How to Set Up Your Documents So That Your Printer Won’t Hate You

I work for a large commercial printing company (see my bio below for details) and I see a huge number of documents from a wide variety of designers, hobbyists, agencies, and more. Fortunately, just about everyone knows that embracing a PDF workflow can streamline the printing process, eliminating potential problems like missing fonts and images. But  before you even think about making a PDF, you need to remember: success starts with laying out your InDesign document properly.

So I want to share with you some of the most common problems we see, in hopes that you’ll avoid them when you’re sending documents to your printer.

Trim Size

One of the most important steps is building your document to the final trim size. Whether you’re creating a 48-page brochure with die cut tabs and plastic comb binding, or a 500-page catalog that perfect binds with full bleeds, setting-up the document correctly is critical. Remember to leave space for die-cut tabs or bleed. If the document is not created to final trim size, we typically have to reduce it! We provide templates for our customers with both bleed and margin guides as well as die lines in place, if required.

Even a simple Letter-sized (8-1/2 x 11 inch) tri-fold brochure can cause issues if not set up correctly. For example, the three panels should not be the same size. The panel that folds in should be about 1/16″ shorter.

This is where InDesign’s ability to have multiple page sizes in one document is really useful. Create one page for each panel (three front and three back), and adjust the two shorter panels using the Page Tool. In the pages panel, move the 6 pages into two 3-page spreads. When using multiple page sizes, you should—in most cases—turn on Spreads in the PDF Export dialog box. That way you end up with a 2-page PDF, in the example described above, instead of 6 separate pages.


Other Problems

Here are some other common problems:

  • No Bleed: Images should extend 1/8″ (9 points) beyond trim. It’s a good habit to include bleed guides in the document set-up.
  • Marks not offset: All Marks (Crop Marks, Bleed Marks, Registration Marks, etc.) should be offset 0.3125″
  • Fonts not embedded: While most fonts can be embedded when Exporting a PDF from InDesign, you will get a warning if a font cannot be embedded. To see if a font has restrictions, check the Find Font dialog box (Type > Find Font).

Cannot embed font

  • Images or type too close to trim: You should allow 3/16″ minimum, 1/4″ margin preferred.
  • Image resolution: We flag images less than 200 ppi (pixels per inch) although we recommend image resolution should be double the line screen. So if your job runs at 150 lpi (lines per inch), your (Effective) image resolution should be 300 ppi.
  • Rich black not used: Large black areas containing only black ink, when they should contain CMYK. We use 60C 40M 20Y 100K.

More Considerations

Native Files: In the case native files are submitted, the best way to ensure all the needed fonts and images are included is to package your document (in InDesign, choose File > Package). Missing fonts or images can prevent your job from moving forward into production, halting proofing and plating.

Using Styles: When we do get native files and have to make changes, it often surprises me how many people do not use style sheets (Character, Paragraph or Object Styles). Style sheets save time when making changes and also promote consistency throughout the document. We strongly encourage the use of style sheets, even if you’re submitting PDFs—it’s a good habit to use them in your InDesign document.

Questions or thoughts on how to prepare your file for printing success? Let me know in the comments!

[Editor’s Note: The title of this piece was from our editors, not James, who doesn’t hate anyone, even when they send him poorly laid out files.]

Posted on: July 1, 2015

12 Comments on How to Set Up Your Documents So That Your Printer Won’t Hate You

  1. Great article James and much needed in the industry today! These were some of the first things I had to learn when taking on Digital Print Production!

  2. Thanks Roberto, appreciate the nice comments! Many people are self taught and unless they have worked in prepress or watched all the great videos on, they might miss some of the intricacies of preparing their files.

  3. Good article, James. I’ve heard many complaints from printers regarding files they get from their customers.

  4. 60-40-20 is not a neutral color, even with 100K in the mix, clients will see the cast in that color.

  5. I agree with you Nikko. With that in mind, if a customer prefers to use a different combination for Rich Black, we certainly would not change it, but we have been using 60-40-20-100 for a long time and haven’t heard any complaints.

  6. Carole Aldrich

    July 3, 2015 at 2:38 pm

    The other issue not mentioned is that if you are using a spot color, pdf does not support that. You need to make the sport color one of the process colors so that the proper plate or film will be output, then specify with what spot color that should be printed.

    I began design work way before computers and knew how to construct a mechanical for the printer properly. That carried over when I began design on a computer. I have worked prepress, and believe me, you want to throttle some people! If you are going to use these tools, for heaven’s sake learn the proper way to prepare your files.

    • Carole,

      Good point about spot colors, not all applications can create a PDF with a spot color. QuarkXPress and InDesign, the two most common Applications used in professional publishing, can create PDF’s with Spot colors, although, sometimes way too many. We have received PDF’s with multiple spot colors when the job prints as 5 color (4 color process and a spot varnish, for example).

  7. 1. We recommend c40 m30 y30 k100 for a rich black, which creates a neutral-balanced black and is more than enough total ink for solid coverage.

    2. An even bigger issue we see too often is rich black text. You want your black text to be K100, no CMY. (And see that color swatch called “Registration”? Don’t use it, EVER. It’s not for you, Ms. Designer, it’s for me, Mr. Prepress.)

    3. Mark offset: as long as it’s no less than the bleed amount you should be OK. Which is why InDesign baffles me that by default the offset is less than 0.125″ (the most commonly-requested bleed amount) and most users don’t bother to change it. I can’t tell you how many PDFs I receive with InDesign-generated crop marks and ink boxes that are invading the bleed area… so annoying.

    4. If your print provider has a template for the product you’re designing, USE IT. And don’t modify it, either — leave their layers and template objects and other preset objects alone.

    5. If you’re expecting crisp vector output for your text, don’t set it in Photoshop. Even though PS can technically output a PDF with vector data it’s fraught with peril — for starters, it’s not really vector text, each text object ends up as a vector clipping path with a raster fill that is much larger than the text object, and files with a lot of text can end up as HUGE PDFs (over a GB!) that will not go through the rip properly. Why Adobe engineered it this way is beyond me, but they did… so use the right tool for the job. A small amount of text in Photoshop is fine, but if you’re laying out the liner notes for your CD project or body copy on a pamphlet use the right tool for the job (which is not Photoshop).

    6. Above and beyond any advice you read here or anywhere else, your printer’s specific recommendations trump all. If they want a different resolution, bleed amount, file setup, rich black or whatever, follow their advice. They are the professionals, they know what they need to get your job done. And for pete’s sake don’t argue with them when they ask for something different than you supplied! Being the antagonistic, uppity know-it-all designer never ever makes you any friends.

  8. Good content here, James. One question though, you mentioned “Marks not offset: All Marks (Crop Marks, Bleed Marks, Registration Marks, etc.) should be offset 0.3125″ Didn’t really get this one. Can you expand on this a bit?

    • Scott,
      Great question! We often get Crop Marks, Bleed Marks, etc too close to trim, especially if the PDF is not built to trim size and we have to reduce it. So we ask our customers to Offset Marks .3125 inches, which moves all Marks .3125 from trim. Hope this helps!

  9. Thanks for this post. I am one of those self-taught newbies and I found this article an invaluable guide. I often get asked to make tri-fold pamphlets that are printed, double sided, on our printer and I always have trouble lining the folds up. I haven’t tried your process yet but would the process you outline (creating six pages, etc) work for regular office printers? I can never go to the bleed on them (I wish I could) and the margins throw me off. I’d appreciate the advice.

  10. Marie,
    Even if you’re going to a desktop printer, you can use two 3-page spreads mentioned above. Unfortunately most desktop printers can not print bleed on an 8-1/2 x 11. When you print or Export a PDF, make sure you check Spreads.

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