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When Bad Files Happen to Good People

(September 2007) posted on Thu Sep 27, 2007

Finding a common ground for files.

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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.