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The Printing Process

By: Avinash Narula

To most marketing and advertising executives, production and printing are a mystery. Even quite a few designers are ignorant of the printing process. Most of us depend on the art director, production person and printer to transform the copy and the visual design into a finished advertising and promotional material. We do not bother much as to how they do it. A Working knowledge of the printing process will help in producing an error-free advertising and promotional material on time as well at optimum cos.

Knowledge of the printing process is also important from the point of view of designing. You have to design taking the type of printing to be done into consideration. This is precisely why the chapter on printing precedes that on designing.

Simply put, printing is the reproduction of an image by stamping one surface with another which has been inked. It dates back to the second century China where it all started. We will not delve into the history part, rather in this chapter we will look at how things are being done today with the help of new technology. Like everything else, believe me the printing process too has undergone tremendous change. New technology has thrown the doors open to more efficient printing.

Technology has certainly made life easy. Now color separation can be done by a color scanner. Complete page layout can be done on a computer terminal with the flexibility of making changes as often as we like. Digitized typesetting, image manipulations, on demand printing and automatic binding have also contributed to substantial changes in the way advertising and promotional material is being printed today. So bye-bye to the days of the older printing process. In fact, if you are using an advertising agency or a printer who is not working with computers, it’s time you changed for the better.

Once the design is developed on the computer and approved, it is now ready for printing. In India, the two most common printing processes being used are screen and offset printing. Here we will take an in-depth look at these two types of printing as well as the steps involved in the printing process.

Offset Printing

Offset printing is an automatic printing process. The four colors CMYK are printed one by one on the paper. Offset printing becomes necessary in the following circumstances :

(a) Large quantity of print order: If you need large quantities of some material printed, offset printing is the right choice. Offset printing will not only be cost effective but will also be quicker.
(b) Type of design : With offset printing you can print any kind of a job. If it’s a four color (CMYK) design which has different gradation of colors or if there are photographs, offset printing is the only option even if you have to print a small quantity. Of course, today’s technology allows you to print even a single piece of four-color posters, cost effectively with digital printing.

There are also what are commonly known as Mini Offset printing presses. Mini offset printing presses are mostly used for small print jobs, usually in 1 or 2 colors, like circular letters, questionnaires for research and business forms. Mini offset printing is not suitable for four color jobs. Let us now try to become familiar with the different stages involved in the offset printing process.

  1. Developing positives
  2. Developing Proofing/Bluelines
  3. Pasting
  4. Making of plates
  5. The Press-Check
  6. Printing
  7. Drying
  8. Lamination
  9. Folding
  10. Binding
  11. Cutting
  12. Packing

Developing Positives

So once the design is approved, it has to be sent to a processing house for making positives. Whether it is a four color job or a single color job, positives are but compulsory. They have to be made. In other words color separation has to be done. Color separation - cyan, magenta, yellow or black - is done by allowing the light of one color to strike the film while blocking out the rest. The separation process of a four color design results in four pieces of film (positives), one for each color - cyan, yellow, magenta, and black. You will notice that since the car is made up of all the four colors, all the four positives show the portion of the car where that specific color has to be printed. On the other hand, since the copy or the text matter is to be printed in black, it only appears in the black positive. Similarly, since the color red is made up of magenta and yellow colors, the words "Prime Honda Delhi" appears in the magenta and yellow positives.

As discussed earlier, virtually any color can be reproduced from some combination of these four colors. After color separation, positives are made from the separated negatives. The positive images are combined in the printing process to produce full color images. Black is usually the last color to be printed.

It may be appropriate to mention here of the advancement of technology in the printing process. The CTP (Computer to Plate) system now eliminates the use of film or bromides in the pre-press area. CTP has made a dent in India as well, with few of the printers installing CTP units, thereby reaping the benefits of this new technology.

Progressive Proofs / Bluelines

Before you actually go to press, you can get to look at what is known as proofing which is just a set of progressive proofs to show you what your printed piece will look like after it’s been printed. Proofing is prepared from the positives. When you get 4-colour progressive proofs made, you will get nine printed sheets. The nine printed sheets represent the following:

  1. Yellow color - The portion of your design which has yellow color.
  2. Magenta color - The portion of your design which has magenta color.
  3. Cyan color - The portion of your design which has cyan color.
  4. Black color - The portion of your design which has black color.
  5. Cyan and yellow colors - The portion of your design which has both cyan and yellow color.
  6. Cyan and magenta colors - The portion of your design which has both cyan and magenta color.
  7. Magenta & yellow colors - The portion of your design which has both yellow and magenta color.
  8. Cyan, magenta & yellow colors - The portion of your design which has cyan, yellow and magenta colors.
  9. All four colors - Your design in all four colors

Proofing is just a printing process by which a sample of what your printed job will finally look like can be seen. The progressive proofs serve as a guide to the printer as to how to control the printing process as well as the intensity of each color to be used so that the printed material comes out exactly as you had planned.

This is the stage where you can see if everything including the design and colors will come out the way you wanted. This is a check point. In case there is a mistake, one can correct it, but at a cost. However, the cost is much less than what it would have been had you traced out the error after you have already printed 10,000 copies of your marketing literature. Sometimes you can correct mistakes at this stage at practically no cost provided the changes are in the text portion of the brochure which is printed in black on a white or a plain color background. The color proofs should be checked for size and color quality.

As you can imagine, press proofs are expensive. But quite a large number of advertising agencies use it for they are the only true way to show the client how the final print job will look like. We seldom print a job without taking out the proofing.

Bluelines are prints of your negatives/positives which are used most often for one-or two-colour jobs. Varying shades of blue indicate colour differences for tints, reverse type and halftones. Be sure to have your bluelines folded or bound along the same lines as your brochure so you can check if the copy tracks properly as well as ensure that the pages are in sequence. Before finally printing this book, we had obtained the blueline to make sure everything was in order. The dummy of the printed material in blueline is also known as the "farrow."


Most of the time, material to be printed is smaller than the size of the paper it is to be printed on. There are different sizes of paper. The size of the printing press also differs. Larger printing presses use larger size paper while smaller size printing presses use smaller size paper. Usually, larger printing presses are used when the quantity of the material to be printed is large. If the size of the material to be printed is smaller than the paper it is going to be printed on, pasting of the positives has to be done. Supposing two copies of brochure can be printed on one side of the paper, then two positives will be pasted together so that two brochures can be printed together. The plates are made after the positives are pasted. This is an important step in the printing process. The precision with which pasting is done will ultimately decide the quality of printing. Pasting of positives of all the four colors has to be done with precision to ensure that they are aligned properly and that there is no registration problem during printing. Registration or alignment problem will result in blurred images, improper color and legibility problem with the text matter of the printed material.

Making of Plates Once the pasting of the positives is complete, the printer will start making plates. A plate is simply a metal or plastic sheet that is inked to transfer the image to the paper. The plate is chemically treated to attract ink to the image area and repel ink from the non-image area. Because plates disintegrate quickly, most printers don’t save them for long. However, the same plates can be used again to print, but no longer after the lapse of a month or two. After that new plates will have to be used. In case you know that you may need to print some more quantities of your advertising and promotional material within a month or two, it would be wise to tell the printer to save the plates so that you can use them again. Such a step would result in cost savings.

There are different types of plates available. In offset printing, three basic types of plates are used - surface plates, deep etched plates and pre-sensitized plates. All of them are prepared photographically or electronically. Some are more expensive than others. Some types of plates are reusable and some are not.

Pre-sensitized plates (PS Plates) are processed by automatic processors. Their boon to offset printing is that they have made printing much more efficient and a cleaner process. PS plates are the most expensive and are usually used for quality jobs. These plates can be reused within two months. After that you will need to make new plates. DS Plates are the least expensive and are used for low quality jobs where single color printing is involved.

Even though the plates can’t be kept for a long time, the positives can be saved. You can use the positives even after two years provided you have taken necessary precaution while storing. The best way is to ask your printer or advertising agency to tuck them away in a safe place for you.

The Press Check-Your Last Chance to Catch Mistakes

It is an exciting moment when the presses begin to roll and the first few sheets are printed. While you look over these first press sheets, the printer will turn off the press and wait for your reaction. Before you start getting picky, scan the piece for the overall effect. It’s important to remember that very few readers will examine your brochures as intently as you, and that no printing job is ever free from imperfections.

Printing is not an exact science. You should be prepared to make compromises. The goal is to eliminate as many problems as possible before you go to press. But once you’re there, you may have to give up one thing to get another. For example, if in a brochure you want your product to look perfect you can ask the printer to correct the color to bring out more depth in the picture of your product. However, when he does that there might be a slight adverse affect on some other aspects of the brochure. For instance, the background color may change a bit. Like in everything else, you have to give up something to gain something. The same is true in printing. In the above case, you will get a perfect product picture but you may have to compromise on the background.


After you or your representative has approved the initial print run, the printer will just go ahead and print the advertising and promotional material. After this, there is no stopping.


After the advertising and promotional material is printed, it needs to dry up before it is taken through the folding and cutting process. This is a very important step in the printing process. If you do not let the printed material dry properly and start folding and / or cutting, the ink will get smudged because it is still wet. Needless to say, the printed material will be of poor quality. Apart from the deterioration in quality, wastage will also increase. This has happened with us a number of times because of the urgency shown by the client. Please note that if a lot of solid color(s) have been used, more drying time is required.

So remember to give your printer or your advertising agency sufficient time to ensure the quality of the print job. If you see smudges in a print job, you know that the printer didn’t let the job dry up properly.


A glossy finish can be achieved by applying lacquer or varnish after printing. The highly glossy or matt finish and waterproof surface is achieved by applying a thin clear plastic sheet on the printed matter. This is called lamination.

Lamination gives a good finish to the advertising and promotional material. Also, lamination is a must for brochures with heavy ink coverage as it prevents the color from rubbing off. Lamination will also protect dark - colored pages from becoming nicked, scratched or marred by fingerprints. Last but not the least, lamination protects the advertising and promotional material and makes it last long. Posters which are expected to last long are usually laminated.


After the printed material has dried, the sheets must be folded either manually or mechanically. Usually, the folding of brochures is not a very complicated process. However, still one needs to ensure that folding is done properly because the quality of cutting and the final shape of the brochure depends on it. For instance, if folding is not done properly, you may notice that the printed matter appears to be crooked or the margins on both sides of the text are not equal.

Page imposition

I think this is probably a good place to talk about page imposition. While designing and layouting a brochure, the page sequence has to be laid out according to how the brochure will be ultimately printed. For instance, in a four page brochure, page nos. 1 & 4 will be printed on one side of the paper and pages 2 & 3 on the other side. Once the printed paper is folded in the middle, the page sequence automatically falls in place. Placing of the different pages of a brochure or printed material from the point of view of the printing process is called the "page imposition."

The concept of page imposition is easy to follow with a four page brochure but can get quite complicated when you are printing a book or a catalogue. In such cases, the arrangement of the pages is done in a certain order so that they appear after folding in consecutive numerical order

As mentioned earlier, the arrangement of pages in the above manner is known as an imposition. Each of the printed and folded sheet is called a signature. Imposition is the responsibility of the printer. Sheetwise and “work and turn” are two basic kinds of impositions. In the former, half of the pages are imposed on one side of the sheet and the other half on the back of the sheet. In the latter, all the pages are imposed on one side of the sheet for half the press run and the sheet is then turned over for the same pages to be printed on the opposite side. The sheet is then cut into two pieces to form two signatures. Signatures come in multiples of four pages. They may be eight, sixteen, thirty-two and so on, depending on the size of the press and the paper stock.

If you have printed your brochures on heavy stock, you may have it scored before folding. With scoring, the paper will fold easily along the crease without cracking or tearing.


The printed and folded material then heads towards the binding and trimming department. Depending on the type of the job in hand, binding may be very simple or very complicated.

Does your book last you? Or does it disintegrate in no time at all?� Well it all depends on the type of finishing and binding process that you have used. Binding process includes folding, cutting, gluing, binding, punching holes, collating, scoring and perforating. We have discussed folding and cutting separately. Many printers have bindery departments on premises, while others subcontract this step to independent binders.

Here are some examples of the most commonly used bindings :

Case Binding

Also known as “hardbound binding”, it is a traditional method of binding. If you want your book or a catalogue to last long, then this type of binding is appropriate. The signatures are sewed together with a strong thread. A strip of cloth is glued onto the spine. The cover is created by covering the cardboard cover with paper, cloth or even leather. This is the most expensive type of binding.


In this type of binding, the brochure or the printed material is stapled through the crease in the spine of the brochure. An advantage of this type of binding is that the pages lie flat when you open the brochure or the printed material. The disadvantage is that the number of pages that you can bind together is limited by the size of the staples. Also, the number of pages you can bind together effectively by this method will depend on the type of paper used. Heavier the paper, less the number of pages you can bind effectively with this method. If you bind too many pages with this type of binding, the pages will have a tendency to not remain flat.


This type of binding is used for thicker brochures or printed material by stapling along the left margin. Unlike saddle-stitch binding, in this type of binding the pages don’t lie flat when you open the brochure or the printed matter. However, the designer will have to provide a wider back, or center margin (or gutter) so that the printed material on the left side of the page is not covered by stapling and is easy to read. Quite a few times, a separate sheet is glued over the stapled cover to create a more attractive look.

Paste Binding

This method can be used to bind brochures with up to 16 pages as an economical alternative to saddle-stitching.

Spiral Binding

This type of binding is used to bind thick brochures, background papers, catalogues and other similar documents when you need the pages to lie flat on being opened. Holes are drilled through the cover and pages, which are then joined together using a wire or plastic spiral coil.

Comb Binding
This type of binding is very similar to spiral binding. The advantage of comb binding is that it can be easily opened to add extra pages. This type of binding is most flexible. The plastic combs come in a variety of colours and can be printed with information.

Perfect Binding
You must have observed that most paperbacks, magazines and hardbacks are perfect bound. Now how do you get perfect binding? Perfect binding is achieved by hot gluing pages together. After folding, the folded sections are glued at the spine to hold the folded sections together and to attach the same to the cover. The books are then trimmed to give a smooth edge.

Sewn Bookbinding
Some paperbacks are sewn. After gathering, the sewing machine inserts threads through the spine of each section and then uses further thread to join the sections to each other to form the book block. In a separate operation, the cover is then glued to the spine and the books are trimmed.

Having walked through all the stages, we have finally reached the final stage of the printing operation. In order to get the shape of a printed piece other than a square or a rectangle, die-cutting is required. The simplest finishing method is cutting the printed sheets on the sides.

You should clearly establish how the finished product should be packed and when and where it should be delivered. Paper in bulk is very heavy and takes up a lot of shelf/floor space. Think about how it will be handled at the point of distribution. You‘ve spent a lot of time, effort and money on printing the advertising and promotional material. It would a pity if the customer receives a piece of damaged advertising and promotional material reflecting poorly on the image of the company and its products. Packing is often a neglected but vital area of the whole printing process.

Screen Printing

Screen printing is a mechanical process. This type of printing is obtained by spreading and forcing ink through a stencil, a screen or a mesh of silk fabric. The first step of screen printing involves the stretching of the fabric tightly on the wooden frame. This is followed by stapling the fabric on a wooden frame. The screen frame is hinged to the baseboard. The ink or color is then spread on the upper side of the screen and brought into contact with the paper placed below the screen on the baseboard. The color is forced through the pores of the screen with a rubber squeegee, thus creating an image on the paper placed under it. The screen is then raised and the printed piece is removed. The action goes on repeating till the desired number of copies are printed. The images are obtained by depositing ink on paper placed under the frame.

With screen printing, you can print on all types of materials. It is commonly used for printing letterheads, visiting cards, invitation cards, envelopes and similar items. We have printed letterheads on offset printing when we wanted to print large quantities, that is, say in the range of 4000-5000. But people usually print letterheads in small quantities ranging from 100 to 1000 in which case screen printing is a more cost effective option. Similarly, business cards or visiting cards are almost always printed in small quantities with screen printing. It can be considered as a cheap printing method because it can make do without any expensive equipment. The prints can be colorful too. The number of colors is not the limitation. The amount of ink applied in screen printing is far greater than in offset printing which accounts for some of the unusual effects in screen printing.

Each color printed is considered an impression. The more the number of the colors, the more the impressions and also the cost. Also, for instance in a letterhead, if you want something printed on the top as well as the bottom in the same color, it will be counted as two impressions thereby catapulting the cost. This is because the two items to be printed are far from each other and will have to be printed separately.

This type of printing is suitable under the following circumstances:
Small quantity of print run Small quantities can be printed cost effectively with screen printing. You want to print 100 visiting cards, screen printing is the printing process to go for. It is because of this reason that most stationary items like letterheads, visiting cards and envelopes are printed with this type of printing because you usually want them printed in small quantities. You can also print these items by offset printing but the quantities will have to be large to make the printing cost effective. Screen printing is cost effective for small quantities.

Short deadlines
Screen-printing can be done in a very short time. But in the case of large quantities, it becomes a slow process because it has to make do without high-speed machines.

All types of colors
This type of printing also facilitates the use of any color - glossy or matt enamel paints, plastic colors, fluorescent paint and textile colors.

This is the only process where over-printing by light color on dark color is possible.

All the materials used in screen printing are simple, inexpensive and easy to handle.

The following are the disadvantages of screen-printing:

Complicated designs
Screen printing is simply not cut out for designs which require high degree of accuracy and alignment

Large quantities
Printing larger quantities with screen printing is expensive as compared to offset printing

Designs with pictures cannot be printed with screen printing unless the pictures are in line drawing.

Type of design
With screen printing you cannot print all kind of print jobs. First, you cannot print jobs with different gradation of color. With screen printing you can only print solid colors. Second, it cannot print photographs as photographs have different gradation of colors. Third, you cannot print intricate and complicated designs because of alignment problems. If a number of different colors are to be printed right next to each other, you can expect problems with screen printing. This is because screen printing is a manual process. It is difficult to align different elements of designs very near to each other.

When you know that printing will be done by screen printing, you will have to design your advertising and promotional material in a manner which is suitable for screen printing. Also, you will have to ensure that the design does not require very precise alignment while printing.

Let me cite a personal experience. I wanted to print 20 half A4 size posters. Using offset printing to print these posters would have been very expensive. I developed the design in a manner that screen printing could be done and I printed the pin-up posters in half a day and at a fraction of the cost that offset printing would have cost me. Of course, if I want to print 2000 copies of these posters, it would be more economical for me to go for offset printing.

So now you know a little more about the printing process. I am sure that this knowledge will help you in preparing your advertising and promotional collateral cost effectively.

(Copyright @ Avinash Narula - All Rights Reserved. This publication may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in whole or in part, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of Avinash Narula, M-53, IInd Floor, Lajpat Nagar-II, New Delhi-110 024 (India), Telefax:011-41625771/41625772,

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