What is Your Working Space and Why It Matters

By Ron Ellis

    There is an important reason to care about the working space you use. With the exception of scanning we create almost every file we use digitally, and even these scanned items end up having our working space applied to them. Not sure what your working space is, or even what it means? You are not alone. In modern graphic arts workflows the working space is one of the most important decisions we make. It can also be one of the most liberating decisions we can make as well, providing us with the freedom to move our work virtually anywhere with consistent results.
    As mentioned above, nearly any digital file created references something called a working space. What exactly is a working space? Working spaces are also known as ‘editing spaces’. A working space is simply the default or preferred color settings for your application and is normally chosen in the application’s color management preferences. In the Adobe applications we are most familiar with, the working space is a combination of color profiles and settings that will be used by these applications to convert and render color. The profiles you have selected as your working space represent a device’s print space and sets the guidelines for what will happen to the files you work on. For designers, the choice of a working space with affect the printer directly. If your working space is in sync with theirs then you can expect less color correction cycles and an easier time achieving a color match. Besides being less costly this will also save you time. If they choose a working space that matches our process then all is well and the reproduction occurs without problems. If the customer is using a working space that does not match a print process then problems result – unrealistic colors, improper total ink amounts, and a job designed for a different device. Remembering that the working space represents a device such as a press is important. Even more important is to make sure that the ‘device’ that the designer is using to work on their colors is the same device we use in to be used for print.
    So for designers the first question must be, “What working space are you using when you are creating files.” Because few designers are aware of working spaces and how they affect their work, most are not using anything other than the default working spaces. In Adobe applications such as Photoshop, Illustrator, Acrobat, and InDesign the default working space for CMYK is the old version of SWOP (US Web Coated). This means that if a designer has not set a working space and are just using the defaults they are using the old version of SWOP (US Web Coated). The original SWOP (US Web Coated) is a good profile, the gain and total ink settings are optimized for coated web printing on a yellowish paper, and it is no longer an optimal working space. (Caution – if you rush out and discover your working space is set to SWOP don’t just change it. Changing it could affect the color on live jobs, as well as future jobs. These changes need to be done carefully to make sure the results are desired.)
How important is this? To take advantage of sheetfed printing at a quality commercial printing establishment the designer may be better off using a newer profile such as GRACoL 2006 instead of a profile intended to simulate the older SWOP (US Web Coated). By converting from an older web coated working space to one tuned for modern commercial printing the images will have higher, and will be better suited for their destination. For example GRACoL 2006 has a higher total ink limit than SWOP (US Web Coated) and will allow the designer to print with a slightly higher gamut and more vibrant colors. (For those printing to web offset, there is an updated version of SWOP called SWOP3_2006, and SWOP5_2006. The 3 and 5 represent the paper grade.)
An important point to remember in regard to the working space is that nearly all North American color separators, and many large US print buyers are now printing to the GRACoL 2006 and SWOP 2006 working spaces. This means if you are buying outside proofs or making internal proofs they are most likely targeted to these working spaces. Many large print providers are G7 Qualified Master printers and can print to these spaces. The reason choosing a working space such as SWOP 2006, GRACoL 2006, or even FOGRA is that once you are in that working space you can move your work to any printers who support that working space and expect the same results. While standardization and the choice of a working space may sound boring it allows you to move your work around at will, as well as be able to accurately predict the color you will get. The thing to remember is that the designer’s choice (or lack of choice) of a working space is important.
    Your printer has also chosen a working space, though like designers, many printing plants have actually never even changed their default working space. This working space is of course just as important in a printing plant as it is to the designer. In a perfect world this working space would be tuned to match the pressroom. (or in the case of GRACoL 2006 and SWOP 2006 the pressroom is actually tuned to match the working space)
    Keeping in mind that the perfect digital working space would be the same thing as the actual pressroom. The pressroom is itself a working space, and in most pressrooms the question is what working space is the pressroom. Often it falls into one of the following categories:
1.    We are G7 Qualified and match GRACoL 2006, SWOP 2006, SNAP, Fogra or another specification or standard. (This is desired but less common in actual practice. Often this is done because a key customer requests it.)
2.    I don’t know. The prepress tech did something when they set up the platesetter but we don’t know what it is, it hasn’t been checked since, and they only spent one day and one or two quick pressruns on it. (This is called a mystery working space because it was more a ctp calibration than a press calibration, and the press was not matched to any existing condition.)
3.    Custom. I am familiar with GRACoL, SWOP, or SNAP and but have my own standard which I think is better that most other printers using these standards.
It is obvious that there are a wide variety of choices we can make regarding the pressroom and how it is controlled it. These choices range from a pressroom being an unknown monster that controls us to a highly refined manufacturing process. The important thing is to recognize that there must be some type of connection between the working space used by the designer and the actual pressroom the job is going to. We can control that device and make it match a specification such as GRACoL 2007 and SWOP 2006, and by doing this make it so that a great number of designers can emulate these press conditions.
If you have CS4 you will notice this it now includes GRACoL 2006 and SWOP 2006 profiles so that you can use these in your working space. These are the recommended profiles for printing in the US, as well as in many parts of the world that support these specifications. Some of the older (and not recommended) default profiles included with the Adobe applications for use as working spaces include:
    US Web Coated (SWOP) V2 – for use with Web and Publication work, based on older SWOP
    US Sheetfed Coated V2 for use with Commercial Coated based on older GRACoL 6
    US Sheetfed Uncoated V2 for use with Commercial Uncoated
    US Web Uncoated for use with newsprint based on older SNAP
To test any of these out simple take an image in Adobe Photoshop and convert to each of these profiles and then view the channels and info for each conversions. The differences will be obvious, as will the look each working space applies to the image.
    In summary, the working space that you choose whether you are a designer or printer is very important. It is the space that you will be using to describe color. If you pick a space widely used such as GRACoL 2006 or SWOp 2006 then you will most likely have a better time predicting your color and finding printers who can give you a good match. Ultimately this results in increased efficiency, lower costs – and more importantly getting the color you want in your final product.

 Ron Ellis is a Boston-based consultant specializing in color management, worflow integration, and press calibration. He has provided installation and training services to dealers, manufacturers, and content creators since 1986. An IDEAlliance G7 Expert and chair of the GRACoL Committee, Ron has performed over 100 G7 calibrations. In addition to calibrating pressrooms for customers such as Pantone, Ron also specializes in creating internal working spaces for brands and agencies that allow them to work more efficiently with vendors, saving both time and money. Ron is published frequently in industry magazines, and has produced training materials for numerous printing industry vendors and publishers. He can be contacted at 603-498-4553 or through his web site at www.ronellisconsulting.com.

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