Up on the proof

Telling a design consultancy’s creative team that in a few months time they will be standing at the printer’s at three in the morning as the first proofs come off the press is a fair guarantee that they will take the job seriously and – most importantly – see it through to the final stage. The use of such a threat usually works, says Kimberly-Clark’s European marketing director Stuart Hepburn.

“For me, it’s primarily a question of teamwork and trust,” says Hepburn. “When the designers present you with a creative idea, they also have to be able to execute it.”

Like many marketing directors, he has learned that while creative ability is not such a rare commodity, implementation skills are something to be valued.

Kimberly-Clark normally en-sures that both a technical manager from the design consultancy and a creative working on a given packaging project are present at key meetings, for example at the handover to repro, as well as at the first print run.

Some consultancies are better than others, Hepburn admits, pointing out that occasionally the chain from client to printer does break down. A brief for six-colour printing may be changed by the design agency, proud of having reduced it to a five-colour process, he says, only to be told by the printer that it will never be possible in fewer than eight colours.

The fact that a design company offers a series of skills does not mean that it will have a clear idea of how its responsibilities for project management extend beyond those first stages. But just like any other supplier, a consultancy increasingly has to demonstrate that it is in control of the entire process.

It is no longer enough simply to complete the design within the allotted deadline and then sit back waiting to see what comes off the press.

The problem for printers and for the repro house that guides a design through to the print stage is that the expectations of many graphic designers are unrealistic, and their knowledge of the different print processes and proofing techniques inadequate. But apart from knowledge, a strong rapport with their partners in the production process is essential.

Key to the approach of Omnipack Group design consultancy Mainline Partners is the relationship with Gilchrist Bros, its Leeds-based sister company and specialist repro house. “Traditional design agencies focus solely on the intellectual property of their creativity at the expense of commercial practicality,” says managing director John Watts. “Would an advertising agency wave goodbye to their concept as it moves to the production company? No. They manage every aspect (including financial) of the production company’s activity.”

Without knowledge of what will work and what will not, designers risk adding unforeseen costs to the process as it progresses, explains Watts. Too often, artwork is generated with the designer in mind and not the repro house. In this case, some if not all of the artwork will need to be recreated, meaning extended lead-times as well as costs.

To overcome these problems, Watts says Mainline has, on site, a team with technical reproduction expertise as well as knowledge of the Leeds-based facilities. “In addition, there is an exchange of personnel between the design and reproduction units that allows for training to take place.”

A central element in a creative team’s technical training has to be a knowledge of different proofing methods and an ability to read the results correctly. Mainline claims it can give a client a proof to sign off covering all the principal print production processes, to the correct dot gain and utilising production inks. Gilchrist Bros has a specialist ink technician to ensure colour matching across the different processes.

At the same time, not every client has the in-house expertise of Kimberly-Clark. And printers can also end up losing out if consultancies or clients do not understand how design feeds through to production.

David Shanahan, technical manager at printing company Label Converters, has had clients turn down wet proofs produced with letterpress inks because they were judged to be too dark. This, says Shanahan, is simply the effect of the relative strength of this specific ink type.

In this and other cases the printer decided to go straight to a machine proof. Despite the additional expense, this was not charged to the client, says Shanahan. But increasingly, he admits, the cost of machine proofing is being built into print job estimates.

When dealing with promotional mechanics such as labels, rather than primary pack design, there is an additional danger that overall responsibility will be left with intermediaries with even less knowledge of production and print processes. According to Shanahan, one design consultancy selected a colour on the strength of spotting a particular wet ink while a press was being made ready.

“Designers themselves simply do not have adequate proofing systems,” says Shanahan. “Cromalins, for example, are really dangerous from our point of view. They can give completely the wrong impression.”

The problem is that no single proofing system – least of all laser outputs – is going to give a truly accurate picture of how the final print run will look.

But Kimberly-Clark’s Hepburn is philosophical about the shortcomings of intermediate proofing techniques. Brand managers and print buyers are paid, he says, to know that a certain colour is wrong.

“Panicking about a Cromalin is like looking at an animatic of an ad and complaining that it looks too much like a cartoon,” he explains.

One of the companies spanning the distance between digital design, artwork and repro is Corniche Fine Arts. The studio generates its own design, but also works on artwork from other consultancies.

“As the industry has moved into the digital era, the potential has increased for design consultancies to produce work which is unsuitable for printing, either through familiarity with publications printing or from using the wrong type of package at their end,” says sales and marketing director Richard Sanderson.

“We treat Cromalin proofing as an art form,” says Sanderson, explaining that rather than simply using the four-colour process set, Corniche will use hand-mixed special colours. “For many consultancies, one of the pitfalls is certainly that they can output visuals from a laser printer which generates colours from the process set. All the mid-tones are created from process colours, and that can give a completely false impression. A client will approve that design and then expect to see it again.”

Like Shanahan, Corniche is aware of the limitations of wet proofing. Even if the correct material is used, says Sanderson, the proof is not produced at machine speed, which means that viscosity and pigments can change. But short of a machine proof, it is the best available option, he says.

Drew Saunders, creative director at promotions agency Interfocus, believes that there are good reasons for seeing proofs at every stage. “Cromalins should be seen for layout and to check the tints are working and wet proofs to check that the stock which the design is going onto doesn’t destroy what’s been designed,” he says. “Anyone who relies on any one form of proofing is going to have a shock with the final job.”

Saunders agrees that consultancies have to do more to manage the production process, and Interfocus has a creative services department with experience in all aspects of print. This, he says, ensures that clients are not given any nasty surprises.

“But while agencies need to exercise professionalism and perfectionism, clients too have a responsibility to check that their job is printed properly, and it’s every client’s right to see the job coming off the press,” he adds.

Of course, colour density and proofing are not the only pitfalls. Alan Fayers, print and production director at consultancy Siebert Head, notes that ignorance at the design stage about the final print process can cause major problems. Sometimes this can be the consultancy’s own ignorance about the various processes and the differences between them. But occasionally the consultancy is simply left in the dark by the client.

“Sometimes you start on a project and you don’t even know what the final process is going to be or who will print it,” says Fayers. He adds that clients have been known to choose the wrong process between, say, gravure and flexo, using relatively expensive gravure for unfeasibly short runs.

Siebert Head worked on the Ski Fruitful pot for Eden Vale, where the colour match between label and lidding was critical. Both were printed rotary offset litho, but because the label and foil lid were different materials, the ink formulation – mainly for the special colour dark blue – had to be adjusted to achieve the same effect on each.

But achieving controlled effects across two pack components is child’s play compared with the sort of feat being pulled off by the Early Learning Centre (ELC). Since April 1997, the retailer has introduced more than 470 packs, with many more on the way, supplied by printers in a number of countries, many in the Far East. ELC’s strategy involved nominating a repro house and design consultancy – Weir Technology and Dragon respectively – with a strong working relationship and clear delineation of responsibilities. Weir controls the central repro hub, with Dragon and ELC approving proofs, with wet proofs printed on sample materials from each country.

Clear statements of responsibility from the outset are important. But avoidance of the “them and us” mentality, anywhere in the chain from client to consultancy to artwork and repro to printer, also seems to count for a lot in ensuring that what you once saw is what you will get.

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