Adobe Illustrator, Custom Exhibit, File Format, File Size Reduction, Graphic Design, Graphic Design General, Graphic Requirements for Vendors, Large Format Graphics, PDF, Prepress, Tips & Tricks, Trade Show Displays

Creating Smaller File Sizes Working In Large Format – Adobe Illustrator Edition

How to make that 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.

Some graphic designers I’ve worked with over the years are intimidated by Adobe Illustrator and hardly use it. I’ve discovered that the reasons for this are wide ranging. Some examples are lack of training at their particular design school, a more comfortable feeling working in Adobe Photoshop because that is where they gained their initial experience, or even the word “illustrator” in the name itself. I’ve spoken to designers that actually said they didn’t work in Adobe Illustrator mainly because they thought it was just for illustration. The mind boggles when you hear such things. Clearly there is much work to do in the education and training fields if this is a feeling that is being expressed. But, this isn’t an article about the failings of design schools (though that would be an interesting conversation in relation to large format design). Rather, this is an article to assist you in keeping file sizes down. And some designers express similar concerns about file size and processing power when working with the software.

Anyway, 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 – Always try to 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 job you are working on is supported by the limits of 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 that this is the scale you prepared to.

Adobe Illustrator TIPS Diagram 1

TIP #2 – Always “LINK” raster images into the layout 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). The software 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 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. Therefore, when placing an image into your layout make sure it matches the “linked” check box in diagram 1.

Adobe Illustrator TIPS Diagram 2

TIP #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 link individually to ensure it is prepared correctly.

Adobe Illustrator TIPS Diagram 3

TIP #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 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, the software 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. 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 5Recently I worked on a project that included several very large graphics. One graphic in particular was for a very large backlit fabric large format graphic to be printed so it could wrap around the entire outer edge of an island trade show display. Click to view the article that highlights that custom trade show exhibit. In any case, the image in question is the one that includes the man.

NOTE: The layout was prepared at only 10% scale due to the extreme size of the finished graphic.

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 above? Here are the results…

  1. 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.
  2. 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 tips (or pet peeves, if you will)…

  1. Try to avoid using raster EPS files when working in large format 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!Convert your fonts to outlines! A large format 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, 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 items.
  5. Finally, never use a PNG file. The 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 blog is just an observation of my 21+ years in graphic design and how some things may assist others in the future.

Jacob Norris

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