Preparing Files for Print

It can sometimes be hard to get what you are expecting out of your print project. When you are designing your files and documents, you aren’t necessarily worrying about what will happen when you hit “Print” at the end. Rightly so, as you are designing visually and you’re only point of reference is what your eyes are seeing at the moment, that is, what is on the screen.

Even if all of your text looks correct, and those pictures appear perfectly placed and color corrected, surprises can still jump out to get you when you submit your file for printing. This short guide on preparing files for print will give you some of the basic pitfalls to be on the look-out for, and help you to save your files into a format that EVERY print shop or vendor can handle.

The Basics


Probably the most underestimated factor in printing your project is its color space. The screen you are looking at right now is displaying colors in the RGB (RedGreenBlue) color space. It is mixing those three colors in different ways to achieve the 16 million+ colors your monitor/screen can display. Hot Pink RGB vs CMYKThat’s great for photographs, bright colors, dark blacks, and bright whites. When you open up Microsoft Word, for example, any colors you choose are based on this RGB gamut. So that hot pink color you chose for the birthday invitation you’re working on look great on the screen, but when you get the finished piece back from the printer, something is amiss…

Most printing services can’t use the RGB color space when putting ink to paper. They use CMYK (CyanMagentaYellowBlacK), which is a combination of 4 colors to achieve a more muted color gamut.

RGB vs CMYKIt’s best to start your project using CMYK, that way, you’ll get a more accurate representation of the final colors when they are printed. You won’t have the option in Word, but Publisher will let you choose CMYK colors, and Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop let you pick the color gamut of your choice at the very beginning of a new project. Click here if you want to learn more about the technical side of RGB vs. CMYK.

No One Told Me There Would be Fractions

When placing your order for postcards or flyers, you may have come across the terms “4/4”, or “Four over Four”. Don’t worry, there’s no math involved, it’s just a term to describe the number of colors printed on each side of a two-sided piece. 4 process colors (CMYK) on side A, and 4 process colors on side B. You may also see “4/1”, “4/0”, or even “1/1”. The “1” refers to one color, typically black, and the “0” means that the piece is single-sided. See? Easy-peasy.

BLEED and You

Bleed Guide

Cut Edge: This line represents the finished cut edge of the piece.

Live Area (Safe Zone): The area that is considered safe to keep information or important elements within. For example, if the trim size is 3.5in × 2 in, the live area might be 3.25 in × 1.75 in.

Bleed Area & Edge: The more bleed, the better. This area is the overage you need to provide if the color of your design goes all the way to the edge. Keep in mind anything in this area will be cut off, but you need something here so you don’t get white space at the edge of your finished card. Printers tend to shift minutely when printing, so not every sheet is always perfectly aligned, this extra space accounts for that shift.

The absolute minimum bleed you need for a printed piece is 0.125 in (1/8 in) per edge but some pieces require more than that. So if you are working with an image in Photoshop or Illustrator and placing it in InDesign for print preparation, keep in mind the area you might need to use for the bleed. It’s a little more difficult in Word and Publisher, but it can be accomplished.

Crop Marks: Indicates where the print shop with cut the paper to create the finished piece.

PDF – The File’s the Thing

Once you’ve finished for piece for printing, you’ll need to get the file safely over to your printer of choice. You could just send them the Illustrator, Photoshop, or Word file, but you may be surprised at the final result. If you are using a font that the printer doesn’t have, or if your images aren’t embedded into your file correctly, the layout of your file could change drastically when the file is opened on another computer. Your computer is your home base: it’s got all of your settings, fonts, and preferences. But when your file leaves your home base sometimes all of those settings and assets can stay behind. To ensure that everything you are seeing on your monitor at home matches what your local print shop is seeing, you’ll need to compile your file into one need little package. That package is a PDF.

In Illustrator or Photoshop

You can just choose the PDF file format from a drop-down menu when you save the file, then you’re done. Send that PDF to the printer and they’ll see what you see.

Save file as PDF in Photoshop

In Publisher

Publisher offers a handy Pack-and-Go feature to prepare your file for commercial printing. It creates a print-ready PDF for you in seconds.

Publisher Save for Printer

In Word

Word also has an export feature that lets you create a PDF.

Word Save for Printer

You’re versions of these programs may differ, but the option to create a PDF should be found in similar places. Look for “Export” or “Save as” if your screen looks different from the images above.

After you’ve created your PDF file, open it up and verify that it looks like you meant for it to look, then send it over to us for output. Looking good!

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