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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) 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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Printing Services Case Study: Digital Type Out of Register

A custom printing client of mine is producing a number of elements of a wedding invitation package. She received her hard-copy proofs of the invitation, RSVP card, thank-you note and envelopes and noticed that the type appeared fuzzy on some of the proofs.

She asked for my opinion, and along with her email, she sent a JPEG photo of a particularly egregious example of the fuzzy type.

Here’s How I Approached the Problem

First, I looked at the facts:

  1. The job was short run and therefore digital. It would be printed on the HP Indigo press.
  2. Because the job was digital, the two ink colors of the wedding package job would be process color builds, not true PMS colors.
  3. The two colors, a salmon color and a dark navy blue, were composed of the following percentages of CMYK liquid toners on the Indigo (C0, M70, Y50, K0 for the salmon and C100, M80, Y0, K50 for the blue).
  4. The blue type was a simple gothic face with a relatively even thickness of strokes in the letterforms. The salmon colored type was a script face.
  5. The script face did not appear to be fuzzy on the proof.
  6. The fuzzy type appeared to be more evident on the blue type and on only a few of the wedding package items.

 

I Asked the Commercial Printing Vendor to Explain

I called the printer and spoke with two different prepress operators. I was told the following:

  1. The Indigo digital press provides lower resolution output (and coarser halftone line screens) than conventional offset custom printing. Therefore, the fuzzy type will be more evident to the eye than similar type printed via offset lithography.
  2. Since the salmon color was composed of screens only (no 100 percent solid colors, but rather C0, M70, Y50, K0), the blue type should be crisper than the salmon (blue was C100, M80, Y0, K50, so it had a 100 percent solid cyan letterform).

 

I Didn’t Immediately Believe What I Was Told

For a few reasons, I didn’t agree with the prepress operators at the commercial printing supplier:

  1. The problem was with the dark blue type, not the salmon colored type. Based on the custom printing company’s explanation, since the 100 percent coverage in the dark blue should have created a definitive letterform, the blue type should have been fine, and the salmon colored type should have been problematic (i.e., since all salmon colored letterforms would have been composed entirely of halftone dots). But this was not the case.
  2. The salmon colored type had wispy serifs, and the dark blue type was composed of simple block letters. The problem should have been more obvious on the salmon script face, with it’s thin, uneven strokes. But it was not.

Instead, I Believed That the Type Was Out of Register

  1. Granted, the salmon colored type was composed of only two colors (magenta and yellow, or C0, M70, Y50, K0). I realized that a mitigating factor would have been the lightness of the color. That is, yellow is very forgiving. If it’s out of register, it’s so light that you usually don’t notice this.
  2. The type in the photo my client had sent me was fuzzy on only one side. Upon further magnification, I saw halftone dots on only one side of the letterforms.
  3. Most of the proofs were fine. Only one was really bad. It seemed to me that if the comments of the prepress operators at the commercial printing company had been correct, all proofs would have been equally fuzzy, and the type would have been fuzzy on all sides, not just one side.
  4. My concern that the type was out of register was based in part on the composition of the dark blue ink (i.e., liquid toner). It was composed of three colors (C100, M80, Y0, K50). The percentage of each color equaled or exceeded 50 percent coverage. And there were no light colors (no yellow at all). Basically, since the color was composed of high percentages of three dark hues (cyan, magenta, and black), I knew any color misregistration would be more visible than usual, in spite of the simplicity of the gothic letterforms.
  5. The photo my client sent was a dead giveaway. When magnified, it showed a row of halftone dots hanging out on one side.

I Sent a Photo of the Problem to the Commercial Printing Vendor

I emailed my client’s photo to the printer. The prepress staff forwarded it to the owner of the shop, who was responsible for actually running the Indigo press (a benefit of my contracting with a small print shop). He said he could adjust the HP Indigo to fix the color register for the final press run. Problem solved.

What You Can Learn from This Experience

If your proofs look fuzzy, consider the following:

  1. Think about the number of colors used as well as their percentages. If the proof is out of register, multiple colors will magnify the problem, particularly if they are dark colors (not yellow) and if they are high percentage screens of the colors.
  2. Consider the typefaces. Type with thin serifs will magnify problems with color register.
  3. When you get a proof from the custom printing supplier, use a magnifying glass (or printer’s loupe) to see whether all halftone screens are properly aligned.
  4. If there are problems, take digital photos of the problems and email them to the printer.
  5. Don’t just take the word of the commercial printer, poster digital printing service, or digital on demand book printing vendor as to why the problem occurred. Do your own research as well. Be an informed consumer.

2 Responses to “Printing Services Case Study: Digital Type Out of Register”

  1. First, I would not print a wedding invitation digital. But that’s not the point of your post.
    Your process of investigation and explanation of how and why the inks do what they do is very thorough and interesting.
    I always figures there wouldn’t be registration problems with digital, but you got me thinking about a poster I had done awhile back, which showed the same symptoms.
    Thank you for your excellent article, Steve. From now on I’ll be using the loupe on everything.

    • admin says:

      Thank you for your comment. It’s very gratifying to hear that you found the article both interesting and thought provoking.

      I do agree that printing the invitation digitally is not ideal; however, for 150 copies, any other process would have been prohibitively expensive.

      I too was surprised to learn about problems with register in digital printing. I had assumed that a digital process would be consistent, unlike offset. However, as with any machine, things do go out of alignment. The owner of the print shop agreed to adjust the HP Indigo prior to printing the wedding materials. So I’m happy.

      I agree with your comment about making the loupe an integral part of your toolkit. I also include a caliper in mine, so I can check paper thickness wherever I go.

      Thank you again for your kind words.

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