Care and Feeding of the Creative Proof

Everyone in the direct response industry understands the importance of creative excellence and accuracy in the printed pieces and Web pages we produce. A lot rides on every finished piece, especially in the quantities most of us work in.

Yet we’ve all been bitten by the costly reprint job or the dissatisfied client or product manager. Or at least by a sense that a piece could have been better “if only …” In a competitive industry like ours, dull creative and outright mistakes can cost more than money. They can cost an agency its clients or a catalog its profitability.

So how does this happen?

I’m convinced that errors, whether of judgment or of spelling, are seldom a systemic problem. Most of us have in place well-documented trafficking procedures, along with a traffic manager, to ensure that every piece is signed off on by the appropriate people at the appropriate times.

But a traffic manager is like the conductor on a train. The conductor can make sure all the passengers have their tickets punched and their baggage on board, but he cannot look inside our bags to see whether we remembered to pack an overcoat for the cold weather ahead.

In the same manner, your traffic manager can ensure all the proper initials are on the routing slip, but he cannot know whether the new pricing has been entered on page 36 or whether the dimensions of the Canadian postcard have been changed.

Those kinds of determinations are up to the individuals who handle the proof. And too often, while account execs, proofreaders and product managers can quote chapter and verse of traffic procedures, they never have really been trained in the proper way to handle a proof.

So if we don’t want to find ourselves out in the cold, we’d better pack that overcoat and learn to give each proof the proper care and feeding it deserves.

First, know that understanding our common goals for a proof is far more important than how it is routed. This is especially true when the process breaks down or is purposefully circumvented. We’ve all had rush projects that need to skip a step or two. And many of us still struggle to accommodate Web page production in a proofing process that’s designed to handle print.

At these times, only an understanding of the whys and wherefores of proofing can ensure that we don’t fail in our duties.

We are not alone. The most common error people make when proofing is not being cognizant of the tasks that lay ahead for the people on the receiving end of the proof. If we get familiar with their jobs and how they do it, we’ll know whether the information we’re giving them will be sufficient to take the proof to the next stage without having to come back to us for clarification.

You may wish to discuss the proofing process with your colleagues up and down the line to ensure you meet each other’s needs.

A proof belongs to no one. When we create, we essentially are building something for someone else: the recipient. That means subordinating our own tastes and preferences to theirs.

We can’t do that by marking up proofs with comments that reflect our personal preferences. Instead, think in terms of what the audience needs from the piece. A proof should reflect our organization’s total wealth of knowledge about our prospects and customers: what would most appeal to them and what would incite them to respond.

Empower your creative team to act upon suggested changes that move toward a better piece, but to rebut changes that merely reflect personal tastes.

A proof is one giant question mark. And as we all learned in our youth, it’s impolite to answer a question with a question. So please do not ask questions on the proof.

We can assume that all proofing marks that end in a question mark will be ignored. If we have a question about a product, we should not be asking our art director. If we need to know the cost of photos or where copy points came from, ask separately. It is unproductive for someone to stop in the middle of making changes to run down answers to questions. And asking separately gives us a trackable paper trail should we need it.

Marks on a proof should do one thing only: enable immediate action toward producing the next proof or finished piece.

Above all, remember that a proof is a group effort, not an individual work of art. Every proof of every job represents your group’s best solution for a successful piece and needs to be treated with the respect it deserves.

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