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When Bad Files Happen to Good People

Finding a common ground for files.

Big Picture

Consider this imaginary graphic-arts world: As the digital-print industry matured, the digital files to make it all happen gradually evolved to the point where they were error free. Every designer learned the ins and outs of color management, how to keep black type from printing in all four colors, and so on. Trapping had become automated and foolproof. Fonts simply worked across all platforms and all applications.

I probably don’t need to tell you that this has not happened. In the real world, you get bad files. And in all likelihood, these are not isolated incidents. Alas, standard operating procedure runs something like this: You get bad files, you fix them, you try not to let bad files ruin the final printed piece (but sometimes they will).

Fonts, color, and software

So why can’t we make good files in a fairly mature industry? Partly because even though the industry is mature, it still isn’t all that stable. Fonts and color management are both cases in point. We have evolved from PostScript (and various levels of PostScript), through TrueType, and on to OpenType. Many designers-and print providers-are using all three types of fonts on a regular basis. And even though I have been a strong advocate in this column for exclusively using OpenType fonts, I recognize that this will not happen for some time to come.

And color management? It’s still fairly new. Only a handful of print providers and even fewer designers and print buyers really understand how it all works. Plus, while some print providers prefer to receive files in CMYK, others prefer their files in RGB, further muddying the color challenge. What is the person creating the file to think when one print provider says use only PostScript fonts while another says TrueType is fine, but don’t use OpenType. Designers may think they are going crazy adapting to the changes in font preference and color-space requirements.

Another constant headache designers regularly have to deal with: software upgrades. Personally, I think InDesign CS3 and Quark 7 are significant improvements over their predecessors. Even if you agree with this, however, there is still a learning curve with every new release.

A designer posted the following on a recent forum: "Do you hate InDesign CS3 as much as I do? CS2 was so much better." I don’t concur with that sentiment, but then I’m in production, not design. CS2 was obviously working for her-which is why some designers swear they will never give up Quark 4 or Pagemaker. The fact that files generated from those applications create havoc in many workflows means little; they simply want to use the programs they have always used. Can you really blame them? Wouldn’t you prefer to be able to stick with the RIPs and output devices you already know? Even if you hate them, at least you know how to make them work.

Part teacher, part therapist

The thing to remember: Bad files happen to good people. I freely admit to calling some of my more troublesome clients by names I would not wish them to know about, but these are decent folks trying to do their job. They are not consciously intending to make our lives miserable, nor do they think the file they have prepared is wrong in any way. In fact, they typically believe that if they gave their files to a "knowledgeable" printer, they would have absolutely no problem with it. It’s not true, but it’s what they believe.

So when troubleshooting a problem, it’s important to realize that, in your customer’s eyes, you are typically to blame. You must explain the problem in a way that does not point fingers at them (or at yourself), but indicates that you are willing to work with them in solving the problem. This is where the customer-service representative earns his or her keep. They must be part teacher as well as part therapist. Offer advice, offer training, and maybe even offer to buy the customer a software upgrade (it could be far less costly for repeat offenders). You have to make it your customer’s own self interest that is at the heart of the matter, not yours. Make it easy for them to make the necessary changes and updates, or to use the correct file formats or color space. Show them how it can save them money, get them their proofs faster, and result in their jobs consistently being delivered on time.

Finally, keep in mind that most of the file errors we deal with every day are caused because the person preparing the art thought what they were doing was correct. It’s not simply that they made a mistake, but that they did not realize it was a mistake. And even when you point it out to them, it still may not be clear that it was a mistake. "It prints fine on my laser printer," is something I hear a lot, as is "I couldn’t get it to print either, but I figured you wouldn’t have a problem." We’re going to keep hearing such things for a long time. Put a smile on your face, tell your CSRs to keep everything positive, and keep the customer’s interest in mind.

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