printing pitfalls

aaron jacklin

The computer’s fired up, the coffee’s brewing and the rest of the magazine – editors, writers and photographers – have done their bits. They’re waiting and relying on you to design pages so engaging a reader can’t help but be drawn into their work. The pressure is enormous, but that’s why you took the job.

Whether a seasoned professional or a new hire, you know anybody can screw up. The same pressures you love can result in not noticing you’ve made the wrong decision just to meet a deadline.

It’s not hard to do. A virtual product is not constrained by paper and the print process. You could easily look at beautiful onscreen work and completely miss problems. But a pretty design isn’t enough. There are no guarantees what’s in your hands at the end will look like what you designed on a computer screen.

Whatever your experience level, it never hurts to step back and look at the process as if you were a beginner just learning to navigate the limits of paper and print.

David Munday, the quality assurance supervisor for Quebecor World Aurora, knows how to work around limits. His company, one of the largest printing companies in North America, puts out magazines such as Maclean’s, Chatelaine, Today’s Parent and Glow.

He says decisions made by the customer largely dictate the quality of the end product.

“They may envision an award-winning piece, but have given you the worst possible scenario,” says Munday.

He says with the ideal scenario – good files, good paper and a smaller run – you’ll get a good product. Munday has some advice for improvement.

“Stick to what you know.”

“Don’t try to make each page a cover,” says Munday. “A book’s got to have articles, it’s got to have pages of text. Pictures are great, but when you get a little overly artistic, you often get disappointed with the result. Keep it simple.”

This is not easy when colour and images are so seductive.

“Things like multicoloured type are always a bad decision,” he says.

Since the print process applies the four colours – cyan, magenta, yellow and black – separately, making text a combination of two or more can cause trouble.

“We had a customer once who insisted on using this blue type,” says Munday. “I think they had it at about 80 per cent magenta and 50 per cent cyan. Every time you had a register shift, it looked like 3D. The red would be off, the blue would be off and there was nothing we could do about it. It looked terrible. We ultimately convinced him to go with a single colour.”

He says it’s also important to keep in mind what will be printed on both sides of each page. Two layouts that are perfectly fine by themselves can be disastrous when put back to back.

Imagine a page laid out with one half covered with a heavy red ink. On the reverse is a layout with a purple background.

“That red is going to affect the take-off on the purple behind it,” says Munday. “You’re going to end up with what is known as a ghost image. You’re going to be starving the one half of the purple page and the other half is going to have plenty of ink. You’ll look at the page and say, ‘Well that looks terrible.’”

Another problem can happen when bleeding an image across the gutter onto the opposite page. While it may look good when done well, Munday says it’s a minefield.

“Crossing images across the gutter is dangerous. Avoid it.”

Crossing the gutter creates two images on two physically separate pages that now need to line up perfectly. That’s easy to achieve on a computer screen, but the print process will have some variation.

Web press pages can move up or down a sixteenth of an inch as they go through the press and are cut to size. Put together into a magazine, the layout on one page may be slightly up and the layout on the other might be slightly down. This isn’t a problem unless you have design elements that need to line up perfectly across the gutter.

“You can have an eighth of an inch difference in the image if one goes up and one goes down as they’re moving through the press,” Munday says. “You can get that type of movement on a web press; less on a sheet-fed though.”

But you can’t use a sheet-fed press just because you want to run images across the gutter. Web presses are preferable because they are more cost-efficient on larger runs than the slower sheet-fed presses.

Minding the practical limits on designs is important in getting the desired effects, but it won’t necessarily help clear the prepress hurdle, says Steve Ostiguy.

Ostiguy, prepress manager for the Concord facility of the St. Joseph Print Group, Canada’s third largest magazine publisher, says more time and money spent before sending off the print job, means fewer headaches later.

One of the key things is to ensure files meet printers’ specifications.

Ostiguy says his biggest headaches come from advertisements. Magazine publishers often don’t spend enough time making sure the advertisements in their magazines meet the specifications the printer sets, he complains.

“They’re usually getting ads from third parties and advertising agencies from all over the world,” he says. “They’re tougher to control because everybody has different formats they want to send you. It may not adhere to your advertisement specifications.”

An ad’s size can cause trouble. “A lot of the time an ad will come in that’s the wrong size, it’s for a different size book,” says Ostiguy. “If an ad is too big or too small for a magazine then we either have to resize it or get a new ad. We could be waiting up to an entire day for it.”

And an entire day is a lot of money wasted.

Ostiguy also says cheap is not necessarily better. “When you skimp out you get an inferior product.”

Some problems can be fixed on site. Ostiguy says if a client forgets to include a font, it can usually be replaced. His staff can also do minor copy edits and colour retouching.

If they can’t fix a problem, it goes back to the client. It could be something wrong with a file that prevents it from processing. It could even be something as simple as embedding a missing font because a file glitch prevents the prepress people from doing it themselves.

Another common issue is image resolution. “If a file has a low-resolution image embedded in it, then we have to get a new file with high-resolution images,” Ostiguy says.

Now that you’ve stepped back for a moment to look at the task with beginner’s eyes, it’s time to dive in. Reach for the mouse and keyboard. Guzzle the coffee. And let them pack on the pressure.

Photo by Scott Jordan