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How to Prepare Files for Printer

Essential steps before saving final print ready files for production

You invested hours, days, weeks, maybe months working on a design for a big project. You double and triple checked every last pixel of your masterpiece layout before sending off artwork to printer.

Package arrives and you open the box in excitement. All that work finally printed and ready to distribute to potential clientele. In anticipation you open the box and jaw hits the floor! All your graphics are broken or missing bits and pieces, text missing or fonts completely different. It’s a giant mess! I’ve witnessed it happen and it isn’t pretty.

While it’s theoretically impossible to prevent anything like this from happening 100% of the time, there are measures you can take to package the artwork to ensure it prints the way you intended.

The Blame Game

The difficulty here is that you cannot blame the printer for printing what was supplied. Often times the mutations that occur are subtle and only the original designer may notice any changes. It is not the printers responsibility to check for any of the graphic elements of the design. The only responsibility of prepress department is to ensure proper layout requirements are met such as bleeds.

What went wrong?

While file corruption may be a possibility, 99 out of 100 times its typically related to two issues. 1) Improper file preparations prior to saving as final file format, or 2) submitting native design files such as .ai (Adobe Illustrator) or .psd (Adobe Photoshop) without proper packaging.

Regardless of which software or format you choose, there are critical steps that must be taken before saving the file for the printer.

Vector based artwork requires extra preparations before saving for final print ready output. Certain measures must be taken to embed images and fonts for transportability to avoid conflicts opening the file from one computer to another.

Raster format has similar prep work and packaging requirements as vector or any other formats.

The lesson here is that just because you completed the design phase does not mean it’s ready for the printer. There are better more secure ways to submit artwork that the printer prefers over native design files such as .ai or .psd.

Why are native design files not recommended for print?

Native design format files such as Adobe Illustrator (.ai) or Photoshop (.psd) utilize images and fonts in the design from within your computer’s operating system to display on your computer.

For instance, when you apply an image file, such as a photograph, to Adobe Illustrator, it does not embed that image into the .ai file. Illustrator instead uses a placeholder to show the image from your hard drive to reduce memory and processing consumption to speed up the software. Therefore, when you send that same .ai file over to the printer, they will not have the image file on the their computer making it impossible to open the file properly.

The same issue occurs with fonts because like images, fonts displayed on your design software use placeholders to display fonts within your computer’s operating system.

Therefore, when you send a native design file to the printer without proper file prep, chances are the printer will reject the artwork and request new files.

What should I do?

Some prerequisites must be met. These were covered in the previous posts. Sizing, bleeds, color format, and all guidelines must be set properly. With everything else double checked and triple checked, proofed by the upper echelons of management and full green light given, it’s now time to package your artwork for the printer.

We will break down the prepping steps for vector based and raster image based artwork.

Regardless of which type of platform you design on, you want to package, or save/export the file in PDF format. PDF has proven to print with the best results over any other format. There is however, a right and wrong way to setup your PDF export options. For optimal results, please follow the detailed guidelines below.

Vector Software:

Adobe® Illustrator + InDesign, CorelDraw®, Quark Xpress®

Step 1. 

Flatten Transparencies: Flattening transparencies takes all of the graphic elements within the design to create a single layer to embed and lock down everything in place.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Highlight everything within the artboard that is to be printed. In top menu click Object>Flatten Transparency.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Adjust parameters as shown. This will convert all text and strokes to outlines, merge all layers and combine images into a single master layer.

Step 2:

Save or Export as PDF – PDF’s have proven over the years to be the most stable, compact, and accurate format for commercial printing.

Figure 3

Figure 3: File>Save As>PDF.  Select [High Quality Print] from Adobe preset drop-down menu. You can uncheck Preserve Illustrator Editing Capabilities to reduce file size if necessary. If you uncheck, the label [High Quality Print] will changed to [High Quality Print] (Modified).

Fig 4: Use Document Bleed Settings

Figure 4: Ensure Use Document Bleed Settings is checked and correctly calibrated.

Click Save PDF

Raster Software:

Adobe Photoshop®, iPhoto®, etc.

Step 1: Ensure the image resolution is set to minimum 300 DPI

Step 2: Be sure to include bleed margins in the document dimensions

Step 3: Color mode set to CMYK

Step 4: Flatten or merge all the layers. This greatly reduces file size but more importantly, embeds the text and graphics to be transportable.

Step 5: Follow same steps for PDF save/export as vector above.

Helpful Tip: Before flattening or merging all the layers, save the design file or make a separate copy of it just in case. After flattening or merging file, save as a new/copy under a different file name. You’ll thank me later.


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How to Setup Artwork for Printing


ULTRA™ is an experienced online printing and design company serving thousands of clients across the U.S. and Canada. For all of your print marketing needs please visit our website for complete catalog of products and services.

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