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Commentary & Analysis

The paradox of quality

The amount of copy talking about quality has increased recently.

By Frank Romano
Published: April 17, 2009

The amount of copy talking about quality has increased recently. Everyone has an opinion about quality because it is so easy to talk about it. Trying to define quality is something else. It is like trying to define beauty. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty -- that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” the poet tells us. So let’s speak the truth about quality.

The truth is that quality is in the eye and mind of the beholder. Quality is what you think it is. It could be gloss, color rendition, uniformity, text and line quality, and sharpness and effective resolution -- or something else. You can define quality by the numbers, or use objective measurements or subjective evaluation. That is why we use viewing booths to have lighting at a standard level. But even with that, some males over 50 have impaired color perception, so their judgment may be questionable.

In printing competitions, print quality is supposed to be the criterion. In fact, printing competitions should not exist -- because all printers print at high quality, so differentiation of their work should be virtually impossible. Right? I think that design and finishing have more to do with who wins printing competitions than actual printing quality.

Some print competitions do not allow digital printing to compete. It always reminds me that work of the great French impressionists is not in the Louvre, but in a separate building a distance away. Our industry tends to seggregate rather than unite.

In 1985, the mantra was “good enough” as 300 dpi printers proliferated. They jumped to 400 dpi, then 600 dpi and beyond. Now there are printers at 2400 dpi and maybe “enough is enough.” I would prefer to see digital printing makers concentrate on quality consistency instead of the numbers game of dpi -- which is really limited by the actual toner particle size.

Digital printing quality is more than the numbers. Dots Per Inch only tells you laser addressability. The dot size produced by the laser within the printer is about 10 to 42 microns in width. There is also the size of the actual particle of toner, and in most cases, it is smaller than the addressability.

With 25,400 microns to an inch, a simple conversion of DPI to microns shows:

600 dpi = 42.33 microns addressability but actual particle could be 6-8 microns

1200 dpi = 21.17 microns addressability but actual particle could be 3-5 microns

2400 dpi = 10.58 microns addressability but actual particle could be 2-3 microns

600 dpi is the threshold -- it usually means you will get good-looking type and line art, and anything over 600 dpi is great but perhaps not always visible to the eye. A grain of salt is about 60 microns and the eye can see particles to about 40 microns.

Digital color printing is handled in a variety of ways and every supplier has their own secret sauce. Bit depth could be a determinant but, it usually represents processing, not rendering. Digital printers do not usually use traditional halftone dots -- they all have secret and proprietary algorithms for rendering photographs. How do you evaluate print quality? Look at the samples, or do your own samples. Look for: 1. gradients and tints, 2. solid colors, and 3. skin tones.

End users assume that the higher the numbers, the better the print quality, which is not necessarily the case. You could try to compare laser addressability, toner spot size, and other attributes of digital imaging and electrophotography, but your head might then explode.

Theoretically, some digital printers, especially multi-drop inkjet, can achieve continuous tone quality levels for photographs. I once asked David Spencer, dean of quality gurus, when inkjet would exceed the quality of offset litho. He said “It already has.”

Take National Geographic magazine. Its editorial section is printed by gravure. Gravure resolution is about 300dpi but cell depth controls color rendition. The result is gorgeous photographic printing. But look at the text -- it is anti-aliased. The cover of the Geographic is printed by offset litho and usually has a photo that is also reproduced in the editorial section. Compare them. There is a difference.

Other magazines and even catalogs mix gravure and offset litho in editions and no one complains about quality.

In 1993 or so Xerox was evaluating a digital color printer code-named Apex from Fuji. They showed samples to commercial printers and asked about the quality. The printers unanimously voted it down. The machine went back to Fuji. Then Scitex resurected it as the Spontane. Xerox later introduced it as the Docucolor 40. What was the original error? Never ask printers about quality. Their standards are too high. And buyers fall into a spectrum of quality accepters from low to very high. Quality depends on who you ask.

Every now and then you read about some test that was run that shows that digital printing has achieved offset litho quality. Fuggetaboutit. The debate on quality will go on forever because printing technologies change and as they do, definitions of quality change. Litho was not the same as letterpress and toner is not the same as litho and inkjet is not the same as toner.

Many of my quality examples involve, type. In 1968, IBM introduced the Selectric Composer, a typewriter with proportional type. They had a contest at the Print 68 trade show: identify the three text samples as hot metal, phototypesetting, or Composer typewriter type. Only a few people got it right. The Composer had a single unit backspace key and IBM had kerned letter combinations in their sample. Everyone saw kerning and assumed that it had to be phototypesetting, because typewriters certainly could not do it.

Also in 1968, Compugraphic introduced the 2961 phototypesetter. Printers looked at the output and commented “That’s crap. How much is the machine?” “$8,000.” “That’s not bad crap.” Quality may be subservient to cost factors.

History shows that the quality status quo is always challenged by a quality that is not at the same level, but offers other advantages. Over time the new quality level becomes the standard, but then it is also challenged. And such is the cycle of life.

Offset litho is today’s status quo but it has lost volume to something deemed inferior. Now the digital printing suppliers are sniping among themselves as to who wears the mantle of quality. I love it when the pundits claim to prefer one quality over another quality. It’s really funny because the only basis for the claim is their opinion -- which we are all entitled to.

There are general standards based on memory colors, smooth gradients, skin tones, and other criteria. Sometimes, quality may have more to do with what happens in pre-press. All these issues are the reason for proofing and customer approval.

There is only one definition of quality that matters -- what customers will pay for. Oh wait, customers sometimes use quality as a excuse not to pay.

Quality -- I know it when I see it.

Frank Romano has spent over 50 years in the printing and publishing industries. Many know him best as the editor of the International Paper Pocket Pal or from the hundreds of articles he has written for publications from North America and Europe to the Middle East to Asia and Australia. Romano lectures extensively, having addressed virtually every club, association, group, and professional organization at one time or another. He is one of the industry's foremost keynote speakers. He continues to teach courses at RIT and other universities and works with students on unique research projects.

Please offer your feedback to Frank. He can be reached at frank@whattheythink.com.



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