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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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Custom Printing: Always, Always Proof Early and Often

Photo purchased from …

My Own War Story About Proofing

About thirty years ago, as I was developing as a graphic designer and taking risks visually, I chose two colors for a print book cover design: a purple and a light green.

Back in the day, we didn’t have a color printer, and our monitors were all grayscale. We didn’t even have a scanner. We did all of the layout of our books and promotional materials on a computer (in black and white only), but we cropped and scaled photos manually and made color placement decisions based on our experience, judgment, PMS color books, and duotone sample print books.

So in this particular case, I was designing a two-color cover (which was what we could afford) using a PMS purple and a PMS green but no black. In the center of the design I positioned a black and white photo from which I asked the printer to create a purple and green duotone. Elsewhere on the cover I included overlapping solids of green or purple and either reversed type or purple type for the cover text.

Boy did I get lucky. The solid colors worked well. The type was readable. And based entirely on good fortune (and probably on the specific colors I had chosen and their relationship as almost opposites on the color wheel), I came out with a warm, deep purple and green duotone that was very close to a multi-level black and white photo but with a much warmer hue.

I did get a color proof from the printer. (Matchprints and Cromalins were what the proofs were called back then, depending on how they were made from the separated negatives, using powders or overlaid films). There were no inkjet proofs (although pricey Iris inkjet proofs were starting to be made).

Since I didn’t know how lucky I had been, the following year I tried two new colors. The proof came. The background hues were nothing like what I had envisioned. I was heartbroken, and actually a bit scared (since I liked my job and didn’t want to lose it).

The scheduling manager of the publications department at the educational foundation for which I worked said something I’ll never forget: “Don’t worry. That’s why you get a proof. Nothing has been printed.” I thought about how relieved I was, and what might have happened without a proof (if the 20,000 or more print books had been delivered looking like this).

I changed the colors, made the cover more conservative, and the final books arrived looking quite good. I had dodged the bullet. But I never ever forgot to get an accurate proof after that. Also, as all design and pre-press tasks moved onto the computer (as we purchased scanners and moved the color choices online), we started to not only mentally envision but physically see (on the computer screen) what we could expect in the final printed product. We did not yet call this virtual proofing or PDF proofing. We were just relieved to have visual feedback for our graphic design work before receiving printers’ proofs.

My Client’s Proofs, Thirty Years Later

In light of this slice of life story, I was grateful recently when I could help one of my commercial printing clients with a proof of the cover of a floor sample binder, a large presentation book containing sample wood chips for a floor manufacturing company.

The designer had received a proof of her project, but instead of a (four-color) background hue built to match the signature blue in her client’s logo, the proof had a dingy, almost-black background. Everything else was good, but the background color was just wrong. (Also, it would have cost more to print than a black-only background while not being as crisp a black.).

Moreover, the prepress operator at the commercial printing shop said that he had produced the proof based on the art files as submitted by my client (i.e., it was not a printer error). Needless to say, my client didn’t want to absorb the cost of an additional proof or pass this on to her client, the flooring manufacturer.

I knew exactly how she felt.

What Happened Next?

As my client’s representative, I initially assumed her files were correct and the printer had made the mistake. However, I quickly realized I had no logical reason to believe one side over the other. So I stopped, took a breath, and considered how to approach both my client and the printer to find out what had happened and what to do, in the least painful and least expensive manner possible.

I thought about my own experience thirty years prior, and I was glad I had encouraged my client to do the following:

    1. Pay for a physical prototype of the entire floor sample presentation binder before handing off final art files.


    1. Show and tell (visually in the PDFs and also in written form) exactly where the color would go, in terms of the background hue of all exterior panels (mostly promotional material and photos) and all interior panels (mostly descriptions of the 32 wood sample chips that would be inserted into the little 2” x 3” die cut “wells” or “windows” in the presentation box).


  1. Go one step further and provide a short video showing how the wood chips would be positioned and how the fold-in panels of the presentation box/binder would operate, along with a voice-over in which my client described in words exactly what she wanted.

It should be noted that at various points in the process, there were minor miscommunications. This is understandable, since the floor sample display case was a one-of-a-kind design. And this is exactly why I had encouraged my client to slow the initial process down, and to add proofing steps to minimize miscommunication.

Although my first impulse had been to call the printer and say, “My client was perfectly clear. She said she wanted a blue background to match the signature logo color in her client’s cover image,” I paused. I realized this would be counter-productive. I considered the best way to proceed.

Fortunately, my client had already been communicating with the prepress operator in the printing plant. They had started to develop a mutually supportive working relationship. I knew that as a commercial printing broker, an outsider, I might inadvertently shift the printer’s approach from one of collaboration to one of confrontation if I intervened. I knew that would achieve nothing.

So I advised my client to contact the prepress operator directly, reference her emails asking for a blue background that matched the floor manufacturer’s logo color, and also reference the video in which my client had explicitly laid out (visually and verbally) her design goals.

I also suggested that she ask the prepress operator what had happened, and to find out why she had not been contacted if her art files as provided had not matched the mutually-agreed-upon objectives.

The Outcome

Fortunately, the prepress operator suggested that he himself adjust the art files to match the stated design goals. His boss, the customer service rep, and the management of the commercial printing plant offered to make the changes and send my client a revised proof at no charge.

I was relieved. My client was relieved. And I was thankful for the lesson about proofing that I had learned thirty years’ prior.

Since that time, the revised proof for my client’s project has been sent out and approved. The color was dead-on, and the ship date has been scheduled.

What We Can Learn From This Case Study

Here are some takeaways:

    1. If something goes wrong in a custom printing project, stop, breathe, and do nothing for a moment. (This is counter-intuitive.) Then, research exactly what happened to see how best to proceed. This is why it’s essential to keep extensive, accurate, written records (emails are fine).


    1. If you’re creating an expensive or unique product (such as a point-of-purchase display, or a product binder or presentation box), slow down the process. Create your own physical color mock-up, and then pay a bit more to have the commercial printing vendor create a one-off prototype (or mock-up) to make sure you, your client (if you’re a freelance designer), and the printer are all in accord as to the desired appearance and operation (if it’s a binder or other 3D product) of the final manufactured piece. How it will look, how it will feel, and how it will be manipulated or operated are all equally important.


    1. This includes the paper (thickness, color, tint). Get samples (printed and unprinted) if the proof or prototype will not incorporate the final paper stock(s).


    1. Provide the printer with written descriptions of your goals as well as mock-ups and printed samples of similar work.


    1. If anything is unique (as was my client’s floor sample presentation case), make a video (use your cell phone camera). Include a voice-over description of your goals (colors, papers, folding, etc.).


  1. Your goal is to describe in as many ways possible exactly what you want, and then to get as many kinds of proofs as you need to ensure that the final printed product matches your vision exactly.

So proof early and often. You’ll be grateful you did, and so will your custom printing vendor. He wants more than money. He wants your satisfaction. It means you’ll encourage others to work with him, and it means you’ll come back next year with the new and updated version of the job and maybe even new jobs.

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