happy accidents

Francis Ford Coppola said, “Art is partly being available to accidents that fall into your lap.” I agree. I have experienced some of these seemingly lucky accidents while printing, through something called make-readies.

Make-ready sheets are something that are most likely as old as printing itself. When setting up a press and adjusting details like ink levels and paper alignment, it is wasteful to use precious blank paper. As a practical measure, printed sheets that have been used to set up previous print jobs are used for this part of the process, again and again. These are called make-readies.

This printed sheet’s history started three years ago as a notecard. It was then used to test a print of a Shew Design idea book cover, and finally Chocolate Necessities chocolate bar wrappers were printed on top last week while setting up the print run.

This overlap of inks and shapes can often create printed sheets that are quite beautiful. If you’re lucky, a few are worth pulling and hanging up on your inspiration board. If you’re really lucky, the overprinted inks, shapes and impressions solve a design problem or spark a creative idea for a new project.

Colors and textures often overlap in interesting and unexpected ways.


Testing how text reads printed over multiple colors can be a useful reference for future projects.

The world of make-readies is not made up entirely of accidents, however. This part of the printing process is a great chance to experiment with paper and ink combinations. Want to know what light blue looks like on a burnt orange paper stock? What it looks like overlapping a green ink? Ending a print run and having a chance to use the plates and ink that are on the press at the moment is a great time to experiment with other projects in mind.

Chocolate bar wrappers for Chocolate Necessities were printed on a soft white paper.
Thinking ahead for future projects, kraft paper was used at the end of the print run so see how a natural paper stock would interact with the colors and design. Being able to show the client these samples – actual inks on actual paper – is invaluable.

Make-readies are really about the experience of printing and strange harmonies that emerge when you put two unrelated things on top another. As a printer, they give me the opportunity to try out some unusual combinations of colors and impressions and I feel more confident about taking on unusual jobs. I’m also struck by how paper interacts with design. Again and again.

Paradoxically, I save the creative make-ready aspects of the project for the end of a print run – the desert of sorts. What traditional printers would initially do and throw away is now considered the heart of a print project. Happy accidents, indeed.

Eric Shew is a graphic designer and front end developer living in Bellingham, Washington.

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