In sporting terms, that’s just not Cricut

For the last year or so, I’ve been using a Cricut Maker as a cutting plotter to prepare bespoke labels, and in recent months, have been using it to mock up box and carton prototypes.

What is a Cricut?

For those unfamiliar with Cricut, it is a brand that makes several models of cutting plotters aimed not at my industry of printing, but of the maker space community. Along with the cutting plotters, the company also retails consumables associated with the plotters such as various vinyls and substrates; tools such as additional blades or adapters for other functionality such as scoring or perfing; and additional hardware such as a mug press and heat press of sorts.

Originally, I was going to write a piece about the Cricut on what I’ve been doing with it and what uses others may have for it, but a recent development has spurred me to write a different take on the article.

How does it work?

However, unlike a printer that can be printed to from any software, the Cricut Maker is interfaced directly from companion software called the Cricut Design Space.

When the Design Space is opened, it shows the recent projects, tutorials, and then dozens of projects that are available via a one-off payment or via Cricut Access – a subscription service that provides access to thousands of premade projects and fonts.

But if I make a new project, I’m taken to the Cricut Design Space where I can make a project from scratch…

…Well I could if there were any useful tools. The templates button puts a picture in the background that can be traced over but can’t be manipulated; the projects and images buttons take you to assets that can be purchased or accessed via Cricut Access; so the only drawing tools available to me in the software itself are Text and Shapes. These are limited too, with many fonts having to be purchased for use (or again available via Cricut Access) unless they are already on my system.

The shapes tool is also rather limited, not even allowing for a freeform line.

In order to make anything that I’ve prepared in other software such as Adobe Illustrator, I can import it using the Upload button. It can’t accept my PDF or AI file but can take SVG or DXF files.

From here, I can then effectively determine if the import took the graphic in correctly, and if so, I can save the project and proceed to sending it to the Maker to cut the shape as required.

Here is the rub

In an update on March 12, Cricut announced that uploads to the Cricut Design Space will be limited to 20 per calendar month unless you subscribe to Cricut Access for USD$10/month (it’s hidden right down the bottom of the page, but this link will take you there).

What that effectively means is that each graphic file that is uploaded using the Upload button counts as an upload. As implied earlier, the Design Space’s drawing tools are rather lacking and it is unimaginable that anyone making their own unique design would do so using the shape and text tools alone, but would instead create their design in Adobe Illustrator or alternatives such as Affinity Designer, Corel Draw, or Inkscape; and then use the Upload button as an effective import tool.

No workarounds (yet)

Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to simply cut and paste the design from Adobe Illustrator into the Design Space as that would save a lot of issues. Similarly, it isn’t possible to print directly to the Maker as a cutting plotter – the only way to interface it is to use the Design Space.

My thoughts

I purchased my Cricut with an aim to sell my own branded merchandise that I would design myself, as well as gifts for friends and relatives. My recent use of my Cricut for prototyping cartons and boxes is an added benefit.

That said, I didn’t expect to have to pay a subscription service for what I consider to be a cutting plotter that I had – in good faith – purchased outright. For me to create any workable design, there’s no way on earth I could design an entire project using the Design Space’s own tools and therefore must rely on the Upload button to do nothing more than import a design I’ve already to created to a cutting plotter I’ve already bought. It’s the equivalent of buying a car and then the manufacturer saying “you can turn right 20 times a month but if you want to turn right more than that you have to subscribe to our turn-right service”.

I can’t begin to describe how frustrated this makes me feel. It is up there with bad ideas such as the Juicero (a subscription juice service best described by Youtuber Critikal – language warning), or the Fine Bros attempt to trademark the word “React”.

Cricut’s own shot in the foot is also a perfect opportunity for rivals in the space such as the Silhouette Cameo will take advantage of this situation and use it as a unique selling proposition (i.e. we won’t make you pay to use this software).

If the idea of the subscription for uploading art is to fund the servers where the art is stored, perhaps give users the opportunity to save files locally, provide better import options or better overall tools that are available on services such as Chili Publisher or Canva.

Designers in my space are already paying subscriptions such as Adobe Creative Cloud, Office 365, Dropbox and the like… and this is a tool aimed at a home-based maker community that do this as a hobby.

I hope that Cricut realises it has made a terrible mistake and reconsiders its decision; and in the meantime there is a petition on Change.org to let Cricut know the opinions out there.

Can I get a (Microsoft) Word in edge-wise?

Further to my article in April 2017 the InDesign team have certainly received the message loud and clear, and have now implemented some long-awaited improvements to InDesign. To their credit, the InDesign team have also made their communication with their technical staff far more transparent with the “wishform” page, where InDesign feature requests and bug reports can be viewed in real-time, along with their progress. The team have also made it easier to see what will be available in future versions with greater access to the prerelease program.

While I am not in the prerelease program myself, I like to have a look at the feature requests for InDesign to see what may or may not be coming to the next version. My own submissions for feature requests  are usually as a result of:

  • A recent issue I’ve encountered during a project or forum request;
  • An innovation by one of InDesign’s competitors, such as Quark, Scribus or Serif;
  • An innovation in a complimentary application such as Acrobat, Illustrator or Photoshop;
  • Simply finding a bug and reporting it

During the 2018 Adobe Symposium in Sydney, there were frequent mentions of Adobe’s recent innovation, Adobe Sensei. Apart from the obvious submission to the feature requests page for InDesign to adopt Adobe Sensei technology, I was reminded of certain features that I knew existed in Microsoft Word.

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For the first five years of my working life, Microsoft Word was my workhorse. I’d started my working life in an office performing clerical duties, and I would routinely use Word. Through my employer at the time, my job was slowly integrated into the printing and stationery arm that it had, and once I’d entered my next job exclusively in the printing industry, Word clearly took a back seat. I would refer to Microsoft Office products to import content into the applications I’d used over time, such as PageMaker, Quark Xpress and of course, Adobe InDesign.

That said, new or recent users to InDesign aren’t always from a marketing or graphic design background, but can be self-publishers, clerical staff, project managers, or simply anyone who has been told by their printer that they won’t accept Word files, but InDesign files are fine.

It is important to consider that users of Microsoft Office products can struggle to grasp concepts of usage that are present InDesign, and the learning curve can be steep. I’m also concerned about how new users of InDesign are acquiring their skills, given that hands-on training doesn’t appear to be a big part of this, but rather, methods such as:

  • Teaching themselves
  • On the job training from colleagues
  • Video courses from training sources
  • Video courses from anyone with screen capture software (yes, this includes my Youtube channel)

While reading InDesign forum requests lately, I have noticed InDesign users asking about features they are used to in Microsoft Word, and answers usually range from “InDesign wasn’t set up for that” or “InDesign can’t handle that”.

My question is: “Why not? Word can do this quite easily, and has done for decades!” Personally, there are many features of Office products that I think InDesign could easily benefit from, such as:

  • Macros
  • Calendars
  • Basic print impositions (a Publisher feature)
  • Mail merge
  • Footnotes and endnotes
  • Autoformat
  • Citations
  • Equations
  • Shapes
  • Smart Art (e.g. flow charts, venn diagrams, etc)
  • Charts and graphs

It is true that many of the features listed can be accomplished by third party scripts or plug-ins, but I would argue that if software with a lower price tag can accomplish these tasks without having to make further financial investment in a plug-in that may be obsolete upon the next CC update, how about adding these features to Adobe InDesign? It would make it easier for Office users migrating to InDesign, and would give veteran InDesign users some handy tools that were not previously available.

EAN-13s on a budget

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From time to time, there will be a need for any designer to add an ISBN barcode or EAN-13 to artwork that is being created. Typically, the customer supplies the number by itself and the barcode is created from that number and placed into the artwork. The question is… how does that number turn into a barcode?

This article isn’t going to be a long and technical article about how barcodes are generated and the math/programming that goes into it. Instead, it will point to some available resources for generating the odd barcode here and there, rather than fully developed software that can batch produce barcodes and integrate with databases.

Most of this post refers to EAN-13 or ISBN style barcodes, simply because since 1 January 2007, ISBNs are 13 digits long and use the EAN-13 barcode format for their barcode structure and appearance. What this in turn means is that a solution that can generate an ISBN can also generate an EAN-13, a standard used by most of the world for generating product barcodes… except if you live in the USA or Canada where UPC is used more often.

To my knowledge, no Adobe nor Quark product (nor any product from its latest rival, Affinity) ships with a barcode module as default, but Microsoft Windows users who use Corel Draw will know that it ships with a barcode module and has done so for the past 15 years (just a hint Adobe if you’re looking for ideas or innovations for the next upgrade to Creative Cloud). That’s well and good, but if you’re like me – a Mac user running the Adobe Creative Cloud, Corel Draw isn’t an option.

If you’re also not in the market for dedicated barcode software (as there are hundreds of products that are available) but would like to create a barcode with the minimum of fuss from your desktop or laptop, there are three alternatives that I would suggest:

Plug-ins

Many of the paid plug-ins that are substitutes for the Data Merge feature of Adobe InDesign typically come with a barcode module or add-on. For example:

But if you’re a designer that isn’t after an enterprise solution for making hundreds or thousands of barcodes, but just wants one barcode for a self-publishing client or a craft brewery for their bottles, then many of these products are probably overkill.

InDesign Scripts

Because I work in InDesign most of the time, having the ability to create a book cover and barcode in the same application has advantages for me. That said, here are three scripts that are worth a try:

BookBarcode by Indiscripts – a paid script for Adobe InDesign (€39). It offers lots of customisation and allows for batch creation of ISBN barcodes. If the pennies are tight, there is a “try” version that creates a “vanilla” EAN-13 barcode without the added features and bonuses that would be required from a book publisher or brand agency.

EAN Barcode generator by Konstantin Smorodsky – free script available from the Adobe Add-ons site. Does one ISBN barcode at a time and is intended for general purpose EAN-8 or EAN-13 barcodes, but since ISBN barcodes fall into this category, this still qualifies. Does not put the human-readable ISBN above the barcode though.

ID Barcode by Nick Morgan and Bruno Herfst – free script that supports EAN-13, ISBN, ISSN, ISMN; some customisation of fonts, includes human-readable ISBN above the barcode, EAN-2 and EAN-5 supplemental barcode.

Websites

To my surprise, there are several websites that can create CMYK, text-as-curves, vector graphic barcodes that are worthy of consideration. Again, the internet has these sites in abundance, but of the sites that stood out were:

Terry Burton’s online barcode generator – This site creates a vast array of barcodes, yet alone EAN-13/ISBN. Options are limited per barcode, but if functionality is your thing, definitely a worthwhile website.

Bookow.com – Generates a vector PDF ISBN barcode. No customisation but contains human-readable ISBN above the barcode and all type is set in OCR-B. There are also other useful tools on the website for book publishers.

GS1 (EAN-13 barcode generator) – The Swiss site of the GS1 organization has a feature that creates EAN-13s. Again, no fancy bells or whistles but it does the job.

Free Barcode Generator – Another no-nonsense barcode creator with some options but without the fanciness of the scripts or plug-ins.

Free ≠ yours to do with what you will

The last 7 links have mentioned free resources, but remember that the creators of these resources have the same bills and overheads that you do. If their script has saved you time and effort, and their website has a way of making a donation, seriously consider making a payment to these developers who go out of their way to not only make these resources, but allow you to use them without charging a hefty sum.

 

 

Why won’t my printer take my Publisher file?

To people outside of the printing trade, Microsoft Publisher appears to be a price-competitive alternative to layout software such as Adobe InDesign or Quark Xpress, without the training required to use that software. However, from a print and design standpoint, Publisher is often seen as a nuisance and source of frustration.

Years ago, as a prepress operator at a service bureau, I would often get requests to prepare Publisher files for film or plates for clients (sent by their printers as soon as they heard the word “Publisher”). My employer was one of a select few that would accept Publisher files, and while we would output the artwork to film or plates, it was done on several conditions – the main condition being a handling fee of 50% of the total.

With the software given nicknames such as “Punisher” or “Rubbisher”, old colleagues who would load a client’s file only to realise it was a Publisher file would groan with frustration, normally followed by the words “I hope they supplied a PDF as well”.

So why does Publisher have this reputation? What has it done to deserve such a bad name among commercial printers? Does it really deserve this infamy or is it all hyperbole?

Reasons that many commercial printers will not accept Publisher files are:

  • Don’t have Publisher or the Windows OS;
  • Their staff are unskilled in Publisher;
  • The difficulties associated with earlier versions of Publisher;
  • Issues within the client’s artwork due to inexperience.

Software and Hardware

In a country where English is the first language spoken, it is most likely that commercial printers will use the Adobe Creative Suite on an Apple Macintosh for the production of their artwork. This means that Publisher files cannot be accepted as the software is not made for the Apple Macintosh. This is where many commercial printers will stop and say that they require press-ready PDF artwork instead.

For the remaining printers that do have Windows OS machines, these machines are not necessarily in the artroom and used for other purposes (e.g. tied into the platesetter software, for their colour laser copier, or elsewhere in the building such as estimating, sales… somewhere outside of the art department).

In my experience, I’ve found that it isn’t the Art department that claims to be able to accept Publisher files, but a Salesperson who does not want to disappoint clients by turning away artwork created using Publisher. In this situation, the salesperson loads a copy of Publisher onto a sales computer that uses a Windows OS, and then declares that the company can accept Publisher files. This does not necessarily mean that the art department can accept Publisher files, nor are they trained to use Publisher.

If a printer does have a dedicated Windows OS machine for client supplied artwork from Windows OS devices, it is also likely that the art department staff won’t be as proficient in Publisher as they would their regular design software such as InDesign. So while they may be able to open a Publisher file, if there are issues (e.g. missing fonts, reflow) or changes required, prepress operators may struggle.

It is worth noting that this issue is not limited to Publisher, but other software typically seen on the Windows OS such as Microsoft Word, Corel Draw, Autodesk AutoCAD, etc. In these instances, the supply of PDF artwork created by the client is an acceptable solution.

Print-skills of Publisher users vs commercial printers

Choosing my words very carefully, Publisher is a general consumer product aimed at making designs that would be difficult to do using Microsoft Word or Excel. Examples would be business cards, invites, DL flyers. But, just as a screwdriver can hammer in a nail, so too can Publisher create artwork for larger projects such as books, magazines, etc.

This is where problems normally arise, because while users may be able to create more complicated artwork, they may not be aware of the nuances of printing such as bleeds, crossovers, or binding considerations. There are typically hand-over issues as well, such as missing fonts and links.

Put simply, Publisher is not used by print professionals with industry experience that typically supply press-ready files. Instead, Publisher is largely used by the general public – people who would be unfamiliar with print procedures. The likelihood of either time-consuming or cost-creating complications arising from handling Publisher files is greater than accepting press-ready files from experienced designers.

Finished artwork vs Layout artwork

Prepress departments of commercial printers usually expect two kinds of files to process for print – Finished artwork or Layout artwork.

Finished artwork is artwork that the client has created and it expects the artwork to print exactly as it was submitted, whereas Layout artwork is artwork that the client has created but expects the printer to manipulate the artwork to varying degrees… anywhere from reformatting completely to adjusting artwork to fulfil specific criteria (e.g. fit a formeshape).

Files supplied in publisher would tend to fit into the Finished artwork category, whereas files supplied in word would be more likely to be Layout artwork.

Legacy of difficulty

Until the release of Microsoft Publisher 2010, the software had various issues when attempting to make the artwork useable for print production, such as colour-space issues, bleed issues, reflow when making PDFs. Like any other software, Publisher has evolved and the PDF creating functions for commercial printers have definitely improved. Nevertheless, bad previous experiences with the software are enough reason for printers to avoid the risks associated with handling Publisher files.

Technical Reasons

Printing to a home desktop printer is normally an easy process of pressing the print button and making sure the printer settings are correct. In a commercial printing business, it is a little more complicated. Whether printed offset or digital, artwork is usually converted into PDFs and then transferred to RIP (Raster Image Processor) software, where artwork undergoes procedures not seen on a home printer, such as:

  • Page imposition
  • Colour trapping
  • Colour management
  • Output settings (e.g. colour separation, line screen ruling, etc)

So what do I do?

No printer wants to turn away work, but when faced with artwork submitted as a publisher file, that is what many of them do. However, I feel the artwork can be handled so long as good communication exists between the client and the art department.

  • If a printer insists on supplying PDFs, supply some test PDFs first to make sure that the files are appropriate for the printer’s purposes, and if not, ask the questions as to what is going wrong and what can be done.
  • If you find a printer that does accept publisher files, make sure to use the “pack and go” wizard:  rather than providing the printer with the publisher file alone.
  • Patience and Perseverance is required from both the client and the printer.
  • If a printer suggests using InDesign instead of Publisher, be aware that for people working outside of the printing industry, InDesign has a steep learning curve. If the software is going to be used once a year to publish a newsletter or yearbook, perhaps keep using Publisher, but make sure you maintain good communication with the art department of the Printer so that any issues that arise are dealt with early on.
  • Markzware does make software for converting Publisher files to InDesign, but do not expect a flawless conversion.
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