Why Should You Print to Standards?
Wide-format printers need standards for their wider color gamut.
The graphic-arts industry has traditionally put a lot of time and energy into developing standards. To a large degree, however, these have been ignored"?especially by wide-format print providers. While the idea of having a standard to print to is certainly sound, there is good reason these standards have not generally been used for wide-format output.
SWOP, the Standard for Web Offset Printing (www.swop.org), was the first printing standard to be widely used by printers. But SWOP is much too limiting to be used for any printing application beyond high-speed web presses. Intended to be a standard that all web presses could hit, it is a generic specification. After all, when you create such a standard, you have to design it not only so the very best presses with the very best operators can duplicate it, but also so that just about any press under any conditions can do so. As a result, running to such a standard is far too limiting. Since just about any press can print a wider gamut of colors than strict adherence to SWOP allows, very few companies want to be confined to that specification. Yes, it provides a decent frame of reference, but everyone wants their final results to be "better" than SWOP. It is basically the lowest common denominator.
Which is one of the reasons GRACoL (General Requirements for Applications in Commercial Offset Lithography) came along. Originally, GRACoL was SWOP for sheetfed presses. Because sheetfed presses most commonly print higher ink densities, produce finer and cleaner dots, and have less press gain, the gamut of colors that can be reproduced is greatly increased.
But, recently, the GRACoL standards organization decided that the standard is lower than it should be. Most printers use brighter papers and print a wider color gamut than is covered by the current standard. As a result, the standards committee (www.gracol.org) is in the process of generating a new standard that will reflect the industry's ability to print at a higher quality level.
The consistency factor
Even so, wide-format printers generally have the ability to print a higher gamut of colors and higher resolution than any printing press, and press gain is not a factor. Indeed, when wide-format devices are asked to simulate a printing press, they must be "dumbed down" to simulate press gain and the limitations of 4- color process inks. For wide-format printers, 6 or 8 colors are the rule these days, and the inks generally have a wider color gamut.
So even when GRACoL releases the new and wider gamut standard, why would a shop primarily executing wide-format prints want to print to that standard?
The answer is consistency. Many of the projects produced by the wide-format segment of the market are also produced on sheetfed presses, on the Web, and under a wide variety of output conditions. Designers and print buyers want the posters they run on wide-format devices to match the brochures they run on offset presses"?and both of these should match the bus wraps that are also an integral part of the campaign, and so on. Standards like GRACoL give everyone a target they should be able to hit.
One of the things printers have requested is essentially a generic GRACoL ICC profile. Assuming that their device can hit the GRACoL target, why not have a profile that anyone can use with nearly any output device? The GRACoL standards committee says that just such a profile is in the works and should soon be available.
Of course, wide-format shops would not want to use it for everything they print. If you are running a one-off, fine-art print, for example, you want to use the entire color gamut your printer will allow, and your only concern is how close you can get to matching the original. And there will be many times where exceeding the capabilities of other printing devices is exactly what you need to make a sale.
The new GRACoL standard won't change that. But it will give you the opportunity to meet a customer's demand to match the printing being done on other media. And it will allow you to match the output on different devices in different locations under different printing conditions.
No perfect match
There is a catch, however: Even when running to standards, there is a tolerance range. There has to be. Even GRACoL acknowledges that it's quite possible to print within the standards and still have a visually discernable difference when comparing output. The hope, though, is that running to standards can provide a closeenough match across devices to be acceptable to print buyers. While not perfect, it will give printers a shot at keeping their clients happy.
Stephen Beals (firstname.lastname@example.org), in prepress production for more than 30 years, is the digital prepress manager with Finger Lakes Press in Auburn, NY.