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Banishing color-management chaos

Feb 1, 2002 12:00 AM

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Decent-quality digital-color production is finally within the reach of ordinary users. Of course, having the technology isn't necessarily the same as knowing how to use it effectively.

In the past, color separations were produced using expensive closed electronic systems. The technology was proprietary and developers jealously guarded their chromatic crown jewels. Every part of the color-production process was tightly controlled and managed using system-specific technologies, with all variables precisely quantified and any aberrations corrected.


But everything changed when the IBM PC and the Mac arrived. Proprietary color didn't disappear overnight — there was a long gap between that first Mac and the open color-managed workflows that are now available to all. Initially, however, open color was too enthusiastically embraced.

Countless users tried it and developers introduced low-cost, standard platform-based color-production systems that worked — sort of. The developers ill-advisedly tried to convince the industry that there was a market for “good-enough color.”

There wasn't, and these failed systems illustrated the market's intolerance for substandard color work. These interim color technologies also demonstrated the need for controlling color-rendering integrity across open systems, leading to the creation of the International Color Consortium (ICC). The group rapidly developed a recommended model for color-managed workflows, plus a methodology for characterizing devices and a variety of interoperability recommendations.

ICC also provides technology standards that facilitate the movement and integrity of digitally described color content as it moves through a production workflow. Precise color measurement defines values for both the on-screen rendering and the printed output of colors. Device characterization for input and output technologies defines the way in which a given device's behavioral characteristics affect color presentation.

The resultant device profiles digitally define the specific way in which a device renders these colors. These data can be mathematically represented and managed, ensuring that a color's behavior is predictable regardless of where it appears or was created.

This does not mean that color can be guaranteed to appear the same universally. Device and color-space limitations will, inevitably, preclude total consistency from device to device. The ICC's method is designed, however, to resolve variations that are a consequence of color-data mismanagement.


The concept of using device profiles and mathematics to transform digital color values from one type of color space to another, such as RGB to CMYK, is brilliantly simple. Color-management technologies based on the ICC's guidelines abounded at Ipex 1998 — since then there has been substantial market effort to implement ICC-compliant color workflows. In practice, device-independent color management has proven somewhat vulnerable; this is largely due, however, to the misapplication of the technology rather than the ICC's standards.

“Useless-User Syndrome” is obviously not within the ICC's control, but this condition is symptomatic of a market in transition. Color isn't an easy subject, and appreciating its vagaries requires knowledge and patience. The idea that digital technology eliminates the need for production knowledge is, at best, na├»ve, and at worst, dreadfully expensive.

At Ipex 2002 (April 9-17, Birmingham, England), several companies will demonstrate products that take a wider view of the color-management process, focusing on the color-data themselves rather than exclusively on managing device profiles. Color management increasingly functions as a holistic system, often with unknown and unpredictable component devices and content workflows.

In liberating color from the confines of controlled closed systems, we unleashed color chaos. But now, color chaos is a thing of the past. Despite its increasing media-independence, highly sophisticated technologies are helping the market to get color production under control.

The next-generation ICC-compliant technology at Ipex 2002 will mark an important color-production phase. The printing community will be able to see how integrated, knowledge-based, color-management technologies are relevant for all forms of media production. These technologies should also help the printing industry evolve to serve all sectors of the growing information industry. Managed color production can ensure optimum quality and be an important competitive advantage for the printer that can provide color quality without compromise.