Is the use of color really that different in transactional and graphic arts print environments? Or do expectations and unique application characteristics drive the perception of color quality and the choice of color technology?
In my experience, the lightning rod for differentiating the two comes down to five key questions:
- What drives the use of color?
- How do you define color quality?
- How much color is enough?
- How critical is color quality?
- What is the acceptable cost of color?
Let’s start with transactional environments where applications are fairly predictable from month to month and are printed in significant volumes in highly compressed windows. Here, as with direct mail, color may be used to maintain corporate branding, to induce an action, enhance understanding or just to get attention. Color is also being used in transactional environments to gain the operational efficiencies of a white paper environment and increase the potential for postal savings. As for color quality, in transaction environments the focus is on striking a balance between the cost of color and the quality required to fulfill the purpose of the application – typically directing attention to or highlighting key information on a page like an amount due or due date. More and more, those responsible for transaction documents are looking at the cost-benefit equation related to promotional messages with varying levels of color – but not at the level of color quality associated with graphic arts work.
I’ve never met a print provider who doesn’t expect and produce the best quality- including color reproduction. But we have to be careful to put color quality in context. Is it something that we recognize when we see it? Is it the quality we see in annual reports, photo books or brochures? The ability to reproduce corporate colors within 1 to 3 deltas of the target PMS or Pantone color? I contend that it is some of all of these things. But there are trade-offs in digital (and offset) printing such as throughput, machine settings, supply costs, use of specialty supplies versus standard supplies, and paper costs that can be chosen to manage the resulting color output.
As for transaction and transpromo documents, print providers are more likely to select low-cost commodity-grade papers, manage supply costs by choosing designs with low coverage and optimize throughput to satisfy short print windows, and may not even print at the full resolution that a device is capable of. While willing to make some concessions on quality in return for cost savings, in transactional environments, month-to-month consistency is critical to ensure that the look and feel of the documents contributes to a uniform and consistent relationship. So at any color or resolution level, color management remains critical across these high-volume runs.
Contrast this with how color is used in graphic arts environments. Here, job mixes tend to be more unpredictable, varying from day to day based on what customers bring through the door – or web portal. Turnaround ranges from same-day to more than a week. Volumes run the gamut from very short to very long. The amount of color coverage is driven by the job, but with a difference. Applications tend to be photo- and graphic-intensive and therefore color-intensive – with more frequent use of full color in jobs like direct mailers, photo books, brochures and catalogs. Instead of highlighting data to drive a message, the graphic or creative does the heavy lifting, supported by the message. Consequently, quality is as important – if not more important – than cost. Poor color reproduction of images, especially of people, can result in a failed communication.
This focus extends to the reproduction of product images as well. In graphic arts applications, reproduction of corporate colors is very important, and the trade-off with cost is minimal. Corporate colors must approximate the specified colors and must be produced consistently within a job and from job to job. To achieve these results, we wrestle with the conundrum of process standardization versus manipulating the process to modify print quality (often on the press). This practice isn’t ideal and is often discouraged. However, the point is that print providers who produce graphic arts applications know that skin tones must be accurate, neutrals must be neutral, and products like textiles must look realistic. Graphic arts print providers are highly sensitive to these requirements and will customize the print process to ensure that customer requirements for quality color reproduction are met. There is a strong focus on high screen rulings to achieve better image fidelity, using the best quality coated papers, using extended color gamuts and specialty colors, disciplined color management, emphasis on contract proofing and on-press approvals.
In both environments, when it comes to costs, the numbers tell the story. For example, the cost per page of an inkjet printer producing transpromo documents with limited color is far less expensive than a toner-based digital color press producing image- and graphic-intensive brochures with extensive color. As you can imagine, applying the cost of producing a color brochure to transpromo documents would be cost-prohibitive when you’re producing millions of customer communications per month. So, there are trade-offs. That said, I am increasingly impressed with the image quality, fidelity, and consistency of inkjet technology. Likewise, toner-based systems deliver outstanding color quality for many traditional graphic arts jobs. Either way, the application and business requirements drive the use of color and emphasis on quality vs. cost. From the perspective of a graphic arts guy quickly becoming immersed in the world of transaction printing, the two environments are similar, but with key differences.
What do you think? I look forward to your feedback and would love to continue the discussion at Graph Expo. I’ll be in the Océ booth (#1217) October 3rd through 6th.