If you’re unfamiliar with the task of designing for print, it can be daunting. Not only do you have to create and prepare a design that works well on paper, you also have to ensure your project is properly set up for print while avoiding a minefield of common design mistakes. You’ll need to think about color profiles, resolutions, sizing, which type of black you’re going to use (yes, there are multiple types), your application choice (Photoshop, Illustrator, etc.), and of course, bleed and trim. It can all be rather intimidating and, as you may have noticed, there’s a lack of information out there to help you get it right.
Here are six guidelines to follow when designing for print:
1. Know the difference between RGB & CMYK color
RGB (Red/Green/Blue) is an additive system in which light is used to mix colors; the more light you add, the brighter and more vibrant the color becomes. When working on digital designs you’ll often be working in RGB mode because that’s how your monitor works, but problems arise when we create print designs using RGB-based tools.
CMYK (Cyan/Magenta/Yellow/Black(Key)) is a subtractive system in which inks are mixed to create a range of different hues, much like a traditional artist mixes paints. The more ink you mix, the darker the color becomes. The spectrum of colors that can be produced by light is much wider than the range achievable by ink, so print design applications have a special CMYK mode to limit the gamut of colors available when designing for print.
2. Watch your black!
When printing with black, there are two types of black you can use. Black-100 K should be used for body copy and barcodes whereas Rich Black-40 C 40 M 40 Y 100 K should be used when using blocks of black. Rich/packed black specifications may differ from printer to printer so you should ask your printer what they recommend. It may be hard to tell the difference when preparing files on your monitor screen; screens show richer colors in RGB. Therefore, it is wise to get a press proof when printing blocks of black.
3. Keep an eye on your font & line weights
The printing press does a great job of controlling how much ink is placed onto the paper. It works by simply using a lower density of dots in areas that don’t need much coverage. The trouble is, you also lose detail when you go too small, so tiny text and fine hairlines in your artwork are the first elements to become illegible. A limit of 6pt text is the rule of thumb, but it all depends on the style of your typeface. The currently popular Helvetica and Helvetica Neue light fonts can all but disappear at larger sizes due to their superfine lines. Keep this in mind when setting any small print within your designs.
4. Set the correct resolution
On your computer, resolution only alters how large your image looks on screen. In print, resolution determines how sharp and crisp your designs will appear. 72 PPI (pixels-per-inch) is the usual figure for web images, but in print 300 PPI is the standard. The more dots or pixels you can put in every inch, the more detail the overall image will retain when the image is reproduced in ink.
Make sure all your artwork is created at 300 PPI—that includes all images, photography, and type. If you happen to throw a 72 PPI image into your 300 PPI working document, it will appear tiny because it will be resized accordingly. You’re going to need massive images to fill most documents at 300 PPI, so random images from the web won't cut it.
An image cannot be scaled up in resolution, so make sure you set the document size correctly to begin with to avoid having to start from scratch.
5. Don't forget the bleed
Resolution isn’t the only crucial factor when setting up a print design layout. You’ll also need to remember to accommodate for bleed. Bleed is an extra margin around the edge of your design where any background elements that touch the edge of the page are slightly extended. This allows for small inaccuracies when the printed sheet is trimmed to size, so cutting through that buffer of color will avoid leaving any thin white strips of paper along the edge of your print.
The actual amount of bleed you require will differ between print supplier and project, so be sure to select a printer beforehand and follow their specifications.
6. Kern, proofread, and spell check
Typos suck. Despite proofreading, there's always the possibility that an error or two could slip past you. Correcting mistakes is easy on the web but imagine how devastating it would be if you took delivery of 5000 prints only to find a glaring error staring back at you from every single one! Mistakes in print can’t be fixed, so take your time to check for improper kerning, misuse of punctuation, and the usual there/their/they’re errors that aren’t picked up by spell check.
I design for both web and print, and I exercise due diligence (and then some) during the process in order to avoid potential "gotchas" if a client later asks for conversion from one to the other. I can't help thinking big, but I sweat the details.