A Guide to Preparing Files for Print

One of the most important assets you can have as a designer doing print work, whether you are new or old is an understanding of how to correctly set your files up for printing.

With this guide, we are going to examine ways to prepare files for print, covering applications in the Adobe Creative Suite. The examples used are for InDesign, but can apply to Photoshop and Illustrator. This is a basic guide aimed to help people just starting out in the print design business or are looking to learn more about preparing files better to send to press.

There is however, some technical jargon in this article. I have included a glossary at the end that tells you what “the jargon” means. So veterans, students and anyone in-between will be able to read and take something away from this article.

Understand the Basics

With most print jobs, you should have specifications to adhere to. These specs work for preparing advertisements, brochures, business cards, and other printed mediums.


A lot of the colors you create in RGB mode are not achievable using standard four-color process printing. It is always best to create your document from the start in CMYK color mode to ensure that you have a better idea of how your colors are going to print. We have talked more in depth about this in previous articles, but I would like to touch base on the subject again, in case some of you have missed it.

The most important thing is understand the difference between CMYK & RGB. Now, first off CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. RGB is Red, Green, Blue. Setting up the correct color mode is crucial for have the correct colors print and it being able to be used on a 4 color run. I usually send proofs to clients in RGB files. The reasoning is that it saves file space so its emailable or small enough file size I don’t bring their computer to its knees when I send it.

What does it matter?

Let’s say your color is Cyan: C: 100 M: 0 Y: 0 K: 0 that means that the selected area is going to receive all the cyan ink on one pass and the next three passes will not lay down any ink on the spot. Making sure that you understand how your file will be printed and therefore how you need to save it is a step that needs to be taken so you can achieve accurate color in your prints.

Some exceptions are tradeshow signs or large format prints, but the best way to know for sure is to check with the printer.

Deciding to Use Black or Rich/Packed Black

When printing with black color, there are two types of black you can use.

  • Black – 100 K: can be used for body copy and barcodes
  • Rich Black – 40 C 40 M 40 Y 100 K: should be used when using blocks of black

Note: Rich/Packed black specifications may differ from printer to printer, so you should ask your printer what they recommend.

Rich Black vs Black (100 K)

Below, you will see the difference between rich black and black.

It may be hard to tell the difference when preparing files on your monitor screen depending on your monitor type and monitor calibration since PC screens show richer colors in RGB. Therefore, it is wise to get a press proof when printing blocks of black.

Process Black vs. Build Black

When printing you want to make sure that you specify that all your blacks are 100%. What I mean by this is in the CMYK colors it should read: C: 0 M: 0 Y: 0 K: 100% Doing this means that your blacks will print correctly as black and not a build of black and running the risk of printing as a dark grey that looks great on screen but no on paper.

Four over Four (or 4/4)

If you’re printing a flyer, you might be printing 4/4, which essentially means you are printing four color on the front and four color on the back. If nothing’s on the back, then it would be 4/0.

For postcards, you might print 4/1: four color on the front and 1 spot color on the back.

For business cards, you might print 2/2: 2 spot colors on the front and back.

Print Layout

Here is a diagram of a typical document for print designs.

Trim Line: This is the finished size of the piece.

Live Area: The area that is considered safe to keep any important information within. For example, if an ad’s trim size is 8.25 in × 10.25 in, the live area might be 7.75 in × 9.75 in. This takes into consideration the binding if the ad is placed on the left or right of a spread and you don’t want copy to be unreadable if it is too close to the spine.

Bleed Area: The more bleed you can offer, the better.The minimum bleed you need for a printed piece is 0.125 in (1/8 in) but some specs require more than that. So if you are working with an image in Photoshop and you’re placing it in InDesign for print preparation, keep in mind the area you might need to use for the bleed.

Crop Marks: Indicates where to cut the paper.

Preparing a File with UV Varnish/Coating

If you decide to use a UV varnish/UV coating on your printed piece, all you need to do is select the image or text you want the varnish on.

To keep your work organized, I’d suggest creating a layer and a spot color named “varnish/spot” and then make sure this spot color you create is not already used in the file.

Using Spot Color

If you need more vibrant colors or exact color matching (e.g. for consistent company branding) than what CMYK inks produce, spot colors/PMS colors is the way to go.

Most company logos have an assigned PANTONE color to them. This can add more colors to your print job. 4 color process is very common for print color specs. If you are adding a spot color that would be 5 colors. Most of the printers in my area can only support a total of 7. 4 color process + 3 spots. Logo’s are usually assigned a spot color and if the company has its own PANTONE color created just for them you will have to use their spot color. However other clients might not want the added cost of printing their logo in a spot color so you will need to print the logo in process color instead of a PANTONE. A PANTONE color has a CMYK value.

If you are doing spot colors in Photoshop, make sure all objects and type that are in the same color are merged on the same layer and named with the spot color they should be printed in so it is clear to the printer.

Also, provide a layered PSD or TIFF file and rasterize your type and vector layers. This can also be applied to files set up in Illustrator.

Additionally, remove any unused colors before packaging file.

Collecting Files in InDesign

In CS4, collecting files is known as Packaging (in previous versions it was known as Preflight).

To collect and package your files in InDesign, go to File > Package.

A summary screen will pop up. Here, you will see any spot colors used, RGB images, image sizes and fonts in the file.

On the image below, you will see that there is 1 font used, 2 linked images, no RGB images, 4 color process and 1 spot color.

For a more detailed overview of each component, click through the navigation menu on the left side of the Package window. It is good practice to check these.


Spending hours on beautifully kerned typography and having an awesome layout because of it can be crushed in a matter of seconds if you don’t send the fonts that are using. Now, if you have converted your type to outlines in Illustrator or turned them into vector objects its not necessary. Usually this has to deal with body copy or headlines. If you are working in Photoshop your are safe. You can just save as a flattened tiff and be on your way.

Check the font/s you used in the document in case you need to remove anything saved on the pasteboard.


I always include a PDF or a jpg in my packaged file of what I am sending to print. The reason I do this is so the printer knows what its supposed to look like so when they open the file if it doesn’t look like that something is wrong. Its an extra step that has saved me some issues and headaches in the past. The printer may have a different version of your font, they may not have it installed at all or you may have packaged something incorrectly.

Make sure you double check your proof before sending it to the printer. In most (read: all) cases, an approved proof is final.


Make sure that you give your printer detailed instructions if your print job is something outside of the ordinary. A rule of thumb is if you are using varnishes, spot colors or anything that is not a typical 4 color process you should call or if they are local give them a visit to talk through it. A small consultation can work wonders on working through something. Try not to do a barrage of emails as things can be lost in translation, taken out of context or read incorrectly. Just give us a call and we’ll be more than happy to answer any questions for you.

Preparing Print Files in Adobe Creative Suite Applications: Summary 

Photoshop InDesign Illustrator
  • Create the file in CYMK color mode
  • Remember to include a bleed
  • Add Guides to show trim area or crop marks
  • Rasterize type
  • Name layers clearly if using spot colors and UV varnish/coating
  • Rasterize vector layers
  • Provide a layered PSD file if you have spots colors
  • Most printers will accept TIFF, EPS, PSD, and PDF files created in Photoshop
  • Create a file with a bleed
  • Remove unused colors
  • Name layers clearly if UV varnish/coating
  • Package the file
  • Check colors, images and image sizes
  • Save Packaged folder
  • Zip the file if you are uploading to an online printer
  • Most printers will accept high resolution PDFs and collective native files from InDesign
  • Create the file in CYMK color mode
  • Remember to include a bleed
  • Add Guides to show trim area or crop marks
  • Rasterize type
  • Name layers clearly if using spot colors and UV varnish/coating
  • Link files and provide a folder with linked files to the printer
  • Most printers will accept high resolution PDFs, AI, and EPS files from Illustrator


Bleed– a term that refers to printing that goes beyond the edge of the sheet after trimming. The bleed is the part on the side of your document that gives the printer that small amount of space to move around paper and design inconsistencies.

Trim– the final size of a product after its unnecessary parts have been cut off or removed.

Live Area – is the area where your art and type should be safely tucked into so they are not trimmed or cut-off.

PDF X1A –  Common file type for printing. The purpose of PDF/X is to facilitate graphics exchange, and it therefore has a series of printing related requirements, which do not apply to standard PDF files. For example, in PDF/X-1a all fonts need to be embedded and all images need to be CMYK or spot colors.

PDF– (Portable Document Format) is a file format created by Adobe Systems in 1993 for document exchange. PDF is used for representing two-dimensional documents in a manner independent of the application software, hardware, and operating system

TIFF– (Tagged Image File Format) is a high resolution loss-less file format that is ideal for saving images for print.

DPI– Dots per inch (DPI) is a measure of spatial printing or video dot density, in particular the number of individual dots that can be placed within the span of one linear inch (2.54 cm). The DPI value tends to correlate with image resolution, but is related only indirectly.

PPI– Pixels per inch or pixel density is a measurement of the resolution of devices in various contexts; typically computer displays, image scanners or digital camera image sensors.

Image Resolution-describes the detail an image holds. The term applies equally to digital images, film images, and other types of images. Higher resolution means more image detail.

EPS– Encapsulated PostScript is a DSC-conforming PostScript document with additional restrictions intended to make EPS files usable as a graphics file format. In other words, EPS files are more-or-less self-contained, reasonably predictable PostScript documents that describe an image or drawing, that can be placed within another PostScript document.

Process Color– referred to as process color or four color, is a subtractive color model, used in color printing, also used to describe the printing process itself. CMYK refers to the four inks used in most color printing: cyan, magenta, yellow, and key black.

PANTONE Color -The PANTONE MATCHING SYSTEM is the definitive international reference for selecting, specifying, matching and controlling ink colors.

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