From pen to press – the journey of print

From pen to press – the journey of print

Today I want to concentrate on print production and talk you through the journey or the steps taken to turn an initial sketch into a finished printed job, from pen to press, help you understand how detailed the print process is and show you the value of working with someone who has the expertise to ensure your job is handled correctly.

Step 1. Graphic design (the pen part in from pen to press).
Firstly I start with the graphic design which includes sketches and concepts with a pen, page layout, typography, illustration, photography and image selection, colour decisions, and the production of final computer files.

You need to choose your graphic designer wisely, someone who can create materials that can be sent directly to print, as not all graphic designers know how to properly prepare files for printing. 

Once a design is signed off, the files must be pre-flight checked and packaged. Unless the graphic designer is trained in production management, this is where things could go wrong, long before the job even gets near a press. 

Anything could happen from missing fonts or images, to the use of a wrongly formatted file which can cause delays or late-stage design changes, and sometimes disappointment over the finished job.

Here are a few important facts when creating artwork from pen to press:

  • Always use proper design software. Artwork should always be prepared in the software that is best suited for the job you are preparing, and in a version that is compatible with your chosen print supplier. Most designers will use the Adobe Creative Suite which includes 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.
  • Make sure your artwork is the correct size. Usually, files need to be prepared at actual size and contain bleed when appropriate. If a file is not prepared correctly, the print supplier will have to spend time (and therefore charge you a fee) to adjust the files to fit the correct specifications of the job.
  • Make sure you use approved fonts. The fonts should be consistent with your brand and must be included or embedded in the files sent to the print supplier. If the print supplier does not have the font used in the artwork, and it has not been included with the packaged files, the print supplier may simply choose to substitute the fonts, producing something that is probably similar but not what you actually approved.
  • Make sure your images are the correct resolution. Images need to be high-resolution and large enough to fit within their assigned space. The resolution should be 300 dpi (dots per inch) as anything smaller than that may result in a loss of quality.
  • Make sure your colours are correct. The colours used should be consistent with your brand and you should never trust that the colours you see on a computer screen will look the same once they are printed. The reason being a computer screen and paper printing use 2 different colour spaces, RGB and CMYK.
  • RGB colours are additive. Computer monitors work by additive colour mixing, therefore three overlapping light sources in a vacuum add together to create white.
  • CMYK colours are subtractive. Printing works by subtractive colour mixing therefore if you have three passes of ink on a white substrate, by subtracting together they would turn the paper black. CMYK or four colour process is different than spot colours or PMS – Pantone Matching System. CMYK uses four different colour inks Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black overlapping each other to achieve the full colour spectrum. To print any multicolour image, the same four colour inks are used as the press runs four times to apply each ink individually. Spot colours are pre-mixed inks that are applied only to the area assigned for each particular colour. 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 would only run three times. 
  • Make sure you name your files correctly. Files need to be named to allow print suppliers to work more efficiently so make sure there are no unusual characters in the file’s name and that it accurately describes the job. They should also be labeled with the correct extension, .ai for Illustrator, .indd for InDesign, .psd for Photoshop and .pdf for an Adobe Acrobat pdf file. 
  • Make sure you prepare your files for print correctly. Before the artwork can be sent to the print supplier, there are a few more things that need to happen to ensure the files are prepared correctly.
  • Use preflight software. It helps collect all the fonts and images, search for missing items, and avoid mistakes.
  • Check 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 3mm to avoid white along the edge.
  • Run a file cleanup. Make sure you remove unnecessary artwork, delete unused colours, and verify that all the colour names are consistent. If you forget to specify whether a colour is CMYK or spot colour, it could change the overall colours of a job or even turn a four-colour job into a more expensive five-colour job by mistake.
Quote being typed on a typewriter

Step 2. Get print quotes.
I always communicate with my print suppliers early in the process and negotiate the best prices for my clients without sacrificing quality and this usually means getting a minimum of three quotes from my trusted trade suppliers. I discuss the purpose of the materials I will be printing, the final size, the quantity and the deadline which helps determine the best process to be used (digital or offset), schedule press time and order paper.

Here are some of the things I have to consider with every new job:

  • What size is it going to be?
  • What paper weight and finish is required?
  • How many inks are needed, will it be four colour or spot colour?
  • Do I need to allow a 3mm bleed?
  • Do I need to supply PDF or hard-copy proofs?
  • Which file format does the artwork need to be supplied in?
  • How will the job be finished, will it need to be trimmed, scored, folded, sealed, made up or supplied flat?
  • When and where does it need to be delivered? 
Colour swatch guide showing blue and purple

Step 3. Prepress and proofing.
Prepress basically means all the print production functions that take place from the moment the files are sent to the print supplier to the actual printing. They may include receiving media files, creating proofs for review and approval, making any final changes/edits, creating the plates for the offset press.

There are three options for proofing:

  • PDF proof. I request a PDF proof of the artwork from my print supplier which allows me to proofread the content one last time and make sure the piece contains no mistakes. It also lets me make sure the text hasn’t shifted or the images haven’t moved while the print supplier processed the files.
  • Hard copy proof. Depending on the nature of the job I may request a hard-copy printout, which lets me see the final document, check for discrepancies, and clarify how the layout is intended to look.
  • On-site press check. If I deem it necessary, once the hard copy proof has been signed off, I will go to the print supplier for a final press check in order to approve the paper, inks, varnishes, colours, etc.
Text printed on a sheet of paper

Step 4. Printing (the press part in from pen to press).
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. 

When working from pen to press it is important to understand that the final product will look slightly different when printed digitally vs offset and there are reasons for that.

A large quantity printed may need to be litho printed which requires plates to be made. Each plate is for one of the four process colours; cyan, magenta, yellow and black. A four colour project on a six colour press will leave two units empty and you are able to add two further colours but this will increase the cost of the job as there’s an extra cost to produce the plates, with additional ink costs.

If you want a project that has a smaller quantity and will fit on a digital press, you could consider digital printing as there are no plates to produce, a four colour job can be as inexpensive as a single colour litho job. Inks aren’t used in the digital process, so there is no additional charge. You may be surprised at the end result too.

Proper and consistent paper selection is also a critical part of the process because colour varies on different paper stocks. Another thing to remember is that a job printed on a coated stock will always look a different colour to the same job printed on an uncoated stock. It’s always worth discussing the options before a paper stock is chosen so that your expectations can be achieved.

So when you need to reprint, it is best to use the same print process, on the same paper, with the same finishes, at the same print supplier to match the original run as closely as possible.

Female holding a cardboard box

Step 5. Finishing.
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.

Delivery driver with hand on steering wheel

Step 6. Delivery.
Most jobs are shipped to my clients directly either by overnight courier or me personally. 

As you can see, the print production process is very detailed and requires a certain level of experience and expertise when working from pen to press.

Most importantly, at DL Design, 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.

Thank you for taking the time to read my article from pen to press.