Diagnosis Charges

March 9, 2008

Doctor with Clipboard“He wants to speak to the manager,” were the words I heard. I looked through the glass into Brian’s office. His eyes were rolling just slightly and he had that sardonic half smile that he wears when one of those, “you’re the owner, you have to deal with this” events happens. I almost think he enjoys it.

“This is Richard, may I help you?” I said to the as yet unidentified voice on the phone. The voice introduced himself as the new general manager of an organization we’ve done occasional business with over the years.

“You’re doing some business cards for us,” he stated, “and I need to talk to you about these charges.”

I was familiar with the job and the company. Sharon, our salesperson, and I had visited our contact at the company weeks before. The company has gone through a lot of changes in recent years. We printed a newsletter for them at one time; letterhead, envelopes and other “stuff” that organizations use. Our contact has always been friendly, but the attitude of the company had changed. Most of the print had been eliminated to cut costs. They had reverted to “do it yourself” with the newsletter. What little was left was handled from a corporate office in Atlanta. All that was left for local production was the business cards. Disappointing, but easy enough; at least, that’s what we thought at the time.

It took a while for the order to come in. Sharon had to answer lots of questions. Estimates were prepared and presented. You will note the word “estimates.” That’s what printshops should provide, not quotations. It is only possible to provide a hard quotation for a static set of specifications. When the specifications change, so do the costs and so should the price.

On AlphaGraphics estimates we always include a special caveat. The language goes like this:

“Prices are for production only. Additional charges will apply for layout, design, or file modifications required before printing.”

We do not estimate design or layout charges because it is absolutely impossible to predict the amount of time a customer may require from us to achieve the finished layout that they desire. We simply keep a log of the time required for the job and charge accordingly. We regularly explain the caveat and offer our advice to keep layout and design charges at a minimum. Our advice is frequently ignored.

For instance, we may suggest that a customer provide us with a digital logo and a rough sketch of a business card design rather than try to prepare it themselves. Often, more time is required to unscramble a file from an inexperienced designer than to put it together from scratch. Or we might suggest that it’s best not to proof by committee. Everyone involved will feel compelled to make changes, increasing the confusion, and requiring more time for changes and proofs before the job is ready to print.

Time is the valuable commodity in a printshop design or prepress office. Prepress is the inevitable bottleneck in any production shop. I’ve written before about the challenges of printshop design (see The Trouble with Printshop Design ). It’s not that the equipment or the employees in the design office are so all-fired expensive, but that the opportunity cost of tying up the workflow can be tremendous. An inexperienced or inefficient designer can hold up a $3500 brochure run and 2 or 3 employees while they are engrossed in the layout of a $50 business card. Prepress time is valuable simply because it’s what keeps the rest of the people and equipment productive.

The time has a measurable value and we charge for it. It’s like going to the doctor. If you go in with a complaint, see the good doctor, and are told that you are perfectly healthy; you still pay the doctor for his diagnosis. You pay him because his time is valuable. If you fail to listen to your doctor, you can run into real trouble. If you fail to listen to your printer, the result can be the same.

We had provided a production estimate with our usual caveat to the customer mentioned above. What started out as an order for 4 sets of business cards had turned into 6 sets. We were told that they would send the art for the card. We received a low resolution logo and a basic layout pasted onto an 8.5 x 11 page of a Microsoft Word file. We received the names to typeset and were later told that two of the cards had a reverse side. Proofs were required . . . 4 of them to be exact. Because the changes had become excessive, Brian sent a revised estimate to the customer showing additional layout charges of $60. The phone call ensued, providing Brian with an opportunity for entertainment at my expense.

There’s no real need to go into the detail of the conversation with the new manager. Suffice it to say that our proviso regarding additional costs was of as little importance to him as the three weeks of indecision which had delayed the production of his cards or the multiple proofs. It was his responsibility to “watch every penny,” and he simply did not understand why there had been a delay or how the cost could change from his original estimate.

“I’ll have to let you know if we’re going ahead with this,” was his concluding statement.

I haven’t scratched the job from the production list yet, but I really don’t expect to hear back from him. I’m not so naive to think that he won’t get his cards somewhere. He’ll probably send the inadequate art off to one of the internet bandits and be satisfied with what he receives because he saved so much money. Or maybe he’ll find another printer who thinks that there’s lots more business to come and will put up with his indecision.

I’m sure that my expression betrayed my thoughts as I hung up the receiver and glanced back through the glass into Brian’s office. I’m always disappointed when a customer is upset. It’s just one of those things that happens occasionally in our business, and it’s never pleasant. Good customers are hard to come by and good reputations are easier to destroy than to earn. We try very hard to do each project well and really do go a long way to diagnose and accomodate the needs of each customer. Like the doctor, though, we have to cover the cost of the diagnosis and of special treatment provided. We have to keep the office running in order to help the next patient.


Digitally Pressed

November 29, 2007

So what exactly is a Digital Press anyway?

Xerox 6060

The word “digital” has been bandied about to such an extent in the printing industry, that I’m not sure it has any meaning whatsoever anymore. In the broadest sense, digital printing could be described as any print process that begins with a computer file and ends up on some sort of imaged substrate. This runs the gamut from the $80 Canon inkjet on your desktop (that rapidly consumes ink cartridges worth their weight in gold) to the most sophisticated devices made by Xerox, HP/Indigo or a host of others.

The phrase “digital press” is definitely in. Many of the manufacturers dub their higher end production machines with this moniker. Easily 95% of the digital presses in the marketplace today simply aren’t. Let me explain that . . . they are digital, they aren’t presses. The “press” part of the nomenclature comes from the root word “pressure.” In the case of an offset press, there is actually pressure between the blanket cylinder and the impression cylinder that causes ink to set off (ergo “offset”) onto the paper. Not so with the digital press. For the most part, digital presses are toner devices. Mechanically, they are more akin to a copy machine than a press.

Poor Richard is, admittedly, a reformed offset press snob. For a long while, I referred to our color machines as “color copiers on steroids.” We started with a beast from Canon. It was digital in the sense that you could send a file to it. It worked on the principal of a rotating drum. Each sheet of paper went around the drum 4 times with a different color toner applied each revolution. The result was usually fairly consistently horrendous from one sheet to the next and absolutely unpredictable on consecutive days or if the weather changed. It would run 24# bond at the astounding rate of 6 sheets/minute.

But times have changed. The Xerox monster we have today runs almost any smooth stock at 10 times the rated speed of the Canon beast. Unlike it’s predecessors, it is very receptive to all kinds of files and color modes (RGB, CMYK, Spot). Ever so grudgingly, I even have to admit that the quality is every bit as good as offset. Maybe it’s even a little bit better.

Today I spent a half hour scoring and folding one of the prettiest digital press pieces we have ever produced. A trifold on 100# text with heavy ink coverage, it was designed by one of our university customers. The design was beautiful, but it would have been a bear to print on a press. The front featured a heavy orange solid that had to match up to the reverse. This is the kind of stuff that causes pressmen to go cross-eyed bonkers. We would have wasted 1000 sheets of paper to produce the 1000 brochures that were ordered. As it was, we ran 40 extras digitally for binding waste. The results were spectacular.

With all that said, there are still a few elements that need to be taken into consideration when designing for digital printing. Here are Poor Richard’s tips:

  1. Watch the solids. Big solids that can be a problem on press can also be a problem when they are printed digitally. Depending on the device, solids can fade, stripe, or ghost. The Xerox monster we’re running now really does a wonderful job on solids and is operator-friendly enough so that we can change a belt or drum when a problem occurs. This isn’t the case with all of the digital presses on the market or with all of the human beings that operate them.
  2. Watch the gradients. This problem is sporadic, but there is a more pronounced tendency for gradients to show banding when they are printed digitally. Light screens may also occasionally print unpredictably.
  3. Use a consistent color model. I really like the color gamut that our monster produces from RGB files. It is bright and the color pops. It isn’t color accurate, though. Most of the toner devices are CMYK and (if calibrated properly) will emulate a spot color as closely as process color on a press. Beware:  combinations of CMYK and RGB may yield some very surprising results. And WYSIWYG still isn’t . . . I’m sure that the photograph of the local news team that was sent to us for their Christmas Card looked wonderful on the monitor at the station, but they were all mellow yellow when they printed on our digital press. Be conscious of this and correct color just like you would for offset.
  4. About Color. Color accuracy on digital devices is still a little hit and miss and calibration is as much art as science. One disadvantage to digital presses is the “tweaking” of color. Unlike offset, there are no ink keys that can be used to dial in by eye. That said, if your printer manages and monitors color on their digital machines, colors should be pretty consistent (but not exact) from one project to the next.
    Remember that calibrations and color profiles for digital presses are specific to both device and paper substrate and it is totally impractical for a printer to calibrate to every paper in existence. This means that color will shift slightly between paper stocks. Color may also shift slightly from day to day due to the peculiarities of the machine, even if it is calibrated regularly.
  5. Ask for a hard copy proof. One of the wonderful aspects of digital printing is that you can produce just one copy to look at. It’s not instantaneous, but it is possible. If your project is color sensitive, ask for a hard copy proof on the paper specified for the job.Don’t expect your printer to produce this for free, though. There is time and overhead involved every time a file is opened or transmitted to a device. Printers should and do charge for this.
  6. Think Downstream. If you’re printing a flat sheet, you’re safe. But if the printed piece you design will be folded, this might be a problem. As stated above, most digital presses are toner-based devices. The toner adheres to the paper, but “piles up” on the surface to a much greater extent than does offset ink. When folded, the toner tends to crack, producing a ragged edge at the fold. Ask your printer about this before you design. If they don’t have scoring equipment that is designed for digital printing, you probably need to adapt your design so that no solids will cross a fold line.

What’s Coming:

Rickie, our pressman, who’s had nearly 30 years running offset presses of some sort will occasionally pick up an aberration produced by our Xerox monster, wave it in the air, and yell for all the world to hear, “Job Security!” He then heads off to his press and wastes 300 sheets to dial in color for the next run. He has job security, but only because he’s cross-trained.

There will be a place for offset for the forseeable future. My generation likes to read stuff on paper and we’re not dead yet. Offset is extremely cost-effective for medium and long runs of a static product. There is no replacement for offset on the horizon when it comes to producing magazines, programs, books, etc.

But offset will never be able to produce variable data or images (the subject of a future post) or meet the economies of scale needed for the short and quick color runs that are required in today’s business environment. Digital quality continues to improve. The next digital press we buy will probably use a liquid toner and be able to print on textured substrates . . . the technology to do this is already available.

I love my offset presses, but to quote scripture, “Mene, Mene, tekel, parsin.” (Daniel 5:25) The writing is on the wall.

Ganz schoen wutend (missing umlauts)

November 1, 2007

I’ve really been trying terribly hard to avoid this rant that has just been coming on for a few weeks now. And it’s still possible that it might be partially deflected through the use of humor or sarcasm, but hopefully not too much cynicism. It all started with the ad I ran for a graphics person. I wrote my standard advertisement, describing the job, stating the qualifications, the work environment and inviting qualified candidates to apply. I used a local job board that has worked pretty well in the past.

This time it didn’t. The first resumes that came in were from carpenters and sheet metal fabricators. Here’s a sample from the responses I received (verbatim):

General Laborer Mainly Construction Carpentry ,Concrete ,Metal ,Roofing & Highway Construction As well as Residential work well enough to be a Choosen Laborer Which Means if the company wanted to send some to win a contract that was I.Which earned me Advanced Wages ,Pay for Mileage & transport and also Lead.

One should never accept pay in lead. It causes brain damage.

Qualified responses like this were accompanied by resumes from airframe mechanics and a couple of welders. I briefly considered using the same job board to advertise for a sheet metal fabricator, working on the theory that if the ad for a graphic designer produced sheet metal resumes; well, you get the drift.

So, I advertised on CareerBuilder. I wrote a clever, upbeat advertisement this time. Here’s how the ad went (verbatim again):

We need:

  • 1/3 Artist
  • 1/3 Computer Geek
  • 1/3 Generally Nice person

Actually, we’d prefer it if you’re 100% generally nice. As a graphic design/prepress specialist at Alphagraphics, you are allowed to:

  • Play with computers
  • Create layouts for brochures, business printing, and occasionally very strange projects
  • Interact with our customers
  • Manage the workflow of files to all of the printing devices in our business

It’s a pretty neat job, especially if you’re interested in learning the technical aspects of graphic design and printing. The working environment at AlphaGraphics is enjoyable, but fast-paced. If you’re ruthlessly efficient and can laugh while you work, please apply.

If you need a serene, quiet workplace where you can work in isolation with Mozart playing softly in the background, please talk with our competition.

Compensation for this position will start between $9 and $13/hour, depending upon your level of experience. Benefits including health insurance and retirement are available after a preliminary training period.

Here’s the serious part:

We’re looking for a career-oriented individual. That means that we want you to be serious about what you’re doing and we’d like you to plan to stay for a while.

You should have a working knowledge of the Adobe CS Suite (InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, Acrobat) and be comfortable working with both Mac OS and Windows operating environments. This is a good position for a talented designer who is starting out, but you need to know the software. Additional knowledge of Quark Express, and the Microsoft stuff is also helpful.

A college degree is not absolutely required, but some college or very related work experience is very strongly recommended if you apply for this job.

You will be expected to communicate calmly with customers and your co-workers, occasionally in the midst of mayhem. If you can juggle and chew gum while on roller skates, we’d like to talk with you.

We do require references from your previous employers. We’re looking for an individual with some solid work experience under their belt. If you’ve changed jobs every six months, don’t apply.

In my naivete, I thought that this was a pretty clear description of the position and of the type person that we wanted to hire. And in fact, the resumes did seem, at first, to better fit the job description than did the respondents from my first effort. There were not sheet metal fabricators or airframe technicians and many of the resumes claimed to represent individuals that had actually seen and operated a computer. My initial enthusiasm quickly waned as I began sifting through the resumes, scheduling interviews and actually talking with those who had applied for the position.

After 1 1/2 weeks of interviews, I now have a better appreciation of exactly what it takes to find a job in the 21st century. Here are Poor Richard’s conclusions:

  1. It is not necessary to read the job description in the advertisement. In fact, it might not be necessary to read the advertisement at all. This would explain why sheet metal fabricators and convenience store personnel are perfectly comfortable sending an application for a job for which they are totally unqualified.
  2. It is not necessary to know or keep a record of the jobs for which one applies. This explains the vague response, “Who?” when the applicant receives a call from the prospective employer. It is also perfectly acceptable to have a profane or rude voice mail message resident on one’s phone, prepared just in case a prospective employer calls. “Leave a message and I might call you back,” is not the attitude that I value in someone who might potentially talk with one of my customers.
  3. It is not necessary to return a voicemail from a prospective employer who calls not once, but twice.
  4. It is not necessary to actually show up for an interview that has been scheduled.
  5. It is completely unnecessary to be able to actually use the prerequisite software to qualify for the job. One must only assert that, “it is not a problem for me.” This explains the candidate who lists graphic arts or design as an area of educational concentration, but cannot figure out how to open Adobe Illustrator on a Mac.
  6. It is not necessary to have references from previous employers, even when the prospective employer explains that this is a prerequisite. It is also not necessary that the previous employer actually remember who you are. (Seriously . . . one seemingly promising candidate provided a reference and name of a supervisor who vehemently denied ever meeting him. I considered this to be problematic).
  7. Compensation parameters listed in the job description are to be totally ignored, as is any requirement for a stable work history. This explains why mid-level managers earning $55000 a year would apply for a job that pays an hourly wage of between $9 and $13/hour and why lots of young people who have experienced 6 or 8 jobs since graduating from college in 2005, now want to experience the position we are advertising.

It is perfectly acceptable to think that the job sounds kind of fun and expect the prospective employer to hire you and actually pay you while you “try it out,” notwithstanding that his investment in time, payroll and training all goes out the window when the “next best thing” comes along.

I studied for a bit in Germany in my college years. There is a great German phrase that describes someone who has reached and fallen over the precipice of frustration. That individual is said to be “ganz schoen wutend,” missing the umlaut over the u if I recall correctly. It is one of those phrases that really cannot be adequately translated into English. It means something like “entirely and exceptionally furious.” It is descriptive of the degree of frustration I have experienced recently.

After exactly 5 weeks of searching, I finally have two viable candidates for the design position. Perhaps I can hire one of them . . . if they show up for the final interview.

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.