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Digital Proofing--Proof Positive

April 2000
While this cutting-edge technology offers the promise of "speed without compromise," some reluctant customers (who are uncomfortable with the electronic concept) fear that the digital proofing promise is simply too good to be true. How, then, do commercial printers convince them otherwise?


"Have you looked at a National Geographic that was printed in 1980? Looks great doesn't it, just like today's issue? Only the 2000 issue was produced in a fraction of the time—without compromise in quality and from a source of information that is vast," says John Bassett, director of sales and marketing at Scholin Brothers Printing in St. Louis. "This is the moral to the digital proofing story. It's all about speed without compromise."

Too Good to be True?
Speed without compromise? Sounds too good to be true . . . And, if something sounds too good to be true, that's probably the case. If "speed without compromise" is the moral to the digital story, then the digital story must be a fairy tale.

At least, that's what some reluctant print buyers might think. Digital contract proofing is a hard concept to sell to customers who are unfamiliar, or uncomfortable, with this cutting-edge technology.

And that's part of the problem printers face when trying to sell their customers on digital proofing, says Bassett, an 18-year graphic arts veteran who worked closely with 3M (pre-Imation) in the sales and promotion of, as Bassett describes it, "the most widely used analog proof—Matchprint."

"Back then, our goal was to convince the industry that off-press proofs had many benefits over the then-standard press proofs. That challenge is the same today," Bassett explains, noting, "Funny how history repeats itself." When it comes to proofs, be they analog or digital, Bassett says customers' concerns remain unchanged.

"Where are my dots? Why did my proof fade? Where's the PMS color? What is an ICC profile? Can you match my proof on-press?" Bassett echoes the voice (and concerns!) of the print buyer.

"Ah, the life of the print buyer," he sympathizes. "Just when they thought they had us figured out, we throw more curves at them. We introduced a myriad of new variables with new terms and new standards, but the same old objective: Just match my proof!

"The digital proof—and the dozens of brands and recipes that are served up as a smorgasbord for the print buyer—have left many of them still hungry . . . hungry for information," Bassett contends.

"They believe our value proposition of speed and quality, and they've seen the benefits. Yet, many are in a quandary as to what their role is in the digital world regarding proofing: Are there standards? What do I specify? Is remote proofing the right choice for all jobs? Is my monitor a source for color interpretation? Who do I trust?"

If a commercial printing operation offers the technology, Bassett says, it must also know how to answer these types of questions and concerns. He emphasizes that Scholin Brothers (which uses an IRIS 4-Print calibrated to its Imation Matchprint analog proofer, as well as an IRIS 43-Wide system for imposition proofing) takes every opportunity to assist its customers in clarifying this often-confusing process.

"The benefits of a digital workflow for printers may be irrelevant to the buyer," Bassett says. "Their concerns about speed, quality and cost are only unfulfilled promises from the printer, until it is proven to the buyer."

All About Trust
How, then, can digital proofs be sold to the wary buyer and, more importantly, how can the digital proof become a stronger communication tool and build trust between customer and printer? While customers may be vastly different, Bassett says, the answer is the same: clear expectations.

"A digital proof serves the same purpose for buyers/designers as the analog proof it replaced," Bassett explains. One way to reduce the angst, he claims, is to be proactive in resolving customers' (spoken and unspoken) fears by asking, examining and answering seven specific questions. He calls this process "Scholin Brothers' Seven Questions to Digital Proofing Confidence" and says the questions are intended to accomplish two very important things. First, they will provide the print buyer/designer with information about digital proofing and, second, they will improve the communication between printer and print buyer/designer.

(Note to printers: The comments in red parenthesis are the unspoken concerns that the print buyer/designer has that you need to address with specific information and evidence.)

1. What am I looking at? (Contract proof? Digital Dylux? Other?)

2. Why is this better for me? (Faster? Better? Cheaper?)

3. How do I know nothing will change from proof to plate? (Consistency?)

4. Can you match this on-press? (Color managed profiles? Pressroom confidence?)

5. Can I be enabled to implement a remote proofing device at my site with confidence? (Speed? Convenience? Networking?)

6. How do you handle PMS colors? (Flexibility? Capabilities?)

7. What about dot issues like moiré, highlight detail and shadow detail? (Confidence?)

"At Scholin Brothers, our goal is simple," says Bassett. "Once the information is shared, the benefits are shared." One of the benefits of sharing information is that it cuts down on the inevitable "confusion factor" concerning the technology.

Lisa Saul, director of marketing at Franklin Park, IL-based Tukaiz Communications, says clients are often confused by the term "proof" itself. With all the many digital proofing devices on the market, she says, "to call all color output 'proofs' is deceiving. While the digital desktop manufacturers have greatly improved speed, resolution quality and size of output, the main concern should be color. When designers use desktop versions of digital color proofers to show comps, they should be intended to show design and content only."

Saul warns that using these desktop proofs for final customer approval becomes an expensive and time-consuming struggle for a printer trying to match color while the press is running.

Rather, she advises, the way to accurately match color on-press is with a high-end, contract proofer, such as the Kodak Approval or Creo Spectrum—which are the systems Tukaiz currently uses. "Investing in this type of equipment," says Saul, "will result in a realistic color expectation for the customer."

Realistic color expectations "that the proof will mimic what comes off press" is particularly (and critically!) important to some of the Fortune 500 clients of Chicago-based R&B Group, a color separator and high-end commercial printer.

Having used both dye sub and ink-jet proofing systems for the past five years, Dan Tesch, director of technology, says they do not give a consistent enough match to press for his firm's high-end purposes.

Accurate Color Is Critical
"We produce work for national advertisers that can be printed all over the country," he reports. "And, in that case, we would ship digital files and never produce film. So having a digital proofer that can accurately reproduce the colors in the file is critical."

To "accurately mimic" these colors, the R&B Group invested in a new Fuji Final Proof—Fuji's latest generation, contract proofing system. Installed late last year, Tesch says his Final Proof system was Fuji's first U.S. installation.

"We produce very tight-turnaround work, such as catalogs, where clients have strict deadlines and high quality standards," he explains. "Having a digital proofer that we can rely upon to closely match our final output is invaluable." And, since digital proofing eliminates the output of film, R&B can produce work faster.

"Customers are getting pretty savvy about digital proofs," Tesch contends. "They've driven the need for the technology because of their high-end work, tight turnaround and budget requirements. The market has evolved to where customers demand a digital proof. It's not a luxury any more."

Many digital proofing experts, including Mark Dana, president and owner of Precision Digital Imaging in Tigard, OR, are working toward higher acceptance and more widespread use of digital proofs, specifically digital halftone proofs.

"In our city, digital proofing is common," Dana reveals. "However, the buying public is only 40 percent aware and probably 15 percent accepting of Digital Matchprints as the only contract proof in the CTP production cycle. We are looking to double these percentages this year.

"In a CTP workflow, customers have concerns about not seeing film, and you have to gain their trust. It's a conceptual difference," adds Dana. "Digital proofing is a big concept with which to get accustomed. Some customers have a hard time believing the proof will match on-press results when it has not been made from film, while others embrace the new technology."

Precision Digital, which added digital proofing services to its capabilities nearly two years ago, recently began providing platemaking services for commercial printers and print buyers. In addition to its Kodak Approval, the firm installed a Creo Spectrum six months ago.

Using the Creo Prinergy workflow, Dana says he has "not been disappointed between the digital proof and the printed result." Also, since the system performs all the rendering to whatever output choice is made—whether it's digital proof, film or plate—Dana says his customers feel more at ease, knowing that the files are not being submitted to multiple RIPs where variances can occur.

And—in addition to the cost savings of not having to output film to produce the proof—he notes that his customers save money every time a change is made.

Dana says Precision Digital "no longer fears the concept of approving a print project using digital halftone proofing and going direct-to-plate. Some customers are still leery about it, but it's our job to convince them that it's OK."

Convincing customers that digital contract proofing is viable may be one of the toughest challenges a commercial printer has to face. Even so, the technology is improving at a rapid clip, which will make the concept an easier sell.

It's All in the Technology

The following was contributed by Deborah Hutcheson, senior product marketing manager, proofing systems, at Agfa.

Digital technologies have given commercial printers the means to gain real money-saving efficiencies. Systems such as computer-to-plate and PDF-based workflow automation have leapfrogged printers into the digital era. The problem, however, has been convincing customers to go along for the ride.

Digital proofing is the perfect example. Over the past 10 years or so, as print buyers endured, even embraced, the front-end digital revolution, they had one thing on which to rely: On the other end of the process, their old friend, the analog proof, would be there to tell them if what they saw was really what they were going to get. But now, they ask their printer, "You want to replace that with yet another unfamiliar technology?"

The answer is to take away the negative and replace it with a positive. Familiarize your customers with the technology.

Ask your vendors to participate. They have technical knowledge that will help put your customers at ease.

For example, Agfa offers this as a way to demonstrate the "contract" capability of a digital proof:

  • For many reasons, a digital proof can provide a better match than an analog one. The AgfaJet Sherpa ink-jet proofing system uses six multi-density inks. It adds a light magenta and a light cyan to the CMYK process. The lighter densities of the inks create purer tints, making it easier to match pastel colors or difficult skin tones. The double density also makes it easier to capture details in shadow areas or in dark colors, such as fabric folds and textures. And having six colors automatically widens the color gamut, making it easier to match special spot colors.

  • Agfa's in-RIP color management system, ColorTune, tailors the proofer's color range to specific applications. That means it can accurately reproduce any industry printing or proofing standard. It can do this because it uses the total available CMYK color space, which in the case of the AgfaJet Sherpa includes two cyans and two magentas.

  • The system maps PANTONE colors using the Pantone-certified L*a*b* library to CMYK. And because it uses the full CCMMYK space, not just the more limited SWOP standard, the AgfaJet matches up to 90 percent of the PANTONE spot colors.

Ask your vendor to help you arrange seminars or demonstrations for your customers where this type of information can be illustrated in detail. Show and tell is perhaps the best way to demonstrate the accuracy of the digital proof. It may take a little time and investment on your part because you will have to run a press proof, an analog proof and a digital proof of the same images or pages. But having samples for comparison will be well worth the effort.

A final thought: With the technology that is available today, showing the accuracy of the digital proof should not be difficult. If, however, you are using an older technology that does not generate a totally accurate match, consider this. What really makes a proof work depends to a large degree on the relationship and flow of communication you have with your customer. Did you rely on the analog proof because it was so accurate or because you taught your customer how to read it—that the reds would be a little less brilliant or blues not quite as royal?

It's up to you to teach customers how to read a proof. In the end, the real contract is the trust between the buyer and printer, and not about ink on paper.

Color Control Moves Upstream

The following was contributed by Nick Patrissi, manager of market relations and print media at Creo Products.

For many years, the graphic arts industry relied on the skilled hands of the craftsman to manage the color reproduction process. With the introduction of computers and desktop publishing, the control and management of color have spread to many other segments of our industry.

Color control has moved forward in the workflow, and it is now common for creative departments to handle the majority of the design, color separation and color proofing steps of their own jobs. It is estimated that close to 50 percent of color proofing is now done in the creative stage of the print production process—a major change from the workflow of just a few years ago.

Many clients, although happy with the prospect of doing color themselves, are faced with a new responsibility of understanding color reproduction, prepress and related technologies used in this once specialized field. With the vast array of low-cost color proofing devices on the market, clients often feel overwhelmed when faced with a purchasing decision. Choosing the right technology is dependent on knowing the true requirements of the job. A color proof can mean different things to different people. Depending on the stage of production and individual requirements, a proof can serve to accomplish one of the following tasks: Predict the outcome of printing; verify what is in the file or film; or serve as a press guidance.

Not all proofing technologies can accomplish all three functions. Basically, proofs fall into two categories, conventional and digital.

Conventional Proofs: These can be either press proofs (made on-press) or off-press proofs (often referred to as analog proofs). Conventional proofs are made from film and represent the screening, dot shape and other parameters of the job. Products such as the Imation Matchprint, DuPont WaterProof and Fuji Color-Art have become widely used as contract color verification methods for most high-quality graphic arts applications. Press proofs are still used in advertising, where proofing on the printing stock and large quantities are important elements.

Digital Proofs: Digital proofing has experienced explosive growth in the last 10 years, providing useful and cost-efficient avenues to verify and control color in the digital workflow. Although the list of proofing devices has grown to more than 100, most devices fall into four main technology categories: Dye sublimation; ink-jet; electro photography; and laser-induced film transfer or ablation.

The vast majority of these technologies produce continuous tone color images using dye colorants, which are calibrated to simulate the color and tone reproduction of the press sheet. Depending on their resolution and color calibration software, their ability to predict the printed result varies to a wide extent and usually falls short of their conventional counterparts.

Until recently, most digital proofing devices lacked the quality attributes needed for contract quality color guidance. Factors such as resolution, common RIP, proof size and repeatability played a key role in slowing the otherwise rapid adoption to a completely filmless workflow. Fortunately, there are systems available today that can fulfill this unmet need.

Systems such as the Kodak Polychrome Graphics Approval and Creo Proofsetter Spectrum are becoming widely accepted as digital replacements for press and off-press proofing. The Creo Proofsetter Spectrum and Trendsetter Spectrum devices image color media from Imation, Kodak and DuPont, and provide the image resolution, dot structure and repeatability needed for high quality, contract color proofing. Major publishers, such as Conde Nast and Hearst, have successfully converted to an all-digital workflow using these technologies.

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