After several rounds of design and development, we arrive at a finished, approved packaging design. Everyone is excited. When we unveil bottle mockups, our clients often tell us it’s like Christmas – they love having a bright shiny new design they can hold and show off.
As soon as the discussion turns to next steps, the question is always, “How quick can you send the files to the printer?” The design looks finished, and clients assume we’re ready to print. There are two crucial steps that need to happen before we print labels, however: final art preparation (mechanicals) and the press check.
The proper preparation of final files and specifications, along with the designer’s guidance at the press check, are key to achieving a finished result consistent with the approved design. While it’s the job of your creative firm and printer to execute your design, a little familiarity with the process will help you plan your project and spend your money wisely. Here’s a quick primer for marketing pros.
Mechanical Artwork – What It Is, and Why You Want Your Design Firm to Create It
Mechanical artwork is the term commonly used for the final digital files that are ready for the printer. The design files used up to this point are rougher and less accurate than the printer requires, and hours go into achieving the precision and detail needed for print reproduction. The printer’s work is based on the foundation we provide and the specifications we communicate through our mechanicals, so this interim step between design approval and print reproduction is essential.
Recently two of our large clients have started bringing the preparation of mechanicals in house or outsourcing this work to a third party agency specializing in preparing files for print and maintaining their brand asset archive. In some ways, this makes good business sense. The maintenance of brand asset archives is an unwieldy job that has long needed a centralized solution. And, some design firms are notorious for sending messy files to printers that then require interpretation and reworking.
That said, we prefer to prepare our own files whenever possible because this is an essential part of our quality control process. In this image-dependent wine and spirits business, small details in the artwork and/or specifications can make a very significant impact on the brand’s premium cues and the power of its brand voice. The process of preparing the design for the printer is an opportunity for us to fine tune the design, groom important details, and optimize the artwork for the printing process to be used.
Printing Isn’t Science – It’s Craft
Even after 25+ years in the field, the printing process still surprises me. We have designed and created print specifications for hundreds of wine, spirits and food packages. The printing of labels is highly specialized and uses processes such as foil stamping and embossing not common in other types of printed material. Most of the time we review the proposed print specs with a printer in a prepress meeting and then we show up to a press check needing only to make a few color tweaks.
But sometimes, despite the combined decades of expertise that go into planning a printing strategy, we discover an unexpected challenge on press. Last week one press check required several hours of hands-on problem solving to achieve the desired result. Neither the highly accomplished label printer nor I anticipated this problem. It’s not until non-designers experience a press check like this that they understand the reason for press checks – we don’t have an accurate way to preview exactly how something will look before it’s actually on press.
You don’t need to become a printing expert to ensure your new package design turns out as envisioned, but a quick primer will help you with planning:
- Always have your designer review specs with the printer. Your designer can then make any modifications needed to the specs while staying true to the brand vision.
- Send a comp (mockup) to the printer as early as possible so they can plan the printing to achieve the desired result.
- Always have your designer attend the initial print run.
- Whenever possible, schedule a new label run early enough that if you encounter a problem on press you can make adjustments. If the label has to deliver to the bottling line two days from the press date, you won’t have time to troubleshoot or modify the print specs if the need arises.
Bridging the Gap Between Approved Design and Printed Package
These two important steps – mechanical art file preparation and press checks – are critical to the proper implementation of a new design. They require a team effort between marketing, design firm, printer and sometimes purchasing or third party suppliers. Each party has a key role in the process, and ours is to ensure that the approved design solution, which grew out of the brand strategy and many rounds of design refinement, arrives on your bottle optimized to do its job – sell product on shelf.
We found this great resource for further information about getting labels printed well:
Press Check Checklist: For those of you who want to learn more so you can wow your purchasing team, bookmark this printer site. Click here.