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Deciding on the best type of printing for your job

So, the design and artwork stages of your print project are complete and you now have to decide what will be the best type of printing process to use for it – the one that will give you the best result within your budget. There are many different types of printing but we’ll concentrate on the three main commercial ones as the others are very specialist and probably not relevant to you.

Litho print

Litho printing is ideal for reasonable quantities (hundreds to thousands), printing mainly on paper and board (card). The number of ink colours used is flexible and can have an effect on cost. Anything from a single colour to what is commonly called full colour (or four-colour process or CMYK), and beyond to hexachrome (six colours, which can give more vivid results than CMYK alone but which fewer printers are set up to produce).

With litho, the larger the quantity the lower the unit cost as a significant proportion of the cost is incurred in set-up, no matter how many copies are run. This means though that for very small amounts of print litho is not best method cost-wise – see Digital print below.

One of the inherent difficulties of printing litho is that care needs to be taken to ensure consistent colour and expectations often need to be lowered when it comes to reproducing vibrant colours. The term ‘full colour’ is really a misnomer – the range of colours reproducible using CMYK process is actually quite limited and it really only gives a representation of full colour. The next subject, colour reproduction, explains more about the options available to you.

Digital print

Digital printing has the distinct advantage that you can generally produce a small quantity of your item in full colour at a lower cost than you can by using litho. Also it can be ‘personalised’ with text that changes for each sheet – useful for things like direct mail where you might want to print each recipient’s name, address, etc.

Downsides are that sheet size is normally limited to a maximum A3 trimmed size (297mm x 420mm), printable materials are also limited, and that for large runs (thousands) it is pricier than litho.

Also, there is still a discernable difference in the quality of digital print compared to litho as the colour pigments adhere to the surface giving a gloss sheen to printed areas, even on matt materials, whereas with litho the inks are absorbed into the surface, so the printed areas take on the characteristics of the material being used. This margin of difference will no doubt decrease as technology develops.

Screen printing

Screen printing, also known as silk screen printing or screen process, is generally employed on materials which are not suitable for printing by other methods. For example, many ‘corporate gifts’ (mugs, pens, etc) are printed screen process as they have surfaces and colours which are not practical to print any other way, although digital print is now making inroads into this market.

Screen inks are relatively opaque so the vibrancy of the ink colours is generally retained, whatever the surface being printed.

Add-ons to printing

Other processes which can be ‘bolted on’ to good effect are things like foil blocking (shiny metal effect available in various colours), embossing (raised surface) and UV varnish, all at extra cost to the original print run.

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Colour reproduction in graphics

The way colour is reproduced depends on the medium being used. Screen-based media such as television and the Internet, as well as colour photography and office software packages such as Word and PowerPoint use the RGB (red, green, blue) colour model, whereas printing processes use the CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) model to represent full colour. In addition, litho printing and screen printing sometimes use something called ‘spot colour’ – more on that in a second.

RGB and CMYK colour

One thing to bear in mind is that each colour model has a different range (or ‘gamut’) of colours available within it. RGB has a greater range than CMYK, which means that CMYK is the most limited in terms of what it can achieve colour-wise. This is why, in litho and screen printing, separate ‘spot’ colours are often used where the desired colour is not achievable, for example if it is a particularly vibrant shade or a special metallic effect. These colours can be used either in place of, or in addition to, the full colour process.

Gamuts of different colour models

The most common colour system currently in use for this purpose is the Pantone Matching System®, a range of named formulated colours adopted as a recognised standard in the printing industry the world over.

Pantone® colours

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Image types and uses

In digital graphics (i.e. those created electronically) there are 2 basic types of image structure – vector and raster (also known as bitmap).

Vector graphics contain the information to build them using nodes (points), lines (connecting the nodes) and fills (filling within the shapes). They are crisp, infinitely-resizable graphics, and ideal for logos, diagrams, charts, etc. They are generally created using vector or ‘drawing’ software packages like Illustrator or CorelDraw.

Vector

Raster images give tonal range and pictorial detail and are ideal for photographic reproduction. They are built up using an array of picture cells (pixels). Unlike vector graphics, the smoothness of a raster image degrades as it is enlarged – the pixels get bigger resulting in what’s known as ‘pixelation’.

Raster

The most common and generally useful image formats are EPS, JPEG, TIFF, GIF and PNG. Each format is described below, along with its good points and bad points.

EPS can be vector or raster. For: If vector, can be used at any size without editing, with no loss of quality. Against: Can only be viewed/edited in a dedicated vector graphics (drawing) package (Illustrator, Freehand, CorelDraw, etc).

JPEG is a raster format. For: Compression – smaller file sizes, good for e-mail, the Web. Against: ‘Lossy’ – loss of information and therefore quality (introduction of ‘artefacts’ – see garbage in, garbage out below) as you open-edit-save-close.

TIFF, like JPEG, is a raster format. For: No compression so better quality. Against: Larger file sizes.

GIF is also raster and is best for images with more limited textural variation; used widely on web sites. For: can have low file sizes depending on how complicated the image is, and will permit transparency (it’s possible to have areas of the image where what’s behind it shows through). Against: limited colour range – not good for subtlety.

PNG combines the subtlety of JPEG and TIFF with the transparency ability of GIF, but isn’t as widely supported as other formats. It is particularly useful though in PowerPoint for ‘cut-out’ graphics, and on the Web for clean edges on transparent backgrounds (when in 24-bit format).

IMPORTANT – the concept of ‘garbage in, garbage out’ (or another coarser, but more accurate phrase involving shoe-shine and dung!) applies to raster (bitmap) image quality.

The quality and resolution of an image need to be adequate for the medium being used and the size it’s being used at. You can take quality out of an image, but you can’t easily put it back in, if at all. This comes to light particularly in JPEG images, where the act of saving the file also compresses the data, losing a proportion of the detail in the image forever (how much depends on the save settings used).

In the worst examples of this you can see what are called ‘artefacts’ – jagged or smudgy areas which spoil the appearance of the image. If editing and saving an image, it is better to save in the native format of your editing software (for example Photoshop’s .psd) as you work on it, and only save to JPEG when your final edited image is ready to go, as with a JPEG the more you open and save it the more quality/detail will be lost.

JPEG artefacts

As a guide on resolution, images for the Web should be 72ppi (pixels per inch) at 100% size, those for desktop printing and slides (Word, PowerPoint, etc) around 150ppi at 100%, and those for digital or litho printing (for brochures, newsletters and so forth) around 300ppi at 100%. Images for exhibition graphics should be around 72ppi at 100% size (or 300ppi at 25%) unless there is no photographic content (e.g. type only) when vector artwork is best if available. 300ppi at 6x4" (standard photo print size) = 2.16 megapixels (million pixels).

Finally, beware of lifting JPEGs from the Web! There are issues of quality (many images used on the Web have been overly compressed to keep page load times down) and copyright infringement (if you use it without permission you can be sued).

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Any colour you like, as long as it’s...

Colour is important to us – the colours we choose to wear; the colours we paint our walls, etc. These choices usually revolve around how we want to feel and what we want others to feel. It’s worth considering this when we choose colours to promote ourselves or our businesses or products, as well as the practical implications of the colours we choose and the way we want to use them.

The two main factors involved in our emotional responses to colour are

Colours can have different meanings attached to them, depending on the context. For instance, dressing in black can indicate mourning, but it can also be a signifier of the personality of the wearer, e.g. melancholic, serious, sensitive, dark, apart from the mainstream. First Direct Bank uses black to communicate qualities such as business-like, straightforward, sophisticated, different.

Here is a range of colours and their possible connotations:

Greys – Neutral, although sometimes dull and boring. Warm greys: intimate, cosy. Cool greys: cold, hard, steely, sophisticated.
Reds – Powerful, strong, bold, warm, dangerous, sexy.
Oranges – Bright, fresh, bold, warm, lively, modern.
Yellows – Acidic yellows: lively, fresh. Redder yellows: warm, mellow.
Greens/Blues – Natural, fresh, peaceful, solid, established.
Purples – Bold, strong, opulent, relaxed.
Pinks – Vibrant, feminine, soft, infantile, subversive, (shocking!).
Browns – Natural world, comforting (think chocolate!).

You can, of course, choose any colour you like, but think about the emotional response others may have. Relaxed and harmonious or shocking and discordant? Exciting and vibrant or solid and reliable? Premium and exclusive or cheap and cheerful (or cheap and nasty!)?

The colours you choose can say quite a bit really.

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Any font you like, as long as it’s not...

There are thousands upon thousands of fonts out there to choose from – how on earth do you decide which ones are appropriate for your job? The main considerations are:

Legibility

Each font is designed to be used for certain applications – some only work in large headings, some only for text, others will work happily in all situations. As a general rule, the simpler and clearer the font design, the more flexible a font will be, but this is only very general – other things, such as the relative size of the upper and lower case letters within the font, or what the variation is between the thickest and thinnest parts of the characters, can determine how easy the resulting text is to read at certain sizes and in certain quantities.

Appropriateness

Whether a font is appropriate or not is a mostly subjective judgement, but check whether the attributes of the font design you’re using marry up with the subject matter or the feeling or image you want to create. If there’s a clash, you’re using the wrong font, even if you happen to like it.

Availability

Computer operating systems generally come with a number of fonts already installed so anyone who has access to a computer will have at least a few fonts at their disposal. If you don’t want to be limited to these however, you have a number of options:

Another consideration, in addition to these, is that if you’re producing an electronic document which is to be opened, viewed or used on another computer, you’ll need to make sure you use fonts which will almost certainly be found on that computer, or the viewer will not see the document as you created it (unless you are able to embed the font, as in PDF documents for example). At the moment, that pretty much limits you to Arial, Courier, Georgia, Tahoma, Times New Roman, Trebuchet and Verdana. Oh, and er… Comic Sans (see Text issues below).

Standard computer fonts

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Right-hand pages

It’s a fact that, for those of us in western societies, as we open a book, newspaper, magazine, brochure or other multi-page document, the eye naturally falls on the right-hand page first as we open it. This is why advertising space on right-hand pages is preferable to (and usually costs more than) that on left-hand pages. Also worth bearing in mind when you’re laying out a document.

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Text issues

Accurate punctuation and spelling

Accurate punctuation and spelling are vital to the interpretation of text, and getting them wrong can lead to embarrassment or, at worst, misunderstanding, so it’s worth taking care over them. Remember, spell checkers will only confirm that a word with that spelling exists in the program’s database, not whether you’re using the right word! Watch out for the common pitfalls like there/their/they’re, your/you’re, etc.

Using too many typefaces together

Unless confusion is the effect you want, keep it simple. If you think you’re going to need variation in your text for emphasis, choose a typeface which has a family of variants like regular, italic, bold and bold italic, so you can create interest and emphasis but keep the appearance unified.

Reams of text with no relief

It may be acceptable in novels, but in marketing materials great chunks of text can have a reader losing interest pretty quickly. Breaking text into shorter paragraphs, using headings and subheadings, emphasising key words or phrases in larger, bolder or italic type, using columns – any or all of these can help create a document that’s easy to read and keeps the reader interested. Remember to exercise restraint though – don’t be tempted to overdo it! Of course, using graphics or images can help too.

Old English (or similar) in all caps!

Blackletter designs like these originate from the days of illuminated manuscripts written by hand and were never written in all caps. That’s why, if they’re used in this way, they are virtually illegible and just plain wrong! Actually, this applies to many typefaces, particularly script faces and many with complex or decorative designs.

Old English in all caps

Using Comic Sans for business communication

The clue’s in the name – unless you’re producing a comic, give this one a wide berth. It may look ‘friendly’ but it ain’t businesslike or professional, so if that’s the impression you want to give DON’T USE IT!

If you don't want it to look like a comic, don't use Comic Sans!

Overuse of ALL CAPS

Overuse of ALL CAPS is not good. It is a fact that capital letters take longer to read than lower case as they are less distinguishable from one another. So a great chunk of text all in capitals will be less legible than if it were in upper and lower case. Also, all caps gives text an ‘unfriendly’ appearance like it’s being SHOUTED AT YOU and you know how tiresome that can become after a while!

Double spaces

Double spaces aren’t really needed after full stops (full points, periods) when creating text using a word processor. This technique was standard in the days of typewriters, but that is because typewriters exclusively used ‘mono-spaced’ typefaces where all characters occupy the same width, so extra gaps needed putting in to improve legibility. Word processors on the other hand, in common with all digital typesetting systems, mostly use proportionally-spaced typefaces which have correct visual spacing designed into them, so only single spaces are needed after full stops.

Mono-spaced type

Quote marks and apostrophes

It’s good practise to try and avoid using inch or second marks (") and foot or minute marks (') where proper typographical quote marks (“”) and apostrophes (‘’) should be. Thankfully, most word processing and page layout programs have automatic substitution built in to correct these while typing.

Apostrophes and quote marks

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