September 10, 2006

Props to all the prepress folks out there

Cross-posted with the CTP-Q Forum

So this is my once-a-year tribute to all press people around the world. As I think I mentioned in the past, once a year, I man the prepress shop for my father-in-law's print shop here in NYC (when his usual guy takes a much-needed vacation). This past week, I was responsible for manning the stations -- with an Epson proofer (using a BestColor RIP), and an ECRM platemaker supporting 4 presses of 3 different sizes.

I share my experiences here twofold: If you are a press person yourself, you may either appreciate the views of a fellow countryman, sympathize with him, feel at ease that others share your pain on certain issues, or that you may learn from my experiences. If you are a developer, a designer, or someone who works with prepress folks, you may appreciate the work they do, better understand their requests, or learn to provide better files or tools to support them.

FONTS: So first and foremost, fonts remain the issue of the day. Every job that comes in has its own fonts and managing the process is brutal. We keep font folders for every client, for every job. We use Suitcase and create a new set for each job that comes in. It works, but it's extra clicks ad nauseam. Which leads me to my next topic...

PDF: Oh my! What a godsend! A PDF file doesn't require that you load any fonts. It's so wonderful you can dance! Or spin around really really fast in the swivel chair (although the pressmen think I'm nuts). PDF is the lifeblood of any printshop these days. As I'll describe later in this post, I use PDF as much as I possibly can. PDF is great! Of course, that always leads to...

INDESIGN: Call me biased. Call me whatever you want. Tell me that Quark is better. I don't care. I honestly can't understand why ANYONE would want to use Quark. When a Quark job comes in the door, I would immediately export the file as a PDF/X-1a (thank goodness Quark 7 added that ability) and then drop it into InDesign for imposition and printing. I consider myself proficient at both apps -- I've used both Quark and InDesign in production environments for many years. But I can get a job done in InDesign -- and get it done right the first time -- so much faster than I could in Quark.

I could spend an entire post praising specific functionality on why InDesign is so superior, but here's a short list:

Ability to copy and paste and position guides numerically - this saves so much time when setting up crops for impositions.

Hi-res preview - Using the standard SWOP color profile in InDesign, we get a pretty close match to what we're seeing on press. With the hi-res preview, a pressman can come over to my desk with a press sheet just to see more detail. Sometimes he wants to know if a photo has more detail. Sometimes he wants to just get a better picture of where he is and where he can go. I can quickly zoom in on areas and give him pixel readings and breakdowns and I never have to leave InDesign. The antialiased display with the fonts and art is so much more pleasing to look at and really matches what we see on the press sheets. Nice when clients are there for press checks too -- they see the file and know what to expect on the sheet.

Ink Manager - if you haven't used this, you can't imagine what you're missing. I can't tell you how many times I exported a PDF from Quark only to find that there were numerous duplicate spot plates. Or older jobs that still have CVC and CV and C Pantone colors defined (all for the same plate). This feature is in Acrobat too and is the physical barrier between sane and

Separation Preview - ok, if you're a prepress dude (or dudet), how can you NOT use this feature? Remember that there are plenty of situations where I'm dropping composite PDF files into a file (for imposition for example) and using the Sep preview to make sure all spots are on the right plate, or to quickly find problem areas -- I mean, it even has a densitometer. This is the ONE REASON ALONE why I can never use Quark. Separation Preview is my bestest friend.

PDF Integration - this is twofold -- the ability to export reliable PDF, and the ability to place any PDF file -- with transparency -- whatever. I found that to get my work done the fastest, I would create PDF files of my final files and drop them into an InDesign file to impose them as needed for each job (and for each press). The reason why this is so important is because at
any time, and for a variety of reasons, we may decide to pull a job from one press and put it on another. Sometimes that means a quick imposition change. As modular PDFs, I can quickly set up any file to match what the pressman needs for each press.

Print dialog - InDesign's print dialog is so perfect, words escape me. Whoever is working on the Acrobat print dialog, stop what you're doing and GO STEAL THE INDESIGN ONE. Or the Illustrator one -- both AI and ID share the best print dialog boxes and options ever. If you're a prepress guy, you care about gripper position, and only AI and ID allow you to rotate a job on the fly as needed. With Quark, I'm always rotating art on the artboard and going nuts. Sometimes a client may switch paper at the last minute to one a printer has in stock to get the job done faster, and last-minute gripper changes are specified. With AI or ID, it's easy. With Quark or Acrobat, my pressmen will tell me "I'll go out for a smoke while you work out your issues"...

I could go on and on and on, but want to talk about...

ACROBAT: Acrobat 7 Professional to be specific. Great program -- but the print dialog leaves much to be desired. Too many subdialogs to go through and it doesn't remember settings unless I define a preset, which is silly because almost every job is different -- but it would be nice if some settings were sticky. One thing I do have to say about Acrobat. My father-in-law, who is the biggest technophobe in the universe, has actually learned to make plates from PDF files using Acrobat. He even uses the Output Preview and Ink Manager functions! But as you know not all PDF files are perfect, and that means you need...

PITSTOP: There's no question. If you're in the business of printing PDF files, you need Pitstop. It works as advertised, and you can't live without it, but editing a PDF file in Acrobat this way feels very foreign and non-intuitive. And it can't solve all problems either. Sometimes, you just have to edit a PDF file in...

ILLUSTRATOR: I know Leonard, it's bad. But there are deadlines. There are press schedules. Printing is a business like any other and if there's a backup somewhere, that affects the entire line. Paper is cut for each job and ink is mixed and make-readys are made and plates are created and if a problem is found on a press sheet and a new plate needs to be made, you need to make that change and get a new plate out the door in minutes. I use Illustrator wherever I can to edit PDF files. Take this example: a client sent in a job that was designed in... Are you ready? Microsoft Publisher (collective groan). It was full color (but of course) yet the job was to be printed as a two color job. For the most part, I was able to use Pitstop to convert 4-color jpeg images to grayscale and to assign spot colors where needed. But the logo was a 2-color logo. And it was a lo-res JPEG file. Pitstop can't help me there. In Illustrator I could recreate the logo and be on my way in minutes -- plates done, next job.

Don't get me wrong -- of COURSE the correct thing to do is to call the client and get the real logo, or get the job corrected, etc. But life isn't always planned out that way. If you don't print the job, and you send it back to the client, you may not see it again. My father-in-law also does a lot of work for the trade -- for print brokers. Many times getting in touch with the client simply isn't possible. So you do what you can with what you have. We're not talking hi-end annual report jobs here. We're talking quick small-run jobs.

FTP: So email is nice, but FTP is divine. FTP is faster and reliable. We've encouraged all clients to submit files via our FTP server. Clients can send an email to let us know they've uploaded a file, but generally, email is prone to delays, and spam is driving us crazy. It's just so much easier to use FTP.

So that's my report. I have that much more experience under my belt and that much more sympathy to all that pressmen around the world have to put up with on a daily basis. A tribute is in order for all that you do, and for which you never get credit for.

I salute you, and may your files RIP correctly the first time, every time.


Lupe said...

Wow your post brought back so many memories I wish I had forgotten. It almost made me miss working with print, ALMOST. I love designing print jobs but thats where I draw the line. I'll leave the rest to the prepess and print gurus. My heart can't take anymore of the deadline pressure and last minute problems. I'll stick to siting in my office drawing away and creating layouts peacefully. While trying not to casuse the press people any trouble.

Unknown said...

Glad I could help bring back the sweet memories :)

Anonymous said...

Is that your first hand account Mordy?

This snippet stuck out for me:

"...physical barrier between sane and insane."

It seems I'm trapped on one side of that barrier. :(

I enjoyed reading/living a typical day in the life of prepress. :)

Anonymous said...

What I find interesting, and this deals with form follows function, is how automonous prepress departments in time develop very similar workflow procedures.

It is interesting (to me) to go into a print shop and visit with their prepress department. There is a natural progression, based only on my biases and no studies that I know of, that I can determine what stage in workflow development they are at. Sure, funds, type of work, perpress people's abilities plays major factors, it still interests me.

Unknown said...

Yes JK -- this is my first-hand account. I spend a week each year doing this. Not only does it allow me to experience first hand all of the workflows, but it help me to better understand how the tools I teach are used in the real world. I always say that you can't teach something if you've never actually done it yourself in in a real work environment.

Newmango said...

I swapped jobs at the newspaper, from news artist/illustrator to prepress ad designer, for a year and a half. For the entire time, my viewpoint was that of a designer, and I didn't realize until I read your post how much my job was really prepress.

About half the ads that came before me were designed and produced by me (mostly using good old Multi-Ad Creator; my catch-phrase: "Have I mentioned yet today how much I hate Multi-Ad Creator?"); the other half were ads that were supplied by the client. Everything from God-awful PDFs that would bring every computer that ried it to its knees, to half-page ads done in Word. But whether I did an ad or someone else, it had to be output by 5 o'clock for tomorrow's paper, period.

Illustrator's ability to edit PDF files saved the day daily. But you did what you had to do, and a lot of times I would be half ashamed of what I did. The ad appeared, and nobody complained. I sometimes even resorted to viewing the ad as large as I could get it on the monitor, and taking a screen shot that was "enhanced" in Photoshop and went to press. Newsprint is so forgiving.

Sarah Likes Green said...

good post!

"I can get a job done in InDesign -- and get it done right the first time -- so much faster than I could in Quark." --> for sure! so when I went for a job interview and found they were still using Quark I knew it wasn't going to work out!

Anonymous said...

amen to everything you wrote, good points and bad. I've used every single software & trick you mentioned at my newspaper to get things right. Well said!