Technically Speaking: Submitting Print Ready Artwork (so your Printer won’t hate you)

My background is in graphic design.  More specifically, print design.

Thirteen years ago, when I was choosing my major area of focus within my college’s design department, there were three specialties: print, multimedia, and web.  I went the print route, with a teeny bit of multimedia thrown in.  Upon graduating, I soon discovered companies did not want designers who specialized. Rather, they expected you to be the total package.  To know coding and animation, how to capture and edit video and sound, 3-D modeling, etc.  Having only the bare minimum in these skills, and being a broke ex-student with loans that needed repaying, I took the first job offered me — working at a print shop.  I was able to use some of my design skills working with a variety of clients, each with a separate need — from menu layouts to business cards and brochures to large presentation displays.  I did it all.  But more importantly, I learned something they don’t teach in design school: technical skills.

In college, I was taught design was Art with a capital A.  Everything your created was your baby.  You had full control over it from the moment you opened Illustrator until you saved it to your thumb drive, just like a painter sweeping a brush across canvas.  The only problem was your canvas was your computer.  What happened when you needed to share it with the rest of the world to see?  How were you going to print it?  You could try to print it on the school’s large format printer, hoping to god the paper was spooled the right way and that you remembered the instructions your professor gave you the one and only time they demonstrated how it worked.  Or you could take the file to a print shop, thus forfeiting whatever control you had up to that point.

Well kids, I’ve been there done that a few times, and I’m going to share with you a few tricks I learned working as a printer so hopefully, when the time comes for you to send your files to be printed, the experience won’t be such a headache for you (and your printer).

1.) Bleed

If what you’re printing needs to bleed (the ink goes all the way to the edge of the paper, no whitespace), the minimum recommended bleed is 1/8″ or approximately 3mm.  I always try to add a little more.  Double it, if you can.  There are several reasons for this.  One is that paper shifts while going through the printer.  This may not matter if your work is single-sided, but if it’s double-sided, you could end up with a thin line of whitespace showing when there should have been bleed.  Another reason for adding more bleed is the cutter.  No printer can print all the way to the edge.  There needs to be some whitespace (paper) for the rollers to grab onto and pick up the paper.  Things that have a bleed must be printed on sheets larger than the finish size and trimmed down.  Just as the paper can shift in the printer, it can shift in the cutter.  It’s always best to have more bleed around the edges to account for this.

2.) Know Your Resolutions

300dpi is the recommended resolution for print work.  Depending on the image, and the final print size, you could get away with 150dpi, but I would not recommend using that for anything above an 11×17 sheet.

3.) Vector or Raster?

A vector image uses a mathematical formula to draw an image.  It can be scaled up or down without quality loss.  Vector images are typically used for typography, illustrations, or whenever a hard edge is needed.  Adobe Illustrator and AutoCAD are examples of vector based programs.  A raster image is a representation of a digital image using bits of information, translated to pixels on a computer screen.  The pixels form points of color that create the overall image.  Raster images depend on resolution and image size.  If the resolution and image size are low — a 4″x6″ photo at 72dpi, for example — the more that image is enlarged, the more apparent the pixels will become.  The image will look fuzzy or blurry.  Raster images are best suited for photographs.

4.) Flattening Files and Outlining Text

These two simple steps can stop a whole mess of trouble.  If you’re working in Photoshop, make sure to create a final file with flattened layers.  This significantly reduces the file size, thus reducing time for the print driver to process it.  This is especially handy if, like so many other designers and design students, you’re on a tight deadline.  Having a file with flattened layers reduces the time to process and print.  Also, printers are fickle pieces of machinery.  I’ve had print drivers simply refuse to process the file because it still had active layers.  If Illustrator is your tool of choice, when you save the final file, be sure to outline the text.  Outlining renders the text as shapes, so it’s no longer editable text.  Again, print drivers are picky.  Some will not process EPS or PDF files created in Illustrator with text that is active and not outlined.  Also, if color correction is needed, it’s much easier to go in a fix a few letters that have been rendered as shapes versus opening the file and having the text convert to some wonky font because the print shop does not have the font you used installed.

5.) Proofread

Most printers will not do this for you.  I did for my clients, but only because I’m nice like that.  Even if your file is not print ready, the majority of printers will assume at the very least you have taken the time to proofread your work.

6.) When in Doubt, Get a Proof

If you’re not completely sure you’re ready to commit to printing 500 copies of that brochure just yet, get a proof print.  It will help you spot anything you might want to tweak and gives you a good idea of what the finished product will look like depending on paper choice.

7.) PDFs are a Printer’s Best Friend

Most software comes with an option to convert a document to PDF, and even if they don’t, there are a slew of free online PDF converters.  But, if you absolutely cannot convert that file, please please please save it as one of the conventional file formats: JPEG, TIFF, EPS.

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