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Using InDesign Snippets in a Printing Workflow


Most of the printing companies I work with request native InDesign files for the print job. These native files allow them to more easily fix things in the layout before sending it to press. While reviewing the proof of a recent print job, I noticed something in the proof that I wanted to change. Typically there are two choices when making a change to a printer’s proof:

  • Tell the prepress department what the change is and have them make it.
  • Submit a brand new layout file.

But what if there was a third alternative? Having worked in prepress departments, I want to share with you a common scenario. For designers, the proofing process in a print job goes something like this.

  1. Designer submits a layout file to the printer.
  2. Prepress department sends proof back to designer.
  3. Designer has a change to their layout and submits a brand new layout file to the printer.
  4. Prepress department creates new proof.

However, in reality, this scenario looks a bit different from within the dark cave of the prepress department. Here’s what they see.

  1. Designer submits a layout file to the printer.
  2. Prepress department spends hours fixing the file by doing things such as: adding bleed, slightly adjusting placement of items so that the printed piece folds correctly, swapping out customer’s corrupt fonts with a non-corrupt version, swapping out customer’s low-res raster logo with a vector version of the logo, fixing rich black text to plain black text, and correctly mapping spot colors so that the job doesn’t require 17 colors of ink.
  3. Prepress department sends proof back to designer.
  4. Designer has a change to their layout and submits a brand new layout file to the printer.
  5. Prepress department curses in angst.
  6. Repeat step 2.
  7. Prepress department creates new proof and submits to designer.

If the changes are simple (such as fixing a typo), let me be clear that the prepress department generally prefers make the changes. However, if the changes are more significant, and you’re a designer about to submit a brand new layout file to your prepress department during the proofing round, I have one word for you… STOP.

While in theory, submitting a new file might seem like a helpful thing to save the prepress department some time, in reality this can often cause them much more work for the prepress staff. Having worked in prepress departments, I need to let you in on a little secret: prepress technicians have to fix nearly all of your files. In the shops I’ve worked at, there is usually one hour of prepress time built into the price of every job. But for some extra special customers (like the ones who are apt to lose their own logo files), the print shops might add even more prepress time into the quote.

So, back to the proofing dilemma: if submitting a brand new layout file causes the prepress department more work (with the potential of a price increase for the added time required), what then is an an acceptable alternative to resubmitting your entire live InDesign layout? I submit to you: InDesign snippets.

InDesign snippets allow the designer to make changes to a small portion of the layout, and then submit just that portion of the layout to the prepress department. This allows all the prepress staff to not have to redo all the prep work they initially did on the layout file.

But for those of you who are wondering, “What is a snippet?”, take a moment and read this article by Anne-Marie Concepcion, Who’s Using Snippets?

A couple of things to keep in mind when submitting a snippet: if you are using fonts and images that weren’t used in the original layout, be sure to provide those as well.

If you work in a prepress department, I’d love to hear your feedback on this idea.

Kelly Vaughn (a.k.a. "Document Geek") has over a decade of print and design experience. She holds Adobe Expert Certifications In InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, and Acrobat, and specializes in writing and designing technical manuals for the marine industry.
  • John Hawkinson says:

    Does anyone have any real data on what fraction of jobs are sent to printers in editable form versus PDF form?

    The Dov Isaacses of the world will tell us its absolutely wrong to do these kinds of hand tweaks. And I don’t submit native files to my printer, but of course no file is truly uneditable…

  • Peter says:

    Wow, that’s interesting. I never submit native files to print. Whenever I have done that in the past, there were major issues like missing drop shadows, messed up bleeds and so, print issues when they chose to manually impose the document using CorelDRAW and so on. I suspect even once someone exporting a CS3 document ti INX (or whatever the exchange format was back then) with the trial and re-importing it in their CS2 because they hadn’t upgraded yet.

    Still, the disadvantage of a PDF workflow is that when doing things like creating image-heavy posters in Photoshop, any PDF export issues with layer styles on big text that don’t export correctly due to that ancient bug are your problem to deal with rather than theirs.

    Still, I usually take care to create press-ready files, then submit a proper PDF to the printer, and that’s it. I think any designer who creates rich black text, uses low-res raster logos or creates files with superfluous spot colors just needs to brush up on the technical basics of what they are doing, no offence. It is so much easier to get it right in the first place than to go through a prepress department. All it takes is a bit of awarenes of the technical proces and a quick check with the InDesign’s separations preview feature before exporting.

    For me, layout is finalized before it goes to print. I don’t use proofs from the printer, I have had more issues with that (like them sending proofs where they ran out of ink and didn’t notice) than actual problems spotted, and it just slows down the process a lot, which is especially problematic when clients come in with extremely tight deadlines. 99% of the changes necessary (text and layout) can already be done based on cheap laser printouts or even PDFs. You don’t need a color accurate printout to spot typos.

    Also, most online print providers here in Europe just plain refuse any file that is not PDF/X-3 with the right size, bleed settings or contain RGB colors, and any issues beyond that (low resolution images and whatnot) are basically your own problem. Going through full third party prepress is just an unnecessary cost factor.

    However, if you have to use a prepress department workflow, consider breaking up your documents into multiple files in a book. That way you can just send off an updated InDesign file for the relevant pages/articles rather than the whole document.

  • Zoran says:

    That sounds like a good idea, love the article by the way (I live on prepress world).
    I have another proposal, if designer has extensive changes, request the final layout from prepress, than use that file to edit, make changes and submit revised.

    There is mutual benefit in a sense that prepress will not have to rework file again, as well as designer can actually learn from what prepress did to his/her file.

    This will work even better with snippets.

  • Rudi says:

    As soon as we had mostly substituted QXP by InDesign (CS1) in our prepress/typesetting company, we’ve NEVER sent any native file to anywhere. And I think we’ve been doing the right thing. (If I think back to all the problems we’ve had exchanging native QXP, FreeHand, Photoshop documents in the 90’s…) All corrections, addendums, amendments etc. are subject to a simple, comprehensible and tracked PDF correction/comment workflow. At the end, we send an X/3 oder X/4 to the printing company (sometimes even an /X1-a), and we’re absolutely fine so far.

    However, exchanging InDesign snippets can be a very interesting way to exchange parts of InDesign documents – as far as there are people on both sides who are somewhat proficient in InDesign and do not provide documents with 17 color plates or corrupt fonts or other nice things.


  • Love the article. I haven’t used snippets much, but when I have, they are incredibly handy.
    Re: submitting original files to your printer. Best case scenario, the client submits 1) High-res pdf ready for print 2) Native files. If the printer has to do any adjusting, they have a pdf to refer back to in case there are any issues (transparency effects, etc.) I was always grateful for the clients who would do this.

  • I think the problem is that many of the above InDesignSecrets commenters are more advanced in their knowledge and are able to create a press-ready PDF. I have the same feeling: in my experience, printers often mess up native files, so I would always prefer send a PDF.

    However, Kelly, I know you’re right: Many people (the majority?) are not creating their documents cleanly enough and work needs doing on them. Reminds me of the time I was doing some training and after an hour, when I said something about saving the file to disk, one designer asked: “Wait, where’s the disk?”

    That said, I think your idea is bigger than just communication with printers. It’s all about moving pieces of your document from one person to another, at whatever stage of the job!

    One trick: Remember that when placing a snippet file, hold down the Option/Alt key to ensure that those objects return to the same place on the page.

  • After I read a draft of this, I wrote to Kelly and related how I’ll always remember the first time I learned about this scenario, about 15 years ago … I was teaching a big prepress shop Illustrator CS. During a plant tour they told me (and showed me) that every single file that came in the door needed fixing, and they very seldom told the designer about it, or added extra charges on top of the original quote. It was a cost of doing business. This is why they often request/require live files as well as press-ready PDFs.

    And here I thought the files I submitted to my printer were always perfect, that’s why I never heard a peep. lol

    (I still think prepress should let designers know what they needed to do to repair the file, even if they’re not charging for the repair. And give some sort of rebate or reward to designers who *do* submit good-to-go files, like myself … and all readers… in recognition of their careful and informed file prep.)

  • loukash says:

    Perhaps it?s just me, but I can?t really imagine how the ?reality scenario? could ever apply to professional designers.
    I understand though that it is likely a common scenario with ?designers?, i.e. folks who buy an expensive professional tool ? like InDesign ? with the fixed idea it will ?automagically? create ?professional designs? for them?

    • Amy says:

      As a designer working for a printer in prepress, the honest fact is I get better files from church secretaries using Pubisher than from the professional “designers” in most cases. Even the “friend’s kid who has Photoshop” usually gets the files to a usable form the second time through. The very worst files are from the senior design students graduating from the local Art Institute campus, and from their professors (though the professors are slightly worse than the students!). The next worse are from professional designers and design agencies. In-house designers at various companies usually get the files close to correct, and are the quickest to want to learn to fix things so they’ll be right the next time.

      I suspect most of the agencies and designers just pass the cost on to their clients, as they tend to send files with the same problems over and over again. We make a point to try and help our customers as much as we can, offering flyers with instructions on how to correct common problems, tips on how to set up files correctly for print, and even talking through fixes on the phone, because after the first time we DO charge for all that prepress time and we don’t want to have to go through that on every job even if we are charging for it. I’ve even gone to a client’s office and spent an hour helping them in person! Still, over and over, the same professional designers send files with the same problems, no matter how many times we’ve talked them through fixing or preventing them.

      And we prefer PDFs. Print-ready PDFs, with crops (outset .125″!), .125″ bleeds, and preferably no other marks. We normally send the salespeople after native files only once it’s become clear we’re working with someone hopeless and would be better off just fixing the file ourselves to get the job out in a timely manner.

  • Bob Levine says:

    AM, I agree completely with that last statement. If the prepress people don’t tell the customer something is wrong, it will never get fixed.

    I remember getting a call from a printer I had used for years, finally telling me to change the offset for the crop marks in PDFs I was exporting from InDesign because the prepress people were tired of moving them.

    My reaction was “why didn’t you say something sooner?” Dead silence on the other end.

  • Zoran says:

    Funny how both sides wants the same.
    In my experience, it was usually combination of particular sales rep and situation/deadline that decided if something will get fixed or we will go back to designer to fix it.

    Don’t get me wrong, the rule is always to stop and question, it is up to sales rep to be middle man and make decision.

    About professional designers, you do make mistakes too, nobody is perfect, but many times it might not be something obvious like bleed or typo, it could be something more technical, e.g. Transparency applied in a way that trapping engine can not trap it or effect applied that creates unpredictable result.
    Indesign is so far the best layout software, much better than quark ever was, but with such power and complexity comes software bugs too.

    Again, it also depends on what equipment your printer is using and how up to date they are.
    Their rip software can have bugs too, etc…

    In my ideal world, designer makes perfect PDFX-4 files and they fly through our workflow without intervention.
    We can usually fix most of the issues with submitted pdf’s using third party tools such as pdf toolbox and Enfocus Pitstop, but for more extensive changes involving reflowing of the text, etc we ask for source files as it makes it faster to fix.

    If your printer is asking for PDFX/1A or PDFX/3 files you know you are in trouble as they either do not have Adobe PDF Print engine as part of their workflow or they do not know what that is and how it works, either way, find better printer.

  • Jeff Potter says:

    Another use of Snippets…

    As editor of a nonprofit community newspaper, I’ve made it a mission to automate as much as possible to be able to direct as many resources as possible into creating better content.

    So it was in this spirit of geekery when I created a PHP/MySQL-based advertising management system. In addition to a series of scripts that run on our web host, the system includes several other functions that run on our local OSX file server and do such things as create spaceholder PDFs, create folder structures on the ad server for new ad clients, and more.

    One major timesaver came by using Snippets. Because Snippets are text-based XML files, you can pull data from a database and build the graphic frames for the ads.

    Every time anyone enters the system and shows the roster of ads, it triggers a script on the local server that updates a Snippet file that aggregates all the ads en masse. No more hunting them down on the server!

    I have a template of a big spread of blank pages, where I can place the snippet and get all the ads in order of size and color. From there, I cut and paste them into the various sections of the newspaper.

    I also have a Javascript that can trigger a script in the system to update the database online with the number of the page that each ad is on, but that’s a different story.)

    I’m continuously grateful that InDesign offers such a variety of ways to interact with it. This feature saves us hours per week in production time.

  • Dave says:

    After working in prepress for nearly 10 years and being an InDesign geek for just as long, here’s my 2 cents. (whoops we’re phasing out the penny in canada… we’ll have to come up with another saying)

    First things first. A designer is not a prepress employee. We don’t expect you to know everything about print. You design the files, we make adjustments so your files will print as you designed. It takes years of one the job experience to learn all the quirks between software issues.

    Printers who ask for press ready pdf’s usually have acrobat plugins that allow them to make pretty extensive changes to those pdf’s and depending on the lengths they are willing to go, can do some pretty amazing acrobatics.

    Second, if you are a designer who wants to learn to submit better files, all you have to do is ask. Let your printer know you want to cause less headaches for them. See if you can schedule a quick session so they can show you what they need to do to fix up your files. I know if some of my customers approached me i’d be glad to take the few minutes to educate so we could get better files.

    Third, if you are still using outdated software (ie. pagemaker), software not really meant for page layout (ie. Corel Draw) don’t expect us to teach you much.

  • Dan Curry says:

    I’ve been a prepress tech for over 16 years, and this idea of using snippets is a good idea.

    As for native files versus PDFs, it depends on the skill level of the designer. Almost every file could use some work on the prepress end, and it is often far easier to do it in ID than in the PDF, especially if there are lots of effects being used. I currently work at a shop that only prints books, and we request PDFs for the text and natives for the covers because we often have to make adjustments to the spine size and it’s harder with a PDF.

    The reason designers never hear about poorly created files is because sales reps are afraid of losing the customer if they tell them they are doing something wrong. Even when you do try to educate them, many customers just don’t care because it doesn’t affect their bottom line. Prepress fixes all kinds of crap for free, again because of fear of losing the customer (“my last printer never had this problem or charged me for that” is a famous quote!) Of course there are plenty of true professionals that do care about doing things right, but they are few and far between and getting rarer!

  • Kelly Vaughn says:

    Wow! Who knew that snippets could result in such a lively conversation!

    Whenever I start working with a new printing company, I always try to get ahold of the prepress department for a chat. (Often, I’ve found it’s difficult to get ahold of the prepress department, as old-school printers seem to want all the customer phone calls to be routed through the CSRs (who generally have no prepress experience and cannot answer questions about file prep). But that’s a conversation for another day…)

    If I am able to get ahold of the prepress staff, I ask them several detailed questions about file formats. Though I genuinely am curious about their requirements regarding transparency flattening and such, in reality I am interviewing them to see if I want to work with their printing company. I don’t trust just anyone with my native files. If they tell me to backsave my InDesign file, outline all my fonts, save my files as EPS, or just send them a regular old “CMYK, high res” PDF, I will do everything in my power to find a different printing company to work with.

    While I can imagine how awesome it would be to have all designers submit perfect files that meet an International standard, I also understand that designers are all at different technical abilities. And with that in mind, even if they export a PDF according to a standard, if their native files aren’t constructed well, those PDFs can be difficult (if not impossible) to edit.

    I also know that each prepress department has a different RIP, different equipment, and different technical ability of their prepress techs. With that in mind, I may save my PDFs differently for those print shops who I know will not be editing the files (for simple jobs such as business cards and flyers).

    My idea for sharing snippets between designers and a prepress department is best suited for those workflows who have experienced, competent people on either side. If a prepress department passes my interview, and is also knowledgeable enough to know what a snippet is, I know I can safely trust them with my native files. And truthfully, if those prepress people care enough about their work to request my native files for greater flexibility, I am honored to work with them and grateful to have found them.

    One last thing about prepress techs giving training to designers: I once sat with a customer for about an hour or two, and showed her some tips and tricks, to help make her become more efficient. She was so grateful that she sent me a $50 gift card to! Prepress techs often get no love, so a little appreciation can go a long way. Surprise your prepress department with some cookies or chocolates, and you’ll be amazed at the helpful dialogue that will begin to flow.

  • Concerning printer/author relations, I completely agree with what Dan Curry said in his last paragraph of his first post.

    So far as snippets, no. Just tried something REALLY SIMPLE such as a picture and two magenta coloured frames, saved out as a snippet, imported the snippet back in and the magenta frames were now filled with [None]. May just be my machine… but feel free to try –

  • Bob Rubey says:

    I’ve been a prepress tech since the mid-90s, and like the other techs weighing in, prefer receiving native files, albeit with reference PDFs.

    And like some of the others, I’ve always wished our customers could sit down with me while I worked on their files. As has also been mentioned, prepress is often insulated from the customer by sales reps or CSRs. Another problem is proximity. In our global world, the designer can be many time zones away, and I somehow doubt a screen-sharing session would have quite the same impact.

    When I’m am able, I return INDD files to the designer for edits as Zoran suggests. I simply ask that they not relink any images and let me know which pages have been changed. In one circumstance, it has been working very well. I do hesitate a bit when it’s necessary to use an IDML file instead because the designer is working in an older version of InDesign.

  • Kelly Vaughn says:

    @Colin: I imported your snippet and it worked just fine. Maybe it’s just your computer. Weird! My computer misbehaves sometimes as well…

  • Something rotten in Denmark here… now trying from CS6 and I too agree Kelly that now it works. Should have mentioned in my post that I had tried this from CS5.5 on a Mac running 10.6.8

  • That would be right. I arrive home, try it again and it works. Aaaarrrgh!

    I think snippets would work for small stuff like brochures and business cards, but for long documents with threaded text, not so sure snippets would be the answer.

    I can also foresee a circumstance where, if I presented the option of supplying snippet files, a client may supply a snippet that contains a new image… but the image isn’t contained within the snippet… and the complaint would be “but you said snippets are all you need for the alt”.

  • w. bravenboer says:

    Nice article, but in my experience (about 20 years in prepress) we nowadays use mostly (95%) PDF files. If there is something wrong with the file (most the file has no bleed) we contact the client and they can change it (helpdesk duty, yea)
    Native files can be handy indeed, but with all the different versions and many, many font duplicates, it can be tricky.
    Most native files are Indesign CS4 or 5, less so 5.5 and even less 6.0. We as provider have to have all the versions, what can be an issue if we have to send back the changed ID file.
    And if we get a Quark file, it gets even more difficult…

    Don’t think that snippets are very useful for us, but it can never hurt to try and check it out.

  • inkeye says:

    So are there some standards that those on the designer end can adhere to make clean files for prepress? Or is it all dependent on the individual printer?

    I try to keep my files clean as possible but I’m sure there is room for improvement.

  • Kelly Vaughn says:

    @inkeye: This should help: “Adobe Creative Suite Printing Guide”

  • Matt Mayerchak says:

    What this discussion points out is that between the designer and the printer, there should be someone who is a highly qualified production expert (that’s what I do). If the printer is offering file cleanup as part of the prepress, that’s fine, as long as they communicate about what is needed and who’s paying for it.

    I have several designer clients who create magazines and the printers use Kodak Insite proofing. There is NO PREPRESS person involved anymore, and at some of these printers, the prepress people could intervene if necessary but at some of them they don’t even have anyone there who knows how anymore. The designer is responsible for uploading perfect press-ready PDFs and 2 minutes after I post the PDF it’s online with any preflight “errors” flagged. Often these are not errors, but machines are only so smart. I have to tell the sales rep why they are OK as is. It’s sad, but it’s the economic reality. Fortunately, these designers hire me, and we can make clean files. But it’s just another example of how responsibilities and costs are being shifted onto the designer that used to be considered separate professional skills (typesetting was an early one to go) . . . and I think that part of the reason is because the software makes it possible.

    What to do? Designers need to recognize that it’s now up to them to have someone in their studio become a production expert, or work with an independent professional.

  • Ben says:

    I’m surprised so many responses assumes all the fault is with designers…I have seen plenty of printer induced errors in our proofs. I do agree the need to keep that communication open is crucial…some CSRs does a better job at it than others.

    No one at our office even works with snippets or know what it is…it’s DOA for us for sure. Requesting printer files is a good start and we have been using this method mostly…again, prep houses or printer prepress also are part of the problem and not always the solution. There are two sides to the same coin, dont blame everything on designers…although I have seen my share of bad ones.

  • Kelly Vaughn says:

    Snippets are also a really great way to easily move bits of content between versions on InDesign. Simply drag the snippet to your desktop, and drop it into the earlier version of InDesign. No IDML or file conversion required!

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