Thursday, 4:13pm
28 June 2012

What you see is not what you get

Software: Colour management

It is the moment every designer dreads. A piece of work, weeks in the making, has been shown to applauding clients on the Macintosh screen in the office. Finally, it comes back from the printing press, and it looks as though the printer has randomly swapped around the plates and inks.

The designer is understandably mystified. The blue type and orange background looked great on the colour printer in the office. And the colour scans on the computer monitor at the service bureau looked good too. So what went wrong?

Simply put, the colour management of and between the devices involved was to blame. Colour reproduction of an image can vary wildly between the scanning stage, display on screen and the printing press. Variation in colour occurs not only between different types of devices (scanners, monitors and printers), but between equipment from different manufacturers and even between the same models from the same manufacturer. Design software can further complicate matters by offering different or proprietary implementations of colour management, all supposedly there to help you obtain printed results that closely match what you see on your scanner or screen. This confusion is perpetuated by almost every hardware and software manufacturer as they scramble to create the de facto standard for colour measurement across all stages of the pre-press process. Apple has produced ColorSync technology, Quark uses EFI-Color Profiles, SuperMac has announced a PressView system, Kodak has a PrecisionColor system – the list goes on. Most of it means nothing to designers, who after all should be designing rather than worrying about the gamma values or white points of their monitors.

But a little understanding of the problem can help. The colour definition of printed matter is difficult to emulate on a monitor, and vice versa. The spectrum as viewed in nature gives us the widest possible range of colours – in fact, all colours the human eye can perceive. Computer or television screens can display a subset of these colours, but certain hues such as bright yellow cannot be accurately reproduced on a monitor. The colours that can be successfully printed using the four process printing inks (CMYK) are a subset of colours that can be shown on a monitor. So while a monitor can display most printable colours, many colours that can be seen in a monitor cannot be printed. The range of printable colours is referred to as a “gamut”. Newer software, such as PhotoShop 2.5, uses a “gamut alarm” (an exclamation mark in a triangle) to warn you that what you are looking at on screen cannot be printed using process colours.

But what about Pantone? A name synonymous with colour to most designers, Pantone has been methodically reinventing itself to cope with the digital era, and is about to launch a colour management system that will probably become as much a standard in this new domain as the Pantone book is among magic markers and sheets of coloured paper. Pantone has operated an Electronic Color Systems (ECS) division since 1984. In the following few years, various hardware and software vendors obtained licenses to use Pantone Matching System references in their products. But though this gave designers access to familiar Pantone numbers on screen, how the colours displayed would reproduce at print stage was still unpredictable.

According to Richard Herbert, vice-president of Pantone’s ECS division, “the lack of a reliable colour management system and an accepted standard has been a pervasive obstacle to productivity in the desktop publishing and pre-press industries.” In short, what you see is not what you get. But while the difficulties in achieving accurate colour management have been easily identified, a comprehensive solution has not been forthcoming. Meanwhile, graphic designers have had no common standard to which colours is scanned, defined, displayed, proofed and printed. The opportunities for colour misreproduction are endless.

The true measure of a colour management system lies in its ability to match accurately both photographic and spot colours and to provide consistent and accurate colour reproduction from a variety of output devices. Designers need scan-to-print calibration, seamless operation from within application software and widespread software and hardware support, as well as consistent and accurate spot colour matching in all applications. Pantone claims to have met these challenges in a recent breakthrough announced in conjunction with Light Source Computer Images Inc. of a new electronic colour management system: the Pantone Open Color Environment (POCE).

POCE is a colour matching solution that delivers colour calibration for continous tone photographic images and for solid and process Pantone colours. POCE is a colour matching method (CMM) compatible with Apple ColorSync (Apple’s system software implementation for colour fidelity between hardware devices) that utilises output device profile created by Pantone. It is the first colour management system to deliver true WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) colour.

In practice, applications that support the new POCE system will use a uniform system-level colour interface (in the same way as the ubiquitous Apple Color Picker Wheel can be accessed from within most applications). Because all the applications will receive and process colour information from a central set of system resources, the colours will be the same, regardless of the host application. For example, if you choose Pantone 109 Yellow from the POCE selector in Illustrator, then it will look identical to the same colour selected in Aldus PageMaker and both will closely match the colour achieved in your output device. If the colour selected is not a Pantone spot colour, POCE performs an algorithmic colour match on the image. The complete implementation of the system provides colour pickers for both the Pantone Matching System (spot colours on coated and uncoated stock) and the Pantone Process Color System. POCE provides an extensive interface that will allow Pantone eventually to ship the entire line of Pantone Publications electronically.

POCE can easily be adapted for a variety of input and output colour models, including Red-Green-Blue (as used by all monitors to display colour) and HiFi (the six-colour printing process currently under development). In addition, POCE can predict CMYK values for different coloured or textured backgrounds and display those on screen, allowing people working with different media such as textiles to predict what their final output will look like. The new system is portable to a variety of operating systems and computing platforms. Initially, it will be available on the Macintosh, following shortly on Windows and other platforms.

As the first system of its kind in the market, POCE has an excellent chance of success. Many Pantone licensees – including Adobe, Aldus, Corel, Deneba, Fractal Design, GCC, Iris, QMS, Sharp, Tektronix and Xerox – have agreed to support POCE and are incorporating it into their existing and future applications. Pantone is developing profiles for all licensed printer manufacturers to distribute directly to their users. It will be just a matter of time before the system is widely adopted and used.

With an established name for almost 30 years in the development of colour systems and languages, Pantone can rightly claim to be the standard in traditional colour management. And now that so many designers have let their magic markers dry up in favour of the mouse, Pantone is set to capitalise on a confused area of the digital design market. If this market is even remotely designer led, then it will achieve its aim of making our lives easier by once again becoming the reference point for colour transactions.

But in all of this, one must maintain a perspective. After all, when did a comp using Pantone markers or papers ever really look like the finished printed result?

First published in Eye no. 12 vol. 3, 1994