Designing for Print – 5 Killer Tips for a Successful Job

Rumours of prints demise have even greatly exaggerated

Despite recent rumblings and the unstoppable behemoth that is the web – print is very much alive and kicking.

In university print was always my favourite part of a project and I was constantly impressed by design that took the extra step and really took advantage of the physical format. Working full time in a design studio, as a member of the team designing primarily for print (as well as a healthy dose of design for digital mediums), I’m fortunate enough to work on all kinds of printed materials. From annual reports and brochures to adverts, magazines and large format graphics, there are a lot of rules and tips to learn for each format but you need to start with the basics, which you can apply to them all.

I’ll be taking a look at 5 of the fundamentals in ensuring a project returns successfully from print but there’s a wealth of great articles and books exploring this area in further details. I’d recommend picking up The Print Handbook, for just £5, this is a super handy resource for all designers.


01 – Bleed For Your Craft

Not literally of course. But anytime you’re setting up a document for print you’ve got to remember the bleed.

Bleed is the space added to the outside of a design and essentially acts as a safety zone. When you have large quantities of print going through the press the paper can shift ever so slightly – if your design has any elements going to the edges or a colour in the background this shift could cause white borders to appear/elements to move for the edge and ruin your design. Bleed ‘extends’ the edges of the design to prevent this and the materials will then be cut to the final size.

The size of bleed varies depending on the material and printer but generally 3mm is considered a safe average in the UK but it’s always worth checking with your printer before it goes off to print.


02 – Mind The Gap

Similar to bleed, the margin (or the gap between the important elements of your design and the edge of the paper) is used to ensure nothing slips off the page in the printing process.

Margins and gutters leave space around the outside edges of your design, and between the content and binding in brochures and magazines. Not only does this help to let your design breathe, but stops anything important like text or logos from being cut off if the paper shifts which could be an absolute disaster on a print run.

Again there is no fixed size for the margin, different sizes work better for different mediums and the printing process being used, but as a general rule of thumb I tend to use 5mm for small items like business cards and 10mm for flyers and A4 documents and even larger margins for larger materials.


03 – 4 Colours are Better than 3

When it comes to print, CMYK is king. It’s a bit of an ongoing joke with some of the web designers I work with but anything you design for print should be 100% CMYK (pantones are also allowed but that’s for another blog post!). Firstly a little explanation into the two types of process:

  • The CMYK printing process is subtractive. The white paper has 4 colours applied to it (C = Cyan, M = Magenta, Y = Yellow & K = Black) which build up different tones of colour and will eventually print in black when all 4 are mixed. 
  • Whereas design for the web uses RGB colour, this is an additive process, you start with the colour black (think your plain monitor) and red, green are blue is added to make increasingly lighter colours until you reach white.

While it’s true you can’t quite make all of the colours with CMYK that you can with RGB it’s really important to make sure your print files are prepared using CMYK. What you see on screen is rarely, if ever, going to be exactly how the final print will look but CMYK lets you make sure all the colours are printable and really helps to keep things consistent between different printers and materials.

As a side note some printers will automatically print an RGB image in black and white, which as you can imagine is going to seriously mess up your day if you get 1,000 brochures back with one random black and white image in the middle…


04 – Type should Be Seen

I’ve covered a lot of tips for using type effectively in my previous blog post here and this is definitely an important factor to consider when it comes to print.

The legibility of typography is so important in print that many designers will begin by working out the type size and leading and then build a grid system based on it.

You don’t need to go to this level for every print job, but it can be very easy to forget type size when you’re often zoomed in working on a project in indesign. Before you send any project to print it’s worth printing a sample at 100% scale (even if it’s just a small section for larger format work) to check the text is readable at the right distance.

Again there’s no exact perfect size (noticing a pattern by now..?) as it can depend on the target audience, the typography style and the purpose but it’s vital to ensure everything remains legible.


05 – Speak to your Printer

When’s all said and done you can take as many precautions as you like but there’s nothing more beneficial than speaking to your printer. Especially for complex jobs, or working with a new printer, giving them a call will let you find out any possible issues, and how to prevent them.

All printers use different processes and systems and many will have preferences for all of the points mentioned above. Lots of printers will provide you templates and sometimes even colour profiles to export your documents with. Even with more and more projects going through online printers it’s still easy to get in touch with them (or request a callback) and this 5 minute call may save you an hour frantically searching through your document trying to figure out what went wrong.

If you’re ever unsure how to set a design up or what format to supply it, let your printer know, it’s in their interest to help you and ensure the print job runs smoothly.

Every design project and print setup is different, and there are a lot more specialised and useful tips that I will be covering in a future post, but remember the above. Make sure your documents have bleed, keep important elements like text and logos away from the edge and always print a test copy yourself. Double check everything is setup in CMYK and exported in the best way for your printer and you’ll be steering clear of many print pitfalls and can look forward to getting your work back from print.

Although let’s face it, the first time you see any document back from print there’s always going to be that little sense of dread of what may have happened..

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