A client’s guide to on-screen colour, or: “I thought the logo was greener”

24th January, 2010

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Every day design clients the world over receive finished, printed materials and cannot understand why the colours do not look precisely like the artwork that they approved from the comfort and convenience of their computer screen. “Why is there a difference?” they ask the designer in anguish. “Why?”

Well, I’ll tell you why.

We all like fast results in this modern world of ours, and the clients of designers are no different. They typically like to see artwork as soon as the designer has it ready and, after all, the internet makes this immediacy possible. For this reason, designs are often sent as email attachments, or uploaded to servers to be viewed online in a browser. That is where the trouble starts.

At the simplest level, the problem can be described like so: computer monitors are all different. They all work in more or less the same way: combining coloured light in different proportions to create millions of different colours. However, every monitor in the world has its own idiosyncrasies that will skew the balance of the colours that it displays one way or another. So artwork that looks like the purest primary blue on Jack’s monitor might look slightly blue-green on Bill’s, and a bit on the mauve side when viewed on Jill’s laptop. It’s just the nature of the electronics; no two examples are identical. (And even a single monitor can change its characteristics over a fairly short time).

Designers have ways around this. We calibrate our monitors using special software and hardware, and thereby create a set of digital instructions, or a ‘colour profile’. This profile tells our design software precisely how to adjust the on-screen display in order to cancel out our monitor’s quirks. Similar calibrations and corrective adjustments need to be applied to printers, scanners, and so forth, and these adjustments all combine to create what is known as a Colour Managed Workflow. It (hopefully) ensures that what the designer sees on-screen matches what comes off the printing press. It is a fiddly, irksome, but necessary part of being a professional designer. And the best bit?

As soon as you view the artwork on an uncalibrated monitor, all of that fine tuning goes right out of the window, and all bets are off. And when I say ‘uncalibrated monitor’, I mean, of course, the client’s monitor.

Clients’ monitors are not colour calibrated. Why would they be? Colour management is a pain in the arse; nobody in their right mind would bother with it if their profession did not require it. However, it is important that clients are at least aware of the issue, because it comes down to this:

If you assume that the colours that you see on your uncalibrated monitor are an exact match for the colour that will be produced on the printing press, then you are setting yourself up to be Vexed and Somewhat Unhappy.

Now, I should state clearly that all this applies to print projects. With print, there is a definitive, ‘correct’ colour — the colour that the designer intended for the final printed product — and anything else can be seen as a deviation away from that. If we’re talking about an online project, however, then the idea of completely consistent colour is a meaningless nonsense; if every computer monitor skews colour in one direction or another anyway, then the skewed colour that you see on your screen is no more ‘correct’ than the skewed colour that anyone else sees.

But what about the client who wants to assess the design of his or her company brochure on-screen before it goes to the printers? What are they to do? Well, they could buy monitor calibration hardware and recalibrate their monitor every couple of weeks or so. But this is is a awfully big sledgehammer for such a small nut. An alternative, if distance permits, would be to conduct all artwork reviews at the designer’s office, where the equipment should be properly tuned for colour accuracy. Really, though, the solution is much simpler.

My advice is simply to be aware of and accept the fact that monitors all differ. Allow for that uncertainty by not making colour-critical decisions based on your uncalibrated screen. If possible view the initial designs, where precise colour choices are being agreed upon, on the designer’s colour-managed equipment, or refer to reliable printed swatches. And, thereafter, trust your designer to make the right decisions on your behalf. You hired them for their expertise, after all.

Remember: designers calibrate so you don’t have to.

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