Trapping, Plating, Trimming, and Printing: Let’s Talk Offset Printing.

Design, Printing

I want to talk about something that people in nearly every business will run across from time to time but might know nothing about, Offset Printing. Anytime anyone is looking to print a large amount of one thing, from event coordinators printing invitations to corporate communicators making annual reports, it pays to know some details on how the deed gets done. Think of it think way, if you know nothing about fixing cars and your mechanic says you need new spark plugs and wants to charge you $500 to do it, you might not question the cost and never know your being taxed for your lack of know-how. This article will help demystify some of the dark arts of offset printing and might give you a leg up if you have to haggle print costs. 

Nuts & Bolts: What is Offset Printing?

99% of all print jobs are going to be done one of two ways: Digital or Offset. Both use CMYK colors to make all of the images. You are probably familiar with digital printing without even knowing it. Copy machines and office printers are classified as “Digital” printers. Digital printers use a very similar process, but use rollers or drums to get the ink on the page. Having Office Depot or Staples print off 50 band fliers, that’s gonna fall under digital. 
Offset printing uses metal plates that act as screens and apply the ink to the paper, one metal plate for each color. They are placed in order on a press then the paper is ran through on a spool, inked with each color and then cut to fit the finished size. The set up to run one print job takes considerably more time as opposed to digital. Think about the jobs you send to your network printer: a picture of your niece, a menu to that Chinese take-out place (the good one with the dumplings, not that other one), a meme that you are going to post on your cubical wall. Now imagine that each one of those would require four metal plates, lined up perfectly to make the printout, and then inked up. Digital printers can do that in a minute vs Offset would take hours to get one dialed in just right. 

When It’s Worth It: What is the magic number?

So if Digital printers are so much more versatile, why do things the hard way? Digital printers internally set up each job individually, even if it’s the same page being printed each time, they have ways to speed it up a bit and preferences saved, but it is still doing one piece of paper at a time. Offset is optimized to do one thing well, and that is to make one thing over and over, fast. What is the magic number? 2,000 copies. That is when the tables turn, and Offset starts to be a better value. The trick is, the more you print the better that value gets per piece because at that point you are nearly only paying for the paper you are printing on. An Offset press can also run much quicker than a digital printer once the job is running. 

Jargon: Print Speak.

Here are some terms you might hear getting thrown around when ordering a large offset print job. While most of them might not apply to every job, it will help you haggle if you know what you might not need.

Sheet Fed and Web. Sheet Fed means that each piece of paper is printed one at a time, pulling each sheet like your copy machine or home printer does. This is typically used for smaller jobs and they print what they need and no more. Web press is a much larger press that can print lots of jobs at once from one huge roll of paper that isn’t in sheets, the jobs get cut out of the sheet later. Some things to note, web press sometimes do “gang runs” of several smaller jobs at once. Imagine this as a puzzle where the press techs are trying to fit the most amount of dinner plates on a table. The end process means plating a bunch of odd shaped print jobs in a group and running the press to meet the quantity of the largest job on the press. This could be a bonus for you if you are hoping for any overages on your print job. I have had gang run jobs coming back with double what I asked for with no increase in the quoted price. 

Plating. This is the term you are most likely to hear from a printer because it is where the cost usually comes from. Plating is making the individual four color plates that will put the color on the paper. Think of each plate as a stamp that puts down the color. There will be four of them for the average CMYK job and if there is a change to what you want to be printed at the last minute that means they will have to remake all four plate. TIP! You are printing an invitation to an event and your printer already has made the plate and is printing later today when you get a call that one of your speakers can’t make it. Crap. The good news is If you are making a minor type change to text that is set up as black ink only (which it should be anyway) and if the text is in white space (i.e. doesn’t run over any pictures or other printed color), then they will only need to change one plate, the black one. 

Trapping. Sometimes called “Knock Out” as well. This one is more inside baseball than the rest, I know plenty of designers who don’t know what this means. Trapping is when you make sure the things on the page that you are printing don’t overlap in the final print set up. That large orange circle that acts as a background is a vital design element to the invitation, but so is the photo and text that go over the top of it. Trapping means that when they print, each object only takes up the space that is shown in the final product. 

Bleed. A bleed is any time you print beyond the dimensions of the final product and then trim it back to not have a border of white space on a final product. Bleeds cost more because it adds several additional steps to a print job and a lot of paper waste as well. 

Trimming. Pretty self-explanatory but can be costly so watch out for unnecessary trimming. If you have a print job with no-bleeds and it is running on a sheet fed press, then you shouldn’t need to trim at all. 

Color Bars. These are blocks of color that help the printers monitor ink levels to make sure that levels are not running low. They can check the dots to see if there are changes in the tone. 

Crop Marks. Lines that mark the edge of a document, most commonly used for print jobs with bleeds, but if the job is running on a web press they will need them regardless of bleed or not. 

Registration. The lining up of all of the four colors. A registration mark (looks a bit like a bullseye) is printed with all four colors, along with bars of each individual color, on jobs with a bleed. If the registration gets out of line then the registration mark will start to look blurry, with a halo of the color that is moving slightly. Jobs that come out looking blurry had poor registration. 

Binding. If you are printing anything that folds, from a multi-page book to a card, then you will have to pay for binding. Even a simple fold over card would require a score and a fold, both of those steps take time and precision to set up. 

Score. When the printer makes a mark or crease so that when the final fold happens the paper does so nice and clean. 

Web Break: Means the web press is down while they fix something, usually a paper feed or a roller somewhere started making the worlds biggest spitball out of your job. As in “We had a web break and the press is down for an hour while we clean up.”

Burn a Plate. This means making a plate, not destroying a plate. As in “the client decided they like cornflower blue better than the orange background so we have to burn all new plates.” 

Plate Wear Out. Even the metal plates will wear out after hundreds of thousands of prints, during those very long runs the printer will have to make back up plates. 

Work and Turn. When printing a two-sided job the printer will sometimes set up the press to double the size of the paper, printing the front on the right side and the back on the left for the front. Once the job is done they flip the paper and do the same on the back, knocking out two pieces at a time.

4 over 4, 4 over 1, 1 over 1, etc. These are color terms. If you are printing a postcard that has a full-color image on the front, but only black text on the back, that is a 4 over 1 (as in there are four colors on the front and one color on the back). A flier that has full-color images on the front and back would be a 4 over 4 (four colors on the front and four colors on the back). 

Matte, Satin, Gloss. Just like paints, printing can have finishes. Gloss would be your shiny, high-sheen finish, Satin would have a slight sheen, and Matte is flat with no sheen. I usually recommend Satin as it evens out the texture and discourages smudging. 


My Two Favorite Photoshop Shortcuts


Everyone uses Photoshop differently, it is one of the great things about a well designed tool. I love showing a new Photoshop user a few basic tricks and watching them tackle problems in completely unique ways. In that vein, here are my two favorite shortcuts that I use on the regular. 

Ctrl+M (Cmd+M for macs) opens curves. I love curves, got a photo that needs to be darkened but every time you go into lightness and knock it down a bit it looks flat? Yup, it is knocking everything down to the same degree, treating all values the same. Curves treats everything dynamically. When I am brightening or darkening, what I am really looking to effect is the mid-tones. To do that in curves you grab the line in the middle of the graph and curve it up or down. If you are fine tuning color you can manipulate the individual curves of each color. Example: your CMYK picture of and orange dress is looking a little too red? Open curves and drag the Magenta curve down and the Yellow curve up a bit and watch the dress turn orange again.

Ctrl+U (Cmd+U for macs) opens Hue/Saturation. This is my second most used tool. It is pretty self explanatory but I’ll break it down. Hue changes the hue of everything in the image, drag the slider left for cooler colors, drag it right for warmer colors. This can be useful for minor changes but be careful not to make too major of a move, it effects the whole image equally so the item in the front might look perfect but the sunset in the background might look like a radioactive nightmare. Saturation changes how much the colors are saturated. One thing I notice starting designers do is they over saturate everything, the brighter the better. This can lead to visual confusion and poor readability, keep it simple. One thing I like to do is to duplicate the layer, and desaturated the copy to see how the layout of something looks as black and white. Colors are personal, but seeing layout in black and white makes you take a more objective look at something. Does your figure in the front blend into the background all of the sudden? You might consider lightening up the background to make the figure in the foreground pop. Lightness is fairly simple, lighter or darker, I don’t use this often because it muddies the images.

Those are my two favorite shortcuts, let me know your favorites in the comments!

Spot Color

color, Design, Printing

Spot colors can be a super useful tool, especially as a cost saving device for the customer. So what are they? Think of spot color as the paint section of a hardware store, all of those tiny custom cards of various shades of hundreds of blues and oranges. A spot color is ONE of those colors that requires no blend, the ink is just that color. Now think of the standard CMYK printing method, you can get close to those colors on the cards, but not quite. Another way to think of it is that standard CMYK printing is printing with 4 spot colors, Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black.

Printing in spot colors can save money because you are only using one ink to achieve the color (not a mix of 4) and can cut down on run time and supplies. Note, short runs, like less than 1,000, aren’t going save you money because offset printing can’t beat digital printing for shorter print runs. Some smaller print shops only run two colors at a time on small machines, so a regular 4 color job can double the press time. Also, if your client is looking for something florescent, metallic, neon, or even glow in the dark, spot colors are your only option.

A lot of brands will already have their spot colors defined for you, the YMCA comes to mind, they have the spot color name, the CYMK, RGB and Hex color formulas.  But for this thought experiment, let’s say that a small brand comes to you and they have a bright orange and black color scheme. They are printing a flier and want to keep the cost low, but also want it brand recognizable. You can offer to print the job in 2 spot colors that are already part of the brand itself. You can set up all of the elements with Black and Orange, even complicated images like photos. I’ll show you how.

Picking the Spot Color.

If you are in the USA, Pantone dominates the spot color industry. Investing in a Pantone book is not a bad idea, but they are pricey. Up to date books can run you around $300. The book is important though, because even the website can only show you what the color looks like as a digital image, and depending on your screen settings, you are only looking at a representation that will look different in print. If you have a Pantone book, find the corresponding color and make sure the customer signs off on it. Lets say they decide on PMS 165 C, and PMS Black.

You have your color codes, now how do you design around this?
In all of the Adobe programs, color books are preloaded and you just have to make sure your color is selected when you define what colors are what. Set them as new swatches and build all of the text and elements in those two colors. The tricky thing is converting all of your photos into those tow colors or Duotone. In Photoshop, open up the image you’ll be placing in the document. In the image tab under Mode, you’ll see Duotone grayed out, you have to first convert the image to Greyscale. After you convert it to grey you can select Duotone and a menu will pop up for you to select your colors. Now your photo is a composite of those two inks and will print as a mix, blending with the rest of the two color set up.

You can place that image file into your InDesign doc and finish the layout. You are ready to export your pdf, but how do you export it so that only the printer gets the right file? Export the pdf but turn the color conversion to NONE. Then you can even check your pdf to be sure by doing a fake printing. Set the printer to Adobe PDF and click on “Advanced.” Change the color from “Composite” to “Separations” and you’ll be able to preview what each color plate would look like. Turn off the CMYK selections and view each spot color individually for a small preview to make sure it’s set up correctly.

Fonts: Time to Get Personal.

Design, Fonts

Everyone suddenly has a lot of opinions about fonts. It used to be designers and artists trashing Comic Sans and Bradley Hand, after a few years Helvetica had a pop culture following. People got tattoos, it was serious. Then SNL ran a skit about Papyrus being the font for the Avatar movie logo. Welcome to our nightmare, everyone. Once you start to notice, you can’t stop.

Fonts effect the tone, the message, and the readability of whatever copy they are transmitting. It’s important to think about them, find a few favorites and have a few wildcards that you can go to. It doesn’t hurt to know some history about them. I have always been partial to Gills Sans, it is based off of the London Underground’s logo and accompanying alphabet, which Eric Gill helped develop. Now if a client asked me about the font choice they feel secure that I know what I’m doing and have a design heritage that they feel part of.

Fonts 101.

Serifs are those little flourishes you see on the ends of characters. How do you know if font is serif-ed? Upper case “T” is a good give away, serif-ed fonts have two more that two lines to make a “T” like little pedestals that end each segment. I sort of group all of these into a category in my mind labeled “Fancy Fonts.”

Sans, which comes from the Latin root “Sine” which means without. So “Sans Serifs” don’t have the flourishes. These are plainer, block-like fonts. I tend to think of these fonts as “Work Fonts.”

Script and Hand-style fonts are fonts that are meant to look more like handwriting. Not so often used in design, but they pop up more than you might think, even in the corporate world.

Web Safe Fonts. The deal here is this: you designed a whole web page with beautiful line breaks and perfectly spaced blocks of type. You chose the font for this job yourself and even had to buy the package for that font to use it. Let’s call this imaginary font “Hellyesica.” You finish the site and send it off to a friend, they ask what’s up with the weird word spacing and line breaks, you start sweating and ask for a screen shot, they send it and it’s a jumbled mess on their screen. While you can see Hellyesica, because it is installed on your computer, they can’t because their computer doesn’t have that font, so the web browser picked a font that it thought was close and replaced it. Web safe fonts save you from all that mess. 

Picking a font.

So how do you pick? There are plenty to choose from and it can be overwhelming. This will sound like a no brainer, but start with this very simple question: What is the font doing? Is it body copy that conveys information? Great, find a solid sans serif. Is it telling part of a story that needs to draw the reader in? Terrific, try out a slab serif and give it a read through. Fonts should act like your lungs, as in if they are working well you don’t notice them. The rule of thumb used to be that technical writing got san serifs and more creative writing got serif fonts. That is an old way of thinking but it helps save time if you’re stuck in font paralysis. The toughest thing a font can do is grab attention. Ideally the message should do that, and if the message is good enough then you just need a big bold font that doesn’t mince words. Arial Black, 72 point text can really pack a punch if the copy is, um, punchy.

If you are picking a font to match the tone of a design, be careful. This is the trickiest part of typography, you want something familiar, but not over used. Lobster is quickly becoming my least favorite font because of it’s overuse. Every seafood restaurant east of the Mississippi likes to pretend they are located in Cape Cod and slapped the Lobster font on everything like it was tartar sauce. Does that mean that Lobster is a bad font? No, it’s great. So is pizza, I just don’t want it for breakfast.


Google Fonts.  This should be your go to for your work horse fonts. They are all web safe and have a wide variety of great fonts.

Dafont. My favorite source for non standard fonts. Not the best place for your body copy fonts, but if you are looking for something unique they have a huge selection.

Font Squirrel. A good mix of standard and unique fonts.

Blambot. Need something that would require a hand lettered feel but want to avoid Comic Sans or any number of awful “hand” type fonts, here you go. Blambot specializes in comic type scripts that are readable and unique without getting too cutesy or gimmicky.

Cut the Repetition: Image Processing with Actions.


So you inherited a file with thousands of high res jpegs that need to be resized for web use, great. You could spend the week mindlessly resizing them one by one, or do it once and have Photoshop do the rest of them. 

The first step is to familiarize yourself with Actions. Open any of the images you’ll need to resize in Photoshop. Go to the Windows tab at the top of Photoshop and find Actions and click it open. There are some default actions already there, but you’ll need to make your own. Click the sandwich logo in the right corner on the Actions window and click “new action” it will ask you for a name (name it something that makes sense like “image resize for web” because having a menu full of untitled-95 doesn’t help anyone) and it will start recording everything you are doing. Go up to image size and resize the image to your new specs. Once your done click the stop button in the Action window and close the image you were working on, no need to save but it doesn’t hurt if you do.

Side Note: You can use Actions for anything you regularly have to do in Photoshop, I have one set up for making multiple shape layers, one set up for masking white backgrounds, one set up for resizing to a specific size, all by just clicking one button. I would recommend messing around with a few, especially if you find you have to do something over and over on multiple files.

Back to the task at hand. Go to the File tab, and go down Scripts and then to Image Processor. This block will pop up, but don’t worry, I’ll walk you through it.

In the first block it will ask you to select a file of images to use as the source, this would be your file full of too big jpegs. In the second block you are selecting where the resized images will be saved, I usually save in the same location and it will create a folder for the new files (the folder will be called JPEG, PSD or TIFF depending on the next step). Step three is what file type output you want, for this action we are only going to be saving as jpegs, but you can also save as psd if you need to keep the layers separated. The fourth box is the most important, you select the action you want to use, remember what you named that Action?

Once you get that all filled out you click the “Run” button and go make a cup of coffee. Depending on your computer and the size of the files, this time will vary. But rest assured that it will be quicker that you opening them one by one to do it manually. 

Rich Black: How to Print Better Looking Blacks.

Design, Printing

Ever print something that had a large black graphic that looked terrific on your screen but dull and grey on the print out? Time to learn about Rich Black, or how to get your darks their darkest.

If CMYK confuses you check out my previous article about RGB vs CMYK, it will help as a primer. So that black graphic, you did everything right, it is set up as CMYK for print, you designed it yourself, but it isn’t popping in the print off. Check your color settings on the black area, if the only color in there is K, you can push it more by adding the other colors. The problem with making a graphic that is plain black with the color set up of C:0 M:0 Y:0 K:100 is that you are only depending on the quality of the black ink. Rich Black is a printing trick where the color set up for black is C:30 M:30 Y:30 K:100. Some people will swear by C:50 M:50 Y:50 K:100, but really it’s up to you. The additional colors add a depth to the black and (yes I know it sounds crazy) makes your blacks blacker.

Beyond this you can even start to tweak your color formula to make cool blacks (C:75 M:25 Y:25 K:100) or warm blacks (C:25 M:50 Y:75 K:100).  Once you start to get the hang of how these formulas come out you be sure that your final product shines where others fall flat.

Things to beware of:

Nearly everyone who first learns about Rich Black does the same thing: C:100 M:100 Y:100 K:100. It doesn’t get better that that, right? Wrong, too much ink or toner will wrinkle your page, smear while printing, and take forever to dry. That’s why I prefer C:30 M:30 Y:30 K:100 over the C:50 M:50 Y:50 K:100, quicker dry time and less ink costs on big runs.

Some things should never be Rich Black, like text. Text is a very delicate thing on the page, if a color plate gets even a fraction of a fraction of an inch out of whack (which they will) your text will bleed with a halo of color. It looks sloppy and blurry and hard to read. 99% of the time text should be pure black. Same goes for fine lines and super detailed line illustrations. There are very few exceptions to this rule, the only one that comes to mind is text that is run over a color photo and you have your document set up to trap (not overlapping colors when objects are placed over them.)