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If you have talked to many service shops and litho printers you'll probably know that pre-flighting is an essential step in any successful print job. The big problem is not enough people know about it.

Creating for Today's Print Workflow

Accepting new responsibilities, and thinking beyond design aesthetics

By Gretchen A. Peck

Veteran graphic arts -- those who've designed for more than a decade or so -- will recall that the job was much different just 10 years ago. Then, the priority was to take a concept and turn it into something graphically beautiful, poignant or marketable. It was all about aesthetics, all about the process of creating, and the tools were quite adept at helping achieve those goals -- Adobe and Quark made sure of that.

When designers and their employers or customers came to a consensus that what they saw on the screen was the perfect graphical representation of their concept, designers could save the native application file, burn it to a disc and send it over to a prepress supplier (in-house or outsourced), who would try to make it fit for film. If they found any errors in the designer's file, they'd fix it, or ask the designer to make the fix and resubmit it. Or, maybe the error -- a missing font, for example -- wasn't caught at prepress, and film was imaged. If the mistake was caught then, a new file would have to be prepared, and a whole new set of film created.

And heaven forbid, the mistake wasn't even caught there, but only after the flawed film had been used to burn the printing press plates -- or worse yet, only after the job was rolling off the press.

Whether the mistake at prepress or at the printer's, either way, it would cost the project time and money to repair -- the bigger, more complex the mistake in the file, the larger the cost to budget and schedule.

My how times have -- and have not -- changed since then. It's still commonly agreed upon in the print industry, that the best way to save time and cost in print production, is to ensure that once the content reaches that stage, it's perfect -- it's complete and ready to seamlessly run through the workflow. There's no descent about this tried-and-true theory.

90 percent So, how have times changed? Well, obviously, film went away. That was a good thing. It saved us time and expense, and it helped the print industry leave a less-deep footprint on the environment. But when film went away, the workflow began to morph. No longer could designers, production directors, prepress suppliers or printers rely on film for that final, intermediary affirmation before platesetting. In theory, the file a designer creates today is film -- it's just digital film. Prepared correctly, a designer's native application file (or PDF, as the case may be) should be the file that makes the plates for the printing press. From the graphic artist's desktop to the press, if you will -- that's why they call it CTP, or computer-to-plate. But that's in theory.

Many printers suggest that it's not the case at all in the real-world trenches. And some have reported that more than 90 percent of the digital files they receive from customers are in some state of disrepair. There may be missing fonts when certain licensed fonts should be embedded in the file; or perhaps the dimensions are off-kilter, with no account for things like trim and bleed. Another honest, although common mistake is that designers occasionally plant RGB (red, green, blue) images in their documents, but the print workflow only understands four-color CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) processing; or they include a graphic that's too low-res to get a good rendition out of the press.

A prepress guy -- who worked for a large commercial and publication printer -- once reminded me that a file error that might take 10 hours to fix once pages are submitted to a printer, could have been fixed long before, within 30 seconds at the designer's desktop. Those 10 hours of delay at the printer's not only equates to some serious labor charges on the invoice you'll receive from the printer, but could also mean that your job missed its press allocation, compromising your schedule.

So, other than picking your file apart manually, meticulously and tediously examining every element's attributes before you send it off to a client or a printer, how can you ensure that you're not making these needless mistakes? How can you ensure that your content is cool, and that it's not going to wreck the workflow once it leaves your desktop? It's actually quite simple. It's merely a matter of best practices and low-cost tools.

It's the role of the graphic artist or creative director to not only have a complete understanding of a project's aesthetic goals, but also to develop an understanding of how that design is going to be reproduced -- whether it's going to be used on a Web site, on a CD-ROM, or in print. Knowing the output intentions will guide the design process and dictate how the file should be prepared.

No two print projects are the same, and no two printers are the same. So, just because you've created files a certain way, or in a certain format, for one printer, doesn't mean that the next printer you work with will want the same from you. The designer should be apprised of what type of file format a printer prefers, and what file specifications the printer requires. Pay particular attention to how a printer wants you to handle color space, resolution, dimensions, line screen, trim and bleed and trapping, for example. This guidance is often readily available on printers' Web sites, but even if it requires a quick call to a technical support person there, it's worth the investment.

Now let's take a look at a real solution (next page)

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