Making your design look as good in print as it does on screen is not so hard when you use a few simple methods.
Final Art (FA), press-ready files, hi-res artwork…these are just some of the terms that sometimes cause designers, desktop publishers and account managers to break into a cold sweat. But are these the “boogie men” that everyone should run from? I really don’t think so. Of course there are some cases that are more complex than others, like packaging files, for example, but let’s leave those for some other time…Without complicating it, basically, a press-ready file is a file with all the technical characteristics necessary for quality reproduction. In simple terms, it is a digital file prepared for the physical world.
At Finepaper, we produce dozens of products per day and check all the digital files that lead to those products. We help avoid many problems but, every day, we also learn about new situations and possible solutions. In fact the only rule that always works is to never stop believing you may encounter the most problematic situations where you least expect them.
“…to produce a printed product, there are physical, chemical and mechanical processes that are far more complex than projecting an image onto a screen.”
Why do we have to prepare a file if it looks great on-screen? This is where we encounter the true essence of a press-ready file. And the answer is simple…to produce a printed product, there are physical, chemical and mechanical processes that are far more complex than projecting an image onto a screen. Printing plates, inks, printers and finishings all become involved.
You’ve heard of bleeds, CMYK’s, crop marks, low images and spot colors, right? Much of the artwork that comes to print does not come with these specs or comes with extra stuff. There are no obligatory specs for creating a press-ready file. Talk with us or your print provider but, in the vast majority of cases, there are some specs that cannot be omitted.
Before you get started, it is important to know or confirm the specs ordered from your printer: job size, number of colors to print (for example 4/4, which means four colors on the front and four colors on the back,) if the job has folds and other characteristics that may be important, such as the printing process to be used. If you find that you are missing information or have questions about a spec, it is best to ask before uploading the file. Sending various files is always to be avoided.
A long time ago, I (a much younger me) had to prepare files for print. I drew up a checklist with the following:
- Trim size
- Image resolution
- Die cuts/scoring
- Hi-res PDF
As I said earlier, there are more complex FA specs, (trapping, fold compensation, cutting, overprinting and a few more things) but I think these are the basis for any FA.
The first thing to do is to confirm the trim size of the job. You should start with this because if it’s not the right size you’ll probably have to adapt the design which, in the end run, might need new customer approval, new content, etc…I’m guessing that you know how to check this.
“If you find that you are missing information or have questions about a spec, it is best to ask before uploading the file.”
Next step: check the colors used in your files to make sure you have the specs needed for the designated print process. First off, when it comes to 4/4 colors, this usually refers to four-color printing on both sides of the sheet (or page.) It can also mean “process colors” or CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black; just a note: the “K” doesn’t come from “black” but from “key color” because, for various reasons, this is actually the key color that makes this reproduction process work.) With this color model we basically print “all colors” by mixing these “primary” colors—printing one at a time on top of each other. Most print jobs that are not in black and white are printed this way. In some cases we use spot colors which are made up by mixing primary colors outside the printing machine and printing with them afterwards.
Ok, let’s get back to the file. In the swatches tab or window (in Adobeⓒ Illustratorⓒ or Indesignⓒ) we can review the colors used in the document. I always update the list first:
- Open the swatch window and open the panel menu on the top right corner
- Select all unused colors by clicking that command
- Delete them by using the bin icon
- Go back to the swatch panel menu and select “Add Unnamed Colors.”
Great stuff! You have your color list sorted out.
As you can see in the above example, we have two reds and, although they look the same, you can see that they are different because of the symbols to the right of the color name. The last symbol, with colors, tells us the color composition, or, rather, the color space. In this case it is CMYK in both reds. The gray square without the ball indicates that it’s a process color and the square with a ball means that it is a spot color. If the work is not supposed to have spot colors, we have to convert it to process. Double click on the color and, where it says “color type,” choose “process” on the dropdown menu.
We do this for all identified colors. Another task ticked off!
Let’s move on to image resolution. As you can see in fig.02 (Ai,) when selecting an image the information about it will appear in the upper left corner: file name (image01.jpg,) color space (RGB) and resolution (PPI: 288.) In Fig.03 (InDesign) in the links tab we have the image information (name, location, color space, resolution, etc.) In the resolution part (“current PPI” and “effective PPI”) what matters is the value of “effective PPI.” In this case it is 277 PPI (Pixels Per Inch) which is equivalent to DPI (Dots Per Inch). Well, to be strict… isn’t it. But, let’s not get into that now. I’d really like to get this post done.
How do I know the right resolution to print? Not wanting to bore you with mathematical formulas, the industry tells us that 300 DPI is a high resolution image. For offset (and I will have printers picking on me) the minimum DPI that I accept is 250 DPI.
Whenever you need to convert the image to CMYK, edit the photo in Photoshop and convert to CMYK using the commands Image/mode/CMYK.
Ok, this file is almost done!
Bleeds! If you don’t do this, 99.999% of the time the printer will return your file asking for the missing bleeds. Well, industrial trimming techniques can’t always be extremely precise. When using guillotines it is almost certain that the first and the last sheets will be slightly different. That’s why we extend objects, images, lines etc. that “touch” the page edge (left, right, top and bottom). So extend them all by at least 0.125’’. I mean literally extend, not enlarge or move.
Another important thing to place in the bleed zone are fold marks because they are not automatically placed. These are simply lines that show where your job should be folded. So place a stoked line about 0.08’’ outside the artboard and away from the page trim. Ahhh, just one more thing… Trim marks are defined when you save the press-ready PDF. Don’t manually place them. That’s just a waste of time and the risk of getting it messed up is high.
We have the final artwork done. (Woohoo!)
Let’s create the press-ready PDF:
- Open the file menu. Click Save as/Export PDF
- Name your file and save. Important note here: Don’t save your PDF as “Interactive PDF.” Your printers’ CTP units “speak” postscript, FOGRAS and other strange languages and they don’t work well with stuff they don’t understand. So send them stuff that they recognize.
- Choose the preset PDF/X-1a:2001. This may vary, so it is a good idea to confirm with your print provider.
- Select the pages you want to save, and DON’T tick “Spreads” (unless your printer specifically asks for this option).
- On the “Marks and Bleeds” tab, select “Crop Marks” and “Use Document Bleed Settings.” (If you did not set it in the document settings, you can enter it manually here).
Just to emphasize once again, these are the basic steps to create press-ready files. Of course there’s a number of other important things, for example, image processing, the right choice of color profiles, etc. I promise I’ll talk about it next time. Ahhhhh…very important: Artwork is the final step of the design process (may it be a business card or a billboard) and it’s a big responsibility. If you are uncomfortable with this task, please ask for help! Speak to us, your colleague, boss, to the printers themselves. Everyone wants the job to come out fab.
Thank you for your time and I hope I made the whole process a little bit easier to understand.
See you next time.