When in doubt, get a press proof

March 12, 2009

I learned a hard lesson as a freelance graphic designer not too long ago. When you have a client — even if it’s a friend like mine was — and they are known to be a stickler for color, then get a press proof. My client — a photographer that specializes in black and white photography — was doing his own business cards by sending the file to a copy supercenter; however, he was not happy with the quality of the paper or the finish so he asked me to design the cards. When I realized he was providing me with the Adobe InDesign file and wanted it to be the same setup as he was doing I thought it would be an easy job so I only charged him a $30 setup fee. Oh, how I was mistaken about it being an easy job. I found out he had an unusual size for a business card, and he wanted to keep it that way. So, my first obstacle was to find a print vendor who could do an oversized card with UV coating. I let my client know that it was going to be much more expensive than a normal size, but he didn’t have a problem with it. The only specifications he had for the card was that he wanted a rich black color. I got the four-color rich black specifications from the printer, since every printer has different CMYK percentage breakdowns based on their specific machinery. Then I opened his photo image for the card in Photoshop and made sure each CMYK channel matched the printer’s percentages for a rich black. I asked my client if he wanted an electronic PDF proof or if he wanted to pay the extra $50 for a printed proof, and he said the PDF proof was fine. So, I sent the file to the printers, and the job was charged to my account. A week later I get a call from the client stating the printer messed up the job, and the cards were gray and not a rich black. Knowing I set up the file according to specifications, I quickly called the printer and they stood by the job. I requested a sample be sent directly to me, so I could see it. Sure enough, I didn’t see anything wrong with it. In order to make my case to the client that the job was done properly, I set up a file with his original image, the image that was built based in the printers’ rich black, the image in straight grayscale and, finally, the image in a common rich black CMYK percentage breakdown. There were subtle differences in each file but all of them were in close tonality to the original. So, I felt strong in my case that the cards were printed according to my client’s specifications. My case did not convince the client he had not communicated clearly what he wanted. Come to find out, the rich black he had in mind was the same color results he gets from his inkjet printer or the one from the copy superstore. Even though the printer and I followed all instructions according to industry standards of a rich black color, the client was still not happy with the product. I had to eat $280 on what was going to originally be a $30 job for me. The moral of this story is if you are dealing with a photographer, artist or anyone else who may have a specific color in mind, insists they pay for a print proof. If they say no, then make them sign a contract stating you are not responsible for the color outcome and they must pay for the job in full if the printer processed the file accurately. Cover your tracks and get things in writing, ask clients to specify their wishes in an e-mail and then reiterate them in a contract. As a freelance graphic designer your business is service based, but the customer is not always technically right.

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The PsPrint Blog is a resource for graphic designers, freelancers, small business owners and fans of print marketing. You'll find helpful techniques on printing everything there is to print, including business cards, postcards, brochures, stickers, invitations, greeting cards, door hangers, magnets and more. The PsPrint Blog shares creative ways to improve your design and layout skills, and useful tips for marketing your business in any medium. We also like to have a little fun, sharing design inspiration and spotlighting some our favorite customers' printed pieces in our "Hot Off the Press" series.