Avoiding Pre-press Headaches
If you talk to printers and designers and you will hear horror stories from both about files that will not work no matter how they are saved, software version incompatibilities, proofing and printing problems, general miscommunication and more.
Not only can pre-press problems cause delays in printing which may bring a marketing plan to a standstill, but finger-pointing and the stress can turn a pleasant, creative experience into the project from hell.
The role of the designer
Designers are hired primarily to create effective, attention-getting designs and to produce pre-press files that printers can use to mass-produce brochures, publications and the like.
Designers are also responsible for bridging the world of the commercial printing and design, helping the client through the complex world of printing specifications, paper selection, soft and hard proofs and getting ink on paper.
With so many robust graphic design tools on the market such as Adobe Illustrator, Quark XPress, Adobe InDesign, Coral Draw and others, to name a few, creating pre-press files that work flawlessly with any commercial print shop should be a piece of cake, right?
Well, yes--and no. While many of today's design and pre-press tools are first-rate, they are only part of the overall print production process. It's really up to the designer to make sure all parties involved in any given printing project are all on the same page.
The importance of communication
When working with clients, my approach has always been to establish early on in the project what printer will be involved in reproducing the project. Having worked for several offset printing shops early on in my career, I learned that there is always a right way, a wrong way and their way. While the printing industry follows general guidelines and while most printing companies have similar internal pre-press operations, every shop is a little different in their approach and workflow.
If possible, I try to have a conversation with the client's printer right away to determine what pre-press programs they support in native format and what are alternatives to supplying the native files. If my client does not have a printer he or she wants to work with, I will suggest a printer who is a good match for the type of printing needed, and someone I have worked with before and have a working knowledge of or experience with.
Using PDF files
In the "good old days" we either submitted to a printer the "native" files or we could submit PostScript files which would contain all the font outlines and layout information, independent of the program used to create the document. But even this approach had it's share of film and plate output problems and if changes needed to be made to the file, the printer had to contact the designer and have the original file corrected and a new PostScript file generated and sent to the printer.
PDF files potentially can serve as a way to give the printer one file to print from without worrying about fonts, support files, or the printer having the latest versions of the document software, etc. By far the biggest advantage is that both clients and all involved in the project can use Adobe Reader to view and print the project, whereas PostScript files were far less portable and often you didn't know there was a problem until film or plates were produced.
All PDFs are not created equal
While we live in a world of Adobe PDFs which at first seem to be the perfect solution to printing companies having to keep up with all the various pre-press programs available today, there are different types of PDF files and they are not always the best approach.
I have been working with the Adobe Creative Suite for some time now and it is relatively easy to create different types of PDFs. Depending on your needs, you can create a client proof or a printing file.
For example, you can export a PDF from InDesign as a Print PDF, Screen PDF, Press PDF and you can customize the PDF with various options when you save it. With so many options, what is the best way to save the file for your commercial printer?
The answer is, you have to ask your printer--never assume anything.
Using "Native" Files
Some designers find it easier to send to their printer the original InDesign, Quark XPress or other layout program file, along with support files. The biggest reason for doing this is that if the client indicates a change to the printer's proof, the printer can make the required change (as long as the overall design is not changed or copy is not reflowed substantially), instead of the designer being a part of the process.
If you have ever had a project fall victim to Murphy's Law and have experienced working with a printer where no matter what fonts you sent, their system didn't want to print your file right, you may want to consider sending the printer InDesign or Illustrator files where the type has been converted to outlines. While this eliminates any font issues, it creates an extra step and if changes to the file need to me made, the designer will have to have a version of the file with all the type intact.
In some cases, a printer may want your native files instead of PDFs.
Working with the printer
It's always best to work with a printer you have some experience with so you know up front what to expect in terms of proofing, file approval and for dealing with problems that may arise.
Having some previous experience with a "can do", problem-solving printer can be great when you have a project that pushes the limit of your pre-press and printing knowledge. While printer's may not have a "graphic designer" on staff, they always have several people who are very pre-press savvy and who work with the challenges of trapping, file problems and the like on a daily basis. These professionals can be a great resource for you and will often provide some advice and feedback on a project for free.
You get what you pay for
It seems that everyone today is offering rock bottom four-color printing online and it can be tempting for designers and clients to want to go for the lowest possible price advertised. But be careful, often the prices quoted online are not complete quotes--you can end up spending a lot more on a project for proofs, folding, shrink wrapping and other details you assume will be included--which are not.
Make sure the proof you receive is representational of the project. Some printers provide a "digital" proof, generally an ink jet proof that may or may not be calibrated to their presses. If your project has critical color or you client insists on a proof that will be used by the pressmen to match to, make sure the proof you receive to sign off on is a quality proof.
Some budget online printers offer "soft proofs" which are merely PDF proofs. While this approach can work well, everyone involved in the approval process has to have their monitor calibrated so that everyone is seeing the same thing and can truly compare apples to apples.
Some printers force you to go through their special file submission process, so the printer's pre-press system is actually able to check your files automatically and make sure they are compatible with their plate system. While a bit more time-consuming to the designer and sometimes requiring the downloading of "client" software, this approach can alert the designer of any problems before you go to press.
It happens to all of us--something slips through the cracks and a mistake is found just before a project is scheduled to hit the press. Even after a client has signed off on a design project and released the files to the printer, the proof comes back a few days later from the printer and either a mistake needs to be corrected or something needs to be changed. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking.
If you send your printer a PDF file to proof and plate from, and the client makes changes to the printer's proof, you will need to go back to your original files, make the changes and submit new PDF files to your printer.
Most printers will not charge for submitting a second file and creating a second proof, but many do. Be sure to make sure you date the new files or rename them so there will be no confusion between the old files and the new files. Recently, I sent updated files to my printer and they failed to use the latest version.
Luckily, I had sent the updated file via e-mail and had changed the file name to reflect the fact it was the latest version. The printer admitted they made the error and they reprinted the brochure project at their expense, but having a clear paper trail made this a painless process for me and for my client.
If the client requests a change that the printer will make to the pre-press files, make sure your client is aware of any additional charges involved. Clients have a way of remembering the exact amount they were quoted for printing and assume the price is all-inclusive.
Ten Tips for near "fool proof" printing:
1) Send a hard copy. Send your printer an ink jet proof with all crop and bleed marks, instructions and a mockup showing folds, scores, etc. While it is easy to send files via e-mail and FTP, there is no substitute for a mockup or proof with clear, written instructions.
2) Communicate with your printer before starting. Talk to your printer before designing your print project to make sure your design is well within their capabilities. If you have never worked with a particular printer before, find out what size presses your project will go on and make sure you talk through the project with the printer, anything that may be out of the ordinary.
3) Understand your printer's pre-press workflow. Make sure you understand the printer's pre-press process and what types of proofs are available. Not all proofs are "color correct" so make sure the color proof you receive is a fair representation of what to expect the final printing to look like. Keep in mind that clients may not understand the differences between a proof on ink jet paper and what ink on paper will look like. Sometimes proofs appear more color saturated or have more contrast than the actual printing and clients may be disappointed if they compare the proof to the final printing.
4) Review printer's proofs carefully. After your client reviews the printer's proof, even if they sign off with no changes, take a few minutes to review the proof and make sure it reflects the latest version of the document. In the rush to get a project to the printer and scheduled for press time, mistakes can happen and old files can be copied t CD Rom or uploaded to the printer.
5) Proofread behind your client. While most designers require that the client assume all responsibility for proofing a project, it can be helpful to have someone not familiar with the project to read it over. Sometimes a glaring mistake can be found very easily and corrected before it becomes a major disaster.
6) Check printer's proofs for correct folding and assembly. Make sure the printer's proof you receive scores, folds and trims correctly. If your brochure has a fold in panel that is supposed to be a certain width, make sure it is as it should be, and not an arbitrary or commonly folded size.
7) Allow a reasonable amount of production time for your printer. When working with tight delivery deadlines, make sure you allow the printer enough time to produce proofs and to receive files and schedule printing. Actual printing schedules tend to change day to day, so the final delivery date may not be exactly what was quoted originally. Working with printer you have experience with, you will know if the delivery date they give you and your client is something you can bank on, or not.
8) Drop ship a partial order when necessary. If you need to get printing to your client for an event, consider sending a partial order via overnight delivery so they can have some of the order right away and the balance in a day or two.
9) Have a "Plan B" ready. Be prepared to deal with problems that may occur, especially if you are rushing a project to meet a client's deadline. Printers are generally very customer service minded, but are human and sometimes things go wrong. Simply blaming someone else for the problem will not help to resolve it. Our role as designers is often to assist with resolution of problems, so keep a win-win solution in mind and make sure a client is aware that setting unrealistic deadlines for printing is often a recipe for disaster.
10) Create a paper trail. Make sure you communicate with all parties involved-- both the printer and your client. If possible, send your client carbon copies of e-mails you send to the printer, or at least save all e-mails so if any decision is called into question, you have a clear paper trail. Even if you have clear evidence showing you did what your client instructed, you need to keep in mind the client sees the designer as the printing consultant and is looking for us to make things go smoothly. Keeping the client in the loop will also help them to understand better when problems arise instead of the client being the last to know and feeling they are out of the loop and having little say in the process.
About the Author: Vann Baker is the president of Design-First, a marketing company specializing in corporate identity and collateral development. Vann has been helping small businesses and Fortune 500 companies to create brochures, newsletters, catalogs, websites and more for over 20 years. www.design-first.com