Hints & tips
‘Spec’ has become the short form for any work done on a speculative basis (sometimes also known as free pitching). In other words, any requested work for which a fair and reasonable fee hasn’t been agreed on. At the end of the day, there is a certain irony in spec work: a prospective client requesting it is ultimately saying, “my project isn’t important enough to hire a professional to take the time to understand my situation, and invest the time needed to create a suitable solution.” Imagine you own a restaurant and a customer walks in and says, “I’d like to try everything on the menu – I won’t pay for it though, but if satisfied, I’ll dine here tonight.” Er, no. Same goes for designers.
For more info on how to find the right designers and brief them in a fashion that gives you confidence, visit the Design Business Association (DBA) website (of which we are members). Also, No!Spec has some great articles on this thorny subject too.
Print may be dying as the digital revolution takes hold, but it will never go entirely. At the moment it just seems to be moving to shorter runs and more use of digital than litho. But why is this and, more to the point, what are litho and digital printing?
Lithographic printing is the traditional method of printing, which uses oil-based ink. The initial set up for litho printing is time consuming, which makes it expensive for short print runs, so this process is most economical for high quantity jobs. For jobs with a small number of prints, the digital process is ideal. Initial set up is minimal and a job can be completed in a fraction of the time taken with litho printing. Jobs can easily be personalised, which is perfect for direct mails. Spot colours (more on these later) are not available with digital printing, but an acceptable match can always be made from CMYK. Litho print quality is generally superior to digital, although the gap has closed in recent years. If you’re looking to incorporate large areas of bold colour then choose litho.
Offset Lithographic printing – or Litho
Lithography is a simple chemical process which uses the water repelling qualities of oil or wax to create an image which can be reproduced with ink.
First, a bit of history. Lithography comes from the Greek word “lithos” meaning stone. In the old days the image was drawn on limestone in wax then an aqueous solution of gum arabic and salt was applied over the whole stone. The gum solution penetrated into the pores of the stone surrounding the original wax image creating an impenetrable barrier for the ink. The excess of the original wax used to draw the image is then removed leaving only a smear of wax which provided a good greasy surface for the ink to bond to. The stone was kept wet using water during the printing process and naturally the water was then attracted to the salty gum solution surrounding the image. When ink was applied to the stone, the water repelled the greasy ink but the hydrophobic areas left by the original drawing material would accept it. The stone was then pressed evenly against paper in a press, allowing the ink to transfer from the stone to the paper.
The modern lithography process
The modern lithography process used to rely on photographic methods to create a negative of the required image on a printing plate. Modern printing plates have a brushed or roughened texture and are covered with a photosensitive emulsion. A photographic negative of the desired image is placed in contact with the emulsion and the plate is exposed to ultraviolet light. After development, the emulsion shows a reverse of the negative image, which is thus a duplicate of the original (positive) image. More commonly today, offset printers can create the plates straight from digital outputs, without the need for the photographic process.
Offset – four colour printing
The most common type of litho printing used these days is known as four colour process or CMYK. This means the printing press requires 4 separate plates to be made up for each of the colours (cyan, magenta, yellow and black). Once these plates are made then they can be used many times, but if a mistake is spotted and needs to be changed then it is likely that 4 new plates will need to be made. This is why litho printing is most economical for higher quantities (or runs).
Some printing presses can take up to 7 colours allowing spot colours to be used as well as CMYK.
Spot colours are pre-mixed inks to create a specific colour that can be applied to a single plate. Many businesses like to specify exact spot colours for their corporate identities. The most commonly used spot colours are Pantone colours (PMS). This is a library of spot colours, which allows designers to choose exact colours and to have them applied consistently across printing materials.
At 39steps we use the spot colour PMS 805 across our own litho printed stationery. This is a fluorescent orange colour, so bright it’s been nicknamed “toxic salmon” in the studio!
It looks great, but presents problems to a designer, because it is not a colour which can be replicated using 4 colour process. Fine, you say, just use the spot colour.
That’s all very well if you are printing high volumes or only printing a two spot colour job, but if you need colour photography as well, then you need to have a five colour job printed. That’s an extra plate needed! (cyan, magenta, yellow, black and ‘toxic salmon’).
Even use of Pantone spot colours does not fully guarantee consistency across all printed outputs. We have a long-standing (suffering?) client whose corporate identity uses a specific shade of green. It looks great when printed on a coated paper stock, but comes out entirely differently when printed on an uncoated stock. This means the printer has to mix up a bespoke colour when printing on an uncoated stock to try and match the correct colour. Don’t even get us started on matching colours in digital print!
Want something printed for tomorrow? Want just 100 of them? Want something chuffing massive? Digital print is your friend!
Digital printing has a higher cost per page than offset litho printing methods but this price is usually offset by the savings in avoiding all the technical steps needed to make printing plates. It also allows for on demand printing, short turn around, and even a modification of the image with each impression.
The main difference between digital and offset printing, is that no plates are used with digital printing. The most common types of digital printer are inkjet and laser, which apply pigment or toner directly to the paper.
Digital print can be used to produce large banners, where most litho presses cannot print larger than B2 size. This is know as large format printing.
Digital print cannot yet match the quality of litho printing in terms of matching colours consistently or in terms of crispness of line and consistency of colour application. If your document contains flat areas of colour, then litho printing will produce a better result.
But the gap is narrowing and these days it takes a very keen eye indeed to spot the difference between good quality digital and litho prints.
People are looking to publish things in digital formats and distribute them online at the moment to save on expensive print and distribution. The tendency now is to send things via email and host documents online. This means that organisations are tending to produce lower volumes of printed material. That’s why digital print is a growing business at the moment and the litho printers are having a hard time.
We see this trend continuing in the short term, but eventually digital print will be hammered too, as people rely more and more on digital devices. The old analogy of the horse and cart with the automobile is probably getting a bit dated now, but times change and the future is on-screen, or maybe even digital paper!
For now though, here’s a list of which type of print to use, and when.
Use litho print when:
You are printing a large volume (>500)
You are using specific spot colours
You require the very best quality
Use digital when:
You are printing something very big (Banner stands, posters, etc)
You need something printed quickly (within 2 days)
You don’t require very many of them (<500)
You want to make frequent changes
You want to personalise the print
Image file types can seem like a bit of a mystery at times, especially when you’re being told that your ‘JPEG’ is making your logo all blocky and what you really need is a ‘CMYK layered EPS’, or some such designerspeak. Well we’re here to help cut through the deluge of acronyms with some straightforward definitions. Stick with us and you’ll be guffawing at GIF gaffes and enjoying PNG perfection in no time.
Images fall into two fundamental categories – bitmap and vector – the difference between which we’ve explained in another post. Most formats are bitmap and can be widely displayed on lots of platforms and devices, whereas vector images generally require specialist software to open and edit them.
Another important classification is whether an image format is ‘lossy’ or ‘lossless’. Lossy formats discard data in the image to save space, which is useful in scenarios where bandwidth or data storage is limited, e.g. transferring images over the internet. By intelligently discarding data it’s possible (to a point) to retain the visual quality of an image, while significantly reducing its file size. Lossless formats, on the other hand, retain all of the original image’s data. Lossless formats therefore preserve the image’s quality, but at the expense of using more storage space than a lossy format would. Depending on how important the image is, retaining a lossless copy for archival purposes may be sensible even if it uses up more disk space – it’s always possible to create a smaller, compressed version of an image from a lossless file if required; once the master copy is saved in a lossy format, however, it’s not possible to get back that lost data without recreating the image from scratch.
Here’s a rundown of the most common image formats, what they’re used for and where you might encounter them.
|JPG/JPEG||Photographs and other complex images.||Digital cameras save JPGs by default. Used extensively in building websites.|
|GIF||Simple web graphics. Only supports 256 colours and basic transparency.||Almost exclusively seen on the Web. Many simple web animations are GIF files.|
|PNG||Lossless format can be used for simple graphics or complex images like photos. Is a better alternative to GIF for colour support and smooth transparency.||Becoming more and more popular on the Web as the standard simple graphics image format. Handles smooth transparency better than other formats.|
|EPS, AI & INDD||Vector formats for creating illustrated graphics.||Used extensively by graphic designers in desktop publishing programs like Adobe Illustrator, Fireworks, InDesign and Quark Express.|
|PSD||Layered bitmap format used by Photoshop.||Photoshop files contain information about layers, effects and filters. Commonly used when editing/compositing photos, before rasterising the image into a flat bitmap (often JPG).|
|TIFF||Lossless bitmap images of any kind||Commonly used in the publishing industry and for document archival (scanners typically create TIFFs).|
|RAW||A lossless format used in digital photography. Allows for ‘digital darkroom’ work because it captures lots of colour information about a scene which other formats don’t.||More professional digital cameras can capture images in RAW. Usually confined to Photoshop work.|
There you go! You too can fling around acronyms to your heart’s content.
Probably the most fundamental characteristic of an image is whether it’s a ‘bitmap’ or a ‘vector’. A bitmap is a file in which the data specifies what colour each pixel is, without regard to what the image actually contains. Bitmaps are like mosaics, where the colour value of each tile (pixel) is recorded independently of the colours of the other tiles around it.
To change a pixel, you directly replace its colour value with another one. Therefore, although an image might show a simple straight line, to change its colour you need to alter the colour values for each pixel which makes up the line. This can be a laborious process depending on what changes are required and the complexity of the image. Applications like Photoshop have evolved over the years to include very sophisticated tools which allow the simultaneous manipulation of pixels with similar colour values. For example, in this image the marquee tool has been used to select adjacent pixels of similar colour, which can then be manipulated.
By contrast, vectors are images which have editable elements which are defined by reference to mathematical values – e.g. the co-ordinates of a box, the size of a font, or the colour of a line. This essentially amounts to a list of specifications which define how the elements within the image should be drawn each time it is viewed. It’s therefore easy to change attributes like line thickness or font size by adjusting the numbers saved within the file (using an appropriate image editor). When the elements’ attributes are changed like this, the dimensions of the elements are recalculated and redrawn using the new values, and so the altered elements don’t lose definition or become blocky when changed, as they usually do with bitmaps.
The image above demonstrates the difference between a bitmap and a vector. In the bitmap example, the information contained in the small 39 has been stretched to create the larger one. We started with a grid of pixel colour values and to increase the size of the image it was necessary to ‘interpolate’ (fill in) the spaces created between the pixels of the original image as they were stretched apart. Because the computer doesn’t know what the original image represented, it can only approximate the correct values of the added pixels – and so the result is a smudgy mess.
With the vector on the other hand, rather than stretching the data that represents the 39, all that has changed is the number in the image’s data that specifies the font size. The graphics program takes this value and redraws the text using the font data (much like changing font size in a word processor) and the result is much crisper.
So what’s best to use?
The two image types have different applications, so it depends. Bitmaps are used for complex images which aren’t easily reducible to their constituent parts, like photos. By contrast, if an image has lots of discrete elements, it will usually either be a vector or have started out life as one. Almost all designed images you see that aren’t photo-based will originally have been designed as vectors. We say originally, because they’re usually converted into bitmaps once the design if finalised – at that stage the image is ‘flattened’, removing all the information allows its individual elements to be edited separately. This by analogy is a bit like pasting over newspaper when making a papier-mâché sculpture – once the glue is spread over the layers of paper, you’re left with a single, flat surface.
How do I know if it’s a bitmap or a vector?
You can usually tell from the image’s file type/extension. We’ll cover this in a later Gen, but for now you can usually assume that an image is a bitmap if its filetype is JPG, GIF, BMP (BitMaP!), PNG, RAW, TIFF or PSD. Standard vector filetypes are Fireworks PNG (not to be confused with standard PNGs), INDD, EPS, AI and PDF (although PDF isn’t just an image format, of course).
It’s not just a logo! It’s the associations that people have of you/your company/your product. These associations may be actively promoted through various media on purpose. With the rise of social media, a brand’s reach can be very wide indeed, and also unfortunately can the reviews that damage a brand too.
We heard very recently an excellent way of stating what a brand is: It’s what people say about you when you’re not in the room.
Designers like us use the term ‘Branding‘ to describe the collecting of all the (ideal) associations for the person/company/product and creating a feel that conveys these properly and engages the target audience to react favourably. Your logo is therefore an instant mark that has to stand for your values and, over time, become associated with all those good values that clients come to expect when dealing with you in whatever aspect of the business. Good designers will create a corporate identity and guidelines on how to use it across all your items, whether online or in print. Consistency is important in helping your audience to gain confidence in the brand’s professionalism.
We could go on but it is a vast subject! Instead, check out Design Council for some thoughts and case studies on some of Britain’s favourite brands. And for their intro guide on The Power of Branding: A Practical Guide, email Julie.