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.

What about the good customers?

September 27, 2006

One of my favorite customers strolled in this afternoon with her monthly project. As is usual, she was smiling, happy and just charming to talk with.

“I read your website . . . you know, the poorrichard thing.” she said. “It’s interesting . . .”

“Uh Oh, I’m in big trouble now,” I’m thinking.

“What do you think that customer is going to think . . . you know, the one who called so many times . . . what’s she going to think if she reads that website?”

“Um, maybe she won’t see it?” I replied lamely.

“Or maybe she won’t know it was about her,” suggested my nice customer. “It might actually help her out.”

“Or maybe she won’t see it?” I replied lamely (again).

It got me thinking. Perhaps I was too quick to write about the problem children when the vast majority of our customers are a real pleasure to deal with. We do lots of jobs on a regular basis that just run like clockwork. And there are some customers that are just plain fun.

The one I’m writing about tonight will definitely recognize herself. Her name begins with a B and she works with a distributor based in Macon. B was actually one of the first people I called on before the shop even opened. She was interested, said that her company did a good bit of printing (they do) and that she would give us a try (she did).

B is amazingly organized. She keeps samples of everything. When she reorders a product, she even knows the invoice number and date from the last run. She is meticulous, very clear in her communications, and (thankfully) very forgiving when we screw up. And she laughs. She has a giggle that is infectious and a sense of humor that makes working with her a great joy.

As I recall, we did a couple of small jobs and then there was a business card order. I don’t know what happened with the ink, but it didn’t dry correctly. With a little effort, B was able to smear it with her fingers. I halfheartedly tried a half a dozen excuses: the oil on her hands, she was rubbing them too hard, the relative humidity was high, just leave ’em a couple of days and they’ll dry.

Finally, I took Oscar, my pressman at the time, over to see about the cards. I introduced him as Herr Doktor Oskar von Heidelberg. B played along. Oscar took the cards, rubbed them between his fingers, and came up with Pantone 300 blue ink.

“So, ve’ll have to do zem again.” he said in a horrible South Georgia German accent. We stuck the old cards in a cabinet . . . the ink never did dry.

You don’t have to worry about where you stand with B. If it’s not right, she’ll tell you. A couple of years ago, our pressman was out with surgery and I was left with the presswork. I ran some letterhead for B late one evening and the press was not being cooperative. I thought that I had gone through the job and removed the sheets that were misprinted, but I forgot B’s eye for color. She can spot shade differences that most human beings never notice and has the best eye for layout and balance of any of my customers. In fact, she’s really better than most of the design folks I’ve met.

The next afternoon the phone rang.

“Richard, this letterhead looks like “*/$$%??!!,” said the voice on the other end. “Who printed it?”

I recognized the giggle. “Um, me I guess,” I replied. I’m sure that she could see my face turning red through the phone.

“Think you better try again,” was the response.

She’s never forgotten either. Last year, we were discussing the timetable for a project and I mentioned that Rickie, our lead pressman, was going to be off for a day or two. “You’re not going to try to run the press again.” was blunt statement.

I shook my head sheepishly. “Um, no.”

“Good,” she replied, “that wasn’t a good idea.”

I wish we could clone her. Hope she reads this so she know’s she’s appreciated. Thank you B and K and the rest of our great customers!

How to make sure there’s something wrong with your print job – Part 2

September 22, 2006

The voice on the other end of the phone had become so very familiar to all of us over the past few days.

“I’m just calling to check on you,” she said.

“No, you’re not.” I thought. “Well, I’m doing just fine.” I said. I was going to make her ask.

“How’s my job coming?” she asked.

Looking at my watch, I thought, “Not too much differently than two hours ago, the last time you called.”

“We still haven’t seen the proof we talked about this morning,” I said. “Have you made the final revisions?”

“No, I had to show it to my supervisor so he could go over it. He hasn’t gotten it back to you yet?”

Trouble, right here in River City. The project had actually started well. We had plenty of notice. In fact, we knew the event was coming over a month ahead of time. We had discussed timetables, options for preparing the materials, deadlines. The customer had listened and nodded her head. We thought she understood. In retrospect, I now think she was sleeping.

The first sign of trouble was a missed deadline. The event was Tuesday. We had asked for all of the program materials, bios, and photos one week ahead of the event. On Monday, she called.

“I don’t have everything ready,” she said breathlessly. “You just can’t believe how busy it’s been here. If I get it to you by Wednesday afternoon, can we still have everything on Tuesday morning?”

I expect this call. Unless the customer has proved that they can actually stick to a schedule, we assume that they can’t and add a day. This also allows for mechanical problems, computer glitches, and the host of unknown gremlins that can and do attack without any forewarning.

“Wednesday afternoon will be OK, but we really will have to have everything in,” my standard answer. “It needs to be ready to go and we’ll have to turn the proof around really quickly to get it all done.”

I’m talking reality here. The customer made an affirming noise on the phone. I could picture her nodding. I still didn’t realize that she was asleep.

When Wednesday afternoon was nearly over, I called. She arrived at 12:45 pm Thursday with a sack full of folders. I listened patiently as she explained what she had done, making a list of what would have to be straightened out. I really hadn’t wanted to work over the weekend, and was seeing my Saturday morning vanish into a pile of paper. We had been discussing the job and the schedule at our daily meetings, so everything went right into prepress with a bright red “HOT” sticker on it.

It took her 20 minutes to drive back to her office, 5 minutes to get settled at her desk, and 30 seconds to dial the number. “How’s my job coming? Is the proof ready yet?”

Poor Richard’s law says that the more you call, the longer it takes. The customer’s calls continued on an almost hourly basis for the next 2 days. Everybody talked to her. It was difficult to work on her job (or anyone else’s) for answering the phone to tell her the current status. The revision count mounted throughout the day on Friday. We thought we were finished at the end of the day on Friday, but then she left work early without returning the proof. Monday morning early we had a promise that there were “just a few more little changes.” Then a two hour lull in telephone activity was followed by her surprise that her supervisor hadn’t returned the proof yet.

“When you get the proof, how long will it take you to run it? Can you deliver it to me this afternoon still?”

I’m incredulous. The project will take 7 hours run time plus 3 hours in bindery to assemble. At least it will run digitally and there’s no worry about ink drying. I explain that there is no possible way that the materials will deliver today. If the proof isn’t returned quickly with a signature, the job won’t deliver at all. We’re going to be working late and we’ll deliver in the morning before the meeting begins.

If I could receive color over the fax machine, the proof would have been bleeding red. Apparently, the supervisor didn’t like the changes our customer had made to his writing. He reverted most of it back to the version we had originally received.

The job got done. My right hand man, Brian, stayed late. Joe came in early. I put together books. The materials were delivered before the meeting began. I hope it was all OK. I can’t say with certainty that it was.

The phone’s been less insistent since the job was delivered, but I’m waiting for a call. One of the changes in one of the revisions was missed; or it wasn’t changed back. Why were we charged so much for layout and proofs?

I’m also waiting for a check. Poor Richard’s law says the bigger the rush, the slower the payment.

Ain’t life grand?

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.

Don’t think she’s from around here . . .

September 17, 2006

Macon is a cultural town. It’s just a different kind of culture. Even with all of the oddball politics, occasional malaise, and general backwardness of a small city, the one claim Macon has always been able to make is a sincere devotion to the arts. Macon, GA supports the arts. We have two very active and vibrant theatre companies, a great choice of venues for shows, 6 Broadway touring companies at the Grand Opera House, the Concert Association, the Opera Guild, Mercer’s Townsend School of Music, Wesleyan College, and the Macon Symphony. It’s the Symphony that’s the subject of today’s post.

Macon supports the arts. We think it’s great! My wife’s birthday present this year was two season tickets to the Symphony. With five kids and two grandparents in the house, it’s tough to get a date. I thought that this was a great way to guarantee at least six nights out during the year. Last night was the first concert. So far, so good.

We arrived on time and after listening to a great jazz combo in front of the Grand Opera House for a couple of minutes, proceeded inside to get away from the gnats. (We’re having a wonderful gnat season in Middle Georgia, but that’s another story). We found our seats in the front row of the balcony. I knew that we had chosen good seats when the arts critic from the Macon Telegraph and his date sat beside us. We had a great view of the stage and of a tremendous Steinway grand piano.

We’ve been to occasional Macon Symphony performances over the years and our expectations were high. We weren’t disappointed. But the lady who sat behind us was.

It was kind of like a gnat. I don’t know if you’d call it a drone or a whine. It was loud enough to be irritating, but I was so wrapped up in the preparation for the performance that I didn’t really connect it with words. I think I just catalogued it as a foreign accent; not from the UK or Australia, but just not from around here.

I’m no classical highbrow, but from my Middle Georgia perspective, the performance was wonderful. Berlioz’ Hungarian March with lots of percussion, and a Russian pianist, Oleg Marshev, who gave a remarkable performance of a Shostakovich piano concerto. Marshev’s encore was a short piece that required four hands to play . . . and he did it all by himself.

At intermission, the whine behind me became louder. Indeed it became so audible that I was able to identify it clearly as words, emanating from a somewhat rotund woman who, also clearly, was not from around here. It had become a little stuffy in the balcony and she was uncomfortable. The rows were too close together for her liking. “I’m sure,” she stated, “that the rows down there (below us in the Orchestra level) are at least a centimeter further apart.” I contemplated this and accepted it, supposing that (like the Princess and the pea) a centimeter more of legroom could really make a difference to a person of refined taste.

“When I was last in London,” she continued, ” we went to this theatre that had to have been over 400 years old. We ended up in the fourth balcony or somewhere, way up above the stage.” I’m picturing the Globe Theatre.

“It was built before people grew much,” she continued. “You know, no one was ever over even five feet then. So we all sat with our legs over the seats in front of us.” By this time, I’d turned around to steal a glance at her, so now I’m picturing rows of slightly rotund women with dyed red hair and their legs and heels over the seats in front of them.

“And it was so dusty up there that my nose started running. I know I was disturbing the people around me, but I couldn’t help it.” My wife later observed that had she sneezed, she might have produced a historical artifact from Shakespearean times.

Her problems with playhouses didn’t stop there. When she went on to recount (in great detail) the plot of a foreign film that she had seen the previous week, I thought the topic had changed. The film had been about three travelers in Patagonia, all headed on a bus to the same town. But I digress. And so had our whiner, because the subject of her discourse was really the seats at the Douglass Theatre.

The Douglass is another historic Macon theatre. During the days of segregation, the Douglass was the venue for many famous black artists. From vaudeville acts to Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and later Little Richard and Otis Redding; the Douglass was the host to some real Macon history. It’s been completely restored and is now used for special showings of movies, conferences, and smaller acts that come through town.

“You know the Douglass theatre,” our whiner continued with a conspiratorial tone to her companion. “You know the seats there. Well, after that movie, my daughter Sarah came down with the strangest rash on the backs of her legs. She was wearing shorts and contracted ‘contact dermatitis.'” She actually said “contact dermatitis.” I had to wonder what kind of strange prejudice could link “contact dermatitis” to viewing a movie at a historical African American theatre.

I was on the verge of losing it completely and the newspaper critic’s date was smiling in nervous embarassment for the woman when the second half of the concert (mercifully) began. The symphony began with a Weber overture I had never heard of followed by Schubert’s Symphony #8, the “Unfinished” Symphony.

Adrian Gnam is the MSO conductor. His name is spelled similarly to the word “gnat,” but to my knowledge he has no connection or causal relationship with this year’s productive insect season. Before beginning the Schubert piece, Gnam had explained that it was indeed unfinished, consisting of only two movements. The symphony would play them both.

The performance was (again) wonderful. So wonderful, in fact, that the audience applauded after the first movement. Turning with a smile and natural charm, Gnam quipped, “It’s not that unfinished.” Everyone laughed, including the orchestra, and Gnam proceeded to conduct the second movement.

The concert ended. As we stood to leave, most of the audience around us was smiling in reflection of the enjoyable experience we’d all had. She really didn’t spoil it, and I just had to laugh when the annoying voice commented, “you know he’s really not much of a conductor. He didn’t move around too much. I just don’t think he’s very dynamic.”

I was glad that she wasn’t from “around here” and I was. We left, hoping that our musical tastes never become that refined and wondering if the slightly rotund woman had season tickets.


September 14, 2006

I’ve tried and tried and tried.  One of my customers is describing something they are seeing on their computer or on a sheet of paper or in their mind.  I’m on the other end of the phone.  I look hard into those little holes in the voice side of the handset and I just can’t see it.

I’ve tried for years to hire a graphic designer who could read minds.  Our current design guy, Chris, has a wonderful eye for layout and design, but he can’t read minds worth a flip!  It’s really exasperating!

We really want to keep our customers happy.  When they tell us that they need the job completed in 2 days, we take them at face value and whenever possible try to map out a course of action that will meet the deadline.  It’s the deadlines that precede the arrival of the job that are the tough ones to meet.  We have to tailor the customer’s expectations just a little when the job arrives on our doorstep two days after the due date for completion.

We listen to what they tell us.  Usually, it sounds like English.  Sometimes, it’s just the words that are  English.  The meaning is in some other language all together. We have been working for 3 days on an invitation.  When it started out, it was a simple folding card printed in one color, with a matching envelope.  Yesterday, it turned into a ticket.  Today, it’s a panel card.  And our customer is getting upset because her original deadline was today.

I pray continually for patience . . . and God responds by teaching it to me!  I want to just have it, not learn it.  Sometimes, I get so tired of learning patience that all of a sudden I unlearn all of the patience I’d learned before.

Maybe if we all learned Esperanto?

My College Intern

September 13, 2006

Joe is our well-loved bindery guy. He actually came to me as a college kid. Not your ordinary college kid was Joe, though. About 7 years ago, a good natured, nice looking fellow in his late 50s wandered in and told our front counter person that he was looking for an internship. She was curious enough to call me to the front and I was curious enough to ask Joe for his story. He told me the first of many tales that I was to hear.

Joe spent most of his career with a large textile operation that was based out of Macon. With the incursion of low cost Asian imports in the 1990s, Joe’s company went belly up. Joe had graduated from Bulldog University in Athens in the early 60s and decided it was time to go back to school for “re-edumacation.” He enlisted in the Information Technology program at Macon State College. Y2K was coming and businesses were recruiting armies for protection against the dreaded “millenium bug.”

Joe needed an internship with one of those companies to complete the requirements for his second degree. He wasn’t struggling; he had a 4.0 average, as I recall. I’ve never quite figured out how he stumbled on to AlphaGraphics, or exactly why I went along with the whole internship idea. I remember explaining to Joe that he could develop a website or something, but what I really needed was “help!.” We were struggling to break even and I was covering way too many bases. Joe was a Godsend.

He worked several hours a week for the three months of his internship and learned a little bit of everything. When the semester was over, I really expected him to move on. He had one more semester of school and it was time to start looking for a real job.

Joe stayed. He asked if he could continue working part-time until he finished the program at Macon State. When he graduated, I expected him to go to work with one of the larger companies based in Macon. In those days, we even had a computer software business here. Joe may have had some interviews, but I never knew about them. He continued working at the printshop, doing a little customer service work, answering the phone, folding brochures, and putting books together.

I think that we had a “sit-down meeting” along there somewhere. My recollection is that I asked Joe what he was going to do and he responded that he thought he’d really just like to stay. I guess it was more fun to collate books than to chase down millenium bugs. He’s handled most of the bindery work at the shop ever since.

Joe has an uncanny ability to get enormous amounts of work accomplished without appearing to do anything. He takes a morning and an afternoon break and always has time to tell a story to anyone who will listen. Republican radio is his constant companion. He operates machines, but has no affinity for them whatsoever. If Joe can’t break it , it can’t be broken. I sometimes think that he could break a lever and fulcrum.

Joe says he’s going to retire next year . . . he’ll be sixty-five. I’m dreading it. His wife, Becky, has told him that if he’ll keep working, he can use the money he earns to travel. That means we’ll at least get to keep him part time. In preparation, I’ve been looking for another intern like Joe. I don’t think I’ll find one. I think they threw away the mold.