Prepress in the Digital Age (1,182 words)
Prepress in the Digital Age
By Jim Chase
What a decade it's been for the prepress world. In 1990, prepress production of catalogs mostly meant processing from film. Today, most catalog prepress production is digital, never seeing physical reality until plates are burned for press.
In recent years, the only constant in the printing industry has been change. Catalogers and printers already have seen some of the benefits of digital prepress, namely, shorter turnaround times, greater product control and cost efficiencies. Expect more such benefits as the linking of print and Web content becomes increasingly feasible.
Considerations for Computer-to-Plate
Today, most catalogers submit jobs to their printers electronically. Unlike publishers, most catalogers don't incorporate outside advertising, and so have total control of their content. Consequently, most catalog pages go directly to plate. Computer-to-plate workflows require catalogers to make some adjustments, including the following:
File formats. There's no standard computer file that a cataloger can submit. Many catalogers still prefer native PostScript submissions, sending in the desktop publishing (DTP) files created in QuarkXPress, Pagemaker or InDesign, accompanied by fonts and graphics.
Catalogers are taking on greater responsibility for file formats, performing typography and color correction tasks. However, the savings and control are worth the trouble. In terms of creativity, DTP workflows enable designers to do things in print they never could have dreamed of just a few years earlier. Once they get used to the demands of DTP, most catalogers like the change.
Increasingly, catalogers are extended their roles even further into the prepress process and are submitting imposition-ready files in formats that include:
n TIFF/IT (Tagged Image File Format/Image Transfer);
n DCS (Desktop Color Separation);
n CT/LW (Continuous Tone/ Linework); and
n PDF (Portable Document Format).
Theoretically, imposition-ready files can be dropped into the imposition software—which creates the layout of the plate—without any further processing. For some of these formats, catalogers must install expensive software and/or hardware packages, while others can be created with simple, out-of-the-box applications.
Periodically, the printing industry declares that a certain file format is the wave of the future for prepress. For instance, TIFF/IT was predicted to be the trend in file formats a year or two ago. Current thinking is that it might be PDF. Just when you think you've got it wired, some company will come out with another format considered to be the best.
Catalogers assume still more responsibility for the quality of the files. Many formats are "locked" and cannot be altered or fixed at prepress. Usually, catalogers must submit contract color proofs along with the job.
Contract proofs. Color proofs have been troublesome for catalogers and printers ever since film was eliminated. Film was predictable. A prepress house or printer made color proofs from the same file used to burn the plate.
Now the process is more complicated because proofs and plates are made on separate devices. The result is a confusing array of color-proofing systems, each claiming to be the best way to predict how a job will look when it's printed.
It would be helpful if someone devised a reliable method of setting up and calibrating a color-proofing system. Fortunately, Standards Web Offset Printing (SWOP; www.swop.org), an industry association, now certifies proofing systems.
Many techniques currently used by catalogers, prepress personnel and printers will continue to evolve.
Workflow: Catalogers will take on more advanced technical workflows, continuing to move their responsibilities further into the prepress process. Prepress for printers may someday mean just burning the plates from customer-supplied data.
File Formats: Prepress departments will have to continue to accommodate myriad file formats.
Proofing Enhancements: Printers must be prepared to work with catalogers to improve the quality of color proofs. This will involve proper calibration and profiling of the customer's proofing devices. Some catalogers are already moving to remote proofing—that is, installing color-proofing systems at their facilities and making proofs using color profiles supplied by their printers.
Soft Proofing: Online soft proofing will continue to develop. Currently, this technology is used mostly for customer proofing for position and content. The prepress department places soft (i.e., digital file) proofs on a server for the cataloger to download, usually in PDF format. The cataloger then views the pages online and approves them or orders alterations. Though the technology doesn't yet lend itself to color approval, that's no reason to prevent its development, provided that computer monitor calibration is accurate.
Cross-Purposing: Using the same text and graphics for print and Web applications—that is, cross-purposing of digital assets—will continue. Prepress departments will format images for both, and even develop and service catalogers' Web presence.
Technology: Today & Tomorrow
Computer technology will continue to revolutionize the way catalogers conduct their print business. The following technologies will continue to play a significant role:
Digital Asset Management (DAM): Already, there are services and software packages that will archive and process a cataloger's digital assets (e.g., digital images) and make them ready for easy retrieval and use, often online. Imagine uploading your raw digital photos to an archive, and having the system catalog and store them. Then, when you want them, the DAM system retrieves them as high- or low-resolution images, in CMYK or RGB color formats, for print or Web applications.
Digital Content Management (DCM): Your database is your content. Your inventory and price lists are the data from which your catalogs and Web site are made. Now you can link your print and Web publishing straight into your database. Thus, when a price change is loaded into your database, it updates your print or Web content automatically. If an item is out of stock, it's flagged right onto your Web site and your next catalog.
Personalization: It's already easy to personalize catalogs geographically, listing where the people on a mailing list can go to buy products locally. The day is fast approaching when many catalogers will be ordering press runs of one.
Each bound copy will be unique, with content selected specifically for each recipient. Through DCM, a customer database will be linked to a cataloger's print production, just like its price list. Each catalog can be personalized for an individual customer, based on his or her demographics and purchase history. Driven by front-end DCM, digital presses and computer-managed binderies make this scenario possible.
E-production: This is a big topic in the printing business, with dot-coms offering online print bidding, estimating, ordering and job-management services. The idea is to enable customers to get quotes by submitting requests for quote forms online, and then continuing the process through final shipping, on the same Internet platform. So far, the results of these efforts have been disappointing, but the concept remains viable. Ordering and tracking print jobs online probably is somewhere in your future.
As the technical revolution that spawned these changes stabilizes, we will get increasingly comfortable with the digital reality and its many benefits. It's a new world of prepress production. Ultimately, it will be a better one.
Jim Chase is prepress trainer for Banta Catalog Group. Visit the Banta Catalog Group at www.banta.com, or contact Chase at (651) 637-2539.