Printing & Design Tips: June 2009, Issue #95

Crisis — An Ugly Color Shift on a Magazine Cover

Aargh. The printed magazine arrives, and you get a call from the art director saying the covers don't match the proof. Time stops and you start to sweat. What do you do?

While this is an unfortunate and traumatic event, it is nevertheless one that will happen eventually, and there is a way to approach it effectively and with a minimum of stress. Be a detective. Look dispassionately for the cause and extent of the problem.

This happened to me recently with a rather large client. Fortunately, the art director had already done some preliminary work in defining the problem and discovering its extent. She told me that a handful of in-house copies had a reddish cast, in contrast to the overall bluish cast of the original photo and ink-jet proof. The type on the cover was also a lighter brownish-orange than what was shown on the proof.

The first thing I realized was that all color elements on both the proof and the printed cover were exclusively CMYK builds. Since almost all ink-jet proofers don’t include PMS colors in their ink sets, the ink-jet proof would have matched the press sheet only if all colors had been builds of CMYK. Had the orange headline type been an additional PMS color added on press, the cyan, magenta, yellow, and black dyes in the ink-jet proofer might not have accurately rendered the PMS used in the actual press run (however, the color would have been more likely to match if the ink-jet proofer incorporated an expanded ink set that included such colors as light magenta and light cyan). Since the proof and press sheet used CMYK inks exclusively, there was every reason for the headline type on the press sheet to match the type on the proof.

The next step was to use my loupe (also known as a linen tester, and essentially a 12-power magnifying glass) to compare the good copies of the magazine to the bad copies. Since I didn't have a press sheet at this point, I couldn't check the color bars, which would have pointed more quickly to the true cause of the problem. I noticed two things under the loupe, however: 1. There was an overall pinkish cast to the bad copies and an intentional blue cast to the good copies (as noted by the art director). And 2. The halftone dots comprising the photos on the good copies were light on cyan and black. The dots of cyan and black were slightly smaller overall on the bad copies than on the good copies. It seemed to me that not enough of these two inks had been laid down on press. I also checked the advertisement on the back cover of the magazine (which had been on the same side of the press sheet). The skin tones were too light, and, overall, the image looked anemic and lacked intensity and “punch.”

Next, I called the printer to discuss what I had found. I asked him to look into the cause and extent of the problem. When I heard back from the printer, I was told the following: Press sheets had been pulled at various intervals of the press run and had been saved with time stamps (essentially a record of what had happened at equally spaced points in time during the course of printing the cover). No problematic copies had been found. Under these circumstances, the printer was convinced that only about 10 to 15 copies had been affected.

In addition, based on the printer's notations, cover press work had taken 3 hours rather than the usual 1.5 hours. There had also been a notation regarding difficulties with the press blankets. Taking into account the pressman's notations, managers at the print shop believed that make-ready press sheets of the magazine's cover had been bound onto 10 to 15 magazines. On these sheets, the four process inks were not yet “up to color” (of sufficient density, as measured by a press-room densitometer). They were interim sheets, in preparation for the press run, on the way to being ready for use but not there yet. They should have been discarded but had not been (human error).

The printer thought the problem had been an under-inked black press unit. I had thought the problem had been a lack of both cyan and black. A densitometer reading of the printer's color bars outside of the image area on the press sheet would have shown the actual cause (the screen density of the various color patches in the color bars would have shown which inks had been running light), but at this point it was not worth pursuing. After all, there had been only a handful of copies noted by the art director as being problematic, no advertisers or subscribers had complained, and there was a new issue of the magazine coming out shortly.

Nevertheless, it was both clear (and very instructive) that a lack of one or more of the process colors' running at the proper density had not only made the overall color of the magazine covers too light, but had also altered the overall color balance of the press sheet and had created a reddish color cast in the neutral areas of the sheet.

How can you avoid this? Choose the best print shop you can afford. Problems like this will happen to even the best printers. But a quality print shop can help you discover what happened (whether the problem had been in the art files handed off to the printer, had been introduced by the printer during the pre-press stage, or had occurred on press). A quality print shop will be able to give you an idea of how many copies were affected by the problem. Can you trust your printer's assessment? Yes, but only if you have developed a partnership over time and have come to trust each other. Again, this is the reason to check samples and references before you commit to a printer, and to choose the best printer you can afford. Then, when problems arise, you can work together to determine the cause and then decide how to proceed.

[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.]