Ever had a print job come back only to see blurry small type but nice and crisp images?
When you are designing for 4-color process (CMYK), you have to obey a few rules or you’ll end up with poor results off the press. One mistake that very common to new designers is the flippant applying of CMYK colors on small type. Let’s review the fundamentals of printing in process color and see how they conspire to make small type with process color a no-no in general. As a freelance graphic designer, you can’t afford costly print re-runs and missed deadlines for the clients you worked so hard to get. Don’t blow it at the 95% completion mark of your wonderful new print piece!
When the prepress department at your favorite print shop outputs the plates of your process color print job, the plates come out as a series of dots. One plate for each color of the CMYK spectrum is created. If you are creating a dark blue box in your design, you will see dots that makes your box on both the Cyan and Black plates. Perhaps there is a touch of Magenta in your Cyan to give you a more royal blue. In that case, you’d see very faint dots on the Magenta plate. The pressman lines up the paper and the plates so that in each pass of the paper under each plate and it’s color, the dots from all CMYK plates line up. The pressman uses the CYMK calibration marks you see on the paper to adjust everything. If all goes well, the colors come out great.
I can still hear the collective sighs of many a prepress tech when getting jobs from freelance and other graphic designers. They open the job and go “uggh…” when they see CMYK hairline borders and tiny fonts with complex CMYK colors.
Things don’t always go well on a press. Technically, no print job is ever perfect, especially CMYK. What happens is the plates are lined up to the eye as good as can be, but the closer you get, say with a magnifying glass, you’d see things really aren’t perfectly lined up. But most jobs are lined up perfect enough. This means that your eye can’t see the discrepancies. For all intents and purposes, close enough rules the day in printing. It takes time and money to be “extra perfect”. Sorry to burst the illusion of perfection in printing, if you had one! The best pressman is the one who can best hide the inherent imperfections of a print job on the press he or she knows all too well.
So what does this have to do with small type and the CMYK printing process?
Well, since printing is as much art as it is science, the calibration of said press and said paper drifts a little here and there. The pressmen keeps things in a certain tolerance based on the capabilities of the press combined with the type of paper, density of ink, and all kinds of factors. But it’s impossible to keep these things entirely under perfect control. If you see a high-speed 4-color press in full speed action, you will wonder in amazement how it stays under any control at all. Ok, so what happens when there is a drift or if the press is just acting up a bit? What happens is that color plates don’t line up perfect any more while the paper is whizzing by and the layer of ink are being laid down by the drum. Now, let’s say you have a flower made of Magenta, Yellow, and Black. Since the flower is all random and fuzzy-edged, you probably couldn’t notice a mild drift if there was one. It’s hidden by the image itself. But let’s say you have a thin line, the same color as the flower, right next to the flower. You’d all of a sudden see the line look a little fuzzy. What happened? The Yellow went one way, the Magenta went another. Instead of your colored line, you see kind of a blurry thing with a yellow haze on one side and a magenta haze on the other, a little grey thing in the middle, but you don’t see your reddish line anymore. Same goes for your small type done with process color.
How small is 8pt type? How small are the lines that make up the serifs on 8pt Garamond? If you said “very very small” you are correct. Think of having letters made from a complex blue color you made up that had some percentage of C, M, Y and K. Now imagine the press drifting just a tad, just for a few seconds while the pressman wipes sweat from his hardworking forehead. All of a sudden, your masterfully positioned footnote in the wonderful blue you created now looks like mush. And now instead of a subtle footnote you weren’t meant to focus on, your blurry footnote is now drawing undue attention to itself. How awful! And now with no time left to reprint the job, you have to hand the results to your client. That was the last freelance graphic design job you’ll do for them, I assure you.
Another topic for another post is the LPI or lines per inch that the plates for your print job are generated at. This drift problem is compounded even further when you print at 133 LPI on soft stock, and is less pronounced at say 150 or 175 LPI. LPI is the press equivalent of dots per inch, DPI, in your source Photoshop files.
Back to our fuzzy type problem though. How do we fix it? There are several solutions I offer in bullet point form, for you to ponder and ask questions about:
- Don’t use complex colors for small type. Use Black or White or at most 2 colors. Create simple colors as the type gets smaller. Nobody will notice.
- Use a 5th spot color for small type. Yes, very expensive, but if the print job already includes a 5th color, why not use it if you can on small type and lines?
- Don’t use delicate fonts for small type. Use a heavier-bodied sans serif if you can. This will get rid of a lot of potential problems.
- If you simply have to have small type all over your print job and you have full creative control, add a spot color, or do the whole job in 1, 2, or 3 spot colors and avoid creating colors by the CYMK process
- Print at the highest LPI your budget can afford. The higher LPI jobs go on better presses. You get a lot more quality than just increased LPI when you go from 133 to 150 or 175 LPI. You get a better press and usually the more experienced pressman.
When in doubt, talk about your files with the prepress department before you send the files over. Ask them about the press they are using for the job. Some presses and paper combinations have little difficulty with some aspects of a some jobs, but other combinations might not be good news. There is no way you can know for, so your best bet is communication. Your freelance graphic design business depends on two things: successful communication and successful results in the end product.