Printing & Design Tips: May 2005, Issue #46

Random Thoughts on Proofing

A client of mine is considering buying a high-end proofing device for their magazine. By this I mean an ink-jet printer of sufficient quality to produce what is called a “contract proof” (reasonably comparable in detail and color fidelity to an analog proof such as a Matchprint). Unlike high-end proofers, most ink-jet and laser printers will provide only a close facsimile of the final printed product. The color will be somewhat inaccurate, but in some cases “good enough” is good enough.

The particular client in question pays for their magazine with ad revenue, and advertisers want high-quality ads faithful in color and crisp in detail. Many of these advertisers don’t supply hard-copy proofs, so my client is considering the purchase of a high-end proofing device to the tune of almost $30,000. Of this amount, more than $3,000 is for set-up and shipping. Keep in mind that the output and color accuracy of such a machine dwarf those of the $80.00 ink-jet you can buy at Costco. This high-end ink-jet proofer blows Costco’s ink-jet proofer out of the water in terms of color range, image sharpness, and detail.

When asked for my advice, I had these initial thoughts, which I hope will benefit readers who are also considering such a purchase.

I first asked why the client needed this level of color fidelity and whether the offset printer that produces the magazine could provide contract proofs. This was being done already, but the client wanted a faster turn-around for last-minute changes within tight deadlines. I asked if any other firms in the area had such a proofer my client could occasionally pay to use. (Of course, this would be a cumbersome process, since this ink-jet proofing device would need to be calibrated to the offset press, and most firms would hesitate to recalibrate their proofer for an occasional client. Awkward logistical problems might also arise.)

Then I asked whether my client needed to see halftone dots. The ink-jet proofer in question was “continuous tone,” that is, incapable of showing dot structure. Therefore, the potential for “moiré” patterning on press would not be revealed. If my client were a purist and wanted very high-quality printed images, risking the possibility of “moiré” patterning on press would be unacceptable and would rule out the high-end proofer.

Another question was how many proofs my client would actually need to produce when the magazine is published each week. In this particular case, the design team would want only a few, including the cover image. Unless the advertising department would also be using the device (to provide proofs for advertisers for a reasonable fee), my conclusion was that this would not be a cost-effective purchase.

There is also the potential for obsolescence with this proofing device, as the technology will surely change and mature over the next few years. You must also factor in the amount of time it would take to keep the device color-calibrated, and clean and filled with distilled water--tasks integral to machine maintenance.

I wondered if soft-proofing (proofing on a monitor) was an option. I explained that color produced on-screen with light differs from the color produced with pigments or dyes used in ink-jet proofing. The monitor would need to be shielded from surrounding light so the color would be consistent throughout the day. Even though the color gamut of monitors (color produced with light) and the color gamut of ink-jet proofers (color produced with ink) are not exactly the same, color calibration software now exists to help match the output from the two proofing technologies, allowing you to see a good representation on-screen of what to expect on-press.

In the final analysis, this is a hard decision to make. A color monitor is not completely accurate, although color calibration methods have improved significantly over the years. On the other hand, an actual high-end ink-jet may soon become obsolete and would no doubt involve the cost of consumables and upkeep.

For now there are more questions than answers, but I did suggest that my client consider using OPM (other people’s money), as opposed to purchasing a costly, imperfect machine that may become obsolete over time. When in doubt, it is always preferable to loosen up tight deadlines to allow your offset print provider the time he needs to create one or more proofs.

Accordion vs. Wrap Fold

Folding is a complex art, and so is describing a fold to a printer. If you’re creating a one-page brochure that includes a fold (no staples or glue), you may want to become familiar with the following terms before discussing specifications with your print provider.

  • Accordion Fold: This is a zig-zag fold in which each panel of your brochure folds the opposite direction from the last one, back and forth, like the fabric in an accordion.
  • Barrel Fold or Wrap Fold: All panels fold in the same direction. You are essentially folding the flat brochure, panel over panel over panel, until you get your final, finished size.

Remember that no verbal description of a fold can match a three-dimensional folded prototype: that is, a laser mock-up of your final printed piece.

[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.]