Organizing Your Files to Send to Layout

This entry is part 17 of 18 in the series Tutorials


“Dude, this is way more prepped than I am used to. It’ll definitely speed the process up and allow us more time to get particular with all the details.”

This is the response I received from Todd Crapper, the production designer behind Survival of the Able, after sending him the files for the book. If you had read any of my past posts about laying out a PDF, or perhaps this guest post from Ruben Smith-Zempel, then you may have an understanding of what a big process it can be. Anything a designer can do to make the process run smoother is a huge boon.

What did I do that elicited such a response?

Let’s talk about how I organized my files to prepare to send them to layout.


The entire manuscript for Survival of the Able is only about 38,000 words long. As complete RPGs go, I’d say that’s on the low to middle range of the spectrum. For comparison Psi-punk is about 88,000 words.

With the relatively low word count, I was able to keep the entire manuscript within one Word document and still make it manageable. Even for longer manuscripts though, if you properly set up your Word files you can make them manageable by using heading styles and the Navigation pane to easily jump around through your document.

I already wrote three in-depth articles about how to set up your manuscripts before sending them to layout. It might be helpful to read these as a refresher:

Prepare Your Manuscript to Send to Layout Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Since I advocate for using HTML-like tags to mark up your manuscript with layout notes, I also prepared a simple text file with a list of the tags I use and what they each mean. Here is an example:


Survival of the Able Tag Definitions

<ol>Ordered List
<li>Bulleted list
<h1> through <h4> – H1 to H4
<diff>Difficulty (e.g. “+1 See”)
<f>Fate Dice font</f>



Providing this tag list means the layout professional doesn’t have to guess at what you mean, and it also gives them an idea of what to look out for when formatting the manuscript. If they are using GREP, they can also set up their tag list for simple import and conversion.

When you take the ambiguity out of the process, you ensure a faster turnaround time and a more consistent result.

Art and Illustrations

I’m legally blind. That poses a lot of challenges when it comes to being an art director.

My secret is that I have a spouse who is willing to help me review artist sketches and tell me when everything looks good or when we need to make changes. Beyond that, though, I do all the art preparation myself.

When I was designing Psi-punk, this process was a mess. I had no idea what I was doing or what the process looked like from any perspective. It was my first book, and I had never worked with an illustrator or a layout professional before.

I gave my images file names that told the layout professional where I thought they should go. They had names like “Ch1_pg11.tif” and “Ch9_pg109.tif.”

The problem is that the page number in a Word document doesn’t usually match up to the page number in a PDF. The page numbers were way off, and the layout artist had to simply use their best judgment based on where in the chapter they were working. At best, they could cross-reference the image name with the page in the Word document, figure out what text it goes with, and find that text in the InDesign file they were working with. What a clunky process.

How I Do Things Now

For Survival of the Able, I knew I had to do things differently. I needed to convey a lot of information in a simple, straightforward manner. Also, because my vision has deteriorated even more over the past 10 years, I needed to set up a workflow that allowed me to figure out what I was looking out without being able to visually reference the art myself.

The best way I know of to convey a lot of information in a simple format is Microsoft Excel. You can use whichever spreadsheet software you prefer.

When I was commissioning art, I prepared a spreadsheet to hand off to my illustrators. I gave them a list of descriptions, sizes, and names to work with. The file names they output for me corresponded to section names within the manuscript, which turned out to be important later.

The spreadsheet looked something like this:


Chapter Section Size Cost Description
1 About SotA Full $125 A sleepy-looking Medieval town with zombies lurking about the streets
1 The Black Plague Half – Tall $75 A person covered in boils and sores
2 Portraying PWDs Full $125 Three disabled people being active and competent

I’ll break down the usefulness of each of these columns.

Chapter: I set up a separate folder on my OneDrive for each chapter. When the artist was done with an illustration, they would upload it to the correct chapter folder. This helps a lot when trying to keep everything organized.


Section: This corresponds to a section within the main manuscript. The Section has a name and an associated heading. When the artist was done with a piece, they would give it a file name that corresponded with the section name. This not only helped me know what I was working with, it helps the layout professional know exactly where within the text they should place the image — no matter which page number it lands on.

For example, they would give the “About SotA” image a filename like “About_SotA.jpg” and upload it to the Chapter 1 folder. Now the layout person knows exactly where to place that image–with the “About SotA” heading in the text.


Size: This tells the illustrator the relative size of the art piece. I already conveyed to them that the book’s trim size (page size) would be 6 inches by 9 inches. A Full size image would be 6.125″ x 9.25″ to cover bleed. A Half Tall image would be 3″ x 9.25″ while a Half image would be 6.125″ x 4.625″.

This also tells the layout person what to expect when dropping files onto the page and planning where to places images in a spread.


Cost: Noting the cost of a given piece helps me track my expenses, but it also helps the artist see an accounting of what we have agreed upon. They can just as easily tally up the costs and determine whether we are under or over budget. Because I tracked this with each image, I never encountered an issue with the budget.


Description: This is the brief image description I gave to the artist. It doubles as Alt Text for my layout artist to add to the final PDF. Some of the descriptions I wrote for the artist weren’t as detailed as I would like, and this means I’m going to have to re-write the Alt Text for a few pieces. For the most part, I was able to directly use the Description as Alt Text within the book. In future projects, I anticipate planning ahead so I don’t have to double my work.

For example, the Alt Text for “The Black Plague” would be “A person with boils and sores.” This is somewhat descriptive, but not overly detailed. It may be able to use a better description for the Alt Text if I really wanted to convey more information, but it serves its purpose as-is.


When I sent my files to layout, I didn’t just send the manuscript and images. I included this spreadsheet so they could see exactly where to place everything and so they could copy in the descriptions. It’s a convenient reference sheet for me, but also for the person taking everything that was created and put it together in one place.


With a bit of pre-planning, I took a process that has the potential to be a jumbled mess and turned it into a proper workflow. Everyone benefitted from this process.

  • My artists had a list of descriptions to work from, all in one convenient place. They could also keep track of the budget for each image they produced.
  • I had a way to reference the images and track my budget from a simple spreadsheet. If I needed to find an image, I knew exactly where to look.
  • My production designer was able to easily find and place the images we produced, and he was able to use the layout tags to get a precise understanding of how I wanted certain text formatted. He didn’t have to constantly email me to find out where something should go or how something should look.

This has been one of the smoothest projects I have worked on to date. It helps that I remained organized, something which I am normally terrible at doing, but which turned out to solve a lot of the problems I faced in the past.

The next time you work on a game, I would encourage you to add a simple spreadsheet to your normal workflow. They are great conveying a lot of information in a small space, and you’ll be surprised at all the uses you can find for them. Your layout professionals will also thank you for it.


Bonus Tip

Finally, one of the other things I did that I eventually deleted from the final spreadsheet was a column I could use to tell my artists whether a draft image was approved. After they uploaded an initial draft, they would mark “Draft” in a column to the right of the description. I would either write “Approved” next to that, or leave a note about what I wanted fixed. By doing this, we were able to work on art together in batches by using the shared spreadsheet, and we didn’t have to constantly email notes back and forth to one another.

After they uploaded the final version of an image, they would change “Draft” to say “Final.” If I had no other fixes, I’d delete my edits and mark “Final Approved.” Nothing got lost in a giant email thread.

Since Todd didn’t need this information for layout and I couldn’t think of a use for it after the final images were all approved, I simply deleted those columns from the spreadsheet before sending them to layout.

This sped up the workflow for me and my artists, and it helped me stay organized. I am definitely going to use a similar workflow for future projects.

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