Printing and Design Tips: April 2017, Issue #189

Levels of Quality of Printing

I was always brought up to do my best, in anything. It went without saying. But when you apply this approach to printing, is it always necessary or desirable?

I know this is a trick question, but what we’re really talking about is quality, or rather levels of quality, and in manufacturing in general and printing specifically, quality comes at a price, whether it be in terms of money or time.

Another approach to quality, which really means meeting or exceeding certain standards, is to match the level of quality to the importance of a job. And, of course, to have measurable criteria by which you can judge the level of quality.

For example, if you’re producing a flyer to staple to a telephone pole, you probably only need black ink or toner on a tinted printing stock. Your goal is to convey a message once. The flyer just has to be readable.

In contrast, if you are designing and printing an annual report, you’re going to choose the best paper, print four or five colors, and perhaps add various contrasting cover coatings. Your goal is to communicate information (as with the flyer), but you are also conveying certain nuances of value and sophistication. Therefore, your overall price will be much higher, and you will choose a different kind of printer: a commercial printer versed in marketing collateral rather than a quick printer.

A List of Standards

I recently found a breakdown of levels of printing quality in a book called Getting It Printed by Mark Beach and Eric Kenly. It is actually one of the first books on printing I ever read many decades ago, and I still think it’s one of the best.

Getting It Printed distinguishes among “basic,” good,” “premium,” and “showcase” level work. In a chart called “Guide to Printing Quality” the book then addresses the quantifiable tolerances that constitute the various levels of quality.

For instance, in the “Register” category, the authors considered a variation of plus or minus .015 inch to be acceptable for “basic” printing (a simple 4-color flyer, for instance). This means that if you are using two or more colors that should abut to one another, it would be acceptable for the printer to have them out of alignment by this amount. Granted, it’s not ideal, and I’m not saying that the printer would do this on purpose. It would just be acceptable within the category of color register for the basic level of printing. (Keep in mind that you’re paying much less for this level of quality, which you don’t need for certain kinds of “throw-away” printing.)

In contrast, for “good” work, the authors reduce this level of variation to plus or minus .010 inch; for “premium” level work it drops to plus or minus .005 inch; and for “showcase” work, there must be precise register with no variation.

(Here are some things to keep in mind. There will be variation from sheet to sheet as the printing paper goes through the four or more units of the printing press. A skilled printer can control this, and he will approach perfection but never quite get there on every sheet in a press run. But on showcase work, he will be checking the press much more carefully and much more often, and he will be making far more minute adjustments than on basic-level work.)

(In addition, here’s a good rule of thumb: if you’re printing collateral for fashion, food, or automotive work, you’re at the showcase level of the continuum—assuming the aforementioned flyer stapled to a telephone pole is at the opposite end of the continuum.)

What to Look For

Beach and Kenly include ten categories in their chart that you might want to address in the various levels of quality printing:

1. “Register”

2. “Density”

3. “Screen percentages”

4. “Dot gain”

5. “Halftones”

6. “Separations”

7. “Color match”

8. “Minor flaws”

9. “Coatings”

10. “Finishing”

The chart is very specific. For example, in the “Register” section, Beach and Kenly encourage you (when talking with a printer) to use specific measurements. They say you should not use subjective terms like “tight register,” or even more precise ones like “one row of halftone dots,” because even the latter will vary depending on the halftone line screen.

“Density” can be measured with the printer’s densitometer. The authors of Getting It Printed encourage you to require minimal variation on the same press sheet, from press signature to press signature, and for exact reprints on identical paper (in this case, plus or minus 7 percent for “basic” quality down to plus or minus 1 percent for “showcase” quality).

“Screen percentages” reflect the accuracy of the printed halftone screen (for instance, a specified ten percent screen shouldn’t print as a twenty percent screen).

Controlling screen percentages also pertains to controlling “Dot gain” (again, on the same press sheet throughout the press run, from press signature to press signature, and for exact reprints), since dot gain makes screens and halftones appear darker than specified.

“Halftones” refers to the range of density within a photo. For showcase work, a printer should be able to hold a highlight dot of 3 percent and a shadow dot of 95 percent. For lesser quality work, the tonal range would be narrower, 5 percent to 90 percent.

For “Separations,” Beach and Kenly distinguish between “good” color that matches the proofs and “showcase” color that matches the products (such as the garment samples photographed for a fashion catalog layout).

“Color match” refers to matching both process colors and PMS colors (when compared to the PMS swatch and the proof—not the monitor—and under standard 5000 degree Kelvin lighting conditions in a neutral gray viewing booth). Beach and Kenly remind us that “register, density, and dot gain all affect color.”

“Minor flaws” include “scumming, setoff, hickies, smudges, wrinkles, doubling, slurring, streaks, smears, scratches, nicks, gear and roller marks” (Beach and Kenly’s Guide to Printing Quality chart in Getting It Printed). This list basically includes any visible flaws introduced on press. Basic quality would accept more flaws in more locations, from signature to signature, and so on. Showcase would tolerate nothing less than perfection (or the nearest human equivalent).

In the “Coatings” section of the quality chart, Beach and Kenly encourage you to look for uniform coverage of the added press coatings (such as UV or aqueous coating), with no cracking, blistering, or other flaws, and no paper curling.

Finally, in the “Finishing” section, Getting It Printed addresses the precision of post-press operations such as drilling, die cutting, perforating, scoring, trimming, binding, and such. This includes accuracy in making the folds (as well as the accuracy of the fold measurements); the absence of any wrinkles; the strength of the pages within the binding under a “pull-test”; the precise squareness of the trimming and folding, with no pages sticking together and all pages bound with the paper grain running parallel to the book spine; and the inclusion of all pages and all signatures in their proper place with no “make-ready” signatures (those not up to color accuracy) bound into the final product.

Getting It Printed includes many other suggestions, in this section and throughout the text. The more closely and the more often you check printed work, the more these will become second nature for you to observe. But this is a thorough overview of what to look for and how to distinguish the level of quality of printing: from “basic” to “good” to “premium” and finally to “showcase” work.

Choose an Appropriate Printer for the Job

More than anything, this is a guide to help you select a printer. First you need to determine how the printed product will be used and for what length of time. Then you can select an appropriate printer for the job.

If you demand absolute perfection in every project, you will spend a lot of money needlessly.

[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]