How to Prepare a Business Card for Print in Illustrator

Believe it or not, print isn’t dead! Although much of today’s advertising is going to more electronic means, there are still a vast amount of printing being done every single day. Many freelance graphic designers are still working on print projects for clients, communicating with printers, and sending their designs to print.

It is often much easier to publish something electronically than for print. With sending something to print, you have many things you must do in order to prepare your file for printing, depending on the printer you are working with.

In this article, I am going to walk you through the several steps you can do to prepare a business card for print. Although I focus on a business card here, these same tips can be applied to other printed pieces as well, such as post cards, letterhead, invitations, and the like.

First, make a copy of the document

First and foremost, after your document is finalized and before you start prepping it for print, it is vital that you save a copy of the document and work on the copy. I recommend labeling the document with “print ready” or “for print” in the title, so that you know that the print ready file is not the original, editable file.

Some of the things I discuss below are irreversible (without a ton of work) once you do them, which is why it is best to keep the original file so that in the future if you need to make changes, it is easy to do so.

Get printing specs from printer (if possible)

Since every printer is going to want files differently, it is important to contact the printer you plan to send your file(s) to and ask them if they have any specific requirements. They may often tell you that they need the font files or outline the text, account for a specific amount of bleed, save in a certain format, etc. Make note of these requirements and adjust the below mentioned steps as needed. If you don’t know who the printer is going to be, then the steps below should get your file(s) closer to print ready with only minimal changes required once a printer has been selected.

Outline Fonts

The very first thing I do is outline the type in my document. I do this for a couple of reasons: I don’t want to spend time finding the font file and sending with my document and most font licenses don’t allow you to give the files to other people. Some printers I have worked with try to get the font, but I simply just outline the text and explain that the fonts have been outlined.

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In Illustrator, this is done by selecting all of the text (that is editable), then go to Type > Create Outlines (Shift-Command-O on Mac or Shift-Ctrl-O on Windows). The type now becomes vector shapes. Once you do this and exit out of the document, you can no longer edit the text unless you simply redo it.

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Check and adjust your bleeds

A bleed (in graphic design and printing) is any area on a printed document where the ink must run off the edge of the paper. Thus, in your document, you should actually run any colors off of the edge and then some to accomodate for the printer cutting your piece to the appropriate size. As you can see in my business card above, I indeed have a bleed on all four sides of my business card (please note that my business card size above is 3.5 inches by 1.5 inches).

Sending my card to print right now, with the bleed only going to the edge of the 3.5 by 1.5 size, I could get my cards back having some white borders on some of the edges of the card. Why? Because it actually is not a true bleed. Printers reserve a fraction of an itch of wiggle room for their cutting machines. In essence, you need to prep your file to cover their non-exact cutting. You will need to push your bleed further than the actual size of your document.

If your document has a bleed, there are a couple of ways to indicate this in your file and accomodate it, and the way printers want you to do it often varies from printer to printer. Since mostly every printer is different, and every program they use is equally different, below is the way to prep your business card for any program and for most printers.

In Illustrator, draw a rectangle around your business card to the exact size and in the exact place you want the printer to cut your card (in the image below the rectangle has a red stroke so that you can see the shape I drew–you should make yours have no fill and no stroke color).

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Next, while the shape is still selected, go to Effect > Crop Marks. You should now have printer marks around your business card that indicate exactly where you want the printer to cut your cards. Your business card with the crop marks should look similar to mine below.

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With crop marks in place, we still need to make our document program-independent, meaning if our file is opened in a program other than Illustrator, or in an older version of Illustrator, the printer should still see your file. Since older versions of Illustrator and other vector-based programs do not render art boards properly, it can cause your artwork to potentially be cut off or not seen by the printer, so we need to change the size of our art board if we have it set to be the size of our business card.

Select the Artboard tool from the tool panel (one of the last four in the tools panel). Illustrator will then show you your art boards by graying everything out around the art boards. Now grab the art board and push the edges so that they are past your crop marks (see before and after shots below).

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We aren’t done yet! We still need to set the bleeds. Since I am a very visual person, I like to see where my safe zone, cut area, and bleed areas are. For the sake of this tutorial, let’s say the safe area is 1/8th inch from the cut area (that means all important things that should not be cut off should be 1/8th inch from the edge) and the bleed is 1/8th inch on the outside of the cut area.

To mark off these areas, I like to use guides. I went ahead and set the safe area, cut area, and bleed area in my business card using guides, which you can see below.

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Finally, we push all of our bleeds out to our bleed guide we created, as seen below.

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Check for colors

The business card example I have been using above uses one color: blue. But what if you have several colors in your business card? If you have multiple colors in your business card, then you have two options for printing: digital printing or offset printing.

Digital Printing

Prepping your files for digital printing when it comes to your colors is easier than for offset printing. A word of caution however, just because it is easier to prep doesn’t mean that you are free from color shifts or undesirable colors. While the different types of settings on your program, what the printer requires, and how sensitive you are to accurate colors for a digital print could be an article in and of itself, keep in mind that you could have some color shifts and taking extra care in making sure the colors are what you want is important at this step.

With that caution behind us, for digital printing processes, your printer will either want the document and colors to be CMYK or RGB. For this tutorial let’s say the printer wants your document and colors to be in CMYK. First place to check this out is the document itself. Go to File > Document Color Mode. Make sure CMYK is selected if it is not already.

Next, select everything in your document and go to Edit > Edit Colors > Convert to CMYK. Now all of your objects should be using CMYK colors. You can check this by selecting anything in your document and going to the colors panel. If the color is made up of CMYK, then it is correct, however if the color is made up of RBG, then you need to repeat the steps above. Just remember this could cause color shifts (not always evident on screen).

Offset Printing

If your business card is being printed using offset printing, you can check to make sure everything is properly indicated for the right color. For simplicity, I am going to use the back of my business card above and use PMS (Pantone Matching System) colors. In my card below I have three PMS colors: PMS Black at 90% (Gray), PMS 298 (Blue), and PMS 381 (Green).

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To check to see if your objects are in PMS colors, click each one and look in the color panel. If it gives the correct name of the PMS color there, then you have designated that object as a PMS color. If you see numbers for either CMYK or RBG colors, then you must designate that object as a PMS color.

To pick a PMS color, go to Window > Swatch Libraries > Color Books > Pantone Solid Uncoated (or the option of your choice). A new window will appear with all of the PMS swatches. Select the object then select the appropriate swatch.

Now in the color panel you should see the name of the PMS color you selected. Repeat for all the other objects in your document. I went through and did all of the objects in the appropriate PMS color for my business card seen below (note color shifts from the one above – read my note above about color shifts).

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The best way to check now to make sure the printer will see the right colors is to print color separations digitally. You can do this on your computer and it requires no actual physical printing. Unfortunately, Illustrator doesn’t make this process easy so please bare with me.

Go to File > Print. In the print dialogue box, select “Adobe PostScript” in the printer drop down and select your local desktop printer in the PPD drop down. Next, select “Output” in the option box on the left hand side. Your print dialogue box should look like this one.

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Next, select “Separations (Host-Based)” where it says “Composite.” Click the printer icons to the left of every color that is not one of the PMS colors you want to print (so that the printer icon is no longer in that box). Finally, click “Save” at the bottom and in the dialogue box save it to your desktop for now.

Find the file on your desktop and open it in Adobe Acrobat. This will convert the .PS file into a .PDF file so you can view it. Each page of the resulting PDF will show in black what each color will print. You can see where the page count is in Adobe Acrobat the name of the PMS color for that page. Flip through and make sure everything appears right. If something is wrong, you can go back and check to make sure every object is designated the correct PMS color. Below is a screenshot of the PMS Black at 90% separation for the back of my business card.

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Die-cuts, Foils and Spot UV

If you have special effects going on with your business card, they require attention as well. Three common effects used in printing today include die-cuts, foils, and spot UV (or spot gloss). Foils and spot UV can be prepped the same way for printing, however die-cuts are prepped for differently. Depending on your printer’s requirements, they may either want these special effects in a different document or in a different layer in Illustrator. We are going to do them in a different layer.

Die-cuts

In short, die-cuts are special made dies (or cutters) that are designed to create a special shape (think cookie cutters). They are often used to cut circle business cards, business cards with rounded corners, or a custom shape. I am going to show you how to prep a card for rounded corners die-cutting, but the same applies to any shape.

Taking the back of my business card above, I would like to add rounded corners to it. The best way to do this is to do it on a separate layer. Create a new layer and name it “Die-Cut.” Next, using the Rounded Rectangle tool, I create the shape that I want my final business card to be. You can see the shape (with no fill or stroke color) in the image below (I have some bleed on my card that is why the shape is not all the way out to the edge of the gray). Finally, all you have to do is inform your printer the name of the die-cut layer!

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Foils and Spot UV

These can be done in a similar fashion as die-cuts, only making the shape a solid black color. Let’s walk through the process together for the spot UV on my business cards (keep in mind it is exactly the same as foil too). As you can see below, I want part of my logo in spot UV over the front of my business card, show in black below. All I have to do is make sure it is where I want it to be, then move it to a new layer (create a new layer, name new layer “spot UV,” select new layer, right-click object then select Arrange > Send to Current Layer).

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A little messy looking, I know, but this along with telling the printer you want spot UV (or foil) should be all the indication they need to properly print your cards.

File Delivery

Again, every printer is different, however once you do all the prep work above, the only file you should have to send to the printer is a PDF file of each side of your document (or however they want you to send it to them). If your printer can take .EPS or .AI files, then you can send them your print-ready files in that format as well, but also send them a PDF so that they can work from either type and see how you want your final product to be.

I always like to be on the super safe and clear side, so I often send along a JPG or PNG version of the card as well, one for each side and one for the color part and one for any special effects, just so it is crystal clear to the printer. Doing a little bit of leg work on your end can help get your card printed faster and accurate. It also never hurts to ask for a proof as well, and approve the proof, so that if something does come back incorrect, the printer will be responsible for it if you approved the proof.

A note about detailed business card designs

The one I used in this tutorial was a simple design with only a few colors, however if you have an extremely detailed business card, you may run into situations that require more prepress work, such as intricate lines with strokes, overlapping objects, trapping and knockouts, photographs, several special effects, etc. It is almost impossible to cover each one in this article but a quick Google search and/or a chat with your printer should help you in your prepress work.

Conclusion

Taking the extra steps to ensure your business card (or any printed document) is prepped for the printer will not only save you some headache with your printer, but also save you money, as some printers charge you prepress fees for this type of work. Why get charged a fee when it is easy to prep your own document? Just keep in mind that a lot of headache can be saved by talking to your printer to find out their requirements first.

 

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