Just Make it Look Professional

August 6, 2007

Crayon scribbles on a napkin would have been easier.

It was all supposed to be in the job jacket. The instructions that the customer had given our salesperson said to create a 4 panel brochure using the information the customer had provided.

That information consisted of the following:

  • Two sheets of paper containing exactly 4 lines of text.
  • An address.
  • 3 digital product photos — 2.125 x 1.8 at 300 dpi
  • A competitor’s brochure that they “kind of liked.”

From this, we were to “create something that looks professional.” It occurred to me that Sean Connery would never have made a credible Bond without the dinner jacket and natty togs. Could Bond have really pulled it off dressed only in his boxers?

We created something very bare bones, representative of the instruction set that we were given. It’s gone out for proof with a bunch of notes on it and I can almost guarantee that it will come back with a frustrated comment from the customer that “this wasn’t at all what they were thinking.”

So the question is, “what were they thinking?” It is certainly a reasonable option to hire a graphic designer to create art for your project or commission a printshop to do layout. It is not rational to expect them to read your mind. As a customer, you cannot abdicate the responsibility of describing both what you want and what you would like to say. You don’t have to be an artist or even able to write in complete sentences, but you must somehow convey to the designer the ideas that you would like him, in turn, to convey in the publication or printed piece that you have commissioned.

It’s really not hard. Here are a few guidelines:

  • Create a dummy. Take a piece of paper and fold it up, then scribble notes on it.
  • Crayons really are OK. There’s no better way to communicate a rough design or color combination than to scratch it out.
  • It’s probably a very good idea to talk with the designer up front. Don’t be surprised if you have to schedule this and if there is a charge associated with it. For a freelance designer, time is money; and agencies and even printshops should value their design time highly. The time spent up front with the person who will create your piece is a good investment, though. And it’s much less expensive than the time spent going back and forth with multiple proofs.
  • Write it down if you can. If you can write copy, that’s great. If not, let your designer know that this is part of your expectation. If you can’t write it out, explain it well and let the designer take notes.

Sean Connery in Underwear

The “professional look” of the finished design will in the end be dependant as much upon your clarity and detail as upon the designer’s skills. Without your input and direction, your piece may have all of the impact and style of Sean Connery in bandoleros and red underwear.

Frightening, isn’t it?

Caveat Emptor!

March 17, 2007

TANSTAAFL – there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.


I’d always thought that John Maynard Keynes coined this acronym in support of one of his free market theories. Turns out that it was Robert Heinlein, one of the strangest science fiction writers to emerge from the 1960s.

The principle is simple. There is an intrinsic value to every product or service and there is an associated economic cost to the provision of that product or service. Whether visible in the price of that product or hidden in the prices of other products, the cost is there nonetheless, and must be recovered if the transaction is to make economic sense.

Caveat Emptor, which literally means “let the buyer beware,” is a sound admonition to the purchaser when the lunch appears to be “free.” Look for the catch. The lunch may be free, but it costs $4.50 to throw away the paper sack and the apple core.

Twice last week, I’ve been confronted by “better deals” that a customer can buy over the internet. The first was from an ad agency, a customer that in the past has consumed a fair amount of time with quotations and required a little handholding when the projects came through. We had quoted postcards. They asked us to meet the price of an internet printer. I passed.

The second incident involved a college student organization that wanted some flyers. The student in charge of the project had come into the store and received pricing for the project, a thousand color handbills. He called back the next day, saying that the price didn’t fit his budget. I gave him a couple of options and finally reduced the price he was originally quoted by a little, simply because I wanted to help him out. His response frankly surprised me.

“Have you heard of Magnificoprints.com?” he queried.

I replied that I had not.

“You can get 5000 of these on manificoprints for $150, and they’ll throw in a free candy bar, too!”

I suggested that he opt for the free Snickers bar, wished him good luck, and told him to call us back if he needed help. Then I began thinking . . . always a dangerous proposition.

The internet printers have been around for a while. Four or five years ago, before the dotcom bust, there was a rush among conventional printers to establish an “internet presence.” Coalitions were formed, venture capital was obtained, grand castles of sand were built and collapsed with the incoming tide.

Most conventional printshops remained “brick and mortar” operations, using the internet for the things that made good sense for their customers. AlphaGraphics, Inc. did an exceptionally good job with this, providing their franchisees (Poor Richard included) with a web presence that included facilities for file transfer, proofing, online ordering, etc.

But now there is a new generation of online printers. At the core, the model for these businesses is not much different than that of “gang run” trade printers that have been around forever. The objective is to achieve economies of scale by combining (ganging) several similar jobs on a large sheet, thereby increasing efficiency, and reducing cost and price. Most conventional printers have relied on this model for outsourcing items like single business cards where price is more important than quality concerns.

The new online printers have enhanced this model with digital printing technology that enables very short runs with little waste or setup cost.From a manufacturing standpoint, the goal is standardization of input, maximization of capacity and mimimization of cost. Relative to a conventional printer, volumes are high and unit costs are low. Margins are very low.

The marketing strategy is blatantly simple . . . low price.

“Why, isn’t this good for the consumer?” you ask. “Shouldn’t we all be buying our printing this way?”

Poor Richard’s answer is “Yes and No,” but (predictably) “mostly No.”

The model certainly works on cheap business cards where either the quality levels are not demanding or the risk is low. AlphaGraphics has depended on a Jacksonville, FL company for years that mass produces business cards. They can produce the blue and red cards for Joe’s Bakery in Macon along with blue and red cards for Flo’s Jewelry in Mobile and Moe’s Body Shop in Kalamazoo for less than what it costs me to set up my press and print a single set. Joe saves money and the outcome is fine, as long as you stay within their paper and ink parameters and the card is uncomplicated.

And there’s the first caveat. The model works for peanut butter and jelly; maybe for a hamburger. It doesn’t work for filet mignon. What’s the risk if a business card doesn’t turn out right? You change it and do it again. Outside of the time required, the cost is certainly manageable, even for a DIY designer who is using KidPix to create the card. But what if it’s your boss’s card? What if it’s the corporate brochure or the annual report that goes to the Board of Directors? What if the event is next week and you don’t have time to do it again?

Poor Richard did a little research this morning. I read the fine print. Here it is:

19. Workmanship Guarantee
Because of the nature of “gang run” style printing ModernColorPrinting.com shall not be held responsible for the following issues which may occur during our production process: variation in color, offset (smudges), cutting variations, marking, picking, cutting issues, size discrepancies (over/under), and etc. Customer acknowledges that they are receiving gang run style printing at a substantial price discount and expedited delivery times and thus said printing will not be held to the same standard as traditional offset lithography nor generally accepted printing standards. While every effort will be made to satisfy our customer’s needs, requests for reprints or credits based on quality issues will not be recognized.


And some more:

Indeed, VistaPrint takes great pride in its commitment to customer satisfaction. However, certain circumstances are beyond our control and are not covered by the guarantee. Please note that we cannot be responsible for:

  • Spelling, punctuation or grammatical errors made by the customer.
  • Inferior quality or low-resolution of uploaded images.
  • Design errors introduced by the customer in the document creation process.
  • Errors in user-selected options such as choice of finish, quantity or product type.
  • Damage to the products arising after delivery to the customer.

Please preview your designs carefully and correct any mistakes prior to placing your order. In an effort to keep costs down and pass substantial savings along to our customers, VistaPrint does not proof documents created by its customers prior to processing.


Most of our customers at AlphaGraphics have reasonable expectations when it comes to their printing projects. I don’t think that smudges, marking, picking, size variations, etc. fall within those reasonable expectations. They don’t fall within my expectations for my customers’ projects. And the best designers that we work with regularly catch minor mistakes at proof. Quality-oriented printers regularly check their customers files for errors and we regularly find them. Over 80% of the files we are given need and receive minor corrections before they are printed. In many cases our customers do not even know that a change was made to allow their file to print correctly.

In fairness, I did find one online printer that I think I might almost be willing to consider. They’re called printingforless.com and their website offers a customer satisfaction guarantee. You’re still on your own with design, but they do provide soft proofs of each job online. You can get a hard copy proof by mail for an extra charge. Their website is helpful and customer oriented.

Guess what? After all is said and done, the prices are comparable to what you can get at your local printshop. For instance, the base price for an 8.5 x 11 trifold printed 4/4 on 80# gloss text is $456.25. That’s 4 days in production + ground shipping from Montana. To reduce the production time to 2 days and ship overnight brings the total to $717.80, right in line with your local printshop who will help you with your art, your proof and probably deliver the job to your doorstep.

One of Heinlein’s more bizarre characters was a human named Michael Valentine Smith, born and raised on Mars by Martians, and rescued back to earth as a young man. From the Martians, Smith obtained a super-human analytical capability, a way of understanding that Heinlein dubbed “grokking.” To truly understand something, in Smith’s fashion, was to “grok” it.

The dictionary definition of caveat emptor is “the axiom or principle in commerce that the buyer alone is responsible for assessing the quality of a purchase before buying.” This means that you, the buyer, must determine the intrinsic value of the deal. To do this, you must understand what you are buying, you must “grok” it.

There’s a lot more to printing than meets the eye. Internet printing has a lot less to offer than low price. TANSTAAFLthere ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Grok it?

The Zen of Trifold

February 16, 2007

“Send me pricing on this brochure,” read the e-mail. “I want 200 and if the pricing is real good I might do more.”

Feeling only slightly motivated by the prospect of such a massive order, I took a look at the file. The file extension was .psd. “A Photoshop file,” I thought, “at least it’s not put together in KidPix, like the last one of these I received.”

I opened the file. A trifold, Black and white, with photography, at least one strange font, all at 72 dpi. The size was nearly 9″ by nearly 12″. The columns were off, so there was no possibility of ever folding it. The file had been flattened, so editing in Photoshop was out of the question (even if the fonts had been included). Alarms began to sound and the blue screen of death popped up on my monitor.

WARNING: This file has failed Preflight. Your computer will meltdown in 30 seconds unless you CLOSE THIS FILE!

Grasshopper, DIY trifold brochures really shouldn’t be all that tough. Assume the lotus position, take four cleansing breaths and follow Poor Richard’s guidelines.

Step One: Measure

A standard piece of U.S. letter-sized paper measures 8.5″ x 11″. You can certainly use paper of a different size, but be conscious that it must be cut from a larger sheet. This is OK, but it will increase the price of the project slightly, perhaps too much for the opulent budget of our email correspondent.

Allow for margins on the outside of the sheet and gutters between the columns. A minimal margin for any press printed job is 3/8″. The margins are necessary to allow the grippers, which essentially are little clamps in a printing press, to grab the paper and carry it through the press. You can’t put ink in the area underneath the grippers, hence the need for a margin. For digital printing, you can probably get by with .25″, but you might lose a page number or two.

The gutters are the spaces between the columns. The basic rule of thumb for gutters is 2x the width of the margin. This will allow the text and graphics to center in the panels when the piece is folded. An amateur designer who forgets this rule and makes the gutters too small or large is termed a gutter snipe.

Step 2: Measure Some More

Now take a few more measurements into consideration, beginning with the front panel of the brochure.

As you begin your layout, you must decide whether you want the image to bleed. A bleed is when ink is actually printed beyond the finished edge of the paper. If you choose this feature, oversized paper will be required. The bleed is achieved by cutting into the printed area. Your printer will require that the images that bleed extend 1/8″ past the finished page size. If you are working with a good page layout program, like Adobe Indesign, you can define the bleed in your document settings.

Remember that you must send the oversized image to your printer. If you send a native page layout file, the information will be there. On the other hand, if you save to a .pdf file, you must specify the final size of the piece including the bleeds. In this case, the final size would be 8.75 x 11.25.

Poor Richard’s Tips:

  • As you begin the layout, you may also want to make one slight modification to the panels that will help your printer greatly and make the finished product look more professional. In the image above, the leftmost panel folds in to make the trifold. Because of very small variations in both paper size throughout a print run and the tolerances of mechanical folders, it is necessary to shorten the fold-in panel by a very small amount. Usually 1/16″ is plenty. The two rightmost panels should be slightly longer and the leftmost panel slightly shorter.
  • If colors change from one panel to the next, it’s also good to determine where the overlap will occur. Remember that the fold line falls in the middle of the gutter lines. The blue screen behind Ben in the layout above actually laps over to the back panel by just a small amount. It will look better to have a small stripe of blue on the back panel than to have a stripe of white on the front of the brochure. If you are concerned about the folds, ask your printer for a blueline or a folding dummy before proof approval.

Step 3: Consider the Reader

It’s a common mistake to design a folding brochure on a flat sheet with the assumption that the reader will treat it like a letter. Remember that a trifold is folded. It won’t be read left to right and top to bottom. Rather, it will be unfolded and read panel by panel. Follow Ben’s glasses below:



Panel one, the front panel, will of course be the first one that the reader sees. He may actually turn the brochure and look at the back panel next, but it is more likely that he will open the brochure next. The second panel he will see is the inside left panel, followed by (Surprise!) the outside left panel, which is folded in next to the inside left. If your brochure is text heavy, your message should carry from the inside left panel to the outside left then to the remaining inside panels. If your brochure is heavy on art or photos, make sure that colors or photos on the inside left panel doesn’t conflict with the outside fold-in. And remember that if you use a photo or text that bridges the left two panels on the inside, part of it will be covered up by the fold-in.

Poor Richard’s Tip:

  • You can use the center and right hand panels on the inside as a single layout area. In the illustration above, Ben’s printing press falls in the gutter between the two panels. This is a great place for diagrams, illustrations or a large photo.

Step Four: Finishing Up

In the illustration above, panel #6 is the outside center panel. This is the back panel of the folded brochure. This is the place for contact information, directions, a map, or a final photo. This panel will probably get the least attention from your reader, so put the most important information somewhere else.

Poor Richard’s Tip:

  • You can design your trifold as a self mailer. If so, the back panel should be your address panel. Remember that the USPS will require a gummed tab to seal the brochure to receive automation rates. If the tab can be placed at the top of the panel, only one is required. If you orient the address so that the return address is at the open end (bottom left of the panel), you’ll save a little money and time when tabs are applied.

Last Words:

We missed the massive order for 200 trifolds. Not wanting to make too many assumptions about the art I’d received, I called the customer to ask the right questions. It was her cell phone. Her voice mail said, “Leave a message and I might call you back.” I did. She didn’t.

Color Separation . . . Whadd’ya Mean?

January 6, 2007

It happened again. One of our customers commissioned a new logo. She paid a website designer for the concept and the art. She was planning ahead. With the understanding that 2 color printing is far more economical than full color, she asked the designer to develop a two color logo that could be used on her letterhead and envelopes.

The designer followed her instructions. He produced a logo that used 2 colors, but he created the art in Adobe Photoshop, RGB color mode for screen, sized about 2″ x 3″ at 72 dpi (dots per inch). He did everything just right . . . for the Internet; and just wrong for print.

Now, if all of that printerese jargon has confused you, hang on ’cause I’m gonna ‘splain it to ya.

Here’s a logo. No liability here, it’s not a real product . . . dairymen don’t last long around lactating tigers. We’re just going to use this to illustrate how colors work for the Internet and for print.Specifically, we’re going to talk about how colors go together on your computer screen and in a printshop.

First, notice that you only see three colors in the art — orange, green and black. Strangely enough, the logo at the right is actually comprised of three colors. It’s put together in RGB color mode — Red, Green, and blue.





Here’s an illustration of how RGB works:

These are RGB color separations. The image on the right is a composite. RGB is an additive color mode. Here’s how it works. Red, green, and blue wavelengths of light can be combined in various intensities to make a wide spectrum of color. If you add all of the colors together, the result is white. All of the visible wavelengths of light are transmitted to your eye. That’s what’s happening in the illustration above. Various shades of red, green and blue combine to make the tiger. The solid colors in the background combine to make white.

Interestingly enough, combinations of two of the three colors together create the secondary colors used in printing. Red and green combine additively to make yellow. Blue and green combine to make cyan. Blue and red combine to make magenta.

The secondary colors can also be combined to make a spectrum (or color gamut). Printers call this process color. The RGB color gamut you see on your screen is a little bit larger than the gamut that can be printed on a printing press. Your screen gamut will also be dependant upon external lighting conditions and about exactly 1,763 other variables that are way beyond the scope of this little blog entry. Here’s the important part: What you see on your screen will rarely match what you see on Bob’s screen next door or Mary’s screen in the next cubicle. And Poor Richard’s law #47 states that what you see on your screen will NEVER, NEVER match what is printed on paper!

Process color looks like this:


You’ll notice that we’ve added another color to the three secondary colors listed above. The four process colors used in printing are Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black (CMY and K for black). In an ideal world, the combination of Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow will produce black; but the reflectivity of printing inks is not perfect. CM and Y combine to make kind of a muddy, ugly brown; so printers add black to be able to produce a solid black color.

CMYK is a subtractive color process. The inks combine to actually absorb (subtract) certain wavelengths of light. The remaining wavelengths are reflected off of the paper. You see this as color. White is close to 100% reflectivity — nearly the whole spectrum is reflected. A true black would have 0% reflectivity. A large part of the entire spectrum of visual lies in between and can be produced with combinations of cyan, magenta, and yellow, with black as an enhancement color.

Now, back to our logo problem.

RGB obviously won’t work. It’s an additive model based on a mixture of light, not ink. If you mix red, green and blue ink you get blecch, a completely new color that no one wants to see in print. So our customer’s logo will have to be converted. We could convert it to CMYK color and print it on a printing press, just like the tiger above. But there are some practical and economic problems. When CMYK is printed on a printing press, four actual inks are put on the paper. This requires either a four color press or a couple of passes through a two color press.

Four color presses are more expensive to purchase, setup and operate than smaller and simpler 2 color presses. Typically, there is also more paper waste involved. At AlphaGraphics, our minimums usually start at 1000 12.5 x 19 sheets for a process color job. In this case, that means 2000 pieces of letterhead for a customer who really needs half that much. Running full color in two passes through a 2 color press is even more problematic, the biggest difficulty being that you really don’t know what the final color will be until the second pass . . . and then it’s too late to do anything about it.

Our customer’s logo was also sized for the Internet. The size was approximately 2″ x 3″ at low resolution. When we shrunk the size of the logo to increase the resolution and clarity for print, it turned out about this big:

Tiger Logo

Envelopes are also a problem. Most conventional four color presses don’t like them. We tried to run envelopes on our color press once and spent half a day removing shredded envelopes from the rollers. Not fun. So, that means that process color envelopes have to be ordered from a specialty printer. Again, more expensive, 2,500 minimum and 2 – 3 weeks lead time; it’s not a good alternative for the customer.

Here’s the solution:


It’s a two-color tiger. In this case, all we did was change the color of the tiger’s eyes. Now, we’re going to print him in spot colors, orange and black. We’ll actually get the effect of more colors by shading the orange (with screens and gradient fills). And we’re going to get the right color. We’re going to mix the ink to specifically match the orange the customer wants.

In this case, the orange is PMS (Pantone Matching System) 158. Pantone makes neat books for printers that tell us how to mix colors. We’ll mix the orange ink and compare the solids in the printed product to a color swatch in the book. This doesn’t mean that there will be absolutely no color variations in the final product, but it should be really close to the PMS color specified. Please note: the ink color will match the Pantone book, but not necessarily your computer screen. Even if you waste a lot of time trying to calibrate your screen, the only reliable way to see a Pantone color is ink on paper.

This is what our customer originally had in mind. Two color printing is done on small presses. It’s economical to produce very short runs and most of the small presses we have will run envelopes, too. Unfortunately, her designer didn’t understand this at all.

We talked to the web designer. Nice guy. He had produced a really good looking logo and had not the faintest clue that his customer wouldn’t be able to print it. He also had no idea of how to draw a logo for print. Of course, the project was delayed for a week while everybody traded emails until all of this could be determined. In the end, our customer had to pay for additional design time for us to re-create the logo in Adobe Illustrator as vector art with specified Pantone colors.

What are the lessons to be learned from this?

  1. Poor Richard’s First Rule: Ask your printer. Ask your printer. Ask your printer.
  2. Make sure that the designer you hire understands how to design for print. Do not assume that he does. Many graphic designers are fine artists and web designers, but lack the technical knowledge needed for print on paper.
  3. Be very specific. Talk with your designer about exactly how you want to use the art they will create. Choose specific colors. Make sure that you discuss the cost implications of the art that they will design.
  4. Finally, involve your printer in the project from the outset. We think that it’s best if you have a direct relationship with your printer. If he is involved in the project from the beginning, he can work with your designer on the technical aspects. This will save you money over the long and short run.

There’s something Objectionable about Green People

November 29, 2006


We printed the oddest brochure today. It was totally GREEN!

I’m just not sure about green people. This is not a personality disorder on my part, nor is it indicative of some sort of latent prejudice. I’ve never actually met a green person, nor a blue one for that matter.

I don’t think that I’d be judgmental if I met someone who was actually green; i.e. born that way like Elphaba in Wicked! It’s just that folks like this don’t really exist. So, why would anyone want to take a perfectly good photograph of a naturally colored individual and print it in green or blue or red. It looks weird.

Consider the photo above. These are my kids. They’re really neat kids, but they’re not green. Here’s what they look like in color:

Kids in color

As a printer, I’d naturally like to see everything printed in color. But I understand that there are some projects that have to be produced economically. One or two color printing can be very cost effective and when designed well, can make a very good impression on the target audience.

Here’s the point: Green photography is almost always a poor design choice. Green photography is an especially poor design choice when the shade of green resembles the color of spinach baby food. Those of you who have experienced this Gerber delicacy will recall that it looks about the same going in and coming out of the infant.

We are used to black and white photography. Good black and white photos, with the levels adjusted correctly for print, are pleasing to the eye. Here are my kids in black and white:

Kids in Black and White

Now I’ve totally exploited my kids in my blog to make a simple point. Color works, black and white works, green people are strange.

Subbing In Design

October 27, 2006

We married off a graphic designer last weekend. Chris, who has survived a couple of pretty heavy romances unscathed since he began working with us, finally succumbed to matrimonial bliss. The wedding was beautiful. The music was absolutely wonderful. The bride was exceptionally lovely. The preacher couldn’t read his notes because it got dark sooner that they planned for. Flustered, he told Chris to “chris the bride.” God’s blessings to Chris and Jenna!

The newlyweds are on a boat to the Bahamas and I’m doing keyboard duty. I haven’t subbed in design for a while, and my eyes are a little crossed at the end of the day. In truth, it’s not my eyes that are the problem. It’s my brain. By the end of the day it’s mush, oatmeal. The synapses no longer connect. If this post is disjointed, you know the cause.

Today I am a victim of the annual report of the Ambidextrous Association of Prehistoric Baptist Churches (obviously not their real name). We’ve been doing the annual report for this group of small churches for as long as we’ve been in business. In fact, neither the customer nor I had any gray hairs when we started this project. We’ve both started marking time by his annual visits to the printshop.

The booklet is always the same . . . a bunch of text, followed with several pages of numbers that have to be manually entered into a spreadsheet and then converted into .pdfs for printing. When I got to the numbers my bifocals shorted out. I just couldn’t seem to get them into the right cells in the spreadsheet. I checked and double checked and I’m still not sure they’re right. Maybe the years of printshop fumes are finally taking they’re toll.

Which leads to another tangent. I’d like to take a formal poll to find out if the printshop fragrance is marketable. I’ve lived with it so long that I really can’t smell it at all any more, but I’m always entertained by the occasional customer comments when they walk in the shop. I think it’s split about evenly. 50% walk in the door and say, “Oh, I love how a printshop smells!”

The others say, “How can you stand it in here?”

I’ve had one rather delicate gentleman leave the shop because his eyes were burning and a couple of high school kids who wanted to stay because they thought printshop solvents smelled better than Testors airplane glue. Is there a market for this? Should we bottle “Eau de Printshop” or “Dilettante Repellant?”

Back to the Ambidextrous Baptists. Their association is a group of some 20 or so very small churches in Georgia and Florida. The statistics are always fascinating. Last year they added a couple of churches. This year they dropped a couple. The parishioners are obviously aging, and the churches are losing members by attrition. There are definitely more deaths this year than new baptisms. A couple of the small churches are down to 2 or 4 members. The most interesting column is the stats is the numbers for excommunication. I’m not sure exactly what you have to do to get excommunicated from the Ambidextrous Baptists, but a few folks do it every year.

If I mark the years with the Ambidextrous Association of Prehistoric Baptists, I’m marking the days until our graphics guy returns. I certainly don’t begrudge him his honeymoon, but I’ll be glad to get my nose out of the computers.

The trouble with printshop design

October 20, 2006

AlphaGraphics LogoA few years ago, the tagline underneath the Alphagraphics logo read “Design • Copy • Print • Miracles.” This made me decidedly uncomfortable, but it did provide great encouragement for those who wanted the impossible done yesterday. Today, the tagline reads “Design • Copy • Print > Communicate.” I’m much more confident with this message, but I have to admit that the first element is a bit problematic.

The difficulty is in the definition. When Joe or Jill Consumer thinks about design, they may think of anything from the generation of ideas to the creation of art. Printshops (including AlphaGraphics) are pretty good at the latter, but fairly lousy at the former.

Here’s the problem:

Printing companies are production shops. Typically the design department is doing everything from page layout to prepress, including drawing the occasional logo or creating a newsletter or magazine template. Key to their operation is getting files to all of the machinery that has to run to keep the shop profitable and the employees (and owners) fed.

Jill Consumer calls up and asks if we can draw a logo for her new business. “Do you have an idea of what you want?” we ask.

This sounds silly to Jill. If she knew what she wanted, she wouldn’t have called to ask if we could do it. It’s not silly to us, because we know that most of the time will be required to come up with what she wants, not in drawing the final version. And if Jill is not good at making decisions, or if she is very particular (read finicky) about the final details, the time can be excessive. So, if I take on the project, I risk locking up hours of design time that could otherwise be used to produce work that will enable all of the other machines and people in the shop to be productive and make money.

Here are the Options:

If you can describe it, we can usually produce it. If you can draw your new logo (or something similar) on a napkin with crayons, we can produce it. Printers are exceptionally good at layout. If you need a brochure, presentation folder, booklet and you’ve got copy and photos, we can layout something beautiful for you. If you want three designs to choose from, that’s another story.

Conceptual development is what I call “creative” design. Some of us printers would like to do this type of design.  I’ve reached the conclusion that it’s basically impossible.  It’s simply unprofitable to devote the time required to do artistic design in a production environment. Even if we dedicate an employee to this kind of task, they will inevitably get pulled off when a higher priority production project comes around.

Creative design is best done by those without the overhead and production concerns of a printshop. Basically, Joe and Jill Consumer have three options:

  1. They can try to do it themselves. Many people consider themselves to have an artistic flair. This is fine only as long as the end product must please only the artist. If you want the art to please others, it’s best to involve others in the development. Technically, this option also has problems. I’ve written before about the perils of DIY design. On the upside, you may be able to create something that a professional graphic artist can convert into usable art without too much trouble.
  2. Hire an agency. Depending on the project, this might be a good solution. An ad agency’s reputation is based upon it’s creative talent and the quality of the products and campaigns produced. Agencies are most effective when the scope is large. In other words, if you’re planning a campaign that will include print and broadcast media, PR, internet, and some collateral print pieces; an agency is the appropriate choice. Agencies have overheads, too. The development cost might be considerable if Joe and Jill want a logo or a single printed piece, but they’ll probably get the product they want.
  3. Freelance designers are a great option if the scope of the project is well defined. At AlphaGraphics, we regularly refer customers to freelancers for creative design. We naturally ask them to bring us the project for printing when design is complete. In most cases, freelancers do not have the overhead concerns that printshops or agencies do. It may be possible to find a freelance designer that will work on a project basis, but most prefer to charge hourly rates. Project timetables may also be lengthened if the freelancer has a day job.

Paying for Design

For some reason, the concept of actually paying for design work seems difficult for some. We logged over four hours on a brochure project for a local church recently. The individuals involved could never agree on exactly what they wanted and the project was scrapped after bouncing in and out of the PROOF bin for a month. Short story–I billed for the design and they haven’t paid it.

If Joe and Jill hire an architect to draw up plans for their new house and they never get to build it, they’re still obligated to pay the architect for his work. It’s the same with design and printing.

Expect to pay for design, especially in a printshop. There are real costs involved, including the opportunity cost of the time spent on your project. There are many ways that Joe and Jill can help to control design costs. Most important are their ability to stay focused, organized and specific to minimize the time spent on edits and changes. More about this later.

Final Words:

The tagline is not a misrepresentation. We definitely do design at AlphaGraphics. We’re careful about it, though. I suspect that other printers may view this area of business in much the same way. Final advice: Follow Poor Richard’s Rule #1 — always ask the printer. If your project is too open-ended for your printer, he’ll let you know. And you might be surprised . . . a lot of things that look complicated really aren’t.

Graphic Designer or Graphic Disaster

September 30, 2006

Printers don’t use cameras anymore. At least, very few of us do. If your printer still does, better ask him why. Cameras are old technology, just like the typewriter. I could never make much sense of the phrase “camera ready” anyhow. What it was supposed to mean was that the customer was bringing art that was ready to shoot for plates or film. Colors were separated, clarity was good, the art had been prepared in a way that would make it suitable for printing. In practice, “camera ready” meant anything from finished boards to crayon scribbles on a paper towel.

Today, the “camera ready” phrase has been replaced with “on disk.” Even that is passe’, we hardly ever receive anything on an actual disk or even CD any more. It all comes via file transfer over the web. Nonetheless, “on disk” comes with a similar set of problems to “camera ready.”

To paraphrase Corrie Ten Boom, having a computer no more makes one a graphic designer than having a garage makes one an automobile. I’ve ranted about Microsoft in a previous entry, so I won’t go there again today. But even users of real, honest-to-goodness layout and design programs can be dangerous. If graphic designers were issued licenses to drive their computers and printers were allowed to issue tickets for violations, there’d be a lot of designers in real trouble . . . and a few with their licenses revoked completely.

The big problem is that it is relatively easy to design something that looks pretty good on screen and fails miserably when printed. Designing for the web is so forgiving. The WYSIWYG acronym applies. Just preview your web page in Internet Explorer and you’re going to see what most of the world sees. In the print world, WYSMBWYG applies–what you see might be what you get! Those cool effects that look so great in Photoshop, Illustrator or Publisher might translate into a black box when they run through prepress.

Here are some tips from Poor Richard for aspiring new print designers:

  1. Use a drawing program for drawing, a photo editing program for photo editing, and a page layout program for page layout. Adobe Illustrator is the industry standard for vector artwork — that is line drawing and fills in the digital world. Adobe Photoshop is the same for pixels — .jpg, .tif and other file formats that are basically collections of dots grouped together tightly in just such a pattern that your eyes and brain think that they are seeing an image or a photograph. Adobe InDesign, QuarkXpress, and (sigh) even Microsoft Publisher are page layout programs where art, photos, and text are put together in a document for printing.
  2. Ask your printer first. Before you start your project, give your printer a call. Tell him what you intend to do and ask for requirements for setting up the publication. This can save an amazing amount of trouble and expense when your files actually get to the printshop.
  3. Follow the rules. When preparing files for print there are a few things that are absolutely required. Print design can be very unforgiving.
    For instance, if you are printing a one or two color piece, you’ll be using spot color. A spot color is essentially a named color that can be separated out from any other color used in the document. This requires a program that will separate colors. Illustrator does, Photoshop doesn’t. Your page layout program will, but you must assign the colors.If you ignore this, what will happen? Things are going to be very strange colors (or black and white) on your proof. You’ll be mad at your printer. Or your printer is going to call and you’re going to get mad at him because you don’t understand what he’s talking about. Even worse, your job might get printed in all of the wrong colors. Then you’ll get really, really mad at us.We hate it when you get mad and we really don’t want to revoke your computer driving license.
  4. Pay attention to resolution. If you steal photos for your cosmetics catalog from Acme Tweezer Company’s website, they’re going to look crummy. Internet resolution is 72 dpi (dots per inch). A good resolution for printing is 300 dpi.
  5. KIS applies. I’m being nice. I left off the final “S.” Many beginners end up over-designing. Keep it simple. The most effective layouts are clean. They use white space, one or two readable fonts, and clean lines.

We try to be very patient with out customers, especially those who are new to design and really want to do it themselves. For those who are more interested in the product than the process, AlphaGraphics and many other shops offer in-house design services. We actually do even work with crayon scribbles on a napkin from time to time.

I’ll write more about graphic design and the print process as the blog progresses. Send me a comment or a question and I’ll try to address it in another post.

How to make sure there’s something wrong with your print job — Part 1

September 20, 2006

The look on her face told it all. What she saw in the box was not what she expected. “What’s wrong?,” I asked. “Is there a problem?”

“These aren’t the size I expected,” she replied.

I went to get the job jacket for her project. Unfortunately, mistakes are made at printshops. When we mess up, we fix it; but we always want to see what has happened. I pulled the proof she had signed and measured between the crop marks. The dimensions were exactly the same as the finished product.

“I don’t understand,” I told her as I showed her the measurements.

“So that’s what those are for!” she replied, and everything became clear. We had sent a proof with crop marks indicating size, but the customer didn’t know what a crop mark was!

“I still don’t understand how you could have designed it that way,” she continued, “I told the person I spoke with that this piece had to fit in an envelope.”

I pulled out a #10 envelope and showed her that the piece would indeed fit comfortably inside.

“Oh, is that a standard envelope?” she responded. “My envelopes aren’t that size!”

Mistakes are very expensive at printshops. The products we make are useful only to the customer that commissions them. If the customer doesn’t accept the finished product, it becomes trash and a total loss to the printer. There’s really nothing else we can do with it and margins are not nearly so good that we can take a whole lot of total loss.

Because of this, we’re really fanatical about proofs. Everything is spelled out — quantities, colors, paper, and size. But in this case, the customer didn’t understand the way we communicated. In fact, she later admitted that she thought the proof “looked a little funny.” But she didn’t ask a question about it. She just signed it.

There are many methods to virtually assure that something will go wrong with your print job. Here are the first two:

Method 1: Don’t take the time to review the proof

Any good printer has 20 to 30 jobs in process at one time. We have to be pretty good at details, but we cannot track all of the details of all of the jobs at one time. When we proof internally, it’s generally for format. If information is given to us digitally (for example, in a Microsoft Word file) to flow into a document for print, we’re going to assume that you’ve already read through it. We won’t be looking at it very carefully.

We’re also very cautious about changing grammar or punctuation. Punctuation and grammar today are like ethical relativism. Just because it’s wrong to me (or your grammar school English teacher) doesn’t mean that it’s wrong in the customer’s eyes. If you type it that way, we assume that you want it that way; even if Miss Birch (my grammar school English teacher) would say that it’s wrong.

Read the proof carefully. Check things like names, addresses, and phone numbers on business cards. Poor Richard’s law says that the phone number will always be wrong on an unproofed business card. Read backwards for spelling. You’ll be surprised at how the misspelled words will jump out at you.

Method 2: Do lots of proofs and make lots of changes

Editing should really be done long before the printer gets the job, especially if the project is a team effort. Poor Richard’s law says that the more revisions you make, the greater the likelihood that something will be missed.

Proofing is a one person project. Poor Richard’s law says that if two or more are proofing, one will revise the other’s correction. Your printer will not know which version to choose and your project will go into printer’s limbo until we can figure it out. This means sending more proofs and time delays. If it gets too bad, we kind of freeze up like your computer does when you overload it. We may even make you wait until the next morning when the shop is rebooted before we send you another proof.

We really don’t advise calling on the phone. The person you talk to on the phone will rarely be the one who makes the changes to your job and they won’t have your project in front of them. Printshops are busy places. You’ll be throwing another bowling pin at the juggler who is already handling about 12 of them and keeping the plates spinning on the end of the stick, too.

Printers love documentation. Write out your changes and send them by email or fax. Put them all together in one email or fax, not a string of several of them. When the revision comes, make the final small corrections. If we miss or misunderstand something on the revision, then give us a phone call.

Please ask questions. If you don’t understand something, ask. We want to deliver exactly what you want, but this won’t happen if we’re not communicating clearly with one another. Remember that when you sign the proof, you are accepting responsibility for the accuracy of your project. If it “looks funny,” ask about it.

As it turns out, our customer’s cards did fit in the envelopes she intended to use. There was no additional expense or pain for either of us. The wires were still tangled, though, and that’s a losing situation for us. Maybe she’ll read my blog and understand.

Why Printers Hate Microsoft

September 9, 2006

Coming up with a title for this entry was a struggle. I really, really wanted to type “10 Reasons Bill Gates will burn in hell;” but I resisted. At least in the title. Printers hate Microsoft for a lot of reasons . . . really good reasons.

Word is a design program, right?

Just because it kind of looks like a brochure on your screen doesn’t mean that your printer will be able to do anything with it at all. Microsoft Word was designed as a word processing program. Type up a letter and it spits out neatly on your little HP inkjet printer.

As the years have progressed, the mighty minds at Microsoft have added capabilities to it that would lead the unenlightened user to believe that they can actually do page layout in the program. I could spend hours describing the problems with this application, but let’s just keep it simple. It doesn’t work. WYSIWYG isn’t. It’s very unlikely that what you see on your screen will be what I get when I print. In fact, it’s even unlikely that what you see on your screen will be what I see when I open it up on my screen.

So I’ll use Microsoft Publisher . . . it’s a page layout program

Right, providing you know what you are doing with it. Actually, Publisher has improved greatly since the first versions came out in the late 1990s. We will even recommend this program for folks that want to do simple layouts, like newsletters or “quick and dirty” publications.

Here’s another great computer acronym. GIGO — garbage in, garbage out. For instance, the internet graphic that you lifted from http://www.homephotos.com looks great on the screen. The resolution is sized for the Internet at 72 dots per inch (dpi). It’s just a little grainy when you stretch it out to 150%. And maybe that woman was supposed to be that fat. You just helped her out a little when you stretched the horizontal axis 200% and the vertical axis 120%.

Here’s the problem. We’re going to print that picture at 2400 dpi. The fat lady is going to look like she missed the decompression chamber after a deep sea dive. And you’re going to ask why. We’re going to smile and say (very nicely) that we pointed this out to you when we sent the proof. And you’re going to say that she looked so good on the screen. You’re going to be mad at us because the fat lady blew up and we knew that she should have fit into a size 9 to begin with.

Where did my fonts go?

You found this neat font on the Internet called Knebbish 3 italic. You searched for 14 hours and finally got it off of a server in Tehran or Ludowici or somewhere. You used it everywhere, along with 17 other really edgy fonts that you bought for $5 Canadian from twoguysinagarage.com font foundry. They were in the Word file on your computer, but none of them appeared in the proof of your publication. In fact the font that did show up looks like an old typewriter and the formatting’s all screwed up.

Guess what? Fonts don’t carry over (embed) in Word documents. Even in Publisher, they won’t embed unless you tell them to. There are exactly 27.5 quadrillion fonts floating around on the Internet and your printer doesn’t have them all. Even if we do have Knebbish 3 Italic, it might not be the same version that you got from Achmed or Bubba in Ludowici. So, you need to send the fonts with your file.

But Microsoft is all I’ve got. What do I do?

Your printer can help. First, give them a call before you begin your publication. They’ll give you some instructions to get you started correctly. If you take a little more time to prepare and create the layout to your printer’s specifications, it will save you both production time and the cost of “fixing” the file. Your printer should be happy to provide you with this information. It’ll save them headaches later. At Alphagraphics, we regularly schedule short training sessions for folks who are new to layout or who haven’t worked with a printer before. We’ll also help you package your finished files to provide us with everything we need to print (layout, fonts, and graphics).

Adobe to the rescue!

Probably the best fix for Microsoft products comes from one of their competitors, Adobe Systems. In the mid 1990s, Adobe introduced the portable document format (.pdf), a file format that essentially “freezes” your Microsoft document. While PDFs are not foolproof, they’re a much more stable and static format than anything Microsoft ever dreamed of.

At AlphaGraphics, we routinely convert all native files (Microsoft or otherwise) to .pdf for output. We can provide you with a free utility, called PDFExpress, to convert your Microsoft files to .pdf for printing. You can also save into .pdf format or write a .pdf using Acrobat Distiller, but you’ll need to use specific settings to create a file suitable for print. Again, ask your printer if you need help.

Back to Bill . . .

Every printshop can literally count thousands of dollars that have gone down the tubes because of Bill and his programs, so it’s natural that your printer is going to grimace or make some sort of disgruntled (or obscene) noise when you tell him that you’re bringing him Microsoft to print. Please excuse him. It’s not you he’s upset with. What he’s actually envisioning is Bill’s eyes bugging out behind those weird glasses as his hands tighten their grip around Bill’s geeky throat.

Wake him up from his daydream and he’ll be glad to help.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.