Never, Ever, Say ASAP to a Printer.

Planning Print Jobs

Here we are at the beginning of a new year, so it’s a great time to talk about planning. Whether you are a person who likes to plan in advance or hates to plan in advance, there is no downside to advance planning for print jobs. And, lucky for you, the printer actually does all the planning, you only need to get a file due date from your printer and work backward from there to your final approval date from your client (or boss).

To be clear, in what follows below, one day means one working day. Depending on your printer’s schedule, a work day might only be weekdays, or it could include weekends too if the print shop is running six or seven days a week. If your printer says 7-day turnaround does he mean Monday to Monday or Monday to Wednesday? Right. You don’t know unless you ask.

And NEVER, EVER tell your printer ASAP when they ask when you need it. Your rep has no idea what ASAP means. When a  job hits production with no due date, that means as soon as “possible” and if there are a week of emergencies with due dates in front of your job… you guessed it. The unscheduled job sits. And sits. I have seen it happen too many times to count. A good rep will pin you down and ask you what you mean by ASAP, five days? ten days? Everyone has a different definition. A great rep will never create an expectation they cannot meet because the difference between expectation and reality is stress.

Having said that, sometimes it is helpful to have a ballpark production schedule before you agree to take on a project. If there isn’t enough time, do you want to work day and night on your end to meet a file deadline? Is overtime in the budget? Will your client cooperate with copy and internal approvals? Exactly. Now you know where I am going with this.


When you are planning a print job, the following schedule will work 99% of the time in a commercial sheet-fed environment. (Web printing can have a different schedule depending on run length.) I put this together to simplify a “ballpark” schedule. There are instances where this schedule doesn’t exactly fit, and I will explain some of those in a minute. Just bear in mind that the scenarios here will not fit 100% of print jobs.

Exceptions to these timelines occur when running jobs on web presses. Depending on run length and paper availability, you might need to book your press time a month in advance. You also may be able to have much of the finishing done in-line on a web press which will save you time on the back end.

Let’s take these points one-by-one:

File to Printer & final specs, due date & delivery address
If you get all the information to the printer on day one, your job will be far better off than if you piece-meal the information. For example: if you send the file to the printer and say that you will get back to them with final ink choices after the marketing boss/client/decision-maker gets back from lunch and chooses a palette, and you think something is going to happen on your job in the interim… nope. Not happening. Don’t assume that because you can design a file in one palette and switch it out in a minute in InDesign that your printer can do the same. Because they can’t. Don’t assume that your printer has some kind of  MIS system that allows them to input your spot colors in Sales and that it updates a job ticket and alerts prepress. Because they don’t. It’s hard to remember that print is really and truly a custom manufacturing project but it is. And what that means is nothing happens until all the info has been captured. The number one problem with incomplete information is delivery addresses. Everyone thinks that it happens last so it can get to the printer last. In some companies shipping labels are printed at the time of order entry. And if that is the case with your vendor, the order needs to wait in shipping and return to order entry for shipping labels and then turn around and go back to shipping. You get my drift.

Proof Received, okayed and returned to the printer
Each type of proof takes a different amount of time. A PDF proof is quickest and the least accurate for things like color. A folding blueline takes a little more time and contract proofs with folding bluelines take even more time. Add on getting proofs to you and then for you to get them to the client and then getting them back to the printer and you can see how one day can turn into a week. Be proactive and find out who will okay proofs and that person’s availability when the proofs are ready. Are you and the client on two different sides of town? Plan ahead to meet at the printer or have the proofs shipped to you and you take them to the client. Working this out in advance can really be a big time-saver when the deadline is tight and there is no room for error. Don’t expect your printer to take three days out of their schedule if the client is on vacation and the proofs sit on a desk for three days. The other thing to remember with proofing is to know what you are proofing. All specifics like names and addresses and websites and etc. should have been proofed at the copy stage. Final proofing may be for color, pagination, die-cutting, or other bindery operation. And if you know your client/department/boss always makes changes and requires another round of proofs, tell your printer so that this is built into the schedule.

Simple Trimming, Bindery, Folding
Believe it or not, sometimes we have to wait for the ink to dry before we can cut your job. If it is printing on coated paper, it’s likely going through an infra-red (IR) drying unit and will emerge ready to cut. But if it is an uncoated sheet with a lot of ink on it, like solid coverage, there might be drying time involved before the job can be trimmed or bound. Most printers have a folder set-up for letter folding or a simple right angle. Complicated folding like a pharmacy fold or map fold takes longer to set up. Ditto for cutting. If you need a diagonal corner for example, that takes longer to set up, cannot be programmed into a cutter (yes, cutters are programmable, it’s super-cool!) and because it becomes a manual set-up and run operation it takes longer.

Finishing – Foil, Emboss, Perfect Bind, Spot UV
Some bindery operations are more complicated and that’s why they take more time. Take foil stamping and embossing for instance; these techniques require a die, which needs to be made and proofed. Sometimes this take the same amount of time as the printing, sometimes it takes longer. Your printer’s production department has this planned out to the day, and sometimes the hour, and that is where your print rep is getting the schedule, straight from production. Trust your rep and don’t try to push for a different schedule. Also, plan on adding extra time for each finishing operation that happens. They often have to run in sequence, not simultaneously so each process can add another five days to the schedule.

Case-binding takes much longer than perfect binding or stitching and there aren’t as many binderies that perform case binding. It’s a good possibility that your print job may even be going out-of-state for this finishing. Schedules that run a month or more out are not uncommon. Patience grasshopper!

Paper Scheduling
Depending on if your job is going to print sheet-fed or web, paper may take from one day to five weeks to arrive at the printer. Sometimes, the sheet-fed paper you specified is not locally available and needs to be ordered from the paper mill. In this case, it might take up to seven days for the paper to arrive, depending on which part of the country you are in. Most paper mills are in the Midwest, Wisconsin area. In California, it typically takes seven days to receive a mill order starting on Thursday—the day the paper merchant needs to get his paper order to the mill to make the truck that is leaving Friday. That means you have to let your printer know by noon on Wednesday. If your job is running on a web press expect it to take anywhere from one to five weeks for paper to arrive. Give your printer time to do the job right, give your paper merchant time to do the job right, and you will eliminate a great deal of stress and expense. In the best case scenario, you will know about a mill order’s paper situation when you are given the estimate. That way, you can order the paper on day one, give the printer the file on day two, the printer gives you a proof on day four, and then it’s just a couple more days before the paper arrives. By then, dies (if necessary) are made, and everything is ready to go. If the paper is in stock at the local merchant, it will be at the printer the next day. If the paper is at a local mill warehouse, it takes two to three days to get to the printer. Some terminology know-how is helpful when talking about paper availability. Local merchant means the paper is at the local merchant’s warehouse. Local Mill means the paper is at the paper mill’s local warehouse which may be in another part of your state. Mill warehouse means the paper is located at the paper mill and mill order means the mill needs to make the paper for your order. Winter storms affect trucking schedules. Be smart and add extra time to critical projects after snow is on the ground.

As soon as you have narrowed down or decided on your choice of paper, order dummies. Even if it is a simple project, ordering dummies is an excellent habit to get into.

As soon as you have decided on your final paper, order drawdowns if you are printing spot or a solid color, it may take a few days to receive them. If you want to see type or screens on your drawdown, mention that when you request the drawdown. (Screened drawdowns are very rough and not very accurate.)

If you know your client is going to make revisions to the proof, build that into the schedule. Tell your printer upfront how many rounds of proofs you think the job will take. Be clear about whether the subsequent rounds of proofs will be PDFs only or blueline or contract color. You can adjust the proofing workflow to work best for your client. Your printer can start out with bluelines because your client will be making adjustments to color necessitating a contract proof
 at the end. Remember that proofs are an expense, and they can add up, especially for large projects that include numerous pages or require complex hand cutting. Do not expect your printer to “throw in an extra proof.” It’s a hard cost item, and he will not appreciate the hit to his bottom line.

Press Check
When you give your printer the estimate specs, let her know if you are going to need a press check. Unless you are printing highly unusual art with a special technique, you do not need to be at a press check. If your client requires it, find out if she wants you to watch out for something specific.

One final word about scheduling and your print rep. Sometimes Printer A will tell you a job takes 15 days and Printer B will tell you it takes 10. Sometimes someone is not telling the truth and is already planning on calling you with some bad news in a few days about how there is going to be a delay. In my experience, that doesn’t happen very often. Why? Because good printers stay in business and good reps stay in the business. A good rep is a rep that tells you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. And sometimes Printer B can do it faster, because of better equipment or more shifts, or more flexible plant scheduling or they really want your business and are willing to work overtime to get it. Only you, the savvy designer and print buyer will know the truth, caveat emptor!

Do you have a story about a scheduling nightmare? I’d love to hear it, comment or contact me, we all learn from all the printing stories out there!



The 3 Workflow Mistakes I Made on My Holiday Card

Arrrgh! I am a pro! I know all this stuff!

I received my holiday newsletter from the printer and I am like, ‘what-the-heck is going on with the body font?’ (I didn’t really say ‘what-the heck’ but I am trying to swear less). I ran to grab one of my proofs to see if the type was as fine on the proof as it was on the printed product and is was not!  I then remembered I proofed it at home on my little Canon Pixma (that I love to bits, not her fault). Crap. Why didn’t I ask for a proof? Because I was late with my holiday cards this year and had already turned it into a New Year’s card and I didn’t want any further delays.

My husband and I are the only ones who saw the proofs and would know the difference, but it was still disappointing. And it is not the first time this has happened to me on a personal project! On a client project I have SOPs, (Standard Operating Procedures) and do not cut corners and typically am not working from home. I have a studio with professional equipment, including printers, so that I can work at the level necessary for commercial work.

This morning I thought, dang, maybe my readers can learn from my mistakes… they might like to see what I am talking about.

The Backstory

This year I did a tongue-in-cheek newsletter “Hark the Herald News” and spent a few minutes researching actual newspaper typefaces from the 1940’s and 50’s to give it that newsy look. (Here’s a pic a friend sent, he thought it was funny, yay!) I loved the Blackletter masthead and condensed Helvetica fonts and thought the non-beautiful spacing of Times was the perfect body font to convey that newspapery feeling. (I also thought a farcical newspaper was the perfect wind-up to 2016 ?.)

Mistake #1: Know what you are proofing

It is easy to forget what you are proofing or why you are proofing when you are caught up in a project. In my case, my husband was proofing typos and content and whether or not my jokes would fall flat on our friends and family. When he was done with his proofing, I thought, okay, good to go, one last check and let’s send off this pdf. When I printed the proofs for my husband I knew that they were for copy only. I knew that I needed to print another set of proofs to check everything else; halftone densities, ink gain on the copy paper, margins, etc. I totally forgot that we were proofing content only, not visuals. 

MISTAKE #2: make a final proof the right way

After we worked out our content and captions I printed some more proofs to make sure I had done the best I could to balance columns and whatnot.  I am a terrible production artist and I know it. I dread this stage of tightening everything up. I like it when I have a design and prepress team with eagle eyes to catch everything I miss. In other words, I rushed through as quick as I could. At this stage I should have switched out the paper to proofing paper instead of 24# copy paper and changed the print setting to “High Quality” or gone to the studio and printed it out on the proper printer and paper.

MISTAKE #3: If you can’t generate a hi-res proof get one

I sent the PDF to the printer with instructions to print it on a nice, unbulky, text (lighter than 80#), because it had to be folded in quarters to fit in my announcement envelopes. I remember being a little concerned about the halftones being dark and was wondering if they could lighten them up on press. I decided against asking that question when I submitted my pdf for fear of slowing down the process. I knew I was getting the file in late and asking for a rush deadline and I did not want to be a pain in the you-know-what. I did not ask for a proof.

Mistake #4: make sure everyone proofing knows what they are reviewing

My husband was surprised by the size when he saw the finished cards. He thought it was going to be tabloid-sized and I was shrinking it down to print at home. The proofs I showed were tiled, trimmed and taped together at actual size, 10″ x 15″ but because of the ratio and the subject, a newspaper, he thought it was going to be bigger! I should have explained that he was seeing the final size.

THE RESULT: disappointment

When you are speccing or setting body copy the “color” of the type has a huge effect on the look of a page. On the left is what the body type looked like coming out of my desktop inkjet printer on plain 24# copy paper with printing quality set to “standard”. On the right is the final output with the body text looking cleaner and more delicate than I wanted. I wanted that soaked-in-newspaper-ink look. This one difference completely changed the impact of the page and man was I bummed. It is the worst feeling to be totally excited about seeing a job come back from the printer and be disappointed. The. Worst.


This morning I printed a few more versions so you could see the differences that paper and print settings make.

Below, left is a proof printed on non-inkjet paper but smoother and “nicer” than 24# white copy paper. As you can see, the output is worse than the proof on the 24# paper, above, left. Copy paper is designed for imaging, not necessarily inkjet, but definitely laser printing. The proof is printing better on plain old copy paper than a much nicer non-imaging paper.

Below at right is a proof printed on Photo Glossy Paper. As you can see, the “color” of the paragraph is much closer to the final output than the copy paper proof. The photo paper is designed for desktop inkjet printers and does a fine job of representing how it was going to print. And that is exactly what a proof should do!

I am pretty picky about my print-outs, and that’s why I have a printer at home that uses archival inks and is capable of very high quality printing. Forgetting to use the correct paper is just plain dumb on my part. And even though my printer is awesome, it doesn’t hold a candle to a million-dollar digital printing press. Commercial presses have similar color and resolution, but they are completely different when it comes to speed, media variety, and repeatability.

We were each a little disappointed, I with the color of the type and my husband with the finished size. We still sent them out, folded in quarters, to spread some holiday cheer. The moral of the story is; if you don’t follow the steps necessary for a professional print project…you won’t get a professional outcome. Do you have a story about missing a step? I’d love to hear it.

I wish you a joyous 2017 with perfect proofs and awesome printing!




Clean Files – The Good, the Bad and the Fugly

The Good

Knowing how to accurately prepare clean files is a critical skill for any designer. You may work in an environment where you only design, and the production department cleans up your files and passes them on. But knowing these requirements will keep your work “producible” and you in the good graces of your production team.


Bleeds The number one faux pas of newbie files is no bleeds. This can cause so much trouble in prepress that it deserves to be the first item in software settings. When you set up your file, turn on bleeds so that you can see them. Then make sure that anything that runs off the edge of the page extends to the bleed line. You will soon learn that type and images become critical in their placement for bleeds, and you do not want to leave these decisions in the hands of your printer’s prepress department. Many printers will not make changes to files unless you specifically ask them to do so or mark your request on a proof.

Process Colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) 
All the process colors are transparent. That is why images printed with only the four process colors look wonderful because the colors optically mix. Process black is transparent. If you print process black over another element, the element will show through. If you place a solid area of process black next to a photo with dark areas, the photo’s dark areas will look darker, and the 100% black area will look too light or simply incorrect. Build and use rich black, not process black, for projects using photos or elements that have dark screen builds.

Specifying process colors using a Pantone process specifier helps you preview colors side-by-side before they are printed. Your monitor, if calibrated, is useful for roughing a design, but using a specifier is far more accurate when you are building your final file. Not only can you see the printed colors, but they are also formulated to reproduce without too much ink being laid down.

Rich Black Rich black is a mixture of the four process colors — Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black. This formula for a neutral rich black works well for most printing methods:     60% Cyan 40% Magenta 40% Yellow 100% Black  Some presses and papers have a limit on the total amount of ink possible, for example, 250%. The rich back recipe above totals 240% and is therefore fine. If you specify C100, M100, Y100 and K100, it won’t work. If you are printing digitally, rich black may result in a weaker black (check with your printer). Do not build rich black type.

Specifying a Spot Varnish or UV Create a spot ink color in your file and name it varnish. Let your printer know that varnish needs to overprint the inks underneath it. If you have more than one varnish, name each one appropriately, such as “Gloss Varnish” and “Dull Varnish” or “UV” The actual color you choose to represent that color is irrelevant, but you want to make it stand out so it’s easier to identify in the file.

Applying CMYK Color to Type If you must apply a process color mixture to type that is smaller than 18pt, for instance, make one of the colors 100% so the font has a solid outline that the other colors can float within. This will save you some heartache at press checks. Look at the example below which is greatly magnified to show you what is happening when you apply a screen build to type. The top example has magenta set to 100% whereas the bottom example has the magenta set to less than 100%. Note how the outline of the type is lost and becomes and series of jagged dots. That is what happens in your file.


Choosing a Color Library Know the destination of your color space before you start designing. If you shift destination color spaces, i.e., you start a file for the web and need to re-purpose it for print, changing the web colors (RGB) to process colors (cmyk) might be better left to your printer. Converting spot colors to process colors can result in some unwanted shifts in color. Know where you are headed by using a Pantone Color Bridge set that will show you the RGB, process, and spot equivalents with their shifts.

Specifying Pantone Solid Color Solid color is a color that is made up from one ink. The Pantone system has books of nearly every color model imaginable, reproduced in fan decks so you can see how your color looks on paper. Ink will look different depending on whether the paper is coated or uncoated. So when you are selecting inks for your file, make sure you are looking at the correct swatch for your project. In your file, use the C for coated and the U for uncoated designations and on your estimate request. Although there are designers who will specify 485c on an uncoated sheet, there is no way to get 485c red to look like 485c on an uncoated sheet without using a clear foil to make it shiny. If you don’t like the way your ink looks on the Pantone uncoated swatch, you are not going to like it on your job. Find a color you can live with, and remember to look at the double hit colors, i.e. 485c 2× to see if that is what you want and if so, be willing to pay extra.


Hairlines A hairline is not an actual measurement. It is the thinnest rule a device can produce. If you draw a hairline rule in a file and print it on your inkjet in your studio, it is going to be different from the “hairline” of a high-resolution laser printer, your printer’s plotter, and your printer’s plate setter. This kind of variability exists, even in this day and age. So, don’t use hairline rules. Specify an actual measurement instead.

Fold Marks A fold mark is shown by a dashed line placed 1/16th of an inch outside the pasteboard and is at least 1/4 inch long. When folds are critical, you should place fold marks in your file. A solid line is a cutting line, so make sure to use a dashed line for a fold.

Naming Colors Give the colors in your file the same name as the ink color you are printing. This might sound like a no-brainer, but you would be amazed at how many files come to a print shop that were quoted and ordered up for a certain color, say 485c, and then the file says “Rubine Red.” Your job is going to stand still until your printer finds out which color is correct, the color on your order or the color in the file.


Clean Pasteboards You’re going to brainstorm in your file, experiment with different fonts, drop in graphics, produce illustrations, change rule weights, and ultimately use only a portion of what you’ve been playing with. It’s natural to drag those unused items to the perimeter of your pasteboard so they are out of sight. Working in preview mode, you might forget that those items even exist. The problem occurs when your vendor has the file and all those items are still sitting on the perimeter. These items might include photos that are no longer linked, spot colors applied to elements that are not being used, and fonts that are no longer in the final document. All those extra items increase the size of the file and the ripping time. If any of those items are missing from your finished document, your printer’s prepress department is going to look for them. Prepress operators and/or prepress software are going to scan your document, find problems, and then start trouble-shooting those problems. In reality, those extra items really aren’t “problems,” but the software doesn’t know how to distinguish that. The last thing you want is for your files to have a reputation of not being clean. After all, prepress operators will not pick the most difficult file in the pile to work on first. They will choose the easiest one, even if it may not be the one with the most urgent deadline. Keep your files clean, and your job will move to the top of the pile without you even having to ask.

Final Page Size Often, the page size of your project will change as it moves from the initial idea to the final version. For example, if you started with a 5 in. × 7 in. postcard, it will be tempting to simply place crop marks on that 5 in. × 7 in. page to turn it into a 4 in. × 6 in. postcard and send it off to the printer. Shortcuts like this cause a nightmare on the prepress side. The printer must then resize your document and center all your page elements. With a multiple page file, the problems are compounded. You can only imagine what could go wrong. So, make sure that the file you submit is built the way it’s going to be printed.

Proofing Type Before you send your file to the printer, get in the habit of thoroughly proofing the copy. Do not assume that the printer is going to read your document, however short. Run spell check, and then make sure someone, not the person who wrote it, proofs it. A fail-safe proofing method is to read the text aloud to someone who is following along with the marked-up hard copy.

If you have a horror story about one of these dirty file problems or another software-related horror story, please comment and share. We all learn from each other!