accurately and consistently for years was not replaced but only upgraded (only the software changed, as I recall). Then it not longer produced my client’s job colors accurately. (This may have been due to operator error, but it’s wise not to make assumptions.)

5. Expect to pay money up front for color testing and for color tweaking and then color retesting. Consider this an investment, not an expense.

6. If your job only requires "pleasing color" (rather than "critical color"), then you might want to do far less testing than I plan to do. However, it’s still good to keep the potential pitfalls of color digital printing in mind and to request printed samples, ideally of some of the pages from your own job.

[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]