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Professional Grade: The Proof is in the Proofing

Learn about the importance of the printing industry’s last line of checks and balances to ensure that everything is printed correctly.


June 21, 2023

“That’s the wrong image and that's the wrong spot!”

Have you ever sent an order to a professional for something you’ve created, only for it to turn out not exactly — or worse, completely different — as you intended? In commercial printing there is, thankfully, a mechanism to minimize, if not eliminate, such a potentially catastrophic predicament: Proofing.

Proofing is a professional printer's method of a one-off rendering of the art files you submitted, using their tools and equipment, for the purpose of ensuring that everything will come out as you intended. The rendered image is then presented to you for review and approval before the actual final print run.

If mistakes or discrepancies are spotted, the files can be corrected, either by you (if it was an oversight on your original file) or by the printer (if it was a result of their process). New proofs should then be provided. Only after a proof reflects everything as they should be, shall it get an approval from you.

The proof approval creates a type of contract between you and the printer. In the sense that it will be the document to which all parties will refer should a dispute arise relating to mistakes or discrepancies in the final delivered product. As such, your approvals shoudl never be just verbal.

There are two main types of proofs: digital and physical. Correspondingly approvals are signified either by replying to digital communication or, in the case of physical proofs, your signature.

There are two main types of proofs: Electronic and Hard Copy.

Eletronic Proof

As the term implies, an electronic proof — also called soft proof, online proof, or virtual proof — is rendered and delivered electronically. The electronic (or digital) document — the most common type of which is Portable Document Format (PDF) — is reviewed on a computer monitor.

Image of digital proof on browser
A digital proof viewed on a browser via a proofing portal.

While it is in every sense a digital item, the term 'digital proof' is generally not used for electronic proofs due to the confusion that might arise from the digital printing method employed in producing some hard copy proofs. With extremely few exceptions, the electronic document that serves as proof is the one that will be used in the final print run.

Being a digital document, it can be sent, accessed and viewed by email, portable drive, or website. Accordingly, clients can and do respond via the same means. These factors, along with the absence of the extra process and expense of printing, as well as leaps in computer monitor and electronic screen technology, make soft proofing an economical, convenient and expeditious option. Indeed, within the last half decade or so, it has increasingly become the preferred choice of both clients and printers.

Hard Copy Proof

A hard copy proof is a printed version of your art files. As opposed to a virtual proof, hard copy proof is a physical document produced by a professional printer. Before the advent of computers and the internet, it had been, in different forms, the only proofing method.

In the modern age (from the last half of the previous century onward), hard copy proofing technology has evolved from single color blue lines, then color contact prints, culminating today in full color digital prints.

Whereas the older methods of reproduction and rendering were confined to varying media such as treated paper (in the case of blue lines), or clear film (four-color proofs) with the images limited in sharpness and resolution, digital printing on paper, with its incredible technological advancements and attainment of critical mass (thereby dramatically reducing cost and unencumbered by the aforementioned limitations) has now become — at least for any reputable professional printer — the standard. This also allows for varying degrees of intricacy or precision. Each one having their corresponsponding cost and production time.

Image of blueline proof
How the orignal old method blueline proof would have looked.

Image of full color proof
A modern full color hard copy proof.

The most basic is a sheet (or sheets depending on the number of pages) on which the pages are arranged as they would go through and come out from the press. While one of the most intricate is, in the case of mulit-books, actually binding binding the entire book and cutting it to the actual size — a full printed mock-up.

What to Look for in a Proof

Is each part and the entire document recreated in the exact same size as you specified?

Are all the pictures, illustrations and other graphics elements where they should be? Positioned, sized, and angled as originally laid out? Are any images cut or unintentionally cropped?

It is always a good idea to do another round of proofreading. First, because the printer might have inadvertently done something to change the layout thereby deleting some text, but also because sometimes, we catch typos and grammatical errors only when viewing our work rendered by another party.

Are all the pages in chronological order?

Are all text shown in the corresponding fonts you assigned? Fonts may appear differently from one software — and hardware — system to another. There is also the possibility that the printer may not have the font installed in their computers. For these reasons, it is always a good idea to include fonts you used in your file submission.

Being mindful of the fact that colors appear differently on print as opposed to electronic devices, are those of all the graphic elements the same as you designed? If the basic colors are correct, are they acceptably close in tone and richness?

Assuming you supplied high-resolution images, do they all appear sharp relative to the original? It is important to note that, whereas printed images — needing at least, 300dpi to be sharp — will show the true resolution, screen images — needing only 72dpi to look sharp — might trick you into thinking that they will appear as crisp on paper. For this reason, you should ask your printer the proper image magnification percentage at which to view the electric proof to see the true resolution when printed.


In a perfect world, all proofs would be error free. While some proofs are without mistakes, a good number are not. Aside from the usual culprits such as typos, and image color and resolution, errors also may arise from miscommunication or unfamiliarity. As a leading national manufacturer of custom presentation folders, we see this a lot. Often, a client will place text or images in the lower fourth of a folders inside panel, unaware of the fact that it will be covered when the pockets fold up and glued,

Image of folder inside panels unassembled
An unassembled folder's inside panels with text placed where pockets will be folded up and glued.

Image of folder inside panels pockets glued
Same folder above, now with pockets folded up and glued. Text is acovered and only partially visible.

For these and many other reasons you may not have considered, you should always, demand a proof from your printer. That way, your project will come out perfectly, as you designed it.