Preparing for Successful Print

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Ensuring your commercial print is successful

Tom Arah begins a two part look at producing commercial print by investigating how to successfully get your publication to your outputting bureau.

Setting up your printer

Thank you very much to everyone who has written in about my recent Corel Draw and PageMaker based design master classes. I'm glad to say that the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive with the main criticism being that I didn't go far enough and in particular that I didn't take the jobs all the way through to final print. In fact I have to admit that I was deliberately skirting the issue of commercial output and for two main reasons. The first is that the topic is so huge that covering it any detail wouldn't have left any room for talking about design. The second is that, even after ten years of doing it, it's still the part of the job that I loathe.

However it's also an unavoidable part of the job and the one that separates the amateur from the professional and so, encouraged by your comments, I've decided to tackle it head-on. To try and make the task slightly more manageable I've decided to split it into two. Below I'm going to talk about the stages involved in taking a project through to "hand-off", that is to delivering a basic black and white working design to your bureau. In my next publishing article I'll look at the more advanced pre-press issues, particularly concerning the production of colour separations, that can help ensure that your final print comes out as you planned.

Desktop v Commercial Print

The first and absolutely crucial point to realise is that commercial print is very different to desktop printing. With today's affordable colour inkjets successful output is simple: select the print command and a couple of minutes later a beautiful(ish) 300dpi full colour page appears in the out tray. Many users assume that commercial print is just a scaled up version of the same procedure. A little thought, however, soon reveals the technology's limitations. To produce a thousand copies of a 12 page brochure at one page a minute, for example, would take over a week flat out, 24 hours a day. To produce just one month's print run of PC Pro at the same rate would take over a century - and the cover price would have to be put up to around 200 just to cover the cost of consumables!

Clearly this type of direct printing isn't really an option in terms of speed, quality or cost. The most common alternative production method is "offset" printing. This process is built on the principle that oil and water do not mix. A metal or paper plate is produced that attracts ink to the black on the page and attracts water to the white on a page. This plate is then mounted on a rotating cylinder which comes into contact with a water-based roller, then an ink-based roller and then a rubber blanket. It is this blanket that carries away a reversed inked image of the page and which finally prints the offset - and now positive - page onto the paper. The huge advantage is that the whole page - and in fact multiple pages - can be printed as quickly as the presses can turn and at high quality and low cost.

Offset printing solves the practical limitations of direct printing, but it means that the success of the print run comes to depend on the production of the printing plates. These plates are produced by photographically exposing the page image onto them. To do this an accurate bromide or, more commonly nowadays, accurate film is needed. This is where the all-important imagesetter comes in. Whereas an inkjet sprays ink droplets and a laser printer scatters toner to produce their pages, the imagesetter painstakingly builds up its output dot-by-dot with absolute pin-point accuracy.

Nowadays nearly all printed work that you see around you from books and brochures through to magazines and posters will have originally been outputted from an imagesetter. Unfortunately unless you have a spare 20-50,000 you're not going to be able to plug one in to your own system. This is where the outputting bureau comes in. Finding the right bureau to output your work is absolutely essential and once you've found one you're happy with it's crucial to build up a good working relationship. A good service provider can solve a lot of potential problems before they happen, an uncooperative service provider can make your life hell.

Sadly this is where the PC-based designer is - at least for the short term - at a disadvantage. The problem is that 90% of bureaux are strongly Mac-orientated which means in practice that about 50% of them are rabidly anti-PC. Even with the best of them it's almost inevitable that if a problem crops up they will disclaim all responsibility and blame Bill Gates. Of course the situation is changing rapidly and nowadays you should be able to find a bureau that has invested in a PC. If you can find a bureau staffed by people who really know what they are talking about stick with them - there is nothing to beat the knowledge gained through experience.


The irony is that there is nothing intrinsically superior about the Mac as a publishing platform compared to Windows 95. The simple reason is that the operating system is not actually involved in the imagesetting process at all. What drives the imagesetter is the PostScript output it receives. This PostScript output is in fact a program that has been designed to recreate the page on any PostScript-based device to which it is directed whether a desktop 300dpi inkjet or the latest 4000+dpi imagesetter. The entire strength of the PostScript language is this platform, device and resolution independent that ensures that you can design a layout confident that the result will come out as you intended. As we'll see in practice it's not always quite as simple as this ideal suggests, but PostScript is the bedrock that underpins the whole industry.

The original intention with PostScript was that users would be able to create independent files for output whatever system or software they were using. In fact the standalone nature of the process means that the user does not even have to have a PostScript printer. All you have to do is install the generic PostScript driver by adding a PostScript printer through the Windows control panel or now through Adobe's own dedicated installer. Then when you come to print you simply select this printer and redirect the output to a file on your disk. This file can then be copied to the outputting computer and downloaded to the PostScript printer from there.

This indirect method of outputting PostScript files undoubtedly works and it allows budget programs like Microsoft Publisher to claim that they can produce commercial print. However in the real world the problems soon mount up. The first is the problem of transfer. PostScript files tend to be enormous, particularly when they contain graphics and embedded fonts, and this can cause major headaches when transferring to the outputting computer. This is particularly a problem for the lower end users that are the ones most likely to be using the system.

Far more problematic is the whole question of control. By its very nature, the PostScript file process is inflexible. Once the PostScript file has been created that's it. It will either output as you wanted it to or it won't; there is no room for manoeuvre. If you notice a last minute typo the only option is to change it on the original, recreate the file and transfer it again. More importantly, for advanced work there are the whole host of settings - halftone screens, trapping, crop marks and so on - that must be set exactly to ensure correct output. If any of these is wrong - and without a PostScript printer you won't be able to proof your design to check them - you've just wasted a lot of time and money.

Ultimately then the indirect PostScript print file route is a non-starter for most serious work. It's like trying to operate on a patient in another room - and with your eyes shut. For the level of control necessary for regular successful output the only viable option is to output your publication files directly. That means finding an imagesetting bureau happy to accept PC work. Not only that, they must also use the same software as you or - more realistically - you must use the same software as them.

In practice this almost inevitably means using the market leading packages such as Corel Draw, Illustrator, PageMaker, Quark XPress or - with a bit more searching and a bit more luck - the high end contenders such as FrameMaker, FreeHand, Ventura, Canvas and so on. In terms of the version of the software you use, most programs are fully backwardly compatible - apart from the ever-changing Ventura - so you don't necessarily have to have the latest version that your provider uses. In fact you'll probably find that most service providers prefer to stick with a solution that has proved reliable over time. The bureau I use still recommends PageMaker 5!

Right from the Start

Once you have checked that your bureau supports your software, you must set up your publication for ultimate PostScript output, for example, with PageMaker's Document Setup command. This isn't necessary for the vector-based drawing packages, but it is crucial for text-heavy DTP work as the text flow of a publication intended for outputting on a budget inkjet can be completely different to one being outputted on a PostScript device. Again in theory you don't actually have to have a PostScript printer attached so long as a driver is installed. However, for proofing purposes, a PostScript printer should really be seen as essential. If you are absolutely strapped for cash, you could consider a software-based PostScript interpreter such as SuperPrint.


The next stage is the relatively simple one of producing the design. As you will be outputting directly from the program itself you are free to use all of the internal features on offer to produce the best possible layout. However, you should always think about how any files that you import into your design will turn out when outputted. For colour separations of bitmap images, for example, you might need to ensure that the image is stored in a CMYK format and that the resolution is high enough for the intended screening value - pre-press topics that I'll cover in the next publishing article. At least in terms of the overall file type the choice is pretty straightforward with the *.TIF tagged image file format a universal standard.

Even for vector formats it's also necessary to think in terms of final output. Windows metafiles might seem completely smooth when output on a laser printer, but the vastly higher resolution of the imagesetter can easily make them seem clunky. Also your WMF might contain a beautiful rainbow blend, but when output as separations this will simply appear as a gray gradient on the black plate. As I discussed in last month's graphics article, the only format that can be guaranteed to fall reliably into place in the final PostScript output is the encapsulated PostScript format, *.EPS.

By sticking to TIF and EPS files and understanding what information they can contain it's possible to successfully import images from many other programs for final outputting. One thing that you must check carefully, however, is that these original files themselves are sent to the bureau. For large image files of 256k and over many programs, most notably PageMaker, only store a low resolution placeholder within the actual publication file while maintaining a link to the original. When the program comes to print, if the original file is where the link expects it to be the full image is printed, otherwise only the screen image is output which obviously will look disastrous.

The problem is easily avoided by using the "files required for remote printing" option of the Save As dialog to copy all image files together with the publication file into a specially created subdirectory on your hard disk. This linking system can also be used to your advantage if your outputting bureau offers high resolution scanning. You can use low resolution copies of the files they have scanned for position only (FPO) and, by copying the high resolution originals over the copies, the links then can be automatically updated.

Sorting Out Fonts

With the publication and imported images prepared, it's easy to think that everything is ready for outputting, but there's one crucial element missing - the fonts. Perhaps the most common outputting problem of all is the dreaded missing font that defaults to courier and makes your masterpiece look like it was produced on a faulty typewriter. This and other font problems can be caused for a whole host of reasons: the use of different versions of the same font from different foundries; the use of "menu-styled" bolds and italics rather than genuine font style faces; EPS graphics that contain text that has not been converted to curves; the use of Windows TrueType fonts rather than PostScript's own Type 1 format and so on.

Generally it's wise to be conservative with your use of fonts and to stick to a few Type 1 fonts from reputable manufacturers. In the past this was necessary in any case as you had to make sure that you were using the same fonts as your bureau for legal reasons. Nowadays the situation is much more flexible. A new licensing agreement from Adobe means that you can give a copy of the fonts you have used to your service provider so long as they have been licensed to accept them. Presumably other manufacturers are following suit - or planning to sue Adobe.

Before you can copy your fonts you obviously need to find out exactly which fonts your publication uses. Within some programs, such as Corel Draw, these are automatically listed at the top of the font drop-down list while other programs, such as early versions of PageMaker, have a dedicated Publication Info add-in. Once you know the fonts, you should copy the typeface (*.pfb) and the font metric (*.pfm) files to the subdirectory that you created earlier. Users of PageMaker 6.5 have a new Save for Service Provider which allows publications, imported files and fonts to be automatically packaged into a new directory. However, I have had trouble with fonts missed in the procedure so be sure to double-check them.

Handing Off

With our publication, images and fonts all ready to go it's now a question of "handing off" the job to the bureau. The only question is how? The problem is that for most publications the file sizes are too big to fit onto a floppy. In the past I've used every trick in the book to get around this from zipping files to creating a separate publication for every page in a job! Thankfully such tricks aren't necessary nowadays with removable media such as Iomega's ZIP and JAZ drives affordable and commonplace. Remember to check that your bureau has the same hardware as you or, to be absolutely sure that your files can be read on any system, it might be worth investing in a CD-Recorder. It might be worthwhile just to impress your bureau.

If you follow the advice above you should be able to get your publication safely from your system onto your service provider's. It's now ready for direct outputting and for simple black and white publications the output should be usable. For colour work, however, there's a whole other stage that has to be gone through to ensure that the results come out as you would like. That stage is pre-press and I'll take a look at it in two month's time.

Tom Arah

January 1998

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