Large format graphics are a major marketing investment. Businesses making room in their budget for large format advertising want accurate results. Proofing is an important step in achieving the client’s desired match—especially when color branding is essential.
An on-screen, soft proof is adequate enough for some. Others require a partial or full size printed proof from the final print device or another that offers a similar result. Some shops use proofing as a revenue generator, while others use it to continue a high-quality track record and maintain client satisfaction.
Inspired by a renowned Mexican photographer’s photo essay he saw in the early 1990’s, Peter Hogg learned about the possibilities between art and the digital world. In response, Hogg opened a shop to print his and other artists’ photographs. The San Francisco, CA shop, Digital Pond, morphed and grew into a full service graphics provider and project management partner.
Digital Pond’s early years were an expensive exercise with Iris printers, LVT film output devices, and learning how to reproduce an artist’s vision. "Working with artists proved to be a fairly painful economic model," notes Peter Hogg, president/founder, Digital Pond.
"Since 1995, we have turned 180 degrees in the other direction and took our high-level color finesse from fine art printing and wove it into the commercial space. This is primarily for people in the digital world who need that level of translation between the creative process and the computer," explains Hogg. Today, Digital Pond specializes in large format signage for customers in retail and museums and employs nearly 50 people. The company’s annual revenue averages $8.5 million dollars.
Getting it Right
For some clients, a perfect representation of original art and color is not a high priority, while others demand absolute accuracy. Digital Pond prides itself on always getting it right.
Hogg notes that from the mid to late 1990’s, "it was a serious competitive advantage just to make a perfect print." Now, he finds, "clients expect color completely controlled."
Hogg feels there is a hierarchy of proofing. "The first choice is a full size proof on the machine you are using, the second is a half size proof with a complete image at a smaller size, and the third is a soft proof."
Digital Pond’s customers include prestigious companies such as Cisco Systems, Crate & Barrel, the Getty Museum, Levi’s, and Wells Fargo. "We do high-level museum jobs, retail jobs for Nike, and installations for Pixar. It’s rare in those installations that a proof is used for the final sign off."
Hogg is satisfied with the proofs his Hewlett-Packard (HP) Designjet Z3100 12-color photo printer produces. "We use the Z3100 as our primary proofing device when we’re not able to use the final print device," says Hogg. Digital Pond has a 44-inch HP Designjet Z3100 in its 19,000 square foot San Francisco, CA location, and a 24-inch version in their smaller Portland, OR shop.
Achieving accurate color reproduction is key to quality output. "We see the ability to produce accurate color during all stages of the creative process as sort of core to our program," says Hogg.
Digital Pond works to ensure that proofing and costs stay grounded. "We’re looking at high accuracy, low cost proofing to facilitate color communication earlier in the creative process," explains Hogg. "The genesis of that concept really comes out of our relationship with Nike. Nike spent a lot of money on hard proofs and shipping early in 2000, so they really pushed for soft proofing—very successfully. We supported that and have calibrated monitors available to our Nike clients."
He adds, "For us it is important to provide an accurate and very cost efficient service, and also to interweave it with soft proofing so we’re not generating high proofing costs. We can offer a high-level design client either version. As you can imagine, the closer you get to the creative director the more enthusiastic they are about seeing a tangible proof they can tack on the wall."
A 700-item print project for Nike Women’s Marathon included billboards, tents, bus wraps, and wrapping the Nike Town store with a perforated print featuring the names of the marathon’s 25,000 runners. "There are big outdoor branded experiences in several parts of San Francisco, as well as retail locations throughout the San Francisco bay area," says Hogg.
"The proofing for this application was really about choosing the lowest common denominator, which in this case was grand format printing. In years past it was solvent on banner vinyl and then calibrate across a Durst Lambda, aqueous inkjet, and UV flatbed," he notes.
Digital Pond brought proofs to about seven Nike presentations throughout the nearly five month design and planning process. "It was pretty interesting because we ended up being arbiter and ombudsman across a high-level design project, saying, ‘This is where the color needs to fall.’"
Hogg says keeping the project components consistent was an essential task. Consistency is always affected by pieces printed across different equipment and on different media. "Branding consistency is really much more critical than the Delta-E on your pink," states Hogg. "It’s making sure that when you walk into the branding experience that none of the colors jump out at you in a negative way." This could mean colors in the actual project clash or colors from outside elements do not match the project’s color palette.
Soft or Hard Proofs
Depending on the client and the particular project, either a soft on-screen proof or a hard proof is necessary. "The higher level brand clients are really looking to us to ensure they don’t end up with something that’s not a premium result," explains Hogg.
One of Digital Pond’s biggest clients is Hewlett-Packard. "That’s a little bit of a different model," says Hogg, "they’re quite content with soft proofing, but that’s because we do an excruciating proof cycle every time they change their branding. They really know that whatever they see on the monitor is one of the 16 colors that’s going to come out as hyper-precise as Digital Pond’s capabilities allow."
This assurance allows HP to use Digital Pond’s SplashPic Online Proofing and Graphics Management system with peace of mind. Built by Hogg’s brother-in-law, a former Yahoo IT manager, the proprietary graphics management software consists of a dynamic, real-time database of images and data. Digital Pond builds private and secure sites for clients that are scalable and lightweight. "It’s key to our business model," says Hogg. "It isn’t a traditional asset management system. Instead, it presents lower resolution representations of assets with scaling features so the type and detail in the imagery we’re presenting is viewable. It’s designed to facilitate the creative process." Hogg says that clients using this product, like HP’s SplashPic users, are event managers on the road, viewing files on their laptop in a hotel.
The San Francisco Airport Museum (SFAM) in the San Francisco Airport is a client of Digital Pond. In 1999, the San Francisco Airport became the first airport in the U.S. to be fully accredited as a museum. Today, the museum features approximately 20 galleries throughout the airport terminals with a rotating series of art, history, science, and cultural exhibitions.
Color and print accuracy is important to the SFAM. "They have a full-time staff of experienced exhibit designers, and the work is generally color critical, as museums tend to be," notes Hogg.
The SFAM recently contacted Digital Pond for a series of indoor large format signs to complement the exhibit Catalinaware: Pottery and Tile from the Island of Romance. The exhibit, which runs from February through September 2008, features the distinctive, whimsical pottery of Catalina Island natives.
The staff at the SFAM designed the Catalina exhibit signs. To ensure the required accuracy, full size proofs were created directly on the final output device—an HP Designjet Z6100. Digital Pond printed the signs using HP Photo Semi-gloss media. The signs were installed in the gallery in Terminal 3 at the San Francisco Airport.
Success is Proof
"We’re really looking at revenues and profits generated on what we call the barbell strategy, which means we compete very aggressively on the printed goods and look for profit on the front end with creative design and project management and on the back end with finishing, finesse, packaging, and distribution," explains Hogg. Mastery of color and proofing is the core of Digital Pond’s success. A strong focus on business strategy allows their success to progress. "We know color has to be perfect and we leave a lot more prints on the floor than most shops," Hogg continues. "We have loyal clients who know that we’re obsessive about that aspect of the business."