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We get a lot of questions in regards to what should my file spec be, what should I do with X and Y, how should I do my black etc. etc. and a large majority of the time we suggest to ask the printer which is an accurate assumption. Even though I think this is an accurate answer I think we should have a question that would help educate designers on what questions they should ask the printer. Knowing the right questions can help determine if the printer is professional and if you can meet the requirements. So my question is when print designing what questions should I ask to make sure my designs are compatible and high quality for print?

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17  
"Why aren't you working?" "Another paper jam, seriously?" "Out of ink AGAIN?" –  Johannes Sep 25 '13 at 15:54
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Start here: "What specs do you need it?" –  John Sep 25 '13 at 18:19
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"PC load letter! What does that even mean??" –  neminem Sep 25 '13 at 21:24

6 Answers 6

up vote 27 down vote accepted

Ask them if they have a template?

At our print shop we offer a full template selection that allows designers to enter in their desired output and it will email them a template file. We did this because many questions and files we received proved to be an issue in regards to accurate bleed, trim, and non-print elements.

What black do you guys print?

Registration black is 100% CMYK which is an inaccurate black and should never be used as other than registration marks and our prints vary by the printer we use.

What are the desired file type?

Some shops hate .psd files because they are horrible for storage, editing, and are raster based. Even though they are the worst file types to use for print some people can only afford or have Photoshop.

What are your bleed settings?

Most shops typically have the same bleed but some shops try to cut costs and can reduce the amount of bleed to save on material waste.

What is the stock being used?

Knowing the stock that will be printed on (such as gloss or matte) can render different color outputs. If this is the case you can address this with the client and make the proper adjustments for accurate color.

Are there certain stocks for BW printing apposed to full color printing

Some print shops will limit the stock used in either black and white printing or full color printing due to costs.

Ask if a few color interior pages in a BW job would classify the job as full color

Some shops would rather run a BW job in CMYK if a few interior files are in color or insert based on the quantity.

If I send in a PDF what should the settings be?

We recommend a certain .pdf format, PDF/X-1a, to be exported from InDesign at our shop but this may not be the case for every shop.

For PDF delivery, spreads or single pages?

Single page PDFs are customarily preferred, however some shops require printer imposed spreads in order to reproduce a multi-page publication accurately.

Do you offer black and white printing and what should the specs be?

Good question for shops that will be printing black as CMYK or just K.

How should my images be for black and white printing?

We require images for black and white printing to be converted to grey-scale but this may change based on how their black and white printing is done.

What is the lightest opacity I can use if CMYK printing?

Some people would like blockquotes to be as light as possible but still visible and some use a light color with a very low opacity. We require nothing less than 20% opacity but it may change on machine.

Can I get a proof and is it free or do I have to pay?

Before a large run its better to get a sample proof then risk dropping a lot of money..

Do you accept or convert Pantone colors?

At our shop we deny any prints with Pantones but some shops can print Pantones or charge to convert to CMYK. Depending on the printer some presses are set-up to have X color runs. Knowing if they can print CMYK plus a Pantone helps if a client has a targeted color for their brand but some newer machines only offer CMYK.

Do you offer CMYK,Lc,Lm for my photographic publication?

Some machines offer LC and LM printing options when it comes to printing photography because it extends the customary four color CMYK process, by adding light cyan (lower case c) and light magenta (lower case m). The light cyan and light magenta inks are essentially a washed out version of the cyan and magenta inks. Reference to Wiki.

I have a multi-page publication, what are the requirements for gutter, creep, and spine?

For publications with multiple pages the print provider may have a minimum gutter requirement in addition to any live area requirement. Creep can be a factor if a publication has many pages. Creep measurements and the width of the spine in perfect bound publications can only be determined by using the width of the stock to be printed on. Customarily the printer provider will be able to factor these measurements quickly and provide numbers.

Will my prints be consistent or will you notify me of a printer change?

This is a good question I currently ran into. After you send a print to a printer, they send you a proof, and you approve the print but the print quality and color accuracy changes if a new printer is introduced into the equation or they outsource regularly to different vendors based on availability. However, you already approved the print but they wont tell you they are changing the printer when you place a re-order.


In regards to screen printing:

  • Do you print on black and what is your print process (print-flash-print or print-print-flash)?
  • If you print on black do you print white as a base first?
  • What are your offered screen specs?
  • Do you use wooden screens or aluminum screens?
  • Are you printing manually or automatic?
  • If you offer automatic printing was the minimum quantity?
  • Are you printing in-house or outsourcing?
  • Do you print doubled sided on card stock?
  • How many colors can you print?
  • Do you offer gradient to halftone conversions?
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Good list, though I'd say the stock question is one for the designer--not the printer. Choosing what you are printing on is an integral part of the design process. –  DA01 Sep 25 '13 at 16:22
    
Agreed but if the client wants to stay with X printer for everything knowing the stock options would be an important factor if you face an issue with not being able to print something. –  Darth_Vader Sep 25 '13 at 16:45

Specific to screen printing

  • What type of inks do you have available?

    • Plastisol, water-based, solvent-based... The type of ink used will have an effect on the appearance, the texture of the print, and how durable it will be. Don't hesitate to ask for a printed sample of what they've got available.
  • Do you you use any ink matching systems?

    • Pantone Solid Coated is very popular, but it's always good to ask which system (if any) they use
  • What is the maximum allowable print area?

    • Just because a t-shirt is 16 inches wide doesn't mean the shop can print a design that is 16 inches wide. As Matt already pointed out, shops will probably have a template available for you to use that includes print area information
  • What is the maximum number of spot colors?

    • Important to know before designing something, you don't want to create an illustration with 8 colors to find out they can only print up to 6
  • What is the minimum order quantity?

    • There is a lot of setup required for a print run, so be prepared to get the stink eye if you just want to order 5 of something.
  • Can I mix and match colors?

    • Somewhat related to the MOQ question. Switching material colors generally shouldn't be an issue, but they might charge extra if you want a couple different ink colors
  • Which garment brands do you use?

    • Do some research on the brand they use, t-shirts for example come in a wide range of quality. It's okay to ask for a sample, and important to know what it is you're buying.
  • Do you charge a setup fee? Is it waived for a re-order of the same print?

    • Some shops include the setup fee in the price of the delivered product, others will charge you a setup fee separate. Beware of any hidden fees that they don't tell you about until you get the bill, just ask them up front.
  • Do you offer a mock-up proof?

    • Not a physical sample, but a digital PDF (usually) of what the design will look like
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In addition to other answers, specific questions For advertising...

What is the live area of the advertisement?

  • Advertising is sold in "spaces". Many refer to things such as "half-page" or "quarter-page". These ambiguous terms mean nothing to a designer. Exact measurements need to be be acquired in order to properly configure the size of any advertisement. In addition, remember than any such measurements will be the full area the advertisement consumes, so remember to leave a margin inside the measurements so your advertisement does not blend into other advertisements.

What is the color breakout? If less than 4 color, what inks (spot)?

  • Many publications are full color (CMYK) while others will only allow black ink for advertising. Some publications run with two or three colors. In these cases knowing the exact Spot colors available in the publication can assist a designer in creating an advertisement.
  • While a publication may use full color, they may have restrictions on advertising color or may have additional costs to place advertisements into color spreads. Check with the advertiser (or your client) regarding color use before beginning design.

What are the file requirements?

  • Standard file types such as PDF/X-1a are generally okay, however some publications prefer files such as .eps and even on rare occasions .jpg. It is best to confirm desired file types before sending files for reproduction.

Should bleeds and marks be included?

  • Some publications prefer receiving advertisements at size without crop, trim, or bleed marks and without a bleed. Others prefer to include the bleed, but no marks. Knowing whether or not to include bleeds and marks can ensure trouble-free reproduction of your advertisement.

For advertisements in digital publications

All of the above in addition to...

If reproduced digitally, can live links exist in a supplied PDF?

  • With the proliferation of digital editions, it may be possible to supply advertisements as PDF documents. PDF files can contain live links. Some publications will allow the inclusion of links in digitally reproduced advertisements, others will not. Check with the publication to ensure any links you embed will be live and clickable upon publication. There's nothing worse than including a link only to realize it won't work in the actual publication. And always include the actual link URL in written form so it is visible and readable in case the link breaks.

Color space to be used?

  • Digital publications are created in the RGB color space to match screen rendering color space. However, some publications still require advertisements to be supplied in CMYK color. Then the publication converts to RGB for their digital edition. At the same time the reverse can be true - the publication may request everything be delivered in RGB then the publication will convert to CMYK for any printed editions. Knowing the color space to be used prior to delivery allows the designer to ensure colors are accurate prior to being sent for reproduction.
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4  
The live links question reminds me of this –  JohnB Sep 25 '13 at 17:11
    
I spent 20 minutes trying to click there... darn it! –  Scott Sep 25 '13 at 17:40
    
Great points, but particularly the one about including marks or not. I am still trying to forget the posters I sent for printing once for a new client and came from the press with sharply and exquisitely printed trim marks... after trimming : ( –  cockypup Apr 2 at 15:54

The one question you should definitely ask is:

What are your pre-press document requirements?

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I come late to the party so there is no much to add, but here are my humble additions:

My art uses overprinting. Will you be able to do so?

I have found that many printers get confused when art uses overprinting, because (apparently) it is not used very often. I always highlight this to them so they are aware that I will be using it. I often set the areas with overprinting to both overprint and multiply, just to make sure is not missed.

I am using unusual inks (such as metal inks). Do you have any suggestions on the order in which they can be printed or overprinted?

Unusual inks can be scary if they are not used correctly. I have seen boxes peeling off because the art was overprinted on a metal flood and it never cured. Highlighting to the printer that you are using the unusual ink and asking for their opinion is always a great idea. Sometimes different printers have different ways of working with the ink. This question might also raise flags that nobody had noticed. Metal inks might need extra curing time, which might move the deadline and/or add to the final cost, for example.

What types of finish do you offer/work with? Do they have any special requirements?

I notice that every time I go to print a project, there are a myriad of new finishes that I did not know existed. I always end up with a new swash book of finishes, which is great. They have sometimes special requirements such as extra curing time or incompatibility with metal inks, so it is always good to ask.

Can the finish be applied inline?

A finish that can be applied inline saves time. Not all finishes come in this style though, and not all printers carry all of them. Sometimes asking this question just allows you to learn that the finish you had selected was an old fashion one that needed for the ink to be 100% cured but they have a new one that can be applied inline and be done with it as opposed to waiting for the curing time.

Can the finish be spot-applied?

Not all finishes can be applied in only a spot (area). This depends on the actual finish and on the actual press the provider has.

Do you offer embossing? What types? How should I provide the art?

If either the embossing plates or the whole embossing task are outsourced then there might be different requirements to how you provide the art.

How accurate is the registration of the embossing? What is the maximum acceptable error margin?

Depending on the type of embossing and how old the provider machinery is they might not be able to assure the embossed area will be 100% registered with the art. It is always good to know so in advance to avoid surprises and adapt the art to their capabilities.

What is the maximum acceptable error margin for trimming?

If the trimming is not as straightforward as a rectangle (think a cosmetics box as opposed to a magazine spread) and if their machinery is old, then they might not be able to assure a very tight registration. It is good to know so and to adapt the art for trimming variations.

Do you offer barcode testing?

Certain inks (such as metal inks, for example) render barcodes illegible. Horrible thing to find when the product has already been delivered to the retailer. Most printers I have worked with offer the service of testing the barcode after is printed just to make sure it is readable. They offer this for free, but I often find that if I don't ask for it, they don't do it.

Is any part of the process outsourced?

Sometimes finishing, embossing and trimming are outsourced, because they require extra machinery that the printer might not be interested in buying. If you are adding another provider to the process it is always good to know so, particularly if you need to complain or fine tune. If the other provider is hidden behind the printer and your printer is not doing a good job on representing you, then it can get tricky and add time to the deadline.

Can you assure you will not edit my art once I send it? If you need to do so, can you please let me know what you are doing or, better, let me do it?

This sounds like an idiotic question, but sometimes some adventurous printers take liberties and move things around to fix production problems you might have missed or change colours because they think you made a mistake. Highlighting to them that you don't want them to do so is a good idea. There is usually more than one way of overcoming a production problem and their choice of solution might not be the one you might have preferred.

Can I come to a press approval?

I love press approvals because it is fascinating to see my digital work turned into actual plates and ink; I think offset presses are awesome (as in awe inspiring) and I also learn a lot from press operators. But besides my personal geeky fascinations I find that coming to the a press approval, at least the first run of a project, allows me to catch problems that would have been terrible to catch when the whole thing is already run (like misunderstanding overprinting) and sometimes make last minute decisions (like "OK, overprinting metal is not working, forget about the metal, make it black"). It also allows me to see how careful the printer is. Sometimes they can be sloppy if they are under tight deadlines (hickies much?). Make sure not to micromanage, though, (note to myself) and to trust they know what they are doing.

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Hum. I am not answering the question you asked:

when print designing what questions should I ask to make sure my designs are compatible and high quality for print?

becouse as a designer it is my obligation to know how to send a proper file depending on my project.

I am answering this:

When I interview a new provider, what questions should I ask to find out if the provider is suitable for my quality and project needs?

This are not in a specific order, some are verey technical and the vendor probably dosen't know, so I ask permission to talk to the technical staff.

Size

  • What is the maximum paper size your machine accept?

  • What is the maximum paper weight or thickness your machine accept?

  • What is the maximum printable area?

  • How many heads the machine has?

There are machines that print 1 color at a time, or 2, or 4 for a color selection, or more to print some spot colors on the fly. (lithography)

Color

  • Do you offer a colour profile? If they don't offer one; What do you recomend? I already know the answer on this one but it is a test to see if the provider knows what they are doing.

  • What brand of machine do they have? Not that important, but can give you a clue.

  • What brand of inks do you use? In the city I live there are 2 major brands of process inks. Depending on the ones they use you have a rough idea on the quality they want to offer.

  • What color bars do you use?

Normally I include my own color bars.

If they dosen't use one, they are only "gessing" the color comparing it to some sample. If they use a Swop color type they are controlling the color by "hand", and if they are using color patches, they most likley are using a densitometer or similar to control the color.

Color Proof

  • Do you offer a well calibrated color proof? What system do you use?

  • Do I have to sign this color proof?

Instalations

  • Can I visit the instalations?

  • Can I be on the site the day they print my work to authorize some final adjustments?

The 2 most important questions

  • Can I see some samples of your work?

  • How much does it costs? Xo)


This questions are only for the printed part of a process and mostly for offset printing, but gives a idea of some technical issues I need to know.

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