Tips for Large Format Design

Over the years, some of the same questions reappear as designers new to the large- and grand-format industry transition from designing small printed pieces to very large advertising artwork. 

By Jeff Burton, Digital Printing Analyst, SGIA

Some of the problems are not new, but the solutions have been upgraded slightly, much like the applications. Let us first talk about the Photoshop, because so much original creation of large format artwork starts here, or in Illustrator.

If you want to use Photoshop, and create an image that contains library spot colors (Pantones, etc.), then you need to follow these basic steps. Pantones converted to CMYK in your program will print differently than the same Pantone color printed from a RIP’s spot color library. Using the RIP spot color library will provide color consistency across applications.

The area you wish to have a library spot color needs to be defined as a selection first. Next, go to your Channels tab and, from the pull-down, choose “New Spot Channel.” Click on the Color Square to bring up the Color Picker, and then choose your new spot color. Make sure your solidity is set to 100 percent for the channel options. Your new spot channel should now reflect the area and color defined by the color. To change the color, double click on the spot channel thumbnail.

Saving a Photoshop document with a spot color channel requires that you save it in PDF, TIFF or DCS formats. Opening the file in Illustrator, and looking for the spot color in the print output dialog box is a good way to double-check your work.

Getting smooth gradients is another huge area where success has more to do with how your output device, RIP and applications handle the file in question. But there are ways to minimize and mitigate banding defects. Photoshop blends or gradients should be created at 150 ppi or greater at actual printed size. Do not forget to check the box to turn dither on. You can also try adding noise to the gradient layer. I am suggesting that you first go to Filter->Convert to Smart Filter. This allows you to make continual changes to a layer non-destructively. Noise is my first option depending on the banding defect. Under the Filter menu, navigate to Noise, and choose Add Noise. In the Add Noise dialog Amount, enter 2-3 for starters; for Distribution, choose Gaussian, and turn on the Monochromatic checkbox, or else your noise will be RGB speckles, then click OK. Run a test print at actual size.

You can also try to blur your gradient, which will sometimes work, but there are no promises. The same workflow will be used using the smart filter conversion. This time use the Filter->Blur->Gaussian Blur command. You will have to do some test prints at actual size to see what is happening, as your monitor will not show gradients accurately. This is due to the fact that most monitors are “8-bit,” having 256 steps of gray available, while Postscript Level 3 has 4096 shades of grey. How your RIP and output devices deal with the 4096 shades in Postscript is unique to your workflow and equipment. I have a few tips for Illustrator users as well.

Illustrator tips abound, but again, gradients are an issue. For better gradients in this program, you have to dig into it a little bit. On the main menu, choose Object->Blend->Blend Options. Under spacing, choose “Specified Steps,” and max out the number at 1000. While this, again, will help in some circumstances, it is not a cure all.

What application is better for design: Illustrator, InDesign or Photoshop? In theory, the gradients output with smooth shading in InDesign and Illustrator should print better, and are more flexible in terms of design and workflow for artwork. But the reality (the print) depends on the RIP execution, the printing equipment and even the design of the gradient itself. If this were so easy, there would not be thousands of posts on the Web. Feel free to send me your tips on large format design.

This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, May / June 2013 Issue

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