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Designing printable files

Jul 1, 2008 12:00 AM

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Printing is a rare manufacturing process in which the raw materials are specified and supplied by creative people. Whereas art directors and graphic designers were once insulated from the vagaries of printing by type houses and color trade shops, the advent of the Macintosh and PostScript (and now PDF) put them in control of the production process.

For printers, the impact has been varied. Those with stable workflows, such as publication/catalog printers, generally get clean files, and many have taken proactive measures to ensure there are no surprises. General commercial printers, however, must deal with a wider variety of files — anecdotal evidence suggests that problem files account for between 10 to 40 percent of all incoming files.

Use a standards-based workflow

Given that fixing files is a cost center that directly impacts the bottom line, how do you get customers to supply press-ready files? The hyper-competitive nature of the printing industry suggests that charging customers for fixes is neither appealing nor viable for most printers. The “carrot” approach — giving preferential pricing to customers who can show files meet a particular quality standard — is used by some printers, but can be difficult for smaller printers to implement.

Adopting a standards-based workflow is the best approach. We advocate using the ISO PDF/X standards and, beyond that, the subset of those published by the Ghent PDF Workgroup (GWG).

PDF/X is a subset of Adobe's format that is in the public domain and devoted to print media. It has grown from PDF/X-1a to now include PDF/X-3, PDF/X-4 and, recently, PDF/X-5.

PDF/X-1a is designed to enable “blind” exchanges between the designer/specifier and the printer by requiring all fonts to be embedded and images saved as either CMYK or a spot color. PDF/X-2 allows “pointers” to images for OPI workflows. PDF/X-3 is for color-managed workflows that use RGB, CMYK, or even CIELab color spaces. PDF/X-4 builds upon PDF/X-3, allowing optional content (layers) as well as transparency. The newest flavor, PDF/X-5, is similar to PDF/X-4 except that it allows the use of pointers to images, fonts and ICC profiles. (See “Standards Update,” AMERICAN PRINTER, October 2002.)

Bring on the GWG

GWG is a best practices group comprising printers, publishers, advertisers and suppliers. GWG specifications take PDF/X one step further by optimizing file preparation for the intended printing condition. There are published specifications tailored for sheetfed, web (heatset and coldset), digital printing, newspaper and magazine advertising and for flexo, gravure and offset packaging.

If getting files to print/plate correctly is your goal, use GWG's PDF/X-1a based specifications. Why go with GWG's version rather than plain old PDF/X-1a? GWG's output-specific setting dictates the minimum resolution for images. Because PDF/X standards were created for multiple printing conditions, files can contain screen captures and other low-res images and still pass a preflight. By contrast, with GWG, the process determines the resolution, ensuring you won't have to explain to customers why the images look so bad. The same is true for other troublesome objects like hairline rules that are barely visible.

Using GWG specifications is easier than you might think. First, review the relevant standards for your shop's printing processes. Next, to ensure your workflow complies with the standards, dowload the test suites from the GWG website ( and then RIP and print them.

Once your shop has dialed in the process, prepare your customers. Most of the work has been done for you at the GWG website. You'll find the output settings files for all key applications, including Adobe Creative Suite, QuarkXPress, and Adobe Acrobat/Distiller (for customers that cannot export PDF directly or those that use problematic applications such as Microsoft Publisher and the Office Suite). See

Alternatively, you can provide customers with software that manages the output process. While many printers balk at the idea of giving away such software, it will pay for itself very quickly and position your firm as a preferred print service provider.

Ideally, preflight should happen before a file is sent. Acrobat's embedded tools let designers confirm their files are correctly prepared, as does Enfocus Instant PDF and Markzware FlightCheck. Enfocus just released its CertifiedPDF workflow into the public domain to increase adoption of validated workflows. Once files are received, your staff should check their status. If a file isn't Certified or otherwise validated, run it through a preflight to catch problems promptly.

Essential customer communication

Finally, give your customers feedback. Today's preflighting software provides a wealth of information for designers about errors and problems in their file preparation, but it is useless unless it is communicated.

Automating the prepress workflow will become a necessary condition for maintaining a profitable printing business. Getting customers to supply press-ready files is an essential first step. By implementing standards such as PDF/X-1a and the Ghent PDF Workgroup, you'll get there sooner and with less pain.

Alex Hamilton is director of business development for Enfocus Software. Contact him at

About the Ghent PDF Workgroup

Ghent PDF Workgroup (GWG) specifications and best practices are easily integrated, free tools that make it infinitely easier to successfully create, process and exchange graphic arts files. Working closely with the international standards community, the GWG develops practical solutions to build on — and enhance — the work done by these standards groups.

“There's much more to come, beginning with at least 3 new Output Suite tests and a new set of specifications that will make PDFs created in Microsoft Office applications ready for production printing automatically,” says David Zwang, chairman. “It's all being accomplished by the industry's best minds, on their own time, because they love the work and simply want to make it easier to get the job done.”

While the GWG has been holding quarterly meetings around Europe, the first annual U.S. meeting will be held October 30-31, 2008, in Chicago, immediately following Graph Expo. The group welcomes meeting observers on a first-come, first-served basis. To apply, contact

Good news on the customer file front

We recently caught up with Julie Shaffer, the co-author of the “PDF Production Guide” and director of PIA/GATF's Digital Printing Council (

Have you seen an improvement in the files printers are getting from their customers?

When I do PDF-related seminars, I often run straw polls on this topic. While there has been some overall improvement in supplied files' quality, it really depends on whom you ask. Print service providers that have implemented a lights-out workflow, where customers have been trained to prepare files properly and deliver them directly to production (often via an online tool), have few issues. But this often only applies to specific customers, typically publications. For general commercial printers, the majority of incoming production files remain problematic.

A 2007 PIA/GATF survey confirms this anecdotal evidence, We asked prepress professionals and designers/content creators about their interactions. Seventy-one percent of the 300 printers surveyed indicated they have to fix at least half of all jobs submitted before they could be printed. More than a third indicated 75 percent of all files require repair of some kind.

Nonetheless, only 32 percent said they charge for these repairs. On the designers' side, 67 percent said their printers provide feedback on what has to be repaired. A whopping 95 percent of the creatives said they are satisfied to very satisfied with their print partners. From a customer's perspective, there's little motivation to change.

As RIPs based on Adobe's PDF Print Engine have supplanted PostScript-based RIPs, are you seeing fewer transparency and related problems?

Transparency issues are no longer the bane of the industry. In the same 2007 survey, we asked printers if they preferred to have their customers provide files with transparency “live” or “flattened.” Sixty-seven percent selected “live.” Three years ago, that response would have been much lower, with printers expecting designers to resolve the transparency problem by submitting flattened files. The evidence strongly suggests prepress people are handling transparency in-house, either via the RIP or by manually flattening the files prior to output.

Many printers don't drop everything and update their RIPs as soon as the newest version is released. Quite a few aren't using Print Engine-based RIPs or newer Harlequin RIPs, which also natively handle transparent objects. So it will be some time before transparency is a complete non-issue for printers (and, therefore, designers).

Adobe made some major announcements at Drupa. What file prep improvements can we expect?

Adobe announced major revisions to its PDF Print Engine. As adoption spreads with RIP vendors and print service providers, transparency problems will be alleviated — those preparing files won't have to give it much thought.

Acrobat 9 incorporates many options to ensure files are created properly from a print production perspective. Just making the overprint preview automatic will be a big help.

The concept integrates options such as allowing Internet collaboration, with centrally stored comments and employing WebDav servers to automatically create e-mail messages, thus facilitating approvals. While Adobe and others had done some dabbling with these concepts, it's now much more accessible. Anyone who is the least bit web-savvy should be able to implement it. We will have to see how takes off, but it certainly will look familiar to those of the Facebook/Flickr/MySpace generation.

Will it print?

In August 2006, AMERICAN PRINTER ran Julie Shaffer's story on proper file preparation, “The Best PDFs.” “It's the best resource piece we've seen,” one reader told us then. “We will be quoting Julie and AMERICAN PRINTER whenever PDF usage comes up in our customer art file discussions.” Two years later, the article remains among the most popular in our online archive at

What makes a PDF file print-perfect? Ideally, the application used to create the original layout should be true design software, such as Adobe InDesign or QuarkXPress. “All too often, content creators use a product like Microsoft Word as a layout application,” says PIA/GATF's Shaffer. “This is like baking a ‘mock’ apple pie with Ritz Crackers and expecting it to taste exactly like a pie made with real apples. Word is not a graphic design application; it is a word processor! As anyone who has submitted (or received) a Word document for print output knows, the text in the document has a good chance of reflowing once the document is opened.”

Avoiding text reflow woes

Shaffer explains that Microsoft Word obtains font metrics from the operating system based on the resolution/characteristics of the target output device, not from the device — and resolution — independent font metrics. So when you create a Word document with your desktop printer set up as the default, the text in the file is set up to output at that printer's resolution, usually 600 dpi. If you change the target output device to another printer with a different resolution (like your 2,400-dpi CTP engine), or even to the Adobe PDF/Distiller virtual printer, the text flow is very likely to change, as well.