If there’s any doubt we’re fully in the digital era, just look to graphic design. It amazes me how many designers think the whole concept of graphic design is tied to the history of the computer.
Designing for the screen, on a screen, is a relatively straightforward venture. For the most part, what you see is what you get. Designing for print is a whole nother matter. The ease at which pixels and vectors can be placed on an artboard has very little to do with the actual production process of printing.
Designing For Print ≠ Designing for Digital
The thing about printing is: each color on a sheet of paper gets laid down separately. That means that whether it’s a standard CMYK print or multiple spot colors, each plate must be aligned to the one before it to ensure register and clarity of the print.
Modern offset and digital printing presses do most of this work, aligning the plates and register mechanically or electronically. With traditional spot color printing like letterpress or screen printing, the process involves much more finesse. Each plate or screen is aligned by hand and each press sheet must be fed into the exact same location to achieve alignment. This is known as tight register printing.
What is Register?
The degree to which each plate is aligned to the other on a price sheet is known as register or registration. Cross hairs, known as register targets, give a visual reference to ensure that each color is lined up to the color(s) before it. If a particular place is out of register, the target printed in that color will be out of alignment with the others. When register is tight, the targets are stacked neatly on top of one another.
The thing that most designers fail to realize is that the composition of their designs play a major role in the accuracy of register needed in order to clearly reproduce their art. A wedding invitation consisting of nothing more than lines of text can have fairly loose register and still look 100% spot on. On the other hand, a business card printed in four colors with halftone screening may require every microscopic dot fall perfectly in its place in order to look right.
Why You Should Care
Depending on how a project is being printed, the level of register necessary may change the particulars of how it’s laid out on press. The Heidelberg Windmill, for instance, allows me to print with very tight register but requires fairly large amounts of blank margin (waste paper) or I can print with very little waste, but much looser register (printers call that “printing commercial”).
You’ll find some printers will not quote a job until they’ve seen the artwork, knowing that register plays an important role in the complexity of the project. Tight register requires much more time on press, waste much more scrap, and often requires slowing the press down considerably to maintain consistent feeding.
Minimizing the Impact of Loose Register
A common way to offset the need for microscopically accurate register is what’s known as choking and trapping. These are techniques in which areas where two colors meet on a print are expanded ever so slightly so that they overlap. Often, this overlap is so small that it can’t be seen without magnification. This minuscule overlap allows a little extra room for wiggle so that, should the register be off by the slightest bit, a sliver of unprinted paper doesn’t show through at the border.
If you look at everything from band posters to cereal boxes, you’ll see how to choking and trapping make it easier to produce clean, beautiful prints in spite of the accuracy limitations of the machines printing them.
Modern printing presses have incredibly accurate systems to maintain register. There’s a reason that the printing presses of the middle of the 20th century have been phased out. Of course, we have no interest in that. In gaining perfect register with modern offset and digital presses, we lost the character of process.
We’d never suggest accepting poor quality printing, no matter who it’s from. But we do celebrate the minor variances in hand-printing processes. They reveal the character and hand of the people printing them. We ask the same of our clients – that they celebrate the evidence of the process as a part of the beauty of classic printing methods.