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What is a Press-Check and What Are You Supposed to Do?

Back in the olden days of digital prepress and printing, when proofs bore no resemblance to what would show up on press, the designer would be invited to a “press check” at the printing plant. This was so that the designer could approve and sign off on the actual job in addition to already having signed off on proofs (I use the term proofs loosely, compared to what we have today they were stabs in the dark. It’s a whole other post, but there’s a difference between a proof predicting how the printed job will look and the proof showing what the file looks like when printed to SWOP standards. Like I said, it’s another post.)

So you might be invited to do a press-check. Or your boss might say, I need you to press-check every job that prints, or agency standards may dictate mandatory press-checks. The reality is there are only a few circumstances today that warrant a press-check. After learning what those circumstances are, you can decide if you want to tell your boss whether or not you need to be out of the office for half a day, I will leave that up to you ;-).

So when do you need to be at a press check? What’s changed since the dawn of digital prepress? Today we have contract proofing that really predicts what the printed job will look like. We have drawdowns made by very precise ink mixing technology. We have papers with plate curves loaded into press control panels with scanning densitometers built-in! I mean, wow, what can go wrong?

If it is a routine printing job probably nothing will go wrong, but not every job is routine.

These situations call for a press check:

  • If your printer’s workflow is Gracol certified and you are uneasy about the way the proof looks, do a press check. If you are uneasy about the proof and your printer is not Gracol certified and says “We will make sure it looks like you want on press” demand a press check.
  • If you are printing on colored paper
  • If your design calls for overprinting
  • If the paper is “unusual,” or you are working with synthetic papers, suede finishes, etc.
  • If your printer said, “We haven’t done this before, but let’s give it a shot.”
  • If your printer wants you there.
  • If you are mixing a spot color with process colors, such as Hexachrome, hifi or touch plates.
  • If you will get fired if the color is not “perfect.”
  • If you are using a printer for the first time.
  • If you are using a printing method you have never used before, or you are experimenting.

If you choose to be at a press check for a job, then you MUST take responsibility for decisions made there. It’s best to be aware of your responsibilities during a press check. So what should you be doing at the press check? Really, all you have to do is look at the proof you signed off on, compare it to the press sheet and make sure they are very similar. Sometimes an exact match is unrealistic. There is some etiquette and protocol to being on a press check. There’s also etiquette and protocol on the part of the printer. Here are the manners from both sides:

Customer Etiquette

  • Do be on time.
  • Don’t use the press check to check for trim, bleeds, spelling, dates, phone numbers, addresses, or anything that should have been caught on the proof.
  • Do check that what is on the plate is what was on the proof (i.e., the same file, same edition, etc.) We’ve all seen a wrong file make it to plating or on press.
  • Do make sure the proof you signed off on is at the press check so you can compare its color and content to what is being printed. If changes were marked on the proof, check that they are on the press sheet.
  • Do compare drawdowns, if you have them, and make sure they match the press sheet if you approved drawdowns before going on press.
  • Don’t freak out at however much money your employer is spending and decide to question everything. That press is costing at least several hundred dollars an hour, and every minute you tie up is time the printer cannot sell again. Your printer will get annoyed if you consistently make press checks take more time than necessary, or he may start to include that cost in your future estimates.
  • Do recognize that making changes on press, such as a copy change that needs a new plate or a color change, are billable alterations.
  • Do try to see your project with a fresh eye. If you go in looking for a specific problem, you are going to miss the giant red flag staring you in the face.
  • Do not be afraid of speaking up. A press check can be intimidating. If you have a concern, voice it.

Printer Etiquette:

  • Do be on time. Respect your client’s time if you want her to respect yours. Notify the client if you are running more than an hour behind schedule.
  • Do have the client’s signed-off proof and drawdowns ready and available. A client standing around and waiting for someone to dig up the proof makes your print shop look disorganized.
  • Don’t steamroll the customers into making a decision. If there’s a tough call, help them weigh their options. Make a pro/con list. Be supportive and share your expertise. Bring in senior management if that’s not your strong suit.
  • Do provide a clean, quiet area for your clients to wait between checks. Ideally, give them internet access so they can work, and coffee, tea, water, and some kind of snack. Nobody wants to have a hangry customer!
  • Don’t get your wires crossed. If the client asks for something and the rep and pressman instantly contradict one another with a yes and a no, that isn’t good. Decide who is going to answer questions at the outset.
  • Do give your clients a trimmed-out sheet for their boss. Everyone back at the office wants to see what the new brochure/gift card/packaging looks like.
  • Do listen to your customers and don’t feel personally insulted if they find something wrong during the press check. (We once had a brilliant New York agency-trained art director say that the 7pt. font wasn’t trapping correctly to the background solid, and she wanted a loupe to check. Damn if she wasn’t right! She earned our respect for doing her job and displaying her training and technical knowledge.)
  • If your customer hasn’t had a plant tour or you’ve added a capability, show him what you are up to. I have never seen a designer or print buyer who wasn’t curious about the goings-on at a printing plant. Now that the technology has changed so much and press checks are infrequent, giving a customer a tour makes even better sense.
  • Do take the time to introduce your client to the other team members who keep the jobs running smoothly, such as the production staff, estimator, prepress person, receptionist, etc.
  • If your customer has never been on a press check, give her the low down on what she should be looking for. This is your opportunity to train your client.

There is stuff on the press sheet that is for the pressman to measure what the press is doing. You do not need to know how to read the registration marks, slur marks, color bars, gray balance or any of that. It might seem a little scary to see all that stuff on the press sheet but it will be trimmed off and will not wind up on your job.

When you are done, ask for a press sheet to take back to your team and you are outta there! Wanna know more?  Buy my book for a whole chapter on working with printers.

Do you have a press check experience to share? Please comment, I would love to hear it, good or bad!


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