High-definition printing meets the design studio

When the world of layout moved from pasting up by hand to the desktop computer, something that didn't go with it was the ability to see what the finished physical product would look like. In those dot-matrix days, unless you were a Kraftwerk-inspired crusader for an 8-bit future in an analogue world, you were extremely unlikely to show your client proofs run off in your own studio.

Fast forward to 2008 and so much has changed. Hot-metal typesetting is a dead trade, chemically processed photographic prints are virtually unheard of, and in-house proofing solutions are reaching quality levels that rival the lithographic printing press.

Into this fray march the main print manufacturers, offering up their 'HD' solutions. However, HD printing doesn't output using super-resolutions or finer printing fidelity. Instead, the standard provides improved print quality using each manufacturer's proprietary technologies, combining multi-level LED print heads with new microfine toners and higher-resolution printer configurations.

These new technologies are used to render deeper, more saturated colours, finer detail, and more precise toner placement in your proofs - key requirements in an industry where the ability to deliver high-quality printed material remains absolutely critical to competitiveness. If you have the budget and make the right choices, you can achieve glorious prints without having to leave the studio.

Return on investment
Mike Abbott is head creative at Courts Design, where they use an OKI C9650 printer for just about everything. He believes investing in a hi-def printing solution is hugely important to a studio like his, which employs 20.The company works for clients in the pharmaceutical and automotive industries, doing everything from print jobs to exhibition graphics and digital. "If you've got the capital to get one in, then I'd go for it," he says. "If clients are employing a designer to do some work for them, they're going to be spending quite a bit of money to do that and they're going to want to see a pretty high-quality print-out when we're showing them ideas in the development stage. It's representative of what they're going to be getting, so it needs to be good."

The OKI used at Courts prints at oversize A3 and, according to Abbott, they never go out of house for proofing during the design process. OKI's innovation in printers like this is its LED technology. As the name suggests, instead of using laser light the print head consists of LEDs (light-emitting diodes) that direct coloured pigment from the toner onto the page in a single pass. The advantage, OKI says, is that there are no moving parts, unlike a laser printer which uses complex mirrors and motors. It can print on weights up to 300gsm and produces output with a brochure-like gloss finish.

When it comes to final output, Courts Design doesn't use its proofing machine. This still goes to a traditional lithographic printing house, which makes proofs using the studio's files for approval before inking up the four-colour press. However, on colour, detail and particularly speed, colour laser and LED printers can stand a studio in good stead.

When showing clients rough work, look and feel is everything - even at pitch stage. For colour and detail, the printing hardware that designers and repro houses adopt for proofing today owes a lot to the digital-photography revolution. Inkjet companies such as Canon and Epson were driven to produce printers that could equal or better traditional photographic prints, facing some key challenges along the way.

Anyone who has designed for print knows that converting from RGB to CMYK, if handled poorly, results in dull colours and inaccurate tones. Printing digital images with shading or gradual changes in tone traditionally produces artefacts like banding and moir patterns. With a background in the photographic market, Canon has worked on ways of addressing these issues. If CMYK hasn't got the energy of RGB screen output, one of Canon's solutions has been to increase the number of inks used.

For instance, the relatively inexpensive PIXMA Pro9500 uses ten inks, including the usual cyan, magenta, yellow and key (black), with the addition of green and red as well as two blacks, a grey, photo cyan and photo magenta. It's designed to get at those hard-to-reach areas of the colour gamut. A three-nozzle print head using Canon's FINE technology delivers droplets of ink at microscopic sizes - measured in trillionths of a litre. The print resolution is extremely high at 2400dpi.That on-paper statistic is more than you'll need for proofing work that's going to a printing press, which typically uses lines-per-inch screening of colour-separated images at between 150 and 200lpi.

If your work includes a lot of photography, and particularly if you use a Canon camera, a printer from the company makes sense as its models are tuned up to create an all-Canon workflow. The company also supplies free plug-ins to help users achieve better results printing from Photoshop.

The quest for perfection
The closer you want your output to be to the final printed product, the closer you get to outsourcing your proofing, or to buying a reprographic-quality printer. Many designers do that, according to Ian Greatorex, managing director at Orange Advertising. He works closely with designers at every level: agencies, studios, solo freelancers and students. "We have a varied range of proofing devices doing different things," he says, stressing the need for flexibility across a variety of media.

He's enthusiastic about the range of Epson inkjet printers they use and he knows that designers are using them too. For proofing, Orange starts with an Epson Stylus Pro 4800 that prints at A2 oversize, sheet- or roll-fed. It can print to media up to 1.5mm thick and uses Epson's UltraChrome K3 inks.

That's a fancy way of saying that, like Canon, Epson has jetted more inks into the fray in the battle against banding and tonal decline when moving from RGB to CMYK colours. Starting with its Stylus Pro 3800 - an A2 sheet-fed desktop printer for £700 - many of the company's machines use eight inks instead of four. This time, in addition to cyan, magenta, yellow and key, you also get extra blacks, including matte, gloss and light black. They soften the tonal range and produce different finishes. Moving up the range you'll discover Epson's Vivid Magenta inks, adding light cyan, vivid magenta and vivid light magenta. The ultimate Epson colour bunch is its HDR (high-dynamic range) ink set, which includes all of the above plus red and green.

The resolution you'll work at with an Epson in this class isn't an issue, even on home user models. The company's MicroPiezo nozzles deliver what they call Ultra Micro Dots of ink, resulting in resolutions up to 1440dpi. "Most Epsons go up to 1440dpi but you really don't need to run it at that," explains Greatorex. "I think as a standard we do 720 and it's more than adequate. As long as the images are in between 200 and 400dpi then you won't actually notice any imperfections in that."

Taking it up a level
While you might spend £1,000 on a large-format proofer, where the repro boys and girls have the advantage is in RIPs. Here's where things get much more complicated, and expensive too.

A RIP is software that manages colour from computer to printer to paper, aiming to simulate exactly what a lithographic four-colour printing press will achieve. Most printers come with colour-management tools that many users never use and Epson sells its own RIP software, but a serious RIP such as GMG ColorProof will set you back in the region of £3,000.

This represents a large expense for an individual designer or a small studio, and only begins to make sense when contracts involve large volumes of printing on a variety of paper stocks, repeatedly throughout the year. When big media clients are spending a great deal on their look and feel, you can't afford to let any tame pinks or low-voltage blues out into the wild, particularly not in runs of 100,000 or more. If your studio is in that league, such an expense makes sense. But if jobs like this are uncommon then the repro house is to be relied upon. It also saves you learning how to use RIP software.

"You profile for each paper," explains Greatorex, "so if you're running on a gloss paper, you have a different profile to print on for that gloss paper. If you're printing to a fine-art canvas, again it's a different profile.

"What the profile does is measure the amount of ink that goes onto the paper, how much ink the paper can handle, and then it works back on each individual colour to give you the best representation on that paper. It's not just as simple as taking an Epson and printing to it," he adds.

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