Don't Sabotage Your Professional Print Job

You've been working for weeks on that eye-popping logo your client needed yesterday. Now you amble up to the counter with your Zip disk, ready to place your livelihood in the hands of a service-bureau technician. How can you be sure the graphic that sizzles on screen will look just as good in print? It all depends on what you do before you hand over the disk.

As a service-bureau customer, you have the right to see that the job is done well, on time, and at a reasonable price. But you also have a responsibility to learn what it takes to submit trouble-free files. Macworld surveyed a handful of service bureaus across North America to identify the primary causes–and solutions–for common imaging problems. Avoid these mistakes, and you'll reduce the odds of getting an unpleasant surprise when your packet comes back. Our thanks to SpectraComp (Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania), the Printing House (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), Indian Rock Imagesetting (Berkeley, California), and Canterbury Press (Berkeley) for their assistance.

Most imaging services cite poor file preparation as the number one output problem they encounter. Common gaffes include submitting jobs with bad or missing screen or printer fonts, missing linked graphics, and incomplete or illegible job tickets–your instructions for handling the job. Before you submit your project, take some time to ensure that all the pieces are in place. Be especially careful with jobs that include embedded EPS files; any fonts those files include must be present for the job to print.

Adobe PageMaker and QuarkXPress both include features that gather the files associated with your job and store them in a folder you specify. PageMaker collects fonts and graphics, while QuarkXPress collects only graphics.

It's all too easy to make a mistake that messes up a print job. Such errors as forgetting to include a font or submitting an image in the wrong format could cost you hundreds of dollars in wasted film or paper. The best defense is to use a preflight program–such as Preflight Pro, from Extensis (800/796-9798, ), or FlightCheck, from Markzware (800/300-3532, )–to inspect your files for conditions likely to cause output errors. A successful preflight is no guarantee that your file will print correctly, but it certainly improves the odds.

If you're in a hurry, it's tempting to skip steps. One you should never skip, though, is generating a proof of each color separation on a PostScript laser printer before submitting your job to the imaging service. Proofing not only lets you check for mistakes but also helps ensure that the file is free of conditions likely to cause PostScript errors. Also, send a copy of the proofs along with the job to provide a guide for the service bureau's production staff. To avoid confusion, be sure the proofs reflect all last-minute changes to the file; if technicians see a discrepancy, they'll have to delay the job–perhaps adding to the output charges–to check with you.

Here's another one that will make them squirm: submit only TrueType fonts. Font problems have long been the bane of imaging services, and they remain a common cause of output errors. To play it safe, stick with Type 1 fonts from recognized type foundries, and be sure to send copies of the screen and printer fonts along with the job to avoid font-substitution errors.

Some imaging services accept jobs with TrueType fonts, but most discourage it because PostScript output devices handle Type 1 better than they handle TrueType. You can tell the difference by looking at the font file's icon: Type 1 fonts have a single character in the icon, while TrueType fonts have three. Most preflight programs can help by quickly spotting those pesky TrueType fonts in your files.

Even more important than submitting the right type of font with your print job is using just one type. A print package that includes both TrueType and Type 1 fonts will put a few gray hairs on the head of any service-bureau worker. The service-bureau folks will also age prematurely if you throw in a cheap font or two from an unknown vendor–you know, those fonts from "Fonts Are Us" that cost $29.95 for 100. Such fonts tend to cause output problems.

Using offbeat graphics and obscure publishing applications gets your service bureau in a snit and gives you unpredictable results. It's usually best to submit files from standard applications. You can count on your service bureau's having current releases of QuarkXPress, Macromedia FreeHand, Adobe Illustrator, Adobe PageMaker, and Adobe Photoshop (you can be sure Adobe's new InDesign will join the list soon). Its production staff should be experienced in dealing with output problems specific to these packages. If you're using a program that's not among the supported applications, you'll have to submit a PostScript print file, because the service bureau won't be able to open the native format.

In general, you should stick with recent software releases–including any updates that fix output-related bugs. However, there are exceptions: some service bureaus prefer receiving jobs in QuarkXPress 3.X format due to output troubles in QuarkXPress 4.0, although subsequent updates have fixed many of these problems. Always check with the imaging service to see which programs and versions it supports.

It's also best to stick with standard formats when placing files in your page layout–typically EPS for vector graphics, and EPS or TIFF for bitmapped images. In most cases, avoid JPEG compression, which sometimes adds image artifacts. Many service bureaus also prefer that you avoid PICT files.

Some imaging services on the so-called bleeding edge accept files in the Adobe Acrobat PDF format, anointed as the prepress format of choice for the future. However, the future is not here yet, and while many imaging services are adopting PDF in their internal workflows, few are comfortable receiving PDF files–for now.

Each major graphics and publishing program has certain idiosyncrasies that come into play when the application is producing high-resolution output at an imaging service. Learning these peculiarities and designing your print package to work around them makes printing go more smoothly. The program documentation should cover most of them; some software publishers even include commercial-printing guides for their packages. Your imaging service can also be a good source of information about application-specific issues, especially those related to particular output devices. However, avoid the temptation to use your imaging service as an unlimited source of free software training; that's another great way to sour a good working relationship.

Those RGB images that look so great on your computer screen won't print properly on most PostScript output devices. To make the images print, you must convert them to CMYK. If you're preparing images in Photoshop or another image-editing application, it's best to do the conversion after you've made all modifications to the images but before you import them into your page-layout software.

Be sure to keep a copy of the RGB version in case you want to use it later, since RGB offers a wider color gamut and is typically more amenable than CMYK to image modifications. You'll also need RGB if you want to produce slides or transparencies on a film recorder and, of course, if you want to post images on your Web site.

Overcomplex vector illustrations can quickly bring a PostScript device–particularly one with an older raster image processor–to its knees. Especially treacherous are gradient fills and nested graphics (one EPS file inside another).

If you're having trouble printing a vector drawing, simplify it by deleting redundant points or hidden objects. You can also try converting it into a high-resolution bitmap.

If your EPS includes text, you may run into a different printing problem if the service bureau doesn't have the font you used. To avoid encountering such a problem, convert text to curves before you send the job off.

Some imaging services cite spot colors as a frequent source of output difficulties. One problem is that different applications may identify the same Pantone color with different labels. If you import a file into a page layout that includes the same spot color with a different label, the software thinks it's dealing with two distinct colors and prints an extra separation.

Make sure you're consistent when specifying whether you want to print the spot color as an extra ink or as a CMYK composite, or–again–you'll end up printing an extra separation. This is another instance in which printing a set of laser proofs can help you ward off printing problems.

Another common problem relates to trapping, a technique for avoiding misregistration between adjoining colors. Many imaging-service customers try to save money by performing their own trapping, only to pay more in the end because the service bureau has to remove what turn out to be bad traps. Most imaging services have automated trapping software and personnel experienced in using it.

People who are service-bureau "hoppers" don't get all the benefits a regular customer does. If you're a regular, the service bureau comes to know the ins and outs of your jobs, and you get to know the quirks of its equipment. During crunch times, you're likely to get better treatment than someone who walks in the door for the first time. You may also be eligible for volume discounts. However, it's also a good idea to identify a backup facility you can use if your primary service bureau's equipment goes down.

As in any relationship, effective communication is paramount. Always consult with your service bureau's rep before embarking on a complex project that will require its assistance.

June 1999 page: 103

Should you do your own image scanning or leave it to the service bureau? The answer depends on your budget, the volume of images you scan, and–perhaps most important–your quality standards.

Not surprisingly, most imaging services would prefer that you pay them to do the scanning for you, and they make a good point: they use costly drum or flatbed scanners and have staffers who are expert at getting the best quality from each scan.

On the other hand, high-resolution scans are expensive, even with volume discounts, and the current generation of midrange flatbed and slide scanners–which sell for $3,000 to $10,000–do an admirable job of capturing images for many kinds of publishing applications. If the image quality from these scanners is sufficient for your needs, you can save money and get an extra degree of control by purchasing one and doing your own scanning. You can also try a combination approach, turning to your service bureau for high-profile images or those you plan to enlarge, and using your in-house scanner for everything else.

If you plan to do your own scanning, you'll get the best results by scanning slides or transparencies instead of reflective copy. You'll also need to scan at a resolution sufficient to reproduce the image in print. As a rule of thumb, scan the image at about 1.5 times the resolution of the halftone you plan to produce. For example, if you plan to print the image with a 100-line screen, scan it at 150 dots per inch. This assumes that you'll reproduce the image at the same size as the original. If you plan to enlarge the image, you should boost the scan resolution by the same percentage.

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