Lost in Preflight?

FontsA document on a computer is the ultimate existential anomaly. It doesn’t really exist except for charged electrons on your monitor screen and a billion ones and zeros on the track of your hard disk.

So how does a computer file become everything from a letter to your Auntie Flo to a six storey advertising billboard? The digitised information has to be sent to an output device — be it your modem, your colour deskjet or a commercial four colour press.

When you type a letter and print it (send it through a RIP), information has to be sent to your printer — maybe a font (which is probably preinstalled in your printer’s memory anyway), a logo or the shot of the kids washing the dog from the digital camera.

Now image you’re sending the newspaper ad, set of product sheets or 120-page magazine you’ve just finished to a RIP or collecting it for your pre-press bureau. There’s probably a lot more images (with a lot more information to know about them, like line screen values) and dozens of different fonts and colours.

If you’ve made a mistake like forgetting to convert a PMS colour to four colour process or replacing a low-res positional with its press resolution counterpart, the office laser proofs still might not look so bad.

But give it to your bureau or printer like that and the problems you overlooked can become time consuming and very expensive — not even because it might get printed wrong (which it might), but because you’ll have to spend time correcting files and resupplying them.

Exercising Orwellian control over a job while you’re putting it together might make some difference, but you’re only human. A much better idea is to invest time (and money) in a good preflighting/flightchecking system.

Scan it and See

Preflighting is the process of checking your files to make sure they’re all right to go to output, be it film, direct to plate, large format proof, or even your deskjet.

Preflighting technology is as simple as selecting your file and clicking a button, and if you’ve ever checked and collected a large job manually, you’ll know how satisfying one click can be.

The technology works by ‘scanning’ a file. In basic terms, it can read any document that contains ’embedded’ elements in the file. Page layout files are the best example, since they’ll contain any number of fonts, colours, page setup specifications and images. Markzware’s popular Flightcheck checks Quark Xpress and Pagemaker documents as well as PDF and Postscript files and many illustration formats like Illustrator, Photoshop and Freehand.

It’s All in your Head

The secret is in the document’s header. Every computer file contains information about itself. In the case of a typical page layout document, the header will include the size it’s supposed to be, the fonts that need to be active to display or output it, and the file paths to each graphic on its pages. The same information is used when you send your document to print at the office — the imaging file trawls your system to ‘grab’ each of the elements it needs to create the printer image.

When it’s read the first document, preflighting software will then follow the file paths specified for each imported element and read their headers as well. An image file header, for example, contains information like the format and resolution.

Decent preflighting software will present you with a report on every aspect of your job (from fonts to image formats to document setup) from where you can make any corrections like activating fonts or resaving images correctly.

You usually rescan the file after you’ve made the necessary corrections and when there’s a clean bill of health, another handy aspect of preflighting software is job collection. At another single click you can usually end up with a folder containing your file, all associated fonts and images, a report and even a file containing the preflight parameters if your service bureau needs them — often stuffed or zipped and ready to burn or upload.

Who’s on First?

Just as in many other areas, Quark appears to have rested on their laurels while controlling over 90% of the professional page layout market. There’s still no in-built preflighting in Quark Xpress 5, and the Collect for Output option only puts together a report and your images but ignores fonts.

For a long time, a few stock standard Xtensions like Magpie Hunt & Gather were widespread, but many publishers, designers and bureaus swear by Markzware’s Flightcheck, if for no other reason than because the groovy signature flying eagle tells you what the application is doing.

Extensis have always been at the coalface of professional preflighting with Preflight Pro and Collect Pro, and more recently offered a unique service with Preflight Online. As the name suggests, it lets you check your files via the web, and it’s about to be taken to the next level with PrintReady.

Announced in late September, PrintReady (which is replacing Preflight Pro) will bring total control to every preflight user. A UNIX based server application holds all the subscription and preflighting parameters or an organisation while an individual user preflights, collects, compresses and sends the job via ftp to the print supplier or bureau, all from within their web browser. It also looks for new problems Preflight Pro didn’t.

But the relatively new kid on the page layout block — Adobe — is giving application-based preflighting a run for its money. Once again making Quark look a little over the hill, InDesign’s packaging feature preflights and collects the file for output quickly and easily.

Do it Now

If you don’t have even a basic preflighting utility, don’t wait too long — when you’re still up at two in the morning searching for redcmyklogosmall.jpg, you’ll wish you’d been prepared.

Quark Xpress

Modulo Systems
$3315 (upgrade $1595)

Adobe InDesign

$1649 ($625 upgrade)


$499 (Flightcheck Collect — $199)

Preflight Pro

$750 ($235 upgrade)

Collect Pro

$280 ($140 upgrade)


$865 or $320 upgrade from Preflight pro
$4,675 (Service provider edition — includes 12,000 file inspections per year)*
$23,365 (Enterprise edition — includes 30,000 file inspections per year)*

* Both the Service provider and Enterprise editions are intended for bureaus & printers to offer a complete preflighting service to their customers without the need for configuring or installing special software.