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"Fixing" the Problem of Four-Color Blacks

An avid reader of this Quick Tips newsletter recently described to me an ongoing problem with his printing clients' use of page-layout files. The files involve black type built from four-color process rather than 100 percent black ink. Difficulties revolve around maintaining close register of fine type created with four separate inks, resulting in blurred text. Most files are advertiser-supplied ads received in PDF format. O'Neil & Associates, a developer of product support documentation, describes PDF as a "process from Adobe Systems, Inc., that converts a fully formatted document created on a Windows, Macintosh, MS-DOS, or UNIX platform from PostScript into a PDF file that can be viewed on several different platforms. PDF enables users to send documents that contain distinctive typefaces, color, graphics, and photographs electronically to recipients, regardless of the application used to create the originals."

Although PDF files have many advantages, the major problem is that they cannot be easily manipulated by the printer. When asked to make corrections to the files so they will be usable by the printer, clients more often than not complain. Rather than call the ad agencies or advertisers and ask for a new ad or a correction, many clients would rather "shop around" for a printer that will accept four-color black type. This is unfortunate because it often involves excessive paper waste and extra press time when a printer does actually attempt to print four-color black type.

PDF files can be produced directly using Quark or InDesign software. An alternative method is to distill a PostScript file to a PDF file using Adobe Acrobat. The difficulty with handing off native Quark or InDesign files without distilling them into PDF format is that the computers used by the designer and the printer must be configured in exactly the same way to avoid such problems as altered line-endings. In addition, a native file can easily be inadvertently altered. The benefit of a PDF in printing is that you can transmit to the offset printer a small, complete file that is essentially uneditable. This creates a double-edged sword, however. If the application file from which the PDF is distilled (Quark, InDesign, etc.) is accurate, complete and usable, the PDF will be print-ready. If the application file has flaws, however, such as using the wrong color space for the job, the PDF will not be usable or editable, or will be only marginally editable by the printer.

To solve this problem, I suggested that the reader acquire a program called PitStop Pro by Extensis. The program is a bit expensive (about $500), but it is essential for changing CMYK black or RGB black to 100 percent black within a PDF file. I related the personal experience of a printer I often work with who uses PitStop all the time. The printer noted that it doesn't take more than one or two jobs to make up for the cost of the program. This printer actually uses PitStop Pro in one way or another almost daily. Many of his clients furnish their ads in either RGB black or CMYK black, both of which are problematic, since neither is 100 percent black. There's a feature in PitStop that allows you to make such a change in any PDF file usually without difficulty. In fact, it has a global change feature by which you can select a piece of black type on one page of the file and with one additional click select all text within the entire publication and convert it to 100 percent black type. This feature alone makes PitStop invaluable. I encouraged the reader to research this product, adding that most of the other printers with whom I work have also been using PitStop Pro for years.

It should be noted that other programs exist for manipulating PDF color, such as PDF/X Checkup by Apago and ImageWorks by ARTS PDF. I would encourage readers to check out these other options as well. I am just more familiar with Enfocus PitStop and with the experiences of a number of printers that use this program.

It should be noted that Markzware's Flightcheck is an excellent preflight application. However, at this time it does not actually repair this problem within a PDF file; rather it just informs you of the error's existence within your file.

InDesign vs. Quark: A Printer's Perspective

An unscientific survey among a few printers with whom I regularly work has provided the following food for thought. Although many designers are becoming increasingly comfortable with InDesign (perhaps because of the ease of coordinating InDesign work with activities in Photoshop, Illustrator, and Acrobat), Quark still surpasses InDesign in market share.

Of course, this is not to say that either program is better than the other. In addition, many designers are working successfully with FrameMaker and PageMaker as well.

What does this mean to you? This means that more printers are probably still more comfortable and familiar with Quark than InDesign for now. To remain competitive, most printers will soon become well-versed in this new page composition software, but since only a small percentage of clients currently supply native InDesign files relative to native Quark files, it would be wise to discuss this matter with your printers before you buy InDesign.

That said, there is always a work-around. Specifically, whether you produce art files in Quark or InDesign, you can always hand off these files to your printer in PDF format and completely side-step this issue.


[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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