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Spot Colors and Transparency Flattening in InDesign CS3

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I was preparing a demo on transparency flattening and to my great surprise there are some very interesting news in InDesign CS3. What I wanted to show was the “White Box Effect” which Steve Werner described very well in this post. The problem happens when transparency is flattened over an object with a Spot Color. By now we all know that if you turn Overprint Preview on in Acrobat the problem disappears on screen. But, to this day, there are still problems with printing such effects in certain workflows (mainly those that have an internal preflight system and which automatically turn overprinting off for these “transparent” elements).

Well, in InDesign CS3, the engineers came up with a very cool idea! The problem: some preflight systems consider the white box in overprint an error… and turn overprinting off on that specific element; causing the horrid white box effect on output. Solution: overprint the spot color instead! Splendiferous!

Figure A. How transparency effects on Spot Colors used to look in Acrobat with Overprinting Preview off.

Transparency Flattening A

Figure B. How transparency effects on Spot Colors used to look in Acrobat with Overprinting Preview on.

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Transparency Flattening B

Figure C. How transparency effects on Spot Colors now looks like in Acrobat with Overprinting Preview off.

Transparency Flattening C

Well, it looks pretty much like there is no transparency effect at all! Wait a minute let’s turn Overprinting Preview on, and this is what we’ll get:

Transparency Flattening B

Pfew! Here’s the shadow.

So what is so fantastic about that solution? Well, white is not the color that overprints anymore; thus reducing preflight errors. It’s the spot color that is overprinting. Problem solved. Next?

  • That is fascinating, Rufus! I agree that this is definitely better than the big white box, though it will still be important to explain to clients why their drop shadows disappeared.

  • the question will not be anymore : “What are these white boxes ?” but “Where are my shadows ?”

    I prefer the white boxes problem, more obvious, easier to explain the flattening process. Now you have to be more cautious…

  • Rufus says:

    The white box is not so much a preview problem. The real problem was when preflight systems just turned overprint off on the transparent objects deciding it was an error. I agree, there will still be explaining to do, the answer is simple “turn Overprint Preview on”. Now tell this a machine ;-)

  • Anne-Marie says:

    Excellent find, Rufus! I’ll definitely be passing on this info to my clients and giving them the URL to your post. A lot of them do their own pre-press and run into the issue all the time.

  • Gerald Singelmann says:

    >. The real problem was when preflight systems just turned overprint off on the transparent objects deciding it was an error

    So, in CS2 those preflight systems turned off overprint of a CMYK pixel object. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that this same preflight system will turn off overprint of a spot area?
    We get the wrong result in both cases only now it is less obvious to see.
    I wonder if this was a good idea. We will see…

  • Gerald Singelmann says:

    Rufus, I just tried to check your observation against my IDCS3. I get exactly the same behaviour as ever.
    How exactly did you get the spot colour to lie in front?

  • Rufus says:

    Hi Gerald,
    [5] The white box is a color named “nonzero” which results in white. In a professional workflow, no one would ever overprint white; that is why preflight picks it up as an error, turning overprinting off. No other colors are affected.
    [6] Here are the steps I follwed:
    ? Create a frame with a Spot fill (Pantone, in my case).
    ? Create a frame above that and apply a drop shadow effect.
    ? Export to PDF (I used the PDF/X-1a preset to force transparency flattening).
    ? Open in Acrobat and the result is what you see above in the figures.

  • Jean-Claude Tremblay says:

    As expected this new behavior is also present in Illustartor CS3.

  • Rufus says:

    Thanks for checking that Jean-Claude. I ran out of time…

  • Jean-Claude Tremblay says:

    In our workflow… I think I prefere the white box problems because when you see it you know you have ripped it thge wrong way. With the new behavior, their is a lot of chance it pass the proof without being discovered and corrected.

  • woz says:

    Of course the problem would be much smaller if ‘turn overprint on’ was the default in Acrobat Reader. ;-)

  • Rufus says:

    Jean-Claude, I have to disagree with you. As a matter of fact the problem subsits when preflight turns overprinting off for the white box (which is considered an error by preflight). Now, the preflight system has no reason at all to turn overprinting off on elements that are in color. Basically, it won’t be considered an “error” anymore. It will pass proof now! The only problem that still exists is the mere preview of the overprinting.

  • Jean-Claude Tremblay says:

    Rufus… In our Rampage Rip, to be able to see the shadow in CS2 or CS3 we need to uncheck the “Ignore Application Overprint Setting”, if it is checked, we get either the white box problems in CS2 and no Shadow in CS3. Either one is good, but the white box is definately more easy to find visualy. Sure other workflow has other way to deal with that and it might be better for them in CS3. It is not for us.

  • Rufus says:

    Gotcha! I see your point.

  • Bob Levine says:

    Very interesting indeed. I don’t think I ever would have noticed this since I very rarely flatten my artwork but this very good to know for future reference.

  • woz says:

    With today’s workflows someone will flatten it. You might as well do it youreselve and check your PDF. ;-)

  • José Ramos says:

    So… what I gather out of all of this is, that it’s still true that you NEED to make sure that overprinting is turned ON “before you print”.

    (And as Steve correctly pointed out, if you?re printing a proof on a printer which doesn?t understand overprinting, you can turn on the Simulate Overprint option.)

    … and what you’re saying is, that now Adobe has made it so that if you forget to do this, the results will not be a complete disaster. An improvement indeed, but we’re not quite there yet.;)

  • Bob Levine says:


    IMO, flattening is best left to the latest possible moment and with the new Adobe PDF Print Engine flattening should not be necessary at all.

    Flattening is only done because postscript can’t handle it. Since the new print engine doesn’t use postscript it won’t be an issue.

    As for current workflows, the only time I’ll flatten artwork is for ads being submitted to publications and for those I never use spot colors anyway.

  • Jon Bessant says:

    It almost begs the question of having some tighter integration between InDesign and Acrobat with these issues to-hand. In other words, if both applications see each other then overprint preview is turned ON within Acrobat, simulate overprint turned ON within the print preferences. In effect, binding the applications in a professional design/publishing scenario as such.

    I know Adobe ships Acrobat without the overprint preview turned on (including the Reader) since it slows display and might confuse the hell out of non-professionals when things look and print differently (if you get my dirft).

    However, if some auto-detection is enabled then all of us with have a (crystal ball) “Acrobat 9 Professional Design/Print” edition envoked automatically?

    Personally, I love the new change but somehow prefer the old (obvious problem) approach. But imagine if you were a CS4 (er) and saw the benefits of tighter InDesign/Acrobat auto-integration with these issues?

    Just a thought …


  • woz says:

    I totally agree with you Bob. (I even wrote an article about the ‘death’ of Postscript). But in today’s workflow we send out Certified PDF’s (accepted all over the world) that require the PDF to be 1.3 and thus flattened. and I can understand why. The Ghent Work Group has provided us with excellent flattening settings for use in newspaper end regular print. Just look at these screenshots:
    I would love to see the industy move towards PDF/X-4, but it’s too early right now. I would advice anyone to use Certified PDF 1.3 (from Enfocus) because right now, it’s the safest choice. In the end my clients don’t care about all this. They want good ads. (I hope the newspapers/magazine and other printers will move to accepting PDF/X-4. But it’ll take time.

  • Very interesting discussion. I notice that in my newly installed CS3, Acrobat 8 was already set to Overprint Preview ON. Is that the way it defaults, or did it copy my previous settings somehow? Does anyone know?

  • Jon Bessant says:

    Hi Mike,

    It’s OFF by default by I’m puzzled why your’s defaults?

    The same logic as such behind the defaults – engineering have stated it does indeed slow down performance for the people who do not require this function. It would also scare the hell out of budding designers once it’s behaviour was explained probably ?

    Lastly, if you load up the preflight part of Acrobat 8 Professional it includes a display fixer which can switch the overprint preview etc ON for you .. maybe you run this feature?


  • vectorbabe says:

    Well, this explains why I couldn’t demonstrate the “white box” problem in my Friday class!

  • Jon, I love your idea of InDesign and Acrobat working together more closely. For example, perhaps there could be a flag in the PDF’s metadata that says “this PDF is designed to be viewed with overprint preview turned on,” and Acrobat could see that and turn it on automatically.

  • Bob Levine says:

    Better update that chapter in the book, Sandee. :)

  • Gerald Singelmann says:

    Would anyone care to check this?
    I find that Rufus’ description is true only when I select “Convert to CMYK”. If I choose “Leave unchanged” I still get the old shadow-on-top situation.

    Rufus, I can’t figure out what you mean with “The white box is a color named ‘nonzero’ which results in white”
    In the given scenario I get a spot rectangle and an overprinting CMYK pixel object (i.e. the shadow) but no white box. I double-checked with PitStop, there is nothing else: spot and CMYK image.

  • Rufus says:

    Hi Gerald, I just checked the behavior with “No Color Conversion”, and yes you are right; the white box effect is there, in its entire splendor.
    In my initial test, I used the PDF-X/1a preset, which in fact “Converts to [the] destination” color profile.
    As far as I know, the “white” that is used for the overprinting “trick” is called “non-zero”. The trick being to set the “white” object, which also contains the shadow, to overprint, thus making it transparent. Anyone?
    This issue needs further investigation for sure.

  • Jon Bessant says:


    The non zero option is called OPM1 from the improved Illustrator overprint mode.

    OPM0 equates to opaque white which matches the postscript imaging model.


    Yes, it would be great. Even going backwards into InDesign, whenever the overprint flag is activated through attributes and placed objects, turn the overprint preview ON within InDesign and then handshake with Acrobat.

    Hopefully the best of both worlds, satisfying the engineers (only activated when required) – and the end-user (getting bigger) – across the entire suite?

    Hey, it will be an option in the Bridge also – just like colour management??


  • Wa Veghel says:

    In fact, when I make a PDF for a client to proof by email on screen, I always set the PDF back in compatability and turn ‘simulate overprint’ on, that way I’m sure it looks good on screen, no matter wich version or settings the Reader has with a client

  • Bob says:

    We are also having transparency issues in InDesign CS3, with drop-shadows. We found out that backsaving as a CS2 legacy file and printing from that, eliminates the ghosted box. but who know for how long or what else gets hosed, when backsaving from CS3.

    We are having another problem with CS3. We are having trouble writing or sending postscript to our CreoBrisque RIP out of CS3. CS2 worked fine. Quark works fine. But PS from CS3 stall, times-out and the connection breaks. Writing PS pointing Adobe 8.0 as the output device helps sometimes. I understand that fine-tuning the parameters in Distiller helps but haven’t resolved everything yet. Does the Brisque need an Appletalk firmware update? Seems so. We’re printing out of Intel dual-core Macs. That seems to indicate that an Appletalk upgrade to the Brisque even more important.

    Thanks in advance.

  • Bob says:

    I remember a similar problem. When opening a PS file in Freehand to edit once (and I can’t remember why we wanted to do that), we discovered that Freehand interlaced the rastered colors with hundreds of RGB masks (I suppose for the larger color space). If we selected-similar, un-grouped, and deleted the RGB layers, we could edit the postscript and re-save it and use it as good postcript. That’s a foggy recollection of something that happened long ago…but that making a drop-shadow in Adobe products that have advanced transparency, seems to be interfering with the art’s affect on the layers below it, similarly, but probably not the RGB interlacing.


  • Bob, while I do know that the CreoBrisque RIP has had some major upgrades in the past couple of years, I don’t know about any networking issues. However, it appears that Kodak (creo scitex whatever) is trying to get its Brisque users to “upgrade” to Prinergy. And one of the best reasons do do this is that the new Prinergy system support native PDF (adobe’s pdf print engine) so that flattening becomes a thing of the past.

    James Wamser of Sells Printing showed me some examples of output from their new system a couple of weeks ago, and it’s wonderful… getting rid of flattening just solves so many problems.

  • No one says:

    So, does this mean those of us who have to make DCS files for _all_ spot jobs before placing them in InDesign are free and can actually USE some of InDesign’s features now?

  • No one: I’m not sure what you’re saying. Why do you have to make DCS files for all spot jobs? You could use PSD, for example. But whatever the case, DCS has been supported in InDesign (including transparency effects) for the past couple of versions.

  • No one says:

    Anytime we do anything with spot colors like a gradient between PMS 286 and 285, for example, it has to be done in photoshop in 2 spot color channels. Our printer’s RIP is a 10 year old version of Kodak’s printergy.

    I was asking if this would change that. After talking to our printer, it won’t. We also can ONLY use this printer.

    I need a new job.

  • Jeff says:

    You should never flatten your artwork, unless you’re running on an older machine or have a lack of space on your hd.

  • Linda Nordlund says:

    I have been working on this issue all week. What I discovered was if I make a mixed ink color of black and the spot color (100%k, 1%spot) I get the effect I’m looking for. If my text has a spead I check the isolate blending box on the transparency palette and my shadow mode is normal. for shadows with out the spread I leave the isolate unchecked. I tried this twice with success.

  • Ken says:

    If you set your Transparecy Flattener Preset to custom Create a Preset to 100% vector line art 1200 gradient over 300 Check Convert All text AND Strokes also.
    Then export out of indesign as a PDF
    Choose Acrobat 4 or 1.3 then go to advanced change to your new preset also check Ignore spead overrides. That should get you what you need.

  • Ken says:

    If you have rampage you can just output to PDF 7 and use There “PDF Rip Trap profile” and its not a problem at all.

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