Do we need standards?

By Ron Ellis

Most printers are aware of terms GRACOL, SWOP, and SNAP. These terms all refer to standards in the printing industry. These standards have been around for some time, but are not widely used. Many in the industry view these as one more problem rather than a good thing for the printing industry. There are two common views of standards and what they mean for commercial printers. The first is that standards are just another hoop to jump through and area a bad thing.. The second is that standards can be used to improve the quality and consistency of work and are a good thing.


What are the standards?

There are three standards in the forefront; SWOP, ( which stands for Specifications for Web Offset Presses, GRACOL, General Requirements for Applications in Commercial Offset Lithography ( which covers commercial presses, SNAP, Specifications for Non-heatset Advertising ( deals with printing on uncoated and coldset presses. So while SWOP is most often considered the standard for magazines and publications, GRACOL is most often considered the standard for commercial printers. The SWOP standard has been widely adopted by publication printers. Commercial printers have yet to move toward a common standard.


Why standards?

There are many good reasons for customers to want standards. Here is a good example: If you go take a paint chip to any Home Depot and ask them to match that paint chip, all Home Depot stores can do it within a certain tolerance, and you will get the same results no matter what Home Depot store you go to. If you take a print job to 10 different printing plants, you will get 10 wildly different results. This is just the way it is, and being in and out of different printing plants every day I know this to be true. Customers donÕt realize this is the case and often are surprised when they find out how un-standard the world of commercial printing is.

To the customer, it means that no matter what they do they cannot predict how their job will print. They may print a job to their Epson with a proofing RIP, and using standard commercial profile such as US Sheetfed — but unless they have invested the considerable time and the money to profile and tune to your pressroom, there is no guarantee that the proof will match.

            So for our customers standards have some important implications. If a customer were to know that they could take a job anywhere and get the same results it would be a tremendous improvement from their point of view. They would be able to move jobs around and get the same results. The second improvement would be that by using generic profiles and settings in the Adobe applications such as Photoshop then printers would have to do less tweaking to get good color, and customers could be assured that the color would be right.


Standards – the negative view

The biggest problem with standards is that it can reduce our competitive advantage. If we all printed the same, then why would a customer have incentive to use you instead of another printer? Many printers like to say that they do not want standards because they want to print better than everyone else – not the same. Will standards take away our edge and make us just another commodity based on price?

ÒWith a trend toward gray balance being the focus in the commercial printing world, everyone will be able to produce gray, but not everyone will be able to produce all colors. The amount of color and perceived quality that you can deliver will correlate directly to the investment you are willing to make in maintaining your presses. Frequency of maintenance, blankets, wash-ups are the things that are going to be able to give you the extra headroom for color and quality,Ó said Marc Levine of X-Rite. ÒRemember that the first few letters of GRACOL stand for general requirements. GRACOL is a minimum. It will be up to the printer to improve quality. Even though the competition may print at a GRACOL level, through improved maintenance and exposing your customer to the variables you have under control, as well as quantifying color gamut, you can demonstrate the level of quality you have.Ó

Another worry: if the whole world prints to SWOP, then what is to stop customer from sending their work overseas? After all if the printing is all the same then why not ship it overseas for less.


Standards — the positive view

There are some good things about standards as well. They assure you that you are printing correctly, and they give you a measure of comfort for your customers who demand that you match a specification. They also may get you into markets that will only accept you if you match the specification. What is the motivation to move to standards?

ÒThere motivation is that there is a way to better serve your customer,Ó Levine said. ÒThe printer thinks that the standard is too rigid and I wonÕt be able to be flexible. What is not being recognized is that if there is a standard then the customers will be delivering you files in that format, and you wonÕt have to kill yourself fixing and tweaking files to get the color right. ThatÕs why SWOP has worked so well in the publication markets.Ó

So standards do have an upside. They can reduce how much it costs for us to produce color and get accurate results. This is the promise of color standards. In this scenario everyone benefits.


Both worlds — a solution for commercial printers

The best of both worlds may be a combination of being able to hit a standard, but having an even higher quality custom ÔhouseÕ setting for customers who demand it. One printer I know has a ÔSWOPÕ setting for customers that require SWOP. This printer has separate plate and dot gain settings for SWOP that they use when generating plates and proofs for customers who have required that they match SWOP for their work. For this printer, because the customer who demanded SWOP consistently buys a large volume of printing, it is worth it. For the bulk of their high-end commercial customers they use their own custom settings that they have optimized. With this scenario the printer is able to offer the customers the certainty of a standard, as well as higher quality for the customers that require the higher quality.


Standards — when to move

Vendors are pushing printers to adopt standards. Customers in some segments of the market are also pushing customers to move toward standards. When is the right time to move toward a standard? Most printers move toward standards when customers require it. Another time may be during a platesetter installation or major equipment change.

Adopting a standard can be expensive and time consuming, and few printers rush into it. There are both good reasons to adopt standards, as well as potential negatives and costs associated with the move. One thing is for certain, standards are here to stay and they have the opportunity to improve the way we work.


About the author: Ron Ellis is a prepress consultant specializing in workflow training and integration. He worked in the commercial printing industry for 18 years and brings a strong background to all aspects of prepress. He has consulted on numerous CTP installations and he provides color management, integration, training, workflow development, and troubleshooting solutions to the graphic arts community. He can be contacted at 603-498-4553 or through his web site at