Designing and building large format graphics is a different animal than standard small format design. Here are some tips and tricks to get you going.
As the Creative Director for a trade show marketing company, I live and breathe large format design. Many designers are full of questions and concerns when building files for large format output. And you wouldn't believe how many files I've seen over the years that are built incorrectly! It is really just a matter of thinking about the files a bit differently. Once you get some basic tips and tricks under your belt, you too can live and breathe large format in no time!
Tips for large format design from a 20-year veteran in the industry:
Bitmap vs Vector
In the large format world, to understand how to build files, you really need to understand the differences between these 2 most common file types. There are two kinds of computer graphics - Bitmap (composed of pixels) and Vector (composed of paths). A bitmap image uses a grid of individual pixels where each pixel can be a different color or shade. These files are composed of pixels. Vector graphics use mathematical relationships between points and the paths connecting them to describe an image. These files are composed of paths.
What File Format Should I Build In?
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. Always remember to convert your fonts to outlines if you are providing your print vendor source Illustrator or InDesign files, this turns the fonts into “objects” or “shapes” rather than leaving it defined as text. This will guarantee no font substitution problems. You can also save to high res PDF file format which is the most versatile, standard file format these days. But remember that the vector-based portions of these files will remain vector, and the bitmap-based portions will remain bitmap.
When you are working at these large dimensions, bitmapped images are going to be enormous (as much as 500+ MB) and can majorly slow down your system. Of course you can use bitmapped photos in your layouts, you just need to know how…so keep reading! Bitmap files should be converted to a compressed .TIF file with no layers in order to send to your print vendor.
Ideal Resolution and Working With Bitmapped Files
Because we are talking large format graphics, remember that they are intended to be viewed from a distance, this means you can get away with lower resolution prints at full size! Small format files like brochures, sales collateral and business cards are viewed just a few inches away from someone’s face, and therefore always recommended to be buit at the standard 300dpi. Large format graphics however are viewed from further away, and often times are not even meant to be viewed at eye-level. So a good rule of thumb is to keep bitmapped graphics at 100dpi at full size. For very large, multi-panel wall mural graphics, 60dpi is acceptable. If these large layouts are above eye-level especially, 60dpi will still get you compelling, vibrant images.
Always Work at a Scaled Percentage
Working at a scaled percentage in your software is a good rule of thumb since file sizes are more manageable and you can move around on your art boards easier. For example, if working on a 120”w x 60” (10’ x 5’) graphic, I would not build my canvas/artboard size at the full 120x60 size, but instead would build it at ¼ of that size: 30x15”. (Just make sure you communicate to your print vendor what scale you are working at so they know how large to scale your files up!). For even larger graphics like large wall mural graphics that are upwards of 20ft wide x 8ft high, often I work at 1/5th or 1/6th final output size just to make the files easier to move around in. Even at those larger sizes my resolution is still 300dpi, but the smaller the scale I work at, the lower my resolution goes. If my file is built at 300dpi and it is 1/5th the final output size, then my 300dpi really becomes 60dpi (300 / 5 = 60). And remember, walls this size will usually be viewed from so far back that you really can get away with 60dpi output. Or, if the wall has fine details in it like a timeline or small areas of text that are meant to draw people in, then I would design the background images at Bitmaps and leave all the fine detailed text and elements as vector. This can easily be done by placing your bitmaps in a background layer in Illustrator and then having your text on top of it which would remain as vector. That way, when scaling the file, the text remains crisp, clear and legible.
Take Advantage of the Biology of the Human Eye
And the best thing to do after building your files and having them printed? Conduct your own experiment! View them from 12” back, 2 feet, 3 feet and then 10 feet and further. The further back you move, the more your eye fills in what isn’t there! The human eye is one of the most sophisticated parts of our body, at the same time, one of our most flawed. That’s because the human eye is easily fooled, especially when it comes to viewing color and tones…that is good news for large format designers like you and I…we can get away with lower quality images as long as we always take into consideration how the graphic is meant to be viewed.
Large format graphics can be quite easy to build and work in, once you understand these basic concepts. By following some of these tips and tricks you can ensure your files will print beautifully at their intended final resolution.