Offset Printing 101

Most professional graphic designers understand the basics of design, layout, and how to use templates for offset printing.  Once your files have been sent off to the printing press, a lot happens.  Being familiar with these processes can help you become a better designer, even if you are not a designer by trade.  Many small business owners have to wear many different hats, so understanding offset printing processes can help you as well.

Pre-Press Processes
The first thing that a printing company will do is convert your files to CMYK, the primary colors of ink or toner. You may have designed your files in RGB, which cannot be printed via the offset process. Some online printers, such as PrintPlace.com, have special artwork upload tools that will convert your RGB file to CMYK automatically.

Next, the printer will create metal plates, which are etched with the design from the processed artwork file.  There will be a plate for each of the four colors of ink: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK).  Now the printer is ready to actually begin printing on the paper.

Printing Process
There are two basic types of printing presses: sheet fed and web presses.  Sheet fed printing firms manually feed individual sheets of paper through the presses.  Web presses use large rolls of paper which are then cut later.  Sheet fed presses are ideal for short-runs, while web presses are ideal for very large printing jobs.
 
Regardless of whether the printing company uses sheet fed or web press, the next step is to apply ink to those metal plates on rollers.  The paper then is loaded and passed under a series of rollers that apply the ink from the metal plates onto the paper.  This process is repeated for each of the colors.  

Finishing Process
The finishing process refers to cutting, binding, and folding.  Even business cards require finishing as they are cut into single cards after being printed on larger sheets of paper.
 
Cutting and folding is pretty straightforward.  It’s worth mentioning that professional printing firms may cut as many as several hundred pages at one time with a large guillotine-style paper cutter.  Folding is typically accomplished through a machine that can literally fold hundreds of sheets of paper in a few minutes.
 
Binding can be a little bit more complicated.  Your project may require stapling, stitching, gluing, or other finishing processes.  Binding is usually for larger products, such as catalogs or books.
 
All the hard work that you put in to get the perfect design is really just the beginning of the printing process.  As you can see, the printing press must also do a lot of work to prepare your project.  Now that you know more about what the printing presses must do, you can be little bit more understanding and sensitive to their needs if they have questions or concerns.

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