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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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Archive for July, 2014

Business Card Printing: Digital vs. Offset Case Study

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

I received a business card to price a few days ago. My print brokering client wanted 500 copies of one version of a two sided card.

I had printed a business card for my client a few years prior, so I asked about the paper stock. I asked whether she had liked the last version of her card, and also whether the inks on this digitally printed card had been sufficiently rub resistant.

I had wondered about the durability of the business card since it had been printed on an Indigo digital press using liquid toner on an uncoated paper stock. I knew this would have been slightly less durable than a comparably designed business card offset printed on an uncoated paper stock. After all, digital toner particles sit up on the surface of the paper, while offset printed inks seep into the paper fibers. From a user’s perspective, the digitally printed business cards would therefore be more likely to lose toner particles to rough use and fingerprints than would the offset printed business cards.

Reviewing the Specs and Art, and Choosing the Appropriate Printing Technology

My client wanted 500 business cards printed on both sides. The front of her business card art included type and a logo printed in blue and type printed in black, but there was no abutting of colors (therefore no trapping). This would make printing easier.

I looked closely at the business card sample she had given me using my printer’s loupe. I could not see any halftone dots in the blue type; therefore, I knew the job had been offset printed. Had the sample been printed on digital custom printing equipment, the blue color would have been a process color build. There would have been overlapping screens of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black creating the illusion of blue type.

I wanted to make sure the commercial printing vendor could hold register on the Indigo digital press and produce a crisp version of the blue type and logo, so I emailed him a copy of the art file. I also wanted to make sure he could determine the correct percentages of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black comprising the blue type by preflighting the PDF I sent him. Would the color build match the blue PMS color on the offset printed cards? He suggested that I send him a printed business card to use as a target to ensure color fidelity.

More Business Card Printing on the Way

My client seemed to be happy with the pricing I sent her the next day, because she then sent me three business card fronts (three names) and one business card back as high-res PDFs.

Having three business cards to work with might change things. I still consider offset printing to be superior to digital, even if by a small margin. Digital print pricing for my client’s prior business card printing job seemed to be about a third of the cost of offset for a run of 500 copies printed on one side.

So I asked the printer to bid the three business cards digitally and also as a ganged offset job, with all three versions on one press sheet. I knew this would effectively spread the cost of custom printing (set up, printing, finishing) over three jobs, making each business card effectively less expensive than one business card printed alone.

Now a Brochure As Well

I was even happier when my client added a brochure to the mix. The first iteration was a press run of 50 copies, so it would need to be a digitally printed job to be cost effective.

The brochure, an 11” x 8.5” six panel job wrap folded to fit in a No. 10 envelope, also had a two-color motif (blue and black). Of course, as a digital job the blue color would need to be a build of process toners. Therefore, I was concerned about registration. Would the colors used to build the blue be in register, or would they not be precisely aligned and therefore look a little fuzzy?

When I looked at the PDF, I noticed that the type in blue was set in a sans serif typeface, and it was not overly small. I felt better. There were no small, finely drawn serifs in the letterforms to break up or to show any misregistration. I also felt that the blue was probably only built with two of the four colors, probably only cyan and black. After all, it’s easier to get two colors in perfect alignment than four.

Increasing the Number of Brochures

Within 24 hours the press run for the brochures had increased from 50 copies to 250 to 500. I’m not sure where the break-even point will be for shifting from digital custom printing to offset, so I have asked the commercial printing supplier to provide pricing for both.

I even suggested ganging up the business cards and brochures on a larger press sheet (for offset printing). Again, this would distribute the make-ready cost among three business cards and one brochure.

It is true that the business cards will be on 130# stock and the brochures will be on a much lighter press sheet. However, given the short press run it seems that even throwing away some brochures and some business cards (extras printed on the wrong paper) would be cheaper than changing plates on the press. One press run, lots of waste, but overall only a minimal amount of paper. We’ll see what he says and how the pricing looks.

What You Can Learn

This case study reflects one particular print job. However, it also suggests ways to approach many other custom printing jobs. Here are a few things to consider for your own work:

  1. Will your press run be short enough for a digital press? Your printer can answer this based on the trim size, number of pages, and press run.
  2. If so, consider how the colors will be produced: i.e., four-color builds rather than the PMS colors used in offset printing.
  3. Will the type be too small or too intricate if produced with screens of the process colors?
  4. How will the liquid toners behave on an uncoated sheet or a coated sheet? Will they be rub resistant? Ask your printer.
  5. If you produce part of the overall job on digital equipment and part on offset equipment, will the two printed pieces (let’s say a brochure printed digitally and a set of business cards produced via offset lithography) look alike?

Commercial Printing: Open Source Graphic Design Apps

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

Throughout most of my 36-year career in graphic design, Apple Macintosh has been the gold standard for publication design. I have always been pleased with the software, from PageMaker to Quark to InDesign. But recent changes in pricing structure for Adobe applications such as Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign have potentially put these applications out of reach financially for a lot of people. They have gone from a one-time charge per application purchase (or for multiple applications in Creative Suite) to a subscription basis (per month/per year) of approximately $20 per month for one application or $50 per month for the entire design suite.

Subscription-Based Design Applications

I don’t want to disparage this shift, since it actually provides designers with a constant stream of up-to-the-minute software improvements. You can access any and all new software instantly (and download these software packages to your computer) within this subscription-based pricing model. For many designers, this is ideal.

Nevertheless, some designers don’t need all this functionality. Some produce an occasional newsletter or print book, and that’s it.

Also consider that a reasonable valuation for a software package is the prorated cost of the application over two years. That’s about average for many designers, who pay to upgrade their software on a two-year schedule due to improvements in application features.

Within this framework, you might want to multiply $50 for the suite or $20 for one application by 24 months (for a total of $1,200 and $480 respectively). If you’re doing a lot of design work and billing a lot of hours, this might be just a cost of doing business. After all, you get superb, ever-improving software for this price.

Alternatives to Creative Cloud

I have written about this new pricing model in prior blogs, including such options as purchasing used, older versions of the software that meet one’s needs but are not necessarily cutting edge (i.e., older versions bought on eBay). I have even suggested the option of buying only one Creative Cloud application (Adobe’s name for the new software distribution approach). After all, $480 a year for InDesign is cheaper than $1,200 a year for all Adobe design products. But which design application do you choose, and what do you do about the others you need?

What About Open Source?

My iMac recently died. Before my next big design project, a print book directory for a non-profit foundation, I must choose a replacement (or use my fiancee’s Mac Mini). Regardless, this has spurred my thinking about alternatives.

At the same time, I just bought a used Lenovo laptop running Ubuntu Linux, an open source operating system. Open source software is always being improved by software designers around the world. Not only is it always improving; it is also free. Based on my research, a used laptop running Linux is about $100 cheaper than a comparable Windows machine. Nonetheless, it’s not for everybody. I have been pleased by how speedy Ubuntu Linux is, how immediately accessible the functions I use have been (I don’t need to struggle to find things), and I think it’s cool to learn a new operating system. However, it does occasionally involve using some computer code (in its Terminal mode). Since I initially learned about computers in the 1980s with command-intensive operating systems such as CP/M and MS DOS running WordStar and Superalc, and since I started setting type on dedicated Compugraphic and Mergenthaler typesetting equipment, I kind of like entering computer code—now and then–when it speeds things up.

Granted—others, brought up using a GUI (graphic users interface)–may well feel very different.

That said, I thought I’d investigate open source options as I gradually decide which platform, operating system, and applications to use for future graphic design work.

Two Options for Images and Text: GIMP and Scribus

This is based on cursory research. Nevertheless, I think it’s a good starting point. It gives you some directions and options, but you need to match the capabilities to your needs. Free isn’t always free if the stress takes years off your life, or if you work for a graphic design studio that’s flush with cash.

Based on my reading, the best alternative to Photoshop is GIMP, and the best alternative to InDesign (or Quark, PageMaker, etc.) is Scribus. In both cases (particularly the latter), the best thing is that these programs are being continuously tweaked and improved based on feedback by actual users. Actual users. You can’t beat this. No profit motive. As the reseller who sold me the Lenovo laptop running Ubuntu Linux said, these IT professionals writing open source code do this for fun, for free, on weekends, while we’re out watching movies. God bless them.

A brief rundown on GIMP and Scribus would include the following: Both run on Linux and on other operating systems. GIMP is the most similar to Photoshop in terms of its comprehensive functions, everything from its brushes to its color management capabilities, selection options, and image enhancement capabilities. You can also process the same file format types as you can with Photoshop. Since GIMP is similar to, but not the same as, Photoshop, you might want to research GimPhoto, which is a version of GIMP that more closely resembles Photoshop.

I have not used this software. I have just started my research. However, it looks promising. It seems to be a real option for serious image manipulation in a professional design environment (as opposed to for doctoring a few images for uploading to Facebook).

Scribus seems to be a little less ready for prime time. It does not yet seem to match InDesign’s capabilities. The key word is “yet.” I think it may well get there. For now it seems better suited for smaller jobs like newsletters than for long print books. From reading the user forums, I have gleaned that font management (changing fonts within a design file) within Scribus seems to be less intuitive and harder to do than in InDesign.

Open Source developers traditionally listen to users. Therefore, I expect to see good things from Scribus in the not-too-distant future.

If I had to make a decision right now, I’d buy either a used (or older) version of InDesign on eBay and run it on my fiancee’s MacMini. Then I’d download GIMP and run it on Ubuntu Linux on my recently purchased, off-lease, reconditioned Lenovo laptop. In a year I might make a different decision.

Custom Printing: Two Ways to Emphasize Design Elements

Saturday, July 26th, 2014

I’ve written a number of PIE Blog articles referencing Design Basics Index, an easy to use print book written for designers by Jim Krause. I find it a useful guide in my own creative work.

One topic that I noticed recently is how to emphasize various design elements on a page, or how to lead the reader’s eye through the design, clarifying which items are more important and which are less. Although this sounds controlling, it actually eases the reader’s anxiety, since he or she will know exactly what to read, in what order, to grasp the meaning of the piece, without needing to think.

Using Initial Caps to Emphasize Body Copy

Krause describes and illustrates a number of ways to emphasize type using large capital letters. In this case, larger than usual capital letters can lead the reader’s eye to the beginning of a section, showing where the text begins and distinguishing editorial copy from headlines, subheads, pull quotes, etc.

You can indent initial caps three or four (or more) lines deep into the paragraph. That is, they can be as tall as three or four lines of type (resting on the baseline of the third or fourth line of body copy), while pushing the text to the right far enough to accommodate their width.

In such a case, you can use a contrasting typeface (perhaps a bold sans serif typeface to contrast a serif typeface in the body copy). Or you can use the same typeface for both the initial cap and the text (perhaps making the initial cap bold for further emphasis).

As an alternative, instead of having the initial cap sit flush with the left-hand margin (i.e., in vertical alignment with the margin), you may choose to extend it into the margin a little, or a lot.

Or, you may choose to set the initial cap on the same baseline as the first line of type in the paragraph. This way, instead of being nestled into the first three or four lines of the text, the initial cap can sit up high above the body copy.

If you screen back the initial cap, you can even set it very large and place it behind the initial paragraph of body copy. This will give a layered look to your design while still drawing the reader’s eye immediately to the first paragraph.

In all of these examples cited by Jim Krause in Design Basics Index, the goal is the same. Whether the initial caps are in color, gray, or black, they pinpoint the exact spot where the reader can enter the text of a design. This is the key, whether the design is a brochure, the first page of a print book chapter, or a large format print poster or wall graphic.

Emphasizing Headlines by Varying Type Characteristics

Design Basics Index goes on to show a number of ways to treat headlines in publication design. Most of these look like the initial pages of a magazine article or newsletter, but a savvy designer could easily adjust them to work on a large format print poster, print book cover, or any other graphic design product.

Krause’s first four sample mock-ups show a headline centered over two justified columns of text. In the four samples, the headline is set in the same typeface as the body copy. The heads differ in their type size, but, in addition, one is set in roman type, one in italics, one in all-caps, and one in small-caps.

Furthermore, one sample mock-up distinguishes the first word of the title from the following words by reversing it out of a black banner. The large text seems to shout at the reader, while a headline set in small, italic text seems quieter, particularly when surrounded by generous white space. (Perhaps this is because it is not as cramped as a larger text treatment of the headline.)

What we can learn from these four mock-ups in Design Basics Index is that each option can be adjusted to make it an effective design approach that emphasizes the headline. At the same time, each treatment of the headline, whether italic, bold, roman, large or small, will give a slightly different emphasis and tone to the headline. The design will reinforce (or could presumably even change) the meaning of the words.

Krause’s print book includes four more options, showing that headlines need not always be set above the body copy in a symmetrical manner. Two of these samples position the words of the headline in a stack of several lines with a flush right (ragged left) margin.

One example places the body copy in a full-length (top to bottom of the page) column on the right side of the page and places the headline (and a logo, but nothing else) in the column on the left. Here, an intuitive, asymmetrical balance makes the design work while emphasizing the words in the headline.

A slightly different version enlarges the flush right headline a little and sets it within a mortise cut into the column of text on the right. The text of the body copy is slightly indented, and the words run around the headline (this is called a cut and run-around). For added interest, the large headline has been placed about a third of the way down the column of body copy rather than at the exact top of the column.

Another design option in Krause’s print book article positions the large, centered, all-caps headline above a single, narrow column of body type. The logo is at the bottom of the page. For interest and emphasis, Krause tilts the three-line headline while keeping all other elements of the page in a classical, symmetric balance. The contrast between the slanted type and the symmetrically balanced remainder of the ad creates interest. The design also works because it is so unexpected. The tilted type is unusual and therefore grabs the reader’s attention.

What You Can Learn

Controlling the path your reader’s eye takes across the printed page helps him or her understand the order of importance and the relationship among the various text and graphic elements of a design. This makes a print book page, brochure, or large format print poster much easier to navigate. By grouping important elements in a simple way and adding emphasis using differences in type size, alignment, design, or color, the graphic artist can help make the reader’s experience both productive and enjoyable.

And the best way to learn to do this is to identify sample publications you particularly like, and then study them closely to determine exactly why they work so well.

Large Format Printing: See-Through Window Graphics

Thursday, July 24th, 2014

How do they do that? Have you ever seen a large format print graphic covering an entire bus, including the windows? How do the passengers see out of the bus?

Large format, perforated window media is the answer. This inkjet printing substrate, made of vinyl with small holes across its entire surface, is imaged on one side with inkjet equipment and left blank on the other. When applied across the surface of a bus, including the metal walls of the vehicle and the windows, this provides an awe inspiring view of the graphic image while only lowering visibility a little. It is also a significantly larger image than was previously possible to manufacture or apply to a vehicle.

How Is It Done?

If you look closely, this window film is covered with a grid of small, regularly spaced holes. The surface reduces visibility to about the same extent as a tint applied to a window. The holes, which are spaced in a 60/40 distribution (60 percent printable, 40 percent open) or another percentage ratio, afford visibility through the unprinted side of the graphic, while the eye “connects the holes” and registers a complete image of whatever is on the other side. Seen from the side that has been imaged on inkjet equipment, the view is of a full-color, large format print. If you think about it, this is similar to the way the eye connects the halftone dots of a printed photo, turning them into a coherent image.

Printable window mesh film can be inkjet printed on a grand-format printer in sections and then applied to the surface of the windows with adhesive. The strips of the printed image can be laid over one another slightly at the edges to form a huge, continuous photo. (In some cases, the film has the adhesive on the imaged side, which allows users to apply the film to the inside of the windows, affording more protection. This film has a low tack adhesive on the printable side, which makes it repositionable. It also will leave little or no residue when removed.)

The printed window film should last for a number of years, depending on its use and exposure, and any portions of the graphic that are damaged can be replaced (in small sections rather than in its entirety). Commercial printing vendors who produce such large format graphics will laminate them after producing the graphics in order to improve their tolerance for rain and sunlight and so extend their life.

Indeed, finding a skilled professional to prepare the surface of the glass, apply the film to the windows of the vehicle, and then remove it at a later date is as important as the design and the quality of the inkjet custom printing.

Why Is It So Effective?

Anything this large grabs your attention. Think about the large screens in the iMax theater. Images that cover one’s entire field of vision have far more impact than smaller graphics. If you’re close up, you really can’t see anything but the image. You become immersed in the experience.

In addition, whatever is unexpected will immediately grab the viewer’s attention in a world full of competing images. When I was growing up, bus graphics were confined to the logos of the bus company on the metal sides of the bus and a large format poster frame on the back of the bus. Even the art printed on rock band tour buses covered the exterior metal of the bus but stopped at the windows. Seeing an image dramatically larger than expected makes such a large format print truly memorable.

Where Else Can It Be Used?

I recently saw this perforated window mesh used on the front of a local sporting goods store. Tightly cropped images of basketball players in action covered the glass doors. From outside the store, you could see the image, while the view of the street from the inside was no less clear than through a tinted window.

So installing such perforated window film on glass doors, cars, vans, buses, and even plate glass windows on buildings can provide a powerful opportunity to hook the attention of passersby.

How to Design for Window Mesh Film

When you create artwork for inkjet custom printing on such a substrate, you might want to consider the following:

  1. The images will be of a lower resolution than in a book or brochure. This is true for most grand-format graphics. They are designed to be seen from a distance.
  2. Therefore, design your graphic image with large, dramatically cropped photos. Include saturated colors and a sense of movement in the large format print.
  3. Working within these limitations will allow you to produce an arresting design that benefits from this newer large-format printing technology.

Large Format Printing: Fine Art Printing Techniques

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

In the rush to produce posters, building wraps, brochures, and print books for either promotional or educational purposes, we may forget that one of the main uses for custom printing for centuries has been to reproduce copies of fine art.

Some Techniques and Technologies

For the most part, custom printing techniques for fine art prints fall into three complementary categories: relief, intaglio, and planographic.

Relief Printing

Relief printing includes such techniques as linoleum block or wood block printing, in which a raised area of the printing plate (in this case a block of linoleum or wood) will transfer ink to a substrate (such as paper).

The artist uses gouges and other tools to remove all portions of the linoleum or wood block’s surface that are not the actual artistic rendering. Then he or she uses an ink roller to distribute ink across the linoleum or wood block’s surface. The next step is to lay the paper substrate on the block and apply pressure (by hand or with a press). All inked areas of the block will then transfer the image to the substrate.

Intaglio Printing

Intaglio is the term for the second technique, in which the custom printing surface is below the flat surface of the plate. This category includes the process of engraving, which is used for fine art prints and for such commercial items as engraved invitations.

In the engraving process, the artist uses a sharp instrument called a burin to dig grooves in the printing plate (which is made of copper or another metal). Areas that will print as part of the fine art design will be recessed into the metal, while all non-printing areas will be untouched. This is the opposite of the relief process described above.

Once the artist has completed the design on the plate, he or she dabs thick ink across its surface, being careful to get ink into all the grooves that comprise the artwork. Then, all ink on the surface of the printing plate is wiped off, leaving ink only in the recessed grooves. The artist mounts the plate on the press, inserts a piece of moistened paper into the press, and then uses the press to transfer the inked image from the plate to the paper. The intense pressure forces the fibers of the printing paper into the inked grooves cut into the custom printing plate with the burin and transfers the image. At this point, the plate can be reinked and another impression can be made on a new sheet of paper.

The intaglio process also includes such techniques as etching, in which a waxy resin resistant to the effects of acid is applied to the surface of the coper or zinc plate. The artist uses an etching needle to cut through portions of the waxy resin to create the design. When the plate is then immersed in an acid bath, the acid eats into the plate in all areas not covered with the acid resist substance. Once the plate has been etched, the artist can apply ink, wipe off all ink on the surface (but not in the grooves cut by the acid), and then proceed with the custom printing process as with an engraving.

Etching (as opposed to engraving, which involves direct cutting into the plate with a tool rather than an acid bath) includes such techniques as aquatint and mezzotint, while the more direct process of scraping into the plate includes such techniques as drypoint and wood engraving.

Planographic Printing

The planographic process employs a completely flat plate. Image areas are not raised (as in relief printing) or recessed (as in intaglio printing). They are on the same level as non-image areas. This is the same process used for offset lithography.

Planographic plates are based on the incompatibility of oil and water. Oil repels water; water repels oil. Treating the image areas of a custom printing plate in such a way that they attract the oily ink while water covers all non-printing areas of the plate allows the plate to deposit the ink precisely.

In offset lithography, the plate first prints the image onto a fabric or rubber blanket and from there onto the paper substrate.

In more traditional lithography, in which the artist draws the image on a limestone plate with a special greasy crayon, the greasy markings attract the printing ink. At the same time, water applied to the surface of the plate is repelled by the greasy image area. When the artist lays moist paper onto the printing plate and runs it through the press, the intense pressure transfers the inked image to the paper substrate.

Silkscreen Printing

The final technique fits into none of the prior three categories. In silkscreen printing, the artist creates an image on a silk (or metal) screen that has been stretched over a wood or metal frame. Areas that will not print are blocked out (using a resist substance like shellac), while image areas are left open. The artist deposits ink at one end of the screen frame, lays the frame down over the paper substrate, and using a rubber squeegie, drags the ink across the screen. This forces the ink through the portions of the screen that have not been blocked out with shellac and onto the paper substrate.

For each successive color, the artist cleans the screen, uses shellac to cover all areas that will not print, and repeats the inking and squeegeeing process.

While this description implies that the artist has created the image by hand on the successive screens, he or she can also use photomechanical methods to create halftones that can be printed in the same way.

The Take-Away

Printing is an art and a craft. The books, posters, and business cards you design are printed with many of the same, or similar, techniques as have been used through the centuries to produce fine art prints.

Custom Pocket Folders: Multiple Copies on a Single Page

Sunday, July 20th, 2014

It is unusual for a printer to print only one copy of your brochure, poster, custom pocket folder, or print book signatures on a press sheet when he produces your job via sheetfed offset lithography. This would not be efficient. Nor would it be economical.

Instead, he usually lays out a number of pages (on a computer in the digital prepress component of custom printing) in a certain order on the press sheet so they will fall in the right position when the large press sheet has been folded and trimmed.

What exactly does this look like? What do you see on a printed but untrimmed press sheet?

Sheetwise vs. Work and Turn vs. Work and Tumble

Let’s say you’re printing a 9” x 12” custom pocket folder with a 4” pocket. Prior to converting, this job is a four-page, 18” x 16” product (plus any build for the spine, plus any glue flaps and/or bleeds). The 18” dimension would include two 9” pages, and the 16” dimension would include the 12” side plus the open (unfolded) 4” pocket.

Your custom printing supplier can get two of these on a 25” x 38” press sheet. If your press run is 5,000 copies, this would only require him to print and convert 2,500 sheets. This will save him time and money. To do this he has a number of options.


Your printer can lay out these two pocket folders side by side on a 38” wide by 25” high press sheet. (Picture two completely unfolded pocket folders, one on the left and one on the right, standing on their 16” sides). The printer can first print one side (the exterior front and back, for instance). After these 2,500 printed sheets have dried, he can turn them over and print the other side: the interior pockets. However, he must first clean the press and hang new plates. (This is called a wash-up. It takes time and costs money.)

Work and Turn and Work and Tumble

If your printer flips over one of the pocket folders on the press sheet, so the front of the sheet includes one custom pocket folder’s front and back covers and one pocket folder’s interior two pockets, he can print one side of the sheet, wait for it to dry, and then print the other side of the press sheet without washing up and rehanging new plates. (That is, the same plates are used for both sides of the press sheet.) Depending on how he turns the press sheet, this approach is called either work and turn or work and tumble.

Specifically, work and turn involves keeping the gripper edge of the press sheet (the leading edge) the same when the printer turns over the sheet (from side to side). In contrast, work and tumble involves turning the press sheet in a tumbling (end over end, rather than side over side) manner. The gripper edge changes from the front of the sheet to the back of the sheet and the side guide stays the same.

Of course, all this happens after the sheet has dried. If the ink is wet, it will offset onto other pages.

When to Use Sheetwise vs. Work and Turn/Work and Tumble

Let’s say your pocket folder has heavy ink coverage on the exterior covers (front and back), but nothing inside. Once the open pockets have been folded up and the glue tabs have been folded over and attached, the interior of the pocket folder would appear to have some interior color. It will just have been printed on one side of the press sheet prior to folding. (That is, the interior pockets would have initially been printed as part of the exterior of the folder.)

In this case it would be prudent to print the job sheetwise, since only one side would need to be printed. Flipping one of the pocket folders over on the press sheet prior to printing would gain nothing and necessitate two print runs, one for either side of the press sheet. In this case, having both images side by side in this “two-up” sheetwise imposition would be ideal.

Or, if the printer needed to print heavy ink coverage on the exterior covers of the pocket folder and light ink coverage on the interior, he might also choose a sheetwise imposition to avoid overinking the interior pages.

In other cases, he would probably choose work and turn or work and tumble imposition, depending on how he wanted the images to fall on the final press sheet (again, this might have a lot to do with the amount of ink coverage). Once he has imposed the images (in this case, the custom pocket folders) on the press sheet, he can choose whether to turn the sheet from side to side or end over end, after the ink has dried.

Remember, the same holds true whether your printer is producing two pocket folders on a sheet, four brochures on a sheet, or a sixteen-page print book signature (eight pages on each side of the press sheet). The printer must determine the most efficient and economical way to position the pages on the final press sheet to avoid overinking the printed product and make sure the folded piece allows each page to fall in the proper position.

Custom Printing: Dot Gain and What to Do About It

Thursday, July 17th, 2014

About twenty years ago I designed a 6” x 9” 4-color print catalog. I was an art director at a local non-profit organization. I had just received the color proof of the catalog, which was about to be printed via web-offset lithography. I was horrified. Everything was too light: text, images, everything.

Keep in mind that this was twenty years ago. I was looking at a proof created from litho films. If I recall correctly, it was a 3M Matchprint proof.

What had happened was that the printer had adjusted everything to compensate for the dot gain that would occur on the heatset web press during the custom printing process. As its name implies, dot gain means that halftone dots print darker on press than expected. Therefore, in this case, the film had to be adjusted to compensate for this darkening. Had the printer not reduced the size of the halftone dots in the film from which the plates would be burned, the final printed product would have been too dark, and everyone who received a print catalog in the mail would have been horrified.

(As an aside, you might ask why the commercial printing supplier didn’t produce one set of films for the platemaking process—again, it was twenty years ago—and another for the proof. This would have made the proof useless as a technical diagnostic tool. I would have been looking at a picture-perfect proof that bore no resemblance to the final film, plates, or printed product.)

What Is Dot Gain?

In each successive process in platemaking and custom printing, the size of halftone dots increases. Now that printers produce plates directly from digital files, there is no dot gain in the initial step of making films (from which plates used to be made) because there is no longer any film. However, dot gain does occur in the making of plates and in the printing of the final job. Therefore, the printer must adjust the digital file to reduce the size of the dots before proceeding.

The amount of dot gain that occurs depends on the printing substrate and the printing process. For instance, a gloss coated press sheet has a hard surface. Therefore the ink sits up on top of the sheet. For this reason, there is less dot gain on a gloss coated sheet than on an uncoated sheet. In contrast, newsprint is very absorbent, so the ink spreads into the paper fibers, and the halftone dots expand more than on a coated sheet.

Sheetfed offset printing yields a certain amount of dot gain, but web-offset printing yields even more dot gain (this was the process used for my print catalog twenty years ago). This is due to the increased pressure between the press blankets, plates, and rollers needed to keep an almost endless ribbon of commercial printing paper in place as it travels through the press much faster than cut press sheets travel through a sheetfed press. This pressure increases the dot gain.

The other determinant of dot gain is the screen frequency of the halftones. Finer halftone screens produce higher dot gain, while coarser screens (with a lower number of dots per inch) produce less dot gain.

All of this is physical dot gain. Interestingly enough, there is one more type of dot gain: optical dot gain. As small as they may be, halftone dots on a page do have a certain thickness, and it is possible for light to hit the printing dots and cast shadows. This makes the dots appear larger, creating what is called “optical dot gain.”

What Can You Do?

All is not lost. Since the dots get larger in predictable ways, depending on the printing paper and the printing technique, a printer can intentionally make them smaller, by a predetermined amount, prior to burning custom printing plates.

How Do You Predict/Measure Dot Gain?

In most cases, dot gain is measured at the 40 percent and 80 percent tones using a densitometer. It is measured in absolute terms. For instance, if your printer tells you there is 20 percent dot gain in the 40 percent tones of an image, this means that a 40 percent halftone dot will print as a 60 percent (40 + 20) halftone dot. Therefore, using the Photoshop levels or curves tools, you or your printer must reduce the size of the halftone dots to compensate.

Should You Compensate for Dot Gain, or Should Your Let Your Printer Do This?

At the very least, discuss this with your printer. When I produced the print catalog twenty years ago, the printer adjusted the files for the dot gain. Now I usually do this myself. It depends on your level of confidence and expertise. After all, you will see a proof, but you don’t want to have all images in a proof be too light or too dark, requiring more work and money to correct the problem.

So talk to your printer, find out what the dot gain will be based on the paper and the press, and then ask how he wants to compensate for dot gain in the halftones and 4-color images.

Commercial Printing: What You Can and Can’t Proof?

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

In this day and age, one would expect to be able to accurately proof anything and everything. You can get an inkjet proof of a banner (perhaps in a smaller size than the final product), and it will be color faithful. You can request digital bluelines of a book that will be offset printed. In fact, you can even get a single copy of a digitally printed book (cover and text) that will be exactly the same as the final copies your printer will deliver.

I thought about this recently when a print brokering client received a digital proof of a foil stamped case-side for her annual hard-cover directory, a 576-page tome on government and Congress. Clearly, a digital proof of such a physical process as foil stamping would be several steps removed from the accuracy I had grown to expect. Then again, in prior years she had received no proof, just a foil stamped case without its book.

The whole process made me think of what proofing processes were more accurate and which were less so.

Spot-On Proofs

Any proof printed with the same color set as the final product will be very close to accurate. I qualify that because the substrate will make a difference, and not all digital proofs are produced on the same paper as the final job. For instance, if you specify a warm press sheet (yellowish-white) and the digital proof is produced on a cool-white (blue-white) paper, the ink colors in the final printed product will be different from what you will see in the proof.

Moreover, this level of color accuracy assumes that the digital proof (produced with cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inkjet inks) will be followed by either an offset press run using the process colors or a digital press run (which either uses only 4-color process inks or augments this initial color set with a few more hues).

If your final offset printed product will be produced with spot colors (also known as PMS colors or match colors), the proof will not exactly match the final product. For instance, my book print brokering client, noted above, will have a dust jacket on her case-bound book. It will be offset printed with one PMS color plus black. The proof she received used CMYK inkjet inks to simulate the green PMS color. The proof showed the placement of all design elements and color but was not color faithful. It was only a close approximation.

A similar situation occurs when you proof a duotone. If you create a duotone on press using a halftone of black and a halftone of a PMS color, your digital proof (which uses a CMYK color set) will not match the final printed duotone.

So What Can You Do?

Fortunately, there are things you can do to avoid a huge surprise when your books, brochures, or other jobs arrive from your printer.


While you can’t proof a duotone accurately, there are books you can review and online color curves you can apply to a particular halftone. In this case, you’re basically choosing a sample of what you like and then recreating the duotone by copying the Photoshop “levels” or “curves” settings for both the black halftone and the PMS color halftone that comprise the duotone. Depending on the quality of your initial photo, this will be more or less color faithful, but it’s still a gamble.

Plan B is to attend a press check on-site at the printer’s plant. This way, you can talk with the press operator to discuss your goals and then make minor color changes on press while the job is running. This can be expensive. Furthermore, you may just not be able to achieve the exact results you want. Or, and even better, send a printed sample of a duotone image to your printer to show him the exact effect you’re after. Then let him adjust the actual photo from your print job to match the sample.

Foil Stamping Proof

To get back to my client’s case-bound book, reviewing the digital proof of the case side is prudent because it shows exactly where the foil stamping will be positioned on the book’s front cover, back cover, and spine. This way there’s no chance of any text element’s being too close to the edge of the book.

After that, seeing a copy of the foil stamped case side before the book blocks are hung on the binder’s boards will avoid any shock of seeing an error on the final printed and bound job. While my client would have to pay for a new die and for an additional foil stamping process if she found an error, she would not have to tear the covers off the books and redo the covers. (In this situation, reviewing a single foil stamped case side is like reviewing a single F&G—a folded and gathered but not bound or trimmed book. You’re just seeking to avoid any horrible shock before the job is completely done.)

What’s the Final Take-Away?

What this really teaches us is that no proof is an exact replica of the final job (except a digital proof of a digitally printed job produced on the final stock).

Here are some rules of thumb:

  1. The closer the substrate of the proof is to the substrate of the final job, the more accurate the proof will be.
  2. The more closely the final printing process is to that of the proof, the more accurate the proof will be (digital proof to digital final press run).
  3. And the more closely the inks used in the proof resemble the inks used in the final printed product (CMYK proof and CMYK final), the more closely your proof will match your final job.

Beyond that, the best you can do is state clearly your goals for the final printed product and then back up this description with samples of other printed jobs you like. It’s always a bit of a gamble.

Commercial Printing Case Study: Is It Digital or Offset?

Sunday, July 13th, 2014

I received a promotional brochure from a custom printing vendor today, and I was struck by several aspects of its printing quality.

First of all, the brochure had been printed on a thick stock (15 point cover stock, six panels folded to 4 5/8” x 6 1/8”). The thickness of the paper made me feel that the company cares enough to spend a little more on paper and postage. It suggests opulence.

Due to the thick black ink, which has some kind of coating with a smooth, almost rubbery texture (perhaps a soft-touch UV), I initially thought it had been printed on black paper. The brilliant white of the press sheet shows through the ten square 4-color images on the cover, and the text is rich and seems to be printed in white.

As Seen Through a Loupe

I wondered how it had been printed, so I pulled out my loupe. I expected to see the text screen printed or stamped in white foil, but obviously as soon as I opened the brochure, I saw that the white sheet had been “painted” in black ink, and I saw that the script typeface of the text had been merely reversed out of the black.

Looking closely at the black ink, I could see process color halftone dots hanging out of register, ever so slightly, so I surmised that the black ink was actually a rich black (a combination of black plus screens of other process colors).

Surprisingly, I could see very little cracking at the folds, in spite of the extra heavy ink coverage. I thought this was odd, and I wondered what the coating was made of.

What About the Halftones?

Upon closer observation, I saw that the brochure was actually an invitation, with photos and a schedule inside the folded piece. I was struck by the brilliant colors, particularly the yellow ink. Under the loupe I also saw green dots, so I surmised that the brilliant color had been achieved with extra inking units (hexachrome, or high fidelity color, a custom printing technique that adds such colors as green and orange to the usual CMYK color set).

Inside the brochure I read copy referring to a Timson T-Press, a new web-fed inkjet press that accepts 52” rolls and prints up to a 64-page signature, or two 32-page signatures. I saw the traditional rosettes in the halftones (circular patterns of halftone dots forming an identifiable pattern due to the angles at which the halftone screens have been tilted). Therefore, although I had expected the brochure/invitation to have been printed on the Timson T-Press via inkjet technology, I rethought my position.

If you look closely with a loupe, you’ll see that a sample of inkjet custom printing is composed of tiny dots that look like the stochastic screening of offset printing (all dots are the same size, but there are more or fewer dots depending on the amount of ink in a particular spot). In contrast, the dots on the brochure/invitation varied in size but were consistent in their placement (all were equally spaced on a grid). To me, that indicated either offset printing or electrophotography (digital laser printing).

Digital laser printing usually yields photos that are brilliant in color, but in my experience the halftone pattern looks a little different from offset printing. I usually see a halftone pattern with different sized dots on laser copy, but I usually don’t see the same rosettes as on offset printed images. In addition, some halftones in the brochure/invitation had a brilliant yellow color, but others were more muted than laser printing usually provides. They were intense in their coloration, but they did not look waxy or overly saturated.

On the cover, I saw what looked like the streaking you sometimes find in solid colors printed via digital laser technology. But they could have been roller marks (they were even in thickness and localized). They could even have been ghosting, since the small photos surrounded by heavy coverage black might have provided ideal conditions for ghosting. And ghosting is a flaw that specifically affects offset printing.

What’s the Verdict?

I’m always hesitant to say for sure, although I did bring all of the previously described characteristics into my assessment. However, I’d say that the brochure/invitation was not printed via inkjet technology (even the best inkjet from the new Timson digital press). It was probably not digitally laser printed. I would say that due to the rosettes in the halftones and the varied saturation of the photos, the most likely case was that the printer produced this via offset lithography with a dull or soft-touch UV coating. He probably used an extended color set to expand the color range beyond that of CMYK printing (maybe he even added a little fluorescent ink to the yellow).

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

When you see a printed piece you like, consider what technology produced the job. It will hone your skills in analyzing printed products, but more than this it will make you aware of all the various printing technologies and techniques that you can incorporate into your own design work.

Book Printing: Discontinued Endsheet Stock–Oops

Thursday, July 10th, 2014

I received an email from the book printer this week about the endsheet material for a case-bound book I’m brokering. It’s an annual 8.5” x 10.875”, 576-page, hard-cover publication with a press run of 1,000 copies.

The printer said the Antique Willow endsheet paper had been discontinued, and my client and I had to choose a replacement. Moreover, Rainbow, the company that had manufactured the paper used in the prior ten years (at least) worth of yearly books no longer offered anything like this particular stock in this particular color (specifically a light green, speckled paper).

First of All, What Is an Endsheet?

When you open a case-bound book, you will find a thick sheet of paper, half of which is pasted to the inside front cover of the binder’s board case side. The other half of this sheet is not pasted down. You can turn this page as though it were the first page of the book. The first half, pasted to the cover, is called the endsheet, and the loose page is called the flyleaf. At the back of the book, the pages are reversed. You have the flyleaf and then the endsheet (pasted to the back cover). You’ll know the endsheets and flyleafs because they are heavier than the interior text pages.

In case binding, the purpose of these pages is to provide a hanger to which the interior text signatures of the book can be attached. The interior edges of the endsheets are pasted down over extensions of the interior portion of the book spine that holds all the book signatures together.

What About Replacing My Client’s Endsheets with Another Brand?

Since the endsheets/flyleafs provide a functional (as opposed to aesthetic) addition to the binding of the print book by holding the pages, it’s important that they be not only attractive but also well made. The book printer producing my client’s yearly case bound book had checked, and had noted that the Rainbow sheet was superior in its runnability (it’s ability to go through the binding process and keep the book in good condition for a long time thereafter). The printer did not feel the same level of confidence in the competition’s endsheet stock.

So It Came Down to Picking Another Rainbow Sheet

Surprisingly enough, I found that choosing a replacement endsheet paper—even if it were of the same thickness and had the same paper surface as the prior year’s product—would be a subjective process potentially involving many people. My client didn’t want to get it wrong. Even though the distinction between a light green endsheet and a light grey or brown endsheet might seem insignificant, and even though most people would probably not even see whether there were specked flecks in the paper or not, some of those subscribers who received a copy of the print book year after year just might.

And given the importance of keeping the book production schedule intact in order to meet the delivery deadline, and due to the need to order and receive the new endsheet material in time for the binding process—it was important for my client to choose immediately.

But How Could She Choose, Particularly Since Many People Would Need to Weigh In?

The printer found a Rainbow endsheet sample book and, at my request, he flagged a few suggestions in various shades of green and one in light brown. Then he asked me to whom he should send the sample book. Unfortunately, at that point my client was on vacation, and her stand-in was leaving the next day.

So what I did was ask the printer to take a photo of the prior year’s endsheet stock (Antique Willow) showing its color, shade, and surface texture (speckled, with small multicolored flecks). On top of last year’s stock, before he took the photo, I asked the printer to lay down three Rainbow endsheet options he would suggest as alternatives. The paper samples side by side would show my client what to expect and how the samples would differ from last year’s stock.

I did this for one main reason: The photo could be transmitted to numerous people at the same time (like a virtual color proof for an offset printing job). Everyone could see the samples and weigh in on the choice.

I also had a copy of the physical swatchbook with the actual paper samples sent overnight to the client’s stand-in. I asked her to get back to me within twenty-four hours with a decision. I also suggested white as an alternative. I said that, in my opinion, since a huge number of books in print had white endsheets (which would in no way contrast with the text sheets of the book except in thickness), I didn’t think anyone would find fault with her choice.

Her boss got back to me in writing within a few hours of receiving the samples. He chose (or he merely conveyed the choice from the others) a shade called Oatmeal, a light brown version of the same speckled stock as last year. It was over. It was in writing. I was grateful.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Buying printing is a process. Assume that things will go wrong. When they do, ask the printer for his advice on a solution. Ask whether the printer’s suggested solution will affect the price and whether it will compromise the printing, binding, and delivery schedule.
  2. Ask for physical samples of any new manufacturing supplies (cover stock, text stock, or binding materials). But if you need something you can send around to a lot of people, also request photos (i.e., a virtual proof). Don’t use these photos instead of a physical sample swatch book. Use them in addition to a swatch book.
  3. If you need a safe choice, choose something neutral—such as a white endsheet. Better yet, look at sample print books similar to your product, and see what other designers and print buyers have done. This goes for other materials, such as the fabric for covering binder boards, foils for stamping the cover, etc.

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