Learn how to perfect your print process, so you can avoid costly errors and save face. Find out about proper file setup, folds, binding, paper, ink, coatings, fonts, images, how to get print bids and more.
- The Professional’s Guide to Folding
- InDesign script for spiral-bound books
- Using RGB images and converting to CMYK on export
I’m going to talk about perfecting your print process, so you can avoid costly errors and save face. I’m going to cover file setup, folds, binding, paper, ink, fonts, images and how to get print bids.
Understanding the technical setup of files plus how paper and ink interact with one another is crucial because:
- Print is finite; you cannot just make changes later, like you can with a website or digital file. There is no undo, there is only a costly redo.
- Some print prep mistakes can result in charges for new proofs or a delay in the job getting completed. That could cost you financially and non-monetarily, meaning embarrassment.
Let’s start by talking about file setup, which is affected by several factors, as I’ll explain.
First, you want to create a separate file for each differently sized print piece. For example: a business card in one file, a flyer in another, as opposed to combining them all in one file.
Your document dimensions should typically be the trim—or final—size of the piece.
Single vs Facing Pages
Next you need to decide whether you’re going to use single pages or facing pages. Typically, single pages are for pieces that are not bound, such as postcards, posters or flyers.
Facing pages, on the other hand, are what you need when you have spreads for a brochure, a book or a magazine.
Next, you need to set the measurement for the bleeds. Typically, bleeds are one-eighth of an inch, but some printers require more (and some might require less).
If you’re using InDesign and you’ve already created your document, go to File > Document Setup, and enter 0.125 inch for the bleed. If you’re just creating your new document, then you’ll just enter that measurement in the bleed settings.
When you’re working in your document, you want to make sure that any design elements, background colors or other images that appear close to the trim get extended out to that bleed mark outside of the final document size. If you don’t do that, then any misalignment that occurs with the paper during the printing process will result in white edges and look sloppy.
Printing is not exact, and the shifting of paper can happen.
Now that we’ve talked about bleeds, let’s talk about the safety area, also called the live area.
You want to keep text and other important elements such as photos within the safety area, ensuring they won’t be too close to the trim and risk being trimmed off.
The safety area is space that’s further within the document size.
So, the bleeds extend beyond the size of the document, then you have your document size and within that you have a margin of space (which can vary) that is the safety area.
Another measurement that you set in the Document Setup is the gutter—not to be confused with the gutter between columns or the one on your roof!
The gutter is the space between the facing pages of a publication—the two inside margins.
If a publication is perfect bound or saddle stitched, such as a magazine or book, you need sufficient gutter. The more pages the publication has, the larger the gutter needs to be.
Mess this up by not having enough gutter and the reader will end up having to hold open the book with all their might just to read the text that ends up in that area.
If you send it to the printer and they see that it’s an issue, guess what? Now you’ve got to increase the gutter, resulting in reflowed text and additional pages—and then you have to tell the client that the page count will change, which means the print cost will increase as a result.
Spiral-bound publications, which I’ll talk about later, lay flat, so they don’t need a gutter.
If you have any crossovers, meaning any elements that go into the gutter and across the spread, such as lines, photos or background colors, then you have to account for the width of the gutter, by adjusting the images so that when the book is actually printed and bound, they line up properly.
You can get guidance from the printer about that as well.
Your document setup is also going to be affected by the types of fold or binding. I’ll get into a few of these in this episode.
There are so many types of folds—accordions, gates, maps, parallels, posters and rolls… Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
You must properly set up your files for the particular type of fold. Otherwise, text could get trimmed off because you didn’t create what’s called a “short panel,” and elements will be misaligned on the page, or the printed piece won’t fold properly.
The thicker the paper, the shorter the fold-in panels need to be, and the fold-in panels are your short panels.
Trish Witkowski did a ton of research on more than 180 folds that lead her to write a two-volume book—850 pages, people!—to address folds and how to properly set up your files. It’s called The Professional’s Guide to Folding.
Trish won an award for this book and I highly recommend it for its comprehensiveness, because it includes a glossary of terms, it has diagrams of the file setup with dimensions, it has folds marked and it shows the order that each fold occurs (if there’s more than one fold).
It also shows the level of complexity for each type of fold, which is useful to predetermine how costly it might be for the printer to do that fold compared to some other folds, and it also includes special things to consider when using a specific type of fold.
Let’s go over a few common types of binding.
The first is saddle stitching. Saddle stitching sounds like it has something to do with horses, but it actually kind of does.
Collated folded sheets are draped over a saddle-like apparatus during the stapling process, where the staples are inserted in the fold from the outside and between the centermost pages. Two or three staples are typically used.
If you make the mistake of asking the printer for “stapling,” then the printer is going to think you mean a single staple in the upper left corner or somewhere else.
Saddle stitching works for publications up to about 100 pages or so (maybe less) depending on the thickness of paper.
Note that the number of pages must be in a multiple of 4, as in there are four pages to a folded sheet. You may or may not have to add blank pages at the end of your document in order to achieve that multiple of 4.
Another common type of binding is perfect binding.
Perfect binding is when a publication is bound by glue inside the spine, and the spine is flat, so it can be designed and printed. Hard- or softcover books are an example of this, but you often see thin magazines with perfect binding as well.
Typically, the cover stock is heavier than the text pages. If you have a book with hundreds of pages, or even a thousand pages, you definitely need cover stock that makes the book sturdy enough.
Usually, the minimum number of pages you can consider for perfect binding is 48, depending on the paper stock.
Unlike saddle-stitched books, perfect-bound books only need pages in a multiple of 2.
Spiral or Wire Binding
Spiral or wire binding involves only the cutting of pages—no folding. Think of it as a bunch of single sheets stacked and bound together. You only need pages in multiples of 2 (as opposed to 4, with other types of binding that involve folding). As a result, you need to consider bleeds on all four sides of the pages, if you have bleeds.
It can be tricky to set up a spiral-bound book, so, typically what I do is create them as single pages and add the bleeds where needed, then I export to a PDF with spreads just so I can see it that way if I want to.
But there is a free InDesign script that allows you to set up a spiral-bound document as spreads and then it separates them so they still appear as spreads but they allow for the bleed all the way around the page.
The advantage to this type of binding is that it allows books to lay flat when open or folded—and therefore you don’t have an actual gutter. But you do have to account for holes to be drilled inside the trim on the binding side of the publication. You don’t want to end up with any text, design elements or ads in that area, because that won’t look very good.
So if you have a 5.5×8.5-inch document and you want half-inch margins all the way around, your inside margins should be a little larger than a half inch to accommodate for the space of the drilled holes.
Cover and Text Pages
Let’s talk about covers vs text pages.
If you’re going to have different paper stock for the cover and text pages, which is called a “plus cover,” or if there will be a spine, you need to set up the covers in a separate file from the text pages.
When setting up a perfect bound or case bound cover, create a file with one page for the back cover plus spine next to it plus front cover next to that—how it would look if laying flat—and a second page for the left inside cover plus the spine plus right inside cover.
Here’s a side note about covers: the front cover is cover 1, the inside of the front cover is cover 2, the inside of the back cover is cover 3 and the back cover is cover 4.
Once the layout has been finalized, you need to tell the printer the number of text pages it has, so they can tell you the width the spine needs to be, which is also affected by the paper thickness. So you’ll have to go back into your cover file and adjust the width of the spine based on the answer they give you.
By the way, if the cover and text pages print on the same paper stock, that is referred to as self-cover (the opposite of plus cover).
Let’s talk about fonts. Here are some guidelines about fonts.
Font File Format
Choose OpenType whenever possible. They are cross-platform (meaning Mac and PC compatible), and they include a larger set of characters, such as fractions. The benefit of that is that you don’t have to go find another font that looks similar to the one you’re using if it doesn’t have a certain character. It should include everything that you would need.
Font Licensing and Embedding
Choose fonts that are legally allowed to be embedded in a PDF, so that when you output to a PDF for a proof or for the printer, you can include those fonts—which is a must.
Nothing like selecting a typeface then going to save the files for printing and getting a warning that you can’t. If you’re sending native files to the printer, you definitely want to include fonts and all linked images.
Even though two fonts have the same name doesn’t mean they are the same version. Assuming so can result in reflowed text when the printer process the file.
You also want to search for and remove extraneous fonts from your layout document.
In InDesign, you do this via Type > Find Font.
If you’ve imported from a Word document, then it’s very likely to have brought in a slew of unwanted fonts. Searching for them will ensure you didn’t miss any that you meant to replace.
Let’s move onto images.
Image Formats for Print
With images, you want to stick with print formats such as PSD, TIFF, JPEG, EPS or PDF. Avoid formats for the web such as PNG and GIF.
The printing process is based in CMYK—as opposed to RGB for the web. However, usually it’s better to leave your images in RGB mode than in CMYK and allow that conversion to be done in the final part of the process. I’m going to provide links in the show notes to a thorough article about this by InDesign Secrets, so that you can get all the information about that.
You also want to make sure you’re using images with sufficient resolution—typically, 300 ppi at the actual size that it will be used.
When working with images, if you have modified any of them, you want to be sure to clean up your work. One trick I use is, in Photoshop, I’ll add a stroke to masks and then zoom in to see areas I might have missed because it will highlight all of them for me to make them easier to see.
Of course, it also helps to have a clean monitor! There’s nothing like a smudge on your monitor to make you try unsuccessfully and repeatedly to mask it out of a Photoshop document.
I also recommend zooming in on your images—and on your proofs and print proofs—and check that points on shapes connect where they should. Where you have any blocks of color or images against blocks of colors, those are all lined up and there’s nothing overlappping where it shouldn’t.
You also want to ensure that all linked images are up to date. In InDesign, you would look in the Links panel.
Ink and Color
Let’s talk about ink and color.
Generally, you want no more than 300% of a CMYK build in any particular spot. That could mean, for example, 100% cyan, 100% magenta and 100% yellow.
In InDesign, you would go to Window > Output > Separations Preview to view the color separations and set the ink limit. By default, it’s set to 300%. If a printer asks you to change this number, this is where you would change it.
The reason for possibly changing it could be if you’re printing on very thin paper, such as newsprint, where the ink soaks in quite a bit to the paper. When you’re looking at this ink limit in InDesign, it will show you in red the areas that need adjusting.
You want to adjust color builds depending on the type of paper stock that’s going to be used. This is especially important if you’re printing on uncoated paper, where ink soaks in more and therefore appears darker.
For example, there are some yellow color mixes and Pantone colors that appear yellow on coated paper but on uncoated paper, they print with an orange tint to them. You want to make the adjustment so that doesn’t happen. I recommend referring to Pantone books for the CMYK builds and the Pantone colors on coated and uncoated paper and ensure they are going to be consistent.
Metallic and Dayglo Inks
If you’re using metallic or dayglo inks, those work best on coated paper stock, as opposed to uncoated, although you do get an interesting effect when you print metallic inks on uncoated paper.
Inks on Colored Paper
If you’re printing on colored paper, you need to account for the color build of the ink and of the paper.
You can find out the equivalent CMYK values of the paper from the printer or paper company. Then you can subtract those values from your colors.
For example, if the paper is M10 Y20 and you want the ink to be C20 M40 Y20, you should speck the color as C20 (the same) M30 (the difference between the ink color of 40 and the paper color of 10) and then Y0.
Because the ink color is Y20 and paper color is Y20 as well, you don’t need to add anything. You can ask the printer for what’s called a drawdown to see how the ink will actually appear on that paper before it gets printed.
You want to ensure you’re not outputting too many colors from your document.
Having Pantone 123C and Pantone 123U is like two different colors in the file. They will appear separately in the Separations Preview panel, meaning they’d be output separately too.
So if you had a two-color job using 123 and black, you’d end up with three plates instead of two in that particular case. Keep in mind that spot colors output as separate colors from CMYK because they’re not mixes.
You also want to make sure you’re using the correct color profile for printing. Typically, you want to use the U.S. Web Coated (SWOP) v2 profile unless the printer says otherwise.
When it comes to outputting your final PDF, you can use the press settings that are included in InDesign or you can ask your printer for a profile that you can import into InDesign. This will ensure that you have the proper settings, especially for their equipment.
If the printer doesn’t specify their own preset, you should use one of the three PDF/X options: PDF/X-1a, PDF/X-3 or PDF/X-4.
Let’s talk about coatings, and by that I mean any type of coating or varnish that might be needed for the printed piece.
They’re also the reason I like to sniff my print samples when I get them from the printer.
It’s a really good idea to find out from your client the lifespan of the printed piece and let the printer know that as well as the amount of ink coverage, so they can advise you if a coating is needed. Coatings can increase the longevity of a piece, adding durability, or they can prevent fingerprinting or ink smudges.
Aqueous coating is a clear, fast-drying water-based coating that is typically applied to an entire printed piece or to at least one side of a sheet. It allows for someone to write on it without smudging, unlike other coatings.
Varnish is basically clear ink and can be gloss, satin or matte finish. It can be used as a flood or spot. A flood varnish covers the entire printed page for protection or just for shine. A spot varnish adds shine to specific areas of a page that you designate.
UV coatings are cured by exposure to ultraviolet light to quickly dry and harden the coating. They provide high gloss but they might crack when scored or folded due to thickness and hardness of the coating.
Let’s talk about print specs. If you work somewhere that has someone like a production manager that handles getting print bids, great.
If not, or if you’re doing work for a client, it’s best for you to get print bids because most clients don’t understand the printing terms. Here are some other reasons why it’s very important for you to get the bids.
Once up on a time, I had a client who decided to get their own print bids and, unbeknownst to me, they had asked the printer to use two completely separate colors from their brand colors, which were purple and turquoise. I had already sent the client a proof, so she saw the colors and she knew what these Pantone colors were.
So I sent the job to the printer, and the printer said, “This isn’t in reflex blue and black.”
I was like, “Of course, it’s not. Their brand colors are teal and purple. Why would it be in reflex blue and black?”
The printer said that was what the client asked that it be specked with because it was cheaper. That’s when I found out that she wanted to save a few bucks by using these two colors that had absolutely nothing to do with their brand.
I mean, my mind was blown. I couldn’t understand this at all. I mean, it was maybe a few bucks… Certainly not worth the brand inconsistency as a result. After some other frustrating situations, that fairy tale ended with the client being fired.
Another time that a client got print bids was for an annual report I had designed. I had sent them a proof, they saw it was 24 pages, I sent it to the printer of their choice, who called to say this didn’t match the specs that they had given an estimate on.
I’m like, “Well, what’s different?”
They said they had only provided an estimate for four pages. I was, again, totally confused. I called my client and she said she knew that the job was 24 pages, not four pages.
So I called the printer back and asked her who she talked to. She mentioned an entirely different person, who I had no idea was even involved. So this third person had gotten the print bids but she did them wrong.
It cost me at least two hours of my time—and a year off my life—to get this all straightened out.
Then the job had to rebid to all the printers again because the client had picked this particular one based on them having the lowest price. But since the jobs was actually 24 pages—and not four—when the job got rebid, a different printer came in at the lowest.
So I then called and explained to the first printer what had happened and that the job was now going to another printer.
Ensure your job matches the specs from the print bids before you send it to the printer. Otherwise, the print bids need to be updated for accurate pricing. If the job is supposed to print in four-color process, then ensure that only process colors are being used in the file.
If the job was 24 pages when it was bid out and it’s now 36, you need to get a revised estimate.
Think of it as a dish on a restaurant menu: you’re the chef preparing the meal with your recipe, and the printer is at the table ordering their meal. They expect to get what they ordered. If they expect chicken and get beef instead, they will send it back—as they will do with your file.
To get print bids, you need the following information.
The size, consisting of flat size, which is the size of it before any folding, and the finished size, which is the final size of the printed piece.
So if the result is a 5.5×8.5-inch booklet, the flat size would be 11×8.5 and the finished size would be 5.5×8.5.
Next, you need to provide the number of pages. So, if you have 24 pages and a separate cover, then that’s 24 pages plus cover. If it’s 24 pages and the cover is printing on the same stock as the text, then it would be 24 pages self-cover.
The third item you need to provide is the paper stock for the piece.
You don’t have to use cover stocks for covers and text weights only for text. But you need to specify what paper weight you want for everything.
If it’s a book, you need to specify what paper you want to use for the cover and for the text pages.
Ask a printer if they will provide you with some paper books so that you can get an idea for different text and cover weights as well as for uncoated and coated paper stocks.
For coated paper, specify if it should be dull/matte, semigloss or gloss. For uncoated paper stock, specify if it should be smooth, laid or linen, for example.
Specify the color of the paper if it’s not white.
You may also specify the paper brightness, which is measured on a scale of 0 to 100. The higher the number, the brighter the paper. If you want a really bright paper, then you would ask for something in the 90s to 100.
Then you want to state whether there are any bleeds, partial bleeds or full bleeds.
Number of colors, if it’s two spot colors, if it’s four-color process, or maybe it’s four-color process plus a metallic ink.
Specify the type of binding, if there’s any. So that would be perfect bound, saddle-stitched, spiral or something different.
If there needs to be a coating or varnish, you need to state that—and if it’s going to be a flood or spot varnish.
Provide the quantity.
Finally, specify who should get proofs and if they should be hard proofs (meaning paper proofs) or if PDF proofs are ok.
Don’t forget to request that you get a few samples of the final product for your portfolio.
Prior to sending the print files to the printer, you want to get in writing from the client an approval to print. It doesn’t have to be something they sign, although that might deter them from making changes after the files are at the printer because it can be a pain in the rear for them to sign a form again.
But it could just be acknowledgement via e-mail. And not just an “OK,” but “OK to print” or “approved for printing” is what you need. It needs to be clear.
If you’re working on a project where there’s more than one piece, and you might have some pieces that might have to fit into another, like cards into an envelope—and I feel like this is just so obvious, it shouldn’t need to be stated…
But I’ve made this mistake a couple of times. Make sure that the piece that has to fit into another one isn’t larger than the one it needs to fit into.
For example, I create lots of direct mail and invitation packages. One time, the client and I both missed the fact that the reply card was too large to go into the enclosing envelope. Thankfully, the printer caught it and I was able to adjust the size of it. Could you imagine if it had been printed that way?
One thing you can do is make paper dummies in cases where you projects with several pieces, to see how they fit together and into the others.
Make sure you and the client review print proofs. They don’t look for the same things that you’ll be looking for.
Plus, whoever foots the bill should be the one to provide the final approval. That puts the liability on them. Here’s a true story: A colleague once had to reprint a brochure at his expense (which was about $2,000) because he didn’t show the client the proof and something got past him.
After a file has been sent to the printer, tell the client to contact you, not the printer, if they have any edits at this stage. 1) You are more familiar with your file than the printer is and 2) It ensures you have up-to-date files in case the client ever decides to reprint or make updates in the future.
Remember that it’s important to maintain communication with the printer before and throughout the entire process to get the best results.
Use your printer as a resource. I made a few minor screw-ups when I first sent files to the printer at my first job out of college. Luckily, the printers that the organization used were very helpful and always told me what the issues were and how to fix things. The best part was that no one at my workplace had to know.
Don’t be afraid to ask them questions about your file setup before you start and before providing the print file. If you have a good ongoing relationship with some printers, then you can also discuss some ideas before presenting them to the client.
The printer can help you find a format, die cut or special finishing that fits into the client’s budget. They can also advise you about any coatings or if a piece should be scored (meaning they add a vertical crease on the front and back covers near the spine to facilitate folding, so that repeated opening of the publication doesn’t wear on the spine; thin and thick publications can have this, by the way).
Printers can also provide folding dummies upon request to you and the client, so that everyone understands how something will fold and lay out after it’s been printed.
I recommend asking a local printer for a tour of their facility, so that you can better understand the print process and how their equipment works.