ISO Graphics Standards – Can they help us?

In the world of creativity, we may think that standardization will only put a lid on ideas and concepts. But looked at from another angle, we see that to a certain extent, standards have a marked influence on everything around us and what we do.

For the photographers amongst us, and those who ultimately deal in CMYK, there are standards that directly affect you. For example, in previous articles we have discussed ISO 3664:2000 Viewing Conditions – Graphic Technology and Photography. This specification covers viewing conditions for images on both reflective and transmissive media, such as prints (both photographic and photomechanical) and transparencies, as well as images displayed in isolation on colour monitors. This International Standard provides specifications for illumination and viewing conditions that, when properly implemented, will reduce errors and misunderstandings caused by such deficiencies and inconsistencies. All too often I have seen the best colour management practices fail because of  viewing conditions that fail to meet the correct specification, ISO 3664:2000.

The broad scope of consulting on colour issues continually takes me to the back end of commercial sheet-fed and large web offset presses. Here, where ink meets paper, after tortuous hours of design, layout, retouching, checking, assessment, proofing and sign off (not always in that order), printers still have to meet customer expectations.
This can involve the final ‘horror’ for the humble press man, the ‘Press check’. It’s otherwise known as retouching on-press; in order to achieve the look, feel and balance satisfactory to the print buyer-on the spot. It is a ‘horror’ because it usually takes up valuable production time, and wait, wasn’t a proof already signed off for the job? Well, yes, but, “one more check please!”

Here’s where ISO 12647-2 Graphic technology — process control for the production of half-tone colour separations, proof and production prints — comes into its own.

Most colour printers know that the process they run is, at best, only just under control. The more you learn about offset lithography, the more you realize just how unstable the process is. The technology is improving but I liken a big press to a wild animal – you’ll never completely tame it, but you can try to understand why it does what it does, and you can encourage it to go where you want it to.

Traditionally, print colour appearance has been controlled with the Mk 1 Eyeball with some densitometric help, but as we all have a slightly different idea of what is acceptable, this method of quality control has led to a great deal of customer /supplier tension over the years.

Printing to the ISO standard, on the other hand, defines where you are trying to get to with colorimetric targets and the use of spectrophotometry shows you how close you are. Using colour measurement to quantify and tune print appearance is a relatively new trend and is certain to be a step in the right direction from both the customer and supplier point of view.

If, as a printer, you use a standard to aim for, along with good colour analysis software, you will see exactly what is going on with your process, thus allowing you to take remedial action when it starts to drift. The variables in the lithographic printing process are considerable as we all know, and pinpointing them is the key to controlling them.

The ISO 12647 is now internationally accepted as the benchmark for four colour process printing. The ISO targets are high and the use of good quality equipment and consumables is essential. However, the targets are achievable in practice, and if you consistently print to the ISO specification you will be producing some very fine printing indeed.

Whilst it is fairly easy to get a press printing to a standard, it can be very difficult to do it on a week-in week-out basis without a genuine commitment to colour quality management, which can often require a change in company culture- not just a certificate in the reception!

Customers have every right to expect that you print consistently to a standard, but using standards as a big stick to beat you with is counter productive. There has to be give and take on both sides–occasionally a printer can actually ‘save’ a piece of print on press, by printing outside of the ‘standard’ if it has been incorrectly separated by the customer.

So, the message is that whilst printing to specification is a great benchmark with which to measure ones performance against, as well as a great tool for communication between customer and supplier, it should not be used as the definitive pass/fail arbitrator of print quality.

If you are a printer, you will print outside of tolerances on occasion, but if you do it consistently you might want to take a look at your process and apply some adjustment to get it back into the centre of the ‘Quality Zone’. If you are a print buyer and your supplier prints out of tolerance consistently, you might think about getting together and finding out exactly what is going on. By looking at the colour measurements, the problem should be fairly obvious to identify, and the issue can be resolved without the discussion degenerating into the tiresome ‘in my opinion’ conversation, which can so often have a negative impact on the valuable Customer/Supplier relationship.

I am proud to be a part of the Printing Industry- everyone I meet in my day to day work genuinely wants to do a good job, and in this era, we need to be knowledgeable, quick and more efficient, which means constantly measuring the process and continually striving to control and improve it.

This is a new job in the printing industry; it’s a challenge, and one that we need to rise to if we want our industry to continue to prosper.