FESPA 2015: a report

Written by MO on . Posted in Reviews

It is embarrassing to realize I haven’t written for months. The companion site to this one,, has seen more activity – and I apologize for this. The reason why I haven’t typed much in here is a four-letter word: “time”.

I write from Germany, because I’ve been in the marvelous city of Köln for the last four days. I’ll fly home tomorrow, having finished my series of lectures at FESPA 2015, which started on Monday, May 18th. This is my second year at FESPA as a speaker, and it’s Germany once again, because the 2014 edition was held in Munich. I participated in the DTC (Digital Textile Conference) in Milano last October, where a workflow to convert multichannel Photoshop documents to RGB Illustrator files was premiered. I refined the workflow a bit in the last few months, especially because I gained more comprehension of the Live Trace function in Illustrator (currently called “Image Trace”) which is the key point of the procedure. It may seem easy, but dealing with 100MP files containing often no less than 15 spot colors with very thin lines is not for the faint-hearted. The example I use in the live demonstration generates about 90.000 anchor points, and it is just fair to wonder how accurate their position may be. Subtle tweaking of the available parameters can help a lot, but it is necessary to acquire some sensitivity to make things work as they should.

It therefore seemed obvious to start off my series of lectures with the same subject. I was in doubt whether it would be well received, because it is obviously a matter more for designers than printers, but I was surprised to see an overall enthusiastic reaction. Two sessions on color management followed, aptly called “The art of constant color”. The first was about the basics of CM, the second about possible choices for monitor calibration. Three different lectures followed: about color correction in general, about difficult images (actually: out-of-gamut images) for textile printing, ending with a serious look at the character of the three main colorspaces: RGB, CMYK and Lab.

From the feedback I received, it is clear that CM is still a very hot topic. The most curious thing I heard came from a Swedish teacher who deals exactly with these subjects: she suggested that some quarters are seriously preaching that CM should be dropped completely as far as the Web is concerned. This is of course non-sensical, unless we find a different way to tell a file which colors are actually represented by its numbers, but it makes some (scary) sense if the message behind it is “use sRGB and disregard the rest”. It’s honestly difficult to imagine another way to implement CM, unless we want to resort to extremely complex methods which would probably cause confusion and havoc. It is anyway a matter of fact that the whole world is trying to get grips with the subject, having realized that there is no safe way out of any problem without.

Having said this, there is a relevant number of special cases where traditional methods must be massaged and adapted to extremely peculiar realities. This is normal, because one finds people asking if there is a way to properly calibrate and profile a CMYK screen printer, other people who need to print RGB images onto the most unlikely substrates ever (wood, which is heavily colored, metal, which is reflective, glass, which transmits light, and so forth). Several confess that they’ve seen cases where the interaction between the RIP and the printers is so complex that the only way is to bypass CM completely and cobble together an alternate workflow which works in that particular case (I’ve seen a couple of these cases, myself, and let me tell you – it’s a nightmare). Also, it is very stressful to realize that different applications coming from the same producer actually behave differently under theoretically identical conditions. If you’ve tried, you know that obtaining coherent results is not always a trivial task.

But, I must say, for the first time I’ve had the solid feeling that the lectures on color correction are more interesting to the audience than those on color management. This is because, finally, the idea that some preparation of the image should be made is making its way. People realize that proceeding blindly is a bad idea. Axel Stuhlreiter, for instance, is an Application Specialist of Kornit Digital, arguably one of the leaders in the bubbling market of DTG (Direct To Garment). He spoke immediately after my first Tuesday’s session; his lecture’s title was enlightening: “Quality in, quality out – the essentials of file preparation for direct-to-garment printing”. When one of the world leaders in the field claims that “quality” and “file preparation” are connected, I guess the path is clear.

There is still a misconception that images can be printed as they are, out-of-the-box, with optimal results. Also, this is becoming a very important issue in the field of digital textile printing, because a lot of photographic material is used in both garment printing and interior decoration based on textiles. A most interesting conference on the usage of print in interiors was held in the Printeriors event at FESPA, about all the aspects of this relatively new field: style, technique, economics. It is an obvious fact that photography is of paramount importance in some decoration styles, and photography is not graphics: as a potentially faithful reproduction of reality, and due to its nature, the pre-treatment of color is often very important, and that is not something that CM is concerned with. CC is, of course: hence the revamped interest in some subjects like enhancements that can be performed in Lab and are difficult (or impossible) to obtain in other colorspaces. It is just like fine-art printing, in the end. Only, the substrate is different.

On the technological side, this edition of FESPA confirmed the trend seen last year in Munich: enormous diversification of techniques with rapid advances in several fields. A list of the most interesting things would be next to impossible, and certainly very long to compile, but I was personally impressed by what Durst is doing both in the field of large format printing (with their Rho series) and textile printing, and by the Canon DreamLabo 5000 photo printing system which is really amazing. I was invited to the Canon stand to see the massive machine in action, and it was very difficult to believe that such colors in photographs can be obtained without silver halide technology. The DreamLabo 5000 is actually a component of a much larger network of machines aimed to the production of photo books. I’ve seen some samples printed on different kinds of paper (there is a new technology at play in paper production, as well) and the results are stunning. Had I been told in advance that it is perfectly possible to print 1 pt text on paper, so that it can only be read with a loupe, and whose close inspection reveals perfect sharpness of the characters, I would have been in serious doubt. But I’ve seen it with my eyes, so I can only believe it is true. The real question is – how long will it take before these ground-breaking advances in the pro market make it to the consumer market? Everyone would love to have a stable printing system able to deliver such quality at home. We just have to wait and see.

Having said this, I necessarily need to add that FESPA is a different trade show in many respects. The feeling of being part of a community is clear and shared by everyone. Speakers, for instance, actually get together, discuss their own different points of view with great respect and are very open to sharing what they know. The number of people gathering after each speech to ask questions is relevant, and is one of the highlights of the show: I will treasure forever discussing both CM and CC issues with pros coming from Cyprus and the Fiji Islands, gathering insights in different approaches often connected to the local economy of the printing business. Being based in London or Rome is one thing, but running a printing business in the middle of Fiji is another matter entirely. Where do you get stock? How much can you order? Scale is the factor. It is an apparent contradiction that there are huge companies working in this field all over the world as well as small ones which survive because they are different and more able to produce limited runs of custom products. I had an interesting talk with Gemma Riberti, senior editor of Lifestyle & Interiors: she pointed out that it is possible today for a retail customer to ask a printer to have, say, wallpaper produced with a certain motif that he or she designed. This opens up a number of interesting scenarios (take the word “interesting” with some wit, please), but it is indeed a paradigm similar to Instagram or the self-production of basically anything connected to arts. It is quite simple: the means are available, people use what they have. How they succeed, is another question. But this is what actually happens, more or less everyday and one has to take it into account.

FESPA is different also because of the outstanding level of organization. Rarely I’ve seen a team work so tightly towards a common goal, and the feeling is that everyone is necessary to everyone else. The Awards dinners are legendary, of course, but as an example, take “Fespa Daily”: it’s the magazine which gets distributed in several thousands copies every morning when one walks in. It is astounding, because it features everything that happened the previous day, and one may easily find himself pictured in one of the photographs. The magazine is printed overnight (with outstanding quality, I must say), and it is an obvious ordeal to put together in a cohesive fashion materials collected just hours or minutes before. In such cases, it’s teamwork or die, and if only one thing goes awry, something will be seriously wrong in the printed edition. This is the achieved level at FESPA, and it should make a lot of professionals think: if they can do it, then it is possible. Given that it’s possible, we may hopefully find a way to a quicker and safer workflow for what we do.

My personal thanks go to Duncan MacOwan, Michela Marcantonio, Katherine Parkhouse and William Khabbaz (the latter, in particular, for contacting me after a lesson in Milano in 2013 and putting me in touch with Michela as a speaker) for their warmth and hospitality. Also, a very special mention is due for Alina Lazar, my own “guardian angel”, always caring and ready to help even when she had thousands of other important things to do: your efficiency and kindness are as big as your smile.

This is a show that will remain with me, and I really hope to be part of the game again next year in Amsterdam. Near the magnificent Köln Dom, on the roof of the tourist office, I saw flags reading “Köln its ein Gefühl”. This is true, and reverberates into English, with a slight change of subject: “Fespa is a feeling”. Ditto.

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