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Valarie Martin Stuart is an art director, designer and production artist based in Dallas, Texas, USA. Her boutique design studio, Wavebrain Creative Communications, specializes in providing businesses with creative and practical solutions for both print and web.

Valarie has over fifteen years experience in the design field, including ten years as an independent contractor. She has worked on national and international accounts for many leading ad agencies, design studios and corporations. Valarie has also been an Associate Professor of Graphic Design, where in addition to teaching students the basics of design and software, she lectures on important issues dealing with the business of graphic design.

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Sending Jobs for Output: A Crash Course
by Valarie Martin Stuart

The most well-designed and effective printed piece is a failure if it can’t be properly output for printing. However, preparing your electronic files for printing isn’t difficult. Just follow the steps in this Pre-Press Checklist and you’ll be on your way to sending perfect files to press.

Here’s a breakdown of each item on the Pre-Press Checklist:


Check your spelling
This sounds like a total no-brainer, right? Run your software’s spell check, then print the job out on your laser printer and sit down with a red pen (or a non-repro blue if you’re old-fashioned), and give it another look. Spell check won’t catch "it’s" instead of "its", or "there" instead of "their", so you still need human eyes to give the job one last review.

Think you don’t need to check it again, because your document has been through multiple rounds of proofing? Check it anyway. I once visited a printer who was running an annual report for a major airline. While the job was on press – a deadline-critical large run on a really big, really expensive press – someone caught an error. Albuquerque was misspelled. Oops. Don’t let this happen to you.

Delete unused colors
Review the color palette in your document. Delete any colors that you haven’t used. If you’ve told the printer that you are using PMS 123 and PMS 185 in your document, but your printer’s preflight department (this is the department that reviews your artwork first at the printer) also finds PMS 124 in your file, a red flag will be raised. You don’t want any red flags showing up when your files are at the printer. Red flags cause delays and potential errors. If you were the printer, what would you do if you saw a color that shouldn’t be there? Hopefully, you’d make a phone call to clarify what the unused color is doing there. Phone calls cause delays. Not making phone calls may cause errors. Avoid any possibility of questions on your project. You don’t want red flags raised when your job goes to press.

Define colors correctly
If your job is a spot color job, be sure your PMS colors are defined as spot, not process. If you don’t define your colors as spot, your job will output incorrectly. Instead of getting one piece of film (or one plate, as the case may be) for PMS 123 and one piece of film for PMS 185, you’ll end up with four pieces of film – one each of cyan, magenta, yellow and black.

Likewise, if you are running a four-color process job, make sure your colors are defined as process. It’s okay to specify PMS 123 and 185 if your job is CMYK; just be sure to specify that those Pantone colors should be output as process. When you specify in your software that PMS 123 is to be output using the CMYK equivalent, you will get the four pieces of film – cyan, magenta, yellow and black – that you need. Otherwise, you’ll end up with five pieces of film – cyan, magenta, yellow, black and PMS 123. Your file tells the printer that you want to run a five-color job instead of a four-color job. Not good. You’ve just invited more red flags to the party. Red flags are bad party guests.

Match color names throughout all graphic programs
If you’re using PMS 123 on your job, be sure that in every application where you’ve used that color, the name of that color is identical. Let’s say you’ve done a logo in Illustrator that uses PMS 123U. When you import that logo into QuarkXpress, that PMS color comes along for the ride. Any time you use PMS 123 in your QuarkXpress document, make sure that color is also defined as PMS 123U, and not something like PMS 123C. You may get some unexpected and unsatisfactory results if your color names don’t match. Not to mention more red flags.

Define color space correctly
Check any imported images you’re using in your layout to make sure they are defined using the correct color space. Unless your printer specifically tells you to save images as RGB, you won’t use an RGB file on a press run.

This checklist item gets tricky if you’ve used Photoshop images, yet your job isn’t running as four-color process. The topic of defining color in a Photoshop document is too extensive to cover in this brief space. Just be sure that you’ve defined your color correctly before your document goes to press. If you’re not familiar with defining color spaces in Photoshop for spot color jobs or specialty treatments like spot varnishes, research the issue before or during production. Discovering that something is wrong after you’ve released the job to your printer is too late. At that point, you can count on delays and additional charges from your printer. Those aren’t words that clients like to hear.

Build bleed if necessary
If your design has ink color running all the way to the edge of your paper, you’ve got a bleed. It’s not possible for a press to print cleanly to the edge of a piece of paper. In order to make this effect work, the printer will print your job on a larger sheet of paper, then trim the job to actual size. You need to have ink color running beyond the trim boundaries, so that when the trim is made, there’s no slivers of paper color showing between the edge of the color and the edge of the paper.

In order to build a bleed, extend any color or images beyond the trim boundaries of your piece. A standard bleed for offset press is 1/8" beyond the edge of the trim size. However, confirm this size with your printer; different printers and different presses will have different specifications for bleed.

Ensure that images are the proper resolution
If you have raster files (like Photoshop files) in your document, make sure that the resolution is high enough for offset press. Check with your printer about the line screen he will be running on your job. A typical line screen for offset press is 133 or 150; for newspaper printing, it may be 85. The resolution of your Photoshop files needs to be a minimum of twice the line screen at 100% size to print correctly; otherwise, you’ll end up with a pixelated, jagged or blurred image.

Note the key words here – at 100% size. Let’s say you’re printing a 4" x 4" photo on a page, and your printer is using a 133 line screen on your job. Your photo needs to have a minimum resolution of 266 dpi when your image is sized at 4" x 4". If you create your 4" x 4" image as 266 dpi, but enlarge that photo to 6" x 6" in your page layout program, you have effectively decreased your image resolution to 177 dpi by enlarging it. That won’t work – your image quality is too low to be reproduced correctly.

Keep in mind that if an image is scanned at 300 dpi, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s appropriate for your usage. Your files need to be the correct resolution for the size you are using on your printed piece.

Check the colors in your imported images
We covered this above, but it bears repeating. Make sure all PMS names match on all your imported images. Also, if you’re defining colors as CMYK mixes, i.e. 100% cyan, 80% magenta, 10% yellow, 10% black, make sure you’ve used that same mix throughout all applications when you’re wanting identical colors.

Build your graphics in the correct color space for separations
If your job is a spot color job, make sure you’ve built your graphics correctly. If your project is printing as four-color process, make sure all files are defined as CMYK. Once again, don’t use RGB for output to an offset press.

All imported images are an appropriate format for printing
Print work uses different image formats than web work. Don’t send a job to press with GIF or JPEG files imported into your layout. Convert them to TIFF or EPS first. If you’ve had to make those conversions for your print job, you’d better make sure you’ve followed the other steps in your checklist as well, such as confirming correct color space and resolution.

Replace low-res FPO images with their high-res counterparts.
If you’ve used any low-resolution images in your files as FPO ("For Position Only") images, don’t forget to replace them with their high-resolution counterpart before sending the files to your printer. If your printer will be doing the high-resolution scans for you and dropping them into your layout, be sure to indicate which images are FPO and which are already high-resolution. Do so by putting a big FPO in bold type across any images that are low-resolution, to ensure that your printer instantly recognizes which images are not yet appropriate for output.

Convert fonts to outlines where possible and appropriate
If you’ve got any images imported into a layout program, make sure those images don’t contain fonts. Convert any fonts into paths if you’ve used Illustrator, and in you’re using Photoshop, make sure you’ve rastered the fonts. Your layout program won’t collect any fonts from imported images, so it’s up to you to check every image to determine whether or not it uses fonts, and which fonts it may use. Avoid this issue; once your imported images are approved, convert any fonts to paths or rasters. Don’t forget to keep an original on file, though, in case you have to edit at a later date.

Use real fonts

If your layout application has the ability to bold or italicize a font by clicking a button rather than selecting the actual bold or italic font, ignore that feature! Always specify fonts by using the actual font from your font menu (i.e. Helvetica Bold) instead of selecting the fake bold like QuarkXpress offers you – the little "B" in your measurements palette. If you don’t use the actual font that’s on your system, your job may output incorrectly and your type won’t be bold like you specified.

Double-check your fonts
When you send your files to the printer, you need to include each and every font you’ve used in the files. This is one of the biggest complaints of printers – designers forget fonts. If you don’t send a font, that font will convert to a default font like Courier when the printer opens it on his computer. You must send each and every font used in every file, including imported image files, for the printer to correctly open and output your file from his computer.

Keep in mind the differences in font types when you send your fonts. If you have used a Type 1 font, you must send both components of the font – the printer and screen font – for the font to work correctly. True Type and Open Type fonts don’t have a separate printer and screen font; they’re all rolled into one.

If you’ve used many styles of the same font family, like a Roman, an Italic and a Bold, you must send a corresponding font for each style. If you’re using a Type 1 font and can only find the screen font but not the corresponding printer font, or vice versa, you’re in trouble. You’d better either find all components of that font to send, or use a different font.

Collect for output
Once you’ve completed all of the above steps, it’s time to collect your files for output. If you’re using page layout software like QuarkXpress, the software will do this collect for you. Your goal is to put your document, all imported images, and all fonts together, nice and neat, in a folder to send to your printer.

Make a new folder for this purpose, and include the word "FINAL" or something similar in the folder name. That’ll help you when you need to refer back to the project at a later date – you’ll easily be able to find all of the final stuff that you sent to press.

If you’re using an application like Adobe Illustrator, you’ll have to collect all of your files manually. Make a new folder for the documents to be output, and include all of the linked images and fonts within that folder.

Remember, if you didn’t follow the step above and convert all of your fonts to outlines in any imported image files, you’d better go back and recheck every imported image to find what fonts you used, and include those as well.

Put yourself in your printer’s shoes when you perform your final collect. Don’t get sloppy – place all of your fonts in a folder labeled "Fonts," and don’t make your printer sift through a big mess to find what he needs for a specific task.

Print a composite proof at 100%

Once you’ve done your collect for output, close the file you had opened to perform the collect. Now, open the final collected document. For all of the following steps, you should use the actual file that will be sent to the printer.

Print your file at 100% with registration (crop) marks. Tile it together if it won’t fit on one sheet of paper, but make sure you print it at actual size. When the printer outputs your film, he will be able to lay the film over your printout, and make sure nothing weird has happened, like text reflowing or graphics dropping out. He can’t do this is if you haven’t supplied him a printout at actual size.

Create a mockup
Print out and assemble a mockup for the printer, in addition to your composite printouts. If you are doing a brochure with folds, print it out, trim it to size, and fold it where it folds. If you’re doing a saddle-stitched catalog, print and trim every page and assemble the pages in order. If you’re creating a pocket folder with a die cut, print it out, trim to the die lines and assemble it, using glue or tape where the printer will glue.

Don’t leave anything to chance. It’s not your printer’s responsibility to guess where each page goes in relation to every other page. It’s your responsibility, so send the printer an assembled mockup for reference.

Print color separations of your files

While most printers don’t require that you send them printed color seps (separations) of your files, print them out for your own reference. This will tell you if you’ve correctly done the steps above that relate to color. If you have failed to specify a spot color as process, you’ll discover your error when you print seps for your own review. You’re much better off if you take the time to do this, rather than have your printer find (or not find) your mistake when your job is ready to go on press and your deadline has reached critical status.

Put any additional instructions in writing
If there’s anything, anything at all, that you need to point out to your printer about your files, put it in writing. If it directly relates to art on your documents, mark it on the composite printout that you’ve made. For example, if you’re running a tear-off perforation (perf) on your brochure job, tell the printer where the perf goes, or indicate that the perf line in your file shouldn’t print but is for position only. If there’s any color concerns, put it in writing. If the printer is supposed to replace a low-resolution FPO image in your files with his own high-resolution image, you’d better tell him that. And it had better be in writing.

Supply a disk directory and indicate the files to be output

Don’t make your printer guess which files are the ones he’s supposed to output. Tell him. Print out a disk directory, and highlight the files for output. This way, he will know what is a final file (that will match your supplied printouts, of course) and which files are supporting graphics for the final output file.

Release your job to the printer
Congratulations! You’ve taken steps to ensure that you are sending error-free, press-ready files to your printer. While this list isn’t all-inclusive, following these simple steps will certainly decrease any chance of something going wrong with your files once they’re out of your hands.

Your printer doesn’t have ESP. He has never seen your files before, so make it easy on him. Anticipate any questions he may have, and answer them before they have to be asked. Your printer is your friend – you both want your job to print seamlessly, with no errors or delays. If you have any questions during your production process about how to set something up, call your printer. He should be happy to help you. It’s in his best interests that you set your files up correctly for output. Your printer wants a perfect file in his hands to smooth his production process; he doesn’t want to have to continually call you to ask questions or fix things. And if he does have to fix errors, he’s fully within his rights to charge you for it. Keep communication lines open between you and your printer, and be friendly. You may even find that your printer will kick your project to the top of his workflow list, once he learns that your files are always perfect and troublefree!



© 2004 Valarie Martin Stuart

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