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Prepress tips for graphic designers

wooden typeset
Photo courtesy of Cybjorg

When you design artwork for print, standard practice is to send a PDF to your printer. But are you 100% sure you got the settings right? Are you confident the size is correct? Have the colours been set to print standards or client brand guidelines? What about font usage?

So many things can go wrong, costing you and your client money. So to help, Sigurdur Armannsson — art director at the Icelandic Ad Agency — has prepared these 16 prepress tips that cover the major aspects for correction in your artwork. By checking each tip as you go your file will be in excellent shape for sending to the printery.

boxed typeset
Photo courtesy of Cybjorg

01. File the job into a tracking or accounting system

Every business needs a tracking system where information about the client and his or her jobs are filed. Systems range from high-end business software to simply using FileMaker or similar to store information. Freelancers should also use something that takes care of this. I use iBiz.

02. Use files and folders that bear the job number

Tracking systems create running numbers. You should use them for your files and folders too. The running numbers act as keys to further information about every project and client, and save you from creating new files and folders for every job. You could use abbreviations or codes for your client and then the number and a short descriptive name, e.g. ABC 12345 Brochure Spring 2010

03. Stamp the artwork

Put information inside the artwork. If the client does not object, put a short line in small type 4-4.5 pt., inside the artwork, on the back of a brochure. Include your companies name, the job number and a date. MyCompany ABC 12345 10/09. The name of the printery would be a good addition too. This will help identify the work later.

04. Make it clear who is responsible for the design

Before you start, make sure you have a design brief. What is the main purpose of the design? What are the clients motivations? Who is responsible for the job? An art director? You?

05. Proofread

The odd thing is that clients can be calm about minor errors in the design, like lines not being of same thickness or such. But errors in text are fatal. Use a good proofreader. If the client wants to proofread himself, be sure to have that in writing. An email is great confirmation.

06. Make the artwork the correct size

Does the design brief specify the size? Have you checked Document Setup again? Or the outmost frame in Illustrator? Is everyone using 210×297 as Width by Height? Did the client say an A4 because it looks like an A4 or is it 220×286? For ads, contact the magazine or website. They will love to hear from you. Always double check if you aren’t sure.

07. Define bleed and trim marks in the file

Bleeding — the distance the artwork needs to extend beyond the final size of the artwork — can vary. 3mm is most common. In some cases it may not be needed at all, nor the trim marks. Clarify before you create your PDF, and open the PDF afterward to check inclusion.

08. Ensure the typeface(s) used correlates to the clients corporate identity manual

Are you using the correct typeface for your client? Are there any unnecessary fonts that shouldn’t be included the file? In Illustrator check Document Info or Find Font… and in InDesign Find Font… under Type in the menu. When delivering artwork as a PDF there is normally no reason to outline the fonts. 

09. Ensure logo usage correlates to the corporate identity manual

The client loves her logo and usually wants it bigger than we want it to be. Stick to the size in the manual or the size used for recent works. If she wants it bigger have that in writing and be sure to tell her if it’s overshadowing other information. 

10. Keep the colour of the logo in the right format for the media used

For print, use the logo in vector format if possible. Logos sent to you inside Word documents are no good unless the design is for web or a PowerPoint presentation. Make sure the colours of the logo are in accordance with the corporate identity manual. For print, the format should be CMYK, not Pantone unless the work is going to be printed with spot colours.

11. Keep the colour of the artwork in accordance with the media used

Now, this depends on what kind of colour workflow you will use. For CMYK workflow, all colours should be in CMYK. Pictures should be in CMYK, colour separated for the paper used. No colour profiles should be attached to the pictures. If you are still using pictures as EPS it’s time to switch over to using native Photoshop files. The reason: If you are using transparency in your artwork, like drop shadows or transparent type or colours, your PDF will most likely have torn the photos into strips. This can be avoided by using the pictures as native PSD. 

For RGB workflow, you can still use CMYK colours, except you should have all photos in RGB. It’s important to have all photos in RGB and they should have a colour profile attached. Use native PSD — it’s great, and has options not available to other formats.

If you are including Pantone colours, make sure only the colours used are in the file. In InDesign and Illustrator, go to the Swatch panel and in the fly-out menu choose: Select all unused and delete those colours. If in doubt, contact your printer. He will love to help you and he will most likely send you the correct settings for Photoshop that fits the jobs going to his printery.

12. Colour correct your monitor every four weeks

There is no way you can use either CMYK or RGB workflow with confidence if your monitor is not colour corrected at least every month. Colour correction software like iOne has a reminder built in.

13. Ensure all pictures are the actual size shown

Pay close attention to the resolution of the pictures used. Most common resolution is 250-300ppi. You should try not to enlarge or minimise pictures by more than 20% of the original size. This is just a thumb rule. When you change the size inside your document you will change the output resolution too. A 300ppi picture will be 600ppi if you minimise it by 50%. Way too high a resolution. Enlarging too much might get the resolution below what is needed to pass the printery’s preflight.

14. Preflight the artwork

Preflighting the artwork before sending to the print shop is a must. If you have done all the things mentioned above, you have manually preflighted a great deal of what is needed. Using a preflight program like FlightCheck from Markzware or similar will help further. It’s most annoying to discover just before you deliver your work that it’s not in line with necessary printing standards. If you don’t have a program like FlightCheck you can go far by using the built in document info and preflights.

In Illustrator you have Document Info. Turn off the default Selection Only and browse through the items in the list, one by one to see what’s inside your file.

InDesign has a preflight feature. In CS4 it has been moved over to Window > Output > Preflight. There you can see an overview of the document, check fonts, links etc. Also, in CS4 you can see the red or green dots at the bottom of the window that indicates various errors you may have in your file. Great help but it doesn’t beat a professional application like FlightCheck.

15. Ensure the final PDF is high resolution

Did you send your client a low resolution PDF earlier in the day? Did you remember to switch over to a high resolution output? Are you using the built in PDF settings of InDesign or Illustrator? Ask your printer for PDF job settings. The built in settings are usually not what is used for professional PDF output. Or at least know which of the built in settings you are supposed to use.

High Quality Print and Press Quality settings are tempting to use if you want quality (because of the names), but in most cases you will have to use PDF/X-1a:2001. Consult your printer here. They will love you.

16. Have artwork approved as final

Get in writing (preferably email) a client approval before the job is sent to the printery. Or in bigger agencies the approval has to come from an art director or account manager. Verbal communication cannot be relied upon if something goes wrong.

These 16 pointers may seem overwhelming at first. Don’t fret, because when you’ve worked through the steps a few times they’ll become a part of your prepress routine. You’ll be able to quickly run through the list and discover that you’ve covered almost every one while working on your design. Once again: Talk to your printer to get the best results.

And finally, here are the 16 tips without the above explanations — you can keep this handy since you already know what they mean:

  1. File the job into a tracking or accounting system
  2. Use files and folders that bear the job number
  3. Stamp the artwork
  4. Make it clear who is responsible for the design
  5. Proofread
  6. Make the artwork the correct size
  7. Define bleed and trim marks in the file
  8. Ensure the typeface(s) used correlates to the clients corporate identity manual
  9. Ensure logo usage correlates to the corporate identity manual
  10. Keep the colour of the logo in the right format for the media used
  11. Keep the colour of the artwork in accordance with the media used
  12. Colour correct your monitor every four weeks
  13. Ensure all pictures are the actual size shown
  14. Preflight the artwork
  15. Ensure the final PDF is high resolution
  16. Have artwork approved as final

From David:
As well as his art director position, Sigurdur Armannsson teaches at the Icelandic Academy of the Arts and carries out font related freelance work. He blogs about design at Font.is and is on Twitter @sigurarm.

Sigurdur’s 16 tips are based on a document he developed at his work, and he teaches a course at the Academy on the matter — preparing young design students for the real world (and stopping them from clogging the Academy printers).

If you find value in the advice shared, please let Sigurdur know. He’d love to hear from you, and equally, I’m always interested in how guest posts go down with you.

My second book on Amazon

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37 comments about “Prepress tips for graphic designers”

  1. Very nice list of tips! For those designers out there who don’t really have a set system, I’d suggest taking this list and making it into a form and going through and checking your document and ticking the boxes as you go. You’d be surprised how many little things slip your mind every now and then like changing an image from RGB to CMYK before sending it off.

  2. Wonderful advice listed here. I already include most of these tips in my normal process (and it’s great to know I’m on track); however, the suggestion about tracking numbers is great. Even if you are just starting out and don’t have a large client base, using a system like this will make it easier for you when you do grow. Thank you!

  3. Nice post. Not sure I understand how to stamp the artwork. Does this go in the slug area?

  4. The stamping: This is kind of signing the artwork. Hardly noticeable line of text, put inside the artwork. In ads it stands vertically and on brochure it’s usually on the back up to the spine.

    What is gained is that it’s easy to see who designed, who printed, what month it was published and so on. This line also has the job number for further reference.

    Care must be taken to not to have this too apparent, just so that it’s readable.

  5. Hello David,

    Great post. Just thought i’d add to the section:
    15. Ensure the final PDF is high resolution
    I like to set mine to PDF/X-3:2002 and compatibility: Acrobat 5 (PDF 1.4)
    If you have transparency in your work this shouldnt be a problem for the printer or pre press operator. Sometimes I turn off Preserve illustrator editing capabilities this also reduces file size significantly.

    Mali

  6. Mordy Golding has a great article on his blog about the standards of pdf/postscript: http://rwillustrator.blogspot.com/2006/11/whats-in-file.html

    PDF/X-1a is the standard for CMYK printing. It flattens the artwork and transparencies like drop shadows and colours with less transparency than 100% are turned into flat colours. Pictures may be split into strips. You may notice white lines in the pdf where the pictures and transparencies meet. 99.99% will print fine though.

    PDF/X-3 allows RGB in the artwork and colour profiles attached to pictures are respected.

    I recommend that use of eps is avoided.
    In CMYK workflow, use psd pictures (no colour profile attached and export/save as files directly out of InDesign or Illustrator using correct PDF/X-1a settings.
    In RGB workflow, use psd or jpg pictures WITH attached colour profile, using PDF/X-3 job settings.

  7. Great tips Sigurdur, thanks for this. I make sure I work this way with all my print artwork and it helps the whole printing process run so much more smoothly. A nice little reminder for those designing for print.

  8. There is some great advice here and there are a few things I have learned on the file management side of things. Thank you for sharing this it is always good to get a bit of an insight into how other designers prepare their artwork for print.

  9. Great article, great advice! There isn’t enough info about prepress settings out there, especially for those learning on their on. I’m always worried when creating something for print, even with the right settings.
    I didn’t know about FlightCheck, will check it out.
    Thank you!

  10. Wonderfully detailed. Now that’s an informative post that is also a refresher for designers in a rush (like myself).

  11. A great check-off list for any print designer!

    The number one complaint I hear about designers from print house and pre-press staff is the lack of communication from those creating digital files. So many designers assume that all print house want files prepared in exactly the same manner – without ever confirming the specific requirements of the printer in question.

  12. @Jeff: Quite right. Everyone looses time and money when communication is bad.

    One thing I am welcoming now is the RGB workflow that moves colour separation back to the prepress and printing industry. Why should a designer with limited or no prepress skills spend time colour-separating his pictures when the guy in the printery across the street can do it much better?

    We here in Iceland, designers, prepress and printeries are going through that phase now, all at the same time and it’s simply fantastic to see how everyone who daily are in fierce competition can join hands and work this out together.

  13. Sigurdur: I find it amazing that the color separation process is moving back to the prepress department. As an old-school but post-manual-stripper prepress guy, that sounds wonderful. The only thing I’m not sure about in that process is getting people to properly see their RGB images in the CMYK gamut and not say “what happened to my neon fuchsia?” when it comes out murky pink-red.

    One thing I always always do is take my final PDFs and rip them back into Photoshop at 300 dpi, CMYK, to give it one last visual scan for imperfections. I don’t feel like I’ve done it right until I’ve done that step. That might be because of the print shop owner who would get on my case for wasting films and plates on errors I should have caught :).

  14. Thanks for the tips. I use Billings 3 myself.

  15. That’s a nice addition there, Sigurdur—about the PDF/X-1a and PDF/X-3 settings. I’m not too clued up on their individual strengths and weaknesses.

    What’s also interesting is that you recommend avoiding the use of EPS files, and saving images without colour profiles embedded. That leads well to your final tip about talking to your printer, because my book publisher sent specific colour profiles for me to use when saving artwork in Photoshop, and is happy to accept EPS files.

    Thanks for replying to the other commentators, by the way. I appreciate that a great deal.

    And to everyone else who commented, it’s great to know you’ve found use in Sigurdur’s advice.

    Doug, murky pink-red is the new neon fuschia.

  16. Thanks David for having me here.

    You may have seen somewhere a blog headline saying “eps is dead” (just google it). It’s not exactly true yet but the day will come. Personally I have loved the eps format as a stable way to produce compressed files that never fail.

    But as with the development of the tools of our trade it’s fast becoming obsolete. We demand files that include transparency (drop shadows, see through type and colours etc.) and eps has a difficulty there.

    InDesign now has a cool feature in the text wrap (CS3 and up), to wrap the text using a transparent background instead of using a clipping mask. Eps is weak there, while a psd file works great. I could go on and on.

    But your eps files are just fine. They will work.

    About the colour profiles again:
    CMYK pictures, colour adjust the pictures, using the correct ICC profiles but NEVER attach them when you save.
    RGB pictures should ALWAYS have ICC profiles attached, even those you might use as your original work file in your CMKY process.

    @Douglas: Great point.
    Another common way to soft proof a RGB picture in a busy office is to take a look at it – or even have always turned on in Photoshop > View > Proof Colours. Then in the next item above in the View menu you would have to find the right profile to view the picture in. Of course the monitor has to be well calibrated.

    A small idea: As colour calibrators are expensive tools, it would be worth considering for a group of freelancers to buy one together and let it rotate between them. Freelancer #2 comes and gets it from freelancer #1. Freelancer #3 goes and gets it from #2 and so on.

  17. Yowzer, that’s a lot of prep!!! Really appreciate it though. Do you use an external monitor calibrator or just a software version? I was told that the external is the only way to ensure the colors on the screen will match what is printed.

  18. @Kiren. I am sure I could make a 16 step list on how to make a great cup of espresso too :D

    I use an external monitor calibrator called i1 or Eye-One, originally from GratagMacbeth (now owned by xrite.com) Great tool with great software.

    There are some cheaper ones, both from xrite and others. One is Eye-One Display 2, a monitor only device. Spider3 Express for 85 eu is a popular one too.

  19. Great list! I am going to print it out and post it where everyone in the office will see it!

  20. Thanks, Sigurdur. I too was interested by both your comments on the EPS format, and the different qualities of PDF/X-1a and PDF/X-3 formats – I’ve gone looking before for information on the differences between PDF formats and have found very little except for extremely technical explanations. I’ve also never been fully satisfied with my monitor calibration so I will look into the devices you’ve listed.

    Prepress preparation is something you cannot be too thorough about.

  21. One of the best online sites to get started with human language tech stuff is http://rwillustrator.blogspot.com Mordy Golding has a way of talking about complex technical matters in a way almost everyone could understand.

    I already mentioned one of his articles. Here is another about EPS. http://rwillustrator.blogspot.com/2006/01/eps-is-dead-to-me-or-is-it.html

  22. Hi, I have started out as a designer under the brand name Zahab a few months back. You might remember recommending me books about designing. Over the last couple of weeks I have encountered the problems mentioned above on a day-to-day basis. Most of them would be file extension support and color related issues which the Printing company simply ignores, leaving me to deal with the client(which believe me is not really pleasant). Will take a print of this blog and hand it over to Printers.

    This blog post came in at the right time, for me at least.

  23. If your monitor isn’t very good, even the best calibrators won’t help much. Investing in a good, but CORRECT kind of monitor, e.g., an IPS type LCD, is important especially since us designers are always dealing with color.

  24. Oh and good checklist by the way. I think where a lot of designers might trip up at are the various PDF formats.

  25. Hi David,

    some very useful tips, thanks for posting. A printer friendly version of such useful articles would be good too, but for now its bookmarked!

  26. Hi Grainne, that’s a good idea. One for the to-do list.

    Sigurdur, a t-shirt for Christmas?

  27. Yes, I saw that one. A nice one. Seemed to me that it could be Mordy’s shopping corner.
    Eps, FreeHand and more, dead but not buried.

  28. Thanks so much for the tips, David. This is a great comprehensive list to have when prepping work for the printer. I absolutely agree that any designer without a set protocol for printing turn this detailed list into a checklist and work directly from it when preparing projects for the printer. In the end, you’ll end up saving yourself and your client money and you’ll be more likely to encourage repeat business.

    Tessa Carroll
    VBP OutSourcing

  29. Great article David, some great stuff on here.

    @Tracey Grady → I too was interested in the different PDF formats of late, as I was using the 2001 PDF/X-1a export settings. So, I posted out a question on Twitter about it, and I found most designers use this as standard.

    @David → Do you recommend iBiz? I use Billings as I received it free, however it is limited in that I cannot invoice from it. I currently invoice via InDesign>Export as PDF, which isn’t as efficient as an invoicing program. Do you do all the quotes and invoicing (+statements) via the iBiz program??

  30. iBiz and Billings are in a similar quality and price area.
    Personally I use iBiz. It was something I took for a 30 day trial and liked. It’s great for a freelance jobs and just suits me fine. I use the network version, where I have the service part on my laptop and a user version on my main work horse.

    What I like most about it is the ability to make fast estimates. I never answer directly over the phone how much a job would cost. I rather do an estimate in iBiz and then send it in a pdf format to the possible client. The great thing about this is that when I do it this way, the estimate is about twice as high as the answer over the phone would have been. So, if you look at it this way, the software has paid it self on the first job.

    Another thing is that invoicing is quite nice and making a customized invoices is no big deal. I am using preprinted invoices and they were easy to fit in.

  31. 17. Don’t use Quark.

  32. A great post and an awesome list that I can share with my students so they can start to make their own checklist. The stamping is a great idea – the number of times I have been on press checks for past projects wishing I knew where the original came from, could have saved myself the headache. Thanks Sigurdur.

  33. Making a printable version of the list is as easy as to copy this text and paste into InDesign. But if someone wants to save some time, be welcome to download an A3 version from http://font.is/Prepress/DesignersPrepressChecklist.pdf

  34. Awesome – Thank you!

  35. I had been invoicing like you, Andrew, until I took on this book project—haven’t sent an invoice in at least half a year. I have a year’s use of Freshbooks to take up, though, and know quite a few designers use it.

    Abbas, have you used the latest Quark? I haven’t, but I’m curious how it stacks up against InDesign. “Don’t use Publisher” is another. Whatever happened to Pagemaker? (The first layout software I used.)

  36. Fantastic (a little late in seeing this post…I just found you)! Thank you for putting this list together so concisely! I especially appreciated the explanation between PDF formats in the discussions. Thanks again.

  37. It was really refreshing to read something like this — the perfectionist in me is always looking for ways to improve the quality of my work. I know I come off as obsessive to my coworkers when it comes to my pre-flights, but I find a sense of pride in making things just right. We print most of our work in-house since we double as a small-format print-centre/copy store and we don’t do offset printing, so my concern is if it’s really necessary to follow these pre-flights in the same instance. We do pay attention to bleeds and trims, but my attention is on colour models. Would it matter between four-colour process or spot when printing from a Multifunction colour printer? I usually rely on spot colours and occasionally only touch process when it comes to things like gradients and percentages/transparency; I make a particular effort to stay away from RGB. One of my coworkers mixes RGB, CMYK and Pantone sometimes all in one document. Would it work either way?

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