The Digital Eye: Breaking Murphy’s Law

Stephen Romaniello is an artist and educator teaching digital art at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona for over 20 years. He is a certified instructor in Adobe Photoshop and the author of several books on the creative use of digital graphics software. Steve is the founder of GlobalEye systems, a company that offers training and consulting in digital graphics software and creative imaging.

What Can Go Wrong Will Go Wrong

The wisdom of Murphy applies to pretty much any activity or job, but you might be surprised to know that the origins of this bit of pessimistic philosophy comes from a rocket engineer.

Edward A. Murphy Jr. was working for the United States Air Force in 1949 testing human acceleration tolerances with rocket-sled experiments. One of the experiments required that 16 accelerometers be attached to various locations on a human subject. There were two possibilities for attaching the sensors to their mounting platforms, and someone methodically installed all 16 bass-ackwards. Murphy then made the original form of his pronouncement: “If there are two or more ways to do something, and one of those ways can result in a catastrophe, then someone will do it." The test subject (Major John Paul Stapp) quoted this bit of worldly insight to the press a few days later.

Within a short time "Murphy's Law" went viral and had morphed into new variants. It finally emerged in popular culture, as "Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong," (see Figure 1).

Nugget of Negativity

So how does this nugget of negativity affect the computer graphics and print environment? The answer to this question is that print production is a sequence of steps that require a systematic workflow, parts of which demand the operator’s undivided attention. Whenever choices are available to produce a specific outcome, inevitably human error will prevail. The more choices there are, the more likely Mr. Murphy is likely to gum up the works. These errors ultimately require rework that wastes material, reduces profit and increases stress.

The good news is that if we can become mindful of the minor details that derail the graphics workflow beforehand, many of these barriers to success can be avoided.

Defensive Design

First of all, we should get down to the basics of good “defensive design.” This principle anticipates the mistakes that can potentially sabotage a job by integrating “idiot proof” features into the design of components. An ink cartridge, for example, has a system of plugs and sensors that only allow the cartridge to be inserted one way into its proper location. Many defensive design components are asymmetrical and can only fit into the system using a single orientation, (see Figure 2).

A less idiot-proof example of defensive design, and common in everyday printing, are one-sided paper sheets that are marked on the non-printable side with the manufacturer’s logo or are slightly duller on the printable side, (see Figure 3). The printer’s paper carriage may have an embossed marking that indicates whether the paper should be inserted face up or face down (as in Figure 4). Though not completely idiot-proof it's definitely better than having to consult the manual.

The Workflow

Producing a finished print is essentially a three-part process. The process begins with the design where an artist conceives of an idea, renders it on a computer using graphics software and prepares it for print. The design is interpreted by a RIP and fed to a printer. After it has been printed it is sometimes finished by lamination or framing. Each one of these steps requires close attention to the details and variables that constitute the process.

Design First

The first step in any design project is to research design idioms and motifs that reflect the stylistic, cultural and aesthetic attributes appropriate to the content of the image. Examples can be found online, in books or in magazines, or anywhere else. Research is not about copying elements from other sources. It is about being inspired by the look and feel of designs from a particular style, era or from nature, and incorporating that inspiration into your vision. Do not neglect this step.

In the Loop

A design can start out as a thumbnail sketch and can go through several phases where the image is refined, (see Figure 5). Each step gets closer to the final refined version. The most important step in a smooth design process is to keep your client informed during each step and get his/her approval during each phase. Commercial, design is a true collaboration between artist and client. The earlier you get detailed input from the client the better, and keeping him/her in the loop will avoid misunderstandings and conflict later on.

Color Settings

It is of critical importance is to choose the correct color settings for your printer and substrate. Whether your paper is glossy, matte, archival, watercolor, etc.—and you have a four-, five-, six- or eight-color printer—the correct color settings will determine the amount and configuration of colored ink that your printer's nozzles deposit to produce accurate color, (see Figure 6). Equally important is that the design is the correct size, resolution and orientation to fit on the substrate when it is printed.

Proof It

When the design is complete, print a proof on a lower quality inkjet or laser printer at a smaller size. Carefully proof the composition and if there is text, proofread it two or three times, then have a coworker proof it. Finally, get the client to sign off on it, (see Figure 7).

RIPing and Printing

If you’re on a network where there are several printers, send the image file to the correct printer. If this seems obvious, you’d be surprised how much paper and ink are wasted by operators assuming that their target printer is the default, especially in shops where there are several employees using multiple computers and printers. The print dialog box often displays the data from the last printer used so it’s quite common to make this mistake.

The print dialog box is where Murphy’s Law reigns supreme in this process because there are so many choices (see Figure 8). It can be quite easy to mistakenly choose the incorrect settings. Review the print dialog box to make sure that you have all the basses covered. This includes correct color settings, print size, print orientation, quantity of prints, specific pages, print quality, paper type and all of the numerous variables that the dialog box displays.

If the image is going to be used as a transfer for a sublimation transfer print, the image needs to be reversed. There is a print menu option in Photoshop and Corel Draw that enables you to reverse the image, (see Figure 9).

Paper

Paper orientation (landscape or portrait) should be consistent with the design so as to waste as little paper as possible. The paper in the printer should be the same as the paper type chosen in the color settings and the print dialog box. If using roll paper be certain that the paper is placed on the spindle properly and according to manufacturer recommendations.

Be certain that you are printing to the correct side of the paper. Store sheets consistently in the same direction in your cabinet as they will be loaded in the printer so that they will always be inserted in the printer properly each time.

Keep the work area clean and free from extraneous non-job related items. Clutter distracts from focusing on the job at hand.

Ink

Check the printer management software to assure there is sufficient ink to complete a job and always keep a spare set of cartridges around if a color needs to be replaced.

Run a nozzle check and cleaning cycle prior to printing the first image of the day to ensure that the printer is functioning properly and depositing sufficient quantities of ink.

Printheads can dry out, especially if the printer is run infrequently or the print room is particularly dry. Run the printer at a minimum of twice each week. Purchase a room humidifier and keep the humidity in the print room at a sufficient level to prevent drying, (see Figure 10). Optimal humidity in the work area also subdues electrostatic charges that can cause misfeeds.

Flight Check

It’s a good idea to keep a “flight check” list posted on the wall next to the printer and review it prior to printing. Remember, there are numerous steps in both the hardware and software that produce a perfect print. An itemized list will help ensure that each step is carried out in its proper sequence.

Review

A careful review of the work during each phase of the workflow will help discover potential mistakes and troubleshoot them before the work moves on to the next phase. Preparation and systematic methods are the key to a successful, trouble-free workflow and the absence of Mr. Murphy from the workplace.