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Creative Collaboration

Appreciating Design and Workflow

By Gretchen A. Peck

The large format segment of the print industry is unique in several ways—in the types of digital printing and finishing equipment used; how big print thrives while commercial and publication print is severely impacted by new media; and also by the collaborative nature of the process, with design, production, and manufacturing all intertwined.


There is no exaggeration in suggesting that a successful, seamless, large format print workflow is entirely dependent on each of these parties working in tandem toward a common goal—with creative professionals knowledgeable about the process of print, and print service providers (PSPs) appreciative of the creative tools artists employ and the challenges they face.


Blurring the Lines

“I use the commercial aspect of my life to support the fine art passion and vice versa,” notes Eric Schneider, owner, Optixa Gallery & Studio—a custom photography, interactive design, and creative consultancy based in Raleigh, NC. A self-described interest for photography led him down a professional path of employment by Time Inc., where he once worked in the color lab and dedicated his days to traditional film processing and color theory. Later, those skills helped other photo labs make the transition to a digital workflow.


According to Schneider, the line once separating commercial and fine art print is no longer as resolute; the same attention to quality and aesthetic is required in either scenario. Digital printing has certainly influenced this change.


“For instance, I’m producing some fine art exhibits that are considered truly photographic reproductions, but as an extension of that project, I’ll also be producing all of the large format marketing and signage for the show. I’ll approach the design elements in the same way. I think the more print service suppliers appreciate that as designers and artists, the stronger the end result.”


When it comes to Schneider’s design workflow, he says that creative tools like Adobe Systems Corporation’s Photoshop are essential, but working in the large format realm calls for some software additions that other creative professionals might not need.


“Alien Skin Software, LLC has some great tools, like Blow Up 2,” he suggests. Blow Up 2, a plug-in to Adobe Photoshop, enables users to enlarge images without sacrificing quality. It supports a range of color spaces, including grayscale, duotone, RGB, CMYK, and Lab.


“I also find Autodesk, Inc.’s Maya 3D software to be indispensable. It allows me to show a customer what their installation is going to look like, right in the virtual space with simulated lighting, so we can identify any problems before we print—for example, columns or other obstructions,” explains Schneider.


“Apple Inc.’s Aperture is a great tool for content management. When you’re managing a lot of jobs and images, you’ve got some help in keeping track of content,” he proposes.


For proofing, he says that nothing takes the place of a hard copy proof. “I like virtual proofs at the beginning of the project, but there comes a time when you need a true hard copy,” he stresses. “I ask printers to produce a 100 percent rendition, in one-foot squares, on the actual material we’re going to print on, and with the final laminate. I won’t accept any substitutions, which allows me to go to my client and say, ‘This is the color you can expect.’ I may also ask the printer to produce test strips of critical areas, like flesh tones of a person’s face.”


Having a seamless workflow comprised of the tools he’s learned to rely upon and trust enables Schneider to spend more time doing what he loves most—consulting with his clients on the creative.


“Content drives everything I do. I always refer back to my roots in photography, and keep in mind my goal to ensure the best possible content,” he concludes.


Intriguing Design

INTRIGUE Design, Ltd.—a full-service creative studio based in Melville, NY—provides photographic and design services for clients who hail from a diverse array.


Much of the creative work that comes out of the studio is destined for small format print, but as Michael Massa, VP of operations, INTRIGUE, explains, there is occasionally the need to design large format complements. “We produce catalogs and magazine advertisements, and every once in a while, that crosses over into large format posters and banners, billboards, in-store displays, or trade show booths.


“That’s where the challenge comes in,” Massa adds. “For example, taking a jewelry catalog with detailed photos of watches or rings, and producing some of those images as billboards. Naturally, we shot the photography in high quality, but the challenge is in transitioning to large format without losing any of the detail.”


The creative team at INTRIGUE uses QuarkXPress from Quark Inc. and Adobe InDesign for layout, as well as Adobe’s Photoshop and Illustrator. Though Massa says he and his colleagues generally prefer QuarkXPress, they appreciate how InDesign seamlessly integrates with the other Adobe applications.


The client’s preference dictates which application they use. “Some clients are already established in InDesign. Others prefer QuarkXPress.”


Prior to licensing Adobe InDesign, the designers used Markzware’s ID2Q plug-in, which allowed them to quickly convert native InDesign files into native QuarkXPress documents without the need to redesign from scratch. Today, the company still relies on Markzware’s FlightCheck tool for preflighting, to ensure that no matter the output format—native or PDF—the files are complete, properly prepared, and ready for a PSP’s prepress workflow.


“We also use a special Adobe Photoshop plug-in—onOne Software’s Genuine Fractals,” notes David Steinberg, systems specialist, INTRIGUE. “It’s perfect for scaling files up for large format output.”


Linking the Workflow

Steve Magnanti began his career as a sign painter in 1971. Eight years later he founded The Signery, based in Rochester, NY. Today, the two-man operation relies on a Mutoh America, Inc. ValueJet for printing and a Graphtec America, Inc. FC7000 for contour cutting.


Both are driven by CADlink Technology Corporation software. “That is one of the outstanding features of CADlink software. It integrates with the printer and cutter so well, you don’t have to be really technical,” explains Magnanti.


“CADlink’s SignLab is great for the sign guy,” he adds, noting that virtually all of the workflow—from creative to finishing—is controlled by the suite. “It features simplified color tools. There are rare occasions when I need to make a foray into Adobe Photoshop. CADlink provides all of the design techniques we need—shadows, beveled lettering, lighting effects, and so on.”


The Signery’s customers aren’t as sophisticated as other sign makers, according to Magnanti, who says that it’s unusual for clients to come in with prepress-ready digital content in hand. More often, customers need the PSP to consult on the manufacturing possibilities and create the concept from scratch. A tool like SignLab enables Magnanti to significantly reduce the time required to take a vision and bring it to fruition on screen—and ultimately, to print.


Now in version 8, SignLab is available in six package levels—from an entry-level suite to the robust print and cut package. Among the latest iteration’s newest features is a Visual Production Manager for job management, an embedded color profiler for generating color-managed PDF-based soft proofs, and a new scaling and interpolation tool.

Building a Network

Unlike Magnanti, Sean Miller, owner, Digital Graphics Express, located in Concord, NC, does not feel the pain of an uneducated or ill-equipped customer base. Usually, his customers offer well-prepared digital content for the type of print in which they specialize—package prototyping, custom boxes, and trade show graphics. But this luxury didn’t happen organically. It took some old-fashioned legwork and networking.


“Our customers range from custom display houses to NASCAR teams, from museums to large religious organizations, as well as colleges and universities,” explains Miller.


“Most jobs come with supplied artwork that we send through our prepress process and format for printing. We have a prepress guidelines handbook to help customers correctly design for print,” he continues. The company also developed a wide format learning seminar series where employees visit on site and work with buyers, marketing managers, designers, and purchasing agents.


On rare occasions when a customer requires creative support, the team at Digital Graphics Express lends a hand and relies on Adobe’s Creative Suite Version 5.


“We are also wading through HumanEyes Technologies Ltd.’s software to become a regional provider of lenticular printing, which our printer can easily do. But we won’t offer it until we perfect the process,” confides Miller.


In house, Digital Graphics Express has a new CET Color X-Press FK512 UV flatbed printer for short runs and quick turnaround. Also readily accessible, a Mimaki USA, Inc. JV33 for small banner jobs and an AXYZ International digital cutter for custom cutting.


The company is part of a mutually beneficial relationship with a local creative consortium comprised of independent designers that work on a per-project basis. “We recommend them for things that require more intense creative attention,” he explains.


Networking with third parties is an important strategy for Miller that extends beyond the creative workflow. When jobs come into the shop better suited for other print technologies or specialty finishing, he calls upon a local pool of colleagues for help.


This includes relationships with regional wholesale firms that use an EFI VUTEk QS3220, Hewlett-Packard (HP) Designjet  Z6100, HP Turbojet, HP Designjet 5100, Miller Weldmaster Corporation banner seamer, Edward Segal Inc. grommet machine, and a Drytac Corporation liquid laminator.


“We have a very unique business relationship with local sign shops and wholesale suppliers, which gives us access to a wide variety of equipment at little or no cost. We all help each other and there is no fear of account hawking,” explains Miller.


Museum Quality

Founded in 2003 by Gabe Kean, Belle & Wissell, Co., located in Seattle, WA, offers content creation, audio visual exhibit designs, and curatorial services for museums, media companies, and retail brands.


“We work with a lot of museums and cultural institutions,” explains Thomas Ryun, senior designer, Belle & Wissell. He concurs that no matter what the print output—whether it’s a fine art reproduction or commercial in nature—the design process is very much the same. Though nuances in workflow differ slightly when working in large format.


Honoring branding—especially color—is always challenging when producing print. “Color inherently looks different because of the finish of the material, so it’s definitely a challenge,” Ryun confides. Thus, he and his colleagues look for large format print partners who appreciate the challenge and expertly counsel them on media and finishing processes. That creative consultation is far more important to graphic artists designing big print than the make and model of digital print engines in which the PSP has invested.


Ink on paper proofs from a printer are also essential to Belle & Wissell. “The material varies for large format pieces, and hard copy proofs represent a critical step to making sure that the pigmentation of the printed material holds the expected color. Virtual proofing may be great for verifying placement and ensuring that everything translated through the RIP process, but in terms of seeing what you’re really going to get, it’s deficient,” he says.


The design team finds Adobe’s Creative Suite Version 5 applications to be sufficient for designing small or large format graphics. Though most of the large format graphics the team designs are created in Photoshop and Illustrator, it was during the design of a mammoth and important museum installation that they found the need for Adobe InDesign as well. Working in collaboration with The Harley-Davidson Museum and the estate of famed daredevil Evel Knievel, Belle & Wissell created a series of vinyl-based graphics.


Ryun explains that the project began with a desire to create large scrims—or jumbo-sized photographic reproductions of legacy images of Knievel. There was little to no need for other graphic elements like copy or line art, but the challenges came in the form of enlarging the images without sacrificing their integrity.


Media choice was also a challenge, which according to the museum, had to be visually spectacular, as well as easily removable when the installation concluded. There was also the need for a consistency across the media, though most was opaque, and some would be naturally backlit.


“After the concepts were approved, we set the scanning specs to ensure the appropriate quality,” recalls Ryun. “We initially began building our files in Illustrator, but quickly realized that it wasn’t going to fit with the amount of high-resolution images we were working with.”

Instead, the Belle & Wissell team built the layouts in Adobe InDesign, layering the images with the limited amount of Illustrator-created textual elements.


“When it came time to supply the files to the printer, we sent them collected native files from InDesign and high-resolution PDFs as a back up,” Ryun recalls. The result was a stunning visual celebration that honored both the Harley-Davidson brand and the memory of the American icon.


Honoring the Brand

“We’re a branding firm, so we literally span almost every industry you could imagine,” explains Tyler Moore, principal, Markatos Moore, a San Francisco, CA-based design firm. Moore estimates that approximately five percent of the creative work the studio produces manifests in large format print.


“A lot of what we do is image based, so we immediately have to request or purchase high-resolution art,” notes Moore, explaining how the creative workflow typically unfolds. “And that immediately puts us in Adobe Photoshop, and within Photoshop, we begin to have control over how that image will look and print. Those are two different things. You can look at something on the computer monitor, but that’s not necessarily how it’s going to print.”

For large format graphics, Adobe Illustrator is the firm’s workhorse. “Nine times out of ten, there’s going to be some sort of vector element, like typography. So we use Illustrator for that,” Moore explains, “and that becomes our output engine. We never have a need for any third party plug-in.”


The large format PSPs with which Markatos Moore partners usually require native Illustrator files, EPS files, or high-resolution PDFs, according to Moore.


The ability to properly communicate the parameters of the job is essential to the artist-printer relationship, especially when it comes to large format graphics, according to Peter Markatos, co-principal, Markatos Moore.


“It seems like every large format project we print is different. Even if we determine that it’s printed on vinyl, there may be three or four different options for affixing that vinyl to the structure. And, as designers, we may not know all of the technicalities; it’s impossible for us to know all of the variables. We look to our print partners to provide a level of guidance,” confides Markatos.


As artists, Markatos and Moore expect a PSP to be sensitive and particular—downright nit-picky—about image quality. “The worst thing a printer can say to a designer is, ‘Don’t worry; it’s going to be fine. No one is going to see it up close.’ They have to respect the designer’s efforts, and while I know that sounds like something a designer would say, it’s important. If the printer takes the craft seriously, well, that’s a printer we’re going to use again in the future,” stresses Markatos.


The Common Goal
Creative collaboration is essential to the success of any large format graphics project. The most seamless, flawless, and efficient workflows are those that begin with a conversation among clients, artists, and print suppliers. A discussion that explores the creative and manufacturing possibilities, solidifies common goals and expectations, and ensures that all parties possess a better appreciation for the processes and challenges married to producing brilliant big print.

Sep2010, Digital Output

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