Welcome to the second installment of the “things you probably didn’t learn in graphic design school” series. This post will cover what to look for when you go to the print house to check the quality of the piece.
First of all, try to find out who will be attending. If your company is footing the bill for the print job and expecting reimbursement from the client, it might just be you. If the client is paying the printer directly, they may send a representative to sign off on things, or it still might just be you!
Regardless, the press check is the last line of defense against a flawed print job that has to be trashed. So anything you see is definitely worth bringing up—the client may decide that pulling the job to fix that error is worth the expense. All the better, of course, if the error was not your own! Hopefully, if you paid attention to this post on the prepress process, your document was flawless as far as you knew.
- Check the basics. If the paper, ink, binding plan, page size or page count seems off to you, mention it. Crazier things have happened.
- Bring your proof (or have the printer bring it out, if they took it back after you OK’d it). Ideally, you’ll compare every word to make sure nothing got dropped. This is getting less and less likely as printers go digital, but you never know what might happen. Since usually this will take so long that the ink will dry and the press man will go off shift, you can much more quickly compare the rag on your proof to the latest press pull. If anything doesn’t match up, look closer and see why it changed! It’s very possible that you missed something on the proof, and at this point you and the client need to decide if it is worth fixing. It’s also possible that the printer messed something up between proof and press, in which case you can have them fix it on the house. However, at that point, look very carefully; it would really suck to get one free re-do and THEN find the error you missed!
- Bring your pantone book. Yours is the one you picked colors with, and that your client approved, so use it and not the printer’s. Hopefully there are no huge differences. If any of the pantone colors are looking off, the printer should be able to adjust density on press or (as a last resort) physically mix in more ink to correct the color. If you get to this point, you’re in for a long night.
- Mechanical problems. Look for flecks in white space or hickies (dots of white or other color) in fields of color or photos. Next, compare the top sheet the pressman handed you to the second copy (or ask for a second or third copy). This allows you to see if the hickies and specks are unique to the one sheet of paper—possibly caused by high recycled content in the paper or just a fluke piece of dust—or if they are going to be a problem throughout the print job. If they are showing up on multiple sheets, your pressman should be able to find them on the plates or blankets and quickly fix the problem. Don’t listen if the pressman says they will work themselves out as the press gets up faster. He doesn’t know that for sure.
- Registration problems. Look carefully with your naked eye at any edges where color and white meet. A good place to check is reversed-out text or white line art. Also, text that is made of a build of more than one color will show registration problems clearly. If you see a fringe of color to one side (often of pink or blue, but if you squint you may see yellow too)—point this out to your pressman. Some designers go right at the paper with a loupe, but the pressman is correct when he says that if you can’t see it with your naked eye it’s not worth fixing. Fixing tiny problems with registration can be a slippery slope, especially if you are using a large press sheet. It’s very possible that fixing it in one place will throw it way out on the other end of the sheet, and there’s only so much warping they can do before it’s just a big mess. As a last, last, last resort (meaning you and the printer should have thought of this earlier), you can pull the job and print the troublesome text or line art with a pantone color to avoid the registration nightmare. Of course, this costs an arm.
- Color (in 4 color process). It’s a given that the color will not be as bright as it was on your screen (because your screen has light inside it, and paper, alas, does not). However, it shouldn’t be wussy or muddy unless that is what you were going for. Compare fields of color, light line art/pattern, and photos (especially skin tones) to your proof. Any differences can be attributed to a number of causes, some of which you can help a lot and some of which you can’t. If it’s uncoated paper, you can expect it to seem a bit duller or more natural/warm than on the shiny proof, and there is no helping that. Hopefully, it’s the effect you were going for. On coated paper, your colors should be quite vibrant and accurate. Either way, you can have the pressman push any of the four colors (or pull back, but not usually) if you feel they are out of balance. He may know better than you what to try, once you point out the mismatch.
- Alignment. Many printers paginate jobs page by page, meaning there’s a remote possibility that consistent page elements like lines and headers/footers could get misaligned. It can be hard to see these since on a press sheet facing pages are rarely right across from each other. If you are in doubt, get out a ruler.
- Consistency (on multi-form jobs). You may or may not have the budget and/or time to come back for other forms of the job. But if the first check was a cover and the next is a guts, chances are they are on different papers and possibly have different ink setups. It could even go to a different press and pressman, meaning there are no guarantees it will have anything in common. I highly recommend seeing at least one of your guts forms in addition to the cover. Once you’ve OK’d the guts, if you trust the print rep and pressman you can give them the authority to match the later guts forms to what you approved. Just keep in mind if you made lots of changes to the first form, that it was their best attempt at matching the proof, and act accordingly. Often, pages from multiple forms end up right next to each other in the book and if the color or density is off, it can look super cheap.
- Binding. Usually you don’t do a check of the binding process, but if there’s anything finnicky like staple placement, you might want to. At the least, check with the rep at the end of your press check to make sure everybody’s on the same page as to the binding type and any colors or options that may have been selected.
Things the printer may say to you, and what you should say back:
- Don’t worry about that, it’s in the trim. This means that the hickie/mistake/heart attack you saw is outside the trim line. It won’t be visible in the final piece.
- That will clear up once we get up to speed. This catchall can include all kinds of concerns about density, registration and color. There is some truth to the fact that presses work better at speed than when we are interrupting them all the time to see a proof. But as non-pressmen, it’s hard for us designers to know exactly what will fix itself and what won’t. The line that has always worked for me is, “OK, but my boss really needs to see a clean pull, so maybe I can stick around for 20 minutes or so while you get up to speed and take a pull then.” This forces the pressman into true accountability, and usually works out just fine.
- Oh, I assumed you wanted it that way. If you’re not OK with the change they pulled while you weren’t looking, speak up. This will be on them to fix.
Good luck, little printlings! Do comment if there’s another topic you’d like to see up here. Once we officially launch, we should be providing new content more frequently on a range of design, illustration, typography, and print-related topics.