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Better files

Nov 1, 2009 12:00 AM

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Back in design school, I remember teachers stressing how important it was to make our designs press-ready, but I don't think I fully understood what a priority this should be. Working as a production artist for a local printing company has taught me many real-life lessons on what not to do.

Now I realize that what I learned in school was only scratching the surface. I've actually had to deal with, first hand, some of the nightmarish things that some designers do when preparing a project to be printed.

Here is my list of the top seven things not to do:

  1. Insufficient specifications

    This is probably one of the more common problems I see. You know how you want the finished piece to look, but don't assume your printer does. The printer will need to know things such as what the finished trim size will be, how many colors the job will use, whether the job will use special printing methods like a spot varnish or a diecut, and folding instructions.

    Contact your printer and ask what kind of information is needed. The printer will be glad you took the initiative to contact them, and you will save time and money in the long run.

    Including a laser print of your document is a great way to show your printer what the final piece should look like. The more information you supply your printer with, the better.

  2. Incorrect use of spot colors

    Nothing is worse than getting a document with 23 spot colors, all in use, not knowing which ones should be spot and which are OK to run as process. It seems a lot of designers don't realize that every spot color is a new plate, thus more money. Also, most presses can't handle more than 6-8 colors at a time.

    Before a document is sent for output, all spot colors that are not needed should be deleted. A spot color should be used when absolute color consistency is needed, such as in logos and for large fill areas. If, for example, a document is being printed with a black background and color images, the black background should be made a spot color. Making the background a spot color will keep it from shifting when the color in the images is adjusted.

    Small type also should be either black or a spot color because of registration problems caused by building small type out of 4-color process.

  3. No bleed

    Bleed — when an image or another object extends outside the trim area — ensures there will be no unwanted white border around your printed piece when it is trimmed down.

    A typical bleed is 1/8 inch, but a larger bleed could be required for a diecut. Ask your printer how much bleed your document will need.

  4. Low-res or RGB images

    It never ceases to amaze me how many people think that the web is an excellent source for images to use for their designs. Not only are there issues of originality and legal concerns, but the majority of images from the web are screen-resolution (72 dpi). A dpi of at least 300 (sometimes higher) is needed for most printed pieces. If it looks good on your screen, that does not mean it will look good on the press. I also see a lot of images provided in RGB rather than CMYK. Files always should be converted to CMYK before they are sent to press.

  5. Incorrect document size

    Yet another mistake some designers make is not knowing the correct size to make the document. Depending on what the printed piece is, things like scores, wraps, grooves and hardware will need to be allowed for. It can cause a lot of extra work in production when the document has to be resized, after-the-fact, due to a lack of planning. In some cases, the appearance of the artwork will change drastically.

    Again, it is best to contact your printer when in doubt. A lot of times your printer will gladly provide you with a template to set your document up by. All you have to do is ask.

  6. Use of conflicting fonts

    Now, I'm not talking about using two fonts that visually clash. I'm talking about the font files themselves. Font problems are probably the worst problem to deal with. I can't tell you how many times I have opened a document that had everything else done correctly, only to get a missing font error.

    Most, if not all, printers use a font management system, such as Font Reserve or Suitcase, that automatically activates fonts. These font management systems cannot activate both PostScript and TrueType fonts at the same time. So, if both types of fonts are used, it will cause problems.

    Dfonts also are a big problem. These are the TrueType fonts that come packaged on your computer, if you are running OS X. Dfonts can conflict with PostScript fonts of the same name, so your printer will likely not load them. When a Dfont or TrueType font is replaced with a PostScript font, there can be text reflow due to slight differences in the fonts, and the printer is left with the problem of fixing the reflow.

    To avoid any font problems, and legal gray areas, you should convert all fonts to outlines before submitting your document.

  7. Waiting until the last minute

    There might be some cases where waiting until the last minute cannot be helped, but far too many times it comes down to a simple failure to plan. If you know in advance that you will need something printed, then don't put it off any longer than you have to. Allowing plenty of time for design and production will make things easier for the designer and the printer, and you will likely get better quality at a lower price.

    Taking the time to make sure your documents are press-ready will create a good relationship between you and your printer, and will save you and your client time and money.

Josh Durham is the lead graphic designer for Parks Design ( He also works as production artist for a local printing company and does freelance design work. Contact him at