The Proof is in the System

Selecting a proofing system for catalog production can be a complicated process. You have to prioritize such factors as color accuracy, speed, and cost; you also have to consider your product line and target audience to determine how accurate you need your proofs to be in terms of color reproduction and consistency. The good news is that there is most likely a proofing system on the market to suit your needs — and your budget.

The hard choice

The traditional method of proofing, via print on paper, is no longer the only option, thanks to the advent of soft, or paperless, proofing. But many companies still favor so-called hard proofing, in large part because of their familiarity with the technology. Or as Craig Winer, vice president of New York-based wood-working tools cataloger Garrett Wade Co., says, “I personally have an affinity for the printed piece because it forces you to look at it much closer than something on screen.”

Some companies, such as Groton, MA-based business products cataloger New England Business Service (NEBS), have even invested in more than one hard-proofing system. NEBS uses an ink-jet laser proofing printer to proof noncatalog direct mail, such as mail packages, solos, and fliers, says Michael Apfelberg, manager of pre-media and circulation fulfillment. “It is a very productive machine for us,” he says. “It’s set up in an automated way so that it can crank out hundreds of proofs and just keeps running and running.” Since the company’s pre-media services department has only five workers, a machine with that sort of capacity is a great help.

For its catalog production, NEBS uses a DuPont Digital WaterProof, a continuous tone proofing machine from Wilmington, DE-based E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co. The DuPont can proof on the actual stock that the catalog will be printed on, and the proofs can even be laminated to simulate a glossy or a matte surface. The per-page cost of the DuPont is somewhat higher than that of the ink-jet laser printer, however: $12-$15 a page, compared with $7-$10 a page. Deciding on specific proofing systems is harder than ever, says Nick Patrissi, director of market relations for Vancouver-based prepress supplier Creo. There are more than 25 digital proofing technologies that range from $3,000 to more than $100,000, he says.

Halftone proofing options, often referred to as “contract proofs,” are at the high end of the range. Selections such as Kodak Approval from Norwalk, CT-based Kodak Polychrome Graphics, FinalProof from Tokyo-based Fuji Photo Film Co., and the Proofsetter Spectrum from Creo can cost well over $100,000. Proofers in the $30,000-$50,000 range include professional-quality ink-jet technology such as Veris and Iris from Creo. A bounty of options are available in the $3,000-$20,000 range with drop-on-demand (DOD) technology from Long Beach, CA-based Epson America, Palo Alto, CA-based Hewlett-Packard Co., Tokyo-based Canon, and Mortsel, Belgium-based Agfa. Or, Patrissi says, you could spend less than $3,000 on ink-jet proofing technology from a company like Canon and transform it with the addition of color-calibration software.

In short, when it comes to the quality of proofs, you have to consider what factors are most important with the print job. To break through the haze of technology and pricing choices, Patrissi recommends that catalogers focus on seven criteria:

REPEATABILITY

If you print out the same proof every day, will it have the same look, or will you have to go through some difficult procedure to make sure you’re getting consistent output?

RESOLUTION

Patrissi says the resolution of the device will affect the clarity of type, so if you need an especially sharp proof you should invest in one of the top-tier systems. Proofing systems with high resolution typically have 1,500-2,400 dots per inch (DPI).

COLOR FIDELITY

Does the proof match the color reproduction characteristics of the printing press? Again, if this is important you need a system that has good color management.

TONE REPRODUCTION

How well does the proof emulate the tone reproduction characteristics of the printing process you are proofing for? Tone reproduction characteristics refer to the appearance of lightness and darkness in relation to tone value increase (TVI) on press. The size of the dots on the page determines how light or dark colors appear; larger dots produce darker color, while smaller dots equal lighter color.

HALF-TONE FIDELITY

How accurately will your proofing technology predict halftone patterns, such as moiré, when the screening device used during the printing process interferes with a pattern on an object in the image. A moiré causes a visual disturbance similar to the effect of a window screen laid on top of another screen. Patrissi says that since garments often have patterned designs, this is an especially important criterion for apparel catalogers: “If a non-halftone ink-jet proofer is used, you may miss screening moirés that may be present in the file.”

APPEARANCE

Do you want the overall look to be glossy or matte? Do you want to simulate a specific color of paper stock? For the proof to tell you how close the printed page can come to what you had in mind, it is sometimes useful to print the proof on the same paper stock that the finished catalog will finally be printed on. Most halftone proofers offer this feature. Another option is to specify the type of stock to be used, such as “publication” or “commercial.” Non-halftone devices will offer a choice of stocks or can tint the background to simulate the stock color.

COST

Since prices for proofing sysems vary, you basically have to ask yourself, Do I want a proof that costs $1 a page, or do I need to accurately preview certain or all of the above criteria? Your prioritization of the criteria on the list will direct you to the correct technology, Patrissi says.

Getting soft

In addition to choosing from an array of proofing printers, catalogers can also opt for soft proofing, in which pages are proofed on a computer monitor.

The catalogers who stand to benefit the most from adopting soft proofing are those with the most labor-intensive proofing, says Gary Moravcik, president of Sharon Centers, OH-based prepress services provider Carey Color. A company that experiences “a lot of subjective retouching or design changes that would create multiple rounds of proofs and the need to create a lot of proofs quickly” is one that might want to explore soft proofing, he says.

The cost of soft proofing has decreased significantly during the past year. In September 2004 soft-proofing services provider Kodak Polychrome Graphics phased out the use of viewing kiosks and specialized monitors, equipment that added up to an average overall price of $30,000, says worldwide director of monitor proofing Robert Pipe. The company now offers its soft-proofing service via liquid crystal display (LCD) monitors manufactured by Cupertino, CA-based Apple Computer and Ishikawa, Japan-based Eizo Nanao Corp. This newest form of soft proofing is a software solution, in which the software itself is a client’s only cost, other than the purchase of a computer with an LCD monitor if the company doesn’t already own one. With the cumbersome equipment eliminated, the average overall cost of implementing soft proofing is down to $15,000, says Pipe.

The base cost for Kodak’s soft-proofing service is $9,500, with a charge for each additional concurrent user license of the software needed. This per-user charge is dependent on the number of users, with the cost per user declining as the number of users increases. Pipe says that most companies elect to pay for at least five users.

The soft-proofing system is based around a real-time proof-imaging software engine that is able to view high-resolution images through the Internet regardless of the type of Web connection a company has. The image is then streamed to the monitor as data that can be viewed at the highest resolution possible. The proofs are shared with others via e-mail with a link to access the proof. Laser ink-jet copies of the proofs can be printed in the office.

Companies that do not count color accuracy as a priority usually opt for the vendor’s RealTimeProof. Those for which color accuracy is a priority need to pay an additional $1,000 for Kodak’s Matchprint Virtual Proofing System, which Pipe says has color-calibrated software.

Kodak, of course, isn’t the only company that offers soft proofing. Catalogers can also make use of soft-proofing software such as RIPextend from Salt Lake City, UT-based Onyx Graphics and WebProof 3.0 from Roskilde, Denmark-based WebProof.

Garrett Wade will most likely test soft proofing within the next six months, says vice president Winer. The company, currently “in conversations” with its printer, Sussex, WI-based Quad/Graphics about the possibility of using the technology, is happy with hard proofing but wants to see if anything can be gained by making a switch.

If it does go forward with the test, Garrett Wade will continue to use hard proofing while testing soft proofing. “I thought it would be worth taking a look to see if there are any other features that will make it worthwhile. Having not tested it, you never know how you end up using it,” Winer says.

“It seems like an interesting technology,” Winer continues. “The one part [of soft proofing] that is very compelling is that you can turn around last-minute corrections very quickly. You can approve it right then and there. For last-minute emergencies, it’s certainly better than fax.” One of the selling points is that it gives you more time, he says. “Instead of shipping the proof overnight, you can look at it the same day it’s done, so it gives you a little extra time to review things. It saves you FedEx overnight shipping — a day coming to you and a day going back.”

For companies that don’t produce their proofs in the same facility that houses the staffers who need to approve the proofs, soft proofing does indeed eliminate the days needed to physically send proofs back and forth. But for companies where the hard proofs are produced in the same building where those who have to approve the proofs are located, the time savings may be negligible, or even nonexistent.

That’s why San Francisco-based Sharper Image Corp. is holding back from testing soft-proofing just yet, although Joseph Tsang, vice president, creative services for the high-tech gadgets cataloger/retailer, says the company is considering migrating to the technology within the next three to five years.

Tsang says that from what he’s seen of the technology, it takes 15-30 seconds for each page to come to the screen via soft proofing. By contrast, the four people in his office who approve proofs for an entire catalog edition can stand shoulder to shoulder under color-controlled lighting, looking at a hard proof together and discussing one another’s comments and any changes that need to be made, in less time than it would take for an entire catalog’s worth of pages to appear on screen. And speed is critical for Sharper Image, given the approximately 150 catalog pages that it needs to approve each month.

But Tsang says the company will keep re-examining the efficiency of soft proofing. “It’s conceivable that in the next year or two they could come up with a system that would be a viable option for the catalog,” he says.

Before Sharper Image would try soft proofing on its catalogs, it would most likely use it to proof the graphics and type that appear on its product packaging and advertising materials. The volume of pages isn’t as great, and unlike the catalog, which is printed in the U.S., the packaging and advertising materials are printed in Asia, so communicating last-minute changes online rather than via an overnight package carrier would expedite the process.

San Francisco-based gifts merchant RedEnvelope has no plans to even test soft proofing, says manager of print production Ryan Debisschop. “It’s much slower than marking changes down on our Kodak Approval proofs,” he notes. “We’re doing 150-200 images in each book, so it’s very slow to type in comments and upload those comments to whoever is doing the color separations.”

Debisschop also says he is not yet comfortable with the color accuracy of the technology. To ensure color accuracy, he says, the computer monitors would need to be checked, if not calibrated, daily. “I don’t have confidence that everything will happen the way it’s supposed to happen every time,” he says.

For his part, Tsang says, Sharper Image Corp. has no concerns about the color accuracy of soft proofing. But although color accuracy is not as critical for Garrett Wade as it is for those selling apparel, the cataloger still intends to evaluate it closely during the soft-proofing trial. “For us color is still a big deal,” Winer says. “I haven’t tested it yet, so I don’t know, but since our monitors aren’t color-calibrated, I would be shocked if [soft proofing] is as color accurate as hard proofs.”

Winer and Debisschop aren’t the only ones who have reservations about the color accuracy of soft proofing. Paul Howell, president of Portland, ME-based photography studio Howell, thinks that soft proofing provides a color accuracy rate of about 80%. “But if it’s just for the general review of content that isn’t color critical, it’s probably an adequate solution,” he adds.

The advantage that hard proofs have over soft proofs, says Joe Cha, president of Los Angeles-based prepress services provider Colorscope, is that they can be compared more directly with the pages coming off the press. “I think [soft proofing is] great for certain applications,” he says, “but at the high end, where you’re reviewing color — and there are people who would shoot me for saying this — you can’t get any closer than a proof on paper because ultimately the proof is going to be ink on paper.”

Keep in mind

When choosing which proofing option to go with, it is important that you consider the impact of getting the proof wrong, says Sarah Fletcher, creative director of Charlestown, RI-based consultancy Catalog Design Studio.

“If you’re selling shoes or handbags or any kind of soft goods that a customer buys to match [with other possessions], you have to factor in what returns are going to cost when you figure out if a proofing option is worth doing,” Fletcher says. While soft proofing has “come a long way” during the past few years, Fletcher says that companies with color-sensitive merchandise are best off limiting its usage to such print applications as versioning, in which each catalog or group of catalogs is changed only slightly, with, for instance, differing versions of a dot whack on the cover.

Even Kodak Polychrome Graphics’ Pipe says that soft proofing isn’t ideal for every company. The technology is best suited for companies that generate high-resolution data and have multiple locations. It is also a worthwhile system for companies that are either trying to cut back production lead time by as much as two weeks and those that want added leeway for changing the product mix in the catalog.

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