Print design tips for the digital age

How to avoid some common pitfalls that we might otherwise miss

I’ve been designing websites for the past 2.5 years and focused on logo design and branding for the past year. Though those digital skills will never leave me if I continue to use them, I haven’t built up the right amount of skills in order to prepare digital files for printing.

With that being said, in my line of work as a branding designer, it’s in my best interest to learn about this and focus on building some general knowledge that will help me survive when a client asks for new packaging or needs to have files ready for printing companies.

When we’re going through client work (or if you’re being asked by your company) to create logo designs or branding, you need to know just what caveats and pitfalls exist when it comes to designing for print.

You control the cost for printing through your designs, so having as much knowledge about it can help you and the businesses you design for control budget for years of ongoing work.

I’m always excited when I have something new and useful to learn. As I start to build up that knowledge, I’m going to be sharing what I’ve found and what I’ve learned as a result of working with three different printing methods, designing for physical goods.

I put myself through the process of working with:

Though I will walk you through the process of designing each of these pieces soon, I wanted to make sure you knew some of the best practices for preparing your work-space for print in order to start getting into those details.

We love to create digital gold.

However, not every print job is capable of displaying that properly when printed in nearly every method available.

Having the right mindset about what you need to do in order to have a file that’s ready for print is the first step to creating a successful physical design.

There are physical limitations to that different methods have to adhere to, which without massive technological advancement are the standard acceptable limits.

Consider that something you design may end up:

These scenarios are not exact to what you might get in the wild, but it’s entirely possible.

Let’s look at some of the best ways to safeguard against the worst case situations.

Sketch out your ideas before going to digital.

There is something freeing about not having digital tools that hold you back from being creative.

We’ve talked about why you should always start sketching first, but the goal is to not box us into a design idea too early and not get bogged down by tools. Tools are less important than the idea.

This kind of process also helps you keep the message simple. You get to play a lot with balance by creating simple blocks and testing what works and what might not work.

When you move to digital to prepare the file for the printer, you don’t have to spend all the time in the file trying to figure out what layout, style, or size to make things.

When you are working with actual sizes, it’s best to test your layout just using marker and paper that is close to or exactly the size you intend on designing for.

You need to know the limits of what you’re designing for

Every design process has limits. Some processes just have more, like designing for print.

You can’t do everything you can on paper like you can on a screen. The technology just doesn’t support it.

Knowing the limits that constrain what’s possible actually forces you to be more creative.

As a general rule, here are some situations that make any print job a headache to run with the printer:

  1. Very Small TypographyVery small type can be rendered illegible due to the fact that ink tends to bleed, smudge, or smear. Even the natural thin and thick lines in typefaces can disappear.
  2. Ultra Thin Printed Lines or Ultra Thin MarginsThere’s something called hairline registration that allows two colors to come close to each other but not overlap. And with some printing processes, you will never be able to do that accurately while some print shops have ways of achieving that type of registration. However, a line that is ultra thin may have trouble making it through the printing process in tact. Make sure you ask the printer what the minimum line-weight is.
  3. Color Matching
    There are very few methods of attaining accurate colors in print design. Ink is inherently translucent where digital colors with visual displays are capable of much more than printers can achieve. Therefore we have specific color methods to print with.

If you don’t know what is possible or what isn’t, it’s your job to figure that out and understand it. Maybe consult with the place that is going to print your work in order to find out what you can do.

Other than calling them and asking, you can always look at their work, reviews, online tutorials on that method of printing. Print has been around for longer than digital, so the amount of resources available are endless.

Use the right settings

When taking your sketch to digital, there are a few things you need to understand about printing.

  1. We are desgining physical objects.
    These objects are going to have actual dimensions, so instead of working in pixels, you will want to select the right units for what you’re working on or set the units into those of the place you’re getting this printed. Common units are Inches, Feet, Meters, Centimeter, Millimeter, and Points. If you’re curious about what the common settings are, check with the printer or search online.
  2. **DPI and PPI should be at 300. **
    The units for how dense the design’s pixels or points (dots) are per inch determine the quality resolution of what is being printed. Printers generally work at 300 or higher, so anything less than that will be grainy or pointilized.
  3. Your color profile has to be CMYK compatible
    We had a tutorial on this newsletter that will need to be updated, but the idea of CMYK color vs RGB color is that RGB is an additive color process that starts as black pixels (not lit up) and you have to light all three colors to get white and every hue between. CMYK is a subractive process so you start with white and then every color you add makes it darker and closer to black — If you’re wondering what color profile you’re already in, you might be able to see at the top of your document like in Adobe Illustrator. It has the file name and then the profile of color being used.

Three registration lines to include with your files

When you have a digital file, you control how the design is cut, where the placements are. However, when designing for print, these luxuries go out the window.

More than likely your work is going through a high production printer which carries a lot of speed. Therefore, accuracy is corrected by using an area that measures bigger than the original design to fit everything in the right areas.

  1. Bleed Area
    This is the area for designs that extend from edge to edge (or over the edge). When the paper moves through the printer, sometimes a shift occurs which would displace the accuracy of your edges.
    Therefore, in order for your design to truly be edge to edge, you must extend the design past where you thought it should be cut. A common bleed area is 1/8” or 3 mm to avoid excess printing which increases costs.
  2. Trim Line
    This red area within the outer bleed area is where you plan for your design to be cut. Sometimes there are markers placed on the outer edge to help align the cutting tool for the work. Important information or pieces of the design should stay away from this line in order to avoid the design getting cropped incorrectly if the paper shifts.
  3. Safe Area
    This is why we have the bleed area. But for those who have artwork that absolutely must be on the page and can’t risk being cropped we have this area. The safe area is within the trim area, usually the same width away inside the trim line as the bleed area (1/8” or 3mm). This allows your work’s important content to avoid being cropped should the marginal discrepancies of trimming be enough to be worried about it.

Trim is so miniscule of a difference though, looking at the results of business cards from 2 years ago. You can see that the trim at the top 3 elements is varying thicknesses which just show how much can change in the pinting process.

Outline your fonts before sending the files.

I can almost guarantee that your print company doesn’t have that fancy font you downloaded last week from Creative Market.

So when they go to open your file, it will make them choose a substitute font if it doesn’t already break the file on their end.

To avoid this, all of your text should be saved as their shapes instead of text.

So if you use text in your files or even complex lines, it is probably good to turn those into solid shapes to avoid any unwanted file breaking or changing typefaces or line widths.

Double check everything.

Don’t send your file off without checking these things

And on top of checking all of that, sometimes the printing company will send their own proof before production. Always double check those with the original design. Make sure that you check off the list there too.

If you feel like you might need more info about any one of these areas, let me know and I can expand on these topics.

When in doubt, call your local print company!


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Darian Rosebrook

Brand Identity Designer for @itssomagnetic, running a design community at @compassofdesign. I write to help others grow their skills as designers.

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