To Proof or Not to Proof?
If you were in the printing industry before the invention of the Apple Macintosh computer or Rubik’s Cube you would remember how we used to proof color for offset by using products such as Colorkeys, Matchprints and Chromalins. Back then, offset was king and the only way to proof color was through these hard copy “contract proofs” or with a press proof. The term contract meant that the printer entered into an agreement with the customer stipulating that the color portrayed on the proof would match the final product, thus a contract was created. As long as the customer did not deviate from the color on the contract proof at the press check, the printer was obliged to match the contract proof to the best of his (and the press’) ability.
The contract proof was presented as CYMK layers that were either loosely collated (i.e. Colorkeys) or laminated together (i.e. Matchprints, Chromalins). For-position-only (FPO) proofs, such as Dylux (bluelines) and Velox (blacklines), were used to exclusively proof text and layout. Depending on the job type, most shops required at least one of these proofs to be approved before the job would go to press (sometimes both a contract and FPO proof). The customer was made aware of the purpose of the contract and the FPO proof. It was not an option for the customer to waive a contract proof before going to press.
Today our customers are evolving alongside the technological advances in our industry and they are hip to the speed, quality and improved economics made possible with the latest generation of toner-based devices. Our customers demand the same speed, convenience and cheap prices from brick-and-mortar shops as they can get from buying print products online.
Reevaluating the Proof
In order to provide speed and reduce costs, today’s printer has had to reevaluate his/her proofing practices. For some, soft proofing (PDF) has replaced contract proofs all together. Case in point: this year, for the first time, I was told by one of my heatset vendors that they are doing away with contract proofs; they are now proofing exclusively with PDFs. Even our vernacular is changing, as I hear the term “production proof” to define what was historically called the contract proof. If we are confused and unsure as to how to proof color, you can imagine what our customers must be thinking.
Since we respond to the voice of the customer (VOC) and some of our customers are waiving hard copy color proofs, we must ask ourselves: Is the contract proof relevant today? Should we stop offering hard copy color proofs altogether? Should we give the customer what they want even if it’s not the best practice?
After considering these questions in our shop a few years ago, we decided to develop SOPs (standard operating procedures) for proofing on all of our print processes. If we’re producing on offset, we proof color with our Epson, if toner-based and color intensive, we proof color using the production equipment it will be printed with as well as the substrate it will be printed on. Ultimately, we resolved to require a contract color proof from our customers for the following reasons:
- The same customer who created a file with MS Publisher is most likely expecting final color output to match what is portrayed on their uncalibrated, aged monitors and/or mobile devices. A color hard copy proof minimizes customer dissatisfaction in their expectation of how the color will be reproduced.
- The CMYK gamut is more compressed than RGB. We simply cannot produce all the RGB configurations in CMYK. The best way to proof CMYK color accurately is by CMYK output.
- Because paper is the fifth “color” in CMYK color production, a hard copy proof is the best way to represent how paper (with its relative white point) will influence color reproduction.
- We use the hard copy proof as an educational tool for our customers utilizing CMYK reproduction. As it turns out, our most frequent customers are those who have become more knowledgeable, cooperative and proficient in providing print-ready files.
- Most toner-based systems are problematic regarding process control, having variations within a piece, piece-to-piece and/or time-to-time. Even with the best process control practices, variation happens. A hard copy proof generated near production time often prevents reprints due to variation resulting in unacceptable color shifts.
- While we try to resolve image FPOs, grammar and layout issues at the soft proof level, it is the customer’s prerogative to change their mind or catch defects right up to the day/time of print. While we allow the customer to make edits at the hard-proof stage, depending on how extensive those changes, the due date may need to be altered, which is our prerogative.
Obviously, customer demands and expectations vary widely. From time to time we get talked into waiving a hard copy proof in order to meet a demanding due date, and while the job may not always end badly, if it does, typically a hard copy proof would have prevented it. I believe we printers should, to the best of our ability, act as the fiduciary in the printing transaction for our customers in order to ensure the best possible outcome. The average customer is mostly unaware of (or untouched by) the horrors of reprinting and scrapping a sizeable print job.
I would like to hear from you by responding to this blog in the comments section below. Does the contract proof fit into your proofing process scenario? What are your experiences (good and bad) in proofing color on your toner-based devices? And how would you assess the performance of your current proofing process in meeting the needs of your customers?
Gordon Rivera is a graphic communication lecturer at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo and is the supervisor of Campus Graphics, an in-plant provider of traditional and digital media for Allan Hancock College, a community college in Santa Maria, Calif. He is a certified G7 Print Professional and has successfully completed both Lean/Six Sigma training and a Black Belt level project. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org regarding your print experiences in the pursuit of quality.