I checked in with a client last week to see if we had final approval on a project, and my heart dropped into my stomach when I heard him say, “Oh, I sent that to the printer already.” Nothing can ruin a great design faster than a bad print job. And a bad print job caused by not prepping files properly is the worst—and completely avoidable.
Sending off artwork that hasn’t been finalized and prepped isn’t the end of the world (especially if the file uses vector illustrations instead of photographs)…nobody has ever died because of a blurry photograph or a jumbled font. And if the printer really can’t make the file work, they’ll reach out and ask for the right ones. But if you’re paying for something to be well-designed, it’s worth taking the time to make sure it’s set up correctly (you’re paying for that, too).
Here’s why file preparation by your designer is an important first step:
1. File preparation is a good chance to double-check that the size and format are correct. Especially when I’m designing something unique, like window graphics or a folded brochure, final file preparation is when I make sure my sizing is correct and that things fold the way they’re supposed to. Nobody likes a pamphlet that creases right over the text.
2. During file prep, I’m checking to make sure the colors I’m using are all CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black) instead of RGB (Red, Green, and Blue, only used for on-screen graphics). CMYK and RGB colors might look similar in the PDF on your computer, but they might print drastically differently. So it’s important to make sure the colors are set up correctly to avoid surprises.
3. I’m also checking to make sure the fonts we’re using are the correct ones. If we’re using Helvetica and I’ve got two different bold versions of the font showing up in my font list, I want to clean that up and get rid of one of them to keep things simple. If a font isn’t linking properly or is defaulting to something else, it’s better for me to fix that than to have the printer guess at what it should be (or worse, go ahead and print the design with the wrong font).
4. I’m making sure the photos we’re using are the right resolution. Printed photos should be 300dpi at full size for a nice, crisp image (100dpi for really large images). Printing with a lower resolution will result in a blurry or pixelated photograph, which can ruin the final look of a project, no matter how nice the design may be. The challenge with 300dpi photos is they can be large—too large for email depending on the project. I often need to reduce the resolution in my PDFs to bring down the file size for email, so we definitely wouldn’t want to submit that smaller, lower quality file to print.
5. Printed files need bleed and trim marks. What does that mean? In most cases, the printer will print out the artwork on a larger sheet of paper and then trim it down to size. So in the case of a 22×28 poster, I’ll set up the files so the artwork extends .125” past the edge of the page (bleed) and add in little marks in the corners that tell the printer where to cut the paper (trim marks). The bleed ensures that if the poster isn’t cut in exactly the right place, we’ve got some buffer—no little slivers of paper showing on the edges. I don’t generally send drafts that way (so that it’s easier to see what the final piece looks like), so the files need to be prepped once they’re approved.
6. Printers sometimes want files set up a certain way. Some printers want bleed, but not trim marks. Some printers want access to the fonts, and some want the fonts outlined (converted to graphic shapes) instead.
The good news? When I send you a final file, all of this has been done for you, and your vendor can just open the files and print them without having to make adjustments or ask you for corrections. I routinely hear that print vendors like my files because they know they’ll be set up correctly (which I take great pride in). I can’t guarantee there won’t be any printing issues at all (sometimes things happen), but by setting up files properly in the first place, we can lessen the chances that something will go wrong.