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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven 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.

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Custom Printing: Diagnosing a Color Consistency Problem

Photo purchased from …

A print consulting client of mine came to me this week with a problem. She had deigned an e-book cover and a poster (for a PowerPoint presentation) for one of her clients, and the background color of the image (shared by both) looked different on her monitor (light blue vs. a rose-tinted blue). So she came to me for help in resolving the issue.

Solving a computer problem (like this one, or any other computer-related glitch) can be maddening. In the 1990s as an art director and production manager, I could relatively quickly diagnose the problems with the designers’ computers because I could be objective. I was not using their computers to do design work. In contrast, they were caught up in the moment, pressured by design deadlines.

My Client’s Problem and My Approach to Its Resolution

So as an outside observer, I could apply logic to the problem. This was my approach to the differences in the color between the two design products with which my consulting client was wrestling.


I noted that all monitors display the subject slightly differently. You can understand this when you go to Costco and see a row of high-res televisions. Moreover, to display accurate color, monitors need to be calibrated regularly using a tool called a “spyder” (the name used by a number of manufacturers). This is attached to the monitor and creates a closed loop diagnostic tool that feeds back monitor color information to the computer application (and the color look-up tables) that generates what you see on the monitor.

Therefore, I asked my client to check the two color jobs on her husband’s computer monitor, her tablet, and her smartphone (for consistent color). I also asked her to send me a copy of the e-book cover and the poster (for the PowerPoint presentation) to check on my monitor.

I was looking for either consistencies or inconsistencies in order to identify (or isolate) the problem, or at least correct it. Fortunately, the same images that looked rose/pinkish on her monitor looked the same on mine. And the blue one (with less of a rose tint) also looked the same on her monitor and mine.

Under the circumstances, I assumed that the problem with the color had nothing to do with my client’s monitor.

Color Space

I asked my client what color space she was using: RGB or CMYK. She told me she had chosen CMYK. Therefore, I reminded my client that images used on screen would need to be in an RGB format. This is because the monitor displays color as combinations of red, green, and blue phosphors (additive color), whereas ink or toner or any other physical coloration (used for a physical poster or print book) combine cyan, magenta, yellow, and black pigments to create color (subtractive color).

So I asked my client to change from a CMYK workflow to an RGB workflow. I also noted that the two color gamuts are different. The RGB color space is much larger than the CMYK color space. It includes far more reproducible colors. Therefore, if my client had used percentages noted in a color swatch book to create a CMYK build, there could be subtle color differences in the translation to the monitor. After all, she would be using a commercial printing-based color system on a visible-light-based monitor.

As I think back now, it still would have been odd for one job to look different on screen than the other, assuming my client had created both in the same way.

File Complexity

Next I asked how my client had created the online poster (for the PowerPoint presentation) and online book cover (for the e-book). She explained that she had used Photoshop’s transparency functions and had subtly adjusted the various layers of her two art files. Then she had saved both files as JPEGs.

I noted two things she might want to consider. (Keep in mind that I had no certainty as to the cause of the problem at this point. I was only going through the various possibilities, trying to isolate the possible errors and then fix them.) I asked my client to consider that complexity sometimes creates problems. I had read about output errors designers had experienced in the past with transparency controls. This may have been totally unrelated, but I did think that simpler files were more likely to work consistently and be error-free than complex ones (at least that was one hypothesis at the time).

File Format

My client, as noted before, had saved the two design projects as JPEGs. I personally had experienced problems with JPEGs in my own work in another way. I had scanned documents as JPEGs on my fiancee’s computer and then had sent them to my own computer as email attachments. In the transfer, they had become minuscule (low-res and postage-stamp size, in comparison to the originals on my fiancee’s computer). So I had saved the files as PDFs and had resent them to my computer. The PDFs made the transition with no unintended alteration.

Therefore, I suggested that my client save files as PDFs. I noted that PDFs are locked down, in contrast to JPEGs. They are inviolate and therefore far less likely to cause anomalies, inconsistencies, or any other unexpected results. Perhaps, I noted, the color change was due to the file format.

The Result of My Client’s Efforts

The short version of the story is that my client tested all of my suggestions with her art files and corrected the problem.

The Takeaway

That said, there are a few object lessons here, which you might want to apply to your own design work:

    1. Although I didn’t mention this earlier, I’m a great believer in Googling a problem when it arises. Anything that you’re enduring probably has frustrated someone else. Start here. You may find an easy fix on a computer chat site for your computer application.


    1. Simplify and standardize your files. This may mean getting rid of layers in Photoshop files, for instance, if there’s a problem. Try to recreate the problem on a simpler level. (Maybe my client could have placed a new photo into a new file and tried to do the same thing in a different way, and then looked for color changes.)


    1. Work in the correct color space. That’s RGB for internet-based products and CMYK for commercial printing products.


    1. Save problematic files as PDFs before printing. This may help identify problems because PDFs are far less likely to be inadvertently changed as they are being used, transferred across the internet, etc.


    1. Approach computer problems in design or page composition files in a logical manner. Try to isolate the problem and then eliminate possible causes.


    1. When in doubt, start over. Rebuild the file in a similar, but simpler, manner and then test it.


    1. Check problems with color shifts or even design errors on multiple computers and multiple monitors.


    1. It wouldn’t hurt to print out a color proof (if you have a color printer). Granted, ink is different from light on a computer monitor, but it could be useful to see whether one file misbehaves and another file does not.


  1. Never choose color based on its appearance on the monitor. Instead, buy a color swatch book that notes percentages for color builds and use these values in your design and photo-manipulation programs.

And as a final note, the exact same things (the same possible problems and the same approach to their resolution) pertain to resolving errors in files destined for commercial printing as for screen-based products.

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