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Managing Image Color and Quality – Part one of two

One of the things designers worry about the most is being disappointed with how a print project turns out. Seeing their project print in the “wrong” colors or not as sharp as it looked on the screen are common issues but there are also others. Many of these issues are surprisingly easy to manage. The good news is that only part of this management is on the designer’s end, some of it is on the printer’s end and out of the designer’s hands. Because printing problems can be expensive, or very expensive to fix (as in redo the entire job ?), there is usually some finger pointing going on when a job goes south. If a designer messes up on their part – they are responsible for paying to reprint the job and I know firsthand, it’s a bitter pill to swallow.

I’ve put together a list of the things you, the designer, controls and those which the printer controls. In this post, I will address the designer’s responsibility. In part two I will address the printer’s responsibility!

Things the designer Controls

Specify the Right Paper
The most important decision you can make is choosing the right paper for your project. No matter what you do on the prepress side to enhance image quality if you are printing a finely detailed image on the wrong paper, the details are going to be lost. Paper choice significantly affects reproduction quality.

Color Manage Your Devices/Workspace
Most designers who are disappointed by color are using a proofing workflow that is not calibrated, ie: their monitor and desktop printer. There’s a reason why the proofing printers that printer’s buy cost five figures (and the color management RIP can cost six figures!), they are way better than your desktop printer. It could be that your printer happened to predict how a job printed in January when you used photo paper and an OEM ink set, trust me, you got lucky. But in June when you are using copy paper with non-OEM ink the whole picture could change (picture, pun, LOL).  Either manage your color at your studio/office or rely on supplied proofs at every step of the process. It’s that simple.

Don’t put off color management thinking you can wait until you see the first set of final proofs from your printer. This can lead to a major color rework during the final hour, delaying the job delivery, and that is not good for you or your client.

  1. There are some really quick and easy ways to calibrate your monitor so you can check color: Google “how to calibrate my monitor,” follow the instructions, and take your monitor’s age into account; as monitors age, they become less accurate.
  2. Get your print provider’s ICC profile, (a standardized data set that describes the color space of an input or output device,)
    and apply it to your monitor and desktop printer. If your desktop printer cannot load an ICC profile, ask your print shop for work-around help or hire an outside firm. Sometimes spending $100 is the best thing you can possibly do.
  3. Take a rhem lighting indicator (RHEM indicator) with you when you show proofs to a client. There’s one in the back
    of the Pantone Color Bridge set. If your proofs look odd or different in your client’s office, it might be the light.
  4. Where are you looking at your proofs? In the parking lot? In the kitchen? In a room with purple walls? Try to check
    proofs in a color-neutral environment; a color booth is best. Specify color while you are in the booth too.
  5. Install 5000k fluorescent lights and daylight incandescents in your workspace.
  6. Do not convert your files to CMYK unless your printer specifically asks you to. Chances are the printer is going to
    want to handle that conversion, especially if your files are printing on a digital press.
  7. If you are printing on colored paper, proof on colored paper. If you can’t proof on colored paper, change the “paper” color in InDesign to approximate your paper color. It will not reflect how transparent inks appear on colored paper, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Rhem indicators show you if your lighting is correct. You can purchase them on a card or a pack of stickers to place on proofs and there is currently one in the back of the Pantone Bridge set. In correct lighting, both halves of the rectangle are identical. Here it is shown in incorrect lighting.

Specify Color Precisely
Using your monitor to select color is a sketchy proposition. You can specify color precisely if you use printed color guides to select your colors. I highly recommend the Pantone Bridge Selector, which gives you Spot, RGB, and CMYK equivalents for each color. When working on identity systems, it is an invaluable tool. You can immediately see how out-of-gamut some Pantone greens and reds are when rendered in CMYK. And for the RGB equivalent enter the values shown in Adobe Photoshop and see how that compares (knowing the browser, monitor and hardware will serve it up differently in each case).


Use the Correct Resolution
Resolution is worth mentioning because it causes so many problems in the prepress department. Any image you want to print must be a minimum of 300 dpi at 100% of its actual size. If you pull an image from a website, and it is 4 in. x 4 in. and 72 dpi (the typical web resolution), when you place it in your page layout, it must be sized to 24% of its original size or 0.96 in. x .96 in. in order to be at the correct resolution for printing. (Web designers take note!)

There is absolutely no way to take a low-resolution image and make it look like a high-resolution image. Interpolating a file to a higher resolution makes the image look like an image that was interpolated up to a higher resolution to improve its appearance. One low-resolution image can make collateral look unprofessional. Make sure all the images you provide are the correct resolution for their output size.

The same photo shown in three different light sources, from left: store light, daylight, and home light. Consider the challenges inherent in designing packaging where the product will be viewed in several lighting environments. (Photo courtesy gti Graphictechnology Inc.)

Use Correct File Formats
Each software program creates a native file format that it “gets along with” best. For Adobe Photoshop, that would be bit-mapped files like tiff, jpg, and png. For Adobe Illustrator, it is eps files. Adobe InDesign is a composition program that can accept nearly any file type for inclusion into a document that will be printed or published to the web.

Some file formats work well for print, and some work best for the web. Here are some common file types and their best uses:

• Tiff for high-resolution photographs and scanned graphics
• eps for infinite scalability
• Pdf for high-resolution printing when properly saved with embedded fonts and bleeds, etc.

• Jpg for many compression options and fast loading
• Png for more image depth. The trade-off is its large file size, no CMYK, RGB only.
• Gif limited color (256 only) but very fast loading

Don’t use image compression unless you absolutely have to. Every time an image is compressed (when it is saved) and uncompressed (when it is opened), it rewrites the data in the file and leaves little artifacts/noise in the image. Compression is left over from the days when a 44mb (yes, that’s MB, not GB or TB) Syquest drive cost $200. Nowadays, storage is cheap. Compression works well for the web, but it isn’t necessary for anything else. For example, Tiff files and images are not compressed. Jpeg files and images are.

I hope this helps you to feel super confident the next time you send a job to your printer! Stay tuned for part two – What Your Printer Controls!

Do you have a question about this topic or would you like me to further explain something?  Do you have a request for a topic for me to cover or elaborate on? I’d love to know, comment or email me at marina @

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The pudding is in the proof.

Pudding is pretty thick and murky…  the reasons for proofs and types of proofs can seem murky as well. You need proofs, as in you really need proofs. One of the most important things to understand is what type of proof you will need for any given project. We will discuss the different types of proofs and what to look for when proofing print and graphic elements.

How Proofs are Made

A little background on how proofs are made will help you know what types of proofs you need. Proofs are printed on large-format inkjet devices. At the best printers, these devices are calibrated to predict how the job will print. This is an important concept. The proof is not necessarily showing you the most accurate representation of your InDesign file… it is predicting how your file will look when printed on a specific press and paper. Your file whether it is on a Mac or PC is going to be output (interpreted) by a device. That device can be someone’s laptop running a browser if it is a digital project or a printed billboard/package/brochure/card that was printed and therefore interpreted by a RIP. Sometimes, but not always, a proof can be a dot-for-dot proof of your ripped file, but that’s a convo for later.

Because the large-format device is calibrated for the paper it uses, you cannot choose the paper you want for a proof. You have to accept the paper for which the device is calibrated. If you want a proof on the actual paper the job will print on, you will sacrifice color correctness and resolution and it just generally will not work, unless the job is printing digitally.


Types of Proofs

Blueline (brown line)   A blueline proof is a low to medium resolution proof in color or black and white. This proof is trimmed, folded, and printed from the final file from which the plates will be made. Blueline and brown-line are terms that belong to a technology that became obsolete in the 1990s, but the terms are still in use. Other equivalent terms are: plotter, folding Epson, folded color digital proof, digital plotter or just plain digital proof.

Contract   A contract proof is the “best” proof for resolution and color. In some, but not all, cases, it is a dot–for–dot proof, which means you will get what you see right down to the halftone dots. This proof is on high-resolution paper. If your project involves multiple pages, ask for your proof in reader’s spreads. Otherwise, you may receive printer’s spreads (which is easier for the printer to do), and it could take a ton of extra time to compare printer’s spreads to an earlier proof in reader’s spreads.

Soft Proof   A soft proof is a proof viewed on a monitor. Not to be used for color. A PDF is a type of soft proof.

Die Strike   A die strike is a sample impression made by a foil or embossing die on the specified paper. This procedure may be done while another job is running, so whatever foil is “on press” may be used. Your printer should supply paper so that the die strike is on the paper on which the job will run. If you also want to see your foil on your paper, specify that so your printer can plan accordingly. That is a press proof and an additional charge.

Press Proof  The actual job on the paper with all finishing techniques applied for a limited quantity.

Drawdown   A drawdown is a proof of specified spot ink on the actual paper that will be used for the job.

One-off  A one-off is a proof of a job that will be digitally printed. Because it is being digitally printed it will be on the press and paper specified. In the case of a large format project, the one-off may be reduced in size or only a critical section may be proofed.

Looking at Proofs

Reviewing a Contract Color Proof

You are going to need a Sharpie®, preferably red, or a similar permanent marker to make your notes and corrections on the proof. Gloss proofing paper is not receptive to many inks, but a Sharpie works very well.

• What are your viewing conditions? Is your lighting color correct? Use the lighting evaluation tool in your Pantone Color Bridge fan deck, if you have one or order a set of Pantone lighting indicator stickers. The photo below shows a RHEM indicator.

This is a RHEM indicator showing that the light in which it is being viewed is not color correct.
When the lighting is correct both halves of the rectangle look the same. 

• Are you at a viewing booth? Should you be? A viewing booth or viewing area is a color-correct environment. If you do not have the proper environment, go to your printer and use his.

Proofing Graphics
• Look closely at every piece of art whether it is a photograph, drawing, or logo.
• Is the color off or correct?
• Is the cropping correct?
• Is the logo the correct version and/or usage?
• Does the image look muddy or fuzzy?
• Does part of the image look dark or muddy?
• Does anything need retouching?
• Was requested retouching performed?
• Are any moirés visible? (this applies only if checking a contract proof that is dot-for-dot)

Proofing Pages
We strongly recommend you proof hard copies. Here is what you want to check on each page:
• Is text flowing correctly from column to column and page to page? Scan the last few words in each column or page, and the beginning of the next column or page to make sure the flow is correct.
• Was the document spell-checked?
• Are headlines complete without missing copy?
• Is the document the correct size?
• Are the margins as specified? Top? Bottom? Outer? Inner? Left? Right? Are the margins consistent?
• Are the folios correct? Does the numbering start on a right-hand page?
• Are there any hyphens or widows that need to be corrected?
• Are columns correct and consistent, justified, or ragged?
• Are elements that bleed cropped correctly?
• Did the binding hide or cut off anything?
• Is the backup, front-to-back orientation, correct? Triple-check this for two-sided postcards, business cards, or any item that changes reader/viewer orientation from front to back, outside to inside. See the two videos below for examples of head-to-foot and head-to-head orientations.

This is what head-to-foot orientation looks like:

This is what head-to-head orientation looks like:


Proofing a Paper Dummy
• Is the size correct?
• Is it the right paper(s)?
• Is the color correct?
• Is the weight(s) of the paper correct?
• Is the paper’s finish correct?
• Are the hash marks correct on the proof/dummy?
• Do you have drawdowns? Are they correct?

Proofing a PDF
• If you are reviewing a PDF that was emailed to you or that you downloaded, print it out to size with bleeds and crop marks. Trim it, score it, fold it, and perforate it if necessary. (Having done all this, you will wish you had ordered a hard copy proof from your printer.) If it is a postcard and prints two sides, glue, tape, or staple it together. Is it head-to-head? Head-to-foot? Is the head-to-foot or head-to-head orientation in writing on the purchase order or on the estimate?
• If you receive a hard copy proof, check it for trim, scoring, folding, color, imposition, backup, etc. Note that you should not be checking for spelling at this stage.
•  I do not recommend reviewing pdf proofs on a smartphone. I recently saw a pdf that looked different on two different phones. One showed the error, a key-line around a graphic, and the other did not show it at all. Needless to say, the job printed with the key-line because the client reviewed and okay-ed the proof from his phone.

Proofing Color
• Check the color carefully. Most proofing systems can now proof CMYK color very accurately. If the project is printing with a Pantone spot color, look at a chip or a drawdown and confirm it is the color you want. If the project is printing Hexachrome, HiFi or with touch plates, make sure you are at the press check.
• If you are proofing via an online system, print the proof out yourself so that you will have a hard copy in your hands while you are looking at the job on screen.

PHEW. That seems like a lot of stuff.  If you have a question about proofing or would you like me to further explain something, I’d love to know, comment or email me at marina @ Do you have a request for a topic for me to cover or elaborate on? Let me know! Really!














Size Matters. #sorrynotsorry

One of the things that consistently shocks designers and customers alike is how much a project price can change based on its finished size. I am going to show you why that is. Read on and you will realize why #sizematters and you will be a #designhero.

How  Size Affects Cost

Know that deviating from an increment of 8.5 x 11 is important when designing,  especially for a client on a budget. Here’s an example:  If you want to design a square brochure that is eight pages and saddle stitched, that’s two, 4-page signatures or one 8-page signature. If you make your finished size 9 x 9 inches and the brochure is printing on an offset sheet, then your printer would order a sheet size that is 25 x 38 or 23 x 35 depending on availability. (Whether or not you add a bleed doesn’t matter because the printer will need crop marks for bindery. But there are other instances where a bleed can make a big difference in cost. We will get to that in a little bit.) The printer needs approximately 1/2 inch of gripper on the long edge of the sheet. Paper sizes already take this into consideration. The diagram that follows shows how much waste is contained in a design that is 9 x 9 inches square. The difference in paper cost might nix the project for a cost-conscious client, whereas a design change can help the project move forward. For a more image-conscious client, the cost difference may not be as important as the visual impact that comes with the larger size. Remember that reducing the number of printed sheets not only lowers the paper cost but also reduces the amount of press time!

One Booklet, 3 Sizes:

Here is an 8-page brochure. I’ve laid it out on a parent sheet so you can see what happens when you deviate from 8.5 x 11. Take a look at the amount of waste ($) that is generated. I am not saying it is bad to create a 9″ x 9″ brochure as long as you and your client know it is going to cost more.  Another consideration is the waste apart from the cost. A client that prides themselves on their environmental responsibility will not appear responsible with a 9″ x 9″ brochure.

8 x 8
Here’s the first example, an 8″ x 8″ page size. Because both dimensions are smaller than 8.5″ x 11″ the whole brochure is able to fit on one press sheet. 25,000 8-page booklets with a page size of 8 x 8 require the purchase of 25,000 sheets of 23 x 35 paper. If we pretend the paper is $1.00 per sheet, the paper cost is $25,000.00.  The darker gray area on the press sheet is scrap that will be recycled. Knowing how much paper is wasted, you the designer could add on additional items in the “waste” area of the press sheet such as coupons or statement stuffers or whatever.


9 x 9
Below is the second example, same booklet sized to 9″ x 9″. This is a great standout size, it will be wider than a stack of direct mail and can really make the message stand out. But look at the cost: 25,000 8-page booklets with a page size of 9 x 9 requires the purchase of 50,000 sheets of 23 x 35 paper.

If we pretend the paper is $1.00 per sheet, the paper cost is $50,000.00, double the paper cost of the 8″ x 8″ size. This size also needs to be printed on two press forms so that is double the plates, double the make ready and double the press time.


8.5 x 11
The third example is the same booklet with a page size of 8.5″ x 11″. 25,000 8-page booklets with a page size of 8.5 x 11 requires the purchase of 25,000 sheets of 23 x 35 paper. If we pretend the paper is $1.00 per sheet, the paper cost is $25,000.00, Although the price is the same as the 8 x 8 sized booklet, the waste is dramatically reduced.

How grain affects cost

Are you going with or against the grain? The other way that size affects cost is in combination with grain direction. For example, let’s say you design a brochure that is 4.25 x 11 when folded, 8.5 x 11 flat. It has solid black ink on both sides and you want to print on coated paper. (See design decisions that make headaches here) The brochure has to be cut with the grain parallel to the fold, because of the score going through solid ink. So the brochure must print with the grain following the 11 in. dimension parallel to the fold. As shown below, that nets you only 6 out of a sheet instead of the eight out you could get if the design allowed for it to run with the grain against the fold. Few papers are available grain short (more on that below). I have had instances where customers wanted to redo their brochure as in this example because “the last printer screwed it up real bad”. Having a sample of that last printing in hand I can see that what should have run with the grain was not. Why? Maybe the client was pressuring the printer on cost. Maybe the printer explained to the buyer that there was going to be some cracking (the buyer who no longer works for the client so that story is lost). You can work with a printer that is going to save you money or someone that is going to guard your branding with ferocity. It’s a choice.

If this print run was for 25,000 brochures and the paper cost $1.00 per sheet,
the paper cost would be $4,166.00. A page size of 8.5 x 11 tthat must
run grain long produces a considerable amount of waste.

If this print run was for 25,000 brochures and the paper cost $1.00 per sheet,
the paper cost would be $3,125.00. A page size of 8.5 x 11 produces very little waste.
It is clear how the standard parent size of 23 x 35 is optimal for the 8.5 x 11 page.

Solid ink cracking on a fold.

Paper Sizes

Most American print revolves around a paper sheet size of 8.5 by 11 inches, called letter size. (Most of the rest of the  world revolves around the A4 size of 21 x 29.7 centimeters). When you are designing a printed piece size is important because printing companies buy paper in standard sizes. The most economical use of that sheet, large or small, is going to be in a multiple of 8.5 x 11. Minimizing paper waste is important for containing costs. The large sheets of paper that printers buy are called parent sheets, and these come in standard sizes based on the weight of the paper. What that means in plain English is that it is more wasteful ie: more expensive, to deviate from the 8.5 x 11 format or add a bleed to some papers, such as writing, versus others such as text. (Exceptions are custom sizes, which can be ordered  from a paper mill depending on the amount of lead time you have.)

The information that follows is organized by paper grade. You can learn about paper grades here. The dimensions given in the chart below are standardized in multiple ways. The first number refers to the horizontal measurement (the 8.5 in 8.5 x 11”). The second dimension is the vertical measurement and the grain direction (the 11 in 8.5 x 11”). Sometimes grain direction is indicated by making that dimension bold as in 23 x 35 or by underlining it as in 23 x 35. Sometimes paper is sold grain short and that is indicated by the dimension 35 x 23 or 35 x 23  or 35 x 23 or 23 x 35 or 23 x 35.

In the chart of standard sizes by paper grade, note that the less expensive grades (uncoated, for example) are sold in sizes that do not allow for a bleed. The economy of a 23 x 35 sheet versus a 25 x 38 sheet over a long print run is significant.

The primary size is the size(s) that will be carried by most manufacturers. The primary size is always available in the basic colors such as white, cream, and ivory. If designer colors are manufactured, then they would also be available in the primary size. The secondary size is for the most common colors such as white, ivory, and perhaps other popular colors in that line. The tertiary sizes would apply only to the most common colors (white and ivory) in the most common grades and weights.

Below are all the common paper grades with their corresponding sizes of parent sheets available to printers.

Other costs such as plates, ink, and set-up charges affect the price, but the bottom line is that a size decision made at the design stage will make a significant difference in your printing cost. Have you experienced a size problem in the design stage? I would love to hear about it, please comment below to share your experience with other readers.

Do you have a question about this topic or would you like me to further explain something?  Do you have a request for a topic for me to cover or elaborate on? I’d love to know, comment or email me at marina @

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