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Go Big Design

Fine-Tuned Software Produces Large Format

By Kim Crowley

The expression “go big or go home” is tossed around frequently—everywhere from sporting events to political commentary. The line pushes a grand, all or nothing action to achieve success and is used in reference to the graphic arts.

Creative professionals go big with large format print products that excite, add drama, beautify, promote, and drive spending. They work with sophisticated tools behind the scenes long before large format signage is printed, vinyl is cut, or banners hung.

A large format designer’s work comes to life with the help of a toolkit that includes hardware, monitors, color management devices, scanners, cameras, software, proofing devices, and more. Projects translate to a grand scale because they are designed with specialized software.

Software Roundup
Leading large format design software includes products from Adobe Systems Incorporated, Corel Corporation, SA International, Inc. (SAi), and Quark Inc. There are several software options designed to work with a particular printing device. Also available, plug-ins and complementary software additions that enable special effects and maximum interpolation—increased number of pixels in images for greater size prints.

Here, software leaders share the latest software options on the market. You can find expanded listings including product information and more on our Web site,, search keyword “design software.”

Adobe’s Creative Suite 4 (CS4) Design Premium is appropriate for cross-media design and print production. “It is the complete toolkit for crafting page layouts, achieving typographic finesse, creating digital images and vector graphics, and developing Web pages and rich interactive experiences,” state David Macy, senior product manager, Adobe Illustrator and Bryan O’Neil Hughes, product manager, Adobe Photoshop. CS4 Design Premium includes a number of new tools, such as multiple art boards in Illustrator and simplified animation in Flash.

Alien Skin Software, LLC’s Blow Up 2 is intended for enlargements. Blow Up is a $249 Photoshop plug-in that resizes photos while maintaining sharpness and clarity. Owners of Blow Up 1 can upgrade for $99. “There is no substitute for starting with a high resolution original image, but when you need to go large, Blow Up is ready,” states Jeff Butterworth, founder/CEO, Alien Skin. “The big improvements in version 2 are automatic cropping, easy to use presets for standard paper sizes, batch processing, and output up to 300,000 pixels per side,” he adds.

Released this past Summer, BenVista PhotoZoom Pro 3 standalone or plug-in software enlarges digital images up to one million by one million pixels, available for Mac OS X 10.4+ and Windows. PhotoZoom Pro 3 features S-Spline Max interpolation technology. S-Spline Max is designed to create sharp image enlargements, which preserve edges, details, and shapes. PhotoZoom Pro 3 is $219. The upgrade price for previous users is $99. “PhotoZoom offers professional functions and features including making short work of problems like jagged lines, halos, noise, and artifacts,” says Hugo Eijkelhof, public relations manager, BenVista.

CADlink Technology Corporation’s SignLab Print and Cut V8 integrates a design engine and a RIP. “SignLab provides a seamless workflow from design to output. It includes complete bitmap as well as vector design tools, over 75 special effects plug-ins for bitmap/photo-editing, automated masking/background removal tools, a vectorization wizard, and advanced text composition features,” states Michael Chramtchenko, director of marketing, CADlink. SignLab Print and Cut V8’s list price is $3,700.

Corel offers an affordable design software option with CorelDRAW Graphics Suite X4, which has a MSRP of $429.

“CorelDRAW Graphics Suite X4 includes new tools that make it quick and easy to deliver any creative project—from layout and photo editing, to illustration, and bitmap-to-vector tracing,” says John Falsetto, product manager, CorelDRAW Graphics Suite, Corel. This newest version offers file compatibility for collaboration, text and layout enhancements, a step-by-step Hints Docker, and new tutorials written by experts. It features a large number of supported import/export file formats as well as the ability to create large document sizes—up to 150x150 feet.

QuarkXPress 8 is used for high-end page layout and features print, Web, and Flash authoring tools; design driven photography; and global publishing capabilities. The newest version is $799 and $299 to upgrade. “One advanced tool that is easier to use than ever is the Bezier Pen Tool. Designers easily create detailed illustrations by turning corner points into smooth points or grabbing segments to drag,” explains Kaoru Uno, senior product manager, QuarkXPress.

SAi offers software ranging from $1,000 to $5,000. The Flexi Family 8.6.v features innovative sign making tools including simple text layout and vinyl cutting, to high production features in six different software products. Flexi is a complete, end-to-end system. “There are no extra steps necessary since Flexi is a full design system as well as RIP. Any job from any application can be sent directly to Production Manager or designed in Flexi and sent to a printer,” shares Donald S. Feagan, president, SAi.

Serif Ltd.’s PosterDesigner works exclusively with Hewlett-Packard (HP) Designjet printers, including the HP Z6100. “Serif PosterDesigner Pro is full of the tools needed to achieve professional quality designs and results,” says Ashley Hewson, sales director, Serif. The software, with a recommended price of $595, is appropriate for anyone with an HP large format printer looking to create high-quality, attention-grabbing posters, including professional print shops, restaurants, retail outlets, non-profits, and other organizations.

Serif PosterDesigner Pro features more than 200 high-resolution, customizable templates ideal for small sign shops with fast turnarounds. Built-in photo editing enables users to adjust photos or add special effects without the need for an additional photo editing suite. Text handling capabilities include text wrapping, placing text within a shaped frame, and typing text on a curve.

Xara Group Ltd.’s newest editions of Xara Xtreme and Xara Xtreme Pro are $249 and feature more than 100 improvements since the last major release. New highlights include improved photo handling with intelligent image scaling and masking features, a text tool with real-time spell check, and new Web export capabilities. “Xara Xtreme handles huge files in real-time, even on a modest PC, and generates ultra-high resolution images. Most modern large format work includes a mix of text, vector artwork, and photo composition. Xara Xtreme handles all areas in one completely integrated way,” says Nova Fisher, communications manager, Xara.

Open Source Options
Several open source or free software options are available online. While they may be helpful for some specific uses such as trials or tight budgets, most do not have the strength and reliability of high-end design software applications.

Miroslav Hristov is an independent designer for private clients as well as a full-time graphic designer/prepress maker in a print house in Bulgaria. He designs using Xara Xtreme, and at times, with Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, and CorelDRAW. Hristov experimented with open source and free design software utilities such as sK1 Project and GIMP. “In my opinion, they still have a long way to go before they are really useful,” he states.

“Free software usually only accomplishes 80 percent of my original intent, with the last 20 percent requiring another tool, an upgrade, or an unfortunate system crash,” agrees Eric Schneider, photographer/interactive design consultant, based in Raleigh, NC. “I do embrace shared or free applications, and encourage developers to push the limits of technology with these types of products,” he adds.

Tried and true software is more secure for many designers. “The only open source software I tried is for writing documents. It would be hard for me to move from a software that I designed with for 20 years,” says Doug Downey, Creativeink Design Group. Located in Stratford, ON, CA, Creativeink Design specializes in creating a complete image look from business cards to billboards. The company employs two designers who use CorelDRAW and Corel Painter.

Free software trials are worthwhile and allow designers to test out features. Independent designer and digital fine artist Sandra Selle-Rodriguez tried out the free trial versions of both Alien Skin Snap Art 1 and Blow Up 1 prior to purchasing them. “I was able to test the software and make sure it met my needs. The trials sold me on both products,” she admits.

Resolution Requirements
There are issues of resolution to consider with large format design. 300 dpi resolution is not required for all large format prints. “Few, if any, large format prints are examined close up. In fact, images created at 75 dpi or lower can look just as good at 300 dpi when printed on a large format printer and viewed from a distance of a few feet. A file produced at 150 dpi instead of 300 dpi is typically four times smaller and faster to handle, upload, and print,” advises Xara’s Fisher.

Client files challenge designers and print providers. Downey notes that file and output quality depends on the artwork you start with. “If you have good, high-resolution images you will get good results,” he says. “One of the biggest problems we encounter is customers are always giving us artwork that is not up to large format quality.”

Jeni Crawford, lead graphic designer, Arizona Color Vehicle Wraps & Graphic Media of Phoenix, AZ, agrees. “Some files we receive from customers are a challenge. 80 percent of the time size is the reason,” she states. Arizona Color’s main large format application is vehicle wraps, however they also design and produce building wraps, posters, and billboards.

Crawford adds, “A lot of people who send their own artwork tend to work in a program that comes with their computer such as Microsoft Publisher. Files like these usually have to be re-created. Also, people tend to design files at the size of a sheet of paper and assume it can be printed at whatever size is needed. The other problem with size is that a lot of people don’t realize that Web images are usually too small to use in any kind of large format or press printing.”

The team at Arizona Color designs files at full size. “If the vehicle is 200 inches long and 80 inches tall, we make a canvas size of 220x90 inches at 72 dpi,” says Crawford. Arizona Color designers use Adobe Creative Suite for all design, mostly working in Photoshop CS3 and Illustrator CS3, on both Mac and PC platforms.

Scaling Up
With large format design, scaling and tiling become important. “Illustrator, our vector-based graphics program, is used frequently for large format design. As the artwork is vector-based, it can be scaled to any size and resolution for crisp graphics,” says Macy. Illustrator’s multiple art boards—a new feature in CS4—allow designers to control tile size and overlap while they create artwork. “This eliminates users guessing on print driver or RIP settings and ending up with tiles that cut artwork in the wrong place,” she explains.

Marcus Schwier is a photographer specializing in architecture, interiors, trade fairs, and events. He also exhibits his work in galleries, museums, and in private collections.

Schwier uses digital medium format cameras to shoot his photos and BenVista PhotoZoom to enlarge his images for large format exhibition prints. Schwier has used BenVista software for years and he upgrades with each new release. “The software is easy to use and the results are great. The program runs very stable. I haven’t found any bugs,” he admits.

Alien Skin’s Butterworth recommends that enlargement be done after design work is complete. “As for workflow, it is best to enlarge at the very end, after all the graphic design work and just before printing,” he says.

Photographer Eric Schneider uses Adobe Photoshop CS3 to mock-up original photographs, architectural renderings, and three-dimensional visualization. He uses Alien Skin Blow Up 1 interpolation as an alternative to Photoshop methods.

Schneider’s work with architect Bret Page for a mural in Raleigh, NC restaurant Sono called for major interpolation. “The original file size of 28.9MB was appropriate for a continuous tone image of 150 dpi at 16x24 inches. This application was intended for a dimension approaching 36 by seven feet, or 1,800 percent. To accommodate the actual proportions and tight tolerances, as well as matching the composition of the final image selected by the customer, some creative scaling was required,” he explains.

Using Blow Up, Schneider reached 72 dpi at 100 percent of 428x100 inches. Two passes were required after several bracketed conversions were tested and compared.

“Blow Up provides a level of control over the image at pixel level that allows me to preview the results quickly and dynamically. This is important because of the very large final image size of this piece and close proximity of the image to the viewer. Every pixel needs to have a definite shape and gentle transition to prevent a blurring effect,” he adds.

Go Big Design
Large format output should reach its intended audience to get maximum impact. Serif’s Hewson shares some basic design principles to follow when producing large format work like posters. “First, it’s important to think about your target audience and what will be appropriate and appealing for those you expect to view your poster. Keep your message simple, as to not confuse or overwhelm the viewers, and use attention-grabbing colors and graphics. When selecting a font, think about whether it is consistent with your message, whether it will be readable from afar, and whether you want to incorporate one or more fonts as design elements,” she says.

Large format graphics require special design and interpolation software like those aforementioned. With the right design tools and know-how, your designs can go big and reach a wide audience.  

Sep2009, Digital Output

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