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Printing Registration: A Key Factor in High-Quality Printing

The word Registration printed twice. First clearly and then blurry.

What is Print Registration?

In the world of printing, Registration (also known as Register) refers to the alignment of ink colors and other elements on a printed piece. When everything is aligned properly, the printing is said to be "In Register." When not aligned properly, the printing is said to be "Out of Register" or "Not in Register."

Registration is a very important factor in print production. If the placement of ink colors is out of register, even slightly, images and text can appear fuzzy and blurred, or exhibit a halo effect. Sometimes a sliver of the underlying paper color will even appear where it doesn't belong if an impression of ink doesn't provide color in the right spot.

In addition to the ink colors, design elements such as foil stamping or embossing must also be in proper register with any printed images or text they are intended to enhance. Even though these premium features are used to provide an air of distinction, the finished piece will be perceived as unprofessional and second-rate if their positioning is not in register.

Needless to say, precise registration is a prerequisite for high-quality printing. Achieving the proper registration requires careful set-up and calibration of the printing equipment, as well as frequent monitoring during the production process.

Three Marilyn Monroe Postage Stamps
TOP: Example of postage stamps with inks printed out of Register, BOTTOM: Same postage stamp with inks printed in Register

Reasons why precise Registration is so important in Printing…

Multiple Ink Colors must align with each other

CMYK printing is the industry standard for producing full-color printing. CMYK printing uses only four ink colors - Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black. These four ink colors are applied to the paper surface as tiny dots. As the paper travels through the press, the four colors of ink dots are applied in successive layers to gradually build full-color images on the paper.

In order to create images that are clear and distinct, each layer of ink dots has to be applied in the correct position relative to the other colors. Proper registration ensures that all the ink colors align perfectly, resulting in final images that are sharp and well-defined.

Offset presses and digital presses both use the CMYK process. Because offset printing is a mechanical operation that requires printing plates to make impression after impression with pinpoint accuracy, it requires meticulous calibration to ensure the printing is clear and sharp. On the other hand, digital printing does not use printing plates, so maintaining the proper register of the ink colors is less of a concern.

By the way, Pantone ink colors (also known as PMS colors or "Spot" colors) are sometimes used as standalone colors or in combination with the CMYK ink colors. Though Pantone colors are applied as solid blocks of color and not as dots, any time multiple ink colors are used on a print project - whether CMYK or Pantone - the relative positioning of the ink colors needs to be maintained.

Ink Colors must align with other Design Elements

Many print projects have various enhancements applied to the printing surface in addition to the ink. Popular examples include foil stamping, die-cuts, embossed or debossed areas, and spot UV applications. These special finishing techniques are frequently used to create interest and draw attention to printed pieces.

Of course, it is important that these enhancements are in register with any printing that appears on the piece. For example, if an embossing die is used to raise a printed design, it must hit the design perfectly. Likewise, if a spot UV coating is applied over printed images or text, it will be subject to a tight tolerance to ensure it is placed correctly.

Ink Colors and/or Design Elements must align with the Substrate

In addition to being aligned accurately with each other, the ink colors and other design elements must be in register with the actual printing surface. Everything should print in the location dictated by the original artwork, not shift up or down or side to side on the sheet.

Misalignment of the rollers or other components within the press can cause registration issues involving the paper. Fortunately, skilled press operators, regular maintenance, and careful adjustments can rectify most paper-related issues and return the press to high-quality production.

The Multiple Parts of Carbonless Forms must align with each other

Carbonless forms, also called NCR forms, are multi-part forms that can be filled out by hand, or used with an impact printer or typewriter, to create two, three, or more copies of a document. Carbonless forms are commonly used for invoices, receipts, estimates, contracts, and other business documents where duplicate copies are needed.

Each ply of the form is preprinted with the same layout, usually with checkboxes and fillable fields that prompt for the required information. As the information is imprinted on the topmost sheet, micro-capsules of dye break open and are released onto each subsequent ply. This creates duplicate copies of the information that was entered onto the topmost sheet.

Once filled out, each ply can be easily separated and distributed to the relevant people or departments. Each ply is often colored differently to distinguish them from one another.

Because the sheets are stacked together as a unit, the boxes and fields printed on each ply have to be in perfect register with each other. This is so the information transfers to each subsequent ply in the same relative position as the topmost ply. Registration is important because otherwise the subsequent parts of an out-of-register form can be difficult to interpret if the original printing on the form overlaps any of the content that was added.

Two registration marks
LEFT: Registration Mark showing the four CMYK ink colors are Out of Register. RIGHT: Registration Mark showing the four CMYK ink colors are in perfect Register.

What are Registration Marks?

Registration marks are small shapes, like crosshairs, lines, or grids, that serve as reference points to help accurately align the different ink colors used during print production. Registration marks print on the same sheet as the project's actual layout but are placed in areas that will be removed during the final trimming of the printed pieces.

Just like the actual pieces being printed, registration marks are printed in successive layers of each ink color used on the project. Each color is printed at a concentration of 100%. In the case of CMYK printing, the registration marks are printed using 100% Cyan, 100% Magenta, 100% Yellow and 100% Black. These four ink colors print as four layers in the exact same spot, thus forming the registration mark.

If the registration is set correctly, the registration mark will appear as a sharp image in one single color - Black (this is known as Registration Black because it uses 100% of all four CMYK colors). Conversely, if the registration is not correct, the Cyan, Magenta, and/or Yellow ink colors will also be visible and the press will require adjustments to bring the four inks into register.

See the corresponding illustration for an example of a registration mark showing the inks to be out of register as well as a registration mark showing the inks to be in perfect register. In case you are wondering, some presses require registration adjustments to be performed by the press operator and other presses have built-in registration systems that can make the necessary adjustments automatically.

Let Color Vision assist with your next Print Project!

The goal of commercial printing is to create high-quality prints that are very visually appealing. Whether the project is a 2-color business card or a 400-page CMYK catalog, Registration plays a vital role in the quality of the finished product.

Since our founding in 1984, Color Vision has built a reputation for offering quality printing at very affordable prices. We're also known for our friendly and helpful service. As a full-service commercial printer, we can help with just about any kind of printing need you might have.

So whether you're looking to print books, magazines, catalogs, comic books, brochures, postcards, calendars, or any other type of custom printing, give us a call at 800-543-6299 to discuss your project. Or, use our simple Quote Request form to send us your specifications and we will be happy to email a quote to you.

As always, we look forward to hearing from you and hope to assist with your next print project!

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