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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: One Print Client’s Approach to Color

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I have a print brokering client I’ve mentioned before who produces a collection of 28 color swatch books, like PMS books, for selecting clothes and make-up based on complexion. She’s a fashionista, and her product is really her color system, not her print books. My client has developed a unique color system, and this system is scalable.

In addition to the small color swatch books my client reprints maybe three times a year, she has a collection of chin cards, 8.5” x 11” laminated cards with a little die-cut in the long side of each card. You can hold these under your chin and make your own decisions of which colors are right for you by looking in the mirror using my client’s guidelines. (This is my somewhat simplistic version of the process.)

My Client’s New Fabric-Printing Opportunities

Over the last few years my client—who has a large following—has attracted the interest of entrepreneurs in Europe who want to apply her color system to fabric printing (bolts of fabric) and garment printing (the clothes themselves). A great idea. This is very hot now. Perhaps these entrepreneurs will dye the background of the fabric one color and then add either inkjet or dye sublimation printing for the designs on the fabric, depending on the material substrate.

This week my client noted that she and her potential business partners were not sure how to communicate color to manufacturers. Initially, my client had chosen specific PMS colors for her color swatch book pages because of the precision and repeatability of the Pantone Matching System, not to mention that these colors are universally recognized by commercial printing suppliers.

Since her color swatch book system includes 28 distinct versions, many with repeats of various colors, my client had chosen to print her swatch books on an as-needed basis on high-end digital commercial printing equipment (such as the HP Indigo). Because of this my client had converted all of her colors to the nearest CMYK process builds. Percentage combinations of screens of these four colors came close enough (for my client’s needs) to simulating the 100+ specific colors distributed across the 28 separate color swatch books. And this way my client would not incur the huge cost of needing to print via offset lithography—instead of digital printing–using a huge number of PMS inks for a huge number of press runs (and for so few copies of each of the 28 master versions of the color swatch books).

(Keep in mind that custom printing ink companies formulate PMS, or Pantone Matching System, colors by mixing other colors–such as so many parts of Rubine Red or Rhodamine Red and so many parts of white.)

You can simulate the greater percentage of colors within the Pantone Matching System gamut with cyan, magenta, yellow, and black halftone screens laid over one another, but you can’t translate all PMS colors into matching—or even attractive—CMYK builds.

Why? Because the range of printable colors within the PMS color gamut is larger than the CMYK color gamut, just as the RGB color gamut (used for creating color with light–rather than pigment–on a computer monitor) is larger still, and the color gamut for visible light (i.e., colors distinguishable from one another by the human eye) is the largest of all.

You can find these different color gamuts superimposed over one another via Google Images. Such a composite, and visual, model will help clarify this concept.

Colors on Computer Monitors

So my client has needed to display her collection of proprietary colors online in recent years. Fortunately, there are online applications that will translate CMYK percentages to RGB percentages.

(Keep in mind that combining all subtractive colors—the CMYK colors of pigment–produces black, while combining all additive colors—the RGB colors of light on a computer monitor–produces white.)

Therefore, you can see that communicating color to another person (a commercial printing supplier or someone who dyes fabric, or a computer geek who writes computer applications in hexadecimal code) can be challenging. And this is becoming problematic for my client at the moment, since she needs to print consistent colors digitally for her color swatch books and her chin cards, include accurate color in her online materials, and potentially move into fabric printing and perhaps even cosmetics.

(And as noted above, once you bring computer monitors into the mix, you sometimes must also translate from RGB–red, green, blue–into hexadecimal code. Plus, you need to make viewing conditions consistent by limiting ambient light with a monitor hood and window coverings. And you need to standardize the monitor regularly with color calibration hardware and software. So the process becomes increasingly complex if you need precise color fidelity.)

Choosing Color for Fabric Printing

Now my client will need to translate her proprietary color system for selecting make-up, clothes, and hair coloring from ink on paper to fabric inks and dyes and possibly cosmetics as well, at some point.

Fortunately, computer design programs such as Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign have an ability to translate PMS colors into CMYK colors. You can even do this automatically when you distill a native InDesign file into a press-ready PDF. And I’ve also found online translators that convert PMS colors to both the nearest CMYK version for commercial printing and the nearest RGB version for display on a color-controlled, color-calibrated monitor.

A Final Approach to Color Choices

That said, I am still a firm believer in using one’s eyes and physical products (not a computer monitor) to make color decisions. So when my client asked me to talk with her prospective business partners in Athens, Greece, about how to proceed, this is what I said:

  1. Start with my client’s PMS colors, from which she developed her entire color swatch book system. Then match these as needed using CMYK and RGB percentages. All commercial printing suppliers will understand this color model. Plus my client’s offering to the business is her proprietary color system and the reasoning behind these color choices, not a specific physical product. In fact, if she goes on to make cosmetics after she makes colored garments, Pantone will still be the most universally understood color system.
  2. Over the years, PMS colors have expanded into metallics and pastels, and even their regular color system has been enhanced numerous times to include distinct, new colors. There are even special PMS books for plastics and now for fabrics (TPX colors, for instance). Pantone created and has maintained the original color system. Since their brand is very well regarded and their focus is solely on color, it is reasonable to expect that PMS colors will be as consistent as possible on both the original paper color chips and the new fabric color chips.
  3. That said, since fabric absorbs inks and dyes (and may change their perceived color in the process), and since the base color or tint of the fabric substrate may differ from that of the paper substrate, my client and her prospective business partners should request printed samples—on fabric—to ensure a match. They should not rely solely on computer translation algorithms.
  4. My client and her business partners should view physical-product color in 5000 degree Kelvin light–which is comparable to the color of sunlight–ideally with a neutral gray background to minimize color casts from any nearby color.
  5. My client and her business partners should remember that everyone sees color differently and that women see color better than men. In fact, if you cover first one eye and then the other and look at a color, it will look different to each of your individual eyes.

The Takeaway

I’m sure my client’s new business partners were exhausted after this discussion, as you may be. So I will simplify this. In your own design work, remember:

  1. Monitor colors are created with light. Almost everything else is created with pigment. These colors are not the same. Choose color from physical swatches (ideally a PMS book created within the last few years, since light changes the colors in these books over time), not from the monitor. Then use CMYK or RGB percentage numbers available in online translation programs or in Illustrator, InDesign, and/or Photoshop to simulate the colors as needed, depending on whether you’re creating a printed product or a product for online use.
  2. Remember that the tint of the substrate as well as its absorbency will change the color of the ink or dye printed on it.
  3. You will notice that Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign may use slightly different percentages of CMYK or RGB to simulate PMS colors. This is one reason that it’s always best to get a printed sample of the physical product you are creating. At that point you can use your eyes (and those of your coworkers) to decide whether the colors meet your expectations.

In the final analysis, trust your eyes.

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