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Minimizing Annoying Font Problems During Print

posted by Matt Ward on Dec 13, 2010.

If you work in print—or even if you’re thinking about working in print—one thing that will always be an important consideration is fonts. Strange things can happen with text as it goes through the printing process. In this article, I would like to pull from my own experience to offer a few suggestion about how we can help minimize some of these issues.

We don’t talk all that much about print design here on the Echo Enduring Blog. I suppose that’s probably because about 75% of what I do is some kind of web work – whether its creating composite designs in Photoshop, slicing those designs into HTML and CSS, writing JavaScript and jQuery or coding up PHP on the back end. Because of all that, web design seems to get the bulk of the attention around here.

I don’t really see that changing too much, but every once in a while I like to bring you something a bit different and talk about things from that great and wonderful world of print. So, today, I would like to offer some simple hints for helping to minimize font issues when you are preparing artwork to send off to print.

The Font Problem

I understand the basics of printing. I know how cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks work together to create colour, and how additional colours can actually be added in to extend the colour spectrum. To some degree, I even have a rudimentary understanding of how certain types of presses work. The one thing I don’t get, however, is the process of ripping a digital artwork file and preparing it for the press (either offset or digital).

I’m sure at its core it’s really not all that complex of a process, but while I may not understand exactly how it works, one thing that I do know is that sometimes things can go terribly, terribly wrong. I’m not sure if it’s an operator, software or hardware problem, but there have been more than a few instances where I have sent a lovely, readable artwork file through to a printer, only to get back a proof that is filled (or even just speckled) with all kind of strange, typographical anomalies.

Let me tell you – that’s one sure way to send a designer’s day crashing into the dumps.

Anyhow, (far) more often than not, the cause of these stressful moments can usually be traced back to a font issue. Either the printer doesn’t have the font, its not compatible with their computers (legacy Windows/Mac issues still linger out there), or for whatever reason the font is just not working with the file ripping software. Whatever the issue, though, something needs to be done to fix the problem.

Generally speaking, I’ve found that there are three different ways that these kinds of issues can be solved.

1. Rip It Again

It may not sound like much of a solution, but sometimes this is the best place to start. I remember a project where the proof that came back to me was totally weird. I showed the issues to the representative that brought the proof to us and told them what needed to be changed.

Later, he showed up again and the new proof looked completely fine. I didn’t change anything on my end or send them new artwork, and when I asked how they fixed the problem, I was told that the operator just ripped the files again.

Now, I don’t know if there was some sort of strange hiccup in their software or machines, or if the operator just changed some settings that got things to solve the problem. All I know is that the second proof matched what I had designed and that, as long as the finished piece matched what I signed off on, all was good.

Somehow, just ripping the artwork files again solved the problem.

2. Send the Font

Sometimes an issue can simply arise when a printer doesn’t have the required font, especially if it’s the sort that cannot actually be embedded in a PDF. The obvious solution to this problem is to just send the printer the font files.

This can be done in a number of ways. You can just hunt down the actual files themselves, copy them out and email them to the printer, but depending on your operating system and where you fonts are located, this can be really simple or a total pain in the posterior.

If you are using a page layout application such as InDesign, another option would always be to use the package or preflight functionality. In InDesign (I’m not sure about Quark), this will create a new folder with all the necessary resources that are used by your artwork file, including original images and font files. You can then send of the entire package to your printer.

InDesign allows you to package all the resource files together, including image files and fonts

InDesign allows you to package all the resource files together, including image files and fonts

Of course, you will still need to be aware of font licensing. In many cases you probably don’t have the right to redistribute font files, so if you are sending these through to a printer, you might want to get some sort of written agreement that they will use the files only for printing, and delete them once the job is finished.

3. Convert to Outlines

The third (and probably most effective) solution to this problem, and a great way of preventing it, is to take advantage of the natural properties of today’s digital fonts. Basically, a modern font is simply a collection of various vector-based glyphs, each representing a specific textual character (letters, numbers, punctuation etc). This vector is what allows letters to be scaled up and down so easily.

Both InDesign and Illustrator allow you to make use of this simple truth, through the Create Outlines functionality. In a nutshell, this does exactly what it sounds like. It looks at the text, interprets the shapes of all the letters and converts them from editable text into vector shapes.

It should be noted, however, that when you do this the “text” is no longer text at all, but just a series of shapes, and as such it can no longer actually be edited with the regular text tool in either program. Interestingly, this is both the major benefit and the major drawback of this particular technique.

The ampersand on the left is actual text, while the ampersand on the right has been converted to outlines.

The ampersand on the left is actual text, while the ampersand on the right has been converted to outlines.

On the one hand, because the text is actually converted into vector shapes, it becomes entirely independent of any kind of font file. You can move the files from one computer to another and, as long as they both contain the software to properly render the vectors, you will see no difference in the artwork, even though the second machine may not have the original font installed.

The same is also true for your printer, which makes this one of my favourite techniques when running through the prepress stage (though I confess that I don’t always use it). By converting the text to outlines, I can be assured that there will be no font issues when the artwork is ripped by the printer, thus helping to eliminate the propensity of strange errors to creep up.

Of course, this also means I need to be very careful. After my text is converted, there is no way to convert it from shapes back to text if I need to make a last minute change. Once it has been vectorized, it stays vectorized.

As such, you always, always, always want to keep an active copy of your text so that you can return to it and make changes, if necessary. This could be a matter of making an extra layer for your text and just hiding it (my preferred method) or saving a backup of the file before making the conversion. Either method works, but the last thing you want to do is convert all your text to outlines, then be told that you need to make a change, only to find that you actually have no more editable text!

Variable Print

These days, it is becoming increasingly popular to embrace the benefits of digital presses in order to print variable information such as individual’s name right on the piece. When used correctly, it’s a particularly strong marketing technique, but unfortunately, it’s also something that can’t be done in conjunction with the create outlines technique.

This, of course, is because variable print needs to be able to change the contents of a text string with different values for each record on a data file. Since a converted text block is actually no longer text, the software that drives variable print is not going to be able to work with the converted shapes.

This certainly is not show stopper though, and should not prevent you from using variable techniques. It’s just something you need to be aware of.

Using Layers

One thing that may discourage some readers from using the create outlines technique is just the amount of time it can take. On a large project (such as a magazine), manually selecting every block of text and converting it to curves can be a long, tedious task. While there’s no way to change that completely, if you’re using In Design, here is a simple trick to help speed things up:

Group all your text on one layer.

Keeping all your text on a seperate layer will allow you to select it quickly and easily

Keeping all your text on a seperate layer will allow you to select it quickly and easily

Then, when you’re ready to do your conversion, lock every other layer and just select everything on the spread. You can either do this with a simple mouse drag of the select tool, or you can do it very quickly by pressing Command-A (PC: Ctrl-A). Then select Type » Create Outlines from the menu or use the Shift-Command-O (PC: Shift-Ctrl-O) shortcut to convert all your selected text to vector shapes.

Granted, if you have a document with dozens or hundreds of pages, this can still be a labour intensive process, but it will still be quicker and more efficient than selecting all your text manually.


Any way you slice it, those strange font problems that creep up from to time to time in print jobs are definitely frustrating. Of course, there’s no guarantee when it comes to print, so you’ll always want to be sure that you go over your proofs carefully to make sure that everything is fine. Still, anything we can do to minimize the chances of something going wrong, the more confident we can be in sending out our files.

What about you? What kind of techniques do you use to minimize font issues when preparing your artwork for print?

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Also from Echo Enduring Media:

An Unfolding Tale

About the Author

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. He is also the Creative Director for Highland Marketing, a creative direct marketing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow Matt on Twitter

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Dec 13, 2010

rafael armstrong says:

Nice post, Matt. As requested, here are my 2 cents on the subject.

1. Quark calls packaging a file “collecting for output”.

2. An easy way to outline items in ID is to just select all and then outline the type– InDesign will ignore the non-type elements (I tried it on an existing file, just to make sure).

Personally, most of the work I do is Illustrator-based, so outlining files prior to sending out is almost second-nature to me, but whenever I send print files out, I’ve found that printers lately prefer working in a PDF workflow, so a press-quality PDF is usually enough.

Dec 13, 2010

Dre Jones says:

I worked as a pre-press artwork for a couple of years and font problems were always a re-occurring nightmare. The myriad of font file types, operating systems and applications that artwork has to pass through before hitting the press means that unfortunately problems do sometimes occur. The most frequent snags tended to be caused by corrupt fonts, or fonts missing resource forks.
As tempting as it may be to just outline your text I would recommend that as a last resort only. 10,000 words of outlined text is a lot of paths to compute and I’ve seen RIPs brought to their knees but such attempts in the past. Most people would also be surprised at how much adjusting of supplied artwork takes place. It was very rare that I could just take a supplied file and pass it straight to the RIP. Having the font available just in case something needs adjusting is never a bad thing.
My recommended workflow would be to send a high res press ready PDF with fonts embedded. Also send your packaged artwork with links and fonts, along with a printed proof so the studio has something to check against. And remember; not all fonts are created equal – typefaces vary slightly from foundry to foundry, so if you’re using a particular cut of a typeface make sure you mention it!

Dec 13, 2010

Matt Ward says:

Nice point about the computing overhead of outlining 10,000 words. Hadn’t really thought of that in terms of the raw processing power that would be needed to do that. Thanks for the response. Good information.

Dec 14, 2010

Danny says:

Hey, although not strictly font related I´ve found you can eliminate 90% of potential print problems just by exporting as the pdf x1-a standard, this is available as a preset when exporting as pdf from InDesign, and I´m guessing the rest of creative suite as well. It takes care of alot of the stuff that your printer may not mention, but will throw up red flags during prepress, like hairline strokes, undersize fonts and whatnot.

Dec 15, 2010

ari says:

I agree 100% with Dre Jones. I used to work for a small digital print shop and another thing I found out is that outlined fonts sometimes print a bit thicker. It’s barely noticable, but my boss (and maybe some customers) could be anal about it.

Dec 15, 2010

Red says:

You can also convert text to outlines easier by doing an object find and selecting text frames, that way it doesn’t matter if you have a separate text layer and you won’t miss any that are hidden or off the page.

Dec 15, 2010

Ricky Synnot says:

Yeah – I agree its a tradeoff between having the files editable, by not converting all to outlines, and making sure it prints very, very well.

Danny – I do what you do but take it a step further:

I created a PDF flattener Preset which is basically a copy of the ‘High Quality” setting, but one select’s the option to convert all fonts to outlines.

Nb: you need to drop a small transparent (0.1%) placeholder box on any page you want to convert the text to (I include this box in the master pages).

When you convert the ID document to PDF x1-a and select your new ‘Flat Fonts’ transparenct setting – indesign converts all the fonts to outlines as per the PDF 1x-a guidelines, once, and then it’s ready to print. Hasn’t taken a noticably long time to do this on a 200pg document on my Macbook Pro 2ghz 4G ram.

Hope this helps guys – get in touch ricky /at/ itsricky.com and Id be happy to help :)

Dec 15, 2010

Jerry says:

I wouldn’t recommend outlining pages upon pages of text either, it’s always far simpler to package the file.

A useful tip in illustrator though, is going to Select->Object->Text Objects to select all the non-outlined text on your file. Works like a charm, just make sure no layers as locked.

Dec 16, 2010

james says:

While people seem keen on the packaging for print, I have had problems in the past with printers just not using the fonts provided. I know it takes a lot to process to outlines, but believe me its worth it. I remember the Quark days of exporting PDF and getting some real oddities from it, so since then I have moved to ID, converting outlines and just exporting a pdf from it. Quark used to stuff my profiles a lot too.

Dec 16, 2010

courtney says:

Always, always send fonts with a print document you’ve done in InDesign/Quark (and you really should be doing anything more than a page in a layout program anyway). It’s standard for all print work. If you make sure that you’re using high-quality, uncorrupted font files along with a skilled, reputable print vendor, 99.9% of the time you’re not going to run into issues.

Outlining is definitely a last resort, although it’s fine for one- or two-page pieces, such as posters and invites, in Illustrator. And a good printer will use the font files you give them, or they’ll tell you right away if they’re unusable.

Dec 16, 2010

afaolek says:

I guess it is a matter of personal choice. As for me, I choose whatever comes to my mind at the time, though I’ll say I have used the fonts 70% of the time I’ve been printing.

Dec 17, 2010

Jean Clink says:

I and several others have been wanting to do your tutorial, “Digging into Channels as an Extraction Tool – Part 2” but have not been able to download the photo. I was led to download elf software, which I did, but it did not help.
Perhaps that is the same problem others were having. I was so looking forward to doing the tutorial. Thanks – your directions look really good.

This is the only way I have found to be able to contact you.

Dec 19, 2010

Danny says:

Ricky – thanks for the tip, i’m not really a fan of outlining, but that’s a great tip for when I have to, cheers!

Jun 5, 2011

GekoPrint Digital Printing says:

I still get this problem. I work for a digital printing company and I still find my self outlining fonts

Jun 15, 2011

rocky point resorts says:

Thanks I am glad to catch idea from your article. This looks absolutely perfect. All these tinny details are made with lot of background knowledge.

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