3 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About Color Management

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3 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About Color Management

By Martha DiMeo
Digital Imaging Specialist


There is no escaping it. Whether you are a print designer or design strictly for the web and digital media—and you want predictable, repeatable, and consistent color results—color management matters.

But implementing a color-managed workflow can seem like a daunting task. With its technical terms, complex concepts, and interplay of input and output settings, color management can be very confusing and often intimidating.

Let’s remove the confusion and shed some light on the process.

There are two main components to implementing a color-managed workflow. The first component consists of three parts–monitors, office environments, and the profiles embedded in the artwork and photographs we create or are provided to us from other creative professionals.

The second component includes the color management settings in the Creative Suite applications, the profile and color space conversions that take place as files move through the digital production workflow, and the characteristics and capabilities of our input and output devices. In this article I am going to address the first component—monitors, office environments, and image profiles.

Three Rules of a Color-Managed Workflow
There are three simple things every creative professional needs to know about color management. They are the first three steps—rules actually—that should be carved in stone if consistent, predictable, and repeatable color is the goal. If you follow these three rules, you are on your way to a well-tuned,  color-managed workflow.

You must:

  1. Calibrate and Profile Your Monitor
  2. Control Your Physical Environment
  3. Embed and Honor Document Profiles

Let me explain each and its importance.

Monitor Calibration and Profiling
Arguably, the most important step in a color-managed workflow is the calibration and profiling of your monitor. Your monitor is the window to your artwork. If your display is not calibrated and profiled, you are not seeing an accurate representation of the artwork or photograph. Essentially, you are working with a blindfold covering your eyes.

No two monitors—even monitors from the same manufacturer—produce the same color out-of-the-box. Think of the bank of T.V. screens in a big box store all tuned to the same station but displaying very different pictures. It is the same with monitors.

Calibration is the process of altering the behavior of the device by adjusting it to a known reference point. This is done by adjusting the white point, brightness level, contrast ratio, and black level. Once the calibration is complete, an ICC profile is generated that describes the behavior of the display. This profile is then used by the operating system.

Two leading manufacturers of monitor calibration devices are X-Rite and Datacolor. Both companies provide software specific to their devices. Alternatively, manufacturers of high-end monitors, such as Eizo, provide proprietary software that can be used with third-party calibration devices.

Eizo Monitor

Eizo monitor with a Datacolor Spyder4Elite display calibrator.

It should be noted that monitor calibration and profiling is not a one-time process. This needs to be done on a monthly schedule. For color-critical work, a biweekly schedule is highly recommended. As monitors age they become less stable, thus the necessity to routinely calibrate and profile.

Creating a Color-Friendly Work Environment
The requirement for our office/work spaces is neutrality. The lighting—both artificial, and daylight that may be streaming in through windows—and the color of our walls affect our color perception.

For color-critical, image editing work, the lighting should be neutral, consistent, and dim. Neutrality is achieved by installing daylight-balanced D50 bulbs in overhead and desk lamps. Consistency is achieved by blocking sunlight from streaming across your desk and monitor. (If sunlight—with its continually changing direction and color temperature—is flooding your office, your ability to accurately evaluate color will be seriously compromised.)  Dim lighting is highly recommended to extend the life of your monitor. The brighter the illumination in your office, the higher you will need to set the brightness level of your monitor. Continually running your monitor at the high-end of its luminance setting will shorten its lifespan and render it unusable for color-critical work.

Wall Color
The color of our surroundings—both the paint on the walls and the color of our computer desktop—can cause a visual response known as simultaneous contrast or afterimage. This visual response causes us to perceive the opposite color of what was just in our field of view.

If you look at a brightly colored yellow wall for a few seconds and then turn your gaze to a photograph on your monitor, the photo will appear bluer, or cooler, than it actually is. Most frustrating of all, you won’t know your perception is compromised.

If you would like to see this fascinating visual illusion in action, see the blog post Perception & Our Environment on my site. There you will find a photograph that demonstrates this phenomenon. I encourage you to share the photo with colleagues and other individuals with whom you communicate regarding color decisions.

To compensate for this aspect of our visual system, paint the walls where color work is performed a spectrally neutral gray. (The industry standard is Neutral Gray N7/N8 paint from GTI Munsell.) For this same reason, your computer desktop should be set to a neutral gray background.

If you can’t live with gray walls, then at least paint them white. If you can’t live with white walls either then know that you cannot accurately review, evaluate, or edit color. Leave that task to a colleague or a Digital Imaging Specialist who is working in a color-managed, color-friendly environment.

Embed and Honor Profiles
This brings us to the third important rule of a color-managed workflow—embedding and honoring profiles.

A profile brings meaning to the otherwise ambiguous RGB/CMYK numbers. Profiles communicate the intent of the image creator by applying a specific interpretation of the values.

If the image does not have a profile embedded–referred to as “untagged”—the Working Space setting (found in the Creative Suite applications under the Edit menu > Color Settings) will be applied to the image while it is open on your system. If you edit the image, then close it without embedding a profile, the color could potentially appear very different—i.e.bad—to the next person in the production workflow if they have a different Working Space set on their computer.

Don’t sabotage your work. When profiles are embedded in the files you receive, honor them. That ensures the color is being interpreted as intended. If the file does not have a profile embedded, embed one before editing.

Must I Really Follow These Rules?
You may be thinking, “Do I really need to follow these rules?” The answer is “yes” if you want the color in your work to appear as intended, if you’d like to maintain color appearance from capture to final output, and if you desire clear and effective communication among all those in the production workflow.

Remember, the goal of color management is consistency. If you employ these three rules, you are well on your way to achieving consistent, predictable, and repeatable color. That makes for happy designers, happy clients, and outstanding results.

Article & Photos:  © Martha DiMeo 2014


Martha DiMeoMartha DiMeo is a Photoshop/Digital Imaging Specialist, and owner of ChromaQueen.com, a photo-editing service company specializing in color correction and retouching for books, magazines, art publishers, advertising, and digital media. Along with photo editing services, ChromaQueen.com offers on-site and remote color management consulting to the photography and graphic design community. Martha can be reached at 617-855-8474.

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One Comment

  1. Martha,
    It’s so easy to ignore color management but you remind us just how important it really is if you want to have full control over what you’re creating.

    Thanks for this!