IDROP / 9 Steps to Better Press Outcomes


Ok! Just so we're clear. I am not a designer, and I 'm not here to judge.

Fact is, I have only one part to play…production. What I care about, and passionately so--is that whatever comes out of your collective, creative braincan somehow be printed on some kind of device, and in some kind of print process other than the printer in your office.

I affectionately call this IDROP or “Is Design Reproducible on Press?”

I have been a graphic arts professional for 20 something years. and what has always appealed to me is the relationship between artist and printer. Between film and plate, ink and paper and the collaboration it takes to make something.

Although this is mostly an unseen process now, this quiet collaborative effort still takes place and is still an integral part of the design continuum. A throwback to be sure, to a time when craft and art was inextricably linked.

I’ve been a pressman, a printmaker, a colorist, a separator and much in between far too long to expect a smooth linear transition from computer to product. I have spent way too much time huffing fumes in pressrooms, and in the eerie red and amber gloom of darkrooms and finally, in front of glowing computers to have any brain cells left.

However, the few things I can say with real authority are that package design is temporal, what is beautiful and relevant today is dated tomorrow. Tastes change, culture shifts. We are a throw away society. Not everyone is a visionary, and most package designs are not slated to be included in Museum retrospectives.

When clients wonder if something can be printed I don't pull punches. The laws of physics can be unkind. It would be a mistake to think I want to bind your hands or suppress your creative output with "best practices" but––and this is a big but––I believe folks need to have a little understanding of what “the box” is, before you can truly understand what it takes to push outside of it.

Sometimes even the most beautiful theories get slain by ugly facts.

Strong fundamentals are always a plus in any creative endeavor. Narrowing the interpretation gap between design and production can be as much or as little information as you want, but I'd like to offer up some simple lines of engagement that should help anyone on either side of the aisle.

The more you know, the more you know!

Modern printing house via

Print Process:

An understanding, no matter how rudimentary, of the different print processes available commercially is incredibly valuable. This could be as simple as knowing how many printing stations are available, even in a general way.

Every process has strengths and weaknesses, understanding how to use them optimally shouldn't limit your creativity.

For example, if your carton design has more than 10 colors, alarm bells should be going off in your head…

Depending on what kind of product you work on determines the print process, but common, global standards for press equipment is typically:  6 colors + varnish for cartons 9 colors + varnish flexible and label packaging. 

You can easily avoid cost overruns and color concessions if you arm yourself with this little bit of info up front. In return, your clients will realize and appreciate cost saving, and smoother, quicker transitions into production workflows. As an added bonus your work will actually look as you intended.

And…keep this in mind: White ink is not white paper!

As the opacity of ink—particularly white ink—increases, resolution will decrease. The amount of ink you need to deposit to have it appear opaque will force a loss of detail. Fine, wispy, opaque white vignettes are not going to happen.

Pre Press:

The backbone of any design slated for production is your mechanical, and often this is where it everything goes wrong.

The inkjet or laser printer in your office isn't always a good representation of the struggles to come in pre-press to make your design look the way you and your client envision.

To begin with, Pre-press is nearly the opposite of file creation for design. You build or construct a design. Separators in Pre-press departments deconstruct and reassemble the elements to get at the most vital information. 

Separators throw away unused layers, unused colors, and any artwork outside the print area. They flatten, outline, test dies, fill in blanks, connect dots, simplify, reinterpret, and rebuild anything they can when creating plates or film to avoid problems—to assure that nothing goes horribly wrong on press.

What follows is a basic list of things to consider on nearly every project.

Tom Tullio, who heads Inwork’s Pre-press department, has shared this information with many of our clients already. As they integrate these steps into their file-build protocol, slowly but surely—we have seen their work input/output improve.

These guidelines aren’t a cure-all for “hopeful” design choices, and some will not apply specifically to your work. However, considering them might help the initial intent of your hard work ring a bit truer in production—and will make you an even more awesome packaging designer.

Document setup and suggested procedures

1 – Document Raster Effects Settings

  • Color Model = CMYK
  • Must be at least 300 DPI
  • Use transparent background
  • Check “Preserve Spot Colors”
  • Note – changing these settings after effects have been applied may cause undesirable results, especially going up or down in resolution. Creating effects at 72 DPI will cause them to look rastered and coarse. Use these settings as document defaults.

2 – Document color mode should always be CMYK.

3 – iDROP – Is Design Reproducible on Press

  • Need approved dieline to build to.
  • Know what substrate the final artwork will be printed on.
  • On clear labels is the safety area a 2 mm clear zone (Racetrack).
  • Do not use more colors than print stations that are available. Take into consideration white plates that may be silkscreen and, or multiple hits of flexo and also account for inline varnish stations.
  • Keep in mind all silkscreen plates will need to be held back from the cut. This is preferred because the ink dulls the knife.
  • The silkscreen process cannot reproduce fine halftone dots. If a design has both line and tone of the same spot color it may have to be broken out as two printing plates, silkscreen for line and flexo for tone. Soft feathered edges or gradients that require silkscreen white backup will not look good for the same reason The white plate will have a hard edge.
  • Follow minimum type specs per final print process.

4 – Swatch Palette

  • Use appropriate spot color swatches from Pantone library when available.
  • Merge duplicates and use only one swatch per color separation.
  • Select all unused swatches and delete them.

CMYK printing concept via

5 – Separations Preview & Overprint Preview

  • Overprint Preview should always be checked on. This allows more accurate representation of spot colors and displays overprinting colors as they would appear in the production process. Transparency effects such as multiply and darken will display with out this on but the attribute of “overprint” will not display unless this is checked.
  • Separations Preview allows you to see individual color separations one at a time or in combination, again as they would appear in production. CMYK and all spot colors in the swatch palette will show up in this window.

6 – Creating effects

  • There is no longer a need to bring all effects into Photoshop as was required years ago. In the production environment, modern RIP software has the ability to process this artwork and faithfully reproduce the effects.
  • Use spot colors whenever possible if they are available in the job. If Preserve Spot Colors is set correctly in Raster Effects Settings as mentioned above, the effect will be processed correctly. If not checked the spot color effect will render as 4/c process in production.
  • Drop shadow effects will need to be adjusted after rotating the art to correct the X & Y coordinates. The offsets don’t change as the art is rotated.

7 – Layers

  • Dieline, callouts, text, art – graphics, varnish, emboss and placed images should all be placed on separate layers in order to navigate the file easily.

8 – Importing placed images

  • All layered Photoshop files should be linked and not embedded.•Avoid RGB images. Most often, color correction layers within an RGB file will not convert to CMYK properly to maintain the same appearance. The file will likely need to be flattened in order to maintain a close match to the RGB. This limits the editability of the separator in the production process
  • 300 DPI built at 100% output size is preferred.
  • Spot color monotone images would be best created as grayscale and colorized in Illustrator rather than created as 4/c process.

9 - Finishing up

  • Fonts- Before releasing artwork, copy all text layers and convert the text to outlines keeping the original layers as editable text. OR Another acceptable approach would be to save a copy of the file and convert all text to outlines in the copied document and name the file accordingly.
  • Remember to do a “Show All”. If any artwork was hidden during the design build it will show up now. Do with it as needed. If it remains hidden, it will show up somewhere down the line as Illustrator keeps it hidden even after saving and reopening the file.
  • Create a PDF for approval routing and to be sent along with the collected files that will be released.
  • This PDF should be viewed with Simulate Overprinting, Acrobat’s version of Overprint Preview.
  • Use a collect utility to gather all linked artwork and fonts (if they will be sent on with the job).

by Lonnie Brawer VP of Innovation at Inwork & Tom Tullio Director of Pre-Press at  Inwork