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 13 Ways to Prevent Common Printing Problems, or . . .

A Chain Saw Can Carve a Steak, But Not as Neatly as a Knife

by Clarke Blacker

Most printing problems are caused by insufficient file preparation. No matter what platform you use, Mac or PC, there are a number of simple rules that everyone should follow, no matter what type of printing files you are creating.

  1. Clean Up Your Room
  2. Practice Good Basic Page Layout
  3. Include All Linked Files
  4. Include All Fonts
  5. Go Easy on the Special Effects
  6. Never Rely on Your Monitor for Accurate Color
  7. Use CMYK Color
  8. Use the Appropriate File Format
  9. Place All Pictures at 100%
  10. Ungroup All Elements
  11. Simplify All Clipping Paths
  12. Test Print Color Separations
  13. Provide Current Proofs

Please remember, if you are not sure of something, pick up the phone and call your printer or service bureau. They will want to help you, because it is in their interest, as well as yours, to resolve issues before they become major problems. It is always easier (and cheaper) to fix problems when they are small, before they get to be big (expensive) ones.


1. Clean Up Your Room

Look around at your files before you send them. Try to get rid of all of that clutter that tends to build up during the design process. A neat file will always print faster and more accurately than a messy file. Be sure to get rid of any extraneous text or picture boxes and make certain that all text overflow flags are resolved. Extra pictures and other items lying around on the pasteboard can slow printing, not to mention cause confusion which can lead to other errors.

Watch out for places where you may have used white boxes to block out unwanted items. They often come back again to haunt you when you least expect it. Think of them as hidden land mines waiting to ruin your job.

2. Practice Good Basic Page Layout

Page layout applications such as QuarkXPress, InDesign, PageMaker and even Microsoft Publisher are intended to assemble the various components (such as logos, pictures, etc.) needed to create your final document. It is not appropriate to create logos and other repetitive use artwork in these applications. Illustrator, FreeHand, CorelDRAW and Photoshop are the correct applications to use.

Conversely, don't use these applications to create page layouts. While you can create a magazine entirely in Illustrator, FreeHand, CorelDraw, or Photoshop it doesn't mean that you should do it. We have even received simple text-only postcards which have been laid out in Photoshop. A chain saw can carve a steak, but not as neatly as a knife.

Don't forget to pull out all bleeds 1/8" beyond the page trim (more is usually unnecessary). You should also remember to delete any objects left over on the pasteboard. Sometimes these can cause delays or even problems in printing.

Set your Document Size the same as the Final Trim Size. Do not treat your document page like it is a pasteboard, placing crop marks and fold marks on an oversize page. This step is completely unnecessary. You should simply make your document page size equal to the final trim size. Let the computer do the work for you. It is more accurate than you are and it prevents the layout errors, like moved or missing pieces, which inevitably result in rebuilding files. It will probably just have to be taken apart by the printer and rebuilt anyway. This goes for Illustrator, FreeHand and CorelDRAW as well as for Quark, InDesign, and PageMaker. These oversize pages are unnecessary in electronic files.

3. Include All Linked Files

Make certain that every single placed image, EPS file, etc. which you have used in the document is included on the disks or in the uploads you give your printer or service bureau. This is the most common mistake people make, and it can cause significant delays in your job.

This is particularly important for PageMaker users because it will keep copies of bitmapped and .EPS files inside the document itself. This tends to make users a bit lazy about including the originals. It is best to disable this default setting (located under Element/Link options . . .) by deselecting the Store Copy In Publication option with no document open, then closing PageMaker. Files with embedded graphics can often grow to surprising large sizes. I recently saw a PageMaker 7 file which was over 500 MB! It was hard to move around and took seemingly forever to open.

When preparing to send your job to your printer, you should always do a Collect For Output (Quark) or a Save As/Copy: Files For Remote Printing (PageMaker) to assure that all necessary parts are present.

If you are using FreeHand, CorelDRAW, or any other program which cannot open its own EPS files, be sure to put the original creator file on the disk . That way, if there is a problem with your file, it can often be corrected quickly (and economically) if the complete file is there.

4. Include all Fonts

Include all the fonts you used in your job, both printer and screen fonts (don't forget the fonts used in placed EPS files). For the highest quality results we recommend that you use only genuine Postscript fonts no matter which platform (Mac or PC) you prefer. If you are moving a file cross platform (either to or from an PC) you must use fonts which exist on both platforms by the same manufacturer. You must check with your printer to be certain they are available. The newer OpenType format also works very well, and TrueType, while generally not as high quality as professional Postscript fonts.

Macintosh Postscript fonts are comprised of separate screen and printer fonts. Be certain that all necessary font elements are included. Other types of Macintosh fonts may end with extensions such as .dfont (OSX system fonts), .TTF (TrueType), or .OTF (OpenType).

The most common Windows PC fonts are TrueType (files with a .TTF extension). Windows Postscript fonts are comprised of two sperate font files with the extensions .PFM and .PFB. Both of these files are required for the font to print correctly. OpenType is a newer type of font file that ends with the extension .OTF.

Don't assume your printer has your specific fonts. Each different version release of a font (even from Adobe and even Microsoft) can have different widths which result in unpredictable line breaks which may not match your original layout. No single company can own every face in every variation from every foundry. Make it easy on yourself. Include your fonts and you'll have less trouble, fewer delays, and fewer unpleasant surprises.

It is a good idea to convert all type in placed .EPS files to shapes before importing them into your document. This will enable you to make type changes easily if necessary. This will prevent further delays or errors due to missing fonts or bad font calls (these are common in placed EPS files and with older PageMaker PS Group It groups). When using vector illustration software such as Illustrator, FreeHand, or CorelDraw it is a good idea to keep the type as fonts when saved as an .AI, FH*, or .CDR file and convert the type to shapes only when saving or exporting the .EPS version of the file.

5. Go Easy on the Special Effects

Many of the current software applications such as InDesign, Illustrator, CorelDraw and even Microsoft Publisher (beware Word Art) are loaded with spectacular special effects that can be created with just a few simple mouse clicks. The dirty little secret is that these effects can be very difficult and sometimes impossible to recreate accurately on professional output devices. There are many problems with cast drop shadows, exotic text fill effects, and transparency effects that arise when printing.

You should always use a paint application such as Photoshop (PhotoPaint, etc.) to create bitmapped effects such as drop shadows and use a vector application such as Illustrator, FreeHand, or CorelDraw for other text and text fill effects. These files can then be placed into your page layout and should print more reliably.

6. Never Rely on Your Monitor or Uncalibrated Color Printers for Accurate Color.

Your monitor is an uncalibrated device. So is your home or office ink jet or laser color printer. In other words, they do not necessarily reproduce accurately the data in your files. In fact, they are probably not even close to being accurate.

To make things worse, different applications display color differently (although when working in CMYK they do not actually create color differently). All major applications create CMYK files by using the same ink percentage values regardless of how they display color to the screen.

When preparing documents for color printing, it is always safest to use professionally printed swatch books such as either the PANTONE Process Color System or the TrueMatch Colorfinder, or you may refer to a process color manual or sample book. These books are readily available at major booksellers and online. While different swatch books may vary due somewhat to different dot gain specifications, they will give you a reasonably good idea of how a specific ink mixture will print and are an invaluable aid when picking process colors for a project. Use these resources and not your monitor to tell you what you're going to get when it's printed.

If your job is intended to print as process color to be process mixes as opposed to using spot color inks, be sure to remember to specify Process for each color in both you page layout and illustration applications.

7. Use only CMYK Color.

If you are going to print process color, then get into the CMYK color space and stay there. Photoshop supports most functions in CMYK. Check with your printer about their preferred RGB to CMYK conversion settings but many will specify

Most modern RIPs will separate RGB color but the results can be unpredictable and be more difficult to control. Unless your printer has given you specific instructions to use RGB, the use of RGB color can give potentially unacceptable results. Simply put, RGB color has no place in your documents unless they are intended for use on the Web.

8. Use the Appropriate File Format

For scanned photographs or other bitmapped pictures you should only use either EPS or TIF (TIFF) file formats. You should never LZW compress TIFF files or place JPEGs. These can both cause major problems in some RIPs. Using either type of image compression will only slow your job down and may increase your costs. Applications such as InDesign and QuarkXPress can also place Photoshop PSD and even PDF files (please see no. 6 above). In most cases it is better to place a flattened tiff made from the PSD file or an .EPS made from the PDF file. In the end, the acceptable formats will be dictated by your printer and by the specific software that you use.

Ask your printer for their preferences and read your software manuals for specific compatibility information. If you are creating true silhouettes using Photoshop clipping paths, you should only use the .EPS format. Although more recent versions of and QuarkXPress, InDesign, and PageMaker support clipping paths in TIFF files these can sometimes give unexpected results or cause other output problems.

The TIFF file format is the simplest to move cross platform (either to or from an PC). You should never use PICT (Macintosh only), .PCX, WMF, or .BMP (PC) formats as they do not translate well across platform and often will not separate correctly.

9. Place All Pictures at 100%.

Generally speaking, you should try to place all bitmap pictures and complex EPS graphics at 100%. Pictures take longer to RIP if they have been scaled up or down in any application. Bitmap pictures should never be scaled up because the quality will suffer significantly. In the real world pictures can often be scaled up to as much as 125% without noticeable degradation.

QuarkXPress and InDesign give you the ability to flip pictures both vertically and horizontally, using this can increase RIP times. You should always do this, as well as any scaling required, in Photoshop (PhotoPaint, etc.) and replace the pictures before you send the job to be printed.

Also . . . EPS files do no like to be scaled down too much. Going below 20% can cause problems, and going down to 10% or under will generally not print at all. Always remember to resize even vector files like Illustrator, FreeHand, and Corel to be placed at 100%. They will print much quicker and there is no loss of sharpness because they are resolution independent.

10. Ungroup Everything

Ungroup everything that you have grouped to make it easier to handle or move. And ungroup your FreeHand/Illustrator/Corel/etc. files before you export the EPS files. Groups can slow down printing dramatically. It is not unusual for older versions of PageMaker's PS Group It groups to make bad font calls.

11. Simplify All Clipping Paths

Simplify and reduce points in clipping paths and vector drawings. If you do silhouettes in Photoshop using a clipping path, be sure to reduce the number of Bezier points to the absolute minimum. Using the MAKE PATH function on a selection can result in an unprintable clipping path or unacceptable results. These are a major source of trouble. Your simplified paths will look better and will print faster as well. It will also improve your vector drawing skills at the same time. Like all good Bezier work, less is good, more is bad. The same goes for any work done in illustration programs like FreeHand, Illustrator, CorelDRAW, etc.

12. Test Print color Separations

You should always test print color separations of the job to your ink jet or laser printer. Few designers take the time or the trouble to test print their jobs as separations. It is very important for you to know that your file will print correctly, and it is often educational. You will be surprised at what mistakes are hidden by composite laser prints, especially if you get about 25 spot color plates when you expect only four process plates.

Examine each plate to see if you got what you expected. If it's not right there, it won't be right at the printer's shop. If you cannot separate your job correctly, it is likely that your printer will also have problems with your job.

Watch out for multiple versions of the same spot color in your color palette (ie. PANTONE 185 C, PANTONE 185 CVC). The RIP will see each separate name as an entirely separate color and you may be liable for extra charges as a result.

The problem starts when you create a graphic which uses a PANTONE color (such as PANTONE 185 CVC) in an older version of an application such as Illustrator, FreeHand, or CorelDRAW and import that EPS into your page layout program. Most current application versions have dropped the CVC or CVU suffix which was previously appended to PANTONE color names in favor of simply C or U. You should double check all of your placed files to make certain that all of your spot color names match.

13. Provide Current Proofs

It seems obvious, I know, but if you provide current proofs, in the form of either black & white or color ink jet or laser output, or even PDF files it will make it easier for your printer to make certain that their output matches your expectations. Without a proof, your printer is flying blind. It is impossible to tell if their output is correct. Some applications cannot reliably embed or, at least, report missing fonts (notably Microsoft Publisher). It the supplied proofs are not current then it is always a good idea to indicate in writing (preferably directly on the proof) that they are not current and do not reflect subsequent changes.

All Right, Enough Already, I Get It . . .

Relax. I know that it seems like a lot to try to remember but these are all just good basic file construction guidelines. I suggest that you try using these as a preflight checklist before submitting your next print job. After a little while they will become second nature. If you follow them you'll be pleased at just how smoothly your jobs will go and how few bad surprises you will get.