Commercial Print - Now and in the Future

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The way commercial print is changing

Tom Arah looks at how developments on the computer and at the press could affect the way we publish now and in the future.

Save for Service Provider

In issues 38 and 40 I investigated the problems that arise when you move from the safety of local outputting on your desktop printer and venture out into the world of commercial offset print. It's difficult to overstate just how different the two worlds are. Successful desktop print is largely a question of buying as good a printer as you can afford and hitting the print command. Successful commercial print on the other hand only happens as the result of a complex process of translation. First you must translate your work from your system to your service providers, they must then translate your design into colour separations and finally the printers must translate the resulting plates into the finished printed material.

The translation is necessary because electronic computer and photo-mechanical press talk in completely different languages one based on the digital byte and the other on the halftone dot. In a way the two systems are so different that it's a miracle that they can be made to talk to each other at all. The fact that they can is thanks to the Postscript language that acts as go-between and translator, but no-one could say that the process is ideal. It's too easy for errors to impede or completely destroy the communication process. Failing to compensate for dot gain, for example, might mean that the flesh tones in an image come out darker than expected, while something as simple as a missing hyphen in a font's name might mean that a whole publication ends up printing in courier!

At present the whole process of commercial publishing can too easily end up as disappointment or even disaster. The industry is always adapting and improving, however, and there are important developments appearing both on the computer and at the press that look set to improve the outlook.

To begin with, publishing software nowadays is unrecognisably professional compared to that of ten years ago with features that seemed impossibly advanced then commonplace today. The trapping controls necessary to compensate for misregistration, for example, are now found in packages like PagePlus that cost well under £100. Postscript support in particular has been radically improved. Admittedly there's still a tendency with PC-based software to underplay the demands of offset print - as we saw last month with Corel Draw's transparency handling - but these problems are comparatively small beer. It's a long time since I had a really heart-stopping problem like the inability of Ventura 3 to output to a Lino 100 without cutting off the top inch of every page!

Save for Service Provider

The increasing emphasis on producing successful commercial print is especially clear in the recent spate of Save for Service Provider commands. These are designed to avoid the major potential problems of missing fonts and images by checking the current publication for potential problems and then packaging all necessary files into a new directory ready for copying onto removable media. The Corel Draw 8 version of the command even offers a belt-and-braces approach by copying the original CDR file and also creating a Postscript PRN file. While the intention is welcome, I have to say that I don't feel comfortable with any of the Save for Service options as they often cause more effort and problems than they solve.

The PageMaker 6.5 command is a good example, needlessly checking every single font on your system rather than those it already knows are in use in the publication. More worryingly it also regularly reports problems with out of date files which the program's Links dialog then shows are unfounded. Worse it gives no option to fix problems so that you are forced to exit the dialog make your changes and then reload - checking all the fonts once again as you go. Finally when you are happy and want to package the publication, all installed typefaces are checked yet again for luck! At least the PageMaker 6.5 version of the command does seem to copy all relevant fonts and files which is one step up on the PageMaker 6 version.

Flightcheck

The fact that the current implementations of Save for Service Provider commands are uniformly clumsy and under-powered opens the way for dedicated third-party solutions like Flightcheck from Markzware (reviewed issue 42). This package offers a number of advantages. It can open and check a range of publication formats - currently PageMaker, Illustrator, FreeHand and Quark with Corel Draw due soon - and it offers far more practical assistance. Double-clicking on a flagged image, for example, will take you to a graphical representation of the page it appears on, while double-clicking again opens up a preview of the image itself. Most importantly, the various checks that the publication undergoes are far more rigorous picking up on features like unused spot colours and insufficient or even excessive image data for the current screen setting.

Just understanding the hundred or so parameters that Flightcheck is investigating is an education in itself and should help eliminate potential problems in future. In many ways the more you use the program the less you will need it, but it will never become completely redundant as even experts still make mistakes. A line weight inadvertently set to hairline would be near invisible if imageset, for example, but would look fine on the laser proof. The eye might be fooled, but Flightcheck would easily pick up the problems as it automatically and rigorously checks every font, image, line and fill in the publication. Flightcheck can be invaluable then, but at £299 it isn't cheap and, for the price, it has too many rough edges. The multiple-windowed interface in particular is bizarre and the inability to copy fonts unless you have first added them to named font groups is a serious limitation.

Postscript PRN Files

For the future Markzware has serious plans to develop the program with tight integration with certified service providers forming a reliable bridge between the computer and imagesetter. Whether the company has the muscle to achieve this, however, is debatable. In any case it could be argued that the reliable bridge between computer and imagesetter already exists in the form of Postscript print files. After all the whole purpose of Postscript was to provide a device and resolution independent method of outputting the same file to a local printer or to a high-resolution device. Simply by printing a design to disk, the user can automatically embed all images and fonts into the PRN file and so ensure the results they expect.

This is all true and many users have been happily using the system for years, but there are a number of problems. To begin with Postscript is an uncompressed format so that the print file sizes are enormous especially when producing separations. Higher capacity removable media has alleviated the problem, but there's no getting away from the fact that the resulting files are unwieldy and difficult to manage - there is no possibility of sending files electronically for example. More importantly, the files cannot be edited or fine-tuned which means that, if there is a mistake, the only option is to begin again from scratch which is obviously inconvenient and expensive. Worse, by cutting the service provider out of the loop, their expert input on optimal pre-press settings and cost-effective impositions is lost.

PDF

In practice then the problems with working with PRN files meant that most designers instead made sure that they were working with the same software as their service providers so that they could send them the native publication files for direct outputting. As such the original vision of Postscript as a universal publishing exchange standard was in danger of being lost with the language becoming little more than a glorified print driver. Adobe appreciated as much and came up with a potential solution in its PDF Acrobat format. In effect the PDF is a preRIPped Postscript file with two huge advantages. Firstly the format is very compressed so that the PDF file sizes are usually considerably smaller than the original publication files. Secondly the files can be easily viewed and printed with the cross-platform and free Acrobat Reader program so that the user no longer has to work half-blind.

In theory then, since version 1.2 of the format which added pre-press features such as OPI and colour correction, the Acrobat format has had the potential to become the Postscript-based exchange standard between designer and outputting bureau. The attractions are obvious with the compressed single file format avoiding the problems of missing fonts and images while offering the possibility of electronic delivery and easy onscreen and paper proofing. With Acrobat Exchange installed it even allowed those inevitable last-minute typos to be corrected.

In practice things haven't turned out this way for two main reasons. To begin with designers are now used to providing native publication files which keeps all options open both for editing and for fine-tuning settings right until the last moment. The ability to change typos in the PDF is not enough. The major problem though surfaces when it comes to print. Despite its underlying Postscript foundation, the Acrobat Reader program's outputting options are hopelessly inadequate with none of the necessary options for creating separations let alone for controlling trapping or impositions. In many ways the use of PDFs for high-end commercial print seems a case of too little too late.

The potential though remains immense and Adobe is still determined to make the PDF the cornerstone of its whole publishing approach. Each of its major applications can now create PDFs directly and, crucially, the latest Illustrator 7 can now also open them. Suddenly the problems of editability and output control disappear with Illustrator taking on the role of a high-end Acrobat Reader capable of producing offset print. At a stroke this widens the world of commercial print away from the usual DTP suspects to include any application on any platform. With Illustrator as a de facto front-end, imagesetters can theoretically receive PDFs from any source and output them for commercial print - colour separations from Word at last! In theory the potential is huge, but in practice there are a number of obstacles that still need to be cleared, not least Illustrator's crippling inability to deal with more than one page at a time!

CtP and Stochastic screening

It's not just the digital side of commercial print that is reinventing itself. The technology available at the service providers and printers is also changing. The current use of imageset film, for example, inevitably brings in the potential problems of over- or under-exposure due to the vagaries of the photographic process. New computer-to-plate (CtP) technology attempts to cut out the problem by cutting out the middleman. These new "platesetters" generally work by directly exposing aluminium or polyester plates covered with a photopolymer. CtP's savings in time and money are clear but the jury is still out regarding quality.

It's not just the delivery mechanism that's being rethought, the underlying principles of the halftone grid are also being questioned. New stochastic or frequency modulation (FM) screens work with smaller halftone dots that are scattered to build up the illusion of the desired colour tone. The fundamental difference of FM screens to regular halftones can be seen in Photoshop if you convert a grayscale image to black and white with the diffusion rather than the halftone option. The advantage is that the smaller dots are less noticeable and allow more detail while the scatter effect avoids the possibility of moiré interference patterns. On the other hand the slightly grainy effect works better for certain image types and not all presses can handle the smaller dots.

The End of CMYK?

An even bigger potential revolution is the move from the four-colour CMYK standard. In many ways this standard is so common that it has come to be seen as a given, but no-one could call it ideal. Because CMYK is the system behind every colour photo in every colour magazine it's easy to imagine that it can produce every visible colour, but that is absolutely not the case. The CMYK gamut or range of colours is actually quite limited and far smaller than the eye can see or even than the RGB monitor can produce. That's why it's crucial to understand the importance of working with "dulled-down" CMYK photos and colours if you are producing commercial print. If you don't, it's virtually guaranteed that your results will look very different to your intentions.

The alternatives to CMYK are the hi-fi colour systems based on the use of different inks on up to eight separations. The advantage they offer is that their colour gamuts are far wider which means much more accurate and striking colour without the need to drop down from the original RGB scan to CMYK. The hi-fi standard that seems to be gaining most ground is the Pantone Hexachrome system (see issue 26). Hexachrome's main strength is that it builds on the existing CMYK system but offers 50% more colour than conventional print processes through the addition of extra green and orange inks. This means that it can run on existing six-colour presses and that four- and six-colour work can be mixed. Perhaps most importantly the Pantone name gives serious credibility and, with XPress 4 now in the fold, all of the major publishing packages now support the format.

Direct Print

In the long-run the improved quality and ease of use of Hexachrome might come to challenge CMYK for high quality work, but the added expense and complexity will keep it niche for a while yet. A more formidable threat to traditional print comes at the other end of the scale and from another direction completely - direct print. A number of copy shops already produce very short print-runs directly on their own colour lasers or even inkjets. Such direct print is hardly a threat to offset printing as it stands in terms of speed, quality or cost, but it's important to realise that this is simply a matter of logistics not of principle.

Perhaps surprisingly, the company that is the driving force behind the push to scale up the capabilities of direct print is Adobe. The central problem of current direct print is the serial nature whereby one page has to be finished before the next can be processed. With the page independence in the latest Postscript 3, however, this bottleneck is removed allowing different processors to deal with different pages at the same time. With printers built to take advantage of this parallel Postscript processing, together with features like in-built imposition and binding, the ability is there to scale up direct print to compete directly with offset. The first generation of these printers based on what Adobe is now calling its "Extreme" architecture - after a clash with Toyota over the name "Supra" - are now appearing.

Interestingly, to offer their parallel processing, Extreme printers actually first convert each page of the Postscript print file into independent PDFs as Postscript 3 now actually prefers direct processing of PDF code. As such PDFs can be seen to supercede Postscript itself redefining the standard and making it as essential for high-end direct print as it already is for offset work. In fact of course this is only the beginning of Adobe's ambition for PDFs. Its supremacy on paper is guaranteed by its Postscript foundation, but Adobe also wants the format to be seen as the universal high-end electronic standard with its Bravo technology taking the PDF into the new realms of multimedia and the Net (see issue 28). The potential is all-encompassing and, if it is successful, will change our whole concept of publishing.

Rather than head office arranging for the commercial print of so many thousand annual reports, for example, it could instead produce a single multimedia PDF complete with videos, animations and links. This could then be made available on the company home page for immediate browsing from anywhere in the world. A regional manager could download the file and incorporate all relevant material in their own report which could be sent off for outputting as coffee-table quality Hexachrome offset print. Just as easily a team manager could extract those sections they were interested in and send them via their intranet to the company's Extreme-based print-room where the exact number of copies could be printed off on demand. With automatic imposition and binding, the finished articles could be back on their desk within the hour.

It's an amazing and exciting prospect but, for the present at least, it's probably as well to put it to the back of your mind as you concentrate on ensuring that those CMYK halftone dots all end up on the right plate.

April 1998

Tom Arah


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