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Leveraging the Latest Design Software

By Thomas Franklin

Design software is the silent backbone of a designer’s arsenal. It helps unleash creativity and efficiency. Though the rise of the Web led to a number of programs building on their virtual capabilities, print remains an essential component and a source of continued innovation and improvement.

Leading software manufacturers continually update current versions of popular design suites for graphic designers. More specifically, designers working in the large format space are continually finding design software now catering to big prints.

Print Big
The latest version of Adobe Systems Incorporated’s Creative Suite (CS), version 4, offers a number of enhancements for large format print designers. For the CS4 release, Adobe performed extensive pre-release testing with printer manufacturers to maximize performance.

One new feature supported across the Adobe product line is built-in support for the Color Universal Design Organization (CUDO) standard. Previously available as a licensed plug-in, a CUDO preview mode allows users to preview what their graphic would look like if someone was color blind. “It’s useful for someone printing transit maps or directional signs,” where properly identifying routes in heavily populated areas is essential, explains Bryan O’Neil Hughes, product manager, Photoshop, Adobe.

Many changes to the CS4 release of Photoshop are print-related, shares Hughes, because “we realized so many people were doing things with print.” In an unusual move, Adobe issued a dot release of CS3 to

accommodate Windows Vista, which was introduced after CS3. Photoshop CS4 improves on the bugs of the dot release “and creates a better interaction between the operating system, print driver, and software,” observes Hughes.

Perhaps the biggest change to Photoshop is its ability to print big. “We broke out. The only limit to the size of prints is the operating system,” he shares. Hughes estimates that, pushed to maximum capability, Photoshop CS4 offers a 15 percent size improvement over the maximum size enabled in CS3. For Mac users on OS X, Photoshop now supports 16-bit printing with a compatible printer.

Illustrator is now able to create multiple art boards and pages within a document, allowing printers to tile output more effectively, explains David Macy, product manager, Adobe. The feature was formerly available in the print dialog but was moved into the design process so users can customize how tiles will overlap, he says.

“Up to 100 art boards can be utilized and finely adjusted spacing, even to negative, is possible. This is particularly useful for graphics with seams that need to be aligned properly. It’s also helpful for reducing media waste,” Macy shares.

Also new for Illustrator CS4 is a separation preview feature, which divides colors for proofing before output. “This was previously done by opening the file in Acrobat or InDesign, or potentially a RIP—and there you could only preview the colors, not fix them,” says Macy.

To improve prepress workflows, users can now switch visibility of effects on and off. This feature makes the file easier to process. “You can set the effect and turn off its visibility while you work on the file, then turn it back on when you’re ready to print,” explains Macy.

There is also the ability to batch-edit effects. A designer can click on an appearance attribute and perform an edit on the attribute wherever it appears in the graphic.

Value-Added Content
The latest version of Corel Corporation’s CorelDRAW Graphics Suite 4X (GS4X) differentiates itself from competitors with value-added content, explains John Locastro, product manager, Corel.

A video on experts’ insights shows users how other designers leverage the program’s features for creative projects, also a sizeable collection of clip art and templates are included in the newest version.

Among GS4X’s new features is live text formatting, which previews text formats before they are applied to a document.

For designers struggling to identity a font used in a piece of submitted artwork, a partnership with MyFont’s cheekily titled What the Font?—an online font discovery service—uploads an image of the suspect font for guidance.

Corel also integrated the online tool, ConceptShare, into its software. ConceptShare allows customers to review designs and comment online in real time. Another addition is independent page layers, in which designers edit and set guidelines for individual pages—and a master guideline for the entire document.

One of Corel’s signatures are pre-made templates, says Locastro. GS4X includes 80 templates with notes from the templates’ creators. These tips guide users during output and through any customizations they require. The software retains the ability to design in real size and up to 150x150 feet. Workflow is King

“Flexi is built around the premise that workflow is king,” says Judy Heft, director of marketing, SA International, Inc. (SAi). Flexi doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel or copy the design functionality of other programs, Heft continues. Instead, it supports a variety of file formats and adds workflow-enhancing features around its core printing and cutting functionality. The software, now in version 8.5 for Windows and a new version 8 for Macs, features a repeat job function, allowing users to set the number of times a print job is sent to the printer without re-RIPing.

Also, a new dual roll function helps users nest jobs to multiple rolls, and a break apart feature separates multi-copy, multi-page, or multi-tiled jobs into individual jobs.

Improving color management was also a core focus of the newest version, Heft says. “You shouldn’t need a Ph.D. to create profiles.” Among the improvements is support for up to 16 color channels and the ability to apply ICC profiles to individual jobs in a nest.

On the Quark Express
While QuarkXPress 8’s pages have a maximum page size of 48 inches, many consumers scale output to achieve greater dimensions. The company’s billboard customers author pages at 48 inches but output at 200 percent for a 96-inch sheet, a company spokesperson from Quark, Inc. shares.

Many of the latest version’s enhancements center on a new user interface. A picture content tool selects, rotates, and scales images in real time without typing in numbers or switching tools. Designers can now draw illustrations into QuarkXPress 8 via a Bezier pen tool, while new buttons were added for instant access to master pages as well as for exporting pages to PDF, EPS, SWF, or HTML.

For cross platform users, version 8 supports drag-and-drop for adding text and pictures from a desktop, Adobe Bridge, or other programs, as well as dragging Quark content to Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and Microsoft Word. For designers working on integrated campaigns that encompass print and Web components, QuarkXPress 8 adds Flash and Web-authoring tools.

Plug It In
Adobe Photoshop’s print sizes are larger, but still require a source file capable of scaling. That’s where Alien Skin Software, LLC, developers of the Blow Up plug-in for Photoshop, comes in. Now in version 2, Blow Up is used by designers to scale low resolution images, illustrations, and logos into large format files.

“Graphic designers use Blow Up because clients frequently bring them screen resolution pictures,” says Jeff Butterworth, president, Alien Skin Software. These 72 dpi files are frequently culled from the Web. “The client insists on using this screen resolution photo even when the piece the designer is working on is destined for print at 300 dpi. Of course, “Blow Up can’t work miracles in every case,” but Butterworth insists the results “look smoother and sharper” after a designer uses Blow Up.

Blow Up 2, introduced in August 2008, boasts a new user interface and the ability to batch process files. “It makes simultaneous cropping and resizing very fast and easy,” Butterworth shares. It also auto rotates and auto crops photos. A sharpening effect can automatically adjust according to the size of the output and paper type. The software supports printing in CMYK at 32-bits/channel HDR and output as large as 300,000 pixels on a side.

Another enlargement option is BenVista’s PhotoZoom Pro 2. This is available both as a plug-in for Photoshop and also as a standalone application. The standalone software batch processes images whereas the plug-in does not.

PhotoZoom Pro 2 is able to resize images up to one million by one million pixels, says Hugo Eijkelhof, president, BenVista. The software uses S-Spline when resizing, which analyzes the sharpness and evenness of the original image and works more aggressively in areas with high contrast.

“S-Spline preserves the edges and sharpness of the original images. It does not attempt to add new quality to its image enlargements, but uses the original information in an intelligent way,” Eijkelhof adds.

New for PhotoZoom Pro 2 is S-Spline XL, which Eijkelhof says preserves original image sharpness, but also reconstructs shapes, thereby adding details. Where S-Spline enlarges everything—including images with artifacts and digital noise—XL offers a preset to reduce these impairments. Users can preview the effects of either S-Spline or S-Spline XL on their files. There are also presets such as photo-soft or photo-detailed.

Bridging the Gap
It’s a stretch to say that Jamie Thole, graphic designer and project manager at the family-owned Custom Graphics and Sign Designs, Inc. of Orange Park, FL grew up with SAi’s Flexi program, but it’s close. “It’s the product that I learned on when I was very young,” he shares. It is also the center of Custom Graphics’ workflow.

“Flexi runs from eight in the morning to five at night every day, non-stop.” The company employs a total of ten, with two designers, including Thole.

Custom Graphics started in 1987 as a strip and car decal shop and evolved since then to a full-service sign shop, creating dimensional signs, channel letters, and corporate exteriors. The firm recently purchased its first digital printer, a Roland DGA Corporation SOLJET PRO III XC-540, bridging the gap from cut vinyl to printed graphics, explains Thole.

“All of our designs and output are created in Flexi,” Thole notes. “I do a lot of construction and schematics for pillion signs and it lets me do the dimensions and schematics in one place.” Thole says that a template feature, introduced in an earlier version, reduced design time hours because of the ability to save his work into a PDF and email it directly from the program.

The Creative Spark
In an increasingly interconnected world, the team at WideSpark Design, based in Elgin, IL, needed a platform as integrated as the company’s approach to branding and advertising. “We are a perfect match for Adobe CS’ capabilities,” Rick Moser, president, WideSpark. In 2002, WideSpark re-branded itself to emphasize its cross-platform synergy.

A typical campaign for the firm involves branding, a Web site, and a print ad campaign—which could include video and large format printing.

“We differentiate ourselves from competitors by offering these different disciplines from one source,” Moser says. That, in turn, moves companies to market quicker and saves money, he adds.

For WideSpark’s six person design team, working within CS leverages its various pieces—for Web, print, and video—“within the Adobe realm while being very productive,” Moser says. WideSpark designers work on Macs.

One favorite feature of the firm’s, Edit Original, cuts through directories to instantly work on an original file in Adobe Photoshop, and then saves changes that will be recognizable in InDesign or Illustrator. Managing files is overwhelming when working on an integrated campaign, so the links palette makes it quick and easy to update current files, replace existing files with new ones, and keep track of where images are in the project file.

Artist with Light
FL-based wedding photographer/fine art printer Taran Morgan began producing his own prints in 2005. “I am currently transitioning my clients from books to wide format prints,” he says.

He also dabbles in using an Epson Stylus Pro 7880 for fine art reproductions. Morgan offers his customers large prints—including panoramas—on photo rag paper and Oji ILFORD USA’s gold fibre silk, among others.

Making a transition from the traditional photo album to a wide format print meant that some of his older cameras needed a resolution kick. Morgan uses Alien Skin’s Blow Up 2 to scale photos destined for walls and mantelpieces.

Usually lower resolution photos are blown up to reach a 12x18-inch print, while larger output is captured with a higher resolution camera. The program’s batch-processing feature is particularly useful when dealing with the copious number of images captured at an event, says Morgan.

He shoots weddings in a RAW file format from which he creates a TIF file that, depending on its size and destination, will be enlarged in Blow Up. Morgan even runs a number of higher resolution files through Blow Up 2 for sharpening. “I find that when printing, an enlarged file size processes better. It will pop a bit more.”

Soft Sells
Design programs may run up against the physics of operating system speeds and memory, but future editions will improve on that. For designers in the large format space, current and future iterations of today’s popular design programs may not reduce all the hassles of low-resolution source files or demanding deadlines, but they certainly help.

Feb2009, Digital Output

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