How to prepress your files

I thought I’d tie this post on to the end of my UNLAWFUL GOOD series because this is the first time in a while that I’ve got so many different files from so many artists. This isn’t to say that any of you guys who worked on UNLAWFUL GOOD did anything wrong (the files were all good, I swear!) but it occurred to me that putting together a post focused on prepress work on your files would be worthwhile if only because it’s good to know what a designer (me in this case!) is expecting when you send files to print.

Ok, this post is going to be a little bit more of the technical side of things but that’s what it needs to be.

Working professionally for over 10 years now (yikes!), I’ve sent a ton of jobs to print and there are a few little tricks that are good to know and I’d like to share because I think everyone can do this better (including me! so this is a good exercise for me). The main goal with sending a file to print is to get it as perfect as you can so there are no mess ups by the person assembling the print files and to make sure it prints properly (ie. so it looks like you intend it to look). And the easiest way to do this is to make sure that you’ve done everything right on your end and you keep things simple (and I can’t emphasize that last point enough!).

So here’s a list of the things you need to get right:

Build you file to the right specs. Double check the specs before hand. In fact, triple check them. There’s nothing worse than spending a ton of time working on files that aren’t going to fit the book the way you intended them to. Printers usually give you three (3) main specs to be aware of: live area, trim line, bleed. This can be confusing at first, so here’s a simple breakdown of each:

  • The live area (or safe area) is the area on the page that most printers would like you to keep the vital art and lettering inside of. This is usually to make sure that it doesn’t get cropped off or end up in the binding of the book.
  • The trim line (or crop line) is where the page will be trimmed (ie. cut) during the printing process.
  • The bleed line shows you the amount of extra image that the printer wants included. Printing is not a perfect process and pages will shift slightly during printing and trimming. Adding bleed insures that the image continues as you’d expect it to and there isn’t any white (from the paper that everything is printed on showing) if bleed wasn’t included.

Above is closer look at a basic page template that you’ll find used for quite a few comics. I’ve highlighted the live area (orange circle), the trim/crop line (green circle) and the bleed line (purple circle).

Provide files at the right resolution. If you’re not sure, ask ahead of time. If you’re asked to provide things at 600 DPI (Dots Per Inch), then that’s what you should provide. Honestly, most printers are going to print at 300 DPI max unless they’re going to be doing some kind of speciality printing which will be rare because this costs more (and you’ll probably be told this ahead of time). But the industry standard is to provide comic pages that are 600 DPI and I suspect this has to do with future uses of the art (11×17 artwork at 600 DPI is essentially 22×34 artwork at 300 DPI. So you’re art can easily scale to something like a full size poster or full page ad).

Work in the right colour space. I work in RGB for everything because the colour is better and I have more options for effects and things like that. At the same time, before I send absolutely everything to print, I convert the files to CMYK and make sure the colour looks right. The other thing to point out is that the monkey on the other end who is assembling the book (me in this case!) has no idea what you intend for your files to look like and they’re assuming that whatever you send is 100% correct. To depend on them (or the printer) to correct the colour in your files is a recipe for bad results.

Print your stuff out and see what it looks like. For the most part, the final print job will be a higher quality than whatever you can run at home or at your local Kinkos. That being said, print off your pages and make sure they look good. My theory is that if they look good on a lower quality printer, they’re bound to look good on a higher quality printer.

Don’t forget to add bleed. Just like the specs above, it’s best to confirm how much bleed you’re required to have on your page(s) and to make that you include this. A good rule of thumb is to add some extra bleed in just in case.

Send as clean a file as you can. Here’s the thing that you might not be told, working professional artists will do pretty much whatever it takes to get the artwork to look exactly like they want it to look like once it’s scanned into the computer. If that means drawing things separately, drawing overtop of things, working half traditionally and half digitally, or whatever, that’s what they’ll do. At the end of the day, all you want is a comic page that “looks like you want it to.” How you get there is up to you. But you need to send a cleaned up file to print so make sure to take out any unnecessary bits that are on your art.

Save your file correctly. When you send a file to print, you should be sending a flattened piece of art. Flattening your file down will make sure that nothing shifts or gets deleted that you need included. In most cases a flattened TIFF will work best. To save this out properly from Photoshop, go to FILE > SAVE AS which will open a dialogue box. From here, name your file (see below), select where you want to save it, and select TIFF from the dropdown at the bottom of the dialogue box. Press SAVE. This will open a new window with options for saving your TIFF. Select LZW (to save a compressed TIFF which I’d suggest), Interleaved (which should be the default), IBM PC if you’re a PC or Macintosh if you’re on a Mac and I usually go with ZIP since it saves smaller files. Hit OK and it will save.

File naming. This should be obvious, but name your file what it is. My suggestion is to follow the simple guide of Project (or Client) > What the thing is > Page number > Date (I’d always suggest the date because edits can and do happen and it’s much easier to sort by date). So for an anthology like UNLAWFUL GOOD this would end up looking like:


Why is naming your files correctly so important? Again, whomever is assembling your book will probably have other comics that they’re assembling (or in the case of an anthology, other stories in the book), so naming your files right will help make sure that your work doesn’t get lost.

And with that, you should be sending the best file possible to print!

About jason

Illustrator and graphic designer. When not working full time as a Senior Graphic Designer, I am usually working on the graphic novel On the Verge: the Arrow of Time. Artist on Andrew Jackson in Space and The Sisters.

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