Artists and Engineers

Joe Clarke has spent the past 47 years in the lab and in the engineering department, in pre-press and on-press, as an R&D / technical researcher and as a manager of screen print production. Clarke has held executive positions as President of M&R Printing Equipment and as Vice-President at Wilflex [Poly One]. He has been granted a growing number of print-related patents, including one for High-Shear printing with Smilin'Jack - he is a member of the ASDPT, is an Associate Editor for NBM and an SGIA Fellow.

Clarke has presented hundreds of technical papers, written a couple books and published over 600 technical / management articles for which he has been awarded five Swormstedts; the international standard for excellence in technical writing.

Currently Joe Clarke is the President of CPR, a Chicago-based corporation which manufactures Synergy Inks including NexGen; environmentally & financially responsible T-Shirt inks. For more information on CPR, visit

Most of us are crystal clear on whether a particular person is qualified to setup, operate, feed, pull, catch or pack on a press line. While these are all “production” tasks, each requires a separate skill. The same is true for the art room—there are different components that make up the whole of “art” skills. These are the design, the engineering and the production of art. Design art makes the image potentially appealing, engineering art makes it profitable and production art makes it printable. Let’s look at each.

Who’s on first?

At the onset, an artist defines a concept, then a rough layout and provides a finished motif that could contend with the Mona Lisa. It even looks awesome on the screen—flash forward past the engineering phase to the finale; the result may not be as stunning. When, how and with whom we engineer artwork is how to translate what’s on the computer monitor to a predictable, consistent replication on press.

So who should engineer the art and spec the job? That’s easy—the print engineer! Wait… who’s that? To qualify as a print engineer, one simply needs to accurately and consistently answer two questions without compromising image quality:

  1. Precisely how long after you begin setup before the job starts to print?
  2. Precisely when will the order be completed?

There are only two ways to garner this type of information. One is years of comprehensive, on-press experience and the other is a massive amount of quality statistical data reported on top-quality imaging. It’s no wonder we often seem to find ourselves with a chronic shortage of qualified print engineers.

For our industry, a good artist makes great art; a great artist makes great art which is easy to replicate.There are a few high-priced hired-guns who are capable of engineering a sophisticated printing job and can literally tell you how long it takes to setup, achieve accurate color, get approval and complete whatever run length you have… but they are very few and far between. Nonetheless, don’t set art and production at odds by losing sight of our hard-and-fast policy—that is, unless you’re willing to stand side-by-side with us at the press, don’t even try to tell us how to print it.

In the absence of such an elusive engineer, managers can also orchestrate the workflow to complement and supplement both departments with training, collaboration and documentation.

Working model

Take a look at how it can work in a typical business. Whether the design is done in or out of house, artists have a general idea of our production constraints. They are responsible for execution of the aesthetics from roughs to a clean, finished piece of art.

In one model, each of these jobs is rated A or B by the production manager (not by the vagaries of our art department). B orders are less complex and can be sent directly for QC and to output. But for A orders, we need to apply a strategy before we apply cross-hairs.

This engineering or strategy phase is conducted by the production manager along with an art director, who may engage other staff as needed to make it a smooth translation from original art to faithful replication on press. Together, they determine if the A job should run spot, index or CMYK, how many is the best number of colors, where the flashes are, and—the tough one—the color sequence.

The involved parties will engage the ink and screen department heads to determine the best color sequence and this proactive approach will save a fortune. We define our strategy on raw material selection and press settings last, but never consider them fixed-facets of our manufacturing process.

This engineering data accompanies the job ticket and, when the plates are done, it is off to production art. Here, the finishing touches are applied based on prior characterization and calibration with screen and production departments. 

Color traps are applied to each piece, minimum line weights are verified, as are line-counts, minimum dots and angles. The text is composited and the entire job is QC’d, a realistic proof is generated, files are sent to output and the job ticket is signed-off by each of the engineers.

It may seem like overkill, but I believe in the adage “watch your pennies and the dollars will watch themselves.” And we all know the other one… time is money. The key here is to consider that taking shortcuts in the art department usually just applies to more time spent on press, which turns out to be more expensive time.

No doubt some readers will want to re-think the liberty of art-room shortcuts and may need to reconsider adding staff, staffing per shift, staggered shifts or outsourcing once the engineering group is in place. We never want to burden the insatiable press with the meager savings of another department.

Hammers and nails

When engineering a printed image, there is another reason to involve more than one person—to a hammer, everything looks like a nail! So the “mesh person” will try and fix art, press, blade and ink with mesh selection and or tension. Likewise, the stencil person sees solutions only in the form of brand, series or application of emulsion. The ink person has a cornucopia full of additives, curable reducers, surfactants, etc. Each of these may, from time to time, provide the best solution.

But the most costly error is when the press operator attempts to beat all these components into submission on press. In fact, almost any amount of collaborative time on art, assuming it is productive, can easily be justified.

My recommendation is to never engineer a sophisticated image in isolation and avoid the extreme of allowing one party to dictate when they will not be standing press-side to assist with the stunt. If they don’t have the skills to execute the play, they don’t have the insight to remotely dictate procedures to anyone else. Happy engineer hunting!