I make and self-publish computer games for sale at comic fairs in Japan. This is not a professional activity, and as such my budget is very limited.
When I make covers, CDs, posters, or other printed material, I make my own designs, test them on my mid-high end home printer, and then send them to printing companies to produce the actual printed material.
This doesn't come as a surprise, but the colors I get with the printing companies are very different from the colors I get on my own printer. In fact, I find it a bit strange that my own printer prints with much (perceived) better quality than whatever the printing company uses. I get much vivid colors, more accurate detail and generally I perceive them to be "better".
I would like to be able to get reasonably more accurate colors from printing. I believe that around an 80% improvement can be done with 20% of the budget required to get perfect color matching, and I am okay with that. Perfect matching is not a hard requirement, and I would like to know what can I do to improve the color matching in my projects.
The specifics vary from project to project, but my situation is quite dire:
I use different companies for different types of material: company A may be the fastest when printing posters, but company B may be cheaper. I've also worked with company C when printing CDs and disc covers, and they have reasonable prices.
Different projects use different processes: in particular, I use inkjet printing for posters, and when making less than 300 CDs, and offset when making 300 or more CDs.
The printing companies will not tell me the exact model of printers they use, and they won't tell me the exact type of paper (and discs) they use. I asked for ICM profiles for their equipment, but they won't provide them to me (is this expected?)
The printing companies offer trial runs for proofing, but they cost close to the price of making an entire run. Specially making a trial run for an offset print is extremely expensive for me.
I suppose I could try test runs, each with slightly different settings until I get it right, breaking the bank in the process.
So instead of trying for them to match my colors, I've changed my approach to trying to match my colors to theirs.
Thankfully, my printer has several knobs I can adjust. I purchased several types of paper, and after 80 prints, I found some settings that got me as close as I could to something they had printed for me on a previous project. Still, not all colors are similar (especially light colors look much more washed-out in their printer than in mine).
I then tried printing the newest project data with these settings. I fiddled around with the CMYK levels in Photoshop and tried sample runs in my printer until I got some colors that I was relatively satisfied with. This is the data I sent them for the real run.
However, this is all a lot of guesswork, and I can't stop believing there has to be a Better Way to do all this. Unfortunately, even though I (think) I know some of the theory behind color matching, I have very limited experience with working with printing companies, and I keep on wondering:
Is there a better way to do this without the unlimited budget that professional designers seem to have?