Did you know… The Incredible Hulk’s green skin colour was initially due to a mistake in the printing process? In the debut of Stan Lee’s comic book series “The Incredible Hulk,” Lee gave the Hulk a grey skin colour to purposely disassociate the monster with any particular ethnic group. However, there were problems with the grey colouring, which resulted in a different-hued Hulk in each copy. Some of copies were green and, when Lee saw them, he decided that green suited the Hulk better than grey.
Why talk about colour? A relatively common, and sometimes tricky question. “Why does my corporate blue look different to what I saw on my screen, then printed on the office inkjet, and then different again when we open the box from the commercial printer?”
This question illustrates a real challenges colour presents to designers, printers and in the office environment and warrants the need for an explanation. Hopefully this helps…
your pc screen:
Your PC uses and emits light as red, green, and blue (RGB) pixels to display colour. The combinations are calculated in the millions. Printed inks can only generate 1000s of combinations. I bet if you opened the same colour photo on a number of different pcs in your office and printed on all your printers, the colour would be different.
Even in our office here, we have a number of calibrated screens and they have subtle colour differences even with the same synchronised colour profile settings! Phil’s computer screen (which is bigger than my TV at home!!) displays colours different to mine, which displays a different colour to Brad’s screen, who works on a Mac. They are all subtle, but when we are talking about corporate colour it makes a difference – here’s why…….
your inkjet printer:
Uses “wet” inks that get absorbed onto usually, cheap or highly absorbent paper. These types of printers generally try to emulate RGB screen colours. Not bad for the office but they don’t compare very well at all with printing industry standards – CMYK process or Pantone Matching System (PMS). Often colours look over saturated or dull because of the ink soaking into the paper.
Inkjets do a great job of printing photos, only when setup correctly and printing on expensive photo paper.
your laser printers: commercial digital printers
These printers use “dry” powders or toners that use heat to seal the “ink” on top of the paper. These printers can get closer to the commercial CMYK/Pantone range but can fall over in the blues, some greens and oranges. Most people couldn’t be bothered calibrating the printer to the screen. Lasers print black, graphs, and flat colours very well but are not great for photos. One client brought a printout from their laser printer and compared it to our laser print, the differences were quite significant – even when using exactly the same PDF file! The commercial offset printed file was different again.
Commercial digital printers use big glorified photocopiers that use toner. We have found the results very good and sometime better for some jobs than offset printing. BUT you lose the characteristics of the paper. e.g; if you want that uncoated vintage look, laser/toners still put the ink on top of the paper and what you see is the toner -not the paper. It still looks glossy.
So generally speaking, the above mediums and methods are going to produce different and unpredictable results (if you aren’t ready for them) before it even gets to the commercial printer.
commercial offset printing:
These professional businesses use offset print machines often worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. They use both the “process” CMYK and PMS colour matching systems. The ink is a wet ink and soaks into the paper. Ink gets mixed either by machine or by hand depending on how old-school the printer is. A good printer (tradesman) is worth their weight in gold.
The CMYK process or breakup is: Cyan (like a rich sky blue), Magenta (like a strong pinky/red), yellow and black. This is referred to as 4 colour or full colour process. The Pantone PMS system can print a range of colours that CMYK can’t and vice versa. PMS colours can be used in 1 and 2 colour small press environments and is good when designing for and choosing corporate colour combinations with predictable results.
The advantage of commercial printing, is that we have a lot more control of the predictability of the output of colour. As inks deals with 1000s of colours not millions like light, there are many printed resources out there to help us get it right. We use special books supplied by Pantone that can compare PMS with CMYK and try to get close matches.
Paper and any finishing touches also play a big part in the way colour displays. Gloss, satin, uncoated, coated, matt laminated, machine varnish etc. Uncoated – like letterhead or general photocopy paper – absorbs more ink, sometimes making even the crispest most vibrant photo look dull – but great for that modern retro/vintage look.
Even when using the same company printer, on the same press and same operator, you can still get variations for print to reprint – even if it is very subtle. We generally allow for a 5% +/- variation even on reprints. Even If you ask for a proof of your professional offset job, it will still be printed on a digital machine and on different paper. The best way to get close to colour is to do a press check on the actual printers premises.
why is the sky blue and my letterhead poo?
Blue in particular is one of the worst behaved offenders of all in the design & printing industry.
Blues on screen are often brighter, deeper, richer, saturated and bolder than the printed equivalent. Generally, when you print blue, it can tend to be duller and lose a lot of vibrancy. As above, when printing on an uncoated stock such as a letterhead, blues can look black or over saturated when compared to the gloss paper equivalent. I find from experience that gloss papers tend to do blue some favours.
In the pantone colour bridge, you will notice that the pms blue, more often than not, is different to the process blue. Making it harder to pick the best one for the job. We try and pick colours that work on both sides of the colour bridge. this gives us the best chance to get colour right consistently.
Colour also has meaning and connotation. Often corporates choose blue, as it is a very safe colour no matter how inconsistently it reproduces. Meanings are another topic for discussion another time. Just a thought…what if the sky was normally pink? I reckon pink would be the most common corporate colour.
Blue colour – as light – passes through air and is reflected more efficiently than other colours – that is why the sky is blue! To add to that, the closer to the horizon you get, the whiter the sky gets as the blue light dissipates with the more air particles to has to pass through!!
Some random colour facts…Apparently red is the worst colour for a car as red and UV don’t like each other much – it will fade the quickest. Purple in general is the most hated colour by men – not too many purple holden v8’s around. Cadbury paid a massive amount to come up with their own unique trademarked colour and have created stringent reproduction standards to uphold their brand.
We need to add here, that if you want to supply artwork to us for printing which is warmly welcomed, but all bets are off when it comes to colour. A good chunk of junior/inexperienced designers have no idea about colour, so unless you are a qualified and/or experienced graphic designer, you need to be wary of the trap that colour holds for your artwork. We therefore can’t guarantee any artwork that we don’t produce. Even experienced designers can get colour wrong!
To sum up, colour is very complex and has many variations, connotations and behaviours. You can spend years on colour, yet know so little. We can systemise colour and still only get close and but never exact.
So yes your drafts and inhouse prints will look different to the brochures you get in the box – but hopefully it helps your business grow anyway.