Doing the math on large-format projects

There are times when a designer or production artist needs to know the limits of their software. Large Format signs, banners, and murals are an example of just such a time. You need to know which software packages can handle the size of the job and do your math ahead of time so you don’t need to rework your files.

Here is a list of standard software packages and their limits.

QuarkXPress 7.0 (and earlier versions)

Quark will you allow you to create a 48” x 48” page as long as facing pages is OFF. Type can be created at a maximum of 720 pt and the frame and line strokes can go as high as 864 pt. Of course the 48” page size is the biggest hurdle, which causes many designers to create their art at ¬Ω or ¬º size and then blow up the file at the printing stage.

Adobe Indesign CS2 and 3

Indesign can create a page that is 216” by 216”—which is great, but there’s a catch. Try to export your file to a PDF and you will find out that the PDF maximum is 200” x 200”, including any bleed, marks and slugs, so you will need to cut the size down accordingly. Indesign can go up to 1296 pt type and 800 pt strokes.

Illustrator CS2 and 3

Illustrator is often the software of choice for single page projects. Artwork can be created at ¬º or ¬Ω size and blown up 400% or 200% at the printing stage. Curiously, Illustrator has its limits but sometimes exceeds them. When this happens, you’re only guessing if it will work in the printed piece. For example, you can create a line with Illustrator’s maximum stroke weight of 1000 pt. It can then be scaled with the option to “Scale Stroke Widths”. The scaled up item looks larger, but the stroke palette still says 1000 pt, leading us to believe that will print smaller than on screen. Illustrator’s type size is the same as Indesign: 1296 pt. A larger canvas size—at 227.5416”—can be created, but don’t bother. If you want to save your file as a PDF you still have the 200” maximum and Illustrator will give you an error until you reduce the document size.

Photoshop CS2 and 3

Photoshop won’t create a file larger than 30,000 pixels at 10 dpi. Those of you who would like to try to create something this big better have a big empty drive for a scratch disk. Photoshop work can be done at reduced size and the resolution should be calculated by the amount of scaling to be done in the layout. Remember to set the type in the layout program to keep it crisp and sharp—the resolution used in large print items will not be enough for Photoshop type. Type layers just make Photoshop files bulky and you have much more control over type in Illustrator, Quark, or Indesign.

The main point is to do the math ahead of time and decide how you want to proceed with a large format project. Planning to work at a reduced size and blow up later works great for proofing and PDF proofing, but make sure your software is set up properly for scaling later. These limits will still be there and you should know where to look when checking your final printed piece. Check the Stroke sizes, Type Sizes, and Resolution, understanding that you may not be able to go beyond these set maximums.