So your boss just gave you the good news… you were given a free ad space to run in the local magazine! Great… but you’ve only ever designed things for web or just to print in the office. How do you make sure your final file will print the way you want it to look? Don’t worry. Even though print design is a little different than web, it’s only got a few basic rules to follow. Use this checklist to make sure your files will be print-perfect!

Your Print-Perfect Checklist:

  • your file is the right size and shape according to the printer’s specifications
  • your file is set to CMYK color mode
  • your images are 300 dpi or higher
  • no InDesign image file links are broken
  • you have sufficient bleed built into your page
  • you have sufficient margin so that your content does not get cut off
  • fonts are embedded in your final PDF
  • you’ve included crop marks (or not) according to your printer’s requirements
  • you export to PDF X1A (or whatever format your printer requires)

If all of that sounds a little daunting, I’ll walk you through the process.

1. Get the Specs from the Printer or Magazine

For the sake of this example, we’ll use the specs for a Full Page ad. If you’re printing for a magazine, newspaper, or event program, their art department is going to have specs available for you to follow. They usually look something like this or this:

Ad Size Trim With Bleed
Full Page 8.5 x 11" 8.75 x 11.25"
Half Horizontal 8.5 x 5.5" 8.75 x 5.75"
Quarter Page 4.25 x 5.5" 4.50 x 5.75"
  • PDF/x-1a file saved on a CD-ROM or uploaded via secure upload form. Only one ad per file.
  • All high-resolution images and fonts must be included when the PDF/X-1a file is saved.
  • Only use Type 1 Fonts—No TrueType fonts or font substitutions.
  • Images must be SWOP (CMYK or Grayscale) TIFF or EPS 300 dpi or greater.
  • Total area density should not exceed SWOP 300% TAC.
  • NO RGB or JPEG images. Do not nest EPS files into other EPS files. Do not embed ICC profiles within images.
  • All required trapping must be included in the file(s).

So get that info and hang on to it. We’re going to use it to set up your document.

2. Set Up Your Document for Print (using InDesign or Photoshop)

Using Adobe InDesign

First of all, use Adobe InDesign, not Photoshop. With InDesign, generally, you’ll produce a PDF with a smaller file size. This makes file delivery much easier for you and the magazine or printer you’re sending it to.

  1. Open a new InDesign document.
  2. In the New Document window, set the Intent to Print
  3. Reference those specs from the magazine's art department and set your width and height to the Trim Size, in our case Full Page is 8.5 x 11"
  4. Set your margins to whatever you’d like as long as they’re at least .25"
  5. Set your bleed to .125" (Since they've provided specs with bleed, we're assuming your art has bleed. If you're not sure, contact their art department and ask.)
  6. Your New Document window should look like this:indesign new document window
  7. Click OK
  8. Once you have your new document open, make a new layer, call it "background" and create a solid white rectangle on that layer that's the size of the whole page and bleed. Lock that layer, but keep it visible. It seems silly, but doing this can be the difference between your ad being sized and centered properly or not. When I collected ads for the art department at a Denver magazine, there were some ads that just wouldn't play nicely until they were given the ol' white background treatment. It's better if you do it than the person in the art department.

Using Adobe Photoshop (skip this part)

First of all, use Adobe InDesign if you have it. You’ll end up creating a PDF with a smaller file size and you’ll have easy access to all of your styles, master pages, templates, color palates, plus the ability to make multiple design versions on separate pages in one file. But if Photoshop is the tool you have, here’s how to set it up.

  1. Open a new Photoshop file
  2. Set your units of measurement to inches
  3. Reference those specs from the magazine's art department and set your width and height to the With Bleed Size, in our case Full Page is 8.75 x 11.25"
  4. Set your Color Mode to CMYK
  5. Set your Background Contents to whitephotoshop new document window
  6. Click OK
  7. With your new document open, zoom in on your rulers and drag in guides on all 4 sides for your bleed and your margin. Make your bleed guide .125". You can make your margin as large as you'd like, as long as it is at least .25". You can see I've set mine to .125" and .25": screenshot of guides in adobe photoshop

3. Get Your Color Mode and Resolution Sorted Out

The 2 big differences between web and print design are image resolution and color mode.

Media Resolution Color Mode
Web 72 ppi RGB
Print 300 dpi CMYK

Since the final web product is points of light shooting out of a screen, you only need as many pixels per square inch (ppi) as the screen has. (Historically, this has been 72 ppi. This is changing because of Apple’s retina screens, but how to handle image resolution for the retina screen is a topic for another time.) Also, adding together 3 beams of light (red + green + blue = RGB) together puts you in the RGB color space.

Print, on the other hand, requires 300 dots of ink per square inch (dpi) in order for our eyes to think it’s pretty. If the images in your document are less than 300 dpi, they’ll be blurry here’s more info on print dpi sizes). And since the printer mixes together 4 colors of ink (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black = CMYK) in order to get every color in your document, you’ll need to make sure your document is coded to speak CMYK.

This is why you set up your Photoshop document to 300 ppi and CMYK. If you’re using InDesign, you’ll need to check all of your linked images to make sure they’re rendering at at least 300 dpi.

Also, you’ll need to double click on any swatch you’re using and make sure it’s set to CMYK. See the color squares on the far right of the swatches panel? That indicates which color mode each swatch is in. All of my swatches are in CMYK (the X with 4 colors) except for the orange swatch. That one’s in RGB (the 3 vertical bars). See the difference?

swatches panel in indesign

Double click any rogue RGB swatches to get into Swatch Options and change it to CMYK color mode.

4. Check for Errors in Your InDesign Document

In InDesign, you can set up a Preflight profile that will check all kinds of print-related specs for you. Here’s how:

  1. In your menu, go to Window / Output / Preflight to open the Preflight panel.
  2. With your Preflight panel open, click the flyout menu and select Define Profiles.
  3. Click on the + symbol on the bottom of the right side to create a new profile and name it something appropriate like Cat Magazine Full Page -- assuming you've got a full page ad in Cat Magazine.
    indesign preflight profile
  4. Refer to the specs that were given to you by the magazine, then go through all of the checkboxes and set up the items you want preflight to test for. If you want to set up something more general, I like to preflight for these things:
    indesign print preflight profile
  5. Then click Save and OK
  6. Back in your document, click the checkbox on the top left of the Preflight Panel and select your new profile from the dropdown menu. You'll see a bunch of errors pop up, or you'll see a green "no errors found" message down on the bottom of the panel.
  7. Work your way through your errors until you get a clean bill of health.

5. Exporting to PDF

Again, you’ll start by making sure you’ve read the printer’s requirements for output. Our magazine’s printer wants this output:

  • PDF/x-1a, TIFF, or EPS
  • 300 dpi or greater
  • One ad per file
  • Embedded fonts (only Type 1 Fonts)
  • Images must be SWOP (CMYK or Grayscale)
  • Total area density should not exceed SWOP 300% TAC.
  • All required trapping must be included in the file(s).
  • Do not include crop marks

So you’ll need to make sure you select all of the right settings while you export.

  1. In Photoshop, it's File / Save As --> Photoshop PDF
  2. In InDesign, it's File / Adobe PDF Presets / PDF X1A
  3. Then go through each of the settings windows and select what's needed according to your specs.
  4. Compression:
  5. Marks & Bleeds:
  6. Output:
  7. Click Export and you're good to go!
  8. As always, give yourself plenty of time before the deadline to submit your artwork. Sometimes problems will crop up and you want to give the magazine and yourself enough time to find them and fix them.

And that’s about it! This is how to make sure you have print-perfect PDFs every time you have to submit art to a professional printer. And remember, when in doubt, ask the people receiving your artwork for help. I promise you, they’ve seen a lot of bad files come in the door and they’d rather help you make a good one than have to chase you down to fix it.