8 common print file mistakes and how to avoid them

Rebecca Creger

When a design client comes back to you complaining that their printer says that the files you gave them are unusable, it’s pretty embarrassing. As the professional, it’s supposed to be your job to take care of the technical side of things, not the client’s.

To help you avoid these types of situations, we’ve compiled a list of some of the most common print file mistakes and how to fix them. For the purposes of this post we are going to open up PDF files (a common file used for printing) in Adobe Illustrator to demonstrate common print file mistakes.

For the examples, we’ve used a full-bleed business card design – this means that all graphics and images are supposed to extend all the way to the edge of the paper. No matter which program you use to create your print file in, it’s always good to provide an editable PDF file for your client and the printer.

PDF files are an awesome universal file format that can store high-res images, vector files, font information and more! All clients need to view PDF files is Adobe Reader – and most printers accept PDF files for print jobs.

Template_Diagram

The image above is a basic 3.5″ x 2″ business card template file. The document itself is 3.75″ x 2.25″ to accommodate a full bleed design. Here’s a breakdown of its components:

  • The safety line (orange box) is the area inside which you should keep all text and graphics that you don’t want to be cut off by the printing machine.
  • The trim line (dotted blue line) is the line along which the card is going to be cut by the machine.
  • The bleed area (edge of paper) is the area that is going to be cut off by the machine, but make sure that this area is filled with image and color so that there is no white space left on your card when it is trimmed.

We’re going to include the trim line and the safety line in the examples below to demonstrate many of the of the most common print file mistakes. In final PDF print files, the guidelines should always be removed. Let’s get started on some of the most common print file mistakes:

1. No bleed areas included

No_Bleeds1

The examples above show what a file looks like when no bleed area is included. This is probably the most common print file mistake out there. To fix files like this, start with document dimensions that are at full bleed size, make sure that all graphics extend fully to the edge and keep text within the safety line.

2. Text and graphics are not within the safety line

Safety_Line

3. Incorrectly positioned borders

Borders1

To solve this problem, making sure that all borders are either thick enough or placed well inside the blue safety line. Many printers actually recommend against adding borders because their cutters don’t always cut straight. To avoid this, consider not adding borders to your design.

4. Artboard size doesn’t match the size of the design

Artboard

When creating your print file the art board, or canvas must match up with the edges of your print design. This makes it easier for the printer to add printer marks. If the printer has to adjust the dimensions of your file they may charge your client extra for that. To avoid this, start with a template file or set up your document so that it matches the dimensions of your design.

To set exact dimensions for your artboard, start by create a new document in the Adobe program of your choosing by clicking File > New. A window will appear prompting you to type in the exact number values of the dimension of your document. This way, you can be sure that your document dimensions are exact.

5. Leaving print guide layers in the file

Leaving_In_Guides

6. Colors are in RGB, not CMYK

CMYK:RGB

To avoid dramatic color differences between your on-screen and print designs, build out your designs in CMYK color mode first. Make sure that any images that are placed into the file are in CMYK as well. When you open a new file, make sure that your color mode is set to CMYK.

The image above shows to to check that your document is set to CMYK color mode in Adobe Illustrator. It’s also always a good idea to print at least 1 proof of the design, so that your client can check if they’re happy with the colors in the print before they print multiple copies of the design.

7. Resolution is too low

Low_Res

The images in the file above are set to about 72 PPI – not suitable for printing. Files needs to be at least 300 PPI for print jobs. To fix this, set your document resolution to 300 PPI before you start creating your design. Also make sure that any raster images or photos that you use are already set to 300 PPI before you place them in the print file.

Avoid sourcing your images from random websites, because the resolution will probably be too low – and because of copyright issues. Make sure that you use high resolution, print-quality image files from professional image sources.

8. Fonts aren’t embedded or outlined

RasterizedText

When creating your PDF files, make sure that you embed the fonts or outline them. To outline your fonts in Illustrator simply select your text and click Type > Create Outlines. Creating a PDF may embed a font by default setting but it never hurts to outline your fonts, just to be safe.

If you do outline your fonts, be sure that your client legally owns the font in the design and that you give your client a version where the text is not outlined so that the content can be edited later. It’s important to checking that you’re not making these basic print file mistakes – some printers will charge your clients extra for fixing incorrect print files.

You want your clients to come to you with more print design jobs, and recommend your services, not the other way around. Now that we’ve gone through a bunch of basic print file mistakes, we’d like to provide a few examples of correct, print-ready files.

The download links below contain correct, print-ready, full-bleed PDF files of business card, letterhead and envelope designs. Feel free to download the files below and learn from them or check out our Templates Help Page for even more great information!

What other common print file mistakes have you seen? Share in the comments!

The author

Rebecca Creger
Rebecca Creger

Rebecca was born and raised in the Bay Area, where she currently lives. She has a BFA in Design with a Visual Communications emphasis from UC Davis. Her passions include travel, design, pasta, and hanging out with her Beagle, Spud.

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