In the first installment of "Behind the Scenes" series I will show you what automations we - at Keyshorts.com - use in Adobe Illustrator to prepare our products for print. Currently (as of march 2016) we have more than one hundred stickers to prepare in a typical week. That's a serious reason to automate the production workflow.
Everybody should work smart, not hard. There's no dumber way to waste your time, than repeating common tasks. So what do we automate? Pretty much everything.
Get the basics right
My production workflow is as follows:
1. I'm opening a template with layout for customer's keyboard. Each template is a combination of laptop model and keyboard localization (more on them here). There are tons of different keyboard shapes, so unfortunately there's no one-size-fit-all solution. We tried it a long time ago and it didn't work.
Template is created from scratch only when we encounter particular laptop model for the first time. Sometimes only a small part of keyboard is different from what we have in our database. This way, the longer we run this business, the less tedious work we have to make.
2. I'm importing and positioning the background artwork. In fact, I have actions for this. Each artwork importing and placement is saved as a separate action. Some actions include also some rotations and resizing to fit the template. That's the automation #1.
3. Then I have to put our logo on spacebar. There are two versions of it - for dark and bright background. In the beginning, I had them placed in template file sitting outside of the artboard, ready for use. Now I use two separate actions - one to include white logo, second to include the black one. That's the automation #2.
4. Then I'm changing the name of the sticker, so customer can check if he/she got the right design. I didn't find any way to automate this, but variables is a promising feature to try in the future.
5. I almost always have to change the color of keyboard letters and icons. There's no one-click way to do this. My solution is to select all content of the layer with keyboard text (called "litery_cyfry" - I'm Polish by the way) and then click in Actions panel on BIALE LITERY action (it's WHITE LETTERS in english).
I use - and totally love - Button Mode in Actions panel. This way I get quickly what I want. This is a better way than using default view mode, because with buttons you only need to click on them to run actions. To switch Actions panel to this mode, click on options icon in top right corner and choose Button Mode.
The action converts all text objects to outlines (shortcut: cmd+shift+O) and converts all strokes to fills. I made my own shortcut for this: cmd+opt+O, because there wasn't one by default. Why this is needed? Because when you select fills, strokes and text objects, you can't change their color - you will get question marks in the Stroke panel, both on fill and stroke thumbnails.
After converting everything to fills I can change the color easily by clicking on fill and change it to white (or other tone). Of course, in case of white, it is done in action already to minimize manual steps. This is automation #3.
6. In some stickers the text must be stroked to increase readability. For example - you can't put either white or black text over a photo with small flowers (or any other complex texture). There will be areas where the text is not visible enough in both cases. You also can't do this by simply adding a stroke to the text. Such stroke will be added both on the inside and outside of each letter, and believe me, it doesn't look good. You could use stroke placement feature in Stroke panel, but sometimes it produce unnatural effects. Besides, my solution turns all text and stroke into two objects, which make selecting and changing them easy.
The way I figured out how to do this, is to transform all text into single object, then offset the path of such object, and then change the color of expanded object. Here's how it works in details:
6a. Select all text (I do this by selecting all contents of layer), ungroup it by using cmd+shift+G shortcut (in your case that might not be necessary, in my case it is as I have icons created from groups of objects), and then create compound path (psst... that's the secret). Shortcut for this is cmd+8. Now you have one object.
6b. Now go to menu Object > Path > Offset Path (I assigned cmd+shift+opt+O shortcut for convenience). I usually use 0,25 mm offset.
6c. Select the outer edge of text object - you should be selecting the offset version - and change its color to something contrasting with the inner text color. I have this whole sixth step process saved as action. On the illustration below you can see how good the effect is (bottom letters) in comparison with just stroking text (upper letters). That's the automation #4.
Prepress and PDF cooking
7. The next automation comes from the fact that in order to properly print something in external printing house, you need to convert all texts to outlines and all strokes to fills. This is because printing house may not have the fonts you used in your project, and some printing machines don't support stroke thickness and other properties. Yes, you can embed fonts in PDFs but I had issues with this feature and I don't want to waste my time in the future.
To do all this I hit cmd+A to select all objects, then I convert them to outlines, and then I convert them to fills. Negative side to this is minimal editability of final PDF, but I'm not worried about that. It has to be just printed, not messed around in printing house.
Now it's time to save the project to PDF. My PDF settings are based on High Quality Print default preset. I changed the following options: from General tab I turned off Preserve Illustrator Editing Capabilities (since my printing house works in Corel Draw that's not needed), I also turned off Optimize for Fast Web View. From Marks and Bleeds tab I have Trim Marks checked on (needed by printing house to cut vinyl roll into pieces) and I use 2 mm bleed. In Output tab I have Color Conversion set to Convert to Destination (Preserve Numbers) and Destination set to Coated FOGRA39, since I'm in Europe. If you are in America you would probably use US Web Coated.
I have saved these settings in custom preset. In the top right corner of Save Adobe PDF window click on disk icon. Type a name for your preset and click OK. Now you can access your settings by choosing your preset from Adobe PDF Preset list. That's the automation #6.
8. This step is optional. When I'm preparing sticker with existing template, I can skip it. When I'm designing a new template, I must also export PDF with outlines for cutting plotter. Plotter needs to know when and how to kiss-cut the vinyl, and that file serves this purpose.
I turn off and delete all layers except one with key outlines. My printing house requires these outlines to be 0.25 mm thick and have C0 M100 Y0 K0 color. All these steps is saved in yet another action. That's the final automation #7.
That's all folks :-) Hope you enjoyed this article and learned something new. If you have any questions or thoughts on Illustrator automation, or business automation in general, don't hesitate to use comments below. Also don't forget to share this article :-)