International Color Standards, Part 1: Setting the Stage for Increased Profits

International color-reproduction standards allow printers to compete globally, increase productivity, and make more money. This article digs into the foundations of standards and highlights the value of conforming to them.

What do you think of when you hear the term international standard? Some may remember the first time a client required conformance to the benchmarks in a standard. Others may be reminded of the time when they thought that compliance with international standards would improve the quality of their work. Perhaps the potential for increased profits comes to mind. These are certainly valid reasons for embarking on the time-consuming process of calibrating equipment and processes to meet the goals outlined in international standards. Why, then, do so many printers who attempt to conform to standards for color reproduction seem unable to find the financial worth in their efforts?

A lot of the frustration comes from a lack of understanding. Getting to know the terminology associated with international color standards and familiarizing yourself with the purposes of the standards will help you realize the value of complying the with appropriate standards. This article presents some basic information about standards and specifications that address color in graphic-arts production. This information will hopefully open your mind to the incredible profit potential that conformance to international standards can drive. Let’s start with the terminology. Then we’ll move on to the standards’ original purposes and a discussion about the inherent flaw in some of the outdated thinking in some standards and specifications. Finally, we’ll look at how good decisions about this information can drive your profitability forward.


Understanding the terminology

Developing a standards vocabulary allows us to unlock some of the more difficult concepts we’ll encounter. The following are some terms used by standards and specifications organizations:

Standards: Standards are inflexible values that control a result.

Specifications: Specifications are stated values that point to standards.

Appearance: This is a term that refers to an expected color result.

Dot gain (TVI): Dot gain means an increase from a specified dot percentage. TVI means tonal value increase. It is used in standard language to mean dot gain.

Ink color (density and hue): Density is the measurement of how much light a color absorbs associated with a darker color. Hue indicates what the visual color is, such as red, green, or blue. It can be different densities of the same color, also known as chroma or saturation or value.


Original purpose of international standards

The first and most obvious purpose of international standards is to address the challenges faced by the manufacturers of color-critical products like inks and coatings, fabrics, and decorative items. At the base level, they all have the same challenges: Different viewers of color have different opinions, different conditions lead to dissimilar color appearance, designers and printers need measurable guidelines, and clients need a method of specifying their intentions and expectations.

Without a way to measure it, color is just subjective opinion. Therefore, manufacturers needed a method of providing clients the color they expect (Figure 1). They created a standard numbering system for color. Most of the early pioneers of color theory were part-timers who were very aware of this need. Their main occupations involved mathematics or teaching, art, literature, psychology, or physics. In 1637, mathematician Renee Descartes documented the formation of a rainbow by explaining the physics of raindrops and formed the first clear theory of optics. In 1670, it was generally believed that color existed in two forms: real, as in the color of a flower, and etheethereal, as in a rainbow. But a 23-year-old scientist by the name of Sir Isaac Newton proved that white light is truly a mixture of just three colors of light: red, green, and blue.

Color science didn’t progress much from this point until in 1802, when Thomas Young laid the groundwork for determining that colors were perceived by a three-color code: lightness, chroma, and hue (L*C*H*). He proved that light was a form of electromagnetic radiation, thereby laying the groundwork for color measurement and the study of light and color. He taught us that color (visible light) was just the visible spectrum of about 400-700 nanometers (nm) in an electromagnetic light spectrum that contains much higher and lower frequencies. We began to understand that light also contains colors beyond our ability to see, but that some animal species could detect them.

Light also contains radio-wave frequency on one end and gamma-ray frequency on the other. X-rays, UV, infrared, and microwaves were just frequencies in the spectrum. Young charted the visible light portion in the middle, between infrared and ultraviolet, with a maximum intensity in yellow (Figure 2).  

With the knowledge of the color spectrum, Albert Munsell developed a natural-color-recognition system called the Munsell Color System. He brought order to color when he developed the first numerical scheme for color designation. This was the foundation for color science. He was the first person to present a practical color-order system by which an individual could specify color-by-the-numbers (Figure 3).  

Using Munsell’s system made it possible to discuss color scientifically. He defined color in terms of hue, value, and chroma. Hue was defined as the actual color—red, blue, green, etc. Value was defined as the color’s lightness or darkness. Chroma was defined as the color’s strength. He published an atlas that defined the Munsell Color Standard, and his work was embraced by the scientific community. In 1914, Munsell was invited to present his findings to the scientific communities of England, France, and Germany. His theory is still taught today.

In 1931, the Commission Internationale de l’ E’clairage (CIE) characterized the visual response of the human eye. The mapping of XYZ, based on the experiments conducted by W. David Wright and John Guild in the CIE RGB color space, was born (Figure 4). Then, in 1945, Richard Hunter, while working for the National Bureau of Standards, created a new tri-stimulus color model called

L*a*b*. He scaled color space in an effort to achieve near-uniform spacing of perceived colors (Figure 5). One of the biggest benefits of this uniform spacing was that color tolerancing was now numerically possible. The term Delta E, designated by the Greek symbol ΔE, came into existence. Delta E was used to characterize total color difference—exactly what manufacturers of color-critical products and their designers, printers, and clients needed (Table 1). This ushered in the era of international standards of color output.

You can’t standardize anything until you can accurately measure it. International standards paved the way to move color-related production from an art form to a production process. That move was important. For example, what if a painter in car manufacturing thought of himself as an artist? More than likely, a candy apple red Mustang would have many different shades of color. He might paint the car and say, “How do you like them apples?” That sounds ridiculous, but in our newest field of graphics growth, digital printing, there’s an entire culture that thinks every output project is a piece of artwork. I believe and I predict that this way of thinking will lead to more than half of the digital-imaging companies to go out of business. Thinking of print production as an art form is a major misstep. We are not artists. We are manufacturers.


Benefits of conformance to international standards

Color is measurable, and it needs to be standardized to allow print manufacturers to become profitable. Profit is a major benefit of conformance, but it’s not the only one. Consider the global benefits. Print production is going global as fast as our clients are going global. Standards established by internationally recognized bodies, such as ISO, give us benchmarks that are applicable worldwide and can be agreed upon, regardless of borders. Even Adobe Photoshop, the most popular color-image-development software in the world, uses defaults that can be traced back to ISO (Figure 6). We have two choices. We can set our output to conform to global standards, or we can make multiple color corrections on every file. As printing becomes more and more an international business, it will become harder to not be calibrated to international standards.

The most attractive benefit of predictability driven by conformance to in-ternational standards is obviously financial. Conformance to standards produces predictability of output. The common misunderstanding in regard to conformance to international standards is that their purpose is to improve quality. Sure, this is a side effect. But it is very difficult to cash the check of better quality in a production environment, because better quality is subjective.

To prove this point, think of the worst competitor you have in terms of quality. Go to that shop’s Website and you will see that the company is telling the world that it’s the best quality in the industry. Therefore, the salesperson who attempts to sell better quality has an uphill battle because quality in this context is hard to document. Every company says it produces quality. On the other hand, the salesperson who sells accuracy and repeatability, and can document it through certified conformance to international standards, is much more successful.

Remember, the objective of a production environment is to generate prints accurately and consistently as fast as we can. This reduces costs and makes us more competitive. It opens up press time for increased volume. It’s very rewarding to see the net profits grow because you produced exactly what you intended to produce the first time. This is what conformance to standards can do.

Most of the drain on a shop’s profits is the time that the press is not producing sellable graphics. For example, if a press is stopped or delayed for a 15-minute color adjustment four times a day, that’s one hour a day a press could be producing sellable graphics. That 15 minutes wastes 260 hours a year. If we’re billing our press time at $500 per hour, that is $130,000 taken out of profits that could be used for growth. Conformance to international standards creates predictability. Predictability stops adjustments on press because you know what will happen before it happens.


Cost of non-conformance

To make sure I communicate the risk of our printing presses calibrated to standards that are ignoring international standards I will use the example of a digital press I documented about a year ago. I have not included any names of printers or type of press to protect the innocent. The numbers documented in Table 2 ended up costing this company thousands of dollars a week in lost press time. In fact, management contemplated the purchase of a second digital press at a cost of more than $400,000 because the shop couldn’t keep up with the client demand—yet the company was losing money. That’s like selling watermelons for a dollar under cost and thinking the solution is a bigger truck. It just helps you go broke faster.

The numbers in Table 2 should make some major problems evident. The starting point for every output, based on these numbers, is out of balance and weak in color tonal value. This equates to color-correction time to match all internationally conforming color targets. The press was just sitting idle each time color had to be adjusted. Compare the numbers in Table 2 to the approximate and typical international standard absolute densities listed in Table 3. The printer had been (supposedly) calibrated to SWOP specifications. You can easily see that the digital press charted in Table 2 wasn’t even close. Almost every file that entered the workflow required multiple color corrections at press.

The press was actually only printing for four hours per shift. The installation of an off-press proofer calibrated to graphic-arts-industry standards allowed all of the color corrections to files to be made in the prepress department because the press became completely predictable. The press moved to seven hours per shift of revenue-generating time. The company concluded that a second printer was not necessary. The shop is now making a ton of money. The solution was simply to conform to industry standards. The key to a profitable workflow was an off-press proofer, in conformity to international standards, used to predict a press calibrated to international standards, thereby eliminating the need to mess with color on a production device.


How do standards drive profitability?

International standards improve our predictability and position us for it on a global scale. They eliminate the issues that delay press time and free up production machines to do the jobs they were designed to handle. They tie our graphics software, computer monitors, and imaging devices to a single reference point. Profit is spelled P-R-E-D-I-C-T-A-B-I-L-I-T-Y in the printing industry. International standards get us there. Next month, we’ll conclude this discussion by looking closely at a variety of standards and specifications and explore the ones that are most applicable to your business.


Mike Ruff is chief technology officer of Nazdar Consulting Service, Shawnee, KS. During his more than 35 years in the graphicarts industry, he has worked in the signmaking and screen-printing fields as both a manager and business owner. Ruff frequently lectures at trade shows, conducts training classes for the Screen Printing Technical Foundation, and authors articles for industry journals. He is a member of the Academy of Screen Printing Technology and is a Certified G7 Color Expert.



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