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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 the ‘Proofing’ Category

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.

Custom Printing: Choosing an InSite Digital Proofing Workflow

Monday, November 22nd, 2021

Photo purchased from …

Back in the 1990s when I was an art director, I actually sent our print books to press as pasted-up “mechanicals.” From these, the printers would make negatives and from these blueline proofs. Finally they would “burn” plates from the same negatives used for the bluelines. Late in the ‘90s I had switched to submitting artwork as digital files rather than as mechanicals, and the printers had begun to expose and process custom printing plates without the interim step of creating negatives. (more…)

Commercial Printing: Problems, Problems, Problems

Thursday, January 7th, 2021

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When It Rains, It Pours

A little while ago I wrote a blog post about a client’s problemmatic proof of a floor sample presentation binder. My client’s situation showed just how important an accurate proof is, as a preview of what you can expect when the final job arrives. In short, my client had submitted final art files she thought matched the blue in her client’s logo, but the hard-copy proof came out a muddy (4-color) black. Because she had been explicit in her written instructions, and because she had described (and demonstrated) what she wanted in a short video, the printer fixed the files and sent out a second proof. He charged my client nothing. (more…)

Custom Printing: Always, Always Proof Early and Often

Wednesday, December 30th, 2020

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My Own War Story About Proofing

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

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

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

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

Commercial Printing: Proofing Options

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013

Here are some options from which you may choose when proofing anything from a print book to a brochure. Some are more expensive, some less, but in all cases it’s wise to first decide what you are trying to see on the proof and then think about price. (more…)

Custom Printing: Sappi Addresses Color Management

Monday, May 28th, 2012

After reviewing The Sappi Standard #5, I checked out the Sappi website and found another booklet entitled The Sappi Standard #2, Managing Color. I thought this would contain useful information, so I ordered the print book, and I wanted to share it with you. (more…)

Custom Printing Options for Creating and Proofing PDFs

Sunday, March 11th, 2012

We are inundated with PDFs today. Almost every application you own can create a Portable Document Format file, from OpenOffice to Microsoft Word to Adobe Acrobat. But if you are a graphic designer, how do you know that the PDF you are creating for your commercial printer is appropriate for the target offset or digital printing technology? How do you know your job won’t go horribly wrong? (more…)

Commercial Printers: The Right Proof at the Right Time

Monday, February 27th, 2012

There are a lot of proofing options. Clearly. You have inkjet, laser, press proofs, and on-screen soft proofs. Which do you use and when? (more…)

Printing Companies: Limits of Digital Color Proofing

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

A close friend emailed me a commercial printing blog comment asking whether any proofing device could really match ink colors on press. Not just close, but dead-on. (more…)


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