The 5 Most Common File Setup Mistakes Creators Make (And How To Avoid Them!)

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Note from Robin: I was so impressed with the wonderful folks at PrintNinja when working on my third book that I asked if they’d share some wisdom from the printer’s side of the table. I hope you’ll give a warm welcome to Brian as he reveals…

The 5 Most Common File Setup Mistakes Creators Make (And How To Avoid Them!)

Greetings Webcomic Alliance readers!  Brian from PrintNinja here, your friendly neighborhood overseas printing company.  We’ve printed books for thousands of independent creators over the years, from experienced pros to artists doing their first print run, and when it comes to files we’ve seen it all.

Now I realize that talking about the technical aspects of file setup may not sound very sexy, but I can’t tell you how many times we’ve received files from incredibly talented artists that had one or more of these technical problems. Any of these can derail a print run, but all of them can be easily avoided if you understand them from the get-go.

At the very least, I hope this article can save you the hours of time you’d otherwise have to spend revising your files to be print-ready after the fact.  On the extreme end of things, we’ve worked with creators who have been burned by other printing companies that sent their files to press despite these problems, leading to heartbreak and recriminations—all because of basic, fixable file issues.

So, without further ado, here’s a quick run-through 5 of the most common file setup mistakes we see at PrintNinja:

Section 1: Trim Problems (Bleed, Safe Zone, and Borders)

PrintNinja-Trimming-Machine

When most people think about printing, they picture desktop printers, which work with small individual pieces of paper.

However, full print runs are done on printing presses, which typically print on large press sheets with 8 pages on each side.

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After both sides of a press sheet have been printed (8 pages on each side), that sheet will be mechanically cut and folded by machines in the factory, turning one press sheet into a set of 16 pages (also known as a signature).

PrintNinja-Folded-Signatures

These machines are typically accurate to within a couple of millimeters in their cutting and folding. However, those couple of millimeters are vitally important!

Think about it: If your artwork is exactly 8.5” x 11”, and the page shifts 2 millimeters upward in the trim process, you’re going to have 2 millimeters of blank white paper showing on the bottom edge of your page!

PrintNinja-No-Bleed-Example

Thankfully, it’s quite easy to set your files up to avoid this scenario.  There are 3 main things to keep in mind when setting up your files:

(1) Bleed

You always want to add an extra 1/8″ (3mm) of artwork to each edge of your document.  This extra artwork is called “bleed” and, for the most part, it will be cut off in the trimming and folding process. This way, when things shift a millimeter or two in any direction, there will still be artwork there and you won’t end up with unsightly white lines on the edges of your pages.

(Note: This 1/8″ applies to all four edges, meaning if your project’s page size is 6” x 9”, your art files should actually be 6.25” x 9.25” to include full bleed.  Additionally, while 1/8” bleeds are fairly standard, you should double check with your printer to see if they need more or less.)

(2) Safe Zone

The concept of safe zone is basically the inverse of bleed.  If we know that our artwork may shift a couple of millimeters, then we want to be sure to keep any important elements (like speech bubbles or text) at least 1/8 inch (3mm) away from the trim line, so that they won’t be cut off by any small trimming variances.

This area—that is, everything that is more than 1/8 inch away from the edge of the page—is known as the safe zone, since you can be sure that nothing in that area will be trimmed off.

(3) Borders

This is a subtler concept, but it’s important to keep in mind the way that trimming variances affect page designs that include borders around the edges.  For example: Say that my artwork has a 3mm wide black border around the edge of the page.  If my artwork shifts 2mm to the right, even with proper bleeds, my borders will end up being 5mm on the left side of the page and only 1mm on the right side, leading them to look totally uneven.

Thankfully, this one has an easy solution: If you use borders, they should always extend at least 1/4” in from the trim line.  That way, a millimeter or two of shifting won’t make them look uneven.

Fixes:

The easiest way to avoid trim problems is to arm yourself with this knowledge and keep it in mind when you’re creating your files!  That said, sometimes you find yourself with old artwork that you may have created before you were thinking about printing, and it just doesn’t have any bleeds.  What can you do?  There’s no perfect solution, but here are a couple of potential fixes:

(1) Expand your artwork, knowing that the outer 1/8 inch will be trimmed off as bleed.  Be careful though, as this may introduce safe zone issues if the expansion causes speech bubbles or text to end up outside of the safe zone.

(2) Mirror the edges of your artwork.  In certain cases, it’s possible for artists to copy the 1/8 inch of artwork at the edges of their page, then paste and flip that artwork to create the illusion of seamless bleed.  Again, this isn’t ideal, but it’s far preferable to going to press with no bleeds at all.

Before we leave the topic, here’s a handy guide to remind you how your files should be set up:

PrintNinja-Bleed-Guide

Section 2: Color Problems (RGB vs CMYK, Oversaturation)

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These days, the vast majority of artists are creating their work on computer screens instead of paper.  For a medium like webcomics, this makes perfect sense—but it introduces additional complications when the same artwork goes to print.

The main problem is that computer screens and the printed page use two totally different techniques to create color.

Computer screens work in RGB, which means that they generate combinations of red, green, and blue light to display every color in the RGB spectrum.

However, the printed page has no way to generate light so instead, it uses inks to create color by selectively reflecting light. This is normally done through CMYK inks, meaning combinations of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink subtract colors from a fully-reflective white page.

PrintNinja-CMYK-Vs-RGB

For these reasons, all RGB files must be converted to CMYK at some point before they hit the press.  The problem is that because these are fundamentally different ways of producing color, they come with different strengths and weaknesses, and we frequently see creators run into the following two problems:

(4) Submitting RGB files and being upset when the colors shift.

The CMYK color gamut is actually smaller than the RGB gamut, so your colors will inevitably shift somewhat in the conversion, especially pure primary colors like red, green, and blue.  If you submit RGB files to your printer, then you have to be prepared for significant changes from those files to the printed product.

(5) Using oversaturated colors that look great on screen but look dark when printed

Because computer screens generate light, colors will often look brighter on your monitor than they will on the printed page. Subtle effects like gradients may not translate at all.  Deep, saturated colors are wonderful when those colors are backlit, but they often look murky on the printed page since, in practice, the more ink you use, the less light is reflected.

We’ve frequently talked with artists who have been surprised by the way their colors translate from their screen to the printed page, but worry not!  Armed with this knowledge, you can easily avoid that fate:

Fixes:

(1) Your best weapon in this fight is known as the “wet sheet” hardcopy proof.  This is one full press sheet of your project (usually 8 pages), printed on the same printing press that will produce your full print run. It’s the only way to see how your colors will really turn out.  We highly recommend that anybody who has any apprehension about their colors order a hardcopy proof with a wet sheet.

You should supply your printer with the 8 pages that you’re most concerned about color-wise, so that you can see how they’ll look when printed.  From there, if you don’t like the results, you can tweak your files and, if necessary, order successive wet sheet proofs (although you should keep in mind that your printer will likely charge for each additional round of proofing).

(2) Before you begin hardcopy proofing, you can convert your colors on your end before sending your files to the printer.  This gives you a pretty good idea of how your colors will shift in the conversion and, from there, you can tweak things like levels, contrast, and saturation.  You can even look at the ink values of each individual pixel using the eyedropper tool.

Note: If you’re converting colors on your own, be sure you’re using the CMYK profile recommended by your printing company, as different presses have different ink saturation limits.  For instance, PrintNinja recommends using the “Japan Color 2001 Coated” profile to convert projects we’ll be printing.

Now you know, and knowing is half the battle!

There you have it!  Hopefully this article helped you learn a bit more about the offset printing process and why these file setup issues happen in the first place.

As a bit of a shameless plug: We at PrintNinja pride ourselves in our multilayered pre-press process, designed to catch all of these issues and more before projects go to press—and we’d love to work with you.  If you haven’t had a chance to play with our Pricing Calculator, it can be a great way to calibrate your costs and to see if PrintNinja is a good fit for you!

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5 Comments

  1. Thanks for the tips. I’ve learned the hard way to have larger bleed area and respect the safety zone! As for the colors, I kinda cheat and keep in mind not to use super saturated colors and then I test print them at home then ‘lighten’ or add white to all colors for about 10% so the colors print on the lighter end instead of the darker end.

  2. Good to know! I was actually just looking at printing places a couple of days ago and came across Print Ninja. Heard good things and the prices seemed better than the other options I saw. It’s nice to know these tips ahead of time if I end up going with them.

  3. YES. All of this.
    But especially the RGB vs CMYK thing. Amazing how many artists don’t know or understand the different processes, and it’s SO IMPORTANT. Thank you Brian.

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