Creating Posters and other Large-Format Documents.

The process of creating files that can be printed on large format printers (larger than 11"x17") goes beyond the familiar tools and techniques many of us are used to. This document describes a particular process and set of procedures that we've found to work well. In our experience people who don't follow this process routinely end up with documents that look fine on screen but are un-printable. Invariably this discovery is made at the last, worst possible moment.

The ensuing tears, panic and failure far outstrip the initial boredom reading this document may invoke. So try to stay with us. Also note that in some places we've glossed over exact step-by-step details. This is not to imply that you don't need to figure out and follow all the steps yourself-simply that time and space don't permit the gory details to appear here. As always, if you have questions call the appropriate computer support person.

A quick overview

The general procedure is to create the document using Adobe Illustrator taking great pains to make sure all possible text and graphics are in vector format and that any raster images are as small (in computer storage terms) as feasible. The final result is saved in Adobe Acrobat (.PDF) format where it is checked for perfection before the PDF file is sent to the printer.

Before you begin

You'll first need to determine the size of your final poster. Our printer (as with many others) prints on 36" rolls of paper. So at least one of the dimensions of your poster should be no more than 36" (e.g. 24"x36" and 36"x48" are fine-48"x48" won't work). Keep in mind that the larger the poster the more care will be required in keeping your file size small so that the final result is printable. Also keep in mind that just because you've been given an 8 foot by 8 foot space at the conference doesn't mean your poster has to fill it. Few people will read your important title 8' above the floor or your important conclusions 1' above the floor. In this case, Quantity does NOT equal Quality.

Let the printer people know

Before you commit too much time to creating your masterpiece get in touch with the people who'll be printing it for you. For academic work, these will probably be the computer coordinators in ITS. Make sure your timeline is reasonable and that when you're done they'll have enough time to do their thing (including ordering more paper and ink and suchÉ)

Get your content all ready to go

Next gather the text and figures for your poster. You can compose the text in a word processor and cut and paste it in when it's nicely polished. You can certainly add text directly with Illustrator but it doesn't provide a particularly nice environment for creating nice prose. One exception is if you're tied to particular fonts or special characters. Plan to add these directly in Illustrator.

If you're adding figures or pictures make sure you have the (digital) originals. For instance, if you're inserting a graph from an Excel spreadsheet make sure you have the original spreadsheet in hand. If you're creating other graphical output make sure you have the original file and access to the software used to create the graphic. Simply having a copy of the file is often not good enough. Frequently the file that you have, though it looks fine, may be inappropriate for large format printing. Expect to have to recreate each of your graphics from the original program (unless you've had the forethought to create your graphics with this purpose in mind). Which brings us to a pedantic yet painfully necessary discussion.

Vector or Raster

Elements within your poster (text, figures, pictures) can be stored in either a vector form or a raster form. Whenever possible you want your elements to be in vector form. Sadly it isn't always obvious which form you've got. Vector elements are stored (internally by the computer) as mathematical representations of lines and circles and rectangles and other such shapes. This sort of representation is quite space efficient and also can be scaled larger and smaller and maintain its pleasant appearance. In contrast raster elements are stored as colors within a fixed grid. A lot of space is required to store all these grid elements and if the graphic is scaled up the underlying grid becomes visible and your graphic gets blocky and ugly.

Most of the familiar 'graphics' formats are raster: jpeg, gif, tiff, bmp. To confuse things further most "vector" file formats are capable of holding raster as well as vector bits within them. We'd encourage you to stick with the EPS format for vector images (or the very similar PDF format for those programs that can create it).

What should I do?

Here are some practical suggestions. If you're getting graphics out of a drawing or plotting programs (Excel, SPSS, Arcview, Kaleidagraph, Freehand), get them out in Encapsulated Postscript format (EPS). It's actually even better to get them out in PDF format but few programs offer that option these days. Some programs have a "Save As" or "Export" function with EPS format as an option. If so use it. If not there's a fairly universal trick that should work in most cases-print it to a file.

If you've selected a postscript printer (as most of the networked laser printers on campus are) then using the "print to a file" option within the operating systems will give you an EPS file if you flip the appropriate toggle to change the Postscript format to Encapsulated Postscript. These options are generally buried within the guts of the Print dialog box. For example on a modern Mac you'd choose the "File" option under Destination in the upper right of the Print dialog and then switch the General tab to "Save as File" and set the format to "EPS no preview". On Windows 98 you'd choose the "print to file" checkbox on the main print window and then look for the EPS option under the postscript tab under the properties button (possibly digging through an advanced settings menu on the way).

The result should be a file (which you should name with a .eps extension) which contains vector information-essentially the same mathematical description that the printer would have used to print that particular graphic. As a final check look at the file size of the EPS file. If it's larger than 1,000k (1 Mb) something has gone wrong (unless it's a very large figure). In most cases it will be much smaller.

What about pictures?

Pictures-taken with a digital camera, or scanned are fundamentally raster. As such they can be quite large. It's entirely possible that a reasonable collection of raster pictures may simply be too large to print even if they can all be successfully brought into Illustrator. So you'll need to be extra careful in choosing and sizing the raster images you decide to include.

In Photoshop or another image-management tool, set the picture resolution for each picture to 150 dpi (dots per inch) and the size (in inches) to the exact size you want it in the final poster. This combination of settings (the right size in inches and 150 dpi) will get the best possible results out of the printer. So for example if you're using Photoshop (though many different tools could do this) you go to the document settings window and first set the resolution to 150 dpi (making sure that the resampling option was OFF) and then (after turning the resampling option ON) you'd change the image size (in inches) to match the desired size on your poster. Note that if after the first step your image is smaller (in inches) than your desired final size then you image doesn't have enough information (too few pixels) to get the maximum quality. In this case leave resampling off, and set the image size in inches-the resolution will be below 150 dpi but it will still be as good as it will get (given what you're starting with).

Finally save your image in jpeg format with default compression before you bring it into Illustrator. As a final check look at the size of your jpeg file. If it's a 1"x1" image it should be about 70k-a 4" by 5" image would be 1,400k (4 x 5 x 70k). If it's significantly bigger than this (a factor of 2 or more) than something has gone wrong. Don't expect to put more than 3 or 4 4"x5" raster images on a poster-it will likely get too large. If you need a lot of big images consider pasting actual photos onto white space on your poster.

Working with Illustrator

Now it's time to fire up Illustrator. Set the page size to match the final size of your poster. Think about which dimension on the page is the length (long) and which is the width (short). To change the document size, go under the File menu, and choose Document Info.

You may want to hide the page tiling.  (Page tiling is the box that shows how much or your poster will be printed by the currently chosen printer.) Under the View menu, choose Hide Page Tiling.

You can also show Rulers and the Grid under the View menu.

Add text using the Text tool, dragging the diagonal of a rectangle and then typing to fill the rectangle with text (you can copy from Word, invoke the Text tool in Illustrator and then hit paste to move previously composed prose over.). Add raster and vector images using the File/Place command (making sure the "Link" option is NOT enabled). Vector images can be resized by selecting and dragging the corners (holding down the Shift key will force the aspect ratio to remain the same) and otherwise manipulated using the Object/Transform command.

Raster images can be rotated and moved but should not be resized to avoid resolution problems. You can use the Guides and Grids functions to get things nicely lined up and the object grouping and selection tools to arrange things. Learn how to use the "Lock" function to keep objects in their places once you've decided where they should go. Keep in mind that Illustrator is a professional drawing program. Its tools are very powerful and designed to be very efficient in familiar hands. As such you may have to spend some time with the online help or paper manual before you become comfortable with the basic functions.

Save it as a PDF

As soon as you've gotten a few elements into Illustrator, and frequently thereafter as you add new bits and rearrange, check your poster by saving it. It is best to save it twice, one time as an Illustrator file (with extension ".ai"), and again to Acrobat (PDF) format (with extension ".pdf"). This should be a format option under the Save As menu. Make sure all fonts are being embedded. View the PDF file using Adobe Acrobat Reader (ideally on a different computer). If the results don't look exactly as you expect, or if there are problems saving or opening the PDF it's a good indication that something has gone wrong (most frequently an image that is too large). Frequently "proofing" your document in this way, saving it as a PDF and inspecting it closely in Acrobat Reader, is the best defense against creating an unprintable poster. Do this frequently, don't wait until you think the poster is "done" before you save in PDF format or you may get the unpleasant last-minute surprise of finding the poster isn't really "done".

Send it to the Printer

When the PDF looks perfect and you're sure there are no typos, mistyped references or upside-down figures, it's time to hand the PDF file off to the printers. The good folks in Printing and Mailing Services, in the basement of Leighton, are the on-campus keepers of the large-format printer.

The best way to get your file to them is to send it to them electronically. They have set up a special way to do this. Point your browser to:

Click on the link for "Print Job Submission Form". You will be asked to log in. Then you can fill in some information and upload your file to them.


Here are other options for getting your PDF file to them:

a)     Burn it to a CD-R, and take it to them directly yourself.  Tell them what class it's for.

b)    Copy your PDF file to a ZIP disk on a PC and take it to them directly yourself.  (You must use a PC for this step, as they cannot read Mac ZIP disks.)

c)    Put your PDF file in your WebPub folder on your HOME directory. (Make sure to name your file without spaces or special characters, and use the proper file extension at the end of the name. A bad example is: "Jon's Poster". A good example is: "JonsPoster.pdf".) Contact the folks at Printing and Mailing Services (x4186), and tell them exactly how to navigate to your PDF file in your WebPub folder. They will be doing this via their web browser, so you must give them the exact URL. It will look something like this:

For example, the URL for this file you're reading is:

The cost is $3.00 per foot, printed on plain paper. Remember, you get paper that is 36" wide, so for $3.00, you get a printout that's 36" x 12", for
$6.00, you get a printout that's 36" x 24", and so on.

You can also have your poster printed at Kinko's or Graphic Mailbox, if you have access to a car. Of course as we mentioned before you'll want to make sure you have these arrangements (including cost and timing) worked out well in advance. For reference (checking both Kinkos and a few online places): current commercial printing prices for a 36"x 48" poster are around $90.

Best wishes!

Doug Foxgrover, ITS, 2003
Sean Fox, formerly of ITS, who wrote much of this original document a few years ago.