What is a print-ready PDF?

Graphic representing PDF artwork showing printer's marks outside the page area

A print-ready PDF is a file created by a graphic designer or finished artist that contains digital artwork needed for the print process. Whereas a web-ready PDF is optimised for screens and for fast delivery, a print-ready PDF file is optimised for the print environment so is much higher quality and is, as a result, normally a much larger file.

As well as the larger file size, there’s normally another telltale sign that a PDF is print-ready artwork: marks outside the page area. Perhaps you’ve come across them on a PDF that was uploaded to a website either in error or where a web-ready version wasn’t available. These are printer’s marks which are used during the print process to line up different colours and to indicate where the printed material is to be folded and trimmed. As they’re outside the page area, they’re discarded when the printed piece is trimmed to size.

Back in the day (I’m showing my age here), print artwork was created by hand – often by a finished artist, a specialist in creating print artwork – using clear acetate sheets with typesetter’s galleys (strips of text stuck down with melted wax), Letraset (transfer sheets of rub-down characters, lines, ornaments, textures and tones), sticky gel sheets you could cut shapes out of and good old pen and ink. One acetate sheet was created for each colour of the print process: normally cyan, magenta, yellow and black (CMYK). The same printer’s marks – the most important of which back then were the registration marks (a circle and cross hairs) used to make sure the sheets were lined up correctly – were added using pen and ink or Letraset.

Adobe developed the Portable Document Format (PDF) file type in the 1990’s as a way of displaying document content in the same way no matter what hardware or operating system the reader was using. It wasn’t long before somebody somewhere realised that these characteristics made it perfectly suited for generating digital print artwork and the feature was soon added to Adobe’s own desktop publishing software, InDesign, and to QuarkXpress, the industry leader at the time. Working with the print industry, international standards for PDF artwork were established and these standards have been incorporated into all major software applications aimed at the graphic design and related industries. PDF/X-1a is one such standard widely used for print artwork. Generating PDF print-ready artwork can be as simple as selecting either that or another of the other industry-standard presets specified for that particular project by the printer and hitting ‘Save’.

Of course, it doesn’t end there. Whether you’re a designer, finished artist or client, before committing to print you need to check and check again. There’s nothing worse than admiring your work, taking in the wonderful smell of a freshly-printed report, then spotting a typo!

If you want to know about web-ready PDFs, take a look at the previous post: ‘What is a web-ready PDF?‘. There’s also a follow-on post which details the primary differences between the two: ‘Web- and print-ready PDFs compared’.