Preparing Files for Print Ch2

By Lorraine Donegan

In my first article, I began scratching the surface of the issues designers (and printers) face as they prepare files for print. To recap, I surveyed print providers and prepress technicians to find out how graphic designers can better prepare those files. Here are a few more tips from the survey.

papertipStep One: Document Setup

One of the common pitfalls in prepress is one of the primary steps in design, setting up your document correctly.

Here are a few considerations:

– Where is this job going to be printed? Digital press? Sheetfed press?
– Will you be using your usual print provider (it pays to have a relationship with your print provider!) or will you use an online printer?
– Once you know where the job will be printed, consider the paper and ink/toner combination, which may be determined by the type of press (digital, sheetfed, webfed, etc.) and equipment needed for your job.

If you’re using your usual print provider you know the constraints of their presses (digital or traditional ink on paper) and equipment. If you’re considering a new print provider, talk to them about your job and how best to set up your document.

If you’re considering an online printer, visit their Web site and look for templates or layout guides. Most online printers have specific restrictions for bleeds, allowances for live area, custom trim marks, etc. Once you download the guide(s), put them on their own layer and lock them. I’ve designed with three different sets of guides, knowing that once the client decides on the print provider, I’ll make the final adjustments and delete the unwanted layers.

screenshot of templates for design

Above: A screenshot of a tri-fold brochure I designed using InDesign using two different sets of guides for the document (both on their own layers). I’ve turned off the design layers for this screenshot, but I can easily turn the guide layers on or off and make adjustments as needed.

In most cases, it’s best to build the document to the final trim size. A common mistake is to design a business card on an 8.5 x 11” sheet (default document size?), using the rectangle tool to draw out the shape of the business card. I don’t recommend this method if you plan on sending your document to a print provider.

Many designers attempt to “help” the prepress department by arranging (gang-up) their documents and creating their own crop marks. If you’re tempted to do this, talk to your print provider first! Most printers use imposition software to impose your documents in order to optimize the press sheet for their specific equipment.

The imposition software allows for color bars, press gaps and live areas. There are considerations for duplex printing (back-to-back) which may depend on how the press sheet will turn in the press. The standard bleed for a sheetfed press is 1/8” (0.125), but packaging presses and narrow label presses differ from sheetfed presses. Printers may be reducing ink and paper waste by reducing bleed amounts, talk to your print provider to confirm bleed amounts. In my last article, I wrote about how to set up your document with bleeds.

Rocket Surgery?
The last question in my prepress survey was, “If you could give a few words of advice to graphic designers, what would you say?” Here’s the answer that brought a smile to my face: “Learn the difference between spot and process color! It’s not rocket surgery!” (I loved the exclamation points.) Perhaps this survey respondent has had a conversation (or two) about the difference between spot and process colors with a few designers.

Let’s clear it up right here: process colors are the basis for 4-color printing: cyan, magenta, yellow and black. Process colors are often referred to as CMYK (where the K stands for black, also known as the “key” color). Process colors printed in sequence on a press can reproduce full-color printing.

When it comes to color management, there are many “flavors” of CMYK (U.S. Sheetfed Coated v2, SWOP, etc), but that’s another article. A spot color is a special premixed ink that is used instead of, or in addition to, CMYK process inks.

Spot colors are referred to by their manufacturer (Pantone, Focaltone, Toyo, etc.) and should be specified using the manufacturer’s printed color guide such as the Pantone Color Formula Guide. Many corporate logos include the use of spot colors, Target red, Kodak yellow, Coca-Cola red, Starbucks green just to name a few.

Traditional Printing: Ink Colors = Units on Press = Money
For every specified color in your document, you will need a separation (printing plate), which means if you choose to use a spot color in addition to the four process colors, be prepared to pay more money.

Using a spot color translates to an additional printing unit on a press. You can also design with a process color or two (or three) and add a spot color to round out the four units on press, but be prepared for an additional cost as it requires the press unit to be set up with the spot color. Many presses can accommodate more than four colors in one pass, talk to your print provider for more information on their press configurations, pricing and costing for spot colors.

Spotting Spot Colors
How do you know if you used a spot color? Use your software to check your separations. In Adobe InDesign, go to Window > Output > Separations Preview to confirm how many colors are in your document. Use the pull-down menu on the Separations panel to View Separations. Turn the eyes off for each color to determine how the colors are separated (see graphic below). Using the fly-out menu, you can uncheck Show Single Plates in Black to view each separation as it will print on press.

In Acrobat Professional, go to Advanced > Print Production > Output Preview to see a plethora of possibilities for previewing (and editing) the colors in your PDF. Check and uncheck each of the colors to see how each will separate.

Adobe Illustrator also has the Separations Preview panel (Window > Separations Preview), but it behaves slightly different from InDesign and Acrobat Professional. It works in CMYK document mode only (File > Document Color Mode). You need to check the box for Overprint Preview in order to select each separation (see graphic below). Unfortunately, it does not allow the option to Show Single Plates in Black (an InDesign feature that I love!), which would be helpful for files using white as a color (ink) which is common with design for packaging and screen printing.

Quark does not have a method of viewing separations, but here’s a workaround: export a PDF (File > Export > Layout as PDF…) and check the Options button in the dialog box before you save as PDF. Choose Color from the list in the PDF export options. Once you’re in the Color Options dialog box, choose Separations from the Mode pull-down menu. You can check or uncheck a specific color to export a separation. The separation will be black when viewed in Acrobat, but you’ll be able to confirm which items are using a spot color.

separations preview Illus-ID-Acrobat

Top Left: Illustrator Separations Preview panel showing Pantone 199 C as a spot color.
Bottom Left: InDesign Separations Preview panel showing Pantone 349 M as a spot color.
Right: Acrobat Professional Output Preview panel showing Pantone 199 C as a spot color.

As I mentioned in my previous article, you should delete unused colors from your Swatches panel (or if you’re using Quark, use the Color panel to delete unused colors). While you’re looking at your Swatches/Colors, look for the spot color icon in the panel. You may be using a spot color and not know it. You can isolate the color using the Separations preview.

spot colors in Illus-ID-QXP

Left: InDesign CS4 Swatches panel showing Pantone 349 M as a spot color.
Center: Illustrator Swatches panel showing the swatch icon for spots (note the small spot in the lower right hand corner of the swatch).
Right: QuarkXPress Colors panel showing Pantone 1-1-6 C and Pantone Reflex Blue CVC as spot colors. Note the spot icon in the right column (circled in all three panels).

Here’s a tip: when working with artwork that uses spot colors, place the artwork with spot colors early in the file building process so you can use the correct spot color swatch for additional elements. The spot color will appear in the Swatches panel upon placing the image.

Spot colors that are intended to print as the same spot color, but have different names such as 186 CVC and 186 C, will separate as two spot colors. Placing artwork early in the design process helps prevent this issue. If you’re an InDesign user, you should learn more about the Ink Manager, it’s a very powerful tool.

Spot Colors for Digital Printing
If your document is destined for a digital press (Xerox, Canon, HP, Kodak, Océ, Screen, Toshiba, Xeikon, Ricoh, just to name a few) I suggest contacting your print provider to test your files and spot colors. There are only a few digital presses supporting manufacturer (Pantone, etc.) spot colors. Most can only simulate spot colors using CMYK.

I know I’m repeating myself here, but it pays to ask questions and learn more about the printing process … it is a process, but I don’t think it qualifies as rocket surgery.


Lorraine Donegan is an Associate Professor in the Graphic Communication Department at Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo, California and has worked in the field of graphic design and production since 1990. One of her teaching goals is to link design with technology, preparing students to understand the language and role of the graphic designer, the print provider and the final product. She has spoken at conferences in San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Chicago and New York City on the issues of design and production.

Copyright 2009. All Rights Reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced or stored by any means for any purpose without express written consent of the copyright holder. “Preparing Files for Print – Chapter 2” is reprinted here with permission of PaperSpecs, the first independent and comprehensive Web-based paper database featuring more than 4,300 papers from over 70 mills.

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