Differences Between the Digital and Traditional Prepress Process

Two graphic designers discussing a project

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While design, document preparation, prepress, and printing can be viewed as separate areas, they are all intertwined. Prepress, using traditional methods or digital prepress, encompasses the entire process of taking a document from an idea to a final product.

Strictly speaking, prepress begins after the design decisions are made and ends when the document hits the press, but in practice, the graphic design process must take into account the traditional or digital prepress process and limitations and the printing methods in order to be a successful design.

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Design and Prepress for Desktop Publishing

For many of us who might never have worked in publishing prior to the advent of desktop publishing, digital prepress may be the only type of prepress we know or understand. But before PageMaker and laser printers there was a whole other industry (and a lot more people) involved in getting a book or a brochure published.

To help understand the differences and similarities in the two processes, it is helpful to see a comparison of conventional or traditional and digital prepress tasks including the design process. You may immediately notice how many different jobs the designer takes on now that desktop publishing software has replaced (or substantially changed) the job of the typesetter, paste-up professional, stripper, and others.

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Graphic designer learning

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An individual or a group chooses the overall look and feel, purpose, budget, and the form of the publication. The graphic designer may or may not be involved in the conceptualizing. The designer then takes the information and comes up with rough sketches (generally more refined than just thumbnail sketches) for the project which include measurements for specific elements and type specifications.

An individual or a group chooses the overall look and feel, purpose, budget, and the form of the publication. The graphic designer may or may not be involved in the conceptualizing. The designer then takes the information and comes up with rough representations done on the computer (they may do their own thumbnail sketches initially). These rough comps may use dummy (greeked) text and placeholder graphics. Several versions can be quickly turned out.

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Artist turning roller on letterpress machine in workshop

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The typesetter receives text and type specifications from the designer. Typesetting that may have been done with lines of metal type later gave way to type composition by machine, such as Linotype. The type then goes to the paste-up person who puts it on a paste-up board (mechanicals) along with all the other elements of the publication.

The designer has complete control over type — digital type — changing it on the fly, arranging it on the page, setting leading, tracking, kerning, etc. No typesetter, no paste-up person. This is done in a page layout program (also known as desktop publishing software).

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Graphic designer selects the color of the pattern

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Images are photographed, cropped, enlarged, or reduced using traditional photographic processes. FPO boxes (for position only) are placed on the paste-up board where images should appear.

The designer may take digital images or scan in images, crop images, scale images, and enhance (including color correction) an image before the actual digital images get placed into the publication.

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File Preparation

Young architects working in office

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After text and FPO boxes are in place on the paste-up boards the pages are shot with a camera, negatives made. The stripper takes these negatives plus the negatives of all images previously acquired and sized to fit the FPO boxes. The stripper checks everything then assembles it all into sheets or flats. These flats are then imposed — arranged in the order in which they are to be printed depending on how they will be folded, cut, and assembled. The imposed pages are made into plates from which the publication is printed onto paper on the printing press.

The designer places everything in the publication from text to images, rearranging as necessary. File preparation involves either preparing a digital file (ensuring that all digital fonts and images are correct and supplied with the digital file or embedded as necessary) or printing out a "camera-ready" page. File prep may include imposition, which can often be done totally within the software used to create the publication.

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Architect using digital tablet at desk in office

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A possibly time-consuming process where pages are printed and carefully proofread for errors, fixing errors may involve making new negatives and carefully replacing the "bad" items in the original making sure they line up perfectly. The new plates are created and the pages are printed again. Errors can creep in at many stages as there may be many different people working with individual elements of the publication.

Because it is so much easier to print out interim copies or proofs (to a desktop printer, for instance) many, many errors can be caught in this way before the publication gets to the stage of making negatives, plates, and final prints.

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Printing at high speed

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The printing process went from Paste-up to Film to Flats for imposition (if required) to Plates to Printing.

The process may remain the same or similar (Laser Output to Film to Plates) but other processes are possible including output directly to film from the digital file or directly from digital file to plate.