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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven 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.

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Brochure Printing: From Paste-up to Computer Design

A colleague who started designing art files for book printing a few years ago asked me to distinguish between layout and paste-up. The question brought to mind all of the changes in the field of design and custom printing over the 34 years I have been in the business. I’ll provide an answer for the question my colleague asked, but I will go further to mention some of the other changes I have witnessed.

What is layout? What is paste-up?

First of all, I think of layout as the arrangement of visual elements on a page. It is the artistic component of the design and production process, which includes the choice of formats (whether you have chosen a book printing or brochure printing format, for instance), size and number of folds (whether the job is a wrap fold or accordion fold), type faces and point sizes and placement and treatment of images, whether the job will be 2-color or 4-color, and color placement. This is just a short list. I’m sure I’m missing many elements. Basically, layout is the organization of visual information on a page or in an entire book. It is now done on a computer, but when I started in the business, it was a physical process done on an art board.

Paste-up, in contrast (which is now defunct), involved physically positioning strips of type galleys, rule lines, and patches of “rubylith” (as placeholders for photos) on a sheet of layout paper. The designer used rubber cement (or, when I started doing paste-up, the adhesive was wax that was heated and rolled out onto the back of the sheets of type) to affix and immobilize the pieces of the type galleys (paragraphs and headlines on photosensitive, resin-coated paper). Everything had to be straight, precisely aligned. Any flaws would be visible on the negatives, the plates, and especially the final printed job delivered by the custom printing service.

From art boards to negatives to printing plates

Each printed page had a physical paste-up board, which was photographed by the custom printing vendor using a huge, horizontal camera. The negative film the printer used to capture the image on the paste-up board was placed on chemically treated metal and exposed to light to yield a press-ready printing plate. Light went through the transparent portions of the negative to chemically alter the plate below, while the opaque portions of the negative blocked the light. A chemical development process yielded the final custom printing plate.

Whether the final product was a blueline proof (blue type and images on thick paper used as a proof to show placement of all graphic elements) or a negative, the process was photographic in nature. It was also mechanical, insofar as custom printing plant staff had to assemble all the negatives of rules, type, and images on “goldenrod” sheets (“flats”) in preparation for the photographic exposure of the plates.

Design and production tasks have moved to the computer

Now, all of this is done by computer. The designer no longer receives galleys of type from a dedicated typesetter (long strips of photosensitive type paper with a single column of type interspersed with headlines). He or she no longer pastes these up by hand to create art boards (which were also called “mechanicals”). The designer uses a computer to complete many of the tasks that used to be the purview of the custom printing provider’s prepress department. Then the designer hands off the file electronically to the printer (with no actual galleys and no physical “mechanicals” ever made).

The business printing provider skips the stripping stage, no longer assembling photographic negatives of images and type onto the goldenrod flats. Having abandoned the negative stage entirely, the printer images the custom printing plate directly from the computer.

Where does publication design go from here?

At it’s most extreme, the designer’s computer (the page composition and image editing software) drives the platesetter by proxy (the same art files transmitted to the custom printing shop, once electronically imposed, drive the business printing vendor’s platesetter).

One step further down the road would be printing directly to the press (which is how digital printing works, whether it is ink-jet or high-end xerography on a HP Indigo digital press). Instead of, or at least in addition to, printing multiple copies of one master, the digital process allows for mass customization (infinitely differing copies all printed by one digital press).

At the final extreme, we omit paper entirely and publish directly to the Internet. Which, according to numerous marketing studies, will not happen any time soon because people still love to open and read their physical mail. Direct mail is growing, not diminishing, and is taking a complementary position to Web marketing. Like radio and TV, custom printing and the Internet will continue to coexist and complement one another for the foreseeable future.

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