Design for troublefree output

You have created the ultimate document. It looks great on screen and it prints fine on your laser printer. Unfortunately that does not necessarily mean that your printer will be as excited about your creation as you are. They may encounter difficulties because of things you forgot, did not communicate or did not know about. In fact, the Rochester Institute of Technology has stated that up to 78% of all files provided by customers to print service providers are not ready to print.

Below is a collection of tips and tricks for designers to optimize their layout for print. It is a good idea to talk to your trade shop or printer before starting a big job. They will be more than willing to help you avoid making costly mistakes.

These are the topics discussed in this article:

  • General advice
  • Overall document settings
  • Color
  • Text and fonts
  • Rectangles, fills and lines
  • Line-art
  • Grayscale images
  • Color images
  • Drawings
  • Communication with your printer or service bureau
  • Other sources of information

General advice

  • Planning: Plan your job and stick to that planning. Creative people tend to forget that making plates, printing a job and finishing it takes time. Just because your planning slips does not mean that the prepress and printing people can get their part done twice as fast. Presses run on a tight schedule, printed sheets need time to dry and if something goes wrong in prepress, it can take time to sort things out.
  • Erors: Your client will proof read the document you have created but he or she may look over errors or typos. Do not focus on their corrections only, check all the documents you create carefully yourself.
  • Trapping: Trapping is a technique that is used to minimize the effects of misregistration on the press. It relies on making light objects overlap darker objects slightly to avoid ugly bad lines showing up on the printed result. The example below illustrates the principle. Either you take care of trapping and communicate this with the trade shop or printer or you let them handle it. Trapping is both a skill and an art. Do not underestimate the time it takes to properly trap a file.

  • Software: Use applications that others are familiar with. Just because ‘MegaPage Deluxe’ came bundled with a graphic arts magazine does not mean that it is the ideal application for a 64 page high quality brochure. If you stick to InDesign, QuarkXPress, Illustrator and Photoshop, any printer or trade shop should be able to handle your job. FreeHand, Corel Draw and even good old PageMaker are also well supported in the industry. Talk to your printer or service bureau if you intend to use other applications.
  • Software: Use the right program for the right task. InDesign and QuarkXPress were designed for page layout. Illustrator and CorelDraw are better suited for drawings or single page documents like posters.
  • Translation: If your document may get translated, you should take this into account while creating it. Avoid colorized text or white text set to a colorized background. Put all text that will be translated in a separate spot color called TextBlack. This makes it easier afterwards to create additional films or plates containing the translated text. Also take into account that some languages like French or Dutch are not as compact as English. Make sure there is sufficient blank space to accommodate the extra lines of text.
  • Naming conventions: Your document may be processed by different applications running on various operating systems to get imposed and output on film or plate. Each operating system or application has its own rules that file names should adhere to. By sticking to the lowest common denominator, you avoid problems with files that get renamed or cannot be read. Use filenames that are no longer than 25 characters and stick to the standard 26 characters of the alphabet and numerals from 0 to 9. Use an underscore instead of a space if you want to separate words in a filename. Never ever start or end filenames with a space or put slashes (/), backslashes (\) or ‘:’ in filenames. Avoid putting more than one period (a ‘.’) in a filename.

9 thoughts on “Design for troublefree output

  1. It appears to me that this website doesnt download on a Motorola Droid. Are other folks getting the exact same problem? I enjoy this website and dont want to have to miss it when Im away from my computer.

  2. Hi guys,

    We’ve just produced a handbook for designers. It answers a lot of the questions here. We’ve included printed examples of things like: different rich blacks, trapping, overprinting, line weight limits, point size limits with different colours and more.

    I just thought it might be useful to people here. Do check it out at:


  3. Found you by pure chance and good luck! Love the info, easy to read, understand, interesting and with a sense of humour which you really need in this industry sometimes ha ha.
    Great stuff, thanks.
    Are you on facebook, twitter or linkedin at all?

  4. Thank you for the effort you have put into this site. I was looking for well-organized stuff to pass onto our prepress operators so that they would send me good PDF files to run through our digital presses. For example, a 100-page file sent to me would not work. They made several attempts to improve the file until one did work, but took an hour to rip. In frustration, I took the PDF file, optimized it (reducing size from 103MB to 19MB), ripped it in 10 minutes, and produced an acceptable proof. In the past week, I estimate I have wasted 10 hours in a 60-hour week because of bad PDFs.

  5. I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  6. Drop shadows = transparency

    I have had and encountered remarkably few problems with transparency myself. That is probably a coincidence as it is a favorite topic in many prepress discussions.

    Two of the suggestions which I see pop up regulary:

    – As a general rule, make sure that text in InDesign is all put in a separate layer which is the topmost layer.

    – Don’t mix different color models when using transparency. For example: don’t put text that is CMYK (or just K) with a drop shadow on top of a background which is defined using spot colors. A lot of problems can be avoided by correctly defining colors in the InDesign Ink Manager. You can use spot colors in InDesign but if they are going to be printed in CMYK, define the colors as being separated right from the start. I have gotten around a few issues with white rectangles appearing in the background by redefining the colors properly in an InDesign job. Maybe that is what your printer does as well?

  7. Great site – really worthwhile and useful!

    One recurring issue I have is with drop shadows, particularly in InDesign which look fine on lasers, but when run to digitals often ‘block out’ the vignette area as a flat colour. Printers usually manage to solve the problem, but are not able to supply me with an explanation as to the cause.

    with thanks

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