Understanding Commercial Printing (Includes Quick Reference Chart)

 


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Understanding printing is a rite of passage for all professional graphic designers. Some designers never understand it. Good thing the Internet came along to keep them employed. I truly love printing. It’s a detailed, tactile process with possibilities limited only by imagination (and budget). When Johannes Gutenberg built his press in 1436, he invented an artform that would lead to the social and industrial revolutions that followed. The Chinese invented a system of printing using movable type as early as the 9th century, but it was Gutenberg’s movable metal type that granted permanence and durability to the printed word. Gutenberg’s press was all about getting ink on paper. Basically, someone would organize metal letters to make words, paragraphs and pages. Then someone else would roll ink on the tightly packed letters, put a piece of paper in the press, and mash the tightly packed letters against the piece of paper. Voila! The very first TV Guide.

Since 1436, the process has changed very little. We’re still putting letters together to form words, paragraphs and pages; someone rolls the ink on the letters and then mashes the letters against a piece of paper. The digital revolution didn’t change that. It did change how we put the letters together, and technology moved us from metal type to a more precise printing plate-making process, but we’re still putting ink on paper.

My new clients typically fall into two categories: those who know they need a project designed (i. e. annual report, brochure, direct mail campaign), and those who tried to develop something in-house and gave up when it came time to print the thing. The former category typically ends up ahead of the game. Design and print are like the cast of Seinfeld—taken apart neither is very effective. They work together, so if you are a marketing or communications professional, your basic knowledge of the printing world is just as important as your ability to recognize good design.

The most important thing to remember is that printing is confusing. Even with a simple project, there is only one right way to print the job and about a thousand ways to print it wrong. If you need 5,000 copies of your fax form, you can confidently bring the original to a local print shop yourself. If you need 5,000 full-color brochures, call in the design troupes. Keep in mind that there are ways a designer can make a 2-color job carry the strength of a full-color job, or make a 1-color job exceptional by adding embossing or a die cut for the cost of a second color. If the words Pantone, spot, CMYK, and 4-color process make your head spin, please download this handy chart to help clarify these terms for you. The chart defines basic commercial printing terms and describes the variables that make print jobs rise in cost and complexity.

In honor of his invention, an international panel of scientists chose Gutenberg as the most outstanding person of the millennium. I agree. Today, printing is second to Agriculture as the largest industry in the world. It makes sense—who needs more than breakfast and the paper on a Sunday morning?

Audrey Nezer is an award-winning graphic designer in Seattle, Washington. Her company, Artifex Design, creates playful, edgy and effective marketing and communication materials for companies and organizations throughout the United States. Visit http://www.artifex.net to learn more (and win a prize!)

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