When I started working as a designer, I was taught a few fundamental rules that I had to follow when working with InDesign.
One of these stacked on my mind as it apparently had a lot of impact on catalogs printing costs.
The rule said that a catalog had to be created with layers.
Based on that rule offset printing was ALWAYS the cheapest way when your file was created with layers—despite everything that could happen to the project.
Well, it wasn’t exactly like that.
To learn more about printing, confirm this “fundamental rule” and obtain some guidance, I contacted Ilaria.
Ilaria is senior producer for the UK Penguin Press division of PRH.
With more than 80 years of experience printing best sellers, educational books, and magazines, Penguin Books is one of the most famous printing publishers in the world.
What is the difference between digital and offset printing?
First thing Ilaria explained to me the difference between digital printing and offset printing. This is fundamental to understanding which way to print.
“With digital printing, it’s easier to think of it as a massive photocopier. You’re not printing from plates but from a computer and the ink comes in a powder-like form.
As Ilaria told me the start-up cost for Digital Printing is very low because it’s more or less like printing with the printer you have at home.
“You have very little start-up costs because
a) you don’t need to output plates and
b) the color balance is regulated digitally so it can be configured on screen ahead of printing.”
Offset printing instead is more complex. It’s based on plates. You can imagine it as a modern press.
“At the core, it's still remarkably similar to Gutenberg's original press.”
She goes a little bit technical here, but that is important to understand the difference with the digital way.
“With offset printing, if you’re printing a mono-language edition, you usually merge the text with the K plate, which enables you to print just from 4 plates.”
Fun fact: “The ‘K’ in CMYK stands for key because in four-color printing, cyan, magenta, and yellow printing plates are carefully keyed, or aligned, with the key of the black key plate. Some sources suggest that the ‘K’ in CMYK came from the last letter in ‘black’ and was chosen because B already means blue.”
Source: CMYK color model - Wikipedia
“If you’re printing more languages or have non-black text or if you have a Pantone color (where the ink is premixed), you’ll need either 5 plates or 6 plates (very rare and usually just available on smaller presses only used for covers and jackets).
Once you have you CMYK + extra plates, you can start printing.”
Costs of offset printing
Ilaria says that the cost of offset printing consists of two main expenses:
- plates cost
- reject-sheets from color tests
"The start-up costs are quite considerable (a plate in itself is roughly £500) because you have to balance the colors on the press.
"This is usually done by running the press at a slower speed and then cranking it up once you’re happy with the balance."
“Keep in mind that this process has to be repeated for each side of your sheets, so depending on the overall extent, you might end up with quite a number of reject-sheets.”
How do you set your files up in InDesign?
About the InDesign file:
“How you set the files up in ID has not too much to do with your printing method though as you’ll always need to output print-ready composite PDFs to go on press."
“You’ll need to embed the right printing profile when outputting the PDFs, and so it is at this point that you need to know how you’ll print."
“However, this is not so much to do with offset vs. digital (they both print from composite PDFs), but more to do with the paper you’ll be printing on (coated vs. uncoated).”
But what about the “layers method”?
The layers method
Remember when I previously mentioned the “layers method”?
And that rule that lowers printing costs?
“A catalog has to be created with layers.”
I am based in Europe, where a product catalog is often produced in at least a couple of languages.
Based on the layer method, a base layer contains the graphic while a text-layer stores the textual part (one text-layer is created for each language).
The document structure is as follow:
- Graphic layer
- Base-language layer (usually Italian)
- Translated language 1
- Translated language 2
Why I started doubting the layers method
I was told that using the layers method allows a company to save on printing.
At that time, I didn’t actually bother to learn more about this “rule” because I found it helpful to use the layers in that way.
It helped me with keeping my work better organized and forced me to update each language every time I had to update the master language layer.
I like order and safe procedures to follow, so it was fine by me.
But since I started Redokun, I started questioning this rule.
At Redokun, we developed a service that helps marketing teams with developing their multilingual documents (catalogs, brochures, etc.).
One of the advantages our service gives them is that you can apply changes to all the translated files in seconds without manually changing each language file (or each language-layer).
Here you can gain a better understanding of how it works.
Our users don’t have to edit each layer manually, and the organizational part that was important to me doesn’t make sense when using Redokun. So I started questioning this rule.
Is it economically smart to produce InDesign documents with layers?
When is it helpful and when unnecessary?
Risks and issues of layers
Ilaria says that it’s an industry-wide standard practice to place all the text on a text layer and all the design elements on the CMYK layer.
“Regarding the files’ set-up, despite being a standard requirement that us in production always put through to the design and editorial teams, it's not always the case that we actually get ID files set up with the correct layers. It’s then our job to send them out to reproduction for fixing and color balancing.”
In this blog, I talked many times about the issues linked to a badly organized workflow. Ilaria also mentioned those issues during our chat.
“In reality, the text should be fully edited and only in need for a copy read when it’s dropped in ID, but schedules inevitably run late, and the editing process takes place at the same time as the design, and so files tend to end up a bit of a mess.”
Besides messy files, when the timing is tight it might happen that you paste a language in the wrong layer or you forget to replace some text with its translation.
These mistakes can cost a lot since you might have to print the entire batch again!
When is Offset printing cheaper than digital printing?
Let’s keep it roughly simple. If you print less than 1,500 – 2,000 copies, you’ll probably want to go Digital.
The cost of setting up the plates and calibrating the color makes Offset Printing too expensive.
Ilaria says that offset printing makes sense when the number of copies is higher.
In the case of multiple languages, she says it makes sense with that number of copies only if the document is set up with the layer method we talked about before.
“With regards to the print-runs, it’s only really cheaper to have multiple languages if you can print them all at the same time, so that you don’t have to have printed sheets lying about waiting for the next language to be ready—with multi-language print-runs, you run through the press the CMYK plates first and then you put the sheets back through the machine to do each language."
“If you do that, then the actual run per language can be around 1.5k or so—so long as you have a healthyoverall print run of around 8/10k.”
The layer method make sense then!
However, there are hidden costs you should consider.
“Yes, only when it becomes worth putting the extra effort to set up ID properly. It’s difficult to say."
“Having a repro house to fix the files costs around £40 a page, and it still requires design and editorial to check the proofs thoroughly and completely to make sure that nothing has moved or disappeared.”
Lower your costs
Using layers is a good solution if you print quite a few copies. Otherwise, you might just want to create your document without any layer or go with the digital print.
Use a different file for each language
As we’ve seen above, structuring your document with layers is important only if you print many copies.
If that isn’t your case, then you should just create a file for each language.
The way you produce the file in the base language is quite important.
You should also consider using a tool like Redokun that helps you with developing the first translation of your file and dealing with updates and revisions.
Use layers (import them with a script)
If for you it’s worth it to create your documents with layers, then you should:
- create your base document with the graphic layer and the text layer
- create a different InDesign document for each language
- import the text-layer from each language version to the main document.
You can use a script we developed to import a layer from one document to another. You can find it here.
By following these simple steps, you make sure you won’t place any element in the wrong language layer.
InDesign has some features that can help you avoid mistakes.
“My advice is to always hide the extra languages and to lock in the CMYK layer so that you avoid moving things by mistake.”
But the final solution is: organization!
“The only real solution is a well-planned pre-press schedule and having a producer who can nag everybody into place and make sure things are done properly.”
Send all the languages at the same time
As Ilaria said, sending all the languages at the same time allows the print house to organize and work smoothly, and your cost will also depend on that.
The best way to deal with many languages
Redokun was developed exactly for the purpose of helping Marketing teams with working on their multilingual projects. If your company uses InDesign, then you should definitely give Redokun a try with the 14-day free trial.
Besides reading all this, make sure you also read and learn how to create a catalog, what to do when your catalogs are late, or find some catalog inspiration by looking at these 50 InDesign catalog templates.