When working in Illustrator, is it ever okay to send an unflattened file?

If a designer works exclusively with Illustrator, I have always told them: If you cannot flatten transparency and retain the look of the file, then we will not be able to produce the job without reworking the file. Is this an accurate statement?

D. R. (from a print supplier)

It's a pretty accurate statement, but it doesn't tell the whole story. The implication is that it is never OK to send out an unflattened file, and that's not necessarily true. A designer could come back with the line, "my other printer doesn't have a problem with my layered files". Level three RIPs and InDesign CS and Acrobat 7 can indeed take layered files and make them work. The argument against flattening the file is that once you have done so, you have lost a lot of editing controls.

But probably the vast majority of print workflows processing jobs today DO NOT PLAY NICE with layered files. You can get unexpected and very unwelcome results. In fact, we recently had a layered Acrobat 7 file InDesign CS2 using a level 3 RIP that produced unacceptable results. So even in a workflow that should have been capable of handling the layered file produced mixed results. No one likes mixed results.

My recommendation for now would be to go ahead and save the layered file, but create a flattened file for export and actual print production. The fact is, the file has to be flattened sometime, and if you leave that process up to the RIP, you may not get the results you expect. The designer might as well take the responsibility since they know what they want the final file to look like. (And who pays when the file comes out wrong?) I would even go so far as to suggest exporting the flattened file in one of the safer eps formats like Illustrator 8 format. Safety in output is a good thing.

Keep the layered file for last minute edits or changes you might want to make in the future, but send the flattened file for print output. And a word of caution: make sure you examine the flattened file closely to make sure Illustrator's own flattening protocols don't produce unexpected results.

Sometime in the future, all of the potential glitches will be straightened out and designers will be able to send out layered files without fear that they will come back to haunt them. That day isn't here yet.

Stephen Beals is a digital pre-press manager and has been writing for major print publications for many years. He is the author of A Practical Primer for Painless Print Production. He can be reached at stephenbeals@mac.com.
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