Category: Color Systems

The 8 Biggest Headaches for & by Graphic Designers


We all wish 100% of our projects could go easy and make us happy 100% of the time, but that doesn’t happen. Are you walking away frustrated from print projects? You could be creating design expectations that could not have been met. Designing for print can produce some pretty big headaches. Read on for the most common causes; all are controllable in the design stage.

1. Use Printer-Speak
Communicate your specifications using the language printers’ use for optimum results. One example is the page size. The first number is always the horizontal measurement and the second number is the binding edge. 8.5 in. x 11 in. means it is binding on the 11 in. edge. 11 in. x 8.5 in. means it is binding on the 8.5 in. edge. This is a basic item that continues to mess up print jobs. Another good example is specifying paper and ink. Cover weight paper is not “card stock” and “black and white” is not a two-color print job.

2. Crossovers
A crossover is a design element that crosses over the gutter of a bound printed piece. Depending on the type of binding and where the crossover takes place, you may need a very high-quality printer to bring about the results you desire. Be very careful when adding crossovers to a design if you do not know your printer well. Crossovers within a signature are not as challenging depending on the type of binding and paper. However, crossovers that butt across signatures are very challenging. Ask your printer for an imposition diagram if you are not sure.

  •  Ask your printer for samples of the type of binding you want, such as perfect bound or saddle stitched, and request crossovers in the sample.
  • Set up your InDesign document with facing pages to minimize layout issues.
  • Do not use elements under 1pt. on a graphic element that crosses over a gutter.
  • Color may vary from one signature to another. If you are using a cmyk border it may not match on a spread that is made of two signatures.

Here we have examples of two crossovers printed and bound. The top image shows an impeccable crossover and the bottom shows an average crossover.


3. Ink Cracking on a Fold
When paper is folded, it cracks. Sometimes the cracking is microscopic, and sometimes it is glaringly obvious. The extent of the cracking depends on the type of paper, its thickness, and the folding method. If the paper is coated with ink that is a completely different color from the paper (e.g. black ink on white paper) and the ink is solid, the cracking is going to be much more obvious. Things can be done to mitigate cracking, such as folding paper parallel to the grain or using die scoring, but cracking still occurs.
If you are designing a folded piece with large areas of solid color, check with your printer and see if you’re going to wind up with cracking. For instance, cast-coated paper cracks like crazy.


4. RGB to CMYK Gamut
A major headache-maker for designers is specifying a logo color or other major branding item on a website in RGB and then you can’t match it in CMYK or spot color ink. The swatches shown below from the Pantone Bridge fan deck illustrates the problem and the solution. Pantone 3395 below is an example of a color that is not reproducible in CMYK as shown by the process swatch to the right. On the left is the Spot Color and below the RGB equivalent to match. To the right is the CMYK equivalent of the spot color. This is showing you how close you can get with process color. Whereas Pantone 7634, when converted to process, is almost an exact match. Look this up before you design a website/identity system in RGB. Your client may be saying all they need right now is a website but eventually they need printing that matches.


5. Using Pastel Ink Colors
The swatch below left is the same color as the swatch on the right! The left swatch is ± 10 years old, and the one on the right is three years old.  Aside from illustrating the problem with specifying pastel inks, this shows you why you need to update your Pantone fan decks!  The elements of an identity system can sit around for a long time. Some people can take three years to use up a box of business cards. If you specify a color in the identity system that has a lot of opaque white, that color is going to yellow within 12 months. Then you will receive a phone call from the customer because the letterhead printed a month ago doesn’t match the envelopes printed six months ago, and nothing matches the Ceo’s business cards printed 12 months ago. We have seen this happen too many times to count. Only use pastels on items that don’t have to match over time, such as a special promotion, invitations, or other short-lived items. Shown in the images below are the ink “recipes”. Pantone 1205 has 60 parts transparent white, 1215 has 44 parts, and 1225 has 8 parts. Which is going to be the most stable color? 1225. Specify 1205 for an event invitation and 1225 for an identity system.



6. Large Screened Areas
A screen is a tint of a color. It can be a dark, 95% screen, or it can be barely visible at 5%. Either way, large screened areas are difficult to print perfectly. If the screen is very dark, 80% and up, it can plug up on press and will look blotchy and darker in the areas that are clogging. With a very light screen, 20% and lower, the same thing can happen only it will be more obvious. Because of how printing presses work, ink density needs to be the same across the entire sheet from left to right and front to back. Today’s software, built into the presses, helps regulate ink density based on the images on the press sheet. However, a very light density image at the head of the sheet and a solid image at the tail, can lead to some tricky press work, especially if your printer is using older equipment or a small press with a common blanket. If you need to screen a large percentage of the sheet, try to stick to screens that are between 30% to 70%. Check with your printer; if your printer is using state-of-the-art equipment, you may be able to push your design to obtain the results you want.

7. Metallic Ink
Metallic inks printed on coated paper need to be coated with a protective varnish or an aqueous coating. If your printer recommends this, she is not trying to get you to spend more money. She wants you to be happy with your job. When that pocket folder is delivered with scuff marks from the binding process because your client didn’t want to spend the extra money on varnish, you will have learned this lesson the hard way.

8. Invoices that do not Match Estimates
The number one cause of an invoice not matching the estimated price is incomplete specifications (specs) or the final specs differ from the quote. For instance, if you didn’t specify bleeds and the art comes in with bleeds, the printer will likely have to order larger paper, which costs more. Furthermore, not allowing enough time in the schedule to order the paper on which the job was bid may require the substitution of a more expensive paper. The second biggest cause is alterations made after the job has begun. Depending on where the print job is in the production cycle, changes can be very costly. If changes are made towards the end of the production cycle, the cost can be catastrophic. Holding a press while you make changes at a press check gets very expensive. Keep in mind that presses are billed by the hour, and the press schedule for the day was likely decided the night before. If your job takes an extra two hours to run — because of you — expect to pay for the additional time.

I hope this helps you avoid these printing headaches! As you can see, none of these is complicated to learn or prevent. If you have a story about one of these printing headaches, I’d love to hear it, please leave a comment below!



Clean Files – The Good, the Bad and the Fugly

The Good

Knowing how to accurately prepare clean files is a critical skill for any designer. You may work in an environment where you only design, and the production department cleans up your files and passes them on. But knowing these requirements will keep your work “producible” and you in the good graces of your production team.


Bleeds The number one faux pas of newbie files is no bleeds. This can cause so much trouble in prepress that it deserves to be the first item in software settings. When you set up your file, turn on bleeds so that you can see them. Then make sure that anything that runs off the edge of the page extends to the bleed line. You will soon learn that type and images become critical in their placement for bleeds, and you do not want to leave these decisions in the hands of your printer’s prepress department. Many printers will not make changes to files unless you specifically ask them to do so or mark your request on a proof.

Process Colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) 
All the process colors are transparent. That is why images printed with only the four process colors look wonderful because the colors optically mix. Process black is transparent. If you print process black over another element, the element will show through. If you place a solid area of process black next to a photo with dark areas, the photo’s dark areas will look darker, and the 100% black area will look too light or simply incorrect. Build and use rich black, not process black, for projects using photos or elements that have dark screen builds.

Specifying process colors using a Pantone process specifier helps you preview colors side-by-side before they are printed. Your monitor, if calibrated, is useful for roughing a design, but using a specifier is far more accurate when you are building your final file. Not only can you see the printed colors, but they are also formulated to reproduce without too much ink being laid down.

Rich Black Rich black is a mixture of the four process colors — Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black. This formula for a neutral rich black works well for most printing methods:     60% Cyan 40% Magenta 40% Yellow 100% Black  Some presses and papers have a limit on the total amount of ink possible, for example, 250%. The rich back recipe above totals 240% and is therefore fine. If you specify C100, M100, Y100 and K100, it won’t work. If you are printing digitally, rich black may result in a weaker black (check with your printer). Do not build rich black type.

Specifying a Spot Varnish or UV Create a spot ink color in your file and name it varnish. Let your printer know that varnish needs to overprint the inks underneath it. If you have more than one varnish, name each one appropriately, such as “Gloss Varnish” and “Dull Varnish” or “UV” The actual color you choose to represent that color is irrelevant, but you want to make it stand out so it’s easier to identify in the file.

Applying CMYK Color to Type If you must apply a process color mixture to type that is smaller than 18pt, for instance, make one of the colors 100% so the font has a solid outline that the other colors can float within. This will save you some heartache at press checks. Look at the example below which is greatly magnified to show you what is happening when you apply a screen build to type. The top example has magenta set to 100% whereas the bottom example has the magenta set to less than 100%. Note how the outline of the type is lost and becomes and series of jagged dots. That is what happens in your file.


Choosing a Color Library Know the destination of your color space before you start designing. If you shift destination color spaces, i.e., you start a file for the web and need to re-purpose it for print, changing the web colors (RGB) to process colors (cmyk) might be better left to your printer. Converting spot colors to process colors can result in some unwanted shifts in color. Know where you are headed by using a Pantone Color Bridge set that will show you the RGB, process, and spot equivalents with their shifts.

Specifying Pantone Solid Color Solid color is a color that is made up from one ink. The Pantone system has books of nearly every color model imaginable, reproduced in fan decks so you can see how your color looks on paper. Ink will look different depending on whether the paper is coated or uncoated. So when you are selecting inks for your file, make sure you are looking at the correct swatch for your project. In your file, use the C for coated and the U for uncoated designations and on your estimate request. Although there are designers who will specify 485c on an uncoated sheet, there is no way to get 485c red to look like 485c on an uncoated sheet without using a clear foil to make it shiny. If you don’t like the way your ink looks on the Pantone uncoated swatch, you are not going to like it on your job. Find a color you can live with, and remember to look at the double hit colors, i.e. 485c 2× to see if that is what you want and if so, be willing to pay extra.


Hairlines A hairline is not an actual measurement. It is the thinnest rule a device can produce. If you draw a hairline rule in a file and print it on your inkjet in your studio, it is going to be different from the “hairline” of a high-resolution laser printer, your printer’s plotter, and your printer’s plate setter. This kind of variability exists, even in this day and age. So, don’t use hairline rules. Specify an actual measurement instead.

Fold Marks A fold mark is shown by a dashed line placed 1/16th of an inch outside the pasteboard and is at least 1/4 inch long. When folds are critical, you should place fold marks in your file. A solid line is a cutting line, so make sure to use a dashed line for a fold.

Naming Colors Give the colors in your file the same name as the ink color you are printing. This might sound like a no-brainer, but you would be amazed at how many files come to a print shop that were quoted and ordered up for a certain color, say 485c, and then the file says “Rubine Red.” Your job is going to stand still until your printer finds out which color is correct, the color on your order or the color in the file.


Clean Pasteboards You’re going to brainstorm in your file, experiment with different fonts, drop in graphics, produce illustrations, change rule weights, and ultimately use only a portion of what you’ve been playing with. It’s natural to drag those unused items to the perimeter of your pasteboard so they are out of sight. Working in preview mode, you might forget that those items even exist. The problem occurs when your vendor has the file and all those items are still sitting on the perimeter. These items might include photos that are no longer linked, spot colors applied to elements that are not being used, and fonts that are no longer in the final document. All those extra items increase the size of the file and the ripping time. If any of those items are missing from your finished document, your printer’s prepress department is going to look for them. Prepress operators and/or prepress software are going to scan your document, find problems, and then start trouble-shooting those problems. In reality, those extra items really aren’t “problems,” but the software doesn’t know how to distinguish that. The last thing you want is for your files to have a reputation of not being clean. After all, prepress operators will not pick the most difficult file in the pile to work on first. They will choose the easiest one, even if it may not be the one with the most urgent deadline. Keep your files clean, and your job will move to the top of the pile without you even having to ask.

Final Page Size Often, the page size of your project will change as it moves from the initial idea to the final version. For example, if you started with a 5 in. × 7 in. postcard, it will be tempting to simply place crop marks on that 5 in. × 7 in. page to turn it into a 4 in. × 6 in. postcard and send it off to the printer. Shortcuts like this cause a nightmare on the prepress side. The printer must then resize your document and center all your page elements. With a multiple page file, the problems are compounded. You can only imagine what could go wrong. So, make sure that the file you submit is built the way it’s going to be printed.

Proofing Type Before you send your file to the printer, get in the habit of thoroughly proofing the copy. Do not assume that the printer is going to read your document, however short. Run spell check, and then make sure someone, not the person who wrote it, proofs it. A fail-safe proofing method is to read the text aloud to someone who is following along with the marked-up hard copy.

If you have a horror story about one of these dirty file problems or another software-related horror story, please comment and share. We all learn from each other!



Why Resolution & File Formats Matter

Image Resolution and file size

Resolution is worth mentioning because it causes so many problems in the prepress department. Any image you want to print must be a minimum of 300 PPI at 100% of its actual size. If you pull an image from a website, and it is 4 in. x 4 in. and 72 PPI (the typical web resolution), when you place it in your page layout, it must be sized to 24% of its original size or .96 in. x .96 in. in order to be at the correct resolution for printing.

There is absolutely no way to take a low-resolution image and make it look like a high-resolution image. Interpolating a file to a higher resolution makes the image look like an image that was interpolated up to a higher resolution to improve its appearance. One low-resolution image can make a whole brochure look cheap. Make sure all the images you provide are the correct resolution for their output size.

Here I have pasted three different file sizes of the same image. I adjusted their dimensions so they would each be about the same size “on this page”. Below each fish pic is the Adobe Photoshop screenshot showing the image “dimensions” in pixels and inches.

You can decide for yourself which image looks best. On the web it is not necessarily about looks, there is also the loading time and the number of colors used to display the image. That will be covered in a later post.Below are the same three photographs, all placed at the same size into an InDesign document. Then I exported the document as a jpeg at a screen resolution of 72 PPI. By building this image in InDesign I am able to show you how a low-res file that looks bad on the screen will look like that in print.

Specify and use correct file formats

Each software program creates a native file format that it “gets along with” best. For Adobe Photoshop, that would be bit-mapped files like TIFF, JPG, and PNG. For Adobe Illustrator, it is EPS files. Adobe InDesign is a composition program that can accept nearly any file type for inclusion into a document that will be printed or published to the web.

Some file formats work well for print, and some work best for the web. Here are some common file types and their best uses:


  • TIFF: for high-resolution photographs and scanned graphics
  • EPS: for infinite scalability
  • PDF: for high-resolution printing when properly saved with embedded fonts and bleeds, etc.


  • JPG: for many compression options and fast loading
  • PNG: for more image depth. The trade-off is its large file size, no CMYK: RGB only.
  • GIF: limited color (256 only) but very fast loading

Don’t use image compression unless you absolutely have to. Every time an image is compressed (when it is saved) and uncompressed (when it is opened), it rewrites the data in the file and leaves little artifacts/noise in the image.

Compression is left over from the days when a 44 MB (yes, that’s MB, not GB or TB) Syquest drive cost $200. Nowadays, storage is cheap. Compression works well for the web, but it isn’t necessary for anything else. For example, Tiff files and images are not compressed. Jpeg files and images are. Here is an example of how to save a TIFF image without compression.

If you have had an experience with resolution or file types that you found helpful, or from which you learned, please share it below. Thanks!

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