The Print Production Process Explained
By Emma MacMillan, Studio Manager
The purpose of this month’s article is to help you understand how detailed and complex the print process truly is, and the value of working with someone who has the expertise to ensure your job is handled correctly. There is an enormous difference between a quality print job and simply sending your files to a local franchise print shop. Today, we open the doors of our Art/Production Department to give you an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of what the print process looks like at BluePrints.
Graphic design is defined as the arrangement of type and visual elements along with specifications for paper, ink colors, and printing processes that, when combined, convey a visual message. The graphic design stage includes concepting, page layout, typography, illustration, photography selection, color decisions, and producing final computer files.
Note: While it is tempting to hire a freelance graphic designer to create materials that can be sent directly to a low-cost printer, not all graphic designers know how to properly prepare files for printing. Once a design is approved, the files must be “packaged”. Unless the graphic designer is trained in production management, the odds increase substantially for a less than satisfactory print job. The reasons vary from missing fonts and/or images, to the use of incompatible software, for example. This generates delays, cost overruns, unanticipated proofing rounds, late-stage design changes, and sometimes disappointment over the finished job. Meticulous attention to detail at each step of the process is necessary to avoid these kinds of issues.
Creation of artwork – Important facts
Creating artwork requires taking multiple factors into account. Here are some of the most important elements to consider:
Proper design software
Art must be prepared in the software that is best suited for the particular task, and in a version that is compatible with the selected print shop. If the print shop uses a newer or older version than what the art file was created with, you can run into problems. Some of the industry’s standard applications include: Illustrator, a drawing program to create logos or illustration; Photoshop, a pixel-based program to manipulate photos; and InDesign, a page layout program to create a single or multi-page document.
Usually, files need to be built at actual size and use bleed space when appropriate. (This eliminates room for errors with the printing estimate and final printed result). If a file is not built correctly, the printer will have to spend time (and therefore charge you a fee) to readjust files to fit the correct specifications of the job.
The fonts should be consistent with your brand standard and must be included with the files sent to the printer. If the printer does not have the font used in the artwork, and it has not been included with the packaged files, the printer may simply choose to substitute the fonts, producing something that is probably similar but not what you actually approved.
Suitable image resolution
Images need to be high-resolution and large enough to fit within the assigned space. The resolution should be 300 dpi (dots per inch). Anything smaller than that might result in a loss of quality.
As with the fonts, the colors and general tone of the piece should be consistent with your brand. That said, never trust the colors of a piece being designed on a computer as the actual colors that will turn out once printed! The reason is because a computer screen and paper printing use 2 different types of processes, RGB and CMYK, to create actual colors:
- RGB (Red, Green, Blue) is an “additive coloration” mode. Think of a computer screen with a black background. In order to see the colors, some lights of red, green, and blue are “added” to the black background. RGB is typically used to render colors on monitors and computer screens.
- CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black) is a “subtractive coloration” mode. It is intended to be applied to print on white or colored paper, and calculates the correct hues by “subtracting” from the initial brightness of the paper. The CMYK coloration mode is intended for use in paper printing applications and printing specific, exact colors.
CMYK is also referred to as “process colors,” which is different than spot colors (also called PMS – Pantone Matching System). CMYK uses four different color inks (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black) overlapping each other to achieve the full color spectrum. To print any multicolor image, the same four color inks are used. The press runs four imes to apply each ink individually.
Spot colors are pre-mixed inks that are applied only to the area assigned for each particular color. For example, to print a blue, brown, and red image, pre-mixed blue, brown, and red inks are used. In this case, the printing press runs only three times, which reduces printing costs. Click here to read more about spot colors.
We work on-site with the printer to ensure that the final printed product matches your brand colors as closely as possible and we advise on color corrections along the way if necessary.
Files must be named to allow printers to work more efficiently. For example, make sure there are no unusual characters in the file’s name or it may cause a printer’s computer to crash. They should be labeled with the correct extension: .ai for Illustrator, .indd for InDesign, etc. Perhaps this sounds elementary to some, but we have learned that this simple step significantly expedites the process.
File preparation to release for print
Before the artwork can be sent to the printer, here are a few steps we use to ensure the files are prepared correctly:
- Use of preflight software: Preflight software helps collect all the fonts and images, search for missing items, and avoid mistakes.
- Verification of page size settings and bleeds : Incorrect page settings cannot be fixed by simply scaling up or down, so make sure the document size is the final trim size. Bleed photos and other graphics that extend to the edge of a page must be set up to overlap the trim margins by an 1/8th inch to avoid white along the edge.
- File cleanup: Cluttered files not only confuse and frustrate printers, they compound the possibility of errors. Make sure to remove unnecessary artwork, delete unused colors, and verify that all the color names match exactly across all programs. An oversight such as not specifying whether a color is CMYK or PMS (or spot colors) might change the overall colors of a piece or even turn a four-color job into a more expensive five-color job by mistake.
The Quote Process – Communication with vendors is key
We always communicate with our vendors early in the process and negotiate the best prices for our clients without sacrificing quality. We discuss topics covering the purpose of the materials we will be printing, the final size, the quantity needed, the deadline, etc. All of this information is essential to determine the best type of press to be used (digital or offset), schedule press time, order paper, etc. Here are some of the elements we take into consideration:
- Size: dimensions of the piece (flat and final size)
- Stock: weight, finish, grade name, and color of the paper
- Inks: number and types of inks and varnishes (four-color process, PMS colors)
- Bleed: an 1/8th inch extension to the edge of a page
- Proofs: review of PDF and hard-copy versions
- File format: this information is very important to make sure the print shop can support our software/application and can open the files
- Finishing: type of trim, score, fold, assembly, and seal if applicable
- Printing and mailing or shipping date: this step is very important to determine which vendor and what kind of budget best suits the project
Prepress and the proofing process
Prepress refers to all the print production functions that take place from the moment the files are sent to the printer to the actual printing. These functions might include some of the following: receiving media files, creating proofs for review and approval, making any final changes/edits, creating the plates for the offset press, etc. At BluePrints, we use a 3-step final proofing process:
- Step 1: PDF proof (review copy/elements/fonts) – We request a PDF proof of the artwork from our vendors. This allows us to proofread the content one last time and make sure the piece contains no mistakes. It also lets us make sure the text hasn’t shifted or the images haven’t moved while the printer processed the files.
- Step 2: Hard-copy proof (review color match/paper) – We then receive a hard-copy printout, which lets us see the final document, check for discrepancies, and clarify how the layout is intended to look.
- Step 3: On-location press-check – Upon approval of the hard-copy proof, we go to the print shop for a final press-check in order to approve the paper, inks, varnishes, colors, etc.
Printing (offset vs. digital)
Printing is the mechanical process of applying ink to paper using an offset or digital press. The offset press is the most cost effective way of producing large volumes of printed materials, while the digital press is more commonly used for smaller volume and lower production cost. It is important to understand that the final product will look slightly different when printed digitally vs. offset, as well as from printer to printer. Proper and consistent paper selection is also a critical component of the process because color appears distinctively on different paper stocks and with or without finishes (varnish, aqueous coating, etc.). So when you need to reprint, it is best to use the same methodology, on the same paper, with the same finishes, at the same printer to match the original run as closely as possible. As part of our service, we have skilled production managers who oversee the process to ensure great and consistent outcomes.
After a job is printed, the next stage includes one or many steps depending on the end product: cutting/trimming, folding, laminating, scoring, perforating, stitching, and binding. The last step in the bindery stage includes packaging for delivery.
Most jobs are shipped to our clients directly or delivered to a specialized facility called a mail-house or “letter-shop” when materials are to be mailed on behalf of the client. In this stage, the addresses are computer-imprinted from the customer’s mailing list database onto the printed piece, then sorted and prepared for delivery to the post office.
As you can see, the print production process is very detailed and requires a certain level of experience and expertise. Most importantly, at BluePrints, we monitor the jobs in person, from start to finish, to ensure that the highest standards are met, your brand is represented through quality materials, and that you always receive the utmost value for your investment.
 From Getting it Printed, Eric Kenly and Mark Beach