Printing and Design Tips: May 2023, Issue #262

The Printing Industry Exchange Blog is #12 of the best 40 digital printing blogs, as selected by FEEDSPOT.

Color Problems in a Fashionista’s Set of Color Swatches

This case study actually ties together two separate jobs by one print brokering client of mine (color swatch books and color chin cards) and introduces a color proofing device provided by another print broker.

The Swatch Books

My client produces 3.54" x 1.42" color swatch books for selecting colors for clothing and make-up that are complementary to one’s complexion. Her main product is a series of color sheets (similar to a PMS swatch book for fashionistas) that are round-cornered, drilled, and attached with a metal screw-and-post device.

About three times a year my client reprints however many copies she needs (to replenish inventory) of the 28 different master copies of her 118-page books. (Each master book contains a smaller subset of a much larger set of colors. As noted before, these specific colors are complementary to the various clients’ complexions.)

Addressing Problems with the Swatch Book Colors

I’ve worked with this client for just under a decade. In that time I have sent her chin cards and swatch books to about three different printers, not that many for such a long period of time. In each case, once I found that the printer could match the colors consistently I stayed put and had the vendor continue to produce all subsequent reprints.

(This is no easy task. First of all, this is a digital print job. My client often prints only two, three, or maybe six copies of each of the 28 master copies of the swatch books in each press run. In my experience, there is not the absolute control of color in digital laser printing that exists in offset lithography. That said, I have found that some presses--such as the HP Indigo--provide spot-on color fidelity. But not all printers have this equipment. Plus, one of the printers upgraded their HP Indigo software, and then color fidelity problems actually started to occur. Go figure.)

So in this particular case, my most recent go-to printer started delivering color swatch books that varied in color (both in the illustrations on the covers of my client’s color swatch books and in the solid-color pages within the books).

Now the goal is to identify the problem and correct it for future reprints by the same printer. (Print buying, in my opinion, always goes better when a printer can resolve the problem. I’m not a big fan of just changing printers. I think this often just makes the problem occur again.)

The first thing I did was ask my client to quantify the problem. She had received a box of about 200 color swatch books, so I asked her to check a random sampling looking for patterns. Which specific titles (of the 28 master copies) had color problems, and what kinds of problems did they have? Since all books were individually shrink wrapped (which the clients like), I asked that my client only open and check a random sampling.

Furthermore, I asked that she take photos showing the differences in color (photos of both the illustrations of faces on the swatch book covers and the color swatches within the books) to convey to the printer the extent of the color shifts.

My client discovered that only four of the specific titles (out of 28) were affected, and that problems usually (but not always) occurred in these specific books with both the color of the cover illustrations and the color of the swatches inside the book.

Furthermore, my client noted that the colors were incorrect in the following way. Some looked lighter and/or less saturated. She saw this the most dramatically with the yellows, as well as the peach and coral colors.

My next step was to send the photos and my client’s analysis of the job to the print sales rep, who had already alerted the plant manager.

Everyone at this commercial printing vendor seems to be highly committed to resolving the color fidelity issues going forward. Presumably this will include changing the workflow to ensure that the printer checks for these specific color problems (each time) before shipping out future jobs. In addition, since the printer has multiple color laser presses, it may mean changing which press is used for my client’s work.

At the very least, my client will be able to reasonably expect that future jobs will be at least as color accurate as the reprints of the color swatch books that she has received from this vendor over the past decade.

The Takeaway

In your own work, when something like this goes wrong, contact the printer immediately. Then check a random sampling of the job (some copies from each carton delivered). Articulate what has happened, determine the extent of the problem, and then document everything with photographs. Do not wait. Act immediately. Also, determine not only how the job is flawed but also whether all copies, or only a specific number of copies, are unsalable or unusable. (There’s a difference between "I don’t like this" and "I can’t sell or use these copies.")

The Chin Cards

The other product, which draws from the same overall set of colors is a group of unbound, laminated, 8.5" x 11" chin cards with a diecut half-circle on the long edge that allows the cards to fit tightly under the client’s chin. The appropriate colors complement the client’s complexion.

Avoiding Problems with a Contract Color Proof

When it rains, it pours.

At this specific time, another print broker has offered to print my client’s chin cards. Therefore, I am particularly interested in the printer’s (the one that just delivered the color swatch books, as noted above) speedily resolving the swatch book color variance problem and making my client whole. I want to make sure she is happy.

The chin cards are a similar product in that my client’s proprietary color scheme is printed on each of the 8.5" x 11" laminated cards. Colors have to be right, and there’s no room for banding or artifacts (i.e., no room for anything but smooth, accurate color).

As noted in a prior PIE article, I had advised my client to request a proof from the other broker that would present all colors full size and laminated rather than as small swatches ganged up on a press sheet with only one or two colors in full size as examples of the finished product.

My client’s other broker did not approach things this way. Instead, he ganged up all colors as small swatches except for a full-size light yellow and light pink. One thing that I did learn about my client’s approach when I heard about this proof is that the large-format pink and yellow proof pages were produced specifically to ensure color fidelity, since these had been problematic colors in the past. This is essential information, so I made a mental note.

When I approached my client, I offered to provide a proof from my print supplier. To ensure that there will be no banding or artifacts, I have requested a full-size proof. To ensure that the lamination does not alter any of the colors, my print provider has offered to laminate all pages of the proof (essentially providing one complete set of the entire chin-card print job without the die cut). And, as just noted, the full-size proof will make any problems with color very obvious (i.e., the eye can be forgiving with small color samples, but large-scale proofs will be above the eye’s threshold for seeing errors--both in terms of technical quality and color fidelity).

Generously, my print supplier has offered to split the cost of the proof with my client to ensure her satisfaction. We’ll see what happens.

The Takeaway

In your own work, especially digital printing work, don’t assume the colors will be completely accurate or completely consistent throughout the run when compared to a similar job printed via offset lithography.

Discuss the possibility of color variance, banding, and artifacts with your printer.

Realize that although no print job will be perfect, your eye will be more discriminating when assessing color in a large area than when checking color in a small patch. Furthermore, any coating, such as lamination, may change the perceived color of some hues.

Check the color in different lighting, but definitely include sunlight (5000 degrees Kelvin), which is the standard ambient light for reviewing commercial printing proofs. Colors appear different under different lighting conditions.

Also recognize that certain colors will be more likely than others to be problematic. For instance, since purple is darker in value than yellow, flaws (banding or artifacts plus any color inaccuracy) will be more visible.

Also, less saturated colors may have more problems. Less saturated colors are less pure or intense, closer to a neutral. A portion of their complement (their opposite on the color wheel, such as green and red) is included in their composition, or the color has been tinged with black, white, or gray.

All of these potential problems will be more likely to show up in a full-size proof. Pay for a complete proof if color is "critical" as opposed to "pleasing." It is an investment in a quality product, not an expense.

[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.]