ray smith

In This Month's Printwear: How the Right Separation Software Can Affect Your Print Results

Ray Smith has been in the screen-printing industry since 1978. He has been involved as an art director, production manager, plant manager and business owner. He re-joined Wilflex in 2008 as the applications lab manager. Smith is currently the senior business development manager at PolyOne.

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The design is completed and approved. Your customer has selected the type and color of the shirt. Now it’s time to create a product that reflects the comp you provided to the customer.

The conversion from art to separations is the first important conversion needed to achieve this goal. The most popular programs used in the apparel screen-print industry are Photoshop (raster program), Illustrator, and CorelDraw (both vector design programs). These programs provide the opportunity for a skilled separator to create excellent separations. To achieve the best results, the artist must be diligent to deliver some minimum requirements with the design before going through the separation process.

  1. On vector designs, make sure the colors in the design are easily identified (and there are no mixed CMYK colors hidden in the image).
  2. For raster designs, make sure the design is at least full size and of high-resolution quality. Use RGB mode throughout the design and separation setup process.

These initial points are important to deliver the best image for separation and achieve a successful result. Failing these points may deliver a final separation with poor color, bitmapped edges, or confusing color blends.

Vector separations

As most experienced designers will tell you, when using a vector program like Illustrator or Corel, great care during the design process will deliver an easy output of separations straight from the program. Most of the artists that I have worked with allow the program to split the colors for the final separation during the output or ripping process. With these programs, the use of a separation plug-in is not necessary, but can be helpful.

Raster separations

The most powerful and widely used tool in the industry for raster (halftone) separations is Photoshop. When used correctly, a separation artist can manually create excellent separated files for design replication. Many times, this will take years of training or trial and error to become proficient enough to keep up with the pace of production.

When it comes to designing with Photoshop, the best types of separations are either four-color process, spot-color selection, simulated process, or index separations. These types of separations are possible to complete directly through Photoshop.

You may ask, if the existing programs can deliver great separations, then why use a separation program or plug-in? The answer is simple: speed. The same reason we use a car instead of a bicycle, or a plane instead of a car. Regardless, we will ultimately get to our destination, only we arrive sooner. This is a business of production, quality, and timely delivery. We need to get from point A to point Z quickly and efficiently relying on a chain of events that must happen for every order. The art department is a crucial link in that chain. What is delivered to the production department will determine success or failure on-press.

These programs create separated channels that will allow you to leap further into the process, saving time and allowing your artist more time to adjust and add to the separation.

Though many of these programs may get you very close on the first separation attempt, in most cases, some adjustments need to be made to reach “excellent” results. One advantage to selecting and sticking with one of these programs is that an artist will master the program or a plug-in and will begin to repeat what is successful. In short, a program can help create a routine in designs and separations. By having a routine in the process, it creates a comfort zone for all involved. And fewer questions in production means better repeatability on-press.

Test correctly

Before jumping into any one of these programs, research and test as many as possible. Watch instructional videos on each. Create some test designs, then run them through the programs. You will find that these programs offer much more than the separation feature. There are many other procedures for the design process, the separation adjustment process, and some fun design filters.

Some of my favorite features include:

  1. Automatic file clean-up, such as resolution enhancement, color saturation, and contrast enhancement.
  2. Design help, such as photo to sketch conversion, raster to vector simulation, drawing filters, and duotone conversions.
  3. Separation enhancements, such as channel merging, black plate enhancement, and channel additions. Some programs even help with four-color process separations.
  4. Output help, such as rip connection or file conversion for enhancing a better file output.

The biggest word of caution for the end user is to make sure the final print test isn’t stacked for failure. When it comes to solid-area vector printing, most designs are not ink dependent. Translated, this means the ink characteristics will have very little impact on the final test outcome of the design on-press. For the raster prints, however, the ink can have a significant impact on the look of the final print.

Halftone or “simulated process” designs depend on the ink to mix evenly and completely on-press as it prints. If the ink colors are different in opacity or color strength, the test print will have a color shift. It is best to use inks that are similar in translucency, such as mixing system colors or designated pre-mix colors for the separation program being used. It doesn’t make sense to decide on the programs based on incorrect ink. It is best to contact your ink manufacturer to find out the best ink for this application.

The goal for any art department is to deliver designs and art separations to the production department quickly and correctly. To do this, it may be necessary to look at some programs to help facilitate this.