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.

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Customer supplied stock

Most printers (the smart ones, anyway) simply won’t print on a customer supplied paper. Not for love or money. Today i’m gonna take a stab at explaining why that is, because print buyers and general consumers don’t understand it, and the reasoning is illustrative of the printing process in general.

All printing, even digital printing, is analog. That is, there is a mechanical and/or chemical process that the paper has to undergo. Pigment (whether toner or ink) is mechanically transferred to the paper as it moves from feed to delivery. In any mechanical process, there is a possibility of waste and failure, and frequently that waste/failure is completely out of a print shop’s control. Preventive maintenance, training and careful environmental control can mitigate some challenges, but can never eliminate them. That’s why it’s a common trade practice to charge NOT for the number of pieces you ordered, but the number you actually get. Ever notice that line on printing estimates that says “subject to over- or under-run of 5%, billed accordingly”? It means that the printer has to predict, in advance how much waste there will be… and since they can’t, many move this predictive burden to the buyer. Printers who promise “exact count” simply MUST charge more for their work than those who bill for the actual quantity including “overs” or “unders”

Printers always have “house” papers. These are sheets they buy in bulk and hold in inventory. Because they buy a lot of these papers, they get a better price and can pass that savings on. But more importantly, they are familiar with these papers and can control the environment the paper is stored in: humidity and temperature are significant factors in how paper and presses perform. They can very accurately predict the amount of waste. Also if they screw up, they have the resources on-hand to just fix it… so the exact prediction of waste is unnecessary. When you specify a paper that is not a “house” stock, you will ALWAYS pay more… even if the paper itself is cheaper. They aren’t generally buying enough to get a extraordinary discount, and they have to allow for greater waste, as so many variables are out of their control.

When you provide paper, you take responsibility for providing enough overs for the job to be properly printed. This means understanding a whole bunch of pretty esoteric stuff. How will the job be run? How many pieces will fit on a page? What is the waste associated with make-ready? With pre- and post- bindery operations? Is the job easy or hard to print? Does the paper have any unusual characteristics?

And these challenges are multiplied. You see, if the printer buys the paper and is wrong about the waste factor, they can just go and buy more paper. but if YOU provide the paper, they have no recourse. And problems are MORE likely to occur on papers you provide, as the printer has no idea of how the paper has been stored, how it was transported or where it came from — all important factors. The printer is either forced to potentially deliver a product that does not meet their standards, OR deliver a quantity below that specified. Even the best craftsman with the best equipment will face this challenge. A printer who values their reputation simply will not take on the risks associated with customer supplied paper.

Why do customers want to provide paper then?

The usual given reason is the belief that they will save money that way. They wont. Leaving aside the fact that your printer can almost always get the same paper WAY cheaper than you can, the waste concerns require extraordinary care when printing on customer supplied stock, so presses run slower, bindery is dome in smaller lots etc.

Occasionally it is a question of availability. For whatever reason, the printer can’t source the paper. In most cases, it’s not that the printer CAN’T source it, it’s that they WON’T. Either they KNOW there is a problem with the paper or the supplier, OR it is only available in a retail situation, so they can’t get the discount they are accustomed to, and so can’t make the margins they need in order to stay in business.

A common reason turns out to be quantity. Since printers understand the reality of paper waste, they are unwilling to take on a micro sized print run. They know that to guarantee quality work on a 50 piece print run, they will have to buy enough paper to print 150 or 250 pieces. When the client sees the price, they think “huh? how can 50 pieces of paper cost so much? I’ll just provide 50 sheets.”

If you have a need for a non stock paper on a regular basis though… give us a call. So long as you’ll commit to using it, and often enough to be worthwhile, we’ll happily buy it and store it. Essentially making it a HOUSE stock.

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Reno Type’s Youtube Channel

For the last several years we’ve posted videos about our shop, the industry, new processes and things like that. We’ve had a couple requests to repost some of those videos, so have collected them all on a channel over at youtube.

There’re a number of off the cuff videos prompted by a situation or customer question, as well as a produced series on the power of promotional products. Check it out!

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Use bait the FISH like, not bait YOU like.


Just because YOU think a particular promotional item is the cat’s meow doesn’t mean the item will be loved by everyone you’re reaching, or that it is appropriate for the event or audience. It’s really important that you think about how an item will be received and what sort of impression it will leave in the mind of the recipient.

Many in the promotional products business are simply order-takers. We can be that if that’s really what you want, but would rather help you figure out the right item and strategy. That’s why we ask so many questions, and why we frequently recommend products that you didn’t ask us for.

A case in point: A large and successful locally owned business is having an open house. Their ideal client is affluent and older: 50 at least, but likely as old as 75+.  They want to spend less than $1.70 per unit ion about 500 items. We were asked to provide pricing on a cel-phone wallet/lanyard combo and on a re-usable shopping tote. I don’t want to get into the details of the business…. that wouldn’t be very nice, but the situation is instructive.

The ideal promotional item is something that is kept, shown, shared, used and appreciated. If it doesn’t do at least a few of those things, it may do more HARM than good. What can you get for under $1.70 that someone WANTS? Not much. By giving away “UPC” (useless plastic crap –our term for anything purchased just because it is cheap), you demonstrate something about your brand. Specifically that your brand is cheap and that you don’t really care who knows it. What’s the likelyhood that someone affluent and older will appreciate a device that allows a cel phone to hang around their neck on a plastic cord? Tote bags are better… but for THIS crowd it would need to be a nice one… not the cheapest thing made.

This is not to say that you must spend a fortune to make the right impression… just that when your budget is small, you will want to lean on the advice of professionals.

The buyer who requested the info is either young or young at heart, and chose an item that she thinks is cool. And it IS cool… if you happen to be a high-school student.

We did provide samples and quotes on the items requested, but also proposed another item: a high-quality pocket calendar-planner… an item with a much higher perceived value that the target audience will be likely to keep, use and appreciate.

Now if a high school club called and asked us for pocket planners, we’d probably have suggested something different… but for THIS audience, it is the perfect item (at this super low price-point).

I have no idea which way our client will go. I’m hopeful that she’ll heed our advice and select an item that works. Time will tell.

Before getting excited about a particular item, give us a call. Tell us who you are trying to reach, where you want to reach them and what your budget is. Let US suggest the right thing. Not only is this less work for you, you are SURE to get a better result. And that’s what matters.

Happy fishing!


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We’ll be closed on Monday, Sept 4 in observance of Labor Day


Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country. Learn more about Labor day!

View our 201 holiday schedule here.

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