How to leverage color printing to make your signage pop
by John Fulena
At its core, signage really only has two jobs: Get your audience’s attention, and convey your message so it sticks. That’s it.
When put like that, it sounds simple. But audiences and messages can be fickle; being off by just a shade — quite literally — can cost you one or both of these objectives. For this reason, great designs demand to be paired with great color management, to help ensure those designs — and those goals — come to fruition.
Attention is difficult to come by, especially in today’s always-on, plugged-in world. Catching eyes has become an art in and of itself, one that largely relies on contrast, bright colors and memorable visuals. To this end, many printers have been working to expand their color gamut, giving their design teams a veritable warehouse of tools with which to produce the perfect sign for its intended setting.
For example, many print shops are embracing clear toner. In addition to its uses in creating security features for certificates, tickets and gift cards, clear toner enables printers to apply unique and distinctive patterns that help signage stand out. The faintness of the clear coat, while still maintaining clarity, demands readers stop and give your sign a closer look. Once they do that, your sign’s work is already half done.
Meanwhile, white toner garners attention for the opposite reason: It’s so hard to ignore. The human eye has been trained to read dark text on a light background. It’s the default mode of communication, one that has served the written word well. But all of those years of standard practices and optic evolution also serve as the perfect setup for inverting expectations, printing white images on dark substrates to achieve dramatic, eye-catching affects while retaining accurate color throughout — and producing pitch-perfect halftones, a level of color-nuance not often seen in signage.
As exciting as they are, though, augmented output capabilities aren’t the only factor when it comes to getting a well-thought-out vision in front of audiences’ eyes. Sometimes, it really comes down to fidelity.
There are a lot of approaches printers can take to help ensure their sign matches their design. Many printers employ color management software, which analyzes output devices’ capabilities and how they produce your jobs, helping to more closely align input with output. Others partner with color experts, who often rely on in-shop software implementations themselves, who help analyze and address where color gaps are occurring in output.
These relationships — between printers and experts, printers and software, and even printers, software and experts together — are the foundation of sound color management. When you’re going for that bright lemon yellow that will make passersby slow down and read your message, you know you can’t settle for a washed-out margarine. That’s where a print provider’s software — and its relationships with experts — come in.
Color management partners are great for coming in and establishing a process to help ensure accurate color reproduction across a fleet, but coming to truly lean on that relationship — in the form of training and/or ongoing support — can make a real difference, both in your understanding of how color works in your shop and in how your signage is perceived out in the world. As a customer, you want to know that your print shop executes your vision precisely, with the kind of flair that grabs readers’ attention and holds it. As a print shop, you want to be able to live up to (and exceed) those high expectations.
That’s what brings us to ensuring your message is conveyed with the color you need. Color isn’t just clarity. It’s a brand, a memorable representation of you and your messaging. Knowing that you can get exactly the color you need, every time you need it, can play a huge role in crafting that brand. One historical example of how color capabilities can shape design that sticks out in my mind is the Hulk.
Now, when you picture the Incredible Hulk, whether you picture a painted-up Lou Ferrigno, a CGI blockbuster beastie, or a dynamically drawn comic character, you think of a big green guy. However, that wasn’t the plan Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had in mind back in 1962. Lee, looking to create a fearsome-looking alter ego for Bruce Banner that wouldn’t be associated with any one ethnicity, thought the Hulk should be a sepulchral gray. However, then-fledgling Marvel Comics’ colorist — and its printers — working on the book struggled with the coloration, rendering wildly different shades of gray and, at times, even green. After a few initial appearances in varying colors, Marvel settled on a nice, bright blend of two colors it knew it could produce – cyan and yellow; that is, the Hulk’s now-iconic green.
Marvel’s case is one of finding an approach appropriate to its staff and equipment and using it to create a globally recognized image. It’s a truly astonishing success story for color management when observed through that lens, because it goes to show that knowing and leveraging your color capabilities isn’t a “champagne problem” to be thought of if you have a little budget left over at the end of the quarter. It’s fundamental and potentially game-changing, even for smaller shops operating with limited color gamut — just as it is for shops with broader color capabilities.
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No matter what your shop can produce, what it has to produce is reliably excellent signage that grabs attention and uses that attention well. That’s why the Hulk’s iconic green skin has survived all these decades: It stands out (green isn’t a normal color for people to be!) and it conveys its key message (green isn’t the normal color for mild-mannered, peach-skinned Bruce Banner to be, either!), all very quickly and through the use of color designed and executed to do so.
So, beyond teaming with color experts and leveraging software to close gaps in color — or shooting your devices with gamma radiation — how can you be sure your signage is getting the most out of your shop’s color capabilities?
A major key here is finishing options. Maybe you have the right color for the right crowd, but without a gloss coat or specially shaped stock, it still runs the risk of becoming nothing more than unobtrusive wallpaper to those walking by. Winning audience attention and sticking in the memory are battles fought from end to end in the print process, from concept right on through finishing.
When selecting finishing options for your signage, you have to take several factors into account:
Where will this be displayed?
Who is my target audience?
Which finishing options can work with my design to reach that audience?
Which finishing options can highlight the color choices in this signage to help it stand out?
For our color-centric discussion, that last point is perhaps the most important. High-quality and contrasting colors go a long way in helping signage stand out, but oftentimes an expertly chosen finishing option can put “good, now that you mention it” signage over the edge into “stop and stare” territory.
Before considering finishing coats and other “razzle dazzle” finishing choices, though, an important thing to consider is color controllers. Are you utilizing a system setup that does its best to ensure color is consistent, end to end, across prints? Think back to that first-issue Hulk. If going forward, Marvel had settled for a sometimes light gray, sometimes dark gray, sometimes murky green, sometimes brighter green Hulk, would that character be the international icon it is today? No, because no one would know what he looks like!
That’s why color consistency is so important, which, in turn, is why employing good color controllers in your production process is key to brand consistency — and to positive results. Seeing a stop-and-stare quality sign (and doing just that) gets your message in your audience’s head. If they come across that same sign again elsewhere, you’re going to:
Want them to stop again.
Reinforce the messaging they got the first time.
That means giving them the same visual, with the same color, helping to further create that foothold in your audience’s memories. Getting those results is made all the easier by properly being mindful of the factors we’ve been discussing: improved color gamut, color management software and services, finishing capabilities and, of course, effective and reliable color controllers.
So next time you’re struggling to make your signage pop, think of what colors pull your focus to them, how you can use them, and how you can leverage your shop’s capabilities — and relationships — to get the most out of them. Identify the boundaries keeping your signage from your audience’s attention, and “HULK SMASH!”