Interested in more predictable color? Start here.

Interested in more predictable color? Start here.

CMYK and RGB Values are Ingredients, not Color

Think of a favorite recipe you've come up with or learned. Think of the flavor, the texture, the smell. Perfect right? You made it in your own space, with your own oven cookware, and your own tried and true ingredients. Do you remember ever cooking your secret recipe at a friends house? Did it turn out exactly the same way? If so, props. But I think most of us can relate to a time where our creation didn't quite turn out the way we expected. You knew exactly how it should be done but for some reason it just cooked a little differently. 

This is why color is so difficult. We take color for granted. It's just...there. But for us and most other manufacturers, producing just the right color is a massive challenge. Think of all the different kitchens an object goes through, all the different ways color gets cooked. 

So you may have thought that when you see a CMYK, RGB, HEX value it represents a color. It's not actually entirely accurate. Those values are just the ingredients that may create a color. How we perceive color is a whole different story.

What kind of color do you like?

If you told someone that you really liked chocolate, what would be the most likely question you'd ask? 

What kind? Dark, white? Hersey's? Godiva? 

Think about color the same way except it's more like the below image. Each one of those shapes is a different "Color Space". There are an infinite number of them. Our eyes have a specific range of color we can see. Our monitors, phones, signs all have different ranges of colors.  It's depending on a plethora of factors and it's a tall task for any manufacturer to align.

The big question is, how do we manage color as it moves through different spaces and different digital/ physical forms?

So if someone were to say, my CMYK values are 0/50/50/0, those numbers alone aren't enough.

Enter, ICC Profiles. The shapes above are color spaces that represent different ICC profiles - different color spaces.

In case you're wondering, each of the shapes above represent:

Blue lined shape - SWOP v2 
Default for Adobe programs. It's not good because we can produce a wider range of color than this.
Green shape - Gracol 2013 CRCP6 
It's the closest color space that our printing devices can produce. Nonstop Printing targets this ICC Profile for CMYK elements.
Magenta lined shape - sRGB
Default for most programs including Adobe programs. It's not great. In some areas of the color space, we can produce a wider range of color than sRGB.
The peach largest shape - Adobe RGB 1998
It's the largest color space that most printers recognize. It more than covers the colors we're able to produce (even more than most monitors). Nonstop Printing targets this ICC Profile for RGB elements for the widest color range and best tonality. We still convert to CMYK at the end, but this path gives us the best chance for the brightest colors and best shadow details.

How to assign what kind of color you want

When a certain element contains data (hidden within it but you can see it through Photoshop) that contains the ICC profile, we say that it's been "tagged". Again, CMYK/RGB values arent enough, so what happens if the image wasn't "tagged"? Then, the program or device you're looking at will make an assumption of the ICC. There is no such thing as no ICC.

Here's a quick example using photoshop and you can do this with any image. I have an image below with the original "kind" of color (sRGB.icc) and I took an eyedropper to measure the RGB values of the orange wall.

Original Image tagged with sRGB

Now here is the same exact image, with the same exact RGB values, but adjusting the ICC Profile (the "kind" of color).

We assign/tag an image by going to Edit - "Assign color to profile..."

Does that scare you? It should. When you may have had frustrated color experiences, much of the time it can be tied to this very problem.

So why isn't the world crumbling with really bad color?

It's because Adobe programs and others default to a safe color space.  So the color may not be reaching it's full potential, but it's more predictable and at least tolerable.

For Adobe programs, the defaults are:
We always mention both CMYK and RGB elements because in PDF documents, you can have both within the same file.

Nonstop Printing targets three profiles:
RGB = you can choose either sRGB or Adobe RGB 1998
CMYK = we only target Gracol 2013 CRCP6. It's very similar to Coated Gracol 2006.

Should I put effort into managing color?

Maybe. Up to this point you didn't know this information and you're doing great!

But if you've ever been frustrated about color not turning out how you expected, it's worth reading through at the very least. If you feel like you've never had issues with color and don't want to waste anytime, I'd stop here. Even if you do absolutely nothing and know nothing, people are typically happy with our color. 

This is for people that want to dive into the margins, to maximize the color range and squeeze out the details they're able to. This is for those that want to have a more sustainable way to put out their very best work without having to spend a ton of money proofing. 

I'll be working on a more comprehensive guide but here are the general steps to gaining control of color:

  1. Set up your Adobe Color Settings to gain control of your color workflow.
  2. Check what ICC profiles your elements are currently using.
  3. Decide whether you want to assign or convert color.
  4. Let nonstop know whether you want to target sRGB or Adobe RGB 1998.

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