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097: ABCs of GCM: A-I

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

We learn our ABCs as preschoolers; we begin to write down our alphabet, combine letters into words into sentences and eventually into stories. When entering into a new industry, it can be like learning a whole new language to understand the technical jargon and specific buzzwords thrown around. The graphic communications industry is no different so I would like to take a stroll through the alphabet that we all know and love, using it as a framework to explore the ABCs of GCM. This series is split into 3 episodes that I’m hoping will help explain key concepts in digestible ways. Let’s start with the letter A.

A is for Author’s Alterations


Author’s alterations or ‘AA’ is a term commonly used in the printing and publishing industries when changes are made into the production of a publication (when its already at the printer). Any and all changes should be made before final files are sent to the printer, however if changes must be made afterwards and they are signed off by the client (typically when they receives the proofs that mockup what the publication will look like when it’s printed), these are referred to as AA’s and it’s the client who pays. This usually includes the cost to have a designer make the changes and any costs that the printer will incur to reprocess the file and produce another final proof.


The alternative to AA’s are PE’s (printer’s error) when a change or issue has accidentally been made by the printer and it went undetected by those responsible for checking the files throughout production. PE’s are paid for by the printer.


What if no one will take the blame? It all comes back to the final, signed off proof. Whether digital or physical, a proof is a legal document that will resolve the issue of whether changes to be made are AA’s or PE’s.


When I worked in sales in the book printing industry, I had a press operator call me from the shop floor to let me know that he found an error (as sheets were printed at a whopping speed of 18,000 sheets per hour! Gah!). “This is a reprint and I think someone forgot to update the copyright page.” Yikes. “Stop the press!” (I actually got to say this - what a dream!) I immediately (nervously) called the client to let them know what was going on. I was terrified that we had missed this error and/or somehow swapped out the old files for the new ones, so I frantically worked to track down the proofs with my client on the other end of the line. After some back and forth it was discovered that it was their error. It’s unfortunate that we didn’t catch it until it was already on press, but the client was so thankful that we called then instead of after the book was already printed, bound, and shipped.


Lesson learned: it’s EVERYONE’s job to check and recheck and recheck again as the job moves through production and it pays to ask questions if something doesn’t look quite right.

B is for Bar Code

A bar code is a common part of our every day lives - just open your snack cupboard and look to any packaging to find one. Bar codes look simple, however they have done amazing things to improve the efficiency and accuracy of the goods in our lives. As a designer, there are couple of things to keep in mind.

First, bar codes don’t have to exist as a black mark on a white background. If you want to get more creative with a bar code, you can, in fact, change the colour of either the bar code itself or the background. However, there must be sufficient contrast between the two in order for the scanning equipment to read the bar code. You should be very cautious working with a barcode that’s more than one colour, but if you do change the colour, ENSURE that you’re not using more than two process colours. In other words, pick any two and no more: cyan, magenta, yellow, black. When I worked in industry, we printed a barcode that wouldn’t scan but looking at it with our naked eyes, we couldn’t understand the problem. It looked like a black bar code on a white background. What the heck?! When we took a closer look with a loupe, we discovered that the bar code was actually a four-colour black - made up of cyan, magenta, yellow AND black. The slight and natural misregistration that occurred on press was imperceptible to our naked eyes but not to the scanning equipment at the bookstore checkout. The slightly misaligned yellow peeked out from underneath the skinny black bars causing contrast issues and therefore scanning issues.

Secondly, a word of caution that ‘FPO’ (For Position Only) placeholder bar codes are often used in book, magazine and packaging design if the actual bar code hasn’t been finalized yet. This is usually a low resolution bar code that has the letters FPO watermarked through it. This must be swapped out with the actual bar code before moving into print production. There’s an urban print legend that goes something like this:

A high-end, well-know perfume brand was redesigning their packaging and the designer was working with an FPO barcode. The file was finalized with the FPO by mistake and somehow slipped into the printer’s hands without anyone noticing. You can imagine what happened next… the job continued through production… printing… binding and finishing… packaging the product…shipping to a distribution centre… shipping to store shelves… uh oh. As the story goes, a non-suspecting customer picked up the perfume, walked over to the cashier ready to make their purchase. When the cashier tried to scan the bar code it wouldn’t work and there were no numbers to key in either because it was A FAKE BAR CODE. Needless to say, the customer didn’t leave the store smelling sweetly that day. And nor did the brand owner. Rumour has it, this little faux pas cost close to $250,000 to fix, undoing and redoing the process that had just been completed by the printer and packager. Who had to foot the bill? It’s said that the client and printer split the costs 50/50 because there were so many opportunities for it to have been caught throughout production, but it just never was… or not that anyone’s owning up to anyway.

C is for Creative Cloud

The Adobe Creative Cloud is a magical thing. This powerful software collection allows designers to create professional documents for both print and digital output. In the printing industry specifically, we rely on Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, and Adobe InDesign to do the heavy lifting.

But what’s the best practice for using these software applications to make a professional publication? When do I use each one? I mean, I can draw vector illustrations in Illustrator AND InDesign, and I can apply text in all three... what’s a girl to do?!

Here’s a quick 3-step process:

  1. Do any and all photo editing in Photoshop. This includes resizing photos so that they are in the desired FINAL SIZE in their CORRECT RESOLUTION (typically 300 ppi for professional print production). This is a better idea than resizing on the fly in InDesign because you’ll be messing with resolution to the detriment of your final print quality and/or your InDesign file size will be much larger than it needs to be. Photos saved out of Photoshop will be bitmap, pixel-based images ready for final placement in InDesign.

  2. Do any and all vector and illustrative work in Adobe Illustrator. This includes creating/working with logos. Maintain the ability to resize the artwork later on by saving files as .eps files, keeping them in their native .ai format or saving them as .pdf files (which can be reopened and fully edited in Illustrator because PDF’s preserve the vectors).

  3. Take all finalized text, finalized photos and finalized illustrations from their respective homes and bring them all together in InDesign. InDesign is powerful page layout software that can do a lot more than page layout (i.e. in it you can resize photos and create vector art), however it’s a much cleaner workflow for everyone working on the files if images and illustrations were created/modified in the software that best suits each purpose. Next check, double check and triple check the technical construction of the file (ex: correct document size, bleed allowance, no weird text reflow issues, etc.) using manual and automated preflighting tools built into InDesign. Finally, export as a high-quality PDF (for professional print production) and your file is ready to be printed!

There’s a lot to be learned when it comes to creating high quality files for print - both in the quality of the design aesthetic and the technical execution of the design.

D is for Descender

Little g and little j, hip hop hooray! Little p and q, I see you. Little y oh why, oh me oh my.

Bad lyrics aside, lowercase letters (also called minuscules) have all the fun. They’re able to stretch up high with their ascenders (sometimes even above the cap height) and reach down low below the baseline with their descenders, playfully extending a stem down to tickle the tops of letters on the line below.

When it comes to play, no letter does it better than g... Gadzooks! G-whiz! Gloriously goofy is the gleeful g. Sometimes it loops, sometimes it scoops!

But, consider yourself warned. While descenders have all the fun, they can also be tricky to use in certain situations, namely vertical text placement, as well as tight vertical line spacing - also called leading.

Letterforms, hooray! (I could do this all day!)

E is for Endpapers

Endpapers are the under-rated, often overlooked link that brings a casebound book together. Literally acting as the bridge between the hard cover and book block of text pages, these two hard working pieces of paper hold it all together. They’re glued to the inside of the front case, as well as along the inner edge of the first text page. The same is repeated after the final text page of the book.

However, they’re often a missed opportunity. The front endpaper is the very first thing readers see when they open a book, yet most endpapers aren’t printed. Some use different coloured paper to add visual interest, but many are the same colour paper as the rest of the text. The exception is in children’s books, where endpapers are typically printed with all kinds of fun and wacky designs, adding to the overall artistry of the book. It’s all in the details.

F is for Fifth Colour

Warning: Content contains dorky print metaphors and bad jokes related to 90’s girl bands. You’ve been warned.

What’s the name of the Spice Girls’ book printing cover band? The SPLICE Girls! Hit song: 2 become 1. (You’re welcome.)

Conventional printing technologies use a four-colour printing process of cyan, magenta, yellow and black ink (CMYK). Each of these four colours occupies one “unit” or “tower” on an offset printing press. A printing plate must be made for each of the four colours and each plate contains teeny tiny dots in specific locations, one for each colour. When they’re printed on top of one another, the colours brought back together and the full-colour image is printed. With these four simple colours used in different sizes and overlaid on top of one another, printers can replicate about a million colours on press. Impressive!

I’ll compare it to when the Spice Girls were in their glory, disbanded for a while (each went their own separate way on the printing plate), but then came back together to put on over-priced-but-totally-worth-it performances.

And much like the Spice Girls, the show can go on with only four members (CMYK), but doesn’t it add another element when there’s five members? Enter the fifth colour in printing, otherwise known as the Geri Halliwell of print.

The term ‘fifth colour’ has a variety of meanings, three of which I’ll explain here:

  1. Pantone Spot Colour - Above and beyond the four process colours, there’s an entire library dedicated to specific-coloured inks. Pantone colours exist to print brand colours with one variable (a single ink colour), versus trying to replicate it using two or more variables (CMYK). Pantone colours aren’t printed in every job because it’s not necessary; most of the Pantone colours can be replicated using CMYK inks and adding a Pantone colour adds cost to a job. They’re used when achieving a specific colour is critical and when work is printed on various materials to maintain consistency, for example. They’re also used when wanting to print unique inks that aren’t achievable with CMYK, like fluorescent and metallic colours.

  2. Varnish and Spot Varnish - Some offset or digital presses have a fifth unit, which allows the printing of a varnish, or coating, over top of the entire press sheet. While the varnish itself is colourless, it changes the look and feel of the piece through changing it’s sheen. Spot varnish may also be used to add interest, depth and a tactile feel to a printed piece. Spot varnish is just that: typically high-gloss or matte varnish is applied only to specific spots, or areas, on the printed page to make them pop.

  3. Paper - While most printing is done on white paper so that the beauty of the colours can take centre stage, using coloured paper (even if that just means a different shade of white) is another variable to change the overall look of the printed colours.

I’ll stop right now, thank you very much.

G is for Grain

This is the story of how paper is made. Two pieces of paper slip between the sheets… no that’s not it. The paperback stork comes to visit… that’s not it either.

Oh right, sheets of paper are made via HUGE rolls on a gigantic machine called a Fourdrinier. When paper is made, a massive gloopy slurry of fibres and water are laid out onto a giant wire conveyor belt. As the almost-paper travels along this huge conveyor, water drains from the slurry. As a natural part of this process, the fibres contained in the slurry begin to align themselves in the direction of travel (the long part of the fibre parallel to the long part of the conveyor). Therefore, early in it’s life in the paper womb, on that giant Fourdrinier paper-making machine, grain direction is established. Grain direction refers to this aligning of paper fibres, and although we can’t see the grain with our naked eye, this invisible force established early on in the process affects how the paper is best printed, how it should be bound, and ultimately, how it will behave when it grows up and enters the real world as a finished product.

Imagine paper fibres like grains of rice, all facing the same direction. As moisture hits the rice (in the form of dampness in the printing process or relative humidity in the air), the rice expands width-wise. The same thing happens with paper fibres; they expand across the grain. The wetter they get, the wider they get. This will then affect the width of the sheet and cause unwanted curl during or after a pressrun. Furthermore, grain direction impacts a paper’s ability to be folded cleanly. If you imagine the rice again, folding between the grains of rice (versus trying to fold across the grains of rice) will provide a much cleaner fold.

Another way to imagine paper grain with a snack you may have in your kitchen right now is with Truscuits. These wheaty treats have a distinct grain that makes it so they break apart cleanly in one direction (with the grain) and with jagged edges (across the grain), making them the perfect snack to ponder this paper predicament.

Finally, grain direction is relative. If the length of the fibres of any given sheet align with the short side of the sheet, that paper is “grain short”. Conversely, if that same sheet was cut in half and all of a sudden the fibres of the sheet align with the long side now, that exact same piece of paper is considered “grain long”. So just like the rest of us, paper can have an identity crisis during their awkward teen years.

H is for Hickeys

Hickeys are pesky little marks that show up between the sheets. Press sheets, that is.

Hickeys look like tiny, unwanted donuts on the final printed piece. They’re caused by specs of dirt and debris on the printing plate (like dried ink) that subsequently become inked up and then printed.

The solution? Wash the plate. Wipe it clean to remove debris and then get back up and running hickey-free. In extreme cases, the entire press might need to be washed up and new, fresh, crust-free ink applied, for example.

So hide those hickeys the next time you’re printing 50 shades of greyscale...

I is for Imposition

“Is it worth it? Let me work it

I put my thing down, flip it and reverse it.”

Missy knows what she’s talking about when it comes to imposition.

Imposition is the arrangement of pages on a digital file or printing plate so that when the brochure, book or magazine is printed and folded, all pages will be in correct sequential order in the final product. All is to say, spoiler alert: your favourite book wasn’t printed sheet-by-sheet starting on page 1.

Very often, for book and magazine printing, sheets are laid out in multiples of 8 - sometimes 8, 16 or 32 pages on a single side of a large sheet that will then be folded down into a signature (chunk of the book). Many signatures together make up a book. This is often why there are blank pages at the end of books, to make the number of total pages a multiple of 8 to accommodate the imposition.

How does Milly Elliot fit into it? Well, there are three main imposition styles established in the premedita department: sheet wise, work and turn and work and tumble.

Sheetwise: the plates used on the front side are different than the backside.

Work and turn: the same plates are used for front and back and the press sheet is sent through the press twice, flipping the sheet over for the second pass but maintaining the same gripper edge.

Work and tumble: the same plates are used for front and back and the press sheet is sent through the press twice, flipping the sheet over for the second pass the gripper edge changes for backside.

It’s a little more complicated that this, but you get the idea.

Anyhoo, Missy and I both agree that work and tumble has all the fun. “To my fellas, I like the way you work that. To my ladies, you sure know how to work that”

There are more ABCs of GCM to come in the next episode so stay tuned…

Sound Effect (public domain via Freesound): InspectorJ - Kids Playing

Music (public domain via Free Music Archive): John Bartmann (in order of appearance in episode)

Kiddie Theif


Grassroots Programming

Jailbreak Whispers

Bumping Into Each Other

Bouncy Gypsy Beats

Back to Basics

Cuban Heat

Crazy Balloons

Talk Paper Scissors Theme Music: Retro Quirky Upbeat Funk by Lewis Sound Production via Audio Jungle

Boat Origami Photo: Boat Origami Photo byAlex onUnsplash



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