The evil that lurks in a dialog box.

I love to make pop culture references and Microsoft Publisher always brings one of my favorites to mind. The scene is from the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as the evil entourage is traveling to where they hope to find the Holy Grail. The kindly Marcus Brody says in response to one of the Nazi’s boastful claims: “You are meddling with powers you cannot possibly comprehend.”

This may be a little harsh to say to Publisher users but it emphasizes the problem we see over and over when we are brought in to prepare a Publisher file for commercial printing. While MS Publisher is not all that bad of a program it has two huge weaknesses: 1) it is not terribly precise (but frankly most people have no problem with that aspect) and 2) its handling of color.

As long as you are using Publisher making documents that print on your computer’s printer, Publisher handles things pretty well. But once you decide to take a document to a printing press, Publisher is no smarter than the publishing heavyweights like QuarkXPress or InDesign. You—the user—must be the one to know how to setup your document correctly. If you follow all the requirements about the document setup and the condition of graphics you import, Publisher can do a decent job. But that is not the “deal” people implicitly make with Microsoft. People expect that Microsoft has taken all the complexity out of creating the document. But making a document for color offset printing is more complex than MS Publisher leads you to believe.

Not that Microsoft did not try. In one earlier version they included a fantastic book about how to create a good looking document and how to prepare it for offset printing. But nobody read it. Now you just have to know, or go to their assistance pages on the web.

The dialog box few Publisher users see.So what’s the problem?

The single most common problem we see with Publisher is that people will use it for all sorts of purposes, then one day decide they have a document they need printed on a real printing press. The problem is that by default Publisher creates documents in the RGB color model. (As shown in the dialog box from Publisher to the right.) This works fine on screen and printing to your computer's printer, but it is the wrong color model for taking the document to a printing press.

If you know you are creating a document that will be printed on a printing press, you need to talk to the printer that will be printing the job and get estimates for various ways of printing. Then you need to adjust your Publisher document to be in tune with your printing plans. In the case shown to the right, we are telling Publisher to use "Process Color". A couple of things will happen when the change is made. First, you will get a warning that any transparency you have applied will be removed. (This is a limitation of Publisher, not any given color model.) Second, you will see your colors change a bit. This is because there are many shades of color that the Process Color model cannot achieve and Publisher is trying to adjust the screen to reflect that. (See this page for some discussion about this.)

So what are all these settings?

This may be the first time you have ever seen these settings, so let’s go through them one by one and explain them.

Any color (RGB) - Best for desktop printers

This is the default setting for Publisher and the source of many problems. Instead of “Best for desktop printers” what they meant to say was “If this document will NEVER go to a printing press”. The other settings are fine for “desktop printers” but this is just what Microsoft thinks is normal.

Single color

This is a bit of an odd setting, but if you need to restrict your document to one color this will let you define that one color and then show you the way to document would look printed in that color. Imported color graphics will be adjusted to work within the one color. This is probably best used to make a black and white document.

Spot colors

Many people have no idea what a "Spot color" is. But the concept is important in the printing business. Printing presses have a lot of machinery dedicated to each ink that it prints. So a press that is printing only one color (say; black) is fairly simple. A press that is printing four colors (say; cyan, magenta, yellow and black) has four times as much machinery printing the inks. So if a document only needs a little color, you can use a two color press (much cheaper than for four color) and use a premixed color ink for the additional color. These additional premixed colors are know as "spot colors." Think of a business card that is printed in black ink with a blue logo. The blue is a spot color.

Process colors (CMYK)

As mentioned above, this is printing with CMYK inks (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) and is generally what most people know as "full color" printing. In the printing business is is also known as "four color" printing.

Process colors plus spot colors.

Obviously this is a combination of the two previous settings. But there many important considerations when using this settings. The most important is knowing how much each spot color adds to the printing costs.

Now, what about “Inserted Pictures”?

Up to now I have only addressed problems of color models in the elements you create in Publisher. What about logos and clip art? They have all the same problems — and more. While printing to CMYK will cover over a lot of problems with inserted pictures, simply making the adjustments shown above will not help a logo image you want to print in spot color. If all the above is new to you, it is very likely that your logo files are simply RGB images (in JPG, BMP, TIF, GIF or PNG format) you received from a graphic designer. But an RGB graphic will never print in spot color.

The whole area of graphic files and how they relate to their parent document can get immensely more complicated that I can get into on this web page. If your problems center around inserted graphics, you will simply need to take the advice of the person who is trying to print your document.