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Crash Course: Press Check’s from a Designer’s Perspective

When the pandemic hit, one of the more vital steps in the printing process halted as print shops were unable to host customers for press checks. They soon returned in a virtual form, but nothing beats being at a check in person. Now, as print shops welcome customers back to their floors, a reminder of what makes a press check valuable and the proper etiquette can be useful to new hires or press check veterans looking for a refresher course. Originally published in two parts, we’ve brought two blogs by Marina Joyce back together to provide a breakdown on why press checks are necessary and how you should conduct them. Joyce’s book Designing for Print shares valuable “how-to” information on preparing a work order for print and her experience as both a graphic designer and print shop owner provides her a unique perspective when it comes to designing for print. If you’re a creative who’s unfamiliar with press checks or Joyce’s work, then this blog is for you.

Why You Need a Press Check

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.
*For those unfamiliar, GRACol stands for General Requirements for Applications in Commercial Offset Lithography and is a set of color reproduction specifications.

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.
  • 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.
Like most things, you press check skills will improve with time and experience but a little help along the way never hurt. To read the full blog by Joyce, click here, and for more print-focused content, visit the rest of our blog.
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