Friday, January 9, 2009

Printer's Marks

Printer's Marks (crop marks, gradient tint bar, registration marks, progressive color bar, etc.) can all be summed up with one word... unnecessary. There's a reason why they're called PRINTER'S marks. Press operators need them to register colors, check color balance, and trim the final product. However, the printer's marks that a designer provides in their file are rarely used. In fact, pre-press technicians often have to go to some effort to remove or work around the provided printer's marks and setup their own. In other words, they're a nuisance.

There are two types of designers who place all of these wonderful obstacles around their artwork: inexperienced designers who really have no idea what these really do, but think they are needed for some reason, and design agencies who have been doing it since the film and paste up days and think that they give the client that warm fuzzy feeling that says, "Wow, these guys really know what they're doing."

Who are the color and gradient bars for? No one. Almost everyone is moving away from film. And IF printers need them for electronic color control, they have their own set to the specs and position that they need. Send them on the proof to your client. What do they do with them? Nothing. They're useless for a designer's purposes. Just leave them at home.

So...when SHOULD you as a designer use printer's marks and how?

First, they can be used in the proofing process for the client to get an idea of where the trim is, etc., but I would say that if you've set your file up correctly, you can provide a proof that excludes the trim area quite easily.

Second, if you're sending a file to the printer that you feel may be somewhat confusing in your intentions, you may want to include them just to clarify. Again, if your files are set up properly, there should be no need to put them in the way of your printer's pre-press department. The easier you make their job, the better it will look for you with your printer and your client.

All Adobe products allow you to set up bleed space. You should do this before you even start your project. File setup is crucial to any job (more on that in a later blog). If you prepare your document effectively, then you have the flexibility to turn crops on and off for proofing or releasing to press, respectively. If you start an Illustrator file with an 8.5" x 11" document and then proceed to draw your 4" x 5" artwork in the middle of the page, you've already put yourself in a position to HAVE to DRAW crop marks. Set your document up at the size you intend it to be produced, profide bleed space if necessary, and you're on your way to having a file that is much easier for your printer to deal with.

This is most problematic with publications. If you're sending a file to be printed in a publication, do you think that the printer places everyone's files throughout the publication with everyone's own version of crops, etc.? No. When you submit your quarter page ad with crop marks, etc. the publication creator must strip all of your crops out.

Find out what size the final document should be and submit the file at that size (including bleed when necessary). The person receiving your file will know what to do with it.

Finally, if you just absolutely insist on doing this, then at least push the crops completely out of your artwork. The most annoying thing about doing this is that removing them is more problematic, and you take the chance of the crop marks themselves showing up on the outermost edge of your final piece. You can do this with your printer's marks' offset setting.


Set your files up correctly. Create them at the exact size that the printer requires, including any bleed, and all will be well.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Spot Color

Spot color is a relatively simple concept, but it does, however, cause designers problems in that colors are often selected from a built-in color palette with little regard for what kind of printing will be utilized.

A spot color, as opposed to a process color, is one ink. The ink in your pen that is red, or the one that is blue, or the one that is black, would be an example of a spot color. A pre-mixed ink to make one solid color. Whereas a process color is made of different percentages of 4 colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) as the ink is laid down by the press.

One simple rule to follow is to be clear about how your design will be produced. In other words, know whether you're creating a piece as a 4-color (process/CMYK) print job, or as a spot color job. With this knowledge in mind only select or create colors in your color palette that are appropriate for the print method that will be used.

I often get projects from designers that are to be produced in 4-color with spot colors specified in willy-nilly fashion. Not the end of the world, but when the file is separated to process, those spot colors will be converted automatically to process colors. Generally this comes off OK, but it is in some sense a crapshoot. Especially since the gamut for spot colors is much larger than that of process. So, you may not end up with that particular shade of red that you had in mind. I rarely if ever see process colors spec'd in a spot color job as most designers tend to chose their colors from the built-in pantone palette. Doing so would elicit a call from your client or printer asking how you would like to rectify the situation. And would expose your lack of knowledge or sloppiness...never good for business.

So, once you've decided that you're working on a spot color job, carefully choose your colors from a pantone (Pantone Matching System or PMS) swatch book. DO NOT RELY ON YOUR MONITOR! (more on this in later posts). Then go to your pantone palette and choose the appropriate color. Don't worry if it's not the exact shade of green that you wanted. Your monitor will lie to you, your swatches will not. Besides, once you spec the color, the printer will create a print plate for just that spot color and any ink can then be put down on the paper. How it looks in your file, or the exact number, etc., means little in the final product. What matters is the color that you spec to the client and the printer. You may have sent your file to the printer and the client then calls and says that they've decided against that green and now want blue. No worries, go back to the printer and tell them you want to use a different ink than the one spec'd. Easy. No need to generate new artwork. This however is not the case with process, which would require a new file.

A rant about C and U.
I get spec's in all the time such as PMS 472U or PMS 135C. The minute I see this I know that the person communicating the spec has a fundamental lack of knowledge about spot colors. So, what does that C or U actually mean? Well, most know of course that it stands for coated or uncoated (paper stock). But, most don't know that it is completely useless to the print process. Why have it at all then? These letters are tacked onto the end in your file simply so you can chose a color that will look as close as possible to the printed color on your screen. That's it! The printer knows what kind of stock is spec'd and then they put down ink that is called for PMS 472U and PMS 472C are EXACTLY the same ink. The silly little C's and U's are there in an attempt to make things look prettier for you on your screen. Personally I wish Adobe would abandon the whole thing altogether as it just complicates the topic that much further.

The bottom line is (and you'll find this an ongoing theme throughout my entire blog), know everything in your file intimately, spec your colors with a clear idea of where you're going, and never ever rely on your monitor.

Travis Ritch ClaimID
Travis Ritch Personal Blog
Travis Ritch MySpace
Where Travis Ritch Works
Travis Ritch Company

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Print Color Basics - RGB vs CMYK

When I ask designers about color, I'm typically not surprised to find that they've had little to no training on the subject, especially as it relates to print graphics. It seems that most college Graphic Design programs don't include this crucial topic. Oh sure, they get "Color Theory". This color looks good with that color, and this color evokes this mood, etc. But, in terms of the practicalities involved in creating effective print, it's hardly adequate.

So, lets begin with the most fundamental of concepts. What is the difference between RGB and CMYK? This usually generates a blank stare...or superficial answer like "RGB is for your monitor and CMYK is for print." OK...but what is the difference? The answer to this question forms the groundwork for understanding all subsequent print color concepts.

Look at something red on your monitor. Now look at something red that is near you (not on a monitor or screen of any kind). What is the difference between them? Before you launch into explaining how one is darker, or more "brick colored" or whatever, I can tell you that you're already on the wrong track. What is the fundamental difference between those two sources of red? Quite simply, it is that the red on your monitor is projected light, while the other red is reflected light. In fact, the red from your monitor is red and the ink on the other object is everything but red. The ink absorbs all the colors that are hitting it and reflects only the light that you're perceiving as red. Any light source is comprised of three colors, red, green, and blue, and it is the intensity of these colors added together that give us color, thus visible light is an additive synthesis. Print, on the other hand, is subtractive, in that it is removing light that is hitting it and returning that which is not absorbed. So, why are things on your monitor always so much brighter than in print? Simple, because the colors in the printed piece are "left over" light that has not been absorbed by the ink. A muted version of visible light, so to speak.

This goes a long way to forming the groundwork for things like gamut and color separations which will be addressed in later posts.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Font Management

Easily 90% of requests I get to 'fix' someone's Mac comes down to one thing...fonts. They are especially problematic for designers due to the shear quantity and generally lack of understanding on how they should be managed.

Why such a problem? Well, in short, fonts are tiny little pieces of code but their power (for good and evil) lies in the fact that that tiny little piece of code is used in every application as well as your system. Fonts are overlooked as little, innocuous extra bits that sit there and don't do much until called upon. Partially true, but for the most part...not. Every font that is active on your system is sitting there right at the top of every program waiting. Waiting, but active.

There are typically 4 issues that I encounter. First, font corruption. Pretty simple. The font is just messed up. It has been corrupted by being copied here and there, emailed, or simply was never 'good' in the first place. Designers are quick to hop online to a free font site and start downloading fonts, but all it takes is one small piece of bad coding to throw your entire system for a loop.

The second problem is font conflict. Meaning that a particular font is somehow interfering with the code of another font or an application. This is particularly troublesome to troubleshoot because it requires figuring out which font is doing the interfering. Not always as easy as it sounds. Easier when employing proper font management (more later).

Third, duplicate fonts. In a way, this is also a bit like a font conflict. You've got 2 fonts running that have the same name or ID. Your system thinks, "Huh?" and tries to pick and choose, usually resulting in some pretty bad stuff.

Lastly, and all too common, too many fonts active. The limit on active fonts on systems prior to OS X was 128 (for obvious addressing reasons). That limit is no longer an issue in OS X. However, limiting the number of fonts that are active greatly reduces the chances of conflicts occurring. It's science!

So, where does one begin in getting control of fonts? Personally, as soon as I sit down at someone's machine to solve a system/application problem, I immediately ask about how they are managing their fonts. which is usually responded to with a blank expression. And that tells me that I'll likely find one of the above issues.

The average Joe Mac user should get along fine with the OS's application Font Book. It's simple and easy to use. And assuming that the user doesn't have a ridiculous amount of fonts, leaving them all on at all times is certainly an option. Although I never recommend it. For the designer, however, something more, well, professional is required. I don't really care which font management software you use. They're all pretty decent. Font Agent, Suitcase, and FontExplorer just to name a few. I prefer Font Agent. It's lean, cheap, and does the job quite nicely without a million different settings to get in the way.

Once I've thrown Font Book in the trash, emptied the trash, and then restarted, I look to a few places to see what's going on. First, I check out /Library/Fonts. This folder should be won't be. I remove all fonts from this folder and place them elsewhere on my hard drive. Then I check /Users/Administrator/Library/Fonts. This folder should also be empty...and also will not be. Many installers place their own fonts in this folder (particulary MicroSoft products) so you should check it fairly often and after any install. Place these fonts elsewhere. Now, the sensitive part. Look in /System/Library/Fonts. These are the base fonts that your system uses. NEVER (unless you really know what you're doing) remove fonts from this folder. Early on in OS X, I made that it out as I do all other folders. The finder will not launch. Correcting the stupidity takes some pretty fancy footwork in single user mode. Not for the faint of heart. IF there is a font that is really causing you a conflict with your own fonts, then you can consider removing that one font. This is particularly difficult in Leopard, as the system automatically replaces the stop the unwary from making my mistake. This can be gotten around, more on that here.

Now you can restart your computer and should be operating with the bare minimum fonts and likely whatever crash problems, etc. that you had will have disappeared. The secret to good font management is simply keeping the least amount of fonts in your system folder as necessary and keep all your fonts elsewhere on your machine and activate them with a font management app as needed. Using your font management software you can now turn fonts on and off and track down problems. Most popular font management apps will check for issues once you import the fonts into them.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Things graphic designers should know....but don't.

In my many years in this field, at times a designer at other times a production specialist, but particularly as one who manages graphic designers, I'm still always surprised at the lack of technical knowledge by most designers. While, generally speaking, most designers do have a fairly decent grasp on things like color combinations, typography, and layout, I have yet to meet one that is not severely lacking in color management, font management, and a fundamental understanding of the technical subtleties of press-ready artwork. I will attempt in this blog to touch on many of these subjects, some of them at great length, and hopefully help designers gain better control over their customers' artwork needs.