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Digital Directory
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SEPTEMBER 2013



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Improving ROI With Color Management
by Robert Eversole,
Director of Dye Sublimation, Axiom America

Help Your Customers Learn and Grow and They Will Call Upon You As Their Dealer of Choice

Color management has finally arrived, no longer a process saved only for the early adopting avant garde and/or the deep-pocket privileged. After nearly 20 years of pounding the pulpit, color management has finally become mainstream, and has found its way into the digital printer's everyday vernacular. The buzz, from seminars to roundtable panel discussions and trade shows, is all about ICC profiles. Some of this information exchange is knowledge-based, but all too often is simply hyperbole. Because of this, color management is still not completely understood, however, at least the overlooking view of color profiles is no longer a total enigma to digital imagers. This elevated awareness is leading the adoption of fundamentals to gain great traction.

What does still remains a mystery, and always will be, is what one's return on investment (ROI) will be if they implement a color management system (CMS) in their graphics imaging business. ROI is difficult to qualify in a vacuum, because there is no standard metric by which to calculate it, but also because there are several factors in every site that could potentially cause a glitch in the ROI matrix. Image application - dye sublimation, archival fine art, solvent, direct-to-garment, etc. - has lot to do with the inherent value of color management, as what might be worth no more than a good hot lunch to one is a priceless essential to another. Additionally, the ROI of a CMS is highly dependent upon a user's current level of success (read: How much can their cost of operation be improved) as well as the cost of their consumables. And most importantly, the ROI is directly tied to the user's commitment, or lack thereof toward following the process protocols. Conversely, paying too much attention to "the profile" and not enough to standardization and the maintenance of process can reduce the real cost benefits of the color management system.

Science, Wizardry, Profitability
If I cannot tell you, specifically, the ROI of color management, what will make the next several hundred words worth investing my time, or yours? Let's talk a little about what makes color management actually profitable. As my long-time business partner used to say, color management is no Panacea. Neither is color management a magic spell to be cast once, nor is it something to be plugged in and turned on. Color management is more like the Land of Oz. It is not wizardry, but a process based in sophisticated science that creates the impression of magic. The man behind the green curtain knew no enchantments; he only knew how elements and actions could be combined to achieve desired results. This is how color management works.

The first step in realizing the ROI of your color management system is to understand that a CMS is predicated upon more than having an ICC profile. Given that a profile is merely a reference of the characteristics of a given imaging device, receptive media, and colorant, used to produce colors and image fidelity, the ability to apply these profiles effectively and the adherence to do so consistently is every bit as important as the profile itself. In the same token, a map is useless if it is not written in a way that is easily understood by the reader. Without a compass by which to orient, a legend to consult, there is no reference of origination or starting point, and the reader is blind. There are at least four other intersections in this yellow brick road where careful attention must be paid, or you might find yourself still among the griping bitter old trees, hallucinogenic poppies and myrmidonic winged monkeys.

The first intersection is approached at the design application. A working color space and source/input profiles make more difference than most realize. The choice of this color space not only serves as a reference for how you determined your output color "recipes," it can also affect file size and how well color is reinterpreted. By simply changing a source profile, an operator may create unnecessary problems. In parallel, not using an input profile often means no transformation is invoked at all. Further, the way many file types -JPEG, TIFF, PDF, EPS, and the native app file types, such as AI, PSD, among others - carry their color information is vastly different. In short, file creation must be standardized to reap the ongoing benefits of color management.

Color Profiles
It is important to note that there really is not such thing as a "bad color profile" with regard to accuracy these days. A color profile is as good as the measured target, or the operator measuring the color samples allows it to be. If a profile does not function in a way you hoped, it is more likely merely accurately reproducing data you gave it, or possibly how you chose to apply it. At the very minimum, a single file and single output profile can be rendered four different ways, all technically accurate. At the end of the day, it matters not whether a metric says a color is accurate, only what the customer sees. Know what the customer wants, and apply the correct rules from the outset and you will profit more than bickering over Delta E and semantics.

In a more in-depth disclosure, profiles can also be generated in a way that gives you output that appears more to your liking by rendering color (specifically black versus cyan, magenta and yellow) in a preferred way. This is not a function of accuracy, but image fidelity. To this, there is no one right answer. Understand your requirements, set protocol to achieve this predictably and repeatedly, and profits will accrue naturally.

Processing Files to Print
Our journey leads us next to the method by which one processes their files to print. In some cases, this is a rudimentary print driver that offers little to no control. In most others it is a RIP. One must truly understand the capabilities of their workflow tools, keeping in mind that just because one says it has the ability to fly you far away, it may do nothing more than pick you up in a twister, and set you down someplace else. Yes, you flew far away, but, in reality, you were lifted up by a twister, and fell hard from the sky into a place from which it is surprisingly difficult to return. And you accidentally sacrificed an old lady in the process. Understand your true needs; do your due diligence, and choose the right tool while keeping in mind that a nominal savings at the time of purchase could dramatically impact your return on investment over many years to come.

When determining the ROI of your color management system, the production process must also be considered. This can be summed up in very short order. If you do not standardize your process, you will still be "chasing color," even with color management employed. A profile does not really characterize a "primer, ink, and media," as does a process. Should anything change along the way - such as press time, temperature and pressure for sublimation or preheat, as well as platen heat, and post hear for solvent - color will inevitably change. If you're relegating yourself to profiling these changes if and when they occur, you are allocating operational funds to a non-revenue center of your business. So, while you think you have employed color management and arc thereby entitled to its monetary benefits, you are dramatically degrading your investment. Profile your known/quantifiable/ repeatable operation; keep it in that stare, and your color management will continue, and remain valid. Keep the same shine on those ruby red slippers, and they will take you to the exact same place in Kansas every time, saving you a lot of time and energy, which ultimately results in more profit.

Predictability and Repeatability
The last intersection to broach - and arguably the most decisive - is the everyday human being. The human being can make choices, choices to design artwork or graphics correctly, prepare files correctly, maintain hardware functionality correctly, process jobs correctly, and finish work correctly. More important than the choice to be correct is that to be consistent, for profit from color management comes from predictability and repeatability. If you were to do something incorrectly but consistently, you could still gain profitability.

The moral of the story is that profitability comes from predictability, repeatability and operability. If they all work together, profitability can lead to sustainability. Working independently, these Technicolor misfits go nowhere. Together, they all achieve their individual goals. Likewise, color management requires a dedicated team. Even the great and powerful wizard required help from others to achieve the ultimate goal.

Reprinted with permission from the July/August 2013 edition of the SGIA Journal. So a genuine Thank You goes to the folks at SGIA for permission to reprint. For more info, www.sgia.org

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