Print Management 1: Assessing Capabilities

This is the first in a series on print management. I have over two decades under my belt working on independent school projects from invitations to viewbooks and everything in between.  From the simple to the extremely complex, I've been through it all. I hope you can from my mistakes and take advantage of my knowledge. 

If anyone tells you print is dead, don’t believe them. Think back to your (physical) mailbox in November. You may have needed a wheelbarrow to carry all the catalogs inside the house. How about at election time? I could have made a 30-page book from the postcards that came in the mail urging me to vote for their candidate.

Print has certainly taken a massive hit in the last 15 years but this industry shift has left the best printers standing. With this series, I’m going the help you get more familiar with the industry you probably have infrequent contact with, but nonetheless want to maximize to serve your school well.

Let’s start with a glossary of printing terms.

CMYK/Four-color, One- or two-color
CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow and black which are the four colors of ink used in four-color printing (also sometimes called full-color printing.) One-color and two-color printing are exactly as they sound, i.e. a printing press that prints one color or two colors at a time.

Varnish is a clear ink and can be gloss, satin or matte. A flood varnish covers the entire printed page for protection or sheen. A spot varnish covers a specific area of a printed piece usually to highlight it or create a dramatic effect.

Aqueous coating
Aqueous coating is a clear, fast-drying water-based coating that is used to protect printed pieces and improve durability. It is used more often than varnish since it dries very quickly allowing faster handling of the printed piece. Varnish also has a tendency to yellow over time.

Coating tower
An aqueous coating tower is an in-line section of a press that applies the coating as the paper exits the press.

Conventional vs Digital printing
Conventional printing, also called offset printing, refers to the traditional process of applying layers of ink on paper. It allows for the use of a wide range of paper types and sizes, and is very economical especially for longer runs since the cost per piece goes down as the quantity goes up.

Digital printing is printing directly from a computer image to the paper using either ink jet or laser technology. It eliminates several steps necessary for conventional printing such as creating printing plates. It is very economical compared to conventional printing for shorter runs (i.e. quantities). One of the disadvantages is that the size of the sheet is limited to about 14” x 26.”

Prepress refers to all of the work that goes into your job before it actually goes on press, like file prep, color correction, retouching, proofreading, proofing, etc.

An image’s resolution refers to the number of pixels that will fit into one inch when printed. Printing is actually produced by applying millions of tiny dots (or pixels) on the paper, which can’t be seen by the naked eye, but can with a strong magnifying glass. The higher the number of pixels the better the resolution, the more refined the image. (Think about the difference between a photo in a newspaper vs. one in a national magazine.)

Bindery is how your printed piece is assembled and finished. It refers to how it is folded and, if there are multiple pages, how they are held together. It can also refer to specialty processes like die-cutting (punching a decorative shape into the paper) and embossing (pressing the paper like a waffle iron to get a raised impression).

Color correction
Color correction is the critical step of adjusting a photo so that the colors are accurate and balanced.

You can find more terms online if you’d like to impress your rep with your printing acumen. 

Choosing a Printer

First things first—not all printers are created equal. This is critical to understand before taking any other steps in getting your project printed.

What exactly do I mean? Different printers have different capabilities and matching your project’s needs to the right printer goes a long way towards getting the results you want at a competitive price. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true, i.e. choosing the wrong printer makes it very difficult to get the best results, and it could cost you money, too.

Some of the things you need to know about printers:

Both the size and capabilities of the printer’s equipment is important. For a four-color process project where you also want to include an aqueous coating, you want the printer with a press that has a coating tower for economy sake. If you’re printing an 8.5” x 11” 64-page magazine you probably want a printer that has a 40” press to be able to print the job most economically. For a short-run, four-color job —like a community service or study overseas brochure— a high-quality digital output press is best. And if you’re printing a one or two-color sheet—like an application or letterhead— a printer with a small one- or two-color press will be most economical. What’s most important is that you match the job to the printer.

Prepress capabilities
This is one of the most critical parts of the job, especially for four-color process projects where you want, no, you need a printer with exceptional prepress capabilities. Prepress refers to all of the work that goes into your job before it actually goes on press.

Pre-flight is the first stage of the prepress process and it refers to checking your files to make sure all of the needed elements are included and that your images are the correct format and resolution. You also want your printer to ensure that your files will work perfectly with whatever bindery process your using.

Color correcting images may be the most important step in prepress. A great printer (and we all want a great printer, right?) will look at each of your images and adjust them as needed. If asked, they will color balance all of the images to make sure they all have the same tone. Then it’s on to producing a proof, and a great printer will tell you that the proof they produce should be 98% color accurate.

Once the pre-flight, color corrections and critical digital adjustments have been made to your files, the printer will produce a digital proof. For conventional printing, this proof should be calibrated to their press so that it is an accurate representation of what the press will produce. What good is a proof if it isn’t accurate, particularly about color?  For digital printing, the proof will be exactly what the final piece will look like. Reviewing this proof is your last chance to make any changes before your project goes on press.

So how do you know if a printer has the right capabilities for you?

Certainly asking them about their equipment and whether it is appropriate for your project is important. So is having a great rapport with your printer’s representative, and believing that she or he will do anything they can to have your job exceed your expectations.

One of the best things you can do to assess whether a printer is right for you is to ask to see samples of previously produced jobs that are similar to what you’re having printed. Reviewing these samples with a critical eye can tell you a lot about a printer. Look at the color—do the photos pop off the page? Is the bindery exactly as you would want it? Is the stock appropriate for the job?  Look at the sample and see if you say, “Wow!” That’s a good indication that the printer can produce a “wow” piece for you, too.  Don’t be fooled if a printer gives you a sample that they chose because it was printed for a school and they thought that all you needed to know is they produced that kind of work. You’re smarter than that.

Got a question? Ask me below.

Next up: Print Management 2: The Bidding Process

Photo credit: Jonny Hughes/Flickr/Creative Commons