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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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Archive for the ‘Prepress’ Category

Commercial Printing: Thoughts on Color Reproduction

Sunday, September 13th, 2020

Color is tricky. Not only does everyone see it slightly differently (from my reading and experience, apparently women see color slightly better than men). Not only does color look different depending on surrounding light (color seen in sunlight differs from color seen under fluorescent light, which differs from color seen under regular incandescent light). But color even varies from what you see on your computer monitor to what your commercial printing supplier can provide in a print job.

Wow. Why even try to learn about color? Because you can understand it and control it to a reasonable degree with a few key concepts and rules, and color enlivens a poster, banner, print book cover, and any other commercial printing project.

Your Monitor vs. the Printing Press

The first rule of thumb is that color on a computer monitor is created with light: red, green, and blue phosphors. In contrast, color on your commercial printing job is created with cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink. Inkjet printers and laser printers also use the CMYK color space.

What you need to know about this is that the two color spaces (RGB and CMYK) do not match exactly. And what this means is that you can create colors within the RGB color space, on your computer monitor, that your custom printing supplier cannot match.

Therefore, here’s the first rule of thumb to use in your own graphic design work. Adjust your photos in the RGB color space (or the CMYK color space), but always convert the files to CMYK before placing your images in your page composition file (i.e., InDesign). This way, you will see any color shifts on your computer monitor before the job goes to press.

At this point I will suggest a caveat. Always request a physical proof for color work. It’s worth the extra cost from your commercial printing vendor to see a replica (for offset lithography) or exact copy (for digital printing) of the final printed output. This is because however close you come to matching colors on your computer screen to your expected final output, they will never match precisely.

That said, you can calibrate your monitor to make it more accurate. You may want to research this online. It usually involves extra software and hardware to analyze and then adjust your monitor. If you choose to do this, you will also want to consider the ambient light (room light). In printers’ prepress departments, there are no windows (no sunlight changing the perceived colors onscreen), and there are hoods on the monitors to keep any room light from changing the perceived color onscreen. Beyond this, often the walls of the prepress department (and the walls in the viewing booth where you can check press sheets in your printer’s plant) are painted a neutral gray for the same reason.

Two More Color Models: HSV and HSL

You may have a PMS swatch book from which you choose match colors for your print design work. Better yet, you may even have a PMS color to CMYK color “bridge” (a color swatch book that includes PMS colors alongside their closest possible 4-color process builds). You can use these, along with the color applications in InDesign and Photoshop, to tell your computer, your monitor, and your custom printing vendor exactly how your colors should look. Then your printer can send you a physical color proof (as opposed to a virtual, PDF screen proof) to show you how your final printed output will look.

But beyond the CMYK and RGB color models I have described, you may also want to research two more color models online. HSL (hue, saturation, lightness) and HSV (hue, saturation, value) color models are very similar. They are both representations of the RGB (red, green, blue) color space that creates color on your computer monitor. HSL is more a reflection of human color perception, whereas HSV represents how colored paints create color.

What makes these two color models useful to a graphic artist is that they help you visualize the hue (the named color, like red or blue) as a position on a circle of colors.

To illustrate this point, imagine this color circle as only a cross section of a cylinder (like a thin slice of a carrot cut out of the center of the root vegetable). At the top of the cylinder is the color white. At the bottom is the color black. Midway is gray.

If you pick a position on the circumference of the circle (let’s say a particular red), and you move up and down (lengthwise) on the surface of the cylinder (up to white or down to black), the particular red you have chosen will get darker or lighter. That quality of lightness or darkness is called “value” or “lightness,” depending on the model (HSV or HSL).

How is this relevant to a graphic designer? It models the transition of a specific color from a lighter to a darker version, and it helps you understand how this happens (by adding black or white). This is true whether you’re a printer or a painter.

The next quality has to do with the purity of a color. It is called “saturation” (the “S” in both the HSL and HSV models). It is also called “intensity.” It has to do with the vibrancy, purity, or amount of uncontaminated color, or hue, within a particular color you have chosen. (The purest color includes no gray; it is just the pure hue.)

If you go back to the model of a cylinder with the colors all around its circumference and white at the top and black at the bottom of the cylinder, you can imagine gray in the center between the black and the white. Imagine moving inward, from the outside of the cylinder to its core. (Or, again, you can picture this as a circle, a thin slice of the cylinder, like the thin slice of carrot mentioned above.)

All the way around the circle you see all the colors of the rainbow. These are the purest (most saturated) versions of the color. But as you move inward, the gray in the center contaminates the colors, makes them less pure, less intense. This is fine. You may want these more neutral colors. Certainly they show up in most if not all 4-color photographs, at least to some degree.

But if you are a graphic designer or a printer, the way these two color models can help you understand, analyze, and specify color is by demonstrating how color behaves, how you can add white or black to lighten or darken a hue, and how you can make a color more or less intense (i.e., saturated), by not adding (or adding) gray.

(As an aside, you can also tone down a color, or reduce its saturation, by adding the complement of that color to the mix. Complementary colors are exactly opposite one another on the color wheel: the outside surface of the cylinder noted above. For instance, you can desaturate red by adding green, or you can desaturate blue by adding orange.)

Other Color Models

There are many other color models. You may want to Google “CIELAB,” “Munsell,” and even “color models” in general. Some color models replace the cylinder I described above with two cones, one on top of the other, joined at the widest part with either end coming to a point (picture a child’s spinning top). Keep in mind that these are only approximations of the reality of color.

If you understand these color models at least somewhat, you will find them referenced in everything from the color picker in your word processing software to the more detailed versions in page layout and photo editing programs. Therefore, you will better understand why you need to specify numerical values to define these colors, or how you can change a color by dragging a pointer over a rainbow colored circle in a graphics program.

But before I stop, I want to describe one final color model noted above. CIELAB, often known as LAB or more specifically L*a*b. This model is useful when you’re touching up color photos in Photoshop because it separates the value (light vs. dark) of a photo from its color information. The “L” stands for “lightness,” while the “a” and “b” channels represent the “green vs. red” component of the color and the “blue vs. yellow” component of the color respectively.

What makes this useful to a designer is that you can adjust the black component of the photo without altering the color, in order to sharpen the image, remove noise (a grainy appearance in a photo), and correct other image flaws. Of course, it is important to translate the image back to RGB and then to CMYK (or directly to CMYK) before transmitting your job to the printer.

What You Can Learn from This Discussion

This is highly conceptual material. It will probably give you a headache. So here are a few take-aways to consider.

  1. Color on the monitor (created with light) is defined within the RGB (red/green/blue) color space.
  2. Color created with ink or toner is defined within the CMYK (cyan/magenta/yellow/black) color space.
  3. These two color spaces do not exactly match. CMYK commercial printing cannot approximate all RGB colors you see on your monitor.
  4. Therefore, check your images in CMYK and hand them off to your printer (within the InDesign file) in CMYK format.
  5. If you study other color models, you can learn to alter color to make it lighter or darker, more saturated or less saturated.
  6. If you study (and use) the L*a*b color space, you may find it much easier to fix color casts, sharpen images, and reduce noise in photos than by using the traditional curves and levels commands in the CMYK or RGB color spaces.
  7. Always convert images to CMYK, no matter what color space you start with.

Large Format Printing: Preparing Your Artwork

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2020

Throughout most of the early part of my career (as a graphic artist and art director), I mainly produced small format print products, ranging from print books to brochures, from announcements to stationery and business card packages. So the rules for file preparation, especially regarding photo resolution, have become second nature to me.

In short, the main rule is to include all images at 266 to 300 ppi (pixels per inch, which is similar to dpi, or dots per inch) resolution at the final printed size.

What this really means is that images should be twice the halftone line screen the offset printer will use. In my experience, 150 lpi halftone screens, reflecting the number of rows of halftone dots per inch, are fine for this math problem.

The purpose of this simple rule is to make sure that all images are of sufficient resolution that the reader’s eye will not see any pixelation (i.e., the square image elements that make up a computer-imaged photo on a display screen).

But here’s the rub. What about large format print graphics? I designed a roll-up banner stand a few years ago, so I had to go back online and reread the rules for large format print design. I knew that huge graphics would require a lot of storage space for the Photoshop file and/or the InDesign file, so I wanted to see what was really needed for high-quality imaging.

“Perceived” Resolution of the Photo

Again, the key phrase here is “what is really needed.” The viewer’s eye is forgiving. It needs to see images rendered at 300 ppi (or at least 266 ppi) to avoid noticing the square pixels of an image. But this is only because of the distance involved (0 to 3 feet). If you’re reading a print book or magazine, your eyes are this close to the reading material.

This is also true for some large format print banners you might design for a trade show, or a table throw to lay across your convention table. But an image that will be seen from, say, across the room (6 feet or more) can be of a lower resolution, and yet your eye will still see the images as being continuous tone (no visible halftone dots or pixels).

To further clarify this point, let’s go in the other direction. Presumably, most of the images you see on the internet are 72 ppi. This is the resolution that is perceived as continuous tone on a computer monitor based on the size of the pixels that make up the screen. If, however, you take the 72 ppi image and put it in InDesign, even at 100 percent size, the image will look like a checkerboard. The pixels will be visible and distracting. The images will look grainy or blurry. Moreover, they will be even worse if you place the photo in InDesign and then enlarge it (for example, doubling the size of an image cuts its resolution in half; therefore, a 72 ppi image enlarged by 200 percent would be 36 ppi in resolution).

How this translates into large format printing is as follows. If you are designing a roll-up banner stand that will be viewed from 3 to 6 feet away, you can include images that are 150 ppi rather than 300 ppi. Your eyes won’t know the difference, and your final art files won’t be unnecessarily large.

Interpolation

There’s a word for doing what I just said you shouldn’t do. Enlarging a low-resolution image to make it the right size for printing is called “interpolation.” While it is possible to do, it is ill advised because as the computer software enlarges an image, it actually creates picture information to place between existing pixels. This image information is fabricated. It is not part of what the camera captured, so there will be degradation of the overall quality of the image. And this will be visible.

That said, I personally have had some success in enlarging images slightly by making this enlargement process in very small steps. (For instance, I once enlarged an image 103 percent repeatedly without visible pixelation until it reached the desired size.) You may want to research this work-around online. But it’s still ill advised, and it doesn’t always work. I got lucky.

Reducing the Size of Images

Reductions in size are another matter. Go for it. If you have an 8” x 10” image and you’re making it smaller (perhaps for a photo montage on a fabric banner stand or table throw), your image resolution will go up. More specifically, if you reduce a 150 ppi 8” x 10” image to a 4” x 5” image, it will have a resolution of 300 ppi (which is twice a printer’s 150-line halftone screen). So you’re golden. (When you’re making the photo smaller, you’re actually removing picture data rather than adding it—or interpolating, or making up picture information.)

Vector Type Layers

Let’s say your banner-stand image will include type, a gradation of a color, and a photo. How can you best prepare your art files? We’ve already discussed the photo, which is bitmapped. But you could conceivably also render the type at a high enough resolution to make the edges of the letterforms appear smooth. However, there’s a better way. In Adobe Photoshop, and other software, you can put the text of your banner on a separate vector layer.

Vector images are defined with mathematical formulae. They are not a grid of dots (like the bitmapped photos discussed above). Therefore, you can enlarge (and print) vector type at any size, and the edges will be smooth. (Actually, vector type is only turned into a bitmap at the final printing stage, by the software RIP, which stands for “raster image processor.” And this transition from vector to raster type is done at the highest possible resolution of the prepress or printing equipment you’re using.) Similar in its effect to Photoshop’s vector type layer, Illustrator has a “create outlines” function, as does InDesign. In all three cases you’re creating an infinitely enlargeable vector image instead of a specific size of text in a raster image format.

In addition, you would be well advised to also use vector images for any line drawings and logos that you want to include on your large format print product.

Gradations

Now, finally, gradations. I once learned a secret about gradations (colors that lighten gradually from a solid hue at one end–like the bottom of the banner-stand art–to white–let’s say at the top of the banner-stand art). You can create a gradation mathematically (and automatically) that will gradually darken or lighten from one end to the other, or you can create a gradation (to the exact size) as a separate art element in Photoshop format. (You would then import it into your InDesign banner file as you would a photo or type.)

In my experience, if you create the gradation in Photoshop, you will often get a smoother transition from white to the solid color. This is because “banding” can occur in some mathematically produced gradations, depending on the physical distance from one side of the gradation (let’s say solid blue) to the other (let’s say white) and the resolution of the output device. The banding in question is a visible and abrupt change from one shade to the next adjacent shade. That is, the gradation is no longer smooth. It has one or more bands disrupting the even flow.

Unfortunately, what you see on-screen might not be what you get when you print, depending on the physical length of the color transition within the gradient.

As a work-around, I have found that creating the gradation (like a piece of bitmapped art) in Photoshop can mitigate this. I have also found that adding “noise” to the gradation in Photoshop can reduce banding.

Just a thought. You might want to check this out online.

Color Space

Please remember that your monitor creates color with light, within the RGB (red-green-blue) color space, and yet your printer (both offset and digital) produces colors with ink, within the CMYK (cyan-magenta-yellow-black) color space. Therefore, you should always convert everything in your Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign files to CMYK prior to creating final art files for your commercial printing supplier.

Book Printing: Handing Off PDF Files to the Printer

Tuesday, April 25th, 2017

A print brokering client of mine is getting closer to handing off files to the book printer. She has been producing a 550-page cookbook in InDesign, including many hundreds of photos prepared in Photoshop. What makes this a challenge is that she is relatively new to Photoshop.

At the same time, the book printer I’m most comfortable handing her work off to (who is also the low bid) would prefer PDF files rather than native InDesign files. To complicate matters, PDF creation still requires premium quality native InDesign files as a base from which to produce press-ready PDFs, and there are many, many options for creating PDFs. Moreover, these options differ from printer to printer depending on many things, such as their prepress workflow software.

The gist of what I just said above is that it’s easy to hand off a problem file if you don’t do things right.

What Is a PDF File?

PDF stands for portable document format. This format allows you to distill an InDesign file (and all the fonts and images you have used to create the file) into a format easily printable on any computer. If you’re producing low-resolution output on a desktop printer, it’s relatively seamless. But if you’re printing high-resolution images in cyan/magenta/yellow/black on an offset press, you need a more comprehensive approach.

That said, if you can create a successfully preflighted InDesign file that correctly addresses issues of color space, resolution, image usage, font usage, and such, and then distill this into a successfully preflighted PDF, your book printer’s likelihood of producing both a proof and a final print job that meet your expectations is very high. Or, at the very least, you will see the problems early when you review the proof. And you can be confident that a successfully output proof will ensure a successfully printed job.

In addition, since you can embed the fonts in a PDF, you do not need to hand off your fonts to your printer. Also, your printer is less likely to encounter font substitution problems that would adjust (or totally move around) the text on your pages.

However, to be safe, it’s always good to send your printer a hard-copy proof to which he can “reconcile” the PDF and final job (i.e., something physical to match).

Keep in mind that a PDF will not improve anything in your initial InDesign file. If the photos are not of sufficient resolution, the PDF will not sharpen them. It won’t brighten photos or fix anything else. It will only allow for a smoother transition of your art files from your computer to your book printer’s computer.

Now the bad news is also the good news. You can only do limited editing to a PDF file. This means that when you hand off PDF files to your printer, if you find problems on the proof, you will have to correct the files in InDesign, distill them again into revised PDFs, and then hand these off to your printer for revised proofs. The good news is that there is very little that can change in the files you hand off to your printer (compared to native files), so you have almost complete assurance that your proofs will look exactly like your submitted files. (This is not the case when you hand off native files.)

Back to My Client

To get back to my client, all of this is relatively new to her. And there are a lot of options (multiple screens’ worth in InDesign) that need to be addressed in preparing PDFs correctly.

In addition, “correctly” means different things to different printers, since printers often have different prepress workflow software packages (such as Rampage or Prinergy).

In my client’s case, the printer has agreed to accept both PDFs and native files. If there are problems in the PDFs my client supplies, the printer will potentially be able to address them using her native InDesign files (i.e., the original, and editable, art files).

Fortunately, my client can distill PDFs directly from InDesign. Or she could use Acrobat Professional to distill the InDesign files into PDFs (but not the less-complete, but free, Acrobat Reader).

To make things easier, I plan to create for my client (with the book printer’s help) a cheat sheet showing which options to check or uncheck on the screens InDesign presents when you create PDFs. She can then put together a short test document (four or five pages addressing text issues, color issues, and image resolution issues). If the files pass preflight, she can then go ahead and distill the 550-page print book.

Variables/Issues to Consider

Here’s a short list of issues my client will need to consider (and that you may need to address when distilling files from your own InDesign projects). The best way to ensure success is to request the printer’s “guidelines” document for creating PDFs for offset print output. This document will make your life much easier (it will tell you what options to select for your printer’s specific workflow software), and it will make your printer’s life much easier (because your files will work smoothly).

  1. Document size.
  2. Bleeds (usually .125” or more).
  3. Margins. (It’s usually best not to put anything—type or images—closer than .25” from the trim.)
  4. Color space. (Make sure the job is CMYK or black only, not RGB. Convert spot colors to process colors, or ask your printer how to specify spot colors.)
  5. Crop marks.
  6. Transparency (with or without flattening). If this doesn’t make sense, ask your printer.
  7. Fonts. Embed them in the PDF. If they can’t be embedded (due to font licensing issues), ask your printer for a work-around.
  8. Image resolution. Use photos that are at least 300 dpi at the final size.
  9. Number of pages. Send either the whole book as one PDF or as several PDFs with a range of pages for each. Label accordingly. (Discuss with your printer.)
  10. Unused colors. If you have defined colors and then decided not to use them, delete them from your color palette. Never use “Registration” or “Auto” as a color. These will not output correctly (in some cases all type and imagery may show up on all printing plates).
  11. Preflight both the native file (before distilling the PDF) and the newly created PDF to catch all errors before submitting the PDF to the book printer.
  12. Only use “rich blacks” (a combination of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) for solids and area screens, but never for type. (It would be too difficult to closely register four printing plates for small type while holding detail in the type serifs.)

Discuss these issues with your printer. This is only one set of specs I found online. Other printers will have different needs.

Extra Screens to Address

In InDesign, for instance, there are five computer screens of information to address when creating PDF files. In most cases these will involve only a few checkmarks (on-screen) based on your printer’s needs. They are called: “General,” “Compression,” “Marks & Bleeds,” “Output,” and “Advanced.” It is also wise to check “The Appearance of Black” in the Preferences window.

Final Thoughts

You can do this successfully (and so can my print brokering client). All is takes is study, practice, and communication with your book printer (or commercial printer, for that matter). After you do it once, you’ll know exactly what questions to ask your printer, so you can set up your files in the best way for his particular computer prepress system.

Book Printing: A Few Thoughts on Image Preparation

Saturday, April 22nd, 2017

In spite of the promotional literature implying the ease with which one can seamlessly use Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator, there really is a lot to learn. And when you’re using these programs together to prepare large book printing jobs for either offset printing or digital printing, the learning curve is even steeper.

That said, I have three book printing jobs I’m brokering at the moment. They are all close to 8.5” x 11” in format, and their press runs range from 500 copies to 11,000 copies (perfect bound and case bound).

In this particular case, the physical properties of the print books are less important than the preparation of the art files, or, more specifically, the preparation of the images to be placed in the InDesign files.

My “DIY” (Do-It-Yourself) Client

One of my clients has written and designed her book and then has prepared all pages in InDesign. She may also have taken the photographs. But she is somewhat new to Photoshop. To her the images are more important than the words. This is a cookbook, and she wants the images to take the lead.

From a commercial printing standpoint, because of this orientation toward the images, I have suggested that my client select a gloss coated printing stock. But for the custom printing paper to showcase the nuances of the images, the photographs must be correctly prepared prior to being placed in the InDesign file.

One of the things I learned, purely by accident during a discussion with my client, was that she had kept the photos in RGB JPEG format as they had been initially shot. Since she knew she wanted the text of the book (both words and images) to be printed in black ink only, she had merely desaturated the photos in Photoshop (i.e., removed their color but kept them in RGB format).

This had made perfect sense to her (and was a logical approach), but it was not what the offset printer would need in order to produce her book. So I gave my client the following suggestions. I think these would benefit a number of new designers (and designers who had come of age with traditional paste-up and are only now making the shift to computerized design and prepress):

My Suggestions to My Client

  1. I told my client she needed to convert all photos from RGB JPEGs to Grayscale TIFFs. Some printers can work with JPEGs, but it’s safest to use TIFFs because all printers will accept these.
  2. If my client had continued to use RGB, the printer would have needed to convert the files himself to CMYK (from Red/Green/Blue, which is used for video monitors, to Cyan/Magenta/Yellow/Black, which is used for ink or toner applied to paper). These color spaces are not the same. A color image mode change from one color space to another can cause color shifts.
  3. In my client’s case, if she had kept her files in the CMYK mode, the offset printer would have prepared printing plates for all four colors. In essence, even if the computer monitor had given the impression that her images were black and white, they would have been created with all four process colors. Printing the interior text pages of the book in full color would have cost multiple thousands of dollars more than printing a black-only text block. Since this would not have been acceptable, all of her work would have needed to be redone after the first proof, and then a second proof would have been required, further adding to the cost. So understanding how to use Photoshop to change the color mode from RGB to Grayscale was important for my client (as was doing this in a way that optimized the tonal range of the photos: i.e., the detail in highlights, midtones, and shadows).
  4. I suggested that my client look online for a tutorial on preparing black and white images for commercial printing. I have seen many such tutorials. They are succinct and extremely useful. They discuss everything from image resolution to changing color modes, to optimizing highlights and shadows for offset printing.
  5. I encouraged my client to make decisions regarding highlights and shadows based on “numbers” in the Photoshop dialog boxes (the “Info” palette, for instance), rather than by looking at the computer monitor. I noted that backlit images on a computer screen will look brighter than the same image files printed with ink or toner on paper. Learning to interpret the “numbers” (the numerical values for the colors and tonal range) would minimize error.
  6. I suggested that my client prepare a few pages of text and photos and then have the printer run a digital proof of just those pages as an initial test. If they looked too dark or too light, that feedback would help her in preparing the remainder of the book. I suggested that she approach the proofing process as an investment, not an expense.
  7. I spoke with the printer about providing his prepress department’s checklist for producing optimal, press-ready PDFs, so that once my client had received the initial few test pages and applied what she had learned to the remainder of the book, she would know how to convert her InDesign file into the best possible PDF file. He agreed. (Many printers already have such a PDF creation checklist. The reason this is useful is that different printers have different preferences for the numerous options available in creating a print-ready PDF file.)
  8. I encouraged my client to request the following proofs: the 3- to 5-page initial test file (plus any revisions needed); a high-resolution digital proof of all photos ganged up onto approximately 100 pages; the overall digital proof of the book (a “contract” quality, digital cover proof such as a Spectrum or Epson, plus laser proofs of all text pages); and folded and gathered book signatures handed off following printing but before binding the book. Overall, this would let my client see every stage of the process. Since this print book is her pride and joy, her “baby,” these multiple proofing stages will help ensure success.

What You Can Learn From This Case Study

You can apply most of the suggestions I gave my client to your own work.

  1. Find out how your printer needs you to prepare images. Check online for short tutorials that teach you how to prepare Photoshop images for offset printing. They will give you a limited number of steps to follow to ensure your success with offset printed images.
  2. Consider requesting any or all of the proofs I have suggested. It may cost a little more, but it will help you identify problems before the book has been printed. At minimum, consider a high-res proof of the cover and “for position” proofs of the text. If you have images or tint screens, consider requesting high-res proofs of these pages. The jargon to use is “contract proofs.” These serve as a contract between you and the printer: once you have approved the way they look, he has to match these proofs exactly.
  3. Ask for your printer’s PDF-creation guidance sheet. Don’t assume one printer’s PDF-creation guide is the same as another’s.

Custom Printing: Halftone Dots vs. Aboriginal Dot Painting

Friday, June 5th, 2015

I was recently preparing a lesson for my fiancee’s and my art therapy work with the autistic. We are going to do Aboriginal dot paintings on paper plates that we have made into tambourines (with washers and bells for the tinkling sound). They will be used in the group’s music class.

In my research and consideration for the background part of the lesson, I had noted the similarities between the Aboriginal dot paintings, the pointillist paintings of such artists as Seurat, halftone images produced for offset commercial printing, and the Ben-Day color screens that appear in both comic books (to simulate halftones) and in the Pop Art images of Roy Lichtenstein (to simulate the comics themselves, but on huge canvases).

Wow. I’m not saying that these disparate art movements are connected. Rather I am noting a fact about the human eye. Our eyes will connect and (along with our brains) make sense out of patterns of dots, such that we will see images of actual things when all that exists is the dots.

Halftone Dots

Let’s start with halftone dots because that’s what we all see whenever we look at a full-color poster, brochure, or print book produced via the offset lithographic custom printing process.

Offset printing is a binary process. You can print magenta or not print magenta, but you cannot print lighter or darker shades of magenta on a 4-color offset lithographic press. Therefore, the process of halftoning images was created. Photos are broken down into a series of smaller or larger dots (that will print in magenta, for instance) to simulate lighter or darker colors. When you add cyan, yellow, and black halftone dots to the magenta dots (and turn the halftone screens at angles to one another), you can produce full-color imagery from the four process colors.

And all of this rests on the ability of the human eye to group together all of these dots into recognizable items within a photograph.

Aboriginal Dot Painting

With this knowledge of the workings of the human eye, let’s jump back in time to the indigenous residents of Australia, the Aborigines, who used dotting sticks and paint to create images of animals, lakes, and the “Dreamtime” (the “world-dawn” in which their ancestors lived).

If you look at dot paintings of these lizards and snakes, you will see flat patterns of dots that may “read” as the back or tail of a creature, or even a light or shaded area like a lake. The body of the snake may just be multitudes of green dots surrounded by a line of white dots that constitute the outline of the snake, but the human eye nevertheless merges the dots into flat areas of color and distinct outlines.

Seurat and Pointillism

Now let’s jump ahead to France, to the Post-Impressionist painter Georges-Pierre Seurat, who placed dots of pure color side by side with painstaking detail.

Seurat put into practice the scientific discoveries of a French chemist who restored tapestries, Michel Eugène Chevreul. According to Wikipedia, he “discovered that two colors juxtaposed, slightly overlapping or very close together, would have the effect of another color when seen from a distance.”

Sounds a lot like the halftoning process.

If you look at the “Pointillist” paintings of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, you will see exactly this process in action. By placing discrete dots of color side by side, both painters were able to create colors that the viewer’s eye understood to be grass, trees, people, and boats on a lake.

Ben-Day Dots and Pop Art

Similar to the halftoning process are Ben-Day screens, which were named after Benjamin Henry Day, Jr., an illustrator and printer.

Accorrding to Wikipedia,

“Depending on the effect, color and optical illusion needed, small colored dots are closely spaced, widely spaced or overlapping. Magenta dots, for example, are widely spaced to create pink. Pulp comic books of the 1950s and 1960s used Ben-Day dots in the four process colors (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) to inexpensively create shading and secondary colors such as green, purple, orange and flesh tones.”

Unlike halftone dots, Ben-Day dots were all the same size and the same distance apart. You could buy Ben-Day overlay sheets with larger or smaller dots placed closer together or farther apart depending on the shade or hue you wanted to simulate. Then, using a burnisher, you would rub the back of the sheet to transfer the dots to the original art. Using different screens, you could create backgrounds, shadows, or surface treatments (of a face or body, or an area of grass—or anything).

Once photographed for use in either letterpress or offset printing, these screens of dot patterns would provide shading for the final printing plate (and final commercial printing product). And like all the other examples above, the concept was based on the principle that the human eye turns patterns of dots into recognizable objects.

Taken one step further than the comics or illustrations to which the Ben-Day dot screens were applied, within the field of graphic arts, is the fine art of Roy Lichtenstein. An American Pop Artist, Lichtenstein based the imagery for his paintings on American advertising and comic books, capturing in meticulous, hard-edged detail the faces and “word-bubbles” viewers were used to seeing in comic books (but presented in the grand scale of his huge canvasses).

For instance, instead of painting a wall, or face, or hair in one of these comic-book “cells” using a flat, single color, Lichtenstein would use a pattern of equally spaced dots to simulate the color. He would do this as a reference, or homage, to the comic books (with the tongue-in-cheek approach of parody).

What You Can Learn

So—you might be asking–what?

As graphic designers and buyers of commercial printing, it is helpful to understand both the history of the “dot” and the optical principles behind its use in graphic design and the fine arts.

The eye makes patterns into recognizable objects. The eye connects things that are separate into groups to make sense of them.

You can use this information to solve design problems, reference older styles of design to make an artistic statement, or just to have an additional set of tools to incorporate into your own design work for commercial printing projects.

Custom Printing: InDesign to PDF and PDF to InDesign

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

It’s surprisingly easy to create an art file for a commercial printing job and then distill the file into a PDF while missing some errors that will wreak havoc with your final desired output.

For instance, you might include an image that is not of sufficiently high resolution. You might neglect to include fonts necessary for accurate printing of your job (you might even include corrupted fonts by accident). Or you might create a print job in the RGB color space (rather than the appropriate CMYK color space). It’s easy to do. You are focusing on the design and content of your project, and it’s easy to forget to check all of the myriad technical details required for accurate output.

Unfortunately, if these problems go undetected, you will be unhappy with your final commercial printing job.

Preflight Software in General

Therefore, over the years software developers (such as Adobe, Enfocus, and Markzware) have developed applications to both check and correct the most common prepress errors prior to the proofing and plating steps of offset lithography. FlightCheck is one of these “preflight” applications. Acrobat Pro and PitStop are two more. They have saved most designers some form of heartache.

Especially Helpful Characteristics of Preflight Software

Preflight software not only catches errors in the PDF files you send your printer; it also corrects them. For simple problems, this sidesteps the need for the printer to always ask you to make the corrections and resubmit the PDF art files. In many cases he can make the changes himself.

Preflight software can correct problems with a print job’s color space, missing and corrupted fonts, and low image resolution, among other things. It is even possible to do minor text editing within a PDF file (without needing to access the native InDesign file).

By not needing to return all problematic art files to the designers, printers can often avoid production delays and compromised schedules. Since the great proportion of art files submitted to printers contain one or more problems, this software can be a major asset.

Preflight software is a “plug-in.” This means a printer does not need to purchase an additional software package; rather, a small additional piece of software can be installed and then accessed through Adobe Acrobat to make the required corrections.

Some preflight software will check not only Adobe Acrobat PDFs but also native InDesign, Quark, Photoshop, and Illustrator files (and even some other file types as well).

Once the files have been preflighted, both you and your commercial printing provider can rest assured that your PDF files will generate press-ready printing plates.

What About Going the Other Way: From PDF to Native InDesign Files?

But what if you need to go the other way, from a PDF to an InDesign file? With all the focus on making press-ready PDFs from native InDesign files, there still is a need to create usable InDesign files from a PDF.

Here’s an example. A print brokering client of mine is producing a color swatch book for fashion and cosmetics. It is a bit like a commercial printing PMS book but for the fashion industry. My client will specify CMYK percentages for swatches printed on the front of each page and then typeset explanatory material for the back of each page.

From a design point of view, this seems easy. What makes this challenging is the following:

  1. There will be 16 separate “versions” of the color swatch books.
  2. Each version will include 60 specific colors. (Taking into account the introductory material for each book, and the front and back of each color swatch page, each version will consist of 126 pages.)
  3. Between 20 and100 copies of each version will be digitally printed on a Kodak NexPress or HP Indigo press.

That’s a total of 2,016 original book pages (16 versions x 126 pages).

My client has the prior year’s PDF of this job but not the native InDesign file. She has two choices. She can create all of the pages from scratch, or she can buy software that converts PDFs to other application formats, such as InDesign files.

Markzware provides such a product (PDF2DTP) and so does Recosoft (PDF2ID). Which one my client chooses will depend on her needs. My sense from reading the reviews is that some of these programs work better in certain situations while others work better in different situations. But the concept is sound, and these software packages are improving.

In my client’s case, this will allow her to start with the prior year’s PDF art files and end with editable InDesign files. My client can then adjust the color builds for the swatches and update the text.

This will save her a huge amount of work, even if she still has to do a lot of “tweaking.”

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

This can save you a huge amount of work if you’re in the same situation as my client. However, be forewarned. The native design files you will end up with after converting from PDFs to InDesign format will still need more or less tweaking. Do your own research online to find the strengths and weaknesses of each PDF-to-native-design-file converter before making your choice.

Based on my research, it seems that for longer projects these programs can actually create more work for you than starting from scratch. Apparently, some programs break the text into multiple unlinked (but still editable) text boxes rather than a series of connected text boxes with a single thread of copy. So they might not be great for books. However, if you’re doing what my client is doing—processing a huge number of originals in the same simple format—this could be the answer you’re looking for.

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.

Custom Printing: Adobe Dumps Creative Suite in Favor of Creative Cloud

Monday, May 27th, 2013

Very soon Adobe will stop selling packaged software for a one-time fee. Going forward, designers will need to subscribe to (or “rent”) the software, paying approximately $20.00 to $50.00 per month for various levels of service ranging from access to one Adobe software package to access to all key Adobe applications.

Calling this Adobe Creative Cloud may be somewhat confusing for some. The applications don’t actually reside online, nor are they accessed through a browser. You download the applications and then use them on your desktop. In addition to paying for the annual fee up front ($49.99 x 12 months, for instance), you must verify your subscription online (once a month if you’re subscribing month to month or once every 99 days if you’re subscribing annually).

To be fair, there are true cloud-based elements within this “software as a service” (SaaS) model, which in itself is not new (consider Salesforce, for instance). When you subscribe to Creative Cloud, you get 20GB of online storage, which is a boon for sharing files or collaborating. Other online services are available as well.

“Pros” of Adobe’s Creative Cloud Model

  1. The best thing about Creative Cloud is that you get access to all major Adobe products for custom printing and web-based design. If you were to buy the Creative Suite 6 Master Collection as boxed software, you would pay about $2,600.00 (according to Adobe’s website, unless you’re a teacher or student, in which case you’d pay considerably less). The software package contains Photoshop, Flash, Illustrator, InDesign, Dreamweaver, Fireworks, Premiere Pro, After Effects, etc. Let’s compare this to Creative Cloud. In two years you would pay about $1,200.00 (assuming a $49.99 monthly Creative Cloud fee). Assuming you had bought the packaged software and used it without upgrading for two years (the usual cycle for packaged software), you would have paid $1,400.00 more for boxed software than for the Creative Cloud subscription. (If you need a lot of variety in your custom printing and web design software, you can save a lot of money by subscribing to Creative Cloud.)
  2. You would also get continuous updates to download and install on your computer. Whenever anything is fixed or expanded, you would get a copy. If you had purchased boxed software, the updates alone would have added significantly to your overall cost.
  3. You would get the 20GB online storage and file sharing service.
  4. You could reduce the monthly fee (or annually-paid fee, to be precise) in a number of ways. For instance, if you already have a Creative Suite license (CS3 or above), your monthly cost would be only $29.99. Then there are student/teacher versions at a 60 percent savings. Or you could subscribe to one application for $19.99 a month. (To put this in perspective, I paid $1,200.00 for the boxed set of Creative Suite Design Standard. The suite only includes InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, and Acrobat for custom printing design work. I’ve had the package for 2.5 years. Amortized, that’s $40.00 a month for less software than you would get through Creative Cloud.)
  5. You get more than 30 tools and services, including Muse (for websites) and Typekit fonts. Keep in mind that when you buy packaged software and then buy fonts separately, the extra cost for fonts can quickly add up.

“Cons” of Adobe’s Creative Cloud Model

  1. You don’t have a choice in the matter. Adobe is changing it’s business model to a subscription-only service in June 2013 (next month). If you want to play, you have to pay. Many users don’t like being forced to change from boxed software to software-as-a-service (or subscription-based software).
  2. Some users are concerned that Adobe will raise prices over time.
  3. If you use only one application and you hold onto it for years, then moving to Creative Cloud will increase your overall cost.

Alternatives to Creative Cloud

If you don’t like Adobe’s new business model, there are alternatives. In order to make this worthwhile financially, these alternatives would be aimed primarily at those who need minimal page layout, illustration, and image-editing capabilities for light design work for commercial printing. (For heavy-duty design work, I still think Creative Cloud is very reasonably priced.)

Here are a few options:

  1. You can buy other design software. For instance, my online search yielded several Photoshop alternatives, including the open-source GIMP, which is free, and Paintshop Pro. There are others. I know they are not as comprehensive as Photoshop, but how many of Photoshop’s capabilities do you really use? Check online for more options. (I’m not sure you’d be as successful finding replacements for Illustrator and InDesign, though.)
  2. You could buy older design software. Check out eBay. I’m sure there are other sources as well. I personally use CreativeSuite 5 even though CreativeSuite 6 is out there. For me, CS5 does exactly what I need it to do. You can still buy it, and it’s cheaper than CS6 because CS5 is no longer state of the art. Even after Adobe’s shift to the subscription-only Creative Cloud, there will still be some old boxed sets available if you know where to look.
  3. You can assume that over time other software developers will fill the void. For instance, Adobe’s new pricing model might motivate Quark to expand its offerings. Or maybe a new software package entirely will make its debut.

On Demand Book Printing: Why You Request a Proof

Monday, May 6th, 2013

Old habits die hard. And this goes for print book proofing as well. Choosing a particular type of proof without considering your goals misses the point of proofing. Certain proofs are not always appropriate for a book run.

I’ve been working with an author and two designers over the past several months to prepare a self-published book on the Holocaust. I’ve mentioned it before in these blog posts.

The job is a 9” x 12” perfect bound print book with 80# Finch Fine Vanilla text pages. To maintain the highest quality, the commercial printing vendor will produce the 4-color covers via offset lithography, and, due to the short run of the 180-page book (only 65 copies for family and close friends of the author), the printer will produce the text pages on an HP Indigo digital press.

Choosing the Correct Proofs for the Job

Although the book printer had sent unprinted samples of the 80# Finch Fine Vanilla text stock to the author, I asked that he also send my client a few sample printed text pages produced from the actual print book design files on the actual text paper. I wanted my client to see how the text, and particularly the photos, of his book would look and feel. A last-minute paper stock change, if my client were displeased, would be cheaper than his paying for a book he didn’t love.

The cover proof was to be a contract-quality inkjet print. I thought this would be best, since the covers would be produced via offset lithography. The only other alternatives would have been a dot-for-dot halftone proof (the printer didn’t have this equipment, and the inkjet proof would be reliable enough) or a press proof (which would have been far too expensive).

For the text of the book, I had requested a “one-off” digital proof produced on the HP Indigo using the Finch stock. The proof would be one actual copy of the book on the actual paper.

My usual inclination in book printing is to request an F&G (a set of unbound, yet printed, folded, and gathered signatures) as a final proofing step. I had made this request for this book as well, within the initial specifications for bid. But after discussing the job with the book printer today, I reversed my opinion and encouraged my client to forgo this step. Here’s why.

The Purpose of an F&G

Proofs for books that will be printed via offset lithography are either laser copies or inkjet copies of the pages (usually laser, or xerography, or electrophotography—which are all the same technology). They are not press proofs (proofs printed on the actual press and therefore totally faithful to the final press run).

Requesting an F&G gives the client an opportunity to see a printed yet unbound copy of the book. Printing errors such as chalking, scumming, slurring, and doubling (i.e., errors reflecting press problems) will be obvious in an F&G. These same errors would not show up on the proof, since the proof is produced with an entirely different technology.

Back to My Client’s Text Proof

In my client’s case, the proof is one full copy of the final digitally printed book. The HP Indigo press will produce 64 more digital copies after my client has approved the initial copy. Therefore, it will be unlikely that printing errors will creep into the final product. Ostensibly, copies 2 through 65 will exactly match copy 1. Realizing this upon reflection, I canceled the F&G request and alerted the client. He agreed. Fortunately, this will also save time and the cost of shipping an additional proof from the book printer to the client.

The Purpose of the Initial Sample Pages

For an offset printed book I would be unlikely to request an initial proof of a few sample pages on actual printing stock. I might suggest that the designer laser print or inkjet print a few pages on the stock to produce a reasonable facsimile of the final output, but to ask the printer to provide printed samples of the actual job would, again, be to request a press proof. Press proofs involve making ready a press and printing the actual sheets—an especially costly endeavor.

However, since a few pages of digitally printed stock from my client’s own PDF files will be cheap relative to their value (showing the actual look and feel of the book before committing to an 180-page text proof), this is money well spent.

What We Can Learn from This

Proofing is best when it exactly duplicates the final result of the job. For digital printing, the proof is the final product. For offset lithography the proof is only a facsimile, intended to show copy placement and reasonably accurate color. Even a contract-quality inkjet print used for proofing a cover is only a very close approximation (but not an exact replica) of the final offset-printed sheet. So it’s wise to keep costs in mind as well as what you’re actually trying to see within a particular proofing cycle. Proof early and often, but make sure you know what each kind of proof will show you and exactly what you are looking for in each proof.

Commercial Printing: Why You Shouldn’t Use MS Word for Layout

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

Every so often someone asks me whether they can design their commercial printing projects in MS Word. This is particularly true for staff at large companies in which most people have a copy of MS Word, or for government workers who initially draft their publications in MS Word.

I’d like to give a cogent answer, other than just to say, “Aagh; please, don’t!” So I did some research among colleagues of mine who are designers and custom printing professionals, and I came up with a few reasons why using MS Word instead of InDesign or QuarkXPress is a bad idea. The key here is the output. For printing to a LaserWriter, it’s fine, but for professional digital and offset printing, it’s wise to avoid both MS Word and MS Publisher. Your commercial printing vendor will thank you.

Why Not Use MS Word?

Formatting Limitations

Word processors such as MS Word are descendents of typewriters, while applications such as InDesign and QuarkXPress are descendents of dedicated typesetting machines. Word processors do not have the precise control over tracking, kerning, justification, alignment, ligatures, and other nuances of fine typesetting that dedicated layout programs can provide.

Within a word processing application, one has less control over both the individual characters in a document and also the overall look (or “color”) of the text. Minuscule details within a block of copy combine to either facilitate or detract from the overall ease of reading.

In addition, multi-column layouts are very difficult to create or control in MS Word, but they are easy to create using a layout program.

Another reason to use professional layout programs rather than MS Word is that fonts provided for InDesign and QuarkXPress produce repeatable results on laser printers and platesetters. These fonts are designed for professional typesetting. In contrast, fonts available for MS Word and similar applications are system fonts lacking the nuances of type font design (such as ligatures, extended character sets, etc.).

Problems with Moving Graphics

Simply put, graphics often move within a MS Word file. It is very hard to anchor them to a specific position within the text or to wrap text around an image.

The Wrong Color Space for Printing

MS Word is an RGB application. It processes color within a RGB (red/green/blue) color space. This is not appropriate for commercial printing, which works within a CMYK color space (cyan/magenta/yellow/black). Converting from RGB to CMYK to prepare a MS Word PDF for custom printing can dramatically alter the color. In addition, black text within graphics (like labels in a chart or graph) will become a color build (composite percentages of RGB or CMYK) rather than 100 percent black. For small type (like 9 point labels in a chart) the offset press cannot hold the color register accurately, and the type may appear to be surrounded by colored halos.

Problematic PDF Creation

Creating a press ready PDF that an offset printer will accept is far more challenging when starting with a MS Word document than with an InDesign or QuarkXPress document. In some cases it may not even be possible.

Options to MS Word (and MS Publisher)

Between the suggestions my associates have made and the research I have done, it seems that there are a number of alternatives to MS Word when designing jobs for commercial printing. The two most popular applications are InDesign and QuarkXPress. However, for longer documents, you might want to check out FrameMaker or even LaTeX (good for text formatting but not as good for design, since it is not a visually oriented—WYSIWYG, or “what you see is what you get”–program). And for simple design, you might look into Apple’s Pages. Formatting controls are not as extensive as in InDesign or QuarkXPress, but for a two-page newsletter, it should be fine.

For those without much design experience, it’s possible to acquire templates for the various design programs. Placing your text into these preformatted documents will make it a lot easier for you to create attractive printed pieces if you are unsure of your own design ability.

What Is MS Word Good For?

I actually use MS Word (or the OpenOffice word processor) for its search and replace functions and to clean up and simplify copy before placing it in InDesign. After all, since most copy for publications I design initially comes to me in MS Word format, I use it for its strengths; however, I only use it as an interim step in the process of designing for custom printing.

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