What’s in a proof?

As our industry has changed, so has the nature of “proofing.” Advances in technology have changed the accuracy of proofs (not in the direction you might expect), and many folks don’t understand the limits or even –as it turns out — the PURPOSE of a proof. This was drawn into stark relief for me on a recent user-group thread for the promotional products industry. The topic isn’t as simple as I wish it were… but it is important so I’ll take my time here.

The purpose of a proof is pretty straight-forward: to ensure that the finished piece is as expected/desired/specified. Ultimately it is a communication tool, and its efficacy is only as good as intention and understanding of those on both sides of the communication.

The best, most accurate proof is an example of the actual finished piece. In printing, this is called a “press proof,” so called because it is printed on the same paper and on the same piece of equipment (press) that the entire job will be produced with.  In case you wonder how print shops feel about press-checks, you can learn here. In the Promotional Products world this level of proof is called a “pre-production sample”. a supplier actually makes one and sends it for approval prior to completing the entire order. Not surprisingly, these are very expensive and usually cost prohibitive, as a significant portion of the manufacturing cost in either case is the tooling and set-up. And unless the entire group of “approvers” happens to be standing at the tail end of the press or production line, the entire set-up will have to be repeated upon approval. Printing presses and assembly lines can’t sit idle while waiting for your blessing. Either they will tool-up for the next project, or you will be billed an hourly rate for the idle “waiting” time.

And guess what? When your job goes back on press, it is very possible that the final project won’t perfectly match what you approved. The weather might be different. There may be a different operator. Ink could be contaminated by the last color used. Not saying it WILL be different… just pointing out that even this level of care and cost can still allow errors.

Now a brief historical interlude.
When type was made of lead and set by hand, the galley would be hand-inked and piece of paper pressed onto it so the typesetter could ensure that his work was accurate (the letters p, q, d and b look remarkably similar, and while the journeyman typesetter knew which spot in the tray each should come from, the apprentice who “sorted” the type back into trays after the last  could have mixed em up.) Once that was done type was locked up on a “proofing” press, and a higher quality proof was pulled for the “client” to approve.
When printing plates were made from “film,” the film could be exposed to material that simulated the printing process. A “blue-line” if you needed to show front-to-back orientation and show bindery operations (though it could only represent color by differing densities of blue). A “velox” if you wanted a high-quality black-and white proof. A “Color Key” or “Matchprint” if you wanted to show “accurate” color (note: these are brand names, like band-aide or kleenex. There were many other brands).

Though most printing and “decorating” is still, when ink-hits material, an analog process, the artwork is usually prepared digitally. Most of the old analog steps that allowed some sort of “accurate” interim proof no longer exist. Plates are not made from film, but are imaged digitally, for example. What is important is that the electronic proof be produced after ALL work has been done. Electronic files are always modified somehow prior to printing. Imposition. Trapping. Adding color bars. A stray keystroke in this process could lead to a change.

Recognize that the proof is likely delivered electronically and viewed on a computer monitor. Ever noticed that when you look at a wall of televisions at an electronics store, all set to the same program, that no two look exactly the same? Alas… it’s the way of things. The proof you see on your screen will not — CAN NOT — be accurate for color. Or size. Or shape. You simply must accept this, confirm specifications that can be confirmed in writing, and trust that the supplier of the proof knows what they are doing.

So if a proof can’t be absolutely accurate, what’s the point? It is simply the best we can do. It is a communication tool. To use it correctly everyone must understand the processes involved so that the ways error can creep in can be given extra attention.

Here’s my best advice:
Instead of assuming the proof will be an exact representation of the finished product, consider the proof as a GUIDE to the producer. They should use it as their “target,” and do their best to make the finished product look that way. The proof is simply one additional specification to the pressman, supplier, or assembly line. To evaluate the proofs quality, ask yourself if it communicates all of the relevant information clearly.

Comments are closed.