Ask an Expert Questions and Answers

My newspaper’s black isn’t black enough. What do I do?

Question: My black isn’t black enough. That is to say, I wanted to do a fancy-schmancy reverse for my front cover, a film noir look about two detectives who solved a crime, but when the paper came back from the printer the black background was actually quite grayish. I’m told it has something to do with dot gain. The page proof looked sharp on my computer, just not on news print.

Answer: The answer to getting a smooth, crisp, rich black display on newsprint can be very simple or very complicated.

The simple answer: Ask your printer.

The variables of printing on newsprint are numerous. Quality can depend on the weight and brightness of the newsprint, composition of ink, water acidity, plate and blanket quality, number of copies in the run, prepress production and the characteristics of a particular press. Your printer should know her press well enough to give you the proper workflow to achieve the best quality solid black she can print.

The complicated answer: If the printer doesn’t know how to do this, you will have to figure it out yourself.

Tips and guidelines for complicated answer:

  • Your printed product will never look as good as the digital proof, pdf or production page on your computer screen. Your print product is printed on paper with four layers of ink applied on top of each other. Your computer screen projects three colors of light that are pure, intense and directed straight into the human eye. The reflective colors of the printed page will never reproduce the illumination of the screen. Focus on your printed product and keep print samples of color and design treatments that are successful.
  • Don’t expect the products printed on your press to look like the final product of others. You can compare newspapers and ask what you need to do to yield similar results, but another paper’s workflow, standards and capabilities will usually contain significant differences, ones which your printer cannot duplicate. It is similar to cutting cardboard in a straight line. Both scissors and a utility knife will cut, but a utility knife and a metal straightedge will cut straighter and faster. Focus on your printed product and the tools you have to work with.
  • A large, pure 100 percent black area can cause some press challenges. Sometimes it does not look black enough because a portion of the ink has been absorbed into the paper and loses its intensity, cannot be absorbed further and smears on the surface or prints with whitish strands due to a press blanket that is picking up loose fibers from the newsprint. You can try different/better ink, different/better paper or clean the press. If you have no control over the materials that are used in the operation, you may have to be satisfied that your press can only print a dark gray.
  • “Dot gain” refers to how much a halftone dot grows in diameter when printed. Depending on the press, a halftone dot can grow up to 30 percent when printed on newsprint. Some designers achieve a smoother black by selecting 80, 85, 90, or 95 percent black rather than 100 and let the dot gain flood the area uniformly.
  • “Rich black” refers to a black that is composed of cyan, magenta, yellow and sometimes black. It offers a richer, darker black but yields “0” forgiveness for poor registration and will make any reversed type a challenge to print and read. Avoid rich black on newsprint, especially if you are reversing out type.
  • A few designers have found that adding 15 – 30 percent cyan to a 90 – 95 percent black can often yield a darker black. It takes time and consistent prepress and printing to allow for testing, but once you find the right percentages you will have a great approach to use in your page designs.

Whether you are fortunate enough to be successful with the simple solution, or have no other choice than to go experimenting on your own, you should always rely on the knowledge and experience of you printer.

Ask an Expert Questions and Answers Software

My Adobe Illustrator program will not let me save files as .ai (Illustrator) files. I get an “unknown error” message every time that I try to save that way. Help?

When it comes to software and hardware problems I always try to find a short-term action and a long-term strategy.

Short-term Action

What you describe indicates it is most likely a preferences problem.

Somehow, over a period of time, the preferences file has been corrupted and you will need to either delete/recreate the preferences folder or reset the preferences.

This situation can also occur with other Adobe CS products.

The reset option will help those programs too.

The options below cover the reset/delete preferences process for both Mac and Windows OS.

There can be small differences between CS2, CS3 and CS4, but the basics are the same.

If this does not solve the problem, uninstalling and reinstalling the program might work.

On rare occasions, the non-save function and error message you received can be attributed to pirated or incompatible fonts. Swapping out fonts you know are legal and dependable might also solve the problem.

For the Mac

Option 1

  1. Save and close Illustrator.
  2. Open the Finder and then go to Go > Home > Preferences.
  3. Look for a folder named Adobe Illustrator CS2, CS3 or CS4 settings.
  4. Look in this folder for the Adobe Illustrator Prefs file. Trash this file.
  5. Empty the trash
  6. Restart Illustrator. Reset any custom preferences and close Illustrator. The preferences file should be recreated.

Option 2

  1. Hold down Shift + Command + Option + Control when opening the program.
  2. If you get a dialog asking if you want to delete the settings folder, select, “yes.”
  3. Restart Illustrator. Reset any custom preferences and close Illustrator. The preferences file should be recreated.

Option 3

  1. In some versions of Illustrator, choosing a custom workspace you have saved under Window>Workspace will reset the program preferences. In other versions you can select Default or Basic. Sometimes, just saving a new workspace will reset the preferences.

For Windows XP

Option 1

  1. Save your work and close Illustrator. Double click on My Computer on your desktop and open C:>Documents and Settings > User >Application Data > Adobe > Adobe Illustrator CS2, CS3 or CS4 Settings. In this folder trash the file named AIPrefs. Empty the trash.
  2. Restart Illustrator. Reset any custom preferences and close Illustrator. The preferences file should be recreated.

Option 2

  1. Hold down Shift + Control + Alt when opening the program.
  2. If you get a dialog asking if you want to delete the settings folder, select, “yes.”
  3. Restart Illustrator. Reset any custom preferences and close Illustrator. The preferences file should be recreated.

Option 3

  1. In some versions of Illustrator, choosing a custom workspace you have saved under Window>Workspace will reset the program preferences. In some versions you can select Default or Basic. Even saving a new Workspace will reset the preferences.

Important note for Windows users

If you have problems finding the AIPrefs file, do an Advanced Options search for AIPrefs with the “Search hidden files and folders” option checked. Trash the AIPrefs it locates.

Long-term strategy

It’s also important to develop a long-term strategy to deal with software issues. See Broc’s related blog post on that topic.



Troubleshooting software problems calls for patience, creativity and a solution … usually on deadline

Developing a troubleshooting system that can be the basis for all software emergencies is crucial.

It is fundamentally a set of trial and error steps that eliminates problems one by one. Be as creative with those steps as you are with your designs. The more you eliminate, the closer you are to finding a solution.

10 Tips for creating your own software troubleshooting system

  1. Write down your operating system (Windows XP, Mac Leopard, etc.), the version of software you are using (CS2, CS3, etc.) and the exact nature of your problem. It helps to see this in type and it gives you a great reference point later when you are searching for help on the Web or talking with someone about the problem.
  2. Turn the machine off, then on.
  3. Close the program and launch it again. I know steps two and three sound way too simple, but at times, simple works!
  4. Reset or delete preferences for the program.
  5. Try to work with the file on another machine. Certain problems travel with the file, others prefer to take up residence on the machine.
  6. Confirm what the software program still does correctly. In the above case, I would see what other formats I could save it in. It might help identify a particular pattern, i.e. vector images work, raster images do not; color works, black and white will not.
  7. Eliminate elements. Will the process work with type only? With images only? Again, you are trying to find clues.
  8. If there is a font problem, try changing to a different font. If it will work with a different font you might end up reinstalling fonts and/or deleting corrupt packages.
  9. Search for help on the Web. Don’t get disappointed and give up if you don’t find the answer to your problem immediately. Look for similar problems, key words, etc. that create a trail to your solution.
    For example, to confirm my suspicions on an Illustrator problem I started with the search: “Adobe Illustrator will not save .ai , unknown error” and found several forum and discussion threads on Adobe forums and tech sites.
    As I read and searched further, I found I needed more info and added terms i.e. Mac, Windows, preferences, etc. This is where the reference information I wrote down in step one helped speed my searches along.
  10. Post a help request with a discussion group or thread. You can often register with a forum or help group for free and post your question. Be specific and give as much information as possible. On some sites, help can arrive in less than an hour. On other sites, it might take days for someone to volunteer information.

If all else fails, call a friend, a colleague or a stranger.

It might surprise you to find out that they have faced the same problem and are more than happy to help you through the crisis.

What might be even more surprising: One day these folks may call you back for assistance with their software problems.

Helpful links

Ask an Expert Questions and Answers

My headlines just don’t work. What can I do?

The most frequent problem brought to me by news editors at design workshops is how to manage the headlines on their front page.

Editors often comment, “Headlines just don’t work on my 1A.” A few will admit, “I even tried using four different headline fonts on my pages and stories still didn’t pop out.”

I understand their frustration. The situation is especially trying when editors are not only trying to make the page look good but also create a more comfortable experience for their readers.

Working with type is challenging for folks who have no formal training in design or little time to find out what works by trial and error. I compensate for those gaps by suggesting three guidelines for working with type.

Simplicity and Contrast

The more headline fonts on a page, the more confusion for the reader.

There should be one font for headlines on the page.

That font should have a personality that reflects your news philosophy and a bold, regular and italic version. Use that contrasting weight and posture to guide the reader.

The bold version is used for news stories that require prominence and impact, the lighter version for other stories. The italic and lighter versions can be used for feature stories. Those versions can also be used for “decks”, the longer, smaller headlines you strip under a story’s main head.

Most software programs include a package of fonts that use selections in a style menu (the “B” and “i” buttons”) to mechanically convert the font to bold and italic. That is satisfactory for most news editors.

But, if you are more selective, you can purchase a font that contains the true bold and italic fonts. These fonts are more distinctive and might even have an extra-bold and light version of the headline font.

A single headline font unifies the page.

Contrast guides the reader.

Hierarchy and Contrast

The more headlines of similar weight and size that appear on a page, the more confusion for the reader.

Editors should establish a hierarchy as to what type of stories appear in certain positions on the front page and establish a schedule as to the headline size and weight those positions will display.


The most important story of the day goes into position one or position two in the top half of the page and will always have a bold headline that ranges from 60 – 80 points. It can also carry a deck head below it in regular weight that is 30 point. The second most important story goes into position three or four in the middle of the page and has a regular headline that ranges from 42 – 48 points and can have a deck head below it that is 24 point.

As you move down page, the headlines get lighter and smaller.

As you move down page, the content of the stories gets lighter and has less impact.

The editor is grading the stories for the reader.

The theory is that the reader will scan the page and gather a sense of what is more important by the weight and size of the headline. The eye reads in clusters and recognizes the proximity of type, photos and text as an individual package.

The more contrast and space between these packages, the more distinct each becomes.

Hierarchy grades the importance of stories on the page.

Contrast guides the reader.

Discipline and Contrast

Once an editor has hierarchy established, she has to stick to it. A headline schedule of position, weight and size is useless if it is compromised every other edition.

The challenge for the headline writer is to write the headline to fit the schedule, not fit the headline into the layout.
Quality headline writing is a combination of science and art.

There is a certain number and combination of characters that fit into a two-column, two-line, 48-point bold headline. That is the science.

Crafting a 48-point headline that attracts the reader, tells the story and fits within that two-column width is the art.

I’ve had editors tell me that their headline schedule doesn’t work. As we dig into the reasons, it is often because headlines are written first and someone is changing its weight and size so it fits into the space, regardless of what the headline schedule indicates.

Soon, 60-point bold headlines are scaled down to 48 regular heads and 36-point heads are boosted to 42. Elsewhere, 48-point heads are reduced to 42 and 24-point heads enlarged to 30. Repeat that a few more times and the headline schedule that ranged from 18 point to 72 suddenly has a range from 30 point to 48. There is not much difference in the size or impact of those headlines. There is not much contrast.

I’ll be the first one to agree: It is very, very hard to write headlines to fit. But the Thesaurus is a valuable ally in making the job less stressful.

Having the discipline to follow the headline schedule will not only produce a better page but also make one a better headline writer with a greater variety of words to employ and an understanding of the power in their placement.

Discipline establishes form and confidence.

Contrast guides the reader.

Following these guidelines will not only help an editor feel like her typography is more successful but also give the page structure and organization.

I believe you have to guide the reader through your pages every day and can never train the reader to think the way an editor thinks. However, one can establish a routine through which the reader finds certain types of stories in certain positions and develops a comfort factor with your pages.

And, hopefully, that comfort will bring the reader back to your pages on a regular (read here: home subscription!) basis.