Printing Large Format? Read This First.

By LaurenMarie

The first time you design a billboard or a large banner for a tradeshow is an intimidating experience. I had so many questions the first time!

Many of you might be wondering where I have been for the past few weeks. At the beginning of March, I took a cruise in the western Caribbean. It was wonderful! I’ll share some pictures from that with you soon. Then this past week I’ve been in New Orleans, LA at my company’s annual sales convention. I had the wonderful Vivien from Inspiration Bit keeping an eye on things here while I was gone, too. Many thanks, Vivien!

Because of the sales convention, I had ample opportunities to practice creating large format banners. Each time I produced a new banner, I learned a little more and I’d like to share that with you, along with a few photos of my work. It was so exciting to finally see all these designs printed in all their gigantic glory!

What is the First Step when I get a Job Designing Large Format Banners?

Check with the sign company for specs like preferred dpi, due dates, material restrictions and file type.

Convention Exhibit Entrance Banner

The final size of this banner is 52’ x 9’. Yes, that’s 52 FEET by 9 FEET–15.8 meters by 2.7 meters for my metric friends. This was the largest sign I worked on and I use a quarter scale (quadruple resolution).

What is the Ideal Resolution?

The printer will probably tell you to make your image resolutions between 72 and 150 dpi. Remember that large format prints are meant to be viewed from a distance, so don’t worry about this low resolution.

What is the Best File Format?

Vectors produced in Illustrator ( EPS or AI files) or InDesign are your best bet for small, easy to transfer files and sharp final products because they scale seamlessly. When you are working with large dimensions, bitmapped images are going to be enormous (we’re talking 300+ MB) and very difficult for your computer to handle; saves will take several minutes and don’t even think about closing it until you’re done—opening files this large might crash your computer. You can definitely use photos, you just need to know how (see below).

This is still print, so although you’re preparing files at a lower resolution than you are used to, you still need to make sure all your images are CMYK.

Convention Registration Booth

It was a little difficult to work on this registration booth because of the seams. I had to carefully plan my text and I used the CAD drawings from the tradeshow company to do so. When creating the InDesign files, I made the panel with the longest text first so that I could be sure it would fit with the font size I chose. For consistency, I made color swatches and a gradient swatch and then did a Save As to create a new file, so I knew the colors were identical and fonts were the same size and on the same baseline from file to file (panel to panel).

Can I Scale My Files Up to the Right Size in InDesign?

Yes and no. It depends on what kind of file it is.

I had questions about scaling EPS files (like logos) in InDesign because I know you can’t scale photos—it will reduce the resolution. I asked my friend and fellow design blogger, Tara, if it was ok to scale EPS files or if I needed to make them the right dimension in Illustrator first. She said it was ok to scale them larger in InDesign and she was absolutely right! Don’t worry about scaling vectors (EPS or AI files) larger in InDesign; they will print perfectly fine.

Tara did mention to me, though, that, at least in Quark, there is a maximum file output increase of 400%, meaning you can’t scale anything down smaller than 25% of the final size. I didn’t encounter any problems like this in InDesign (at least none that the printer notified me about and the final products turned out great!), but the smallest I scaled my files down to was 25% of final size. If you know of a restriction like this in InDesign, please leave a comment and let us know!

How Should I Handle Photographs?

Be sure to keep the final size of the banner in mind when sourcing images, especially if you will need to crop the photos. If your stock photo site offers “Supersize” images (like Shutterstock), don’t just look at the dimensions, note the file size, too. If it is a 20” x 13” photo, it should have a file size of at least 15 MB. If it’s less, you’ll know the file is being greatly upsampled, which is quite undesirable and will result in blurry, fuzzy or grainy images.

What Do They Mean “Work at a Scaled Percentage”?

The printer may tell you to work on your files at half the dimensions with double the final resolution (or equivalent proportions: 25% at 4x, 12.5% at 8x, etc) so that your computer can handle it. If you’re working in Photoshop, this makes absolutely no sense; a 10×10 image at 300 dpi is the same file size with the same image information as a 5×5 image at 600 dpi!

The way this makes sense is by using Illustrator or InDesign.

The maximum dimension in InDesign is 216 inches in either direction. For those working with the metric system, that’s approximately 550 cm, but you may want to test the maximum dimensions yourself. Enter an outrageous number and InDesign will give you an error message telling you the number has to be between 1 and xxx. Leave a comment below and tell us your findings!

For Illustrator, maximum dimensions are a little larger, 227.5 inches in either width or height. Again, for the metric users out there, that’s about 577 cm, but please test it and leave a comment below!

Convention Entrance Unit

Working on this entrance unit presented similar difficulties as the registration booth. See above caption for details.

If your banner will be larger than the maximum allowed dimensions, you must work on a scaled down file. Now the double or quadruple resolution makes sense, considering you are (or should be) working in InDesign or Illustrator where you should be linking–not embedding–your images.

While working on your images in Photoshop, make them half the scale and double the resolution, so a 120 x 80 inch photo at 100 ppi becomes a 60 x 40 inch photo at 200 ppi. When you link the images into your banner in InDesign or Illustrator, you will need this half-size image because your document is half the final size. The prepress operator will take care of making the final file the correct size.

It would be wise to note this scale in the file name–pretty-banner-quarter-scale.indd, for example. Also include an instructions.txt file and make a note to the printer which files on the CD or in the .zip file are scaled down and what the proportion is–be careful about zipping up TIFFs though, I’ve had “decompression” issues with them before.

Have you had any experience with large format printing? Any good advice you can share with us?