From Hand to Computer: How the Prepress Craft Has Changed

The printing industry has gone through so many changes since its infancy, and in some ways it’s almost unrecognizable today—particularly in the prepress department. Prepress once focused on honing your skills over the course of many years as part of a craft tradition, and now it has transformed to be built around computer technology. The craftsmanship in some facets of this business has completely disappeared, replaced by automation and intelligent software. For example: it’s a lost art now to be able to create a dot from nothing on a piece of film or to etch a piece of film so that the dots are the correct size to yield the proper color when making a photographic Cromalin proof.

There wasn’t a pixel-perfect, machine-calibrated precision to our craft before computers came along. Everything you did had tolerances: the better you were, the tighter the tolerances were. If you needed to change the color on an image you would have to modify the dots on a piece of film and you did that based on a lot of experience. You couldn’t see the end result of your change until a new proof was made. If the adjustment was correct it was because the person who had etched that piece of film had probably been doing that skill for many years.

Now, it’s much easier—using basic Photoshop skills and the shortcut “Command + M” you can make a move to any color on an image in increments of one percent and watch the color change as you make the move. Wow, if the old timers who used to be in this business could see it now! Now when making a plate with a 34% dot, you can rest assured that dot is going to be 34%. This is so different than the old days, where everything relied on manual craftsmanship. Every act was only as precise as the person who did it.

The computer has now eliminated all of the hand skills that made someone a craftsman in this industry. Technology has allowed us as prepress operators to be extremely precise in everything we do. Registration, trap, and color is exactly what we tell the computer it should be. Those things that were once time-consuming and complex tasks are now simple.

The challenges for prepress are now in learning all the capabilities of each of our presses and pieces of finishing equipment. All of these pieces of equipment have their own specific capabilities and require specific, precise marks and measurements in order to function properly. Whether a piece needs side guides, folds, perforations, scores, die cuts, glue, imaging or other things, we can make it all happen flawlessly by carefully imposing art with the necessary marks.

Keeping on top of the technologies and marrying it all together is now one of our biggest challenges. There are no boring days at SPC. We are constantly trying to be better at what we do and there is no such thing as “we can’t do it.” We will put our heads together and make it work somehow, some way. And just getting it done isn’t good enough—our team is always trying to figure out what we could have done differently to improve the process. If that means purchasing another piece of equipment or utilizing a new technology, we will look into that! We are as busy as can be doing the things an earlier generation of printers would have never dreamed possible. What an awesome time to be in this industry!

John Gebhardt
Prepress Manager

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