Colour and the International Color Consortium

Laurel Brunner's picture
Laurel Brunner

The most important legacy of open systems has got to be digital colour management. The technology helps optimise output devices and more. Colour management has made it simple and painless to produce accurate and pleasing colours across devices, and it has played a massive role in driving market uptake of digital printing.

Harder than it looks
Colour management technology simplifies colour production processes so much that for many print buyers colour matching across media is a given. But the journey to the point where colour production can be trusted to be right, has been long.

Open colour management was a goal since the early days of desktop publishing, but early Macintoshes were resolutely monochrome. That changed in 1987 when Apple introduced the Macintosh II and full support across the Mac line for colour video and for external monitors. But hardware was only a part of the solution to professional colour quality at the desktop. After a few years of fumbling about with colour production variously described as “good enough” and “desktop colour”, matters took a dramatic turn for the better in 1993.

Enter the ICC
Interestingly the technologies associated with colour management first saw the light of day at about the same time as Xeikon and Indigo kickstarted the digital printing revolution. The International Color Consortium (ICC) was founded in 1993 to encourage colour management system architectures that would be open and vendor-neutral, and work on all platforms. It had five founding members: Adobe Systems Inc, Agfa-Gevaert N.V., Apple, Inc, Eastman Kodak Company and Microsoft Corporation. Together these organisations still work on technologies that ensure accurate colour appearance across systems and devices.

In some ways the ICC’s original goal was akin to the underlying objectives for PDF, developed to provide content independence and transportability. The founders of the ICC wanted to do the same sort of thing, providing a colour data container and making colour management “seamless between devices and documents”.

ICC Profile Specification
The ICC published its first ICC profile specification in 1994 and has continued to update the spec as the industry has evolved. ICC profiles are containers for colour data, so that as colours move from source to destination they can be readied for new viewing and print output situations. Calculations, made via the Profile Connection Space, compensate for differences between the source and destination environments. Profiles ensure that colour data maintains its integrity and is accurate and consistent as it is readied for output.

We have been on version 4.3 of the ICC Profile Specification for a few years now. The newest version of the ICC Profile Specification is iccMAX, due for publication this year by the ICC and by ISO as ISO 20677 (Image technology colour management -- Extensions to architecture, profile format, and data structure). The iccMAX format adds some powerful features to the ICC profile specification, such as support for the spectral description of spot colours within profiles and tools for changing the viewing condition dynamically. iccMAX is a more flexible version of the specification, and allows for more information to be stored in profiles, such as appearance attributes. There are also tools for matching colours across operating systems and applications, from creation to the final print. Manufacturers provide ICC profiles for devices and media, and custom profiles can also be made using profile making software such as Xeikon’s cloud based ColorControl.

As digital printing applications and volumes continue to grow, colour management plays a central role in the graphics’s industry’s future. It ensures colours always appear as intended and that in mixed media environments, printed colours will be reliably gorgeous. This vital technology is helping to keep print competitive and desirable, making it the preferred option for truly effective digital print and communications.

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