The ABC’s of Press Checks

Anyone who’s been disappointed in how his catalog looks as it rolls out of the printing plant on its way to the mail house knows that certain sinking feeling: The sales tool you labored over might well fail to impress customers and prospects — and therefore might well fail to do its job. Contributing to the feeling is a sense of a lack of control over the process in which your final proofs become your printed piece.

You can avoid that sinking feeling by knowing exactly what to check for the next time you’re on a press check.

The devil’s in the details

Understanding the details of a press run ahead of time will prepare you for a more successful press check and a more attractive catalog. Keeping color simple — for instance, avoiding black in background tints, so that you can run type dark against them without compromising the color — helps to keep the end result clean and also takes into account the way signatures run on a press.

The first detail you need to know is that the proofs you have from prepress are your bible on press. This is the only way you can tell if the catalog color is running accurately. You’ll compare the sheets coming off the press against your prepress proofs, reviewing one spread at a time. To try to review them all in one huge span is impossible. And don’t let anyone at the printer rush you — it’s your money that’s being spent on the print job, and it’s up to you to get full value.

A catalog is printed in signatures of 8 or 16 flat pages; the size of the press determines the size of the signature. Those signatures are set up so that as the page is folded in half, then in half again, and sometimes in half yet again, those pages will nest together, to be easily “stitched” (stapled) and then trimmed. When the catalog is big enough, two or three or more signatures are nested together and then stitched before trimming.

Because a signature must run flat on a press, there are always at least two pages running “in line” with each other. If the color is perfect on the lower page but off on the upper page, you may need to compromise the color on the lower one to correct the upper page. This variation in color accuracy is due to the ink’s being “used up” as the page runs through.

You will never see a catalog run where there is no color compromise. There is less now than there used to be, but it’s still there. This is because of the multiple-page press sheet of the signature format.

Another issue you’ll have to deal with for best quality on press is the confirmation of everything being in register. Color does not go on the press sheet in smooth sheets — it’s actually printed using some kind of dot pattern, the type of which varies depending on the age of the printing press and the technology available to the printer.

The dot pattern will lay down at least four colors. The basics are cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK). Some printers run six and even eight inks to create richer color, but the majority of color printing you see is done CMYK. These inks combine in different quantities of dots to make up every color you see on a printed page.

At a press check, you’ll be invited to examine the proofs through a loupe so that you can make sure that the color plates that transfer the ink to the press sheet were properly aligned to produce clean edges. Because printing technology has become so sophisticated during the past two decades, ensuring correct registration won’t be as big a challenge as it used to be, but it is still an important step. If the color is out of register, it will never look as crisp and attractive as it should.

If it looks like the color is not in register, you must request that the printer check the registration. If the color just looks “down” or not as bright as the proofs you provided, it’s up to you to ask the printer to get closer to the accuracy of the proof.

If you are very unhappy with what you see on press, you’ll need to have a frank discussion with the printer to find out what the problem is. If the problem is mechanical, such as a problem with the printing blanket (the rubber-coated fabric attached to a cylinder that transfers the ink from the press plate onto the paper), you will need to request they stop the press to fix that problem. But a responsible printer will bring this sort of problem up before you do. This is why it’s so important to know your printer by reputation and have confidence in the company’s skills and honesty.

Other things to be on the lookout for include the paper — make sure the catalogs are being printed on the stock you’ve requested or understand why if it’s not — and the bindery. Be sure that before you leave at the end of the press check, you have the printer make up a mockup from the printed sheets, hand-stapled, so that you can give it one last look to ensure that the signatures are in the correct order.

Waiting is half the fun

And hopefully, good things will come to you as you wait. When you attend a press check, be prepared to wait. And wait. And wait. And eat. And wait some more.

Take a laptop, a book, or some magazines, so that as the color is being refined, you’ll have something to do while you wait to see new proofs. Most printers are set up to accommodate their clients’ need to work while waiting and often have wireless Internet access in the waiting room.

All kinds of things, good and bad, will make you wait. Sometimes there will be a break in the roll of paper, in which case printing will stop so that the paper can be disentangled from the press rollers and then refed into the machine. Occasionally there will be a flaw in a printing plate, and someone will need to run down to prepress and get a fresh plate made. This is why it’s important that the printer hold all your files, even if you send the job to it by high-resolution PDF: It may need to fix something that necessitates going back to the digital file.

Occasionally a printer will allow you to actually step up to the press and watch as the pages come off the press. When that is possible, the press check can go faster because copies of the pages are not being walked that long, long haul between the presses and the waiting room. But legalities being what they are, often printers prefer to keep their clients away from the noise and the perceived danger of the press floor.

There are many opportunities to learn from great printers, so be sure to ask lots of questions. Learn how the company’s work is done, take tours of the prepress and bindery, and ask more questions. Then, as you review the color be confident that your concerns are justified enough to make known.

Remember that this is not the time to be shy or coy — the press check is your chance to make your catalog all it’s meant to be.

Carol Worthington-Levy is partner, creative services, at San Raphael, CA-based catalog consultancy Lenser. For a free guide on printing and prepress, e-mail her at

Carol Worthington-Levy will be one of the marketing professionals providing free catalog critiques at this year’s Annual Conference for Catalog and Multichannel Merchants (ACCM), held May 21-23 in Boston. Learn more about the conference at

Before the press check

The printing press is not the place for wholesale color corrections. It’s imperative to the success of your printed piece that all the color on the job is as close to perfect as possible before you send your files to the printer. Here are a few things to do prior to press check to help ensure the high quality of your catalog:

  • Make the most of the photography you have

    If art is provided by your suppliers or you’ve gotten stuck with a lot of pick-up shots, you may have to go in and clean up the photos. I usually find this means opening it in Adobe Photoshop to make sure the size is correct (at least 300 DPI, or dots per inch) and “opening up” some of the darker areas on the photos, which will tend to run dark on press.

  • Run real proofs with the printer who is running your job

    If you are proofing this out of your own studio, your color printer is probably not calibrated to the same standards as your printer’s is, so what looks great on your printer might look muddy after it hits the press. By seeing how pages look on the printer’s calibrated proofs, you can lighten and clean up a bit more if necessary.

  • Design with a knowledge of the web press

    Too many artists design catalogs for a perfect world and a sheet-fed press. Well, the former doesn’t exist and use of the latter is extremely unlikely in the catalog world.

When catalogs that are to be printed on a web press are designed with blocks of body copy reversed out of process color, for instance, you’re kicking off what will be a frustrating press check. Perfect dot alignment on a press that is running as fast as a web is not realistic. So if you run black type over a photo, for instance, you’ll find yourself struggling to keep the type dark enough to read without compromising the color accuracy of the photo.

While we’re on the subject of black type, some catalogers take advantage of the availability of extra press capacity, to run all the type as a black plate separate from the black plate used to create the CMYK images. The cost of running the extra black plate is not that high, and the process can decrease the cost of copy revisions, since any corrections you might need to make to the copy would affect just the one plate.

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