The Designer’s Hardware


No design is complete until it is in print. There are several types of printer, but as an in-house designer, there are four basic types of printers you should consider. Each technology has its purpose – many designers own two or three printers. In the ideal design office, you would have a high-resolution laser to print color separations and monochrome documents and a dye sublimation printer for color printing and proofs.

One thing to remember is that you may find it impossible to match colors on screen to colors in print. What you can see, display, and print are each different color ranges. In-house designers should always work with this fact in mind. This is one reason it is best to use only small amounts of color.

Computer screens and televisions create colors on a black screen by adding colors via directed beams of light. These beams activate phosphors of red, green, and blue. Printers, on the other hand, use four colors of ink on white paper. These colors are cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. Due to these different color creation techniques, the screen can never match print perfectly.

Laser Printers

Once considered a luxury, most businesses now use laser printers for most printing tasks. The only major exception is for business uses requiring multi-part forms. Even the lowest resolution laser printers produce good, sharp black and white pages.

Laser printers use the same basic technologies as most photocopiers. A photo-sensitive drum is exposed to light from either a controlled beam of light or a row of light-emitting diodes (LEDs). This light exposure creates a static charge, attracting oppositely charged toner particles. This static attraction is one reason toner is so hard to remove from clothing. Paper is then moved across the drum via a series of rollers.

As the paper moves over the drum, the toner is transferred to the page. If you have ever had a printer jam at this point, you know the toner has not been melted to the page – it just rubs off when touched. A heating element is located just past the image drum. This heating element melts the wax-like toner, causing it to adhere to the paper.


The popularity of laser printers and improvements in LED technologies have resulted in rapidly falling prices. There is no reason for any designer, especially a home-business owner, not to own a low-cost laser printer.

The lowest-priced laser printers produce images at 300 dots-per-inch. For most uses, 300dpi is quite suitable. Because laser printers produce dots precisely, a 300dpi laser printed document is superior to a 360dpi ink image.

For just a few dollars more, you can purchase a 300-by-600 printer or even a 600-by-600 laser printer. At 600dpi, laser output is better than the print quality of most newspapers.


If you are going to be sending a number of documents to commercial presses, then you need a high-resolution laser printer. For commercial printing, generally the lowest resolution of master output is 1000dpi. More commonly, commercial printers will request output of at least 1200dpi.

These higher resolutions are needed due to several factors. The primary concern of commercial presses, however, is that ink bleeds. No matter how good a press and its operator are, ink is a liquid. As a result, the final product is always slightly less than the original output used to make the printing plates.

A number of high-resolution laser printers are available. While some 800dpi printers are labeled “high-resolution” by their manufacturers, do not consider a printer without at least true 1200dpi output. Be careful, you do not want “near-1200” or “enhanced to 1200” output.

Our dream printer is a high-resolution printer capable of 2400dpi output on tabloid-size paper. A tabloid printer can handle paper 11 inches wide and 17 inches long. These sheets, folded in half, are ideal for newsletters and catalogs. Unfolded, you can send them to a commercial printer and publish your own tabloid newspaper.


High-quality color laser printers are still expensive, costing more than $2000 and usually closer to $5000. Also, the resolution still has a bit of improving to do. The most popular color laser printers have resolutions of 600dpi.

Inexpensive color laser printers are $1000, but the cost of consumables tends to be higher. Also, the quality is seldom good enough for serious work.

A color laser is still a good buy for quick, reasonably sharp, color documents. We would limit ourselves to spot color in documents intended for final output on a laser printer. Spot color is the use of solid colors, without special effects.

Liquid Ink

Liquid ink printers are often known by their trademarked names: the Hewlett-Packard InkJets and the Cannon BubbleJets. The term ink jet is becoming a general name for all such printers.

Ink jet printers work by heating up liquid ink to a boiling point. The bubbles are directed through nozzles, aimed at the paper. The technology is fairly simple and inexpensive.

Inexpensive Color

If you need inexpensive color output, a liquid ink printer is the most affordable approach. The quality, especially when using coated papers, is quite amazing. Just be sure to purchase a liquid ink printer that uses the standard four colors for output. Some cheaper models use only three colors, mixing them to produce black. The result is a slight green shadow around black items.

Wide Format

Ink jet printers are well suited to large format printing. A poster-sized laser printer would be prohibitively expensive. However, a wide ink jet requires a only wider carriage and no new technologies or re-engineering of the ink cartridges.

Poster width liquid ink printers draw paper from a roll, allowing for various page lengths. There are even a few wide-width printers capable of handling paper several yards in width.

Wax and Solid Ink

Most wax printers produce output that is only slightly better than liquid ink. Considering the higher costs, we generally do not recommend these printers. If you have to have better output than liquid ink can provide, save up and purchase a dye sublimation printer.

Dye Sublimation

For in-house color documents and proofs, nothing beats the quality of dye sublimation printers. Then again, no other printers cost as much for the same sized output – unless you price very large high speed laser printers.

Inexpensive Quality

There are a number of inexpensive dye sublimation printers. Many of these support a thermal wax mode, as well. This allows you to print a less expensive wax proof before spending up to five dollars for a dye page.

Photographic Quality

Once you see the output from a dye sublimation printer, you will start putting pennies into a jar.

Printer Comparison

  Laser Liquid Ink Wax Dye
Letter, legal, or tabloid Up to several feet wide Letter, legal, or tabloid Letter, legal, or tabloid
Resolution 300dpi (entry)
600–800dpi (mid-range)
1200dpi+ (high)
300–360dpi (entry)
600–720dpi (mid-range)
Speed Black: 4–20 ppm
Color: 1–6 ppm
Mono Quality Excellent Good Poor Good
Color Quality Poor to Good. Prone to banding, dithering. Good. Visually better than many cheap lasers, due to liquid ink blurs.

Good. Depending on technology, can be better than Liquid ink. Excellent. Nothing comes close to the smooth shades and blends.
Hidden Costs Additional RAM Coated paper for best output Additional RAM Additional RAM, internal hard drive
Cost/Letter Page Black: .02–.05
Color: .25–.60
Entry Unit $400 $350    
Mid Unit Mono: $2000
Color: $4000
High-End Unit Mono: $4000
Color: $6000

Scanners and Digital Imaging

Two methods allow you to incorporate images into your documents: scanning and digital imaging. Scanners work with flat, two-dimensional images. Digital cameras let you take pictures just like normal photography. In fact, many digital cameras use a great deal of traditional camera equipment. Advanced digital imaging uses video cameras and other full-motion sources.


We cannot imagine life without a flatbed scanner. While it is possible to design excellent layouts with a computer and printer, a scanner adds a great deal of flexibility. Scanners allow you to include photographs, original artwork, and signatures in your documents.

Handheld and Sheetfeed Scanners

Quite bluntly, we despise handheld scanners. They are difficult to align, hard to control, and never wide enough for the images you happen to want scanned. The only real use for handheld scanners is to copy business cards and similar items.

Sheetfeed scanners are only marginally better than handheld devices. Sheetfeed scanners resemble facsimile machines. You insert a piece of paper through a gap, and then a traction roller moves the page past photo sensors. Books, magazines, and other documents have to be torn apart or photocopied before they can be scanned.

Flatbed Scanners

Think of a flatbed scanner as a super copier. Anything that can be placed into a copier, can be scanned with a flatbed scanner. The major benefit of a flatbed scanner is that the source image remains in place. This static position ensures straight, consistent scans.

A scanners resolution is measured in dots per inch, just as a printer’s resolution is measured. Color scanner resolutions are sometimes referred to in pixels per inch, but it is the same measure. When buying a flatbed scanner, look for the highest optical resolution. Some scanners ship with software that interpolates – a fancy way to estimate – higher resolutions.

Slide Scanners

Slide scanners generally have the best quality of any desktop scanners. The drawback is that slide scanners are just that – slide scanners. Unless the desired image is on a slide, you are out of luck. Some slide scanners support photographic negatives, which helps a bit.

Newspapers and magazines are purchasing an increasing number of negative-slide scanners. The major benefit is that the only darkroom process required is preparing negatives. Printing from negatives adds a step where things can go wrong. Printing is also expensive. A slide scanner saves a lot of money and time.

Digital Imaging

Scanning is obviously a great tool. For most in-house designers, it is the ideal way to include photographs in documents. However, there are some businesses in which photos are an integral part of documents. In these cases, digital photography may prove to be more cost effective and easier than scanning.

Still Cameras

Several companies now market reasonably priced digital cameras. These cameras resemble 35mm instamatic cameras. Canon and Sony both have near-SLR cameras available for less than $1000. In fact, it is possible to find good digital cameras on sale for less than $300.

If you will be doing in-house design for a real estate or auto related business, one of these cameras would be a great buy. After taking photos, you attach the camera to your computer via a serial cable. Software included with the camera transfers the images to your computer’s hard drive.

More expensive cameras include their own disk drives. One camera developed jointly by Kodak and Nikkon includes a removable hard drive, which can be inserted into most new laptop computers. This camera uses standard Nikkon lenses, making it ideal for experienced photographers.

Video Input

Recently, video input came within the reach of in-house designers. Prices have fallen enough that, for just a few thousand dollars, video images can be captured and stored on a hard drive. While we are only discussing print documents, you might find some of the other digital video capabilities enticing.

Most video capture boards have an S-VHS input. You feed any output device into the port. Video is then displayed on screen. When you see a video frame you want to capture, you simple save the image to a file. In effect, the video playback device replaces a scanner or digital still camera.

Digitizer Tablets

A digitizer is the equivalent of electronic paper. Digitizers are pressure sensitive pads that translate motion from a stylus into commands. Most often, a digitizer replaces the use of a mouse in paint or illustration programs. Experienced designers learn that a mouse is a poor drawing tool.

Summary & Tips

  • Quality computer hardware costs money… and depreciates quickly.


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Writer: C. S. Wyatt
Updated: 08-Mar-2017
Editor: S. D. Schnelbach