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What is online proofing?

Collaborative review and approval of creative work in a web-based application

We have introduced the concept of online proofing to thousands of companies since ProofHQ was launched. Two questions are always being asked, which are “can you describe what online proofing means?” and “isn’t online proofing just for print?”


Is online proofing the same as traditional soft proofing?

In a word, “no”. Historically, soft proofing tools were used in print production and were a screen-based alternative to hard-copy, or printed contract proofs (if you don’t remember Cromalins and Matchprints ask someone over 40).




Contract proofs are called that because from a legal perspective, an approved proof is a binding contract. By signing a contract proof printers and customers are agreeing that they accept the quality of the reproduction on the specified paper using the specified ink. They are saying that a print run will be acceptable if it matches the quality of the contract proof. Soft proofing used complex color-management systems to try and replicate the exactness of hard-copy proofs, but displayed on the monitor.


What are the problems with traditional soft proofing?


Too many variables

The problems with soft proofing were that so many variables affected what the user saw on screen. These ranged from the calibration of the monitor to factors such as ambient light and screen viewing angle. It was rarely the case that everyone in the approval workflow had perfectly matched monitors. In fact. many agencies installed soft proofing suites, which were great for winning new clients business, but were rarely used in practice.


Improved color management

In the meantime, desk-top-publishing and print production technologies had improved at such a rapid pace that many clients just relied heavily on the printer to manage colour. A lot of marketing teams started to lose colour expertise as a result.


Move away from print to digital media

Anotherl trend was the explosion of new media. The trend to digitise content had two big implications for colour management. Firstly, there was a shift from print to digital and therefore a reduction in the amount of work that needed to be “colour-managed”. Secondly, as people became more used to consuming media digitally, the general level of appreciation for colour diminished.


Too expensive and complicated

Lastly, soft-proofing systems were expensive to deploy, required significant investment in hardware and software and often needed dedicated applications running on the clients’ PCs or Macs.


As a result, soft-proofing as a concept was widely known, but never became mainstream.



So what is online proofing and why has it become mainstream?

Online proofing has evolved from soft-proofing, but has become mainstream in a way that soft-proofing never did. There are a number of reasons for this.


Much lower costs

The most important fact driving adoption of online proofing is that circulating a digital “proof” is far more efficient than producing and circulating a hard copy proof. This fact was true for soft-proofing and is true for online proofing today.


Better, faster internet

Internet availability and access to high bandwidth has increased exponentially in the last few years. This has made the distribution of digital content faster and cheaper than ever.


People want business apps to be as good as personal apps

Technology has historically moved from military use, to business use, and lastly to consumer use. In the last few years consumer use of technology has led the way. People have adopted simple, easy-to-use tools in their personal lives such as Facebook, Hotmail, Gmail and Skype. They now expect their employers to let them work with equally easy-to-use web-based tools in their professional lives. Online proofing is precisely the type of tool that falls into this category.

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Browsers are better and faster

Browsers have become smarter and more powerful (with the exception of large corporation still forcing their staff to use IE6 – shame on you!). Improved browser technology has removed the need to download and install dedicated software. This used to be a huge barrier for soft-proofing, but online proofing tools run fully in all modern browsers (and even in IE6!).


Explosion of software-as-a-service (SaaS)

Finally, the rapid growth of software-as-a-service applications, pioneered by companies such as Salesforce.com, has made the adoption of new software much easier for companies. Instead of installing and maintaining servers, operating systems, software and data centers, companies can access enterprise-strength applications online.


How is online proofing different?

Online proofing takes the concept behind soft-proofing and moves it forward.


Used for all media types

The first big difference is that online proofing is used for a wide variety of media. It can be used for print, but also for movies, TV commercials, audio files, web pages, banner ads and so on. This is important as so much design work is re-purposed for many media channels. Creative content now encompasses a huge range of media types, including documents (e.g., PDF, Word), presentations (e.g., PowerPoint), web content (e.g., .html, .png, .jpg) audio (e.g., .mp3), video (e.g., MPEG-4) and interactive (e.g., Flash) content, all of which need to be reviewed and approved before it can be released.


Used at all stages of creative development

The second big difference is that online proofing applications are used far earlier in the creative process. They focus on content and layout in addition to colour. Is the content correct? Are there any typos? How does the layout look? Have the correct /images been used? Is everything on-brand? As a result, online proofing tools need to be highly collaborative, so that the creator can work closely with reviewers to make sure that the brief has been met.


No apps to download, install and manage

The third major factor is that users access online proofing tools through their web browser, they don’t download anything to their Mac or PC. This makes it easier to use and easier for team members in different locations to collaborate seamlessly. The days of each person have a separate copy of a PDF on their desktop are over.


No upfront costs

The next big difference is that online proofing tools are usually purchased on a pay-as-you-go basis. This means that companies can pay monthly or annually, rather than having to find tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in capital expenditure.


Moving to the mobile internet

The final big step is the move to mobile. Members of review teams are highly mobile and want access to proofs on mobile devices. These include iPhones, iPads, BlackBerrys, Android phones, etc.


Main features of online proofing

The main features of online proofing are:

  • Viewing a proof for content and colour
  • Letting several people view the proof simultaneously or consecutively
  • Marking up a proof to show changes
  • Viewing old versions and new versions together
  • Providing electronic sign-off
  • Archiving the proof for later viewing.


Who uses online proofing?


High numbers of proofs and people

Companies that handle a high volume of content or have a large number of people in the review/approval process use online proofing to maintain control over the process, and to have insight into where every asset is throughout that process.



Those for whom time is a critical factor (e.g., brands, package and commercial printers) use online proofing to reduce the number of revisions and shorten the approval process.


Regulation and compliance

Companies that are heavily regulated (e.g., healthcare and financial services) rely on online proofing to provide a record of activity for each prove, to prove compliance.


High brand values

Companies who want to maintain the integrity of their brand value the improved brand control that online proofing delivers.


Managing client relationships

And anyone charged with maintaining important client relationships (e.g., account managers) benefit from the improved collaboration and communication only possible with online proofing.