Up to about a decade ago, most graphic designers were designing more for print than for the Web, and most marketers left the primary job of buying and approving print jobs and press checks to their outside design firm or designer, who also brokered the printing for them.
But with the shift toward streamlining staff and buying print directly, it’s now fairly common for companies and printers to work directly together with no middleman. And with so many online printers saving money and time, press checks are not always possible. Digital, toner-based printing is popular. But that isn’t always the best solution for the job, and ultimately using ink-based printing, and a press check, is in order. So at some point, if you are a business owner or marketing manager, you will be the person doing the press check. And it’s very likely you will also be tasked with signing off a print job solo.
Being handed the pen and signing off a print job is a big responsibility. It’s normal to feel at least a bit nervous about press checks. You are either walking into a noisy press room, surrounded by press crew who want to get this job done so they can run the next job, or you are put into a viewing room and brought sheets — ‘pulls’ — from the press room. There is money at stake, usually yours, and even small press runs are not something to take lightly, because a bad print job costs time and money to fix.
There is no substitute for experience on press checks, because each one is unique and factors like machinery, prepress preparations, paper, even inks, can affect the way a job prints. But you can prepare yourself to be a better press check participant if you focus on a few useful press check mindset guidelines and follow a systematic press check steps of preparing for the press check and conducting your press check moves to address any print problems that have come up.
Press Check Mindset Guidelines
Press Check Mindset Guideline 1: You alone hold the pen to sign off on a press check. Huh? You decide — not the print salesperson, not the CSR, not the press supervisor, not a press paper loader – decide when you should sign off. If something is not right, it rests on your ability to accept the job. Your pen, your money, your responsibility.
Press Check Mindset Guideline 2: Press supervisors are there to help you, but they don’t mind read. Yes, the faster you sign, the faster they can move on to other jobs. But most know that if you are not happy with the job, their company and they may not get future work from you. If you communicate clearly to them what aspects are most critical in your print job, like logo color, skin tones or product appearance, they will guide they have the experience to guide their crew to a print job that will please you and you’ll sign off. Along the way, be consistent and systematic with any adjustments you ask for, and be ready with actual past print samples to show press personnel what you are talking about.
Press Check Mindset Guideline 3: Press proofs, NOT a press check, are for your first and full proofreading. Just as if you weren’t doing the press check, you should complete your thorough proofreading of materials at the press proof stage, well before printing plates are made. There is enough to think about on a press check, and while you should be looking for details like missing characters or elements, or incorrect back/front content appearing on a sheet, this is fail-safe time. The formal proofreading task should have been completed well before you stepped into the printing facility.
Press Check Mindset Guideline 4: Proofs are not paper—allow for compromise. In the dinosaur days of analog 4/color proofs, colors and detail seen on a proof were very close approximations of how the finished product would appear on paper. But proofs were VERY costly. Then came much more affordable digital proofs, which are the standard today. Faster and cheaper, they render beautifully — almost too beautifully. They are often crisp and clean, and made using inkjet colors that aren’t the same as the soy inks or process used on offset presses. Often, they are not printed on the same paper stock you are printing on, which will make them appear differently from a printed piece. So be ready for some compromise.
Press Check Mindset Guideline 5: If things are going badly, find a solution (not someone to blame) and pull the job. I am not advocating you have a temper tantrum if things are not quite perfect, but if there comes a point, usually after 12 press ‘pulls’ when you need to bring more people into the mix. The prepress supervisor, sales person, even the graphic designer over the phone, to find a solution. It might cost time and money, or the printer may have to share some or all of the cost to replate and change something that isn’t printing right, but that is better than wasting money and paper running a job that will have to be tossed out.
Press Check Mindset Guideline 6: Don’t put up with jerks, or be one. I said it before: You are part of a team, and you need the expertise around you to get this done. Don’t piss the printing people off just because you feel like you have the power to mess with them. Likewise, you can push back when a salesperson or press supervisor seems to be pushing you to sign-off with things that are wrong. Weeks later, if your boss or someone asks about why something was printed wrong, the first thing that will be brought out, and the thing that matters most, is your signature and approval on the sign-off sheet. The best thing to do is prepare in advance. If you are the business owner, this is easy. It is your money, so you decide when to spend it. If you work for someone else, at the point your boss asks/tells you to handle this press check for your company, let them know if it is not right, you will pull the job until it is, so they are not surprised.
Press Check Steps
Press Check Steps: Prepare before the press check.
- Review the final OK’d proofs that were approved, and be aware of any changes that were made to them, and why. Bring them the day of the press check.
- Know what elements of the print job are most critical. They can include logos, images, product colors, or specific graphics. If necessary, prioritize them so if there is a conflict in color adjustments on press, you can make better decisions.
- If the element is something that is weight-critical, such as mail, have the printer provide mock ups made to actual size and on actual stock, and have it weighed
- Also have the mock-ups checked for correct fit, inserting and trimming, because when you view sheets on press, they are not in final trimmed dimensions
- If your print job has two or more versions, be sure to prepare some method to be sure that all versions are accounted for, and that back-to-front content matches correctly on your press sheets.
- Bring a handful of printed samples of past jobs using the same logos, images or graphics.
- Bring 2-3 samples of any related printed matter that will be used in conjunction with what you are printing. Examples would be folders or envelopes if you are printing a brochure that will be inserted. This allows you to see if common elements are matching sufficiently, and to test any fitting of final trimmed items.
- Bring 2 to 3 of your own Sharpie Pens. That way, as you are having adjustments made, you can spot and mark any recurring dots, hickeys (voids) or marks on spare pulled sheets
- Bring PMS or similar swatches with you of any critical colors, such as logos or key images
- Bring a set of scissors
Press Check Steps: Briefing and content check before color ‘pulls’.
- Let both the salesperson and the supervisor know what the priority elements for color control are.
- Let them both know you have samples of past jobs to use to check the color of logos and images.
- Verify the stock is the same as the type and weight that was approved
- Use a spare first sheet specifically to check for missing or mismatched content. Ignore color and use your set of approved proofs alongside the sheet to cross-check. Even if color is being worked on, an early sheet can be used for this purpose. Mark it “content check” in the margin, and number it.
- Check areas that ‘bleed’ to be sure the press sheet includes enough for safe trimming. 1/8” is an accepted amount of bleed on most presses.
- Check for anything that SHOULD NOT be printing, such as areas that are FPO (For Position Only) indicating areas for laser fill, perforation cuts or die cuts that should not be printed.
- Keep this sheet as a reference to be used later in checking final clean ups. If you find major errors in content, notify the press supervisor of the issue.
Press Check Steps: Correct for color
- Mark each sheet, or ‘pull’ in the upper corner, with a number, and the time.
- On the initial sheet, if images appear muddy, ask the press supervisor to check that dot registration to see if any colors are ‘hanging’ or misaligned. Sometimes a very small misalignment of the plates could be causing images to lose their crispness.
- On the initial sheet, also check overall for match in color to the proofs. Look specifically for saturation of color, which could mean inks are too low or heavy on the sheet. Share with the press supervisor what overall color match issues you see on the sheet, and which are most important. Once they understand, let them mark the sheet with instructions to the press operator.
- Look at samples you have brought with you for color on images and logos, and if your job is matching to a spot color or using a spot color, your PMS swatches. If any items and images are not matching to a reasonable degree, point them out to the Press Supervisor.
- Look for the repeating 4/color bars along one edge that indicate the direction the ink prints onto the sheet. Imagine a line from those ink bars to the opposite edge of the sheet. This is the direction ink can be adjusted, and everything that prints in the same linear area gets affected by the amount of ink being applied. Use this to help make decisions about what to change during the press check.
- Most times, you will be looking at sheet containing multiple printed pieces. If so, work with the press supervisor to pick one to use as the “hero” to focus on first.
- As you have adjustments made to each sheet, Try to keep each set of press changes or ‘moves’ down to three or less. This way, changes can be done in controlled increments, and if something isn’t working, the press operator can undo the changes in a systematic way.
Press Check Steps: Check consistency across the sheet
- Once you are satisfied with the ‘hero’ portion of the sheet, let the press supervisor know you want the rest of the sheet balanced to match the same color
- You’ll be provided with additional sheets. When you do, continue to number and time them, and add a note ‘for balance’
- With each sheet, get a second sheet from the same ‘pull’ and either fold it accordion-style or cut it with scissors so you can lay the hero area against other parts of the sheet. Look at them together, laying them as flat as possible, and look from different angles, to see how well they match. Then communicate changes or areas of mismatch to the press supervisor for markup and adjustment.
- Repeat the process until the sheet is correct, and then repeat for the back of the sheet if applicable
Press Check Steps: Check for picks, hickies, holes and recheck matches
- Now that color is balanced, you can retrieve the early sheet you used to spot imperfections, and use it to see if the problems have been cleaned up.
- Look for any new imperfections or missing letters, art or elements again.
- If you find flaws, mark a sheet as you have before, and circle the flaws. Many flaws are due to a spec on the printing plate or blanket, and can be cleaned off by the press operating team quickly enough that you should be able to sign off a clean sheet.
- Recheck your matrix of content again, and if needed, cut out a sheet with scissors so you can view front/back match up.
Press Check Steps: Sign off, and take sample sheets
- Once the process of checking color, then consistency, then flaws, then content is complete, it’s time to sign-off on the press check
- Usually there is a stamp or label affixed to the final sheet. Sign, date the sheet.
- Ask for some sample sheets to take back to your office. I usually take 3-4 for myself, and any additional that need to be distributed
Press Check Steps: Some miscellany worth noting
- Paper types and brands absorb certain colors of ink differently. Similar papers can show a cooler or warmer cast from one another even if printed on the same printing press using the same settings and plates.
- It bears repeating: no papers match press proofs exactly. So keep this in mind when making concessions in color
- 4/color images of skin tones, large areas of beige color, and photographs of gold or other metals are sensitive to color shift more than dark subjects. Small percentage moves of cyan, magenta and yellow make a big difference.
- The amount of times between press ‘pulls’ can vary between 10-20 minutes on most presses. The reason is because the press supervisor communicates your message, the press operator makes adustments on a master panel, the press is restarted, the operator makes sure the adjustments have accomplished the change you instructed, and if not he makes another move or more before you are presented a new sheet. If you are being shown press sheets as quickly as 2-5 minutes apart, you might not be looking at stable, up-to-speed new sheets.
- Some colors, such as skin tones, are subjective, to a reasonable degree. This is why you are at the press check. You’ll need to be decisive, but be able to accommodate some trade off if skin tones are affecting a logo, product image or other important element.
- As a press gets up to it’s full speed, colors tend to become crisper and cleaner. I can’t explain the physics, but it does. This is not an excuse to sign off a bad proof.
- It IS true that as ink dries on paper, the ink hardens and colors shift to a small degree. If you hear this from a press operator, they are not kidding. Even if the printing press has driers attached to the end, it will still change after an hour or two. I find that unless you have particularly 4/color heavy images, or porous paper stock, the change is extremely subtle. It’s not reasonable to expect or demand to hold the press for an hour after each pull.
I hope these Guidelines and process steps I’ve shared will help you feel more prepared and comfortable if you are new to press checks.
In my career, I have had the benefit of working alongside some incredible printing experts who were production managers, art directors and press supervisors. They shared their expertise and taught me how to speak their language. The technology advancements in offset printing have taken a machine that needed 6 people to operate and keep in calibration during the course of running a print job and made it possible to be run by two people, with all settings saved so weeks later we could reprint using all the same settings and rendering near-perfect matches to the first sign-off.
With the printing options available today, the process of a press check has been cut down considerably. But none of that can be done without a mindset and processes in place to help things go smoother.