File size reduction tips for large format graphic designGraphic Design Tip!

Making that exhibit display graphic that is a 1 or 2 GB file a more manageable size to work with

My preferred software for large format graphic design is Adobe Illustrator because the program offers the best tools for the job while minimizing processing power required. For raster portions of the design I will still prepare the material in Adobe Photoshop. However, the final layout is often better served by completing in Illustrator for the best quality. Certainly, some designers may have issues if their computer doesn't have the necessary resources of processing speed and RAM. But, most of us today have finally purchased a power system so we do not have to deal with computer speed. That frees us up to be creative at the speed of our mind, rather than the speed of our computer.

Some graphic designers I’ve worked with over the years are intimidated by Adobe Illustrator and hardly use it. However, you will find that for large format trade show display graphic design, Illustrator is almost always the best tool to use.

Here are some tips to keep file size down which will also minimize processing power required, and generally make your day move faster and easier…

TIP #1 – Work at 100% scale when possible.

Right away this makes some designers cringe. Many feel that by designing to a larger artboard the file will just be unmanageable. However, this isn’t necessarily the case. Rather, if the required large format exhibit job you are working on is supported by the Adobe Illustrator artboard limits, you should just work at that size. This ensures you always know what the actual size will be of each element. Doing so also allows you to place your raster images into the document without then having to scale them down. The raster images will always be at their native and pre-scaled size out of Photoshop. If the job you are working on requires an artboard size larger than what Adobe Illustrator permits, drop to 50% scale, 25% scale, or 10% scale and be sure you notify the press/company your are sending the files to that this is the scale you prepared.

Linking images in Illustrator reduces sizeTIP #2 – “LINK” raster images instead of “INCLUDING/EMBEDDING” them.


Raster files that are placed into your Adobe Illustrator layout can make a file much larger and require tons of processing power (especially if you are also working with raster effect filters in the program). Illustrator has the ability to link images instead of embedding them (similar to Quark and InDesign) and you should always choose this method when working in large graphic format. By working at 100% scale as mentioned in tip 1 you won’t really be making anything larger by doing this in terms of file size (it's a minimal increase). Therefore, when placing an image into your layout make sure it matches the “linked” check box in diagram 1.

Try not to embed images in IllustratorTIP #3 – Check your links palette to verify that nothing is embedded in terms of raster images.


A properly linked raster file will display differently in your links palette than one that is included/embedded into the file itself.

As shown on the diagram, your image should not have the square icon to the right of its name if it is properly linked.

Adobe Illustrator, in the most recent versions, does allow you to unembed images so you can review and link them. However, this only creates more work for your press location as they need to verify each raster link individually to ensure it is prepared correctly in terms of resolution, quality and color space.

Never save Illustrator files with PDF compatibility onTIP #4 – Save your Adobe Illustrator file with “Create PDF Compatible File” and “Include Linked Files” turned off.


Adobe Illustrator comes in a default setting of always saving files with PDF (Acrobat) compatibility. The reasoning behind this is so legacy Adobe Illustrator software can potentially work with the file and it can also be viewed from Acrobat Professional/Viewer and possibly sent to press. However, this default setting just makes files larger than they need to be. When working with a printer/exhibit company you will be provided with graphic requirements that state which version of Adobe Illustrator you should send. Most printers will be up to date but some are using older software. Yet, Illustrator allows you to save files down to older versions. So, as long as you know what version you are saving to, there really isn’t a need to have the file PDF compatible.

As shown in diagram 3 you should save the file with the two top check boxes turned off. Doing so will make your Adobe Illustrator file itself much smaller and easier to work with. Of course, you should be sending your linked files along with your layout file so the press has all elements required. But the Adobe Illustrator file, with linked images instead of embedded, will be easier and faster to work with than one that has all items included. And of course, you never save your Adobe Illustrator file as a PDF or EPS. Rather, you send the AI native file.

And, always mark the box for compression! In today’s world the compression box is not going to cause any quality issues with the output of your file.

Alaska Airlines Island Trade Show DisplayFILE SIZE EXAMPLE OF ABOVE:

Recently I worked on a project that included several very large graphics. One item in particular was for a large backlit fabric graphic to be printed so it could wrap around the entire outer edge of an island trade show display. The files were actually prepared by an outside designer and provided to me for review and submission to print.

(Man in hat image is topic)

NOTE: The layout was prepared at only 10% scale due to the extreme size of the finished graphic (see tip #1 = artboard restrictions dictate scale).

The Adobe Illustrator file for that particular graphic is only 1.6MB in size. The linked image, which appears twice on that layout, is only 46MB. Therefore, the designer that prepared this layout only had to send me two files that equaled 47.6MB total. But, what would the file size be if we didn’t follow the steps discussed above? Here are the results…

If the file were prepared with just the PDF Compatibility check box active, while still sending me the linked image (as it would be necessary for verification purposes) the Adobe Illustrator file would be 153MB and you would still be sending me the linked image of 46MB. That totals 199MB. And, working with a file of that size that had PDF Compatibility turned on would be slow going even on the most powerful processors.

If the file were prepared with both the PDF Compatibility check box active, and you embedded your files (either by not linking them correctly, or by checking the “Include Images” box) the final size of the working file would be 451MB! That is almost 10 times larger than the original file prepared correctly. And your system would need tons of time and power just to work with the document in question! So the recommendation is to follow the tips above to keep file sizes down. If that file in the example were at 100% scale, the file size would have been multiple GB’s and you would be lucky to own a computer that can process the information.

Here are a few additional graphic design tips (or pet peeves, if you will)…

  1. Try to avoid using raster EPS files when working in large format trade show display graphic design (for Inkjet, Lambda or Dye Sublimation output). Technically they will work in most press situations. But, the raster EPS file is normally best used when working in other forms of printing (Offset) so you can use the advanced EPS features of duotone colors and so on. For large format you are best to stick to level 12 JPG’s, uncompressed TIF’s or flat or layered PSD’s. However, consult with your printer to ensure you prepare the file to their specifications.
  2. When working with an EPS file that is 100% vector you should make that element part of your native vector artwork instead of linking the file itself.
  3. If you must link an EPS file be sure you verify it actually has all elements inside. I’ve found many situations where a designer will link EPS files that mainly contain vector elements but found they also have raster elements that are not really embedded. When you open the EPS you find that elements are missing. This will cause issues at press time.
  4. Convert your fonts to outlines! A large format exhibit layout is generally a single artboard and there is never a reason you need to leave fonts in a state they can be edited. Instead, convert all fonts to outlines, verify that no special characters were lost (some fonts do this when converted), and send the file in that manner. And, as per number 3 above, some linked files (EPS or PDF) often have fonts remaining that should not be there. Convert fonts to outlines not only in your layout but all supporting linked items.
  5. Finally, never use a PNG file. The PNG format doesn’t support CMYK and you should avoid it. PNG files, in my mind, are just the wealthy cousin of the GIF.

Granted, some of these tips may contradict the graphic requirements you were presented with by your press location. In cases such as that you should always review the requirements fully and then confirm options with the press prior to sending the file for production. And, some designers will feel my tips here are either unconventional or just completely wrong. If that is the case I do invite you to contact me to explain why. I’m not here to say it’s my way or the highway. Instead, this article is just an explanation of what makes a great graphic here at Displays by Area Exhibits when sent to press.

If you have any graphic related questions regarding this article, or any questions just in terms of large format graphic design, reach out to us! We are always happy to help.