Demystifying the Press Check Process with Chris Barton’s New Book: Dazzle Ships

By Danielle Carnito, Trade Art Director and Designer

Sometimes, we in the design department actually LEAVE the design department for a few hours.

I know it’s hard to believe, but we don’t always sit behind a computer clicking buttons for eight hours a day. Some aspects of book making require interacting with other people outside of our building. Case in point: the press check.”WHAT IS THIS MADNESS?” you might ask. Thanks for asking.

To explain:

The books we work so hard on in digital form while in development also make it into physical printed form, so they can join the other wonderful physical books in your homes and your bookshelves. For certain books—those that have special printing treatments, exceptionally large print runs, or have art and images that will be difficult or extremely important to match color, someone either in design or in print production will head to the printer when the book is on press for quality assurance to make sure it’s printing as expected.

What do we expect? That the color will match the high-end color proofs we’ve approved in house and send along with the digital files to the printer. A shot of printer proofs for our upcoming Millbrook picture book Dazzle Ships by Chris Barton and Victo Ngai:

Victo Ngai Dazzle Ships book illustration
Yes, the printer proofs look like a wonderful jumble of mixed up pages, 8 pages per side of large sheet of paper for the press. Once printed and folded properly, the book will all make sense. But that’s a whole separate printing signatures & forms blog post for you.

We print in most books in 4-color process, so there are four plates and rollers laying down the four color components of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black, that once together make a full color book. Color levels are adjusted when on press by adding or lessening any of these four color components in various areas of the images. For this particular job we added more yellow in places to warm up the art.

Printing presses are long machines with many components. This is one section of the press—one of those four plates & rollers—the yellow plate. Which may be obvious. You can see parts of two more presses in the background.
Once the paper has made it through all four color rollers, the entire image has been formed and the press sheet rolls out, done. It takes a few (or many) sheets for any color adjustments to make it through the entire press, so it’s not unheard of to go through a couple hundred sheets of paper to get the colors all where we want them. Much of this prep is done BEFORE the printer calls in the clients (us), so we’re there to do the final look and adjustments.
And when the pressman on the job is experienced and great at his job (in this case it was Dan, hence ‘pressman’ rather than ‘pressperson’) there are very few adjustments to go once we arrive. Here, cover press sheets are rolling out of the press. The operator will grab the top sheet and bring it over to the light booth  to compare to the previous round of color adjustments and our high-end color proofs:
Chris Barton Dazzle Ships Press Check
That reflected purple screen you see almost cut off the top left corner is the screen for the computer that runs the press—there are many many color bars and buttons that correspond to parts of the press & press sheet, all of which mystify me but the people running the press know them like the backs of their hands.


Making a color adjustment for one page will affect all the other areas of the book in that particular column of the press sheet, so changing one page to be more yellow could up the yellow on another page that really doesn’t need it. As with most things, 4-color printing is a balancing act to get the right result.

Chris Barton Dazzle Ships Jacket
Pressman Dan knew exactly how to adjust for this cover and jacket—I’d say something like “this is looking to blue, can you warm it up more” and before I was done he’d be agreeing and already adding the yellow in the right places with all the mystifying buttons. This photo shows the difference between adjustments. Which you can sort of see in the the picture… but trust me, we moved the color on the flaps to be a better match.

Once the color is right, we sign off on the approved sheet, and let the rest of the job run using the same levels. Press checks when they go well can take only ten minutes. Press checks when they go badly can end up with pulling the entire job off press to fix a problem, then rescheduling for another time—that did not happen with this book. This particular excursion to the printer went very smoothly.

And we went back the next day to see the interior pages on press and worked on matching the color of the back cover printed the day before to the color of the endsheets, as the same piece of art was used in both places.

Victo Ngai Dazzle Ships Book Endsheets
Also once signed off, we get a few press sheets and take them back to the office to take pictures, like this, to tease readers with more bits of the incredible art in this book. Just wait ’till you see the entire thing!
I’ll be seeing the finished book soon, once it’s back from the bindery. With the final quality assurance step at the printer, I know it’ll look remarkable! You can see the entire book soon too—Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion is on sale September 1.
Preorder it now from IndieBound or Amazon, or look for it at your favorite indie bookstore this fall.

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