Why print (unfortunately) is not an exact science

Finding a small number of good, reliable printers is essential to us graphic design agencies. Being able to trust that your printer takes due time and care to check the quality of their work is key, as the end product is part and parcel of delivering a quality job.

All good printers will

  • offer advice on the specification of a print job,
  • raise queries early in the process,
  • check colours with their swatch books or previously printed material,
  • and ensure the finishing is ‘just so’.

But, print, or rather achieving an exact match when it comes to colour, isn’t often an exact science.

A recent conversation revolved around print and inconsistencies in colour. The conversation started something like this…

Individual, ‘We’ve noticed that the tone of our main brand colour doesn’t appear to be the same on things we’ve had printed by various printers during the last year. It looks slightly darker on some things, not quite as solid on others. What are your thoughts?’

Down The Line, ‘Where do you want us to start?!?! Unfortunately print isn’t an exact science. It’s getting much better, but….’

So to paraphrase the next part of the conversation, here are a few reasons why you may sometimes experience a slight variance in the colour of your printed material.

WoodmancoteSign1The substrate / stock that something is printed on

  • Large scale print items (exterior banners / pop up banners / etc) versus smaller format printed items (brochures / posters / flyers / etc); very often these two types of print can result in slight differences in tone.
  • When it comes to smaller format printing the nature of the stock is also a factor. An uncoated stock absorbs more ink far an uncoated stock, thereby resulting in a different colour appearance. Typically uncoated stock results in a slightly softer finish.

Digital versus lithographic print methods

  • fsWhether an item is printed digitally or lithographically can result in slight variances due to the different methods of setting the ink on the paper.
  • When you move to lithographic print you then have the option of printing colours either in their spot or four colour (CMYK) breakdown. As much as human sense wishes a spot and a CMYK version of the same colour to be the same, you may be surprised to hear that sometimes they’re not exactly the same in how they appear once printed.

Post print production

  • Applying a matt or gloss laminate during the finishing process can help bring colours to life. Often a gloss laminate will make colours zing more than a matt laminate.

The trouble with timerog2

  • A slight variation in colour from one print job to the next, even when printing something with the same printer, sometimes can’t be avoided.
  • Even in large print runs, when something is printed in the thousands, you can occasionally see a slight difference in tone between the first few and the last few items printed.
  • And don’t forget, if you’ve had some printed material sitting around on shelves for a while they may slightly lighten due to the effects of light.

Different printers

  • meteor2Every printer sets their printing presses up in their own way, which means you may see a slight difference in the same item printed by two different printers.

Flat colour versus graduation of colour

  • It seems fairly obviously to assume that a flat colour is easier to match over and over again compared to a graduated colour. Which is indeed the case.
  • As soon as a graduation of colour is introduced a slightly greater level of acceptable variance in how that gradient reproduces time and again is often required.

Now it must be mentioned again that as much as the above highlights an imperfect process (are there any perfect ones?!), any printer worth their salt will work hard to ensure any variance in colour is kept to a minimum.

What we often suggest is if you’ve had something printed and you feel that the colour is as you want it, put aside a good number of those items and keep them as samples. Whenever you then look to have another item printed you can use one of those samples for the printer to use as a reference point. Should a colour require tweaking they can sometimes make an adjustment on press, or advise your graphic designer if an artwork tweak is required.