Weighing in on popular debates: PDF versus native files

The project has all its approvals and is ready for the printer. Now what?

It’s a growing debate in the design community whether or not to submit to a third-party printer press-ready PDF files or native files. There are pros and cons to either practice. Pros for submitting PDFs include the tamper-proof finality of the file, the compactness, and the freedom to exclude fonts and images (the inclusion of which technically breaks most font and image licenses). On the con side is the inability of the printer’s prepress people to adjust the file if needed, the reliance on the designer’s ability to make the right kind of PDF for the correct prepress and press method, and the lack of font and image support should there be problems on output.

I’ve been working with printers on large and small, full-color and one-color jobs for years now, and the best conclusion I can come up with is that there needs to be good communication between the designer and the third-party printer. For many years, I sent both PDF and native files. I did this because the printer often wanted a PDF when it came to InDesign book files and it just became a habit. But I understood their needs and I understood how PDF worked enough that I was able to provide them with very reliable PDFs. In the end, I was told by the printer’s prepress manager that I could send them just the PDF files because they never had a problem with them. There’s the trust that a long term relationship with a printer can build. They knew that if I was sending them a PDF, they could use it, and it cut down on a ton of work on their end.

But should you send PDF files by default? Probably not. I know there are a lot of designers who would disagree with me, but I also know there would be a lot of printers who would agree. It basically boils down to whatever makes the printer happy. If they have to fix a bad PDF because it was made incorrectly, then they lose time on a job. If you’re a professional, you provide whatever the printer wants and you don’t quibble with them. If you’re really wanting to send them PDF, then send them both. If they can’t use the PDF, they will have the native files without having to request them. It will save them time.

In our electronic world, it’s much easier to submit PDFs electronically. This means that the turn around on a job can be much quicker if the printer does not require a disk and a hardcopy. So if a project is on a rushed deadline, then submitting PDFs is definitely a viable option–if the printer is willing to accept the project that way. Some designers suggest that that you fire a printer if they request native files. I do not agree with this at all. Go ahead and build the trust with them over time and maybe you can ease them into a PDF workflow by building that long-term relationship.

Of course, if you’re going to be submitting PDFs, make sure you know how to submit them correctly. Do your homework on what kind of color support your files might need, how much bleed and crop space the printer wants, and whether or not their equipment can support layered files, and build your PDFs according to those specs. The trust won’t be long in coming if you give them what they want consistently.

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