QR . . . U Ready?

December 16, 2009

QR CodeDespite pronounced Luddite tendencies, Poor Richard is intrigued with this bit of innovation. The bit of abstract squiqqle at the left is a QR Code.  QR stands for Quick Response.  Originally used in Japan for parts tracking in automotive manufacturing, the QR code has gone viral there and may be the next “killer app” for your iPhone or Blackberry.

Poor Richard’s Luddite alter-ego questions of what possible use could this oogly scrambled mess be.  Like the British handloom operators of the early 1800s, my first tendency is to trash any new technology that potentially threatens my established and well-ordered universe.  On second thought, though, trashing the power looms in Great Britain earned many of the Luddites  new careers as shepherds down under in Australia, and Poor Richard is not fond of sheep.

The long answer to the question is that the QR can contain text (lots of it) and URLs, which is pretty cool.  Even cooler, the telephonic gadget you carry in your pocket can read the QR code and (if you’re wirelessly attached to the internet) it can connect you directly with the website referenced in the code. It can also be used send SMS messages, geographic locations, and transfer contact info into a database.  All that from a box that looks like a Photoshop aberration . . .

Best yet, this innovation has the potential to actually enhance the value of print (as opposed to replacing it). Think about it . . . how about a poster that automatically directs the reader to the ticket office through their cell phone?  Coupons could carry QR codes to be read at the retail counter for special incentives or a chance to win 10 bazillion dollars.  Personalized URLs could be transformed into personalized QRs, directing a customer to a website with specific information tailored to meet their interests. There are some real possibilities here . . .

You can have fun playing with this one. Poor Richard has found a free app called Quickmark that reads QR codes on the iPhone and will actually let you create codes on the fly to transfer data. There are several websites that will let you create codes one at a time (try the Xzing Project QR Generator).  I’ve also found some software that will allow QR codes to be merged with a database. You can even order a t-shirt with your own personalized QR code message printed on the front.  Poor Richard didn’t spring for one; but if he had, here’s what his t-shirt would have looked like:

Luddite QR Code

Luddites of the world, unite!

Thanks to Andy Selcho of Salt Lake City, UT Gralpharaphics (name altered to protect the delicate sensitivity of the franchise), who introduced Poor Richard and bunch of other folks to QR codes.  Andy has put together a good YouTube video about QR codes . . . Here ’tis:



February 15, 2009

Never Mind the Bollocks - Warhol Style

When the customer pointed at the dark green background in the cover art and asked, “That’s blue, isn’t it?” I knew I was in trouble.

The stated problem was very familiar. The colors on the printed page didn’t match the colors on the customer’s computer screen. But this was a new twist. Not only was the customer unhappy with the color, but we lacked a common frame of reference to even discuss what the color should be.

According to the Wikipedia article about color blindness, 8% of Caucasian men are red-green color blind. There’s another form of color blindness, called tritanopia, that affects both men and women, but only in a small percentage of the population.  There is another phenomena, that affects lots of men my age, who become unable to distinguish between dark blues and blacks.  I think my customer had all of this, plus a defective monitor on his computer and a faulty pair of 3D sunglasses.

Color blindness notwithstanding, reaching the color expectations of customers can sometimes be like trying to find an answer to the existential question.  If I define the color of the sofa pillow as red and you define the color of the sofa pillow as red, but we’re not seeing the same thing, then is the sofa pillow really red? Does the word “red” really have any objective meaning?

We opened his booklet on one of our machines.  As we scrolled through the pages, he described the vivid colors he was seeing.  I was missing it. What I was seeing had all of the brilliance of the vintage pink Sex Pistols album. The photos were over corrected to magenta.  Blues were purple. Faces were red. What a mess!

Even with all of the whiz-bang color management tools on the market today (and without a color blind customer), trying to achieve consistent color is tough. Worse yet, the problems seem to change with every workflow within a printshop. Press color actually seems a little easier to manage. At AlphaGraphics, we use an Epson proofer with a color profile that fairly accurately represents the color gamut (printerese for spectrum) of our press on the paper we use for proofing. If the paper we actually print is similar to the proofing paper, the proof and press print match fairly well. If the paper is substantially different, that can be another story.

In an ideal world, we would actually profile the press to each different paper stock we use. The difficulty here is that it is prohibitively expensive and assumes that printing conditions never change. Bad assumption – the output of a printing press can change with temperature, relative humidity, chemistry of the solutions used in the press, ink chemistry, mechanical adjustment, press operator ailments and potentially even the political climate (I once had a pressman blow a job while listening to Rush Limbaugh).

You might think that digital printing would be easier, but it’s not. On the positive side, it is possible to print a single copy to check. This is economical, practical and reliable means of proofing digital printing.  Machine settings can change, but with good file preparation and periodic calibration, the color should remain relatively (not exactly) consistent from one day to the next and even from one print run to the next. You will note that the word “economical” was used, not the word “free.” There is a definite cost involved in the time to  produce a a digital proof, even if the materials and labor are less expensive than cranking up a printing press. I short, you should expect to pay for digital proofing.

The negative side of  digital printing is that there are so many output possibilities. Let’s assume that a customer presents a Microsoft Publisher file that he would like to have digitally printed. Photos are embedded in the file and are both RGB and CMYK. Most digital color machines actually print in CMYK mode, so ultimately the output will have to be converted somewhere. This is tantamount to Russian Roulette for printers.  Here are the options:

  1. We can convert the file to a .pdf using Publisher’s color management features . . . very dangerous!
  2. We can output the file directly from Publisher to the digital color press . . . almost certain disaster!
  3. We can output the file to a postscript or .pdf and use a utility to convert from RGB to CMYK . . . iffy.
  4. We can output the file to a .pdf with out conversion and let the RIP (raster image processor) on the color machine have a fling at color conversion. This sometimes works.
  5. We can ask the customer to send us the photography as separate files, color correct the files and then plug them back in to the Publisher document; replacing the mishmash that was originally sent. This works, but is time consuming and expensive. And many times the customer doesn’t understand the expense, because they had already placed the photos just where they were supposed to be.
  6. We can tell the customer that the resulting print is “supposed to look like that.” Only works if the customer is both colorblind and naive. We don’t try this one.

The unfortunate truth is that this is typical of more and more of the files that companies like AlphaGraphics have to deal with on a daily basis and there is no silver bullet. Lot’s of time we have to experiment to get the color right. Guess what? We have to charge for that, too.

Where is all this heading?

Poor Richard’s Tips for Photography:

  1. 300 dpi (dots per inch) resolution at finished size. Always. This means big files, not the stuff you pull off the internet.
  2. CMYK color mode, not RGB. RGB is for your computer screen. CMYK is for the printing press . . . even digital ones.
  3. If you do not understand numbers one and two, call your printer. Or spend a little more money and send them your photo files separately. They’ll color correct and place them into your document the best way for printing.

Finally, if you’re colorblind, don’t trust your own judgment and never try to adjust the color on your photos. Ask someone else to work with your printer and to approve the proof. Preferably someone who can make a distinction between green and blue.


December 15, 2008

My printshop is possessed by demons and I’ve been given the job from Hell.

Aside from that, things are going astoundingly well.

devilLet me preface this post with a simple statement of faith. I know that God is still in control and I am firmly convinced that he has a sense of humor. I will not sit in the ashheap in sackcloth and bemoan the situation, because it really is too ridiculous to be serious.

I’ll try to chart the sequence of events.  I think it began when Debra, the service tech who works on our nearly palindromatic digital color machine (begins and ends with an X) was given a week’s vacation by her nearly palindromatic company.  Good for Debra, bad for AlphaGraphics. The nearly palindromatic machine kicked out and backup was sent in.  At 10 am on day one, he had been trained to repair the machine and was fully confident. At 7 pm on day one, he was missing parts and had patched the machine well enough for us to run some critical jobs. At 9:30 am on day two, we had run one critical job and the X___X digital color machine had melted down. Backup showed again on day 3, this time with tenacity, a cell phone, and a full day’s supply of cigarettes. Day 3 and Day 4 went by and backup gave up completely.  Poor Richard calls for reinforcements from the big city.  They show up on Day 5 and we’re up and running . . .

BUT: We’re printing in bright reds and bright blues.

Upstairs . . . the fans won’t go off on the machine that is manufactured by the company whose initials begin with the eighth and sixteenth letters of the alphabet.  The fans are a good thing . . . they cool down the ultraviolent lamps that make the ink stick to whatever it is that you’re running through the machine. It doesn’t take 2 hours for the lamps to cool. Mike, who runs the machine upstairs, decides that two hours is indeed excessive and perhaps he should turn the machine off and on to see if it will reset. He is successful at turning the machine off.

We have a good customer, who, like all of the rest of our good customers, is trying to squeeze blood from turnips. We’ve missed a couple of jobs, but she’s sent us this one. It’s a booklet . . . all ready in Microsoft Publisher. She needs 75 of them. All of the photos and none of the fonts are embedded in the file.  It’s ginormous . . . we could actually see the lump coming over the phone lines as we downloaded it. It has 6,374 photos compressed into 24 pages.  All were taken with the camera in my cell phone and they’re all in RGB mode. She needs 75 books in color and she won’t understand it if we charge her to fix the file. Nor is she particularly excited about fixing the file herself.

Fast forward from last week to today . . . Jamaal, my remaining pressman, is totally unflappable.  What that means is that he can’t be flapped. I am convinced that he could smile through the devastation of a hurricane or the horrors of nuclear war. At 1 PM he prepares our envelope press for a short run of remittance envelopes. Printing these envelopes requires a special feeder. It is a fairly cantankerous beast on a good day. Today, the envelope press will not run . . . it is putting ink where paper should go and paper where ink should go.  Jamaal switches the envelope feeder to another press. It will not feed.  Poor Richard tries to help and makes matters worse . . . much worse. By 4:30, Jamaal is flapped . . . he has managed to accomplish 45 minutes of work in 3.5 hours.

Upstairs, a technician has arrived to fix the machine manufactured by the company whose initials begin with the 8th and 16th letters of the alphabet.  He is fortified with 3 large boxes of parts sent by that company . . . all of the circuitboards needed to fix a wide format printer or put a man on the moon. None of them are working.  Poor Richard is praying that his customers will be patient. Didn’t it take about 10 years after Kennedy’s speech before Neal Armstrong actually played golf on the moon?

Debra has returned from vacation! Hallelujah!  The booklet from hell is still printing in bright reds and blues! Not Hallelujah!

If there is one thing that I have learned after 10 years in this business, it’s that sometimes the best solution is just to go home. The kids have band concerts tonight. What could be better than that?

God is good. Isn’t life grand?

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.