Page Imposition: Bringing to Book

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Understand and make the most of page imposition

Tom Arah explores the under-appreciated topic of page imposition for both in-house and commercial print.

These days everybody is involved in print. At some point everyone who has used a computer will have hit the Print command to output a word processed document or Acrobat PDF. When you think about it though, there's one very striking difference between desktop and professional print. While the vast majority of laser and inkjet print takes the form of single-sided, single pages, the vast majority of commercial print takes the form of double-sided double-page spreads.

In comparison in-house print suddenly looks inconvenient, unprofessional and appallingly wasteful. So how can you bridge this gap between two such different worlds?

These days direct double-sided local output is becoming less rare thanks to the advent of dedicated duplex printers and duplex copiers. Alternatively you can achieve the same result with single-sided devices by printing out all of a publication's odd pages, picking up the printout and putting it through again, this time printing all even pages. Word 2002 even offers a dedicated Manual Duplex option which automatically prints out both odd and even pages in turn complete with a prompt to tell you when to turn the stack over.

Be careful though. Some older laser printers can be damaged by putting printed paper back through the device (check the manual), while with others it can be an instant recipe for a paper jam. With more modern printers and better paper stock you shouldn't have any problems. However before you launch into a long print run do a short test to find out how your printer handles double-sided print. In particular, as different devices have different paper paths, you might need to reverse the order of either front or back sheets or you'll end up with a stack of over-printed or upside-down waste paper. Again Word 2002 makes life slightly easier with the ability to set the order of front or back sheets as a Print dialog option.

The latest Word offers booklet-based imposition and manual duplex print.

Once you've got everything up and running you've stopped the 50% wastage of single-sided print but, unlike the commercial print that surrounds us, there's still only one page per side of paper. Again this can be overcome depending on the application and printer you use. With PostScript printers, for example, there's an option under Printer Preferences to print more than one page per sheet of paper while Word 2002's Print dialog offers the same capability for non-PostScript devices. This is great if you have a large-format A3 printer where each A4 page can still be printed full-size, but it's also useful for the far more common A4 printers if each A4 original is scaled down to A5 to produce a double-page spread. Now, combined with duplex printing, we can output a 16 page PDF manual on just 4 sheets of paper, the results are still readable, the manual is more convenient - and we've saved 75% of our paper costs!

We've managed to produce double-sided double-page output, but there's a serious problem. Each page is printed consecutively 1+2, 3+4, etc which is fine for reading loose-leaf, but when we come to fold and staple the sheets to produce our finished booklet suddenly everything goes horribly wrong. Try it yourself and you'll see that, rather than consecutive, the new folded page order goes completely haywire with the booklet starting on page 2, descending into chaos with page spreads of 3+6, 7+10, 11+14, 15+16, 13+12, 9+8, 5+4 and then, adding insult to injury, the final page is actually page 1!

Clearly something has to be done, and the solution is to print the pages out of order so that the folding process actually brings them into the right order. This process of reordering the pages as "printer spreads" as opposed to "reader spreads" is called "imposition". And it's a central though under-appreciated aspect of professional print.

So what is the right page order or imposition? If you take the junk booklet we created and write on the page numbers that should appear on each page - 1, 2+3, 4+5 . 14+15, 16 - and then unfold the sheets you'll find the necessary imposition. In this case it's 16+1, 2+15, 14+3, 4+13, 12+5, 6+11, 10+7 and the consecutive 8+9 for the centre spread. Try the same for an eight page (two sheet) booklet and you'll find the necessary imposition is 8+1, 2+7, 6+3, and 4+5 for the centre spread. No one could call it intuitive but there is a pattern: the side-by-side page numbers on each spread add up to one more than the total number of pages in the booklet and for each spread the odd number is always on the right-hand side.

OK, we now know how to work out the imposition needed to produce any properly ordered double-sided double-page-spread publication - but how can we do it in practice apart from by manually cutting and pasting the pages? Over the years the workarounds I've come across designed to achieve this have been horrendous including setting up two-column templates in Word but only using the left or right column on alternate pages and then feeding each page through the printer four times! Nowadays thankfully Word 2002 makes this basic imposition automatic with the ability to choose a Book Fold layout in the Page Setup command.

This is a big step forward, but Word's control isn't amazing and it's not a universal solution. In particular if you're trying to output from another application, such as one of those increasingly common PDF manuals, you're stuck. That's where ClickBook 5 from www.bluesquirrel.com (demo on cover CD) comes in, acting as a cross between a printer driver and a page imposition program for any application and any printer.

ClickBook acts as imposition middleman between any application and any desktop printer.

The most difficult thing about ClickBook is its set-up. To begin with you have to choose which of your installed printers you want to give imposition capabilities to. As PostScript can cause problems, non-PostScript devices or printer modes are preferred. You'll also have to set the resulting ClickBook version of your printer's default page size to A4 in the Printer Control panel and in ClickBook's own Options dialog to over-ride the US-based Letter default. Most importantly you'll need to run the Custom Printer Setup Wizard which walks you though printing out two sheets of paper on both sides so that it can work out your printer's page path and orientation. If you don't get this right you're going to end up wasting a lot of paper.

Once everything's been set up correctly, producing your first booklet is very simple. All you need to do is select the new ClickBook version of your printer in any application's Print dialog. ClickBook then automatically loads and intercepts the print output from your application and automatically resizes and reorders the publication's pages into the right imposition. It even shows a print preview of the new imposed spreads so that you can check everything is as it should be (though not under Windows 2000). Now you're ready to click Print and ClickBook will output all the front spreads and then wait for you to pick up the stack and put it back in the printer ready to output the back spreads. Fold the pages and centre-staple or saddle-stitch them and you've produced your booklet.

ClickBook's defaults certainly work well, but you might decide that you want to fine-tune your imposition with the Modify Layout command. To begin with you might want your booklet pages to have a landscape orientation in which case you need to flip the central "binding edge" to make it horizontal. You are also likely to want to control the margins both of your overall sheet and of each "mini-page". In particular you are likely to want to set a "binding margin" to move each mini-page away from where the sheet is folded to ensure readability.

This will take care of everything you need for most short booklets, but as the number of pages in each booklet increases another problem arises. Paper is thin but each sheet still has some width so it's simply not realistic folding more than a certain number of pages. To output a 400 page PDF manual, for example, would need 100 sheets of paper to be folded which isn't workable.

The solution in these cases is to break up the overall booklet into what ClickBook calls "sub-booklets" which are folded separately. That solves the folding problem but causes another headache - stapling or saddle stitching works to bind each sub-booklet but how do you bind the sub-booklets? The most common answer is "perfect binding". Here all sub-booklets are folded and clamped together and then the central binding area is sliced off, glue is applied and the stack of separate sheets is pressed against a binding spine. Wrap around a specially designed cover with a little more glue and you've got a neatly finished annual report, directory, manual, magazine or whatever.

Booklet-based imposition is undoubtedly the most common use for ClickBook and page imposition in general but the same principles can be used for much more. To begin with there's no reason why you have to stick to two regularly-sized pages - why not have three third-of-A4 panels producing a typical brochure with a 5+6+1 and 2+3+4 tri-fold imposition? And by changing the folding directions of the last panel you have a choice between open-up or concertina-style layouts. You can even produce a four-sided folded card with a single 2x2 imposition by rotating the front page compared to the other pages. And a whole new range of useful impositions are opened up by the ability to repeat pages - ideal for example when you've designed a compliment slip or business card.

Booklets are only one of many imposition layouts.

The variations are just about endless with ClickBook offering over 40 page impositions to get you started. If you're wanting to produce a one-off version of a PDF manual, or to print the occasional personalized company brochure ClickBook certainly goes a long way to bridge the gap between desktop and commercial print and is certainly worth its $50 price. But its direct print approach can only go so far. For longer print-runs you need to produce offset colour-separated commercial print and that requires PostScript support which is beyond ClickBook's ambitions.

The benefits of double-sided double-page output are even more important for commercial print, so how do you go about managing imposition in a professional DTP environment? If necessary your printer can manually "strip" your pages to create an imposition at the film stage, but it's obviously better if this is done digitally. This in turn depends on what DTP software you are using.

Microsoft Publisher, for example, offers a typically modern solution. Under Page Setup you are given a range of Publication Types to choose from such as Booklet or Business Card. Select one of these and you can then work on your project as normal but when you come to print or select the Print Preview command you'll see the reordered and, where appropriate, rotated and repeated page imposition. It's typically simple but ultimately it's also typically underpowered. With booklet printing, for example, there's no way to control mini-page placement or to set up sub-booklets.

By comparison PageMaker's approach is ugly and old-fashioned and labour-intensive. Here there are no automatically imposed layouts, instead you must set them up manually. Repeat business cards, for example, are best produced with the Paste Multiple command while re-ordered booklet-style impositions are created with the Build Booklet add-on. This offers a very limited number of layouts including the crucial "2-up saddle-stitch", but it does let you set up sub-booklets. You can even manage "creep" which automatically changes the binding margin on each sheet to prevent the effect where pages towards the centre of the booklet seem to have their contents closer to the page's outer edge.

Of course there's no reason why you shouldn't combine the strengths of both automatic and manual approaches and this is best seen in the Corel programs - most obviously Draw and Ventura. Here you can choose between a limited number of pre-defined layouts in the Page Setup dialog including booklet and three types of folded card. The real power though comes later when, in the Layout tab of the Print dialog, you can choose between 25 imposition layouts. More importantly the Print Preview is live so that, using the dedicated Layout Imposition tool, you can customize your own layout complete with control over the number, rotation, order and orientation of pages, the size and positioning of gutters and margins, the type of binding and whether pages should be grouped.

Corel Draw offers dedicated imposition control through its live print preview.

Corel's power is the best of the bunch, but it's clearly not ideal to have to depend on the imposition capabilities - or lack of them - in every computer application. What's needed is a ClickBook-style universal middleman approach and there's an obvious contender here in the form of Adobe Acrobat. Like ClickBook Acrobat works by intercepting any application's print stream, but here the instructions are PostScript-based and so robust enough to produce professional print. This means that Acrobat should be able to act as the perfect imposition tool both for desktop print outputting one-off PDF manuals to any local printer, and for commercial print outputting short print runs and colour separations to PostScript-based high volume digital printers and imagesetters. Which is why Acrobat's complete lack of imposition capabilities is so disappointing.

Thankfully the omission is so glaring that third-party providers have stepped in - most successfully in the form of Scottish developer Quite Software's Quite Imposing 1.5 (199) available from www.quite.com (demo on the CD). After installation, Quite Imposing is available as a plug-in from within the full Acrobat program (ie not Reader) and can be launched either from dedicated menu commands or from a central Imposition Control Panel.

The easiest way to see Quite Imposing in action is with the Create Booklet command. This runs a four-step wizard that asks about page size, binding and grouping, how fronts and backs should be handled and page alignment. Once your choices are made a new PDF - or two new PDFs for front and back sheets - are made up to order. For larger impositions such as 2x2 layouts the N-Up command works in a similar way. There are also separate commands for reversing and shuffling page orders and for trimming and shifting pages which can be applied either before or after imposition.

Quite Imposing offers imposition from within Adobe Acrobat.

More high-end power is available from Quite Imposing Plus (389) with its Step and Repeat command for creating repeating layouts for business cards and labels and the Manual Imposition command which lets you create any layout by picking existing pages and positioning, rotating and scaling them accordingly. Greater control is also offered by the Define Bleeds command, which allows printing right up to the edge of the final cut page, and through the ability to mask sections of a page, to automatically add page numbers and to remove registration marks if these are no longer wanted.

Quite Imposing and Quite Imposing Plus are useful tools for professional designers, corporate print departments and print bureaux, but they aren't a complete solution. In particular they aren't designed for complex multi-page impositions, their playback system is limited and needs operator intervention and, while PDF is an increasingly powerful and increasingly popular exchange medium, it still has drawbacks and isn't universal. What high-volume printing businesses really need is a system capable of working automatically, with all major applications, and with impositions of any size and complexity.

That's exactly what high-end (and expensive) standalone software such as Farrukh System's Imposition Publisher Studio Professional (www.farrukh.co.uk) offers. It is able to do this by stepping back and working with the PostScript print stream itself. Essentially Imposition Publisher takes the colour-separated or composite PostScript output from over 70 DTP and WP applications and flows it into a customizable pre-supplied imposition template that is then sent to the imagesetter complete with automatic font and colour handling. Impositions with any number of pages - sixteen is a common option - and even output for multiple simultaneous jobs can be managed in a continuous automated flow.

Working in this way leads to huge improvements in efficiency for the printers both at the imagesetter and at the press and it has another knock-on benefit - the original designer can leave imposition up to the pre-press operators. In fact if you create your own imposition this can upset the whole system which is why you should always talk to your printer about how they intend to handle your job.

But even if your printer is going to handle the imposition that doesn't mean that you can completely forget about it. It's still the way that all double-sided double-paged print is produced and a good designer will bear this in mind. Doing so will save the embarrassment of designing a five page (as opposed to five sheet) newsletter or specifying a different spot colour on every page (again as opposed to every sheet). It will also enable you to correctly manage those jobs which mix single, spot and/or full colour output as it's the final page imposition which determines which pages will receive what colour handling.

To both maximize the impact and minimize the cost of your design work, you should always remember that professional print is built on outputting impositions not individual pages.

Tom Arah

October 2001


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