Catalog Design: The Art and Science of Press Checks

Photo of press operators studying catalog design press forms as they come off a printing press

Hundreds of hours designing, thousands of miles traveled sourcing, and piles of cash invested into manufacturing, and it all comes down to this: CMYK color on paper that acts as the sales too your sales force uses to drive the bottom line. Does your catalog design deliver what you expected? Here’s how it can, with a photo example below.

Over the 20 years we have been designing catalogs for brands, it never ceases to amaze me hear how often I hear about the critical phase of press checking being neglected by others. I think it’s the nature of digital media taking over and replacing print media as the primary communications vehicle for product marketing.  The art and science of color on press is dying away. There are fewer and fewer quality print companies, but those that are still thriving are doing so because they deliver the highest quality of color you can achieve on paper. Of course, the designer need to be there to help push that catalog across the finish line. Here’s why.

When a catalog design goes to print, and after you have reviewed color proofs of the photography, illustration and catalog designs, those electronic files go through a RIP (Raster Image Processing) and get laser etched to printing plates. Those plates then fall subject to a 100% physical process of transferring inks to those plates and then the plates pass the ink to paper at high speeds. The layering of CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black – yes K stands for Black – don’t ask it doesn’t make much sense) requires an artistic finesse on press to deliver the color you expect. Quality press operators will do an excellent job at matching the color proofs. But then, that may not be enough. You see, CMYK color cannot perfectly match many of the inks, paints and dyes used in manufacturing for most product. Printing can get close, but it takes an artist’s eye to make fine tuned adjustments on press to pull up or down color intensities to more accurately match your actual product. Sadly, many designers and their clients ignore the press check opportunity and just assume the work is done when a job goes to print.

Case in point. We just finished the Summer 2018 Reef sandals and apparel catalog designs and sent them to print. I always supervise press checks for large jobs like this where color is so critical. I think about the teams of designers, sample makers and manufacturers that labor over nailing the perfect colors, textures and stylings. I feel it is our duty to honor their creative work with reproducing it as best we can. So, I always bring real product samples with me to the press check. I try to push the limits of ink on paper to accurately reflect the work of these professionals. During the many page forms I pressed checked for Reef, three of the forms had large color photos of products that were just not close enough to the real thing for my taste. Even after all the proofing and approvals that went on. So, I instructed the press operators to adjust the ink flows for the CMYK color decks in certain zones of the press sheet to bring those photos back to more closely represent the real products. Sometimes, we have to make adjustments 3-4 times to get it right. That’s the art of it. You can see what I mean in the photo below.

Closeup photo of catalog photo of woven shirt with real shirt next to it, and note explaining the two don't match

I know what it’s like to have your creative work turn out looking disappointing on press when color values are not what they should be. Buyers are making decisions for tens of thousands of dollars in many cases based on these catalog photos. I want them to be the best they can be. And, sometimes all it takes is an extra 15 minutes of adjustments on press to deliver that catalog design color that boosts sales through the stratosphere.