Graphic Designer or Graphic Disaster

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.


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