Find the Right Collaborative Soft-Proofing Solution

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Digital soft proofing has evolved from a curiosity into a valuable tool in just a few years. Not too long ago, digital proofing consisted of e-mailing someone a TIFF, EPS or even a JPG file of the project. Though this was a fast, easy way to exchange files, it was hardly the right technology for proofing. Often these files would be printed, and changes were written on them manually. The changes would be faxed (yikes!) to the next person with proofing responsibility. The advent of PDF files improved this somewhat, as Adobe Acrobat software could be used to make annotations directly to the file.

Today's collaborative soft-proofing technology virtually eliminates the need for a physical proof. As with any new technology, however, the list of solutions providers and their range of products are expanding constantly. Though that may sound like a computer geek's dream come true, wading through soft-proofing technology can be a direct marketer's nightmare.

Collaborative soft-proofing solutions can be grouped into three main categories: browser-based, software-based and service-based. Each category has a range of options you need to consider in order to find the solution that works best within your workflow. With that in mind, here are points to consider when talking with print and direct mail providers about soft-proofing systems.

It's all in the collaboration. Soft proofing traditionally has been used as a content-approval tool, while contract-grade color approval is the domain of hard proofing. Though a few soft-proofing solutions now available do a great job of bridging that gap, they're mainly designed to facilitate content approval. For that reason, we'll focus on that aspect of soft-proofing solutions.

The main advantage to these new collaborative soft-proofing solutions is the ability to perform online, "real-time" proofing from remote locations, which lets multiple users make annotations and suggestions simultaneously.

This is where the differences among solutions are illuminated. Some require you to download software that contains the collaboration tools, or a proprietary file format that's able to be marked. Other solutions are entirely Web-based, and still others combine one or more of these options as part of their package.

Software-based solutions are built around an application that must be loaded onto any computer that will be used for proofing. This type of solution can be advantageous for users with a slow Internet connection, as all of the tools used for proofing are found in the program. Of course, the files themselves still must be sent and received online, often in PDF format. Depending on the solution, markup can be performed directly to the PDF file, or the proofing program will convert it to a proprietary file format.

These software solutions contain powerful proofing tools, including on-screen densitometers and the ability to view separations and spot colors individually. Though collaborative proofing is handled differently with each software-based solution, most require each participant to establish a point-to-point connection to other users viewing the file.

Many service-based solutions also require users to install software in order to perform proofing. Rather than download large files, however, users log into an online "viewing booth" to view and annotate their soft proofs. This also expedites collaborative proofing, as multiple users can log into the proofing server simultaneously.

Solutions providers sell this as a service, often charged as a flat monthly fee or on a pay-as-you-go basis. As with software-based solutions, the printer usually pays the cost for these solutions as a value-added service.

For printers, the main challenge with software- and service-based solutions is getting the technology to work on their clients' computers. Many marketers are reluctant to install what often are hefty software packages, even if it results in considerable time saved. Though many solutions use simplified tools and interfaces, getting dozens of users up to speed can be challenging.

Browser-based soft-proofing solutions seek to alleviate these problems by maintaining the annotation tools and the proofing file on the printer's server. These systems are designed as an extension of the print provider's production workflow, which means users are viewing an exact replica of the file your printer will use to create the plates. Multiple users can log in simultaneously, which blends the advantages of real-time proofing with the peace of mind of viewing your actual production file.

The collaborative proofing environment can be accessed through a browser-based interface that lets you view the file as it sits on the printer's server. This eliminates the need to download a software package containing annotation tools, though a high-speed Internet connection is almost mandatory. For users who still need to hold a proof in their hands, most browser-based solutions let you download a PDF file.

Though these solutions let you view and proof almost any aspect of a printed piece, collaborative soft-proofing technology has limitations. For example, backups, fold placement and other print finishing details remain the domain of hard proofing, where printed samples can be manually inspected.

What about variable data? For many direct marketers, the ability to perform online proofing of variable data applications would be the Holy Grail of time savings. But there really aren't any out-of-the-box solutions that can handle this easily and seamlessly yet.

Most direct mail print providers still conduct the proofing of variable data elements via hard-copy proofs. A few printing and mail providers are experimenting with Web-enabled variable-data proofing using live records, but the technology is in its infancy.

Today's soft-proofing technology is a boon for printers and marketers in terms of time and cost savings. The key is to find a solution and technology that you're comfortable using regularly. Those with limited Internet bandwidth and plenty of experience with computers may prefer a software-based solution, while marketers with dozens of networked workstations may be better served with a browser-based option. Whichever you choose, collaborative soft-proofing technology will help you work smarter and faster.

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