8 Extremely simple ways to save money & time in print design (Pro tips from printers)

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I’ve been a print designer for nearly all of my design career – and that means I’ve spent hours sending things like:

  • package design
  • B2B print collateral
  • business cards
  • posters
  • fliers
  • and a jillion other types of print jobs

to printers all over the country.

But very rarely do I get to have a conversation with the folks who are preflighting and printing my jobs. I prepare a print file and send it off as a press-ready PDF or as a packaged design file, and I never see that piece again or hear back from the printer unless there’s a problem.

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I’ll readily admit that I’ve had pieces bounce back with small, embarrassing, avoidable issues from time to time, and I’m guessing I’m not the only one that makes those annoying little errors. I figured that prepress folks must constantly receive files that need tweaks or are just not set up properly.

I pictured them inventing colorful new expletives about us designers – designers who need feedback to help us get pixel-perfect prints quickly and hassle-free.

So I crossed over to the other side…

…and spoke to the printing experts! (Scary, I know!)

These four amazing prepress/production experts took time to help us help them, and they’re going to save you (and your clients) money and time in the long run:

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  • Cheryl Harmon, Marketing Production Specialist at Hannaford Brothers
  • Tina Lajoie, Account Executive at J.S. McCarthy Printers
  • Doug Stewart, Print Designer (with a wealth of prepress experience) at Diversified Communications
  • Mike Wells, Senior Client Account Manager at MPX

Not surprisingly, the wish lists of all of these experts are very similar, but what is surprising is how very simple most of these are!

Let’s see what made the top 8 (in no particular order):

1) Build bleeds and use them.

A bleed is that small extra area off the edge of the page that allows printers to print directly to the edge of your document (and trim it down) without that annoying bit of white that appears if the cut is off by a miniscule amount.

As simple as it is to add bleeds to a file, designers forget to do just that.

Or they build a bleed into the file, but don’t extend their color or image to the bleed line. Bleeds are simple to make but easy to mess up if you’re not paying attention.

Pro tip! In printing, 1/32″ might as well be a mile. For jobs smaller than 2×3 feet, 0.125″ bleed is standard. When you get into larger format printing, ask your printer what size bleed is appropriate (often .25″ or .5″ is plenty). Designers on the metric system, share in the comments what’s standard for you!

2) Make sure your images are in CMYK format.

The general rule has always been to make this conversion, but always stay up-to-date with your printer – depending on their technology, the answer may vary!

Why is this important?

While both CMYK and RGB are color models, they work differently:

  • CMYK is a subtractive color model, which means that white is the absence of color (no ink or no coloring in the ink). Therefore, white is 0/0/0/0 and black is 100/100/100/100.
  • RGB is an additive color model, which means that black is the absence of color (no lights are on). Therefore, black is 0/0/0 and white is 255/255/255.

Top tip from Mike’s prepress team: “Using overprint in Illustrator to have light colors overprint darker colors is DANGEROUS. It will look correct on the monitor but not be correct when printed.”

Top tip from Doug: “If you are using spot colors, files must be set up with appropriate separations.”

Pro tip! Keep file sizes down and make color troubleshooting – for both you and your prepress manager – simpler by deleting all unused colors.

3) Include all fonts and images with the file.

Packaging files has gotten a lot easier than it used to be, but it’s still easy to forget parts of this important step. Instead of rushing through the saving process, take your time to ensure you’ve got all of your print settings correct.

Then, save a custom print setting that takes care of all of the details for you.

Top tip from Tina: “Run a preflight report in InDesign.”

The preflight check in InDesign is such a great tool! Have a look at this screenshot:

Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 5.54.49 PM

See that red dot with “7 errors” next to it? That area is the magic gateway to preflighting your file.

Every InDesign file is born with a green dot and “No errors.” Once missing links, overset text, and other various design tragedies occur, that dot will turn red, and the number of design sins is listed for all to see.

  • Double click on that area, and you’ll get the preflight window, with all the details of the errors, neatly categorized.
  • Click the yellow page number on the right side of the element to go directly to each one.
  • Best of all, hit the fly-out menu at the top right of the preflight window, click “Define Profiles,” and create your very own custom preflight profile with a multitude of options. 


4) Include an appropriate trim area.

Page margins in your design software aren’t there just for kicks. Keep important type and images inside that boundary to ensure they don’t get cut off in the trimming process.

5) Make sure your images are all 300 dpi.

The quality of the images will dictate the quality of the finished piece.

Did you know? In lithographic (offset) CMYK printing, images are built out of overlapping rows of single color tiny, tiny dots. Each color is aligned such that when laid on top of one another, it creates the illusion of new colors. (The actual inks don’t actually mix if the printer is printing correctly.) Hence, dots per inch (dpi) – the tinier the dots, the better the image quality.

6) Resize large images if possible.

So you were lucky enough to get your client to provide huge, high-quality (300 dpi) images – congratulations! That in itself is a rarity.

But, if the final size of the image is only going to be a fraction of the original image size, resave a smaller version to keep your file size from ballooning out of control.

Note: If the image needs to be that big, there’s not much you can do.

7) Proofread and use spell check.

Command + I (or Ctrl + I) will pull up your spell check window in Illustrator and InDesign. In InDesign, go an extra step with dynamic spelling (in preferences). And once you’re done designing the piece, proofread it again for spelling and grammatical errors.

(I find it difficult to design and proofread at the same time, so I separate the two tasks.)

8) Design with the final product in mind.

Know how your job is going to be printed (and bound or folded) and prepare it appropriately.

Perfect bound or saddle-stitched? Do all of the panels face the right way on your beautiful cereal box design?

Top tip from Cheryl: “Send files in printer spreads not reader spreads.” (when appropriate)

How to follow Cheryl’s advice: With bound or folded projects…especially complex ones…save yourself serious headaches and hours reconfiguring your layout by contacting the printing company you’re working with. Ask for design templates as well as how they’d like the file prepared.

Why you want to keep your printers happy.

So what if your file’s not perfect? Why should you care if they have to fix your small mistakes all the time?

Because you and your business profit when the job is done right from the very beginning.

  • Gain valuable time by not having to fix mistakes in your files.
  • Increase your earnings by getting your print jobs out more quickly and moving on to the next profitable project.
  • Save your clients money – printers often charge for prepress time and multiple changes.
  • Look good by meeting (or beating) your print deadlines instead of losing time to preventable delays.
  • Get higher print quality without unexpected results.
  • Bonus! Win good karma points with your printing company, which might get you discounts and favors in the future.

So with all of this in mind, give a little extra thought to prepping your next print file – Doug mentioned that he uses a simple checklist as a fail-safe. You might also want to do a “rough print” using our list to find the best printer for graphic design that you can use at home or in the office.

What other great ideas do YOU have? Leave a comment if you have some experience to share!

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  1. Great read Rebecca, always looking for extra ways to save money. I just wanted to share something I’ve been doing recently. I run an office and have noticed that unused toner was piling up in storage. Looked into returning but that was no good. Tried out the site http://www.tonerconnect.net/ and was impressed. They had quick service and that payout was nice.

  2. Great advice in this post!

    As a formally trained graphic designer with more than 20 years in pre-press I think it’s worth noting that while *some* print shops (particularly online suppliers) may accept your RGB files it is physically impossible to print in RGB and they will be making a automated conversion to your file to prepare it for print, which may significantly alter your final output. It can be tempting to skip making the conversion on the design side of the equation when they say they’ll ‘accept RGB files’ but it could be a costly one if you wind up forced to reprint to correct a problem.

    I can also confess that in my experience files prepared correctly are often processed quickly in the workflow, while those that need to be troubleshooted lag.

    1. Thanks for contributing, Paula! It’s good to hear your first-hand experience from the pre-press side!

  3. One other happy reason to take the time to prep your files correctly…If your printer is happy with your work and enjoys working with you, they might refer you to other clients. I know my favorite printer keeps a list of designers they refer to when they get a client who wants something printed but can’t design or produce it themselves. I’ve gotten some great projects this way.

    1. Thanks for reading, Lisa! I love getting design jobs from printers I know, too – it makes for a speedy workflow since we’re familiar with each other’s work!

  4. Concerning packaging fonts for your print jobs. One issue I have run into is the use of TypeKit fonts with CC. Not all printers have CC yet, and Typekit fonts don’t package. So I have had to outline any typekit fonts that I use. Any thoughts on that? Also does my license for fonts typically cover sending that font to a printer?

  5. Thanks for all these very inclusive and necessary print design tips, Rebecca (#4, HELLO!). You know who needs to know this info? The hiring client. They need to know that when hiring designers for print, they’re not hiring a young, web-based design firm. Sharing this awesome info with my client base.


    1. Thank you for sharing this info with your clients, Karen! In fact, a link to this post would be a great addition to any designer’s website – why not show that you care about getting the job done right! 🙂

  6. This is a great article, especially for this just starting out in the field! With my 13 years of design experience, I can admit that I’ve probably made every one of these mistakes at least once. By reading this, it’s a good way to keep your printers happy. You be good to them and they’ll be good to you (great to keep in mind when you have that one rush job that comes along and they’re willing to go the extra mile to help you out.) 🙂

    1. Christine – so true about the extra mile on a rush job or a break on pricing. Work with them long enough and you might start referring clients to one another as well!

      Really, forming a relationship with a printing company is a win-win. 🙂


    2. Thank you Christine! I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s ever accidentally sent bad bleeds out 🙂
      And yes, keeping your printers happy means that you and your clients are happy too.

  7. These are great tips! Thank you for the reminders. During my senior year of college, I was required to have an internship. There were few design options available, so my professor set me up with a print shop he often worked with. At the time, I was so disappointed that I didn’t get to work with other designers and learn the ropes at some trendy studio, however, it turned out to be the best education I could have hoped for. I got to see first hand how our files get produced, what problems occur, how to fix them, and how frustrating it can be in the pre-press department. I may not be the most amazing designer, but I sure appreciate the people who produce the final product and have always made it my goal to provide well prepared files that help them get the product in and out of their shop quickly and easily.

    1. My first job out of college was working at a company that had an in-house print shop. While I learned tons of valuable knowledge overall, I learned the most from the press operators and the printing process…you’re right…the best education I could’ve hoped for, too!


    2. Thank you for posting, Melinda!
      That’s so great that you got that experience as an intern. Wouldn’t it be nice if every design curriculum included at least a visit to a press and a conversation with some printing pros?
      I’m indebted to all of the printing experts who have taught me bits and pieces of practical knowledge over the years, all of that info has made me a much more efficient designer 🙂

    3. Another pro tip for designers starting out, get a job in printing! Even if it’s just for a year or so, and yes even if it’s digital. It’ll be the best crash course in print file prep you’ll ever get. Not only will you learn very quickly best practice in print setup, but you’ll also be exposed to work from those “trendy” design and marketing firms. You might come across different methods of presenting work to your clients, new and creative binding techniques, outrageous packaging design (and exactly how they lay it out for print). In this environment, you can be inspired by what comes by your desk, learn how it’s setup and then add it to your repertoire of print design solutions for your design clients.

      1. I agree, Damo – if I could finally build that time machine I’ve been working on, I’d do just that, and preferably right out of art school. It would have started me out with better habits rather than learning a lot about printing the hard way when I was just getting started.
        Thanks for the thoughts!

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