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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 June, 2023

Custom Printing: Proofing Options, Old and New

Saturday, June 24th, 2023

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Over the 49 years I have been in the commercial printing industry (going all the way back to two high school yearbooks and two college yearbooks in the 1970s), proofing technology has changed, and improved, dramatically.

What Proofing Was Like Back Then

Back in the day (circa 1974-1990), I used to check the following proofs for an important job:

Client’s Page Proofs

I would start with the page proofs, which were xerox copies of grid sheet pages I had pasted up with paper typeset copy that came to me in a single column (i.e., not as fully composed pages). The photos were 8” x 10” continuous-tone silver halide prints from negatives, which I would cover with tracing paper on which I would indicate photo cropping in pencil.

Printer’s Blueline

Once the page proofs had been approved and corrected (I had to typeset new sections and then paste them onto the grid sheets), the job would go to the printer and I would get a blueline proof to review. The blueline was made photographically from negatives of the completed (pasted-up) pages. Back in the day, we weren’t going directly from electronic files to metal commercial printing plates. We had an interim step, the negatives and the blueline proofs of the negatives.

The goal in reviewing bluelines was to make sure all copy was in place (that nothing had been inadvertently omitted) and that the printer had accurately cropped, photographed, and stripped in the photos. Nothing else. No editing (it was too expensive to make changes, produce new film, and make new bluelines). Placement of color (solids and screens) was either indicated in writing on the single-color bluelines or made visible on the blueline proofs in a slightly different shade of blue.

Color Proofs

Occasionally, for color placement, I would check overlay color proofs. The colors were for position only. They were in the general color family but not at all color faithful. For photographic-quality color I would review a Matchprint or Cromalin, two brand names of color proofs made from the separated color negatives. The former was made with colored films, and the latter was made with mixtures of colored powders. Overall, both options were quite good for the time period (‘80s and ‘90s). At the end of this period we were also starting to read about what was called an “Iris proof,” a high-end inkjet proof well ahead of its time.

Paper Dummy

Occasionally, if the printed product was to be more intricate than a brochure, perfect-bound print book, or saddle-stitched print book, I would request a paper dummy from the printer or paper merchant. This was a mock-up of the final job. For instance, the paper dummy for an annual report might show how the overall printed product would look and feel on the actual printing stock, but there would be no actual commercial printing ink on the pages. They would be completely blank. That said, it was still often important to see what the white dull or gloss, or perhaps cream dull or gloss, stock would look like and what the bound book at that specific page count would feel like in the reader’s hands.

Here’s another example. For a project like a pocket folder with a ¼” build on one pocket and no build on the facing pocket, it would be helpful to review a physical paper dummy with these exact physical dimensions (again without any printing) just to see if the pockets (or the expansion builds on the pockets) would be accurate and would comfortably contain whatever we needed them to hold. This was our last chance to make any changes.

Ink Drawdown

On very rare occasions, we could request an ink drawdown. This was the specific PMS commercial printing ink mixture smeared on the actual printing stock. This might be useful to help us visualize two PMS colors together on a particular shade of cream paper.

Press Proof

I never had to do this, but for a price it was possible to print one or a few copies of the final job on a small press for client approval. This was not as expensive as the final press run (since it was short and on a small press), but it did involve all steps in the custom printing process. Therefore, it was only useful for the most prestigious jobs that required “critical” as opposed to “pleasing” color.

On-Site Press Inspection

The final option (which I regularly requested up through my years as an art director and production manager in the late ‘90s) was the press inspection. I would go to the printer’s shop and check printed sheets as they came off the press. For critical color work, this actually was essential to avoid errors while they still could be corrected (that is, before the client had seen the job).

When I did a press inspection, it was within the printer’s time frame (around the clock), so I might check one press signature at 3:00 p.m. and then another at 9:00 p.m., then another at 3:00 a.m. If anything was wrong, new negatives and plates would be created and hung on the press, and the process would start over.

The Takeaway

Thirty plus years ago, in the arena of proofing options for commercial printing, a lot was left to the imagination. You couldn’t look at everything on-screen in a PDF. You couldn’t check your own inkjet proof produced on your own desktop printer. Putting together an overall mental image of how the final piece would look based on all the aforementioned (and disparate) elements, you had to make educated guesses. The more proofing steps you included, the more likely you would be (and your client would be) to like the final printed job.

What It’s Like Now

Here’s a rundown of the current options for commercial printing, some of which are similar to, and many of which are quite different from, back when I started in the field:

Client’s Page Proofs

In the late ‘80s (1987 to be exact), my employer, a non-profit government education foundation, stopped doing physical paste up of paper typeset “galleys” (or single columns of imaged photographic typesetting paper, cut, waxed as an adhesive, and aligned and burnished down on grid paper). At that point we made the change to computer page design and typesetting in house using Aldus PageMaker (an early page composition product similar to InDesign but far more rudimentary).

So in terms of proofing, we could see the laid-out pages on our computer monitors along with cropped and positioned photographs we had scanned into the computer system. Once the computer monitors were able to show grayscale (not just black and white) images and then rudimentary color images, we could visualize what the final print job would look like. This was a bit like the current PDF on-screen or virtual proof. The color was not yet completely faithful, but, in terms of position, everything could be seen as it would appear in the final commercial printing job.

We could then print out laser copies of complete pages for client review.

Bluelines Replaced by Laser Proofs and Inkjet Proofs

For a short while we still reviewed bluelines (made from the negatives, as noted above). However, when the commercial printing vendors ceased making interim negatives and instead produced metal plates directly from the digital art files, the bluelines were irrelevant (and actually misleading).

So we used some version of a laser copy for position-only work and some version of inkjet printing for color work. You could see everything you needed to see (all elements in position, including type, halftone images, graduated color screens, etc., with a good amount of color fidelity).

The good news was that we knew what the final product would look like. The bad news was that although the inkjet printers were keyed to the actual offset lithographic presses, we were in reality using two different technologies, and if we needed to print PMS (or match) colors (instead of 4-color process inks) on the final press run, these would only be close simulations on the inkjet proof.

Color Page Proofs Still Needed

There were no more analog Matchprints and Cromalins (made from negatives). Everything was digital. Interestingly enough, the people who created the Iris proofs back in the ‘80s would have been pleased to see the current version of color inkjet proofs produced on much cheaper desktop equipment.

Paper Dummy

The paper dummy is still useful. I still like to see and feel a simulation of the final job on actual paper if the job is of high importance. And for complex work, like a flooring-sample display binder I had printed for a client a few years ago, it was essential that she see the turned-edge leather panels at least on a similar, sample product, so she and her client could visualize their final product.

Ink Drawdowns

I haven’t needed to request an ink drawdown since the late ‘90s, but for a PMS-color-based job on tinted paper or textured paper stock, I wouldn’t rule it out.

Press Proofs

Same as before. If it’s critical, like an invitation for the queen, perhaps it’s worth a press proof on a small proofing press. But expect it to cost over $1,000. And for the most part an inkjet proof will do.

Onsite Press Inspection

I haven’t needed to do one of these since the late ‘90s either. But for food, fashion, or automotive advertising of the highest quality, I wouldn’t rule it out. But one thing to keep in mind is that there are now electric-eye-based, closed-loop, color-control applications on offset presses that continuously monitor the color and make color adjustments during the press run to keep everything color faithful and consistent. So press checks are now pretty much unnecessary.

The Final Takeaway

Things have come together. You can see paper, color, halftone imagery, solid colors, bleeds, gradations, pretty much everything, in one place on an inkjet proof. This kind of proof is usually adequate.

That said, you may be tempted to accept only an on-screen proof (a PDF). In fact, for quick-turn-around digital printing jobs, I have a few vendors who will only do virtual proofing.

But for color-critical offset lithography work, I think it is always worth paying for a physical proof. Colors on computer monitors are made with light. Colors in commercial printing work (laser, inkjet, and offset, along with screen printing, letterpress, gravure, flexography, or any other physical process) are made with physical inks or toners. The color gamut is not the same in the two arenas. So don’t skimp. Look it as an investment, not an expense, and proof early and often.

Commercial Printing: Musings on a Printed Plastic Cup

Monday, June 19th, 2023

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I am definitely a design and custom printing nerd. Last week my fiancee came home from a lunch with her son. They had dined at CAVA, a local Mediterranean restaurant. She had brought me a mid-size clear plastic cup with the logo emblazoned in white type, the letters “C,” “A,” “V,” “A,” and nothing else. I was ok with not having received a bit of leftover food in a doggie bag because I was so intrigued by the design of the plastic cup.

The Design

What makes this cup so special? First of all, the lines of the logo exactly match the lines of the cup. That is, the word “CAVA” is set in all capital letters in a heavy sans serif typeface (granted, that is the restaurant’s logotype). The particular slanted letterforms of the “AVA” not only nestle into one another (i.e., the kerning or space between letters has been consciously and appropriately reduced), but the letterforms also match the slanted edge of the cup from the top rim to the base. In fact, the “A”s in CAVA are actually like inverted versions of this cup.

The white ink, which appears to have been applied via custom screen printing, is completely opaque and slightly softened in its gloss (comparable to the surface of a white silk press sheet). The writing therefore contrasts beautifully with the heightened gloss of the plastic cup.

What sets this cup apart, however, is the combination of the boldness of a four-letter logo and the expansive feel of the logo on the clear plastic. The logo is large, and it wraps almost halfway around the circumference of the plastic glass, and although it is raised about an inch from the bottom of the cup, the logo extends upwards about two-thirds of the way up the side of the cup. So it feels big but not gigantic. Bold, as I said.

Moreover, if you look closely, there are a number of rings around the cup where it gets progressively smaller as you move down from the top to the bottom. And the logo is balanced nicely between the three rings at the top of the glass and the single ring at the bottom.

Back to the transparency. The logo on the clear plastic provides a sense of opulence, as though the logo were floating on the transparent plastic, and as though it could have been any size (larger or smaller) because there is no boundary between the logo and the glass.

This last point I will address further as we move into the technology and the other options for custom printing such a cup.

The Technology

In this case I would guess that the printer had used custom screen printing to add the logo to the glass. Screen printing inks are thick, bright, and opaque. The thickness and the opacity allow for a dramatic contrast, even between a white logo and a clear glass.

But, you may ask, how can you print with a silkscreen (or metal mesh screen) on a curved cup? Based on my research, I know it is possible to rotate a cylinder (like a glass or a can) while keeping the screen-printing frame flat on the top of the rotating item. Of course in this case the glass is more triangular than a tumbler glass, an aerosol can, or a similar shape, but I’m sure there are ways to adapt the process to the substrate.

One other benefit of custom screen printing such a cup or glass would be the durability of the thick screen printing ink. Even on a plastic glass, rub resistance would be important in order to keep the white CAVA logotype from cracking or flaking (and tarnishing the restaurant’s crisp, brand image).

Other Printing Options

With the advent of digital commercial printing, inkjet technology has provided an alternative to screen printing for a printed cup like the CAVA glass. In this case the print heads, which would never actually touch the plastic wall of the glass, could spray the white ink onto the side of the cup as it was rotated in some sort of jig (an apparatus to hold and spin the cup).

Since plastic is not a porous substrate, the commercial printing supplier might use UV inks, which cure instantly when exposed to ultraviolet light. These inks can be used on nonporous materials like plastic, and depending on their formulation and the substrate, they will have good rub resistance.

You might ask which of these would be more appropriate for custom printing a plastic cup or glass for a restaurant chain. In my opinion it would depend on the length of the press run. Both custom screen printing inks and UV inkjet inks can be formulated to be opaque (especially a white ink), but it costs a lot more up front to prepare a screen printing run than an inkjet printing run. There is a lot more makeready, so for economical screen printing it helps for the run to be multiple thousands of items or more. In contrast, there is very little makeready for a digital printing run, like inkjet, so there are only minimal preparation costs to amortize over the entire press run.

In addition, if you were a marketing manager at CAVA and you wanted to personalize each plastic glass or provide a series of cups that changed every so often (i.e., short, versioned press runs within one overall marketing initiative), you might choose inkjet technology.

(Granted, the printer would be the best advisor as to the point where one technology—perhaps inkjet–becomes less cost effective and the other—perhaps custom screen printing–becomes more cost effective.)

One final option that is trending these days is “direct-to-object” inkjet printing in which the inkjet print heads are not fixed in a single plane but can move to spray ink on an uneven shape, such as a CAVA glass (the more conical shape, as mentioned before) or even a football. This is possible because the printheads never touch the object.

Other Marketing Options

A good part of the attractiveness of all of these technologies rests on the absence of a label. The subconscious marketing message transmitted by custom screen printing or inkjet printing ink onto a clear plastic substrate is the expansive feeling it evokes. There is no bounding rectangle of a label (even a clear label), so the logo can ostensibly go on and on forever. It floats on the glass, cup, or whatever else you’re printing.

But this may not be an issue, depending on your design goals. If so, there are a number of options that may be less expensive.

For instance, you can print on an opaque label, which can be affixed to the plastic glass. If your design is more contained, perhaps in a rectangular border, this would be perfect. And many labels are made to be impervious to moisture and cold/hot temperatures (like wine bottle labels).

Another option would be a clear label on which you could print any number of colors with an assortment of technologies (such as offset lithography, flexography, inkjet printing, and laser printing).

Finally, you might even look into shrink sleeves. You may have seen these marketing novelties wrapped around bottles in the grocery store. Once printed, these can be fitted over a bottle like a jacket, and then with a source of heat you can shrink the wraps to a tight fit around the glass or plastic items.

What might make these good for marketing would be the extra space you would get onto which you could print logos, text, or other imagery. If you look at shrink sleeves in the grocery store, the consumer branding can feel much more dramatic when compared to the finite boundary of either a white opaque label or even a transparent label.

The Takeaway

For this one, the takeaway is simple. If you’re designing a glass or cup, as CAVA marketers did, research custom screen printing, digital inkjet, and even direct-to-shape printing. Your printer may have connections, vendors they trust. This is not a job everyone can do well. It requires special equipment and skill. So, as is always the case, get referrals but also request samples. The technology options are out there. You just need to look.

Custom Printing: Waterless Printing (Driography)

Monday, June 12th, 2023

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When a printing supplier I work with mentioned that she had a Heidelberg direct imaging press for one of my client’s jobs, a collection of “chin cards” based on her color model for selecting complementary hues for make-up and clothing based on a person’s complexion, I was thrilled. Unfortunately, I was also mistaken. The press turned out to be a Heidelberg, but it was a production-quality color laser printer, not a waterless press.

That said, when my associate mentioned the press, I remembered seeing the Heidelberg Quickmaster DI in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I had been amazed by its dense ink coverage, halftones upward of 300 lpi (with no visible rosette patterns), super-hard halftone dots, and incredible color fidelity.

The Heidelberg Quickmaster DI and Waterless Offset Printing

First of all, Heidelberg is known for exceptionally high-quality manufacturing in the commercial printing press world. Color fidelity, durability–Heidelberg is the BMW of presses.

That said, I supplemented my own exposure to waterless printing on the Heidelberg Quickmaster DI press with online research (including Wikipedia), and then I reviewed online literature by Heidelberg and came up with the following.

The Quickmaster DI is a waterless press. This process has also been branded as “Driography” (by 3M in the late ‘60s). It differs from offset lithography in the following way.

Offset lithography is based on the fact that oil and water do not mix. By coating the printing plate (during commercial printing) with a water- and alcohol-based dampening solution that is attracted to the non-image areas of a metal printing plate, and by attracting the oily offset inks to the image areas of the printing plate, it is possible to have both ink and water on the same flat surface of the plate (called a “planographic” surface) while only printing the ink from the image areas (type letterforms, halftone dots, and solids).

In contrast, a waterless press starts with a metal plate that is coated with silicone rubber. A digitally-controlled laser burns the plate, activating a photo-polymer that allows the silicone (during the processing of the plate) to slough off from the image areas only (type and images), leaving the remaining silicone coating intact. Silicone then repels the ink (of a specific viscosity), but the exposed metal of the underlying commercial printing plate attracts the ink (of a specific viscosity).

Because of the surrounding silicone, the image areas of the custom printing plate are actually recessed (also known in both fine art printing and commercial printing as “intaglio,” with the third option, after “planographic” and “intaglio,” being “relief” or raised printing—like letterpress).

Because the image area is recessed, when compared to offset lithographic plates, a waterless press can carry more ink to deposit on the printing substrate. So ink density can be much higher than in traditional offset lithography.

More Benefits of Waterless Offset Printing

First of all, it’s not really offset lithography because it’s not based on the mutual repelling of oily ink and water (which is more of a chemical process). Because of this, waterless offset (which is more of a physical process) is actually more precise than offset commercial printing, in part because pressmen don’t have to struggle to get the correct balance between the oily ink and the alcohol and water dampening solution.

Here are some more benefits:

  1. Waterless inks are more viscous than offset inks. That means they are thicker and tackier (they stick to each other better than offset inks, which improves ink trapping—or the slight overlapping of inks where they abut to one another). Waterless inks provide a wider color gamut and greater color fidelity than traditional offset lithography inks.
  2. The higher halftone screen rulings–from 300 lpi (lines per inch) to 800 lpi or higher, in contrast to the 175- to 200-line screens used for traditional offset lithography–allow for more detailed images and increased ink contrast.
  3. Since waterless plates can carry more ink, and since the ink is thicker than offset inks, there is better ink holdout with waterless printing than with offset lithography. (An ink’s holdout is its ability to stay on the surface of the paper rather than seep into the paper fibers.) In addition, the lack of water absorption by the commercial printing paper also contributes to this enhanced ink holdout. (That is, wet paper reduces ink holdout. Drier paper increases ink holdout.)
  4. The thicker ink and absence of a water and alcohol dampening solution also maximize the dimensional stability of the paper. Drier paper doesn’t stretch as much as wet paper. This makes for better registration and less waste.
  5. On a traditional offset lithographic press, you can print from (approximately) a 5 percent halftone dot to a 95 percent halftone dot. Anything lighter than 5 percent would be white (unprinted paper). Anything darker than 95 percent would be black. (Granted, these numbers will vary depending on the press, the ink, and the paper). That said, for waterless offset, the printable halftone dots range from .5 percent (in highlights) to 99.5 percent (in shadows). In short, waterless offset allows for a much larger printable tonal range than traditional offset lithography.
  6. Color is more consistent (i.e., more easily maintained) throughout the press run.
  7. Waterless halftone dots print with a harder edge and little or no fringing, elongation, or dot gain when compared to offset lithography. This allows for crisper images and more detail in highlights and shadows.
  8. The waterless offset process speeds up printing, reduces waste, and eliminates environmentally hazardous chemicals. More specifically, since the overall process is more precise, it can proceed more quickly with less waste (paper waste, ink waste, etc.). And since the dampening solution is no longer necessary, no alcohol or waste water is released into the environment.
  9. Since the process is simpler and more consistent than offset lithography, waterless offset cuts makeready time in half when compared to offset lithography.
  10. Plates for a waterless offset sheetfed press can last for 100,000 to 200,000 impressions. And on a web-offset press, the printing plates can last for 300,00 to 600,000 impressions, although rougher papers (below a #1 or #2 coated press sheet) will reduce the run length of the plates.
  11. For repeat press runs, you can save the digital ink-key preset information, allowing for the press’ “coming up to color” and yielding usable press sheets much faster than with offset lithography.
  12. Finally, if the waterless press is a Heidelberg Quickmaster DI (direct imaging) press, then the plates themselves can be imaged right on the press. I’m sure by now there are other direct imaging presses as well. My experience with this particular technology (as reflected in the Heidelberg press) came quite a while ago in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The Caveat: Temperature Control

For better or worse, there’s one caveat. The process is based on the temperature of the inks. For the inks to stick to the exposed part of the plates, they can’t be too hot (which would reduce their viscosity). Therefore, waterless presses need to have a coolant (water) pumped through tubes in vibrating rollers in contact with the inks to reduce their temperature (as it rises during the printing process) and keep it within a usable range.

Without such cooling devices, the lack of water in waterless offset would allow for increased friction between plates, rollers, and ink (as would the milling of the ink itself through the rollers), raising the temperature of the ink. And this increased temperature would change the viscosity of the ink and therefore cause printing problems (i.e., it would reduce the clear separation between ink avoidance and ink affinity–away from the silicone coating and toward the exposed metal plate). With the cooling systems, this is not an issue.

Why Now? Why Not in the 1960s or 1970s?

With all of these benefits, I personally wondered why the technology didn’t catch on earlier, say in the ‘70s or ‘80s. Based on my research, it seems that there were some issues with paper, plates, press, and inks. Apparently these have been resolved, and with more aggressive advertising this technology has started to come into its own.

The Takeaway

So waterless offset is really more of a mechanical process than a chemical process. It yields incredible color as well as superb halftone detail and contrast. Therefore, if you have a press run from 500 to 25,000 units or considerably more (up to 600,000 units), you may want to do some research into which commercial printing suppliers have this kind of press (or which printers have configured some of their presses to do both waterless and conventional offset lithography).

Book Printing: Learning By Deconstructing a Print Book

Sunday, June 4th, 2023

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The Printing Industry Exchange Blog is #12 of the best 40 digital printing blogs, as selected by FEEDSPOT.

As noted before, I am a printing broker, writer, and printing consultant in the DC metropolitan area. Along with my fiancee, I also do art therapy with autistic students. So my fiancee and I are always looking for art books, particularly at our favorite haunts, thrift stores.

My fiancee and I recently found a copy of the Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial 2022 print book, Quiet As It’s Kept.

My fiancee pointed out the die-cut work, leather (or faux-leather) cover, and cross between tape binding and case binding (which produced a lay-flat book that opens with the entire cover totally flat on the table (on the left) and a pristine stack of tape-bound text pages on the right.

When my fiancee checked online, she learned that the book could be bought with any of four different colors for the leather (or faux-leather) binding on which artist names and the book title had been both debossed (recessed into the cover) and foil stamped with an added color (red on a textured leather or faux-leather background).

The deeply incised, die-cut thumb tabs running down the pages give the entire text block of the print book a sculpted look in addition to their being functional, making it easy to jump around in the book.

Needless to say, I assumed that the unit cost for the book was quite high (depending of course on the overall press run). Regardless, I knew that outsourcing the die cutting (presumably, since many printers would not have the equipment to do this in-house) would also make for an expensive book. So I was surprised to learn from my fiancee’s research online that the print book cost only $50.00 for nonmembers or $40.00 for members of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Since the book production values intrigued my fiancee, I looked at it closely with a loupe and became intrigued as well.

Technical Analysis: My Initial Thoughts and Assumptions

When I looked closely, I saw that colors outside the CMYK range had been included to extend the color gamut, and I noticed that these had been printed in both solid coverage and gradations within the halftones. So my first assumption was that the printer had used touch plates or kiss plates to broaden the perceived color range.

Then I looked for the tell-tale rosette patterns within the images and didn’t see any. So I was confused. Prior to this, whenever I had looked closely at a printed product and had found no trace of rosettes (but had still found halftone dots at particular angles to one another), the printed product had turned out to be digitally produced via laser printing. So I checked out the printer’s equipment list online and noticed they have an HP Indigo laser printing press.

The Whitney Museum book noted in the copyright page which printer had produced the book, which was very fortunate and not a usual occurrence. Plus, since many printers do not list their equipment online, it was another fortunate occurrence to find this particular printer had listed all of their capabilities and equipment.

Their website also listed key personnel and their email addresses, so on a lark I wrote to the production manager of the custom printing plant and asked what equipment had been used to print this book. I also noted my assumptions about the lack of rosette patterns in the halftones as well as the additional colors.

In addition, I mentioned that I had seen how crisp the text was, which is unusual for electrophotography (laser printing). More specifically, laser printing is usually done with dry toner particles that don’t always conform to the curves and lines of intricate type letterforms. Toner can easily be deposited outside the letters, making the text look a little ragged overall. This is not the case in offset lithography, which maintains a significantly crisper appearance of the type.

In contrast to dry-toner laser printing, toner particles used in an HP Indigo are very small. They are also suspended in fuser oil. Hence, I had assumed the printing had been done on an HP Indigo because of the crisp letterforms, absence of rosettes in the halftones, and the additional colors.

I knew the additional colors could have been printed on an offset press, but this would have involved using a multi-unit press (maybe eight colors) or running the press sheets through the press a number of times. This costs a lot of money. On an HP Indigo laser printing press, more than the usual process colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) can be used at the same time, making a reasonably short run of a low-page-count print book potentially less expensive than an offset printed product.

Finding Out How the Book Was Really Produced

To my surprise, the plant manager wrote back to me almost immediately, on a Sunday no less. He said the following:

“The text pages for this book definitely [were] printed [via] conventional offset, not digitally. Probably [a] 200-line screen, possibly with a 20 micron stochastic plate for the black halftones to prevent a moire on any rescanned images.”

So, I was wrong. Under the circumstances, it seems that the high frequency of the halftone screens (200 lpi) had minimized the rosette patterns. Or, the stochastic plate had made a difference. By the way, stochastic halftone screening (also referred to as FM–or frequency modulated–screening) works differently from traditional (or AM, or amplitude modulated) screening.

AM screening uses larger or smaller halftone dots distributed over a regular pattern (the same number of halftone dots in a liner square inch, just smaller or larger dots depending on the required amount of ink). In contrast, FM screening uses the same-sized halftone dots (in this case 20 micron, or very small, dots). Under a loupe you will see minuscule dots, with more dots in dark areas or areas with an abundance of a particular color, and fewer dots in areas with less of a particular color.

This is also what you see when you look at inkjet printed halftones. Stochastic screening provides the illusion of continuous tone photos (which is what you get with color or black and white prints made from photographic negatives).

The Takeaway, or What You Can Learn from My Approach

I made some incorrect assumptions, but that’s less important than the fact that I looked at the print book as both an artistic expression and a physical product that required certain technologies to create.

I would encourage you to take a similar approach if you design books or buy commercial printing. The more you understand both the traditional, analog methods and the more modern digital ones, the better able you will be to choose the technology that best fits your job.

For instance, if you were producing a short run of this print book, you might have chosen an HP Indigo press (i.e., you may have found a printer with this equipment) because the text of the book would be more crisply printed than text from perhaps a dry-toner laser printer. Or, if you were printing a longer run, you might have opted for offset lithography.

Keep in mind that a museum-produced book like this is itself a work of art. Readers will be looking at the print book expecting gorgeous, faithful color. If you were designing this book, you might use extra colors on an HP Indigo, or you might use additional plates (called “touch plates,” “bump plates,”or “kiss plates”) to expand the color gamut. After all, there are some colors you can’t achieve with only cyan, magenta, yellow, and black.

If you were designing this print book, you could take into account both the budget and the schedule when deciding whether to include such specialized work as the tape binding/case binding mix or the die-cut thumb tabs. But beyond the cost and schedule, you might want to put the aesthetics of the book ahead of the time and cost, since your clientele at an art museum would presumably be sophisticated, artistically trained readers.

If you approach a print book (or any printed product for that matter) in this way, your knowledge of commercial printing will grow exponentially, and you will be a more knowledgeable and more effective (and fiscally prudent) print buyer. In fact, approaching a print job in this manner will make you more aware of what the designer was trying to do, what technology it required, how much it cost, how long it took, and most importantly whether the artistic goals and the processes chosen to bring them to fruition were successful. Did everything work together to create the “wow” factor that both my fiancee and I experienced when we saw this print book? After all, book design and book production are fine arts as well as crafts.

That said, it does help to also have gurus (as I have) who know more than you do and can help you understand how the book was really produced: that is, which of your assumptions were correct and which were off base. There’s no better way to learn. I’ve been in the field for 49 years, and I’m still learning, every day.


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