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Designing for digital print

Sep 1, 2007 12:00 AM

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The new generation of designers is learning its craft in a world where everything happens in real time, driving new relationships with technology — and the printing industry.

Examples can be found in every print growth area. Print-on-demand services require designers and printers to share a commitment to frequent, rapid turnarounds. Personalized, variable-data printing can improve response rates when creative teams closely coordinate targeting and production with database managers and print providers. Streamlined work processes can save incredible amounts of time and still deliver high-quality output — provided the designer and printer know how to integrate their digital systems.

Following are tips for addressing eight key issues in designing for digital print production in this dynamic environment. These tips result partly from a collaboration between Xerox experts and students at the Communications Design Department of the renowned Parsons School of Design in New York, and they can be found in “The Art and Science of Digital Printing: The Parson's Guide to Getting it Right,” a 70-pg. primer on digital color printing.

  1. Think of finishing first

    Many printed pieces require some type of finishing — folding, trimming, die-cutting, binding, etc. — and by working “backwards” from the finished sample, print providers can help you set up your document properly. Finishing will dictate the design of the job, whether it is a saddlestitched or perfect-bound booklet, a trifold brochure or a door hanger that requires a special die-cut. It also will dictate the page size and bleed (the printed area that extends beyond the line where the sheet will be trimmed).

    The pages of your design should be organized so that when the press sheet is folded, the pages are in the correct order and ready for binding and trimming. With digital printing, jobs typically are set on a tabloid-sized paper (11 × 17 inches), which is folded in half to create two pages on each side of the paper. The type of substrate and grain direction also should be considered when planning the fold.

  2. Register that registration

    Registration refers to the correct positioning of images and text relative to the edges of the paper and other printing on both sides of the same sheet of paper. A typical digital printing system can maintain about a one- or two-mm front-to-back registration, which is acceptable for many applications. If a tighter registration or exact back-to-back alignment is required, consider using offset equipment, which offers tighter registration tolerances.

  3. Color space battle

    The print industry generally uses a CMYK workflow; however, it might be more beneficial to use an RGB workflow, depending upon the design and outcome desired. CMYK's color gamut allows for better print consistency across different print devices, while RGB images have a larger color gamut that allows for richer, more saturated colors and better photographic reproductions. The computer, or RIP, that controls the press is programmed to understand the optimal color translation for the digital press' gamut — work with it and it will work for you.

  4. Image resolution and compression

    Image compression and low resolution enable files to be stored and downloaded more quickly and easily on the Internet but can cause the permanent loss of valuable image information. When working with files, use the uncompressed PSD, TIFF or EPS format and avoid performing editing on compressed files, such as JPEG, unless absolutely necessary. Continuous tone images should be produced at 300 dots per inch (dpi) at reproduction size; line art and text should be produced at a minimum of 600 dpi. In most cases, a higher dpi level will have minimal effect on the final output but will use more memory and take longer to transmit. However, lowering dpi levels can cause some image and art degradation.

  5. Color uniformity

    While digital color presses are excellent at reproducing color, they can perform moderately well when reproducing large areas of some colors evenly, especially midtone tints and long gradations. Often, prints achieve the desired quality, but sometimes they show unevenness or banding. Reproduction can be improved by adding texture or “noise” over large solid areas of color. To do this, print providers can change the value of the color, limit blends to more than a 50 percent value change over seven inches or less, and avoid blending from a color to white. Check with your service provider for their recommendations, as they know their equipment and its capabilities.

  6. Typography

    Occasionally, producing very small type can challenge a digital printing system. And, as in traditional offset printing, using combination tints of process colors can compound the problem. Many factors affect type legibility, such as resolution, font selection (e.g. thin serifs, sans serifs) and color, as well as background values and paper. Typically, to print small, colored type, it is best to use one of the process colors — C, M or K — set to at least 80 percent. Similarly, type will knock out better if the background contains at least an 80 percent tint of C, M or K.

  7. Superhero blacks

    Because digital black is saturated and clean to begin with on many digital presses, all the black colors using 100 percent black ink as a base already are rich and colorful, and they don't require supplemental color additions. On some devices, however, print providers might need to add a certain percentage of C, M or Y process color to the black base for the development of rich blacks with a “warm” or “cool” feel. The key to success is to know which output device will be used and to understand its capabilities.

  8. Check, check and check

    Preflight is a structured method for checking files to ensure they are well prepared before printing. Many problems can be identified and fixed using a manual preflight method — such as identifying missing fonts and graphics, and determining whether graphics are in the correct position and size and are at their correct resolution and color space — which results in a better file. Files that are created properly the first time around help reduce the time and effort necessary to print them, resulting in labor and cost savings for the print provider.

Proofing on digital presses is a great technique for improving the printing process. It has two significant differences from offset proofing. First, the digital proof is not a simulation. Rather, digital proofs are printed on the actual production device, permitting the designer to see exactly how the piece will turn out. Second, digital proofs cost far less than high quality on-press proofs. Consequently, the digital workflow process is based upon designers submitting files, reviewing “press proofs,” making any adjustments they desire and repeating the process, if required. Such aggressive proofing gives the designer unprecedented control and is critical to digital printing success.

Michael Riebesehl is Xerox iGen3 project manager. Contact him at

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Communicate with your print provider

Your printer operates its digital press every day and should be able to help you optimize your design to best meet press specs — and your expectations. Before committing to a job with a new printer, speak with the company to understand its experience and skill set. Once a job is under way, seek your printer's advice on improving your proofs. Digital printing technology is evolving rapidly. Applying your printer's experience to your job can be the difference between “good enough” and “excellent.”