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Always Have a Back-Up Printer in Mind

I had an unfortunate experience with a printer this week. I had been riding herd on a job for over a year. I have written about it in the blog: a series of 22 small color books, not unlike PMS swatch books, although these are for a “fashionista” in the Midwest. Her clients will pick colors for clothing based on the swatches in these books.

When asked to submit a revised price with further job information I had provided, the printer in question said the job had been misquoted the prior year, and the estimator was no longer with the company. He had been fired. Moreover, the estimating job for the color book had been so botched that the revised estimate might be three times the initial amount.

Normally, I would have been distressed, particularly since I had spent untold hours helping the fashionista choose paper, job formats, and bindings, and even setting up an InDesign template to make her creation of the 22 color books easier. However, in this case I was nonplussed since I had a back up plan.

One of the printers that had been calling on me in the prior year had just bought an HP Indigo 10000, which would be perfect for my client's color swatch books. Granted, it was different from the Kodak NexPress, on which I had initially depended for the job through the first vendor. But the Indigo would produce an equally faithful rendition of my client's color swatches.

(Keep in mind that I have a personal preference for the HP Indigo. However, after seeing samples from the Kodak NexPress, I am developing an equal admiration for its quality of work.)

That said, in your own design and print buying work, I would encourage you to ask for printed samples when you're considering a digital print job. I have been pleasantly surprised by the output from a number of the newer digital machines. In past years I only liked the Indigo for color critical work. Now I can safely say that there are an increasing number of options.

You can learn from my experience with these two printers. If I had just committed to the first based on the quality of his samples, our long working history, and the particular digital equipment he had, I'd be out of luck, given a second estimate three times as high as the first. So I would encourage you to choose equipment you like and then find a handful of vendors that provide this equipment. It's no longer new, and it's no longer rare. The technology is accessible, and it's improving.

Preparing Color Files for Digital Printing

So, my client's color book will probably have a new home. However, the technology for ensuring color fidelity will differ between the first and second printer's digital presses.

What this means is that, since the job was to be a process color print run (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black toner on paper), I had been advised to have my client set up files in the CMYK color space, even though she had initially picked PMS colors. In fact, while she and I were on the phone discussing the job, she was using a Pantone Color Bridge to choose process color builds that were the nearest match to her chosen PMS colors.

(As an aside, PMS colors are mixed to create a certain hue, while process color builds comprise four separate toners, or offset printing plates—cyan, magenta, yellow, and black-- overlaid to create the color. PMS colors can be matched in many cases by process color builds, but not in all cases.)

The VP of Operations at the new printer called me to discuss color. I told him I had been advised to have the job set up with percentages of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (for the color swatches) for the other printer based on his particular digital printing equipment.

The VP of Operations, who has been fluent in prepress matters as long as I've known him (17 years) said it would be better to build the color swatches as PMS colors within the InDesign file. Apparently, the HP Indigo can use its own color look-up tables to convert PMS colors to their nearest process color equivalents. Ostensibly this would be more accurate than submitting my client's files as is, with PMS colors specified as process color builds.

The HP Indigo will optimize the color translation automatically to provide its best possible simulation of the PMS color using CMYK toners. If it does this automatically (within a larger color gamut than the PMS color space), it will be more accurate, and more globally controllable, than would be possible using individual, designer-chosen formulas for the color percentages.

Not wanting to ask my client to redo all color swatches in her 22 118-page books, I asked the VP of Operations at the new printer if it would help if my client gave him a list of all PMS colors in the job (the targets for the process color builds) along with a test file. He said it would. If my client's color choices are accurate, the VP of Operations can then just use her files as is. If not, we may have to discuss changing them back from CMYK builds to PMS colors.

This is what you can learn from this case study:

1. The software used to convert PMS colors to process colors in a digital press (remember that digital presses, for the most part, only use process colors) is increasingly accurate. This is a relatively new development over the last several years.

2. Therefore, ask your printer whether his workflow would be more effective using art files created with PMS colors or process color builds. Depending on his equipment, the color look-up tables in his software, and his level of knowledge, he will choose one of these two options, and you can build your art files accordingly.

3. Remember that different digital presses handle color in different ways, so when in doubt discuss the job with your printer.

4. Always ask for hard-copy color proofs of your work to see if the colors will print as you expect.

5. Remember that any paper coating (varnish, UV coating, etc.) may change the color of the inks or toners the coating covers. Therefore, if you'll be coating the press sheet, ask for a proof coated with the same material and produced on the same equipment that will complete the balance of the job.


[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]

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