Intolerant about tolerances

Designing print projects on-screen comes with a false sense of precision. It is easy to assume that whatever is designed on-screen will accurately reproduce – without flaws – into a real-world finished product. This is reinforced by the ability to place objects on precise coordinates and align and distribute with similar precision.

Unfortunately, the practical application of the design from computer to real world product comes with a series of tolerances that are not taken into account in the design software.

Such examples are

  • Variables in the substrate. Paper stocks can stretch, distort and swell based on humidity, storage conditions, temperature and ink density, just to name some variables.
  • Creep (aka shingling, pushout or thrust). This is covered in an earlier article, but it is the phenomenon of artwork in a book moving towards the foredges of pages due to the gathering of folded sections.
  • Registration between inks and Embellishments.
  • Precision of the paper folding.
  • What your computer says vs what the output device prepares.

Some tolerances are hardly noticeable and imperceptible without magnification, while other tolerances are large in comparison. This article will examine several print phenomenon and the tolerances associated with each phenomenon.

Tolerances in ink registration

This is an example where tolerances are quite tight, and best shown when printing several colours in one pass, such as full colour process offset printing, digital toner or inkjet printing. Take for example the following headline.

At normal magnification, the inks appear to be in perfect registration. However, when zoomed in, it is possible to see that the registration of the inks is slightly off, demonstrating tolerances in microns.

However, it doesn’t take much to make the tolerances worse, such as:

  • Using a printing method where misregistration is a larger concern, such as flexography or screen printing;
  • Printing additional colours on a second pass, meaning the sheets have to dry first and add the variable of paper distortion to trying to register the additional inks to the previously printed inks.

Embellishment registration

From here, tolerances begin to get worse. Take for example a full colour plus one spot colour print that has an additional spot UV clear varnish applied over the lettering.

Note that while the inks are in register, the spot UV is off by half a millimetre to the top right. This is because two separate processes were used – a five colour press to print the inks onto the paper; then the spot UV was applied using a screen printed stencil that was made using an imagesetter that was different to the platesetter that produced the images for the plates.

Another example is how a design translates from screen to embellishment. Take this complicated foil, and notice how the fine detail in the foil is lost.

Fold registration

This is where tolerances can be out by several millimetres. A simple exercise that demonstrates this issue is to take a sheet of paper and fold it in half four times, then look at how the pages line up at the heads and feet of the folded pages. The same issue occurs when taking an imposed sheet and folding it into a signature to combine with other gathered signatures for burst binding.

Take the following example that has a running header in InDesign where the sidebars bleed off of the foredge. Note the difference between the highest point vs the lowest point.

What can be done?

  • Know that printing and binding are not precise and subject to tolerances like any other manufacturing. What is important to know is where the extreme tolerances lie and how to design with them in mind.
  • Speak to your printer or finisher and ask to see samples of previous work.

There is also page to page registration that needs to be discussed, but this will be covered in a future Colecandoo article.

Inklude (sic) Mixed Inks into Illustrator

A feature which is strangely absent from Adobe Illustrator (yet present in Adobe InDesign) is mixed inks. This gives the user the ability to make a new swatch based on percentiles of other swatches that can include spot colors, along with process colors.

InDesign’s mixed ink feature also allows groups of mixed ink colors to be made, based on how much of each ink should be in each swatch, and the increments they should differ by.

For pure spot color work, this can create colors that would otherwise require using blend modes such as multiply or darken to create similar colors. However, from a prepress standpoint, mixed inks have several advantages over applying blend modes to objects to achieve the same effect.

Embellishments

For digital devices that can apply inline varnishes, mixed inks make sense. In the following example, the headline requires a varnish

Usual way of doing this would be to create a second layer with an identical headline, but set to a Varnish spot color on another layer, with either a transparency effect such as darken or multiply applied; or overprint turned on from the attributes menu.

That’s fine if the position of the artwork is final, but if the design is in a state of flux, that requires moving the varnish to be in the same position as the type.

A solution is to use InDesign’s mixed ink to create a new mixed ink swatch. In this case, I’ll call it Varnished Headline, and give it 100% of the black and 100% of the varnish spot

This solution also applies to other common embellishments such as embosses, foils, raised varnishes, etc.

White Masks

When preparing label artwork for clear or metallic substrates, white masks have to be prepared so that the color art can appear correctly above the substrate. Take for example this logo to be printed over a silver background.

Again, by using mixed inks, it is possible to make a white mask that doesn’t require another layer, blend mode, and can move with the artwork. In this example, three colors would be created: the white mask; Red and a white mask; and Black and a white mask – the last two being mixed inks.

The art can then be recolored so that the red now uses the red mixed ink; the black now uses the black mixed ink; and the paper now uses the white mask ink.

Notice that the gold cup does not contain a white mask – that is because the gold color – when printed on a silver stock – will appear more like a gold foil.

Double-Hit Prints

On one or two spot colour jobs that have large areas of solid ink coverage, occasionally the same colour will be applied twice on the press as to hide any mechanical ghosting from the printing process.

In the above example, one plate would be for the solid color, and a second – though stippled plate – would be for the undercolor to hide the mechanical ghosting. This color can be set up using InDesign’s mixed inks.

But this is missing from Illustrator!

Despite the mixed ink feature being available in Adobe InDesign, it is notably absent from Adobe Illustrator. This is frustrating as artwork that usually requires the three solutions above is often prepared as Adobe Illustrator artwork, requiring old-school solution of layers and blend modes.

If you feel that this missing feature deserves to be in Adobe Illustrator, make sure to let the Illustrator Uservoice know!

Just not Cricut – Update

UPDATE 2021-03-19: A further statement from Cricut’s CEO Ashish Arora was released on March 18, 2021, stating:

So, we’ve made the decision to reverse our previously shared plans. Right now, every member can upload an unlimited number of images and patterns to Design Space for free, and we have no intention to change this policy. This is true whether you’re a current Cricut member or are thinking about joining the Cricut family before or after December 31, 2021.

Ashish Arora (Cricut CEO)

This follows an announcement made in the previous week that uploads to Cricut’s Design Space that exceeded 20 per month would require a Cricut Access subscription. What followed on social media was an angry backlash of its user base, leading to the article that was previously posted below. I will leave the article for posterity, but in the interests of transparency, the article has since been reflected to post the March 18 statement.

There has been a development since the last article concerning Cricut’s decision to limit free uploads to its Design Space to 20 per month before requiring a Cricut Access subscription. In short, the CEO has released a statement that backs away from this decision… for now. Read the Cricut CEO’s statement on their site.

While this can be perceived as a win for Cricut users for the moment, it is worth noting the language of the second-to-last paragraph of the statement, that reads as follows:

We will continue to explore affordable ways for our future users who register machines after December 31, 2021 to allow an unlimited number of personal image and pattern uploads.

Ashish Arora (Cricut CEO)

Note the word “affordable”, and not “free”. Also, why set a date of the end of the year?

Where to from here?

Until this event, the Cricut maker community was arguably at peace and was happily using their Cricut plotting cutters. Since this event, the trust in the company has now been shaken… and the language used by the CEO in their statement does not rule out that they won’t try something like this to new users beyond next year.

The Cricut’s main competitor in this space – Silhouette – has been quick to capitalise on Cricut’s PR disaster releasing their own statement, of which one paragraph sums up their position:

There is no limit to the number of designs you are able to open and use with our software program. Silhouette has no obligation to sign up for any paid service in order to use the Silhouette cutting system or software, including your own files and designs (such as JPG, PNG, BMP, and TTF font files).

Silhouette spokesperson

The event has also spurred the community to looking into alternatives to the Cricut Design Space to interface with the plotter itself. Attempts to do this nearly a decade ago were met with legal action that was ultimately settled. But that will not necessarily stop everyone in the community from attempting to “Jailbreak” their Cricut so that the plotters can be run on other CNC software, whether a competitor or open-source.

Unfortunately, the whole event has tarnished the Cricut brand that makes arguably good hardware and consumables. Members of the Cricut community were vocal on social media, with the Reddit’s Cricut subreddit briefly pinning a note describing what action could be done – everything from cancelling Cricut Access, joining a class action lawsuit, brigading social media platforms such as Cricut’s Instagram and Facebook pages, buying competitor consumables such as vinyls and tools, etc.

I would personally like to interface the Cricut with any other software than the Cricut Design Space as described in the previous article. Releasing an API to the community so that plug-ins could be made for software such as Adobe Illustrator, Corel Draw, Affinity Designer and Inkscape would go a long way to not only restoring faith in the Cricut brand, but make people use their Cricuts more as making designs for it would be in software that users would be familiar with already. If the Cricut Design Space is a good enough application, it should be able to stand on its own two feet without forcing its users to use it because there isn’t another application… and right now it is nowhere near that level.

Ultimately, it’s a win for existing Cricut users that has exposed the thoughts of what the company is prepared to do; and it is also a wake-up call to other software developers that software relies on happy users, and that it doesn’t take much to turn happy users into the Reddit army.

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.

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