3 Common Layout Mistakes that are Costing You at the Printer’s

During my years working in prepress, I was witness to and responsible for correcting countless file preparation issues. I saw many novice designers adopt the attitude of “I’m a designer, not a printer. You fix it.” The problem with this approach is that as the customer, you may start racking up hefty charges long before your job comes anywhere close to the press (often it will be unceremoniously dumped in a folder named with an offensive remark about you or possibly your mother).

It’s always in a print shop’s best interest to keep files (and subsequently plates and jobs) moving out the door as quickly as possible. Any issues with an incoming file that cause hiccups in the workflow are likely to cause hiccups in your bill. The good news? With a little planning, the most common beginner mistakes are very easy to avoid — saving you money, expediting your job, and keeping the print shop staff from fashioning a voodoo doll in your image.

Note: The following examples assume that you’re using InDesign or Quark for layout, but the concepts should apply to any similar applications.

1. No bleed!

The problem:

When it comes to prepping a file for printing, neglecting to add bleed is one of the most common mistakes beginners make. Despite being a fairly simple concept, it tends to be a frustrating one to explain to people who aren’t familiar with commercial printing practices. In printing, “bleed” refers to any part of an image or solid color that extends beyond the crop marks (which indicate where a piece will be cut). Any piece that features image continuing all the way to the edge of the page should have bleed included in the file.

The purpose of bleed is to account for inaccurate cutting and minor shifting of the paper that may occur as it is being cut. Imagine a black square in the middle of a piece of white paper. If you were to try cutting it out with a pair of scissors, you would find it nearly impossible to cut directly along it’s edge without accidentally cutting part of it off or cutting too far outside, leaving some of the white paper attached to the square. However, If there were extra black ink around the square which you were allowed to cut into, it would be quite simple to come out with a solid black square cutout. The same goes for a cutting machine.

If your piece is missing bleed (fig. 1) and the blade does not cut precisely where the crop marks appear, then you may end up with unsightly white edges where the paper shows (fig. 2). Bleed allows the machine to miss your crop marks slightly and still maintain a continuous image all the way to the edge of the piece. When a file that is supposed to bleed shows up at the shop with no bleed included, the shop either has to spend time adding it or come back to you for corrections.

The fix:

Don’t inflate your own bill by making such an easily avoidable error. All you need to keep in mind is that when laying out a piece with color extending all the way to its edges, you need to include extra image beyond the crop marks. For instance, if you’re creating a standard sized business card (2″ x 3.5″) with a background image that is supposed to continue all the way to each edge, then the actual size of your background image should be 2.25″ x 3.75″ (fig. 3) Most layout software makes this very easy, as it simply requires elements that are supposed to bleed to hang off of the pasteboard or work area. It’s good practice to always include 1/8″ of bleed, though a cut would rarely be that far off.

2. Missing fonts and images

The problem:

Perhaps even more prevalent than missing bleed, the dreaded “missing fonts and images” is a problem that printers deal with every day. Under most circumstances, when you place an image in InDesign or Quark what you are actually doing is linking to that image (images used in layouts are often referred to as “links”). Programs use this technique to limit file size and keep your computer as well as the printer’s equipment from choking. Raster images tend to have large file sizes. If you were laying out a 100-page catalog full of color photos and your layout software embedded each one of those images in your layout file, the result would be an enormous file that would be unweildy at best and unusable at worst. To avoid this, layout software instead includes a preview version of each image in your file. When it’s time to print the high-quality version of each image, your layout file relays link information that tells the printer’s specialized software where to look for those images (usually a folder with all the other images used in the piece).

Fonts are treated somewhat similarly. Regardless of which fonts you use in a layout, those font files are not actually included in the layout file and must be provided separately. If you don’t provide the print shop with the necessary font files and images along with your InDesign or Quark file, you can expect an exasperated phone call, or worse yet, a seriously botched job.

The fix:

The last thing you want to do is pay somebody at the print shop to spend two hours digging around for a font they might not even have—especially when the necessary font file is sitting in a folder on your computer. Luckily this should be the easiest screw-up to avoid. There are features in both InDesign (File>Package) and Quark (File>Collect for Output) that automate the consolidation of everything you’ll need to send to the printer’s. Simply run one of these commands and the program will grab a copy of your document, font files, and images, and put them into one folder which is ready to send off. Piece of cake! Now you won’t get any snarky emails asking for your copy of Comic Sans Bold Italic.

3. Process vs. spot colors

Of the three concepts discussed here, the difference between process and spot colors is by far the most difficult to understand for designers who are just starting out. You could devote an entire blog to the nuances of the two techniques, but a few basics are all you need to avoid most issues at the printer’s.

“Process” refers to CMYK printing (commonly referred to as “four-color”). A standard four-color press uses only four inks: cyan (C), magenta (M), yellow (Y), and black (K). In order to recreate photographs or other relatively complicated images, these four inks are applied to paper in dots of varying size and frequency. If you look very closely at a photograph in a newspaper or magazine, you should be able to see these dots clearly. At reading distance however, these dots essentially mix to create the illusion of other colors (fig. 4).

Spot colors, on the other hand, are custom-mixed inks. These are most commonly used on pieces with simple designs that do not require a wide range of colors. Spot colors also tend to be more vibrant and consistent, and therefore are often used by companies to make sure their corporate colors are always represented correctly in print. The most widely used system for ensuring the consistency of these colors is the Pantone Matching System (PMS). A spot color is almost always identified by its PMS number. For example, McDonald’s red is PMS 485 and the gold in its arches is PMS 123. These numbers indicate to a printer the specific formulas that should be used to mix the inks. This way, the logo on a McDonald’s cup will always look the same, whether it’s printed in New York or New Delhi.

The problem:

All too often, novice designers apply spot colors to their layouts when they should really be dealing in process colors, and vice versa. While modern prepress software usually makes it easy to convert spot colors to process, going from process to spot can be time-consuming (i.e. expensive). The safest way to avoid unforeseen charges is to make sure your file is in the correct color space when you send it off to get printed.

The fix:

While there are certainly exceptions, a good rule of thumb for beginners is if your piece involves color photographs or any other moderately complex color images, then every element in your file should be created with process colors (CMYK). For example, if you’re designing a flyer that features a photo of people, then any other color elements should most likely be created in CMYK. On the other hand, if you are creating a business card that features only black type and a solid green logo, then it will likely be cheaper to print as a two-color piece (black+green spot color). Check with your printer for the best way to set up the file if you have any doubts. If you don’t have access to a Pantone color guide, they should be able to suggest appropriate ink colors for your design. Perhaps more importantly, they will be ecstatic to be dealing with somebody who asked for advice instead of blindly sending an unusable file. Believe me–I’ve been there.


Admittedly I have vastly oversimplified these concepts and probably missed some key points. However I hope this sheds a little light on some printing processes and how a little preparation can save you serious dough when sending your files out. Printing is something most people take for granted, but despite the small amount of sick satisfaction that us prepress guys get from verbally abusing lousy files, deep down what we really want is to kick back and relax while your problem-free files go off to press. Hope this helps! If any of you designers or print pros have other ideas to add, feel free to add your two cents below.