Challenges of print design vs. interactive design

I’d been doing primarily web/interactive design for the past few years, but have recently gotten back into print. It’s where I got my start, but after being away from it for a while, I feel that I’ve gotten kind of soft. I’m remembering that print design is a lot less forgiving, versus interactive media. A few of the challenges:

  • Less overall controlI have to rely on a team of several people in a whole other business to make my design into its final piece (print rep, pre-press department, pressroom crew, bindery, etc.), where online projects are created from start to finish right in our office. I press check pieces whenever I can, but sometimes there are still surprises. We got a delivery of business cards this week that were cut poorly, and had a completely ragged-looking edge because the ink cracked at the cut. We couldn’t send them out to the client as-is, so we sent the order back to be re-printed. The printer was cooperative, and looked into what happened (they’re going to let the ink dry for 2 days this time, instead of one; they think that was the problem), but the client didn’t get her full order of business cards on the date promised to her.

  • Proofs and mockups will never look exactly like the finished product That’s because proofs and mockups come off of an Epson, or a color laser, not an offset press. You can imagine, of course, and that usually does just fine. But there’s no real jump between a “proof” of a website and the actual “live” website, other than the URL. Looks, feels, acts exactly the same, no surprises.

  • The real world is an imperfect placeWhile interactive design has multiple browsers, platforms and screen dimensions to deal with, they’re nothing compared to paper grain, dot gain, humidity, dry time, the thickness of one batch of paper vs. another, the skill and attention to detail of the guy working on your stuff… The same ink lays heavier on some papers than others. The really high-end printers will account for this by doing drawdowns of your Pantone color on your ink (remixing as necessary to get an exact Pantone match), but if you don’t have a high-end printing budget, you may have to live with an “as close as we can get it” match. And its generally best to design things in such a way that if they’re cut a little off the registration marks, no one will notice — I’ve tried things with thin stripes next to the bleed edge, but I’m kind of at the mercy of the person cutting them as to whether they turn out looking ok or not. Foolproof is generally best.

  • CMYK vs. RGB Unless you have a perfectly calibrated monitor, and a setup like the pre-press department, it’s difficult to tell exactly how your photo will look printed. Luckily, the pre-press department can do a scatter proof for you, so you can see it and have them do adjustments before its on press, but it adds another step to the process (and you have to pay them for the proof and any corrections needed).

  • Print costs vs. programming/HTML design costs Print costs go to the printer. Programming and HTML design costs go to me. They look the same to the client. If only we could talk our clients into developing online business cards instead of printed ones…

  • On-press surprises Occasionally things that are only discovered once a job is on press, and you have to make the tough decision of deciding whether you can live with it, or its worth it to “stop the presses” and have it re-printed (at your expense). This happened with piece I was having printed a couple of months ago. I had used a photo from iStockphoto (requested by the consultant we were working with on the job). The photo was isolated on a white background — except it really wasn’t. There was a 2% dot that showed up just to the left of the image. Not enough to show up on my screen, but just enough to show up on the plate. Seems like pre-press could have caught it, but they didn’t. And the problem wasn’t theirs, it was mine, because it was in the image I had sent with the job. I had the pressman pull back on the black ink as much as he could while keeping the type clear, and that was as good as we could do. The client’s never noticed, but if I pointed it out to them they most likely would.

  • Proofing is even more important - while typos or wrong information are never good, if a typo happens in a webpage you just log into the server and change it. Poof, disaster averted. If something gets printed wrong its a much bigger deal. Somebody’s going to have to pay to get it reprinted, and then it turns into a blame game. We had an angered client call us up to tell us that her business cards were printed with an incorrect phone number. We gave them numerous proofs, which they signed off on, which technically takes us off the hook. However, if we made the error, we would still have to make some kind of reparations for that to keep the relationship good. Rather than get into specifics of who would have to pay for what while on the phone, I said that we would look into what happened. What happened? She had her phone number wrong on the business cards that she had printed before our redesign. The business cards that she had made and had printed herself, and been (presumably) using for a couple of years. I wonder if she ever wondered why she didn’t get many calls? After that, we instituted a policy of calling the phone numbers on business cards before they go to print…

I’m certainly not down on print design in general, though. The smell of freshly printed brochures is up there on my list of favorites, and I love my Pantone books. That, and you can’t get past how nice it is to have actual, tangible samples of work to hand to prospective clients. To keep things a little bit more predictable, we send our printing to a few printers that we have regular accounts and relationships with. The more we work with them, the more we both know about the others’ expectations, and keeps things going (generally) smoothly.

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