Meet Rick Smith, a colorblind pressman

Smith has been in printing business for 39 years
Meet Rick Smith, a colorblind pressman
Photo by Kaia Calhoun
Rick Smith has worked at the Wisconsin State Journal as a pressman for 30 years.

Have you ever noticed those four colored dots on the margin of a USA Today newspaper? Or that gray strip on the bottom of Wisconsin State Journal’s front page? Rick Smith, who’s been in the printing business for 39 years, can tell you exactly what those elements are. They help ensure that a newspaper’s colors show up correctly during printing — that Badger red doesn’t look orange, or a Brewers jersey doesn’t show up purple. The four dots make up the register system for the CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) printing method. Four printing plates combine to make up a four-color picture, and a camera finds those dots on the printing product to make sure all four plates are aligned. The gray bar allows a press manager to set density levels to make sure the colors on that page are true to the photo’s digital rendering. Manual adjustments are needed in the pressroom to make sure everything is printing properly.

“After a while, you just develop that eye,” he says.

Smith, who has worked for USA Today and has been in the pressroom at the Wisconsin State Journal for 30 years, has his color-setting methods down to a science. But he has had to work harder than many other press managers for one peculiar reason.

“I am actually colorblind,” Smith says.

He’s one of very few colorblind pressmen out there (many printing businesses screen for colorblindness in the hiring process), yet he’s learned to set color through the years. USA Today never let him set color while he was working there. “They wanted me in the pressroom, but they said, ‘You’ll never set color,’ ” says Smith, who is red-green colorblind. It wasn’t until he moved up to Madison that he was given the opportunity to set black. Then, management wanted to see how he did with color publications. “I just learned how to do it,” he says. “I just had to adapt to what I see in the picture.”

He explains that he looks for the density of subtle shades as opposed to the hues his eye sees. His team also helps him make sure the colors look right. Smith doesn’t do much color setting anymore as he’s moved into the press manager role, but he sometimes fills in. “I do enjoy setting color,” he says. “It is frustrating at times for me, because I want to have it perfect.” Most of the time, he’s spot on with his colors.

He hasn’t quite perfected his colors in other areas, though.

“Talk to my wife,” he says. “I go to leave the house in the morning and she goes, ‘You’re going to wear that shirt with those pants?'”

This article is part of the May 2019 cover story, “50 Things that Give Madison Color.” Click here to see the full cover story.