Preflight for Success: A Guide for Designers

Graphic production preflight examines the components that make up an eventually printed piece and compares them against a checklist of potential known issues. Just as a pilot performs many system checks on the airplane before taking off, it's important to ensure that a print project doesn't contain any serious errors that will prevent it from imaging successfully. If they "pass" the check, the job can move forward in the print production workflow. If they "fail," something has to be done to correct the problem before proceeding. It is by default, a methodical task typically performed by prepress personnel (no one wants to reprint a job because an error wasn't found in time). Still, designers should also consider preflight their work before sending it off to their print partners.

Preflighting tools for digital files are abundant today, and there is no excuse not to perform this necessary task. Adobe InDesign and QuarkXPress contain built-in preflight and packaging options. Adobe Acrobat Pro and InDesign both include diagnostic tools that designers can use to quickly assess the quality of the file before it is sent to the print service provider.

A preflight checklist is a basis of preflight, whether done with the assistance of a piece of dedicated preflight software, manually or a combination of both. Some of the things the typical preflight checklist helps you to examine:

Layout issues: Does the physical size of the layout match the specifications? Are all page elements there? Was the job created with a professional desktop publishing application? Are bleed elements there? Do graphic elements abut (will there be white gaps between objects)? Are any rules set to a thickness of "hairline," or are they made up of a screen build?

Fonts: Are they supplied/embedded properly? What type of fonts are they? Are they from a valid foundry (i.e., will they RIP)? Were they menu-styled? Has any type been set to a very small point size, and is small type made up of a screen build?

Images: Is there sufficient resolution for the printing or output method? Do the images contain unsightly artifacts? Is the ink density of shadow areas too high for the type of paper on which the job is being printed? Are the images compressed and if so, using what kind and how much compression?

Color: How many colors are supposed to print? What color space are the images/layout objects? Is RGB color used? Are spot colors indicated correctly and consistently? Which color swatch library was used?

Effects: Were transparency or other special effects used? Is transparency live or will it have to be flattened? Does the file contain layers? Are they all supposed to print? Are there annotations or other non-printing objects in the file?

In addition to application preflight tools, web-based preflight and delivery tools, PDF creation applications, and printer drivers have preflighting built right in. These software-based preflight tools are excellent for about 80% of potential problems, but some problems require the human eye to catch them. Knowing what to look for is half the battle—that's where the checklist comes in. For your reference, you can click here:  PreflightChecklistJPR.

Preflight Diagnostic Tools for Designers

Solid digital file creation is the cornerstone of successfully producing a printed job in a timely manner. While preflighting was traditionally performed by the print service provider, the trend in recent years is to push more preflighting functions upstream to the designer. Fortunately, Both Adobe InDesign and Acrobat Pro contain easy-to-use diagnostic tools that can help the designer quickly assess and correct common print-related problems before sending the job off to the printer.

InDesign Diagnostic Tools

Overprint Preview. It's critical to be able to preview on-screen objects that are set to overprint to avoid potential errors on press. Overprinting is often used to create trap areas between adjacent colors to prevent white paper gaps from showing up on press. Black text is typically set to overprint for the same reason.

With Overprint Preview turned on (View>Overprint Preview), you can see how inks interact with each other on press. If the preview shows something that isn't how the file should print, it allows you to repair it before sending it off to your print service provider.

Flattener Preview. A handy diagnostic tool for checking to see if fonts will be converted to outlines in Adobe InDesign (and Illustrator) is the Flattener Preview palette (Window>Output>Flattener Preview and Window>Flattener Preview, respectively). By selecting the various options under the Highlight pull-down menu, you can preview which objects are transparent on a page, which objects will be affected by transparency, and which fonts (if any) will be converted to outlines.

Live Preflight. Live Preflight sounds exactly like what it is: It can be set up to alert designers to potential problems as they arise rather than after the design is complete. When an error is detected as the design is being created, the problem can quickly be found and corrected. Live Preflight can be configured to alert you to many common file problems, including low-resolution images, unwanted spot color plates, improper image color spaces, and more.

Acrobat Pro Diagnostic Tools

Document Properties. The Document Properties dialog box is a great way to quickly determine how a PDF was created (File>Properties). The Document Properties dialog box also contains other document information such as the PDF version, security settings, and whether all fonts have been embedded.

The Fonts section of the Document Properties dialog box lists all of the fonts used in the PDF file and whether or not they have been embedded. When scrolling through the list of fonts, if Embedded or Embedded Subset is not listed next to the font, then the font was not embedded in the PDF.

Output Preview. Output Preview (Advanced>Print Production>Output Preview) in Acrobat Pro can preview overprints and separations in a PDF. Here you can see all the colors used in the document at a glance. Colors can be toggled on and off to show where and how they are used in a document. Output Preview is a great way to ensure that black text is set to overprint simply by toggling the black channel on and off. If a white knockout of the text shows up when the black is turned off, it hasn't been set to overprint. If the background color is solid, the black text has been set to overprint correctly. It's also an easy way to make sure the same spot color hasn't been specified multiple times with slightly different names. Output Preview also provides feedback on the color build of any object when the cursor is dragged over that area.

Overprint Preview. As with InDesign, Overprint Preview shows how inks will interact with each other on press. If the preview shows something that isn't how the file should print, it allows you to repair it before sending it off to your print service provider. Overprint Preview is turned off by default (both in Adobe Acrobat Pro and the free Adobe Reader) and must be activated in the preferences of each application. Select Acrobat (or Reader)>Preferences>General. Next, select Page Display from the list. In the Use Overprint Preview pull-down menu, choose Always. 

To dive deeper into preflighting and creating files for print production, check out the Print Production for Designers eLearning course on the Alliance's recently launched  iLEARNING+ e-learning platform.

Joe Marin Senior Vice President, Member Services PRINTING United Alliance
Joe Marin is Senior Vice President, Member Services at PRINTING United Alliance and is passionate about helping people learn, advance, and grow. Joe manages member services for the association that encompasses industry awards, human resources support EHS resources, and the iLEARNING+ eLearning platform—the industry’s go-to resource for online education. Joe has spent most of his career in the printing industry and is one of the leading voices on digital technologies. He speaks at major industry trade shows and conferences on topics related to succeeding in a digital print environment. While managing association member services is his primary job function during the week, Joe can be found racing at autocross events or classic car shows on weekends.