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The Beginner’s Guide to Prepping and Sending to Print

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

When I was starting out in graphic design, without a doubt the most terrifying and intimidating aspect of the job was preparing and sending my work to print. 

Sure, your layouts might be tip-top and your typography skills may well be 'awesome', but all of these skills will mean next-to-nothing if the printed result comes back looking less than perfect. And there's sadly no 'Undo' option once that delivery box arrives.

But don't panic! In this article we’ll walk through a handy checklist of the principal things you need to think about when preparing artwork for print. Break down some of those knowledge barriers between graphic design and printing, and feel confident in creating documents that look as good on paper as on your screen!

1. Prepare Your Document for Print

You can start to prepare your document for print right at the start of the design process—when you set up your document on the computer. 

Choose Your Software Wisely

InDesign CC

First up, you need to consider which software application you’re going to use to prepare your print document. 

There are a number of choices available, and it’s really up to you which program floats your boat! Adobe InDesign, Microsoft Publisher, CorelDRAW and QuarkXPress all allow you to set up flexible layouts and optimise them for print. Check out some useful beginners InDesign tutorials here to get started, if you’re completely new to print design. 

Include a Bleed!

Document with a bleed

I wonder how many times a year (or month, day even!) a printer has hung his or her head in despair at receiving a ‘print-ready’ file that lacks a bleed. Probably a lot. 

Help your printer out and be sure to include a bleed (and export it! [see below]) when you set up your document on the computer. 

So, what’s a bleed? A bleed is an extra space around the perimeter of your layout that extends past the edge of the page(s). You should always include a bleed if any elements (e.g. images, colored backgrounds) on your layout will cross the edge of the page (the trim edge). Once the layout is printed and trimmed, a bleed will minimise the visibility of any slight errors in trimming.

Do You Have Folds?

folded brochure

You might be creating a document which is going to be folded after it’s printed, such as a leaflet or brochure. Make sure you know exactly where the fold(s) are going to be (and drag out guides onto the digital layout to mark them out) when you set up your document. 

Tip: If you’re creating a tri-fold brochure (which has two folds on a page, effectively ‘splitting’ the brochure into three parts), make sure you double the margin space across a fold. If you include the same margin as you do around the edge of the page, the fold will slice the margin width in half, giving the layout a cramped, uneven appearance once folded.

How Will It Be Bound?

hardback book cover

If you’re designing a multi-page document for print, such as a book, booklet or report, you need to think about how the pages will be bound together once printed. Talk to your printer to help determine what sort of binding will best suit your print product. Depending on the number of pages and paper weight, as well as the desired ‘look’ of the final bind and your budget, the printer can suggest an option(s) which will suit your design. 

There's a huge range of different binding options available, just some of which are: saddle-stitch, velo, fastback, Wir-O, perfect, side-stitch, case, sewn-and-glued, and lay-flat. Some printers may refer your product to a specialist binders, if they cannot offer a binding service in-house.

Set Up Reader’s Spreads, Not Printer’s Spreads

book spread

If you’re creating a multi-page document, such as a book, for sending to print, you may be tempted to visualise how the book will actually be printed, and in many cases you’ll notice from hard-copy examples that a page in the first chapter of a book might actually be physically connected to a page in the last chapter, forming a single spread.

This may be the case, but that doesn’t mean you should set up your document in this way, as ‘Printer’s Spreads’. It’s much easier, both for you and the printer, if you set up your document as ‘Reader’s Spreads’, i.e. how the reader would actually view the document: page 1, then page 2, then page 3, etc. 

Let the printers do their job—they will be able to arrange your print-ready file in the way they feel best. And as a bonus, you’ll spare everyone a whole lot of confusion and bafflement as you try to explain why page 2 is opposite page 15...

Include Blank Pages

document with blank pages

It’s quite common for multi-page documents to contain some blank pages, whether it’s a few pages at the beginning of a book, or the reverse side of some pages in a report. 

You should make sure to include these when you set up your document. True, they don’t contain anything to be printed, but including them will help your printer understand the structure of the document, and accommodate any blank pages you want included in the final print product.

2. Get Savvy About Color

Color is the beating heart of the print process. Having a basic grasp of the main color rules for print will set you well on your way to creating layouts with confidence.

Repeat This Mantra: CMYK Not RGB

CMYK colors

You should always set color in your print layouts in a CMYK color mode (or almost always; see Spot Colors below). CMYK refers to the four inks that are used in four-color printing, Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key (Black). Each color in your print design will be created through a combination of these four inks.

Whatever you do, don’t set your print documents in an RGB color mode (or be sure to export the final print-ready file as CMYK, if you’ve been working in an RGB file). RGB (which is rendered through interaction of Red, Green and Blue light) is only suitable for layouts that will be viewed online or in digital format on screen.

Know When to Include Spot Colors

pantone spot color

Spot, sometimes termed ‘Solid’, colors, are created by an ink, either pure or mixed, that is printed on a single print run. 

What this means is that if you choose to include a Spot color (e.g. a Pantone color, or metallic or fluorescent inks) in your print design, the printer will have to prepare a completely separate plate for the spot color to be printed. 

Including Spot colors in your artwork can be advantageous—often the final color result is more accurate, with less subtle variation; and on larger print runs it can even be more economical (if you’re dealing with three or fewer than three colors). On short runs, however, the expense of printing Spot colors can be steep, so be sure to get a quote from your printer before you incorporate a Spot color(s) into your design. 

Know the Difference Between Tints and Transparencies

It's a sometimes vague and confusing distinction, so let's get this put down in words: a Tint is a percentage of a color mixed with white to achieve a paler (yet still opaque) shade; while reducing the opacity of a colored element in your layout allows elements sitting below the Transparent element to become more visible. 

When you prepare a document for print, you should be aware that a tinted color will print as a solid, opaque color, blocking out the color of any elements below it, just like this:

shapes with tints

A partially-transparent color can result in overlapping shapes (called ‘atomic regions’) when flattened, if you set the color over something below it. The atomic region’s color will be rendered as a combination of the colors of the two elements as they overlap.

shapes with transparencies

3. Maximise the Resolution of Your Graphics

If you’re including graphics in your print layout, you need to ensure that they are of sufficient quality for printing. Low-resolution images produce blurry, pixelated print results. High-resolution graphics, by contrast, will look sharp and crystal clear when you go to press.

Different Image Formats Give Different Results

business card with photo and illustration

Photos often cause the most misery when producing print layouts—this is because they are bitmap graphics, not vectors. Bitmap graphics (e.g. JPEG, TIFF, PNG) are made up of a number of tiny pixels. When you resize a bitmap graphic, and resave it, some of the quality of the original image can be lost, resulting in a more pixelated image. You should make sure that your bitmap images have a high DPI (see below) before you include them in your print designs. 

Vector graphics, like Illustrator and EPS file formats, are made up of scalable objects, and as a result will not lose their quality if resized. 

As long as the quality of the image(s) is high, there’s no reason why both bitmap and vector graphics can’t work equally well in your layouts.

The Difference Between Image Size and Image Quality

image quality comparison

So your colleague or client may have sent over a JPEG image for you to use in your print layout, and from what you can see, the file size is pretty decent—between 3 and 5 MB. But then you open up the file and see that the image appears pixelated and, frankly, a bit rubbish. What gives?

Even though the file size of the image is usually a good indicator of quality, the quality of a bitmap image is not determined by the size of the file, or even the dimensions of the image. Quality is determined by DPI (Dots per Inch). DPI describes the resolution number of dots per inch that make up the colors and tones of an image.

You should always aim for a high DPI count for any image you’re hoping to use in a print layout. If you’re out of options, and still need to use a less-than-favorable image, with a lower DPI, consider setting it at a very reduced scale in your design.

4. Make Typography Legible

Even if you get the technical issues resolved, like color and image resolution, you might still encounter problems with the scale and impact of text on your print layouts, which were not so obvious when up on the screen.

Get Your Sizing Right!

big legible typography

A very common issue you might encounter when sending to print is that the size of type appears too small or too big. Font Size is really important to get right, as illegible documents, however pretty, will immediately turn the reader off. 

You should also think about applying appropriate font sizing to suit both the document type and the audience. Ask yourself who will be reading the item. Will they be devoting more time to reading it or are they more likely to give it a passing glance? 

If you’re creating layouts for a book, it’s probably OK to size type a little on the smaller side (check out this tutorial on typesetting books for more guidance), whereas you might need to amp up the size of text on a flyer, to make sure you catch and hold the attention of a casual reader.

The best way to make sure you’re using the right font size is to print out a sample of the layout at actual size, and ask a few friends to look it over. Your eyesight might be fantastic, but that 10 pt font size might be more difficult for someone else to read.  

electra std font weights

You should also give equal consideration to the Weight of the typeface. Is it too thin and faint when printed? Do you need to set that header in Semibold or Bold to make it stand out? Can you draw the eye to something important by applying an Italic weight? 

5. Check Those Margins!

You should look at margins as the ‘picture frame’ that frames your layout and gives it breathing space. 

Are They Generous Enough?

margins in document

This is where you’re going to need to get a print proof of your layout (either from your commercial printer, or just as a printout in-house) to make a judgement call. 

Print the layout, and leave it for a while. Come back later, take another look, and assess whether you could make those margins more generous. In most cases, you can afford the space to make the margins wider, and you’ll notice an instant, and drastic, improvement to how easy-on-the-eye your layout appears.

Design With Trimming Errors in Mind

first page of book

Sometimes print documents are not trimmed as accurately as you would like. It happens, but it needn't be a disaster! Keep in mind that even very slight trimming errors can seem huge if you’ve applied narrow margins to your layout. 

So, as we’ve already stressed, make sure your margins are as generous as they can be. Anything less than 12.7 mm (the default margin width set by Adobe InDesign) might mean you’re looking at a very narrow margin if the trimming is out by only a millimetre or two.

6. Know Your Paper

As you begin to draft your work on the computer, have a good think about what the work will be printed on. Different paper weights and finishes can dramatically effect the final printed result, and you should have some awareness of the kind of ‘look’ you’d like to aspire to for your finished product before you commit the work to print.

Pick an Appropriate Weight

exported business card

Paper comes in a variety of different ‘weights’, measured in GSM (Grams per Square Meter), which will affect how thick the paper feels. Thicker papers tend to be of better quality (and are therefore usually more expensive).

You should feel confident selecting an appropriate paper weight that’s going to suit the item you’re printing (and your budget!). 

If you are looking to print a newspaper, for example, a low GSM would be more appropriate, something between 35 and 55 GSM

Flyers might need a slightly heavier paper, around 110 to 160 GSM. 

Magazine covers tend to be even heavier, from around 180 GSM for a mid-market title, edging up to over 250 GSM for a high-end glossy. 

For a card weight, like a business card, you should be looking at upwards of 350 GSM to give your card that luxurious, sturdy feel. 

Choose a Suitable Finish

glossy magazine

Once you’ve decided on a suitable weight for your paper, you should also think about the desired finish of the paper. Finishes fall into two main categories: Coated and Uncoated.

Uncoated paper is a suitable choice for printing letterhead, stationery or lower-quality leaflets and flyers. The feel is slightly smoother and stronger than standard copy paper.

Coated paper falls into two sub-groups: Matte-coated and Gloss-coated

Matte-coated gives a smooth, non-glossy finish and can give your print documents a modern, pared-back look.

Gloss-coated paper is smooth and with a slightly reflective finish, giving your documents a glossy, high-end look. Because the ink sits on the surface of the coating, rather than absorbing into the paper, colors appear more vibrant and rich.

Think About Folds

fold marks on brochure

We touched on accommodating for folds in your designs earlier in the article (see Section 1, above), but you should also think about how folds can be rendered differently in different paper weights and finishes. 

A heavy, gloss-coated paper, for example, might not fold as neatly as a lighter, uncoated paper. A document with many folds, such as a fold-out map, will probably need to be printed on a lighter-weight paper to allow the paper to be folded on top of itself and remain compact.

However, a heavier paper might suit a fold in some cases. Say, for example, you’re designing a greetings card that you want to stand up on a surface. A light-weight paper would fold up completely, and not remain slightly open, so would not be suitable for a greetings card.

7. Export Your Print Files Right, First Time

Once you’ve checked your work for errors, you can export the design as a print-ready file. There are a few different options for doing this; read on and find out what will be the best choice for different projects.

Package (and Lock) Your InDesign File

package indesign file

If you’ve been working in InDesign and your printer has asked for you to send on the original InDesign file (usually this is just to have the option to re-export the document to print-ready format if the printer requires it), you should make sure to do two things. 

First up, you need to Lock any elements on the design you wouldn’t want to be moved around (mistakenly or otherwise) after you’ve sent the file over. To do this, select the relevant elements on the page and go to Object > Lock.

Secondly, you need to Package the InDesign file before you send it. This creates a folder containing the InDesign file, alongside the Font files and Links (e.g. image files), that allow the printer to view everything on your document as you intended. To package your InDesign document, go to File > Package.

Some printers may also request ‘native’ files, in addition to or in place of a print-ready file (see below). This can include InDesign files, or files in PSD, EPS or AI format.

Choose the Right Print-Ready Format

adobe acrobat logo

Alternatively, you can send the printer a print-ready file. This is the exported version of your design, which in theory is ready to go straight to press. 

You should get in touch with the printer and check out if they have a preferred format for print-ready files. Most printers would probably prefer a Press Quality PDF (Portable Document Format) version of your design, but they might also accept files in other CMYK-compatible formats, such as high-resolution (minimum 300 dpi) JPEG or TIFF files. 

Include a Bleed

bleed and printers marks

It’s one of the most common problems weary printers encounter: a print-ready file that doesn’t have a bleed. Be sure to Export your print-ready file with the bleed included. If you’re exporting to a PDF format, you can check the option in the Export window to include a bleed.

You can also choose to include Printer’s Marks in your exported print-ready file, which includes trim and crop marks, center marks, and page information. These can be really useful to the printer when preparing your work for printing.

8. Completing the Print Process

Digital Printing vs. Offset Litho

printing process for wedding invitation

Before you commit to a printer, you should know a little about the main print services commercial printers use. The print process can differ depending on the printer, with some championing more traditional offset printing and others singing the praises of digital printing.

Offset printing is a very common commercial printing process, suitable for high volumes. The image to be printed is burned onto a plate and then transferred (offset) from the plate to a rubber blanket, before transferring to the printing surface. Image quality in offset printing is high and the process is cost-efficient at high volumes, so it’s a popular and usually pretty safe choice.

Digital printing is less mechanical, so it takes less time to prepare for printing. As a result, turn-around times for print jobs are quicker, and printing at low volumes is also better-value. The jury’s still out on whether image quality is quite as good as that offered by the offset printing process.

So either method could be suitable, depending on your project’s requirements. Shop around your local area and check out what different printers are offering, in terms of price and quality, for each print method.

Minimise Mistakes With a Proof

mock-up of open book

You can’t expect your printer to know exactly what’s in your head; they can only work from what they have been given, in terms of the print-ready or native files, as well as from your instructions given over email, phone or in person. 

There are two things you can do to make sure mistakes are minimised, before you commit to the print run.

The first is to create a physical mock-up of the document you are sending to print and share this with the printer. This is particularly useful if your document has multiple pages or complicated elements like folds and die cuts, that might not be immediately clear from the print-ready file.

Your mock-up can be rough-and-ready, printed at home or at the office. Just make sure it shows the final layout of the document clearly, and be sure to incorporate essential info like page numbers, for example, and it might also be useful to indicate where pages should be printed on one side or both sides.

Once you’ve shared your mock-up with the printer, and handed over your print-ready file(s), ask if the printer can give you a professional proof for checking and sign-off, before proceeding with the full print-run. Most printers will offer a proof at no extra charge, and you’d be amazed at how many small errors can suddenly seem glaringly obvious when down on printed paper! 

Rectify the file if you need to, get a second proof if you have the time, and give the go-ahead for the full print-run only when you’re happy.

You’re Now Ready to Print!

CMYK print next to magazine covers

In this article, we’ve taken a tour through all the things you should be thinking about when preparing and sending documents to print. We’ve covered:

  • setting up your documents for print on the computer
  • optimizing color for print
  • maximizing image resolution
  • making your typography legible
  • checking the width of margins
  • choosing the best paper for your project
  • exporting your designs as print-ready files
  • sending to print and completing the print process

Great work! If you use the above list as a checklist for your print projects, you’re going to create professional-standard, error-free print documents that will make your printer very happy!

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