Top ten problems in file prep for print

A quick look at the most common problems that printers encounter, contributed by printer firm NetPublications who have more than 25 years’ experience.

1/ Fonts not embedded in PDF or missing in application files
When you create a PDF file you must embed your fonts. This ensures that even if the person who opens the document does not have the font you used on their computer that they are able to view and print the file correctly. If you send application files (InDesign, Quark, etc.) we will also need the fonts to print your job correctly.

2/ Incomplete or corrupt files
Before sending, check to see if your file will open correctly and has all necessary pages, images, etc.

pink flowerVia Bay Graphics

3/ Colors that are not converted from RGB to four-color CMYK mode
You might design in RGB, proof in RGB, preview in RGB, however, we print in CMYK format. It is very rare that a computer monitor will accurately display the colors chosen in your layout. Your images may print in black and white or with inaccurate color if you neglect to convert images.

4/ Inadequate bleeds
A bleed is any area on a printed sheet where ink extends to the cut edge. One problem of inadequate bleeds is that an image that you expect to extend to the edge will show a tiny white line on the trimmed edge. It leads to an unpolished, unfinished look that you want to avoid. We require at least 1/8 (.1250) bleed.

5/ Placed images resolution too low or too high (always use 300 dpi)
A scan resolution that is too low results in a low quality image. A resolution that is too high increases the file size and printing time, without increasing the image quality. Images downloaded from the internet do not print clearly (the resolution is too low — 72-100 dpi).

6/ Black and white images saved in RGB or CMYK instead of grayscale
They will print with some color if not saved as grayscale.

7/ Images delivered in the wrong file format (JPG, PNG, GIF)
Use TIFF or PSD (Photoshop). JPG, PNG, and GIF are great for photographic images on the web, because they compress the file, making the file smaller in size for faster downloading). Not ideal for printing, because every time you save it, you lose more color and detail. TIFF and PSD are best for printing without loss of color or detail.

8/ Missing images in applications

Will either print blank or a low resolution image in its place.

9/ Wrong applications used for complex page layouts
Use publishing programs like InDesign or Quark. MS Word is great for word processing at your desk, when you can print to your printer, but software limitations make it difficult to do proper, efficient layout. Any MS Word files presented for offset printing will have to be converted to PDF. MS PowerPoint is useful for creating slides for a presentation, but limitations prevent this from being an efficient layout program. Any PowerPoint files presented for offset printing will have to be converted to PDF.

10/ Not supplying a hard copy proof
This helps us to spot potential problems. Please supply final color or black and white laser printouts with your digital files. Printouts should be at actual size (100%). If the image area in the page file exceeds the size of a laser or inkjet print, output the laser at a reduced percentage, but clearly note the amount of reduction.

Print prep resources

64 responses

  1. I have committed six mistakes out of this list… but learned from them quickly. Nice post. I enjoyed going through it. I felt like… man! I have done that.

    And thanks for suggesting net publication to us. I was also unaware of this award winning company. :)

  2. Nice summary, thanks for putting this together!

    Is Scribus (an open-source desktop publishing tool) an adequate choice from the publisher’s point of view? It exports PDFs, in CMYK and with font-embedding, so theoretically you won’t even notice the difference, yet still I would like to know your practical opinion.

  3. There is another problem that is quite frequent that is not the fault of the designer…..the fact that some printing vendors do not upgrade their layout software to the most recent version.

    To avoid this problem, I always make it a habit of providing the printing vendor with three file types:

    1. The master InDesign file
    2. A full high-res PDF file
    3. An exported INX (Adobe InDesign Document Interchange file). This file will allow a pervious version of InDesign (CS3 for example) to open a CS4 document

    While the INX document version is great, sometimes there can be very small inconsistencies (or big ones), hence the reason I provide a high-res PDF proof for comparison.

  4. Great post for print designers and those new to working with commercial printers.

    I rarely send a hard copy proof anymore but I guess certain printers still like them to be safe. Number 5 is a little pet peeve of mine when clients send over images that they’ve blatantly ripped from the web and expect them to print well. I realise people outside the design industry don’t always know these things so it’s great to have information like this post available.

  5. I often forget about embedding the fonts until the last second, you work with fonts not included with standard operating system installs for a while and you forget not everyone has them.

    I’m thinking of having ” Type > Create Outlines ” tattooed on my forehead…

  6. Related to #5: If your images are too high resolution, you will usually need to apply a significant amount of “unsharp mask” before reducing; otherwise you can easily *lose* detail (ironically).

  7. nice guide/article David. There are some good points in your article. I can relate to no. 10 alot, but recently, number 5 also … bummer!


  8. Wow, this is a great list for common printing issues, even as a plastic printing company we run into these same problems, they can be really frustrating. We use an artwork page to display these problems, but even though its there people still come to us with issues… any other ideas how we can help the customer better understand???

    Anthony Proulx

  9. As a pre press supervisor these are the most common mistakes. Sadly teachers these days do no teach these important steps. On a daily basis I get mistakes like these with many new designers.

  10. Appreciate articles like this. It’s good to remind designers, especially the younger designers, that good preparation for press is always necessary. Just because most printers can troubleshoot bad files, doesn’t mean they should.

    I’ve been in design for a long time, and used to work in a print shop when I was a teenager. The print and design industry has undergone massive changes since the 1980’s. The computer and the internet also has changed how designers design for print.

    But design thinking, collaboration, and effective communication never changes.

  11. This should be bookmarked by all – it’s amazing just how easy these can be overlooked. I wish I had this list for when I started doing print work – would have saved me a lot of time and frustration!

  12. Aaron: The incompatibility in InDesign is a major annoyance I wish Adobe would address. If we can’t have a Max Compatibility check box (which saves it compatible with Photoshop all the way back to at least 2.0) Adobe could at least give us a drop-down box to save backwards like Illustrator does.

    One tip I would add too is make sure you know the limitations of the medium you are printing to as well. In the Creative Inspirations for Margo Chase, she talks about how one of her designers had a great design for a bottle that they could not use because it was not possible given the constraints of screen printing. One of my photography instructors mentioned that he got a call from someone he knew at the local paper that said people do not know how to prep photos for printing in newspapers too and asked that he cover that in class.

  13. Good advice from NetPublications, but:

    5/ Placed images resolution too low or too high (always use 300 dpi)

    This is only true of small-format printing. When sending large-format (works that are printed on large inkjet-style printers, the norm is 400dpi @ one-quarter file size

  14. This is great, I had to learn these the hard way.
    I often have staff create things in word and then decide they are going to get them printed. It can really mess things up, blocks of the same colour can be completely different shades. Sometimes you have to do the PDF two or three times before it appears correctly. I quite often have to work on the word doc too before doing the PDF because of incorrect tab use and no style sheets, formatting goes haywire.

    If it’s just a poster I tend to convert to PDF open in illustrator and basically redo. It takes a little time but it’s so worth it.

  15. Great timing! I am wrapping up production on a 72-page brochure right now. This can be my check-off list.

    Question for all…
    I had a debate with my printer last week about the proper way to set up bleed. It’s the first time I’m working with him, and he told me that I should include the bleed in the document size. I have always set the document size to match the trim size of the project, and set up bleed in the dialogue box. So if the project was to be 8.5×11, he would set the page size to 8.75×11.25 whereas I would set it up 8.5×11.

    Which is correct? How do you set up your page?

  16. Very informative!

    But maybe you can give me some extra advice…

    Can you describe in just a few words, how to embed fonts in a pdf file?

    Can you tell, which is the most common cmyk format for printing or does it differ from one to another “printer”?

    Do I have to merge layers in a psd for printing?

    Thanks so far!

  17. Niki Bivona, I think if you set the bleeds _after_ you’ve set the total size to 8.5 x 11, then the bleed is calculated inside that total size – thus making your “net” page a non-standard cut (8.25 x 10.75). So I think your printer is correct in correcting you :)

  18. @hagersebastian

    Can you describe in just a few words, how to embed fonts in a pdf file?

    Saving for a high-quality print PDF should do it automatically (in Adobe InDesign, go to “Export”, but will show you a Hazard/warning symbol if there is a problem (normally because of font licensing restrictions, etc)

    Do I have to merge layers in a psd for printing?

    I don’t understand why you would ever send a virgin PSD file off, despite the above advice…Maybe for special channel setups, I don’t know. However, for everyday circumstances, just save a TIFF with LZW compression turned on (unless your printer tells you otherwise).

  19. 3/ Colors that are not converted from RGB to four-color CMYK mode

    When I was doing adwork for a local newspaper we had one customer who did their own ads, and almost always sent us files that had at least one LAB image.

    Unembedded fonts and images in the wrong colorspace can both be corrected for with InDesign’s PDF export options.

  20. Very informative article. I just started work for a web solutions company. I can use these tips a lot.

  21. Most people keep wondering why their prints don’t come out as well as it did on the screen. They don’t realise that unless you prep the image properly for printing, they’ll never get what they’re looking for. Most people don’t even know the basics of resolution!

  22. Wow, what I had to go through to learn all these points! these points do sum up what actually happens before sending out to print. But i still have the problem with bleeding, i either forget or just ignore doing it coz i’m not very familiar with it.

    Could you please give us a small explanation regarding bleeding? and wats the fastest most accurate way to do it?

  23. Hi David

    One thing to add that I don’t think has been touch on here, and thats Pantone convertion to CMYK. I have noticed working with Pantone colours in Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop (and it cropped up again only yesterday) that both programs have different values in their colour book conversion. Does anyone know why this is as its really very annoying?


  24. Great post david.

    Thought id add this to the conversation and its something alot of people miss. Trapping in Quark and has great results when over laying text. Text to go over another image and its a different colour you should use Knockout. When the text is the same colour as the background (with say a tint) use overprint. Doing this will improve the reading of the text and the print out will not decrease the fonts thickness. Quark overprint short cut for Mac alt F12.


  25. GREAT post. I’m a designer and have worked in pre-press quite a bit and these are all too common. I will be sharing this post with many friends, clients, etc.

    One other thing to remember: Don’t use a small, thin, condensed font in reverse (so the stock shows through) in a solid process block. I’ve seen presses that are ever so slightly mis-registered and one of the CMYK colors used to make up that large solid process area shifts and you end up with color in your letters or fuzzy letters.

  26. Don’t forget one of the most important steps includes proofreading and spell check! Often, we as designers are so focused on the mechanics of printing that we forget to make sure all of the content is as perfect as the files. Unlike web design, once it’s printed, it’s too late to fix any content errors. Great list, David!

  27. Very true, even us web designers get so into our work we easily pass typos, it sometimes takes an outsider to review our work because we are so involved and stare at it for hours on end, that it all starts the blend. So yes proof reading is essential!

  28. great summery, #6 is quite a new thing for me. I usually save B/W images as grayscale and get fine results. this time i’ll try using CMYK :) lets see whats the special.

  29. Having worked both sides of the printing ‘fence’ I’ll say one of the best ways of preventing problems is to supply printed proof. Be clear about your colours; colours that look identical on screen can print differently and where possible give pantone or other references to match to if you have certain brand colours that must be consistent.
    If you were to boil this down to one maxim; talk to your printer! I’d much rather spend 5 minutes talking to a client on the phone than upto an hour trying to wrestle artwork into a printable state to meet a rush deadline.

  30. Pagemaker? Seriously? Did NetPublications write part of this article in 1994?

    Trapping has come up in the comments. Always ask your printer what they want. Trapping is an art, and simply knocking out text from a background photo, for example, isn’t going to work — you’ll still have gaps from page shifts.

    99% of the time your printer will do the trapping as part of their service, and beg you not to do any of it yourself, as any trapping you set in Quark, for example, has to be manually undone before they can do their thing.

    Rule of thumb: If you know the terms overprint and knockout, but not spread or choke, never do your own trapping.

    Other than the weird inclusion of the long-dead and totally unlamented Pagemaker, excellent article.

  31. I think the only reason there are these problems when getting files from designers is because they do not have a formal education on the subject. If someone has a BA and makes these mistakes then the teachers should be ashamed.

    Lets all say it together: “Downloading photoshop doesn’t make you a graphic designer.”

  32. As a fledging designer, this post is great! You always hear about design (in class), but you rarley hear about the real-life applications of how to get your work produced exactly the way you intend it to be produced.


  33. I’m glad the list went down well, folks. A particular thanks to Andrew Kelsall for answering a few questions here in the comments. I’m tied-up with other things just now, so don’t have as much time as usual for joining comment threads. But thanks very much to everyone for reading and leaving your thoughts.

  34. To continue from the comment about dont do your own trapping.

    I work as a pre press operator and I would make sure the trapping is correct between myself and the printer operator, as we are talking about print and setting up for print I believe that Trapping is as important as setting the bleed. Just to ignore and not to understand the full setup and think O I will leave it to the printer is wrong, learn your trade and learn it fully. Its not just about making pretty pictures. One day you might find where your working that you have to keep the press running always good to have a relationship with the press people and know your stuff.

    Keep the posts a flowing David :D


  35. Hey David, (and everyone else)

    I have a question about getting accurate colors for printing. Does it follow that if a printer calibrates their Apple monitors to match their printer’s colors, all other designers who work with an Apple screen see 100% accurate colors since the hardware and software being used are the same?

    My problem is that here in the Philippines, easily 95% of printers use a PC for printing. This means all of them have different branded monitors and hardware; thus, different color previews. I used to work on a mac and whenever I sent a file to be printed, the colors get screwed up after printing with a PC. I switched to windows because of this and now they seem to be getting them more accurately.

    Is it just me or is there a problem?

  36. I would also note the differences between spot colors and the cmyk process. Sometimes when working with spot colors, you need to use half-toning in four spot color cyan magenta yellow and black. Like how you did in your image for this post. This is most effective when your trying to print full color on a t-shirt.

  37. Great post David………these are the most common mistakes we designers do and although these are things that we have learnt in design school. I still tend to miss out on some of these especially the one with the bleed. Its a nice checklist to have on your desktop and make sure all these are done before sending anything for print.

    How are the wedding preparations going on? Dont get too stressed out before the D-day.

  38. Dwight – I’ll let others weigh in on this, too, but the short answer is that your never going to get the exact same representation of color from monitor to monitor. There is good software out there that does help in calibration and obviously working from the same color profile helps, but the variables that exist from monitor to monitor are too great. For example, you also have brightness and contrast settings on a monitor that may be slightly different. But, regardless of how many settings you try to match, even between the same brand of monitor, it’s not something you can trust to be accurate. Digital proofs should only be used for a close representation of the piece and mostly for proofing of content and layout. A proof from your printer off of their calibrated machines or an actual press-proof are your best bets.

  39. Thanks for the list. I design a magazine and get ads send in from the advertisers, mainly in PDF. Most of them show one or two of the problems mentioned here. I might have to set up a similar list and send it out again.
    What I also notice quite often is small thin copy on a coloured background which can end up in registration problems – similar to what ToeKneeBee wrote a few posts earlier. Or objects in the ad sit too close to the edge and get cropped.

  40. Whenever I do a piece of work which involves changing an image from RGB to CMYK for print, I usually get the person whos photo it is etc saying “The colours aren’t bright enough” or “what have you done to the image, it colours now look dull” Very hard explaining the print process to them each time, and why we have to change it to CMYK!

  41. Nice post! I’m just finding out about color bleed. Is there an option in Photoshop or Illustrator to correct bleed? I’m just curious if this is the printers problem or my own.

  42. Kiren – This is a tough topic to be brief about. :) I work in most of the Creative Suite programs, but I normally end up in InDesign because most of my output is for publications. So, in that workflow, I set my bleed settings for my InDesign document and then generally design graphics in PS and AI to be large enough to accommodate the bleed settings. So, If my finished booklet is going to be a 3 inch square with full bleed, I’d design the cover graphic, for example, at 3 1/2 inches which would give me 1/8 inch bleed all around. Make sure you set proper guides for a “safe zone” for the things you don’t want cropped out.

    Now, in Photoshop CS3, if you were doing a graphic that you wanted to send directly to a printer or a print shop for direct output with a bleed, you would still design your graphic large enough to accommodate the bleed, but you could go to File > Print and choose “Output” and there will be a button for BLEED that you can set your settings. Turn on crop marks and this should show you on the print where the trimming will cut into the bleed.

    In Illustrator CS3, I believe it is similar to the steps above for Photoshop. If you go to File > Print, there should be something on the left hand side about Marks and Bleeds. I think you can set your values there for showing the bleed/marks for output.

    Anyone else want to weigh in?

  43. I’d like to add to the comment about the differences in Rich Black and Pure Black. It has been my experience that Rich Blacks mixed with all 4 colors, are best on digital presses that don’t require film. 100%K can result in a shady banding. When working in newspaper however, the Rich Blacks can throw the registration for the entire page off center. Newspaper needs Pure Black, which is 100% K, with no other colors. Nothing peeves me more than a good batch of comics out of register! One might also note that most newspapers do not require crop marks or a bleed; or more than 200 dpi. Most papers have their own pagination system and resolution will be downsampled anyway. But please don’t use Rich Black on ads that go on newsprint! This is especially important when reversing type, which isn’t the best idea on newsprint anyway.

  44. Two other thoughts.

    ONE: I was in newspaper for several years, then moved on to direct marketing where part of my responsibilities were to preflight pieces designed out of house. This post is a dead-on top 10. The one other program not mentioned in no. 9 is Microsoft Publisher. I hate that program with a passion. Sure, its great for Uncle Charlie’s homemade birthday cards or Grandmas recipes, but for commercial printing it results in a big pile of crap. Can anyone say “Pocket Pal”? Publisher can’t export pdf files and when it exports jpegs, it defaults to 150 dpi. That’s bad news for any printer.

    TWO: it could be helpful to educate new designers on the different types of presses and how they handle different stocks. Web presses for example, are what most newspapers use and it makes registration an art all its own. (Web presses are fed paper stock on one continuous roll and not individually sheet fed, like the offset press.)

  45. Dana – How could Publisher be left off the list? Shame on all of us for not picking that up. I like the idea of explaining the different types of presses, too.

  46. This is a great list, and could have been so much longer, we are often astounded by the files we recieve from designers, we do not require a great deal from them as we prefer to create separations ourselves, but many designers seem to be operating in a world of their own, making very little effort to help the end user of their files. It is a breath of fresh air to recieve files ready to go with explanatory notes. We also greatly appreciate the use of spot colours in the palette where required.

  47. Thanks for the continued great comments, everyone. I’m pretty snowed under at the minute, so excuse my brief reply. Hoping you’re having a good week so far.

  48. Excellent! I appreciate the time and thought put into informing fellow designers. I especially liked the post about pricing and agree that it is hard to judge. As designers, we want to grow and share our creativity without sacrificing time and money. It’s hard not to sell ourselves short and not over price potential projects. Very insightful.

  49. Great checklist David. I’m not always aware of these mistakes (especially the bleed) so I’m going to use it before i send anything for print.

  50. Great post however, 3 other very common mistakes are:

    1/ black coverage, first, know on what type of press your job will be printed on (Web, offset or digital).
    For Sheet fed offset: Always use undercolor values to give large areas of black a nice and deep looking black like: Cyan 30%, Magenta 30%, Yellow 30% and black 100% instead of using only 100% black.
    For Digital printing: 100% black only is sufficient as toner does not need under color values (adding CMY will actually make your black look muddy…)
    For cold set web presses (newspaper): 100% black only is better and safer.

    2/ Transparencies and overprints, always Flatten your artwork before submitting to your printer to avoid unexpected results and color issues.
    Desktop publishing softwares offer a “Flattener Preview”, use that tool to ensure correct output of your artwork.

    3/ Paper stock to be used (coated or uncoated): Uncoated paper fiber “sucks” more ink and need much more time to dry than coated paper, understanding ink values and coverage are important, also, coated paper offers a better resolution and more details for fine artwork, thin fonts and strokes will appear different depending on background coverage and registration…

    Feel free to contact me if you have any questions, I’ll be happy to help.

  51. I have two problems with your article.

    1 – CMYK vs RGB
    2- JPG delivery

    I owned the second Adobe RIP so that makes me old not smart. But, this issue of CMYK is “best” is a half truth. Here is why… I agree that ultimately the page is printing as CMYK and I agree that RGB does not look the same as CMYK but converting digital photos in RGB to CMYK using some Adobe template for some generic press and some generic printer is not right either.

    Printers that take files and know their presses and know their printing habits are experts at converting RGB to CMYK. This conversion is not GENERIC.

    Using Adobe view in CMYK is fine and a good way for a designer to see the final result but there is not great way to see what a page will look like until you are on press. Digital Proofs as we used to have with Scitex were pretty good but they are long gone. Most are using Epson ink jets for proofing as their is no film either.

    2- JPG vs “High Res”
    I had to fight this battle in the early 90’s. We did a test. 20 very high quality photos were scanned on a Hell Scanner. They were in CMYK. We made films and Matchprint proofs for each. Then we opened and re-saved each 5-20 times and printed them again. (Quality factor of 9.)

    Of a group of color experts, they could not reliably pick the JPEG images from the non-compressed pages.

    This JPEG myth has been around a long time. I sincerely doubt that many people went to this trouble to prove or disprove this. It is far easier to just pass it on like you have done.

    Here is why this is true. DOTS, Ink on Paper — They are not perfect. The microscopic degradation of pixels from compression is mostly apparent in computer created gradations. We used to look at negatives with horror. “Gradations looked really bad.” But after we proofed them the bands could hardly be seen. But they were there. So adding a few (2-3) pixels of noise solved that problem too.

    Photos are fine in JPEG just watch out for large areas of white or Seamless backgrounds. Adding just a little noise to those areas will fix that. But if the photo has the correct density of minimum dots then it will work fine too.

    Hope you don’t mind the comment. Love your work!

  52. These are amazing tips. I do flyers in-house and don’t have “real” designer qualifications… so articles like these are so helpful to getting it right the first time. Thank you thank you thank you!

  53. Great article and a really helpful comment thread! I’m currently looking for a solution to a problem I’m having with printing a file from computer to computer. In our office we have one printer, several different macs. My mac is printing files with color that looks nothing like the monitor view, yet if we print the file on my partner’s mac with the same file settings, print settings, etc. we get a print that looks exactly like the monitor view and matches our pantone swatches. We’re flummoxed as to why the same file would print differently on the same printer, same paper stock, same print settings, etc when the only difference seems to be the computer that is sending the file info to the printer.

    Any thoughts out there?

    Thank you!

  54. I need help. We spent six months preparing a 608 page photo book of my family history. It’s all in black and white. We delivered all the pages but in four colour CMYK. The printers converted them to single black. They’re horrendous. So dark as to be a joke – all subtlety lost. I refuse they go to print like this — it’s utterly utterly unacceptable. What do we do? Is there an expert that can remake the pages for us in single layer black? The deadline is looming and I’m in despair. The printer said it might make the pages negligibly darker, to which I replied that was like saying to someone about to be beheaded that it might tickle ever such a tiny bit.

    • Hi Ian, in what file format is your photo book? If you’ve used InDesign I can have a look for you, and I recommend WeTransfer for sending large files.

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