4 Print Prep Best Practices All Self-Taught Designers Should Follow


If you’re a designer, you’ve spent long hours developing and perfecting your skills. You had to learn seemingly endless controls inside of various programs just to translate your vision into a graphic. Maybe you’ve become an expert in creating logos or designing letterhead and envelopes. If you’re self-taught, however, there’s one skill you may have missed out on developing: creating files for print.

It’s not too late to learn. Don’t wait until you create a design for a client and they suddenly want that design on large posters. If you didn’t intentionally prepare the file for print, it’s not going to print well. Top designers working for marketing and advertising agencies can’t afford to make that kind of mistake. Here’s what they know:

1. Always create designs in CMYK files – don’t use RGB

RGB stands for “red, green, blue” and is a color mode used to render colors for display on screens like TVs and computer monitors. RGB works by adding colors to an existing black background. This works well in a display environment, but doesn’t work in a printing environment.

When you send a file to your printer in RGB mode, there are two main problems. First, RGB can only mix together red, green, and blue to print in black. As opposed to CMYK, which has an exclusive source of black ink. Since RGB can’t directly print black, a significant amount of ink gets wasted. In the process, the extra ink saturates the printing medium, whether it be paper or fabric.

CMYK, which stands for “cyan, magenta, yellow, key (black)” is much different, and is specifically designed for print. It’s a subtractive way of forming colors. This mode calculates hues by subtracting from the brightness of the paper to produce the final color. In this process, CMYK uses minimal ink, and black is always true black.

Remember, RGB is for displaying colors on your computer monitor against a black background, and CMYK is for your print projects.

2. Know the difference between collated and uncollated printing

To collate means to “collect, arrange and assemble in a specific order of sequence,” says Printing Center USA. Your printer will ask you if you’d like your file(s) collated or uncollated. You need to know the difference, and how it will affect each file you print. For example, if you have a 5-page file with five different versions of the same flyer, the file should be printed uncollated. This way, you’ll end up with five stacks of flyers, and each stack will contain only one design.

On the other hand, if your file is five pages long and you intend to distribute all five pages to each recipient as a packet, your file should be printed collated. Collated printing will give you a stack of pages in order from 1-5; the sequence will be repeated throughout the stack.

Be sure to tell your printer which way you’d like your file(s) to be printed. You’ll have a daunting task in front of you if you choose the wrong option.

3. Be cautious of a printer who says they will create bleed for you

These days, anyone can start a printing business with a small investment in equipment. However, that doesn’t mean they’re professionals. Beware of printers who tell you not to worry about creating bleed around your design. You should always be in control of the bleed used in your design, and it should be part of your original file. Your chosen printing company may treat your bleed differently than another company would, but don’t leave it up to the printer.  

4. Start each design as if it’s going to print

Imagine spending twenty hours on a design for a client. The design was originally intended to be a small icon published on a website. The final design doesn’t need to be high resolution, so you created it in 72dpi and made it quite small. Your client loves the finished design and decides they want to print it on large posters. You have two choices: recreate the design from scratch to make printing possible, or fess up to the client that you didn’t prepare the file properly from the start and they won’t be able to print it.

Clients change their minds all the time. To avoid embarrassment, create every file as if it’s going to print. Create the file in CMYK, use a minimum of 300dpi, and if you’re using Photoshop, use layers and save a copy of individual layers before you merge them.

Learn print-ready settings

Whether you use InDesign, Photoshop, or another program, understand the settings you need to change to prepare a file for print. Properly prepared files will create happy clients when they see the results.

Image Credits: Designers from Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock