Investing in obsolescence

Posted on February 11th, 2011 | Permalink

So, I’ve got a what if: What if the United States government had never invested in telephone lines for rural areas? The answer is clear: Businesses would have suffered! People would have suffered! The country folk would have all sat in their homes weeping into their shirtsleeves (because they couldn’t afford hankies), ¬†exiled from the world at large. A societal rift would have been created, and the privileged elite from the cities would forever have held the deprived rural workers under their collective thumb. America as we know it would have been lost, and all for the want of a copper wire.

Setting aside dystopian futures and ignoring the lack of faith in the ingenuity of country folk, I ask again the question: What if the government had never subsidized rural telephone service? What if all the businesses and customers out in rural areas who needed communications infrastructure had not been provided with the technology of the day?

As small businesses do every day here in the United States, someone would have risen up to solve the problem. Cell phones might have become widespread years earlier, or a whole new wireless form of communication upon which widely available Internet access might have been built. All we had to do was wait for someone to get a brilliant idea and act on it.

And therein is the crux of the issue: We don’t want to wait. We want to preserve businesses that have failed economically by giving them the resources of those who have succeeded, because it’s something we can do right now. We want to invest in high speed Internet access because we’ve seen the good it does and we want everyone to have that good right now, and by doing so we remove the opportunity for someone creative to make a quantum leap forward. As necessity is the mother of invention, opportunity is the sine qua non of innovation.

So let’s not invest in the obsolescence of the past at the cost of the future. Let us trust that, given enough time, the small businesses upon which America is built will find a solution as long as there is a problem that requires one. Let us risk even our broadband on those who make history: the innovators.

The Megapixel Myth

Posted on August 2nd, 2008 | Permalink

In the world of digital cameras, megapixels appear to be the measuring stick. From a professional SLR to a cell phone camera, the more megapixels it has the better it is… right?

While this is partially true, there’s more to the story. Unlike the standard 35mm film of yesteryear, the “film”, or sensors, inside digital cameras are not all the same size. The bigger the sensor is, the more light it can capture. The more light it can capture, the more clearly it can distinguish between the different colors in the picture, leading to a sharper and more vibrant the image.

For example, while an $800 Canon Digital Rebel XSi and a $2,300 Canon EOS 5D both have twelve million pixels to work with and will give you an image that’s the same size, the image from the 5D will look substantially better because of its larger sensor.

The size of the sensor is usually not printed on the box, nor is it always on the manufacturer’s Web site. To find out the sensor size of a given camera, I use the camera database on, which has a massive catalog of digital camera specs, as well as reviews on many of them, as the name implies.

Sensor size aside, there are other costs that come along with with a large number of megapixels. Because the pictures you’re taking are bigger, the camera will usually take more time to process and save them, meaning you will be able to take fewer pictures in quick succession. You’ll also fill up your memory card and hard drive faster, and your pictures will take longer to copy from your camera to your computer.

While having more megapixels is certainly not a bad thing, the quality of digital cameras has reached the point that a 7 or 8 megapixel camera is sufficient for the casual shutterbug who doesn’t usually print things bigger than 8″ x 10″, and certainly enough for computer wallpapers and blogs.

So figure out your needs, do a little research, and if you don’t need to print things too big, consider dropping some megapixels and investing in a camera with a bigger sensor or a better lens instead.

Do Photoshop and 64-bit Windows mix?

Posted on July 30th, 2008 | Permalink

I recently got an e-mail from a friend asking if Adobe’s Creative Suite 3 is compatible with a 64-bit Windows operating system, and if there would be any performance advantage. The short answers are “yes” and “potentially”.

Adobe does not have a 64-bit version of CS3, so running on a 64-bit processor won’t in itself give programs like Photoshop any innate speed boost. The advantage is that 64-bit operating systems can recognize memory beyond the 2 GB limit (or 3 GB, if you have the right hardware and Windows XP tweak) of 32-bit editions.

According to Adobe, Photoshop itself is unable to use more than 3 GB of RAM, but having more than that set aside for Photoshop can still give you a speed boost. If you have 4 GB of RAM available, many Photoshop plug-ins will use the 3-4 GB slot for their needs, freeing up more of the initial 3 GB for Photoshop itself. Beyond that, the OS will use up to an additional 2 GB for Photoshop’s scratch disk data, which drastically increases performance over using a hard drive like it does normally. Windows will of course need a decent amount of RAM to work with, and the more it has the quicker it will be able to respond to Photoshop when large images are being processed, so having a computer with 8 GB or more is still beneficial to Photoshop.

However, while Photoshop may be a happier camper with a 64-bit OS, older hardware drivers and applications (e.g., scanner drivers and monitor calibration software) may not work on Windows XP x64 Edition and Windows Vista 64-bit, and should be checked for compatibility before you make the switch.

“Toto, we’re not in RGB anymore…”

Posted on July 12th, 2008 | Permalink

Most new designers I meet nowadays started their career working on the computer, and what they know about the printing world has come from slow osmosis as they have sent work to the press. They know how RGB colors work since they use them on the computer every day, but when it comes to understanding the CMYK colors that the press uses, they don’t even know what questions to ask. The brave few who attempt to delve into the workings of the press usually end up with lost in a sea of terms like coverage, trapping, and dampening system.

So let’s start with the basics. Thinking in terms of ink and paper is critical to understanding the printing process, and so also to properly preparing things for the press. Ink behaves differently than the sharp glowing pixels on your LCD monitor, and the type of paper it’s going onto and the press that’s putting the two together each have their own quirks.

That being said, the first thing I usually consider is dot gain. When dots of ink get printed onto paper, they spread out as they soak in, causing the dots to gain size, what the industry calls dot gain. The darker the color, the more ink is used, so the bigger the dots get as they soak in. Dot gain is usually measured in percentages; for example, with a 20% dot gain what started out as a ten percent gray would now be twelve percent, and a seventy-five percent gray would jump up to a whopping ninety percent. Dot gain is one of the reasons why printed jobs often seem darker on paper than they look on the computer screen.

Just how much dot gain you get on a particular job depends in part on the quality of the press. Web presses, ones that print on one continuous sheet of paper that comes off a roll, tend to get more dot gain because they usually run faster and use more fluid, less expensive inks. Sheet-fed presses, on the other hand, pull one sheet of paper at a time through the press, holding it more precisely and causing less smearing. Paper affects dot gain as well, with shiny coated stocks (like the stuff used in magazines) usually minimizing dot gain, in contrast to the dull uncoated paper (similar to copy paper) that lets the ink soak in much more broadly. Dot gain will never really go away, so your job is to make choices that prevent it as much as possible, then compensate for what’s left.

The type of paper you choose is usually the deciding factor in the next consideration, the total ink limit. Paper can only soak up so much ink before it starts to distort as it turns back into the mush it was created from, so the amount of ink you use must be limited to prevent this. The total ink amount, or coverage, is measured by adding up the percentage of each ink being put down in a particular spot. For example, printing 80% of all four CMYK colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) would give you a total ink coverage of 320%.

If you tried to print something with a total ink coverage of 400%, it would be too much for just about any paper to handle, whereas a stingy 60% of each ink, totaling 240%, is safe in just about any case, so you will usually end up somewhere in between. Choosing a heavier weight paper, such as 80 lb., will allow you to use more ink than 60 lb. paper, since it has more substance for the ink to soak into before the paper starts to distort. Coated paper is designed to let less ink soak into the paper itself, so a higher amount of total ink is possible before the paper starts to be affected.

Ink standards will affect the look of your job as well. Ink manufacturers use differing processes and materials to create their inks, and how the ink behaves on the press depends on who you got it from. Organizations such as SWOP have defined standards for things like exactly what color “cyan” ink should be, giving you the confidence of knowing that if you’re using SWOP standard inks, 100% cyan will always look pretty much the same. Using a consistent ink standard is especially for color-sensitive things like logos and letterheads.

Using a program like Photoshop, you can create or choose a CMYK color profile with this information in it, and the program will give you a better preview of what your job will really look like on the press. Photoshop comes with quite a few generic CMYK color profiles that are set up with typical dot gains, total ink limits, and ink standards to get you started. For instance, the default CMYK profile in Photoshop CS2 is “U.S. Web Coated (SWOP) v2″, designed for U.S. printing processes on a web press, using coated paper with SWOP standard ink colors. If you choose that profile, Photoshop will estimate a dot gain of 20% and a total ink limit of 300%.

However, there are varying degrees of quality for both presses and paper, and as such the generic profiles will never quite be accurate. For instance, I once sent out a job where the dot gain was 17% and the total ink limit was 275% on 80 lb. paper, then turned around and watched my dad print an almost identical job with a 4% dot gain and a total ink of 300% because of the superior quality of his press and printing materials. That said, your best option is to tell the printer what paper you will be using for the job, then ask him what his ink standard, dot gain, total ink limit (or maximum ink coverage, which is the same thing) will be and create a custom CMYK profile using these settings. If he doesn’t know this time around, play it safe on your total ink (~280%) and ask him to check those settings as he runs the job this time so you will know for next time.

While there are many more complexities to consider when printing a job, these are some of the biggest variables for a standard four-color job, and will give you a significantly better preview of how your job will change when you go from RGB to CMYK.

CMYK is dead. Long live CMYK!

Posted on July 12th, 2008 | Permalink

The temperature scrolling by on the bank marquee isn’t that low, but nonetheless the harsh wind seems icy cold as it cuts through your jacket, causing an involuntary shiver. Clouds loom menacingly over the tall buildings of the city, releasing a light drizzle onto the crowded streets as if to herald the approaching downpour. People scurry to and fro, attempting to finish their errands before the coming storm leaves them either stranded indoors or miserable out in the weather. Your stride quickens as well, then breaks as you notice someone hunched over in the shadows of an alley, trying to keep the rain off of a cardboard sign that reads “please help a CMYK color space put out of a job by that whippersnapper RGB”.

This scenario is of course far from realistic. I mean, it’s obvious he never would have properly capitalized “CMYK” and “RGB” without also capitalizing “please”, and there’s no way he would have had enough cardboard to write that long of a sentence. But seriously, don’t let yourself be fooled by those who think that CMYK is dead. As long as us designers want our work printed, we will need CMYK, and if we want to ensure that our work is printed well, we will need to understand it.

By nature, CMYK has a much more limited range of colors than RGB, because it’s designed for ink and paper. The colors you see on the printed page are a result of the light around you shining down on the ink, and the ink absorbing everything but the color you’re supposed to see and reflecting the rest into your eye. Since ink and paper aren’t perfect, they cannot always perfectly reflect even the colors they’re supposed to, leaving you with a much smaller choice of colors to work with on the press. This presents a problem for me as a designer, who works on a computer monitor that creates and shines exactly the right RGB colors straight into my eye. If I try to send all those colors to the press, and it will print what it can, leaving the rest looking unacceptably drab and dreary at best.

So then, somewhere along the line the job must be converted from RGB to the more limited CMYK. I could send my RGB files to the printer and let him convert it, hoping that he will know what I intended those colors to look like and will get acceptably close. I could also have my design software convert to CMYK as I save my file for the printer, trusting that my powerful software was worth all the money I paid for it and will know exactly how I want those colors to be converted. Sadly, both of these approaches are unreliable in practice, because neither the printer nor my design software knows for sure what I intended the job to look like, so neither is qualified to make the tough decisions when colors don’t match up between RGB and CMYK.

As a designer who cares about the look of my end product, I must be the one to convert my job to CMYK. To do this, I must learn how CMYK behaves and what its limitations are, and adjust for those behaviors and limitations. As the son of a skilled pressman, I was privileged to learn many of the ins and outs of CMYK at the dinner table, and in my next article will attempt to pass some of that experience on to you, sans the Greek lamb and potatoes.