Monthly Archives: December 2007

Chasing the Color Dragon

athens lawn boy

Color proofs are typically examined under the color-corrected lights of a proofing booth. The faithful assume that all proofing booths are identical. They are not. And neither are monitors. They are approximations.

Where do you look at color? I’m not talking about just proofs here—but the finished product. I’ll bet its on your sofa, maybe outside, in your office or kitchen; anywhere except in the even stabbing death-light of a proofing booth. Welcome to the real world.

Chasing the Dragon

Not too long ago I went into a small agency that had a big problem. The printed ads they had designed didn’t look anything like their proofs. The owner was sweating, as this was their Big Client.

We went through a list of culprits that could originate in the agency:

  • unprofiled Photoshop source images
  • un- or mis-profiled layout documents (here it was Quark 7)
  • monitors in and out of calibration
  • checking the profiles of the exported pdfs
  • looking at the RIP choices on the Epson 9600, using the ColorBurst rip.
  • possible color shift in the proofing paper

As I pulled test proofs, it became clear once we’d tightened up Quark, the color proofs looked pretty much like the source data. I say pretty much, because photons gunning out of a monitor and and a dithered proof are two dissimilar environment. Note: it always looks good on your monitor.

Now came the fun part. According to what I was seeing, the agency was sending accurate color to the pub. And the pub was hosing the agency.

The proof was in the same ad printed three days apart. Friday’s ad was yellow. Monday’s ad was red. A closer examination of both issues showed that the respective red and yellow contamination ran throughout the entire book.

Nice. Now the tail was wagging the dog. The anxiety was compounded by the fact that clients typically do not look at the entire book—they only look at their ad. And if the color visibly sucks, it becomes your problem.

Calls were made to the pub production manager, and the ensuing silence was disconcerting. Part of my job was to tell the agency that the pub was responsible for this wretched color. This is cold comfort when your proof is weighed against the tonnage of printed issues out there. Because in a perverse way, the bad color is more authoritative.

Fortunately the owner was a smart guy, and realized in his bones that setting up a color profile to match a wandering pub’s was not a realistic option. If the color was consistently red, different story. He then called the client, and the client was realistic. They knew that the pub was a rag in every respect except the prices they charged to run the ad. That was world-class. It was an unfortunate part of doing business in a closed trade environment.

A Color Proofing Environment of Note

In 1973, I was a lucky young guy, touring the Flor de Partagas cigar factory in Havana, Cuba. Towards the end of the tour we came to a cigar-sorter’s closet-sized workspace. The sorter’s job was to sort a never-ending stream of like-typed cigars (Coronas, Panatelas, Churchills, etc) by the color of the wrapper. They ranged from greenish black on the left to a tawny tan to the right. When she had twenty of the right range, they went into a waiting box. And so on.

She proofed her color under a weak fluorescent tube. The walls were painted an elderly lime-green. Yes, the fluorescent is also heavily blue-green, the walls don’t help, but all the color was range-consistent when it left her cubbyhole. This was a stable proofing environment. Her choices held up once they were boxed.

BillyWare’s Twin Monsters


The Ghost Is The Machine

Edward Tuffte and Peter Norvig have done brilliant dissections on PowerPoint with all its attendant content distortions. David Byrne has also taken a chilly look at it, and found it appropriately ironic. I find no irony in PowerPoint. Only a burning, passionate hatred.

I reserve a lesser dislike for MS Word. Its shortcomings are misdemeanors to PowerPoint’s felonies. In the production realm, most matters of content have already been adjudicated. So I’ll confine myself to the below-the-decks, boiler-room procedural dynamics of working with these blighted text-shapers.

The Greater Evil

PowerPoint is a digital Fisher-Price tool kit turned loose on a construction site. It has a cute yellow saw, with 4 round friendly teeth. It also has a cute red hammer. However the saw don’t cut, the hammer don’t drive. But it replicates itself with ease, pages and slides that bludgeon all in its path to moronic stupidity—kinda like Barney.

After 16 years of Quark, I knew too much. I had to take retardo pills to bring me back to the basic level of design & conceptual incompetence to work the PowerPoint levers. Like other incarnations of BillyWare®™ (with the possible exception of Excel), it begs to be noticed. In addition, it has a pre-fab, pre-chewed, clunkiness about it.

That is merely the application aspect.

A PowerPoint doc arrives into your workspace, borne by the account guy/gal who will want it imported into a document/leave-behind/chart. The designer or art director groans, and they’re backing away as fast as possible from this happy-footed tar-baby that has wandered into their midst.

The account people are puzzled/miffed and profoundly indifferent to your suffering. Just—Make—It—Work. Exit, stage right, with their “Triple Westside White Girl” No-Foam Drive-Thru Coffee beverage.

Thanks. Deadlines loom.

The first order of business is to get with the art director/designer to divine the intentions and manifestations of the originator. Extracting content is not a simple question of cut-n-paste. If it was, like transit-mixed concrete, the first plop out of the chute would be identical to the last splat.

How much of this weird formatting is really necessary? Are all these bullet points necessary? Why do sentences get chopped up?

When these questions are posed to the document donors, most of them shrug, say “…oh” and are generally stuck for an answer. Here’s a hint: they don’t know either. Its like drinking Cosmos. You kinda know its bad for you, but it goes down so easy. Watch them at the next office party.

When all else fails, appeal to the intellectual vanity of the author, and subtly suggest that their brilliance is not being well served. Occasionally, it works. And everybody is somewhat happier. This way a lot of stylistic cheez can be ditched so it won’t taint the overall presentation. After all, the agency is trying on some level to present a shaped view.

Nothing Except The Words.

I have a similar skepticism about MS Word. It’s a word-shaper, not a design/layout program. In my jaundiced opinion, it should have 2 fonts, in three iterations (roman, bold and ital), in one point size. No boxes. No columns. Period.

And once upon a time, it used to be that way. It came from an IBM Selectric II.

Another Ancient History Diorama

Perhaps some of you saw this at the Renaissance Fair in a re-enactment. Bear with me.

During the Last Golden Age Of Advertising, a copy deck would show up on the designer/art director’s desk. This was also the time when phones rang, there was linoleum in the hallways, and people smoked in their offices. And more than a few had bottles tucked away in desk drawers.

The lucky designer or art director would get out the copy-casting ruler, and go to work. Mark up the text, send it out, and then the type house would get it back to you in 12 hours or so. Look at the galley tissues, make edits, and then go to final. Or roll the dice, get lucky, and slap down the repro galleys on boards, and hope nobody screwed up.

Funny thing, though. Nobody really read type until money had been spent. I noticed this across the board—from small type houses to the big leagues. And it wasn’t cheap.

I knew a guy in 1978 who quit being a production artist, and went to work for a very prominent type house here in Los Angeles. Within six months he was off salary and living quite nicely on the commission. His golden route was the Miracle Mile on Wilshire Blvd, where most of the groovy and lush ad agencies were located.

Being a type salesman was a good way to get yourself into a Porsche 911 and an expanding waistline with the expense account lunches. Another type salesman I knew was dismayed when he found out that the Warner Brothers account we bought type for was being absorbed into the larger corporate portfolio. He wailed “I just closed on a new Carerra!”

Never mind that my partner and I were looking unemployment in the face. It was a harsh lesson on priorities.

Not everybody played ball though. I knew an art director who loved nothing more than to take the obligatory expense-account luncheoneer to La Luz De Dia over in East Los Angeles. La Luz was a 3-stool daytime taqueria with a day-laborer local vibe. The type salesman would be making sure the rojo or verde didn’t splat his tie while keeping an eye on the 911.

These good times came to a crashing halt by 1992. The major type houses here in Los Angeles either folded or reinvented themselves as service bureaus. And this is how you became a typesetter. Which brings us back to MS Word and Powerpoint.

Returning Again To His Dork Matter

Word and PowerPoint have “design” features to enable the design-illiterate to make presentations look cooler. Nothing helps a bad idea better than a gaudy effect. Often-times an alert production person can make sense of nonsense that has passed through the agency process unchallenged.

Its harder to think clearly than to just press “Print”.