The Printer’s Guide to Design – Starters

Header image: Getting your piece set up correctly from the beginning makes all the difference in the world. If you’ve got your sizing, pagination, layout, folding schemes, colors, etc. all in place before you send it over to the printer, the odds of your work coming off the press looking perfect increase exponentially. Here, we’ve got a six-page brochure set up for print in Adobe InDesign.



Print – frequently utilized but seldom understood.

Despite the on-going misconception that print is a dead medium, print and paper sales continue to grow year after year. People may be less inclined to pick up a newspaper than they used to be but when even tech giants like Google and Amazon use mailers and print media, you know they’ve gotta be on to something.

So let’s put that debate aside for the time being and get into the nitty gritty – you’ve got the funds and you’ve got a great idea but how do you translate it over to paper? Where do you start?

Well first off, get yourself a great designer [insert obligatory self promotion here] and then just skip the rest of this article because any good print-maker should know all of this by heart.

However, if you’re new to print media or if you’re just looking for ways to make your local prepress technician happy, then get your mock-ups ready and read on to get my checklist on getting that perfect piece into print.

1. Choose the right program

This one might seem ridiculously simple but you would be surprised at how many issues print shops run into because someone made an 8.5×11″ poster in Photoshop at 72 dpi and then wants to blow it up to 24×36″ – yikes. You can actually count the pixels on the finished product when that happens.

I use primarily the Adobe Creative Suite so each project usually involves InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, or a combination of the three. With these and all design software, it is crucial to know your vision before you even start on a project. If it’s going to be text-heavy, use InDesign. If you’re making a logo, it absolutely must be done in Illustrator or another vector program. If you put raster images in Illustrator, you end up with needlessly huge files sizes and text in Photoshop loses any vector aspects when you save it as an image.

Know the specialties and weaknesses of each of your programs and choose the appropriate one from the very beginning. And seriously, stop laying out 8-page brochures in Photoshop.

2. Think about folds

If your project does anything other than cut to finished size and lie flat, you absolutely need to think about folding schemes from the very beginning.

For example, if you’re designing a self-mailer (if it dumps right into the mail with no envelope) you have to be very careful about the placement of your mail panel. If you design your piece and neglect this portion until the very end, it will cause problems on-press and at the post office. God forbid you put your final fold at the top of your mail piece instead of the bottom.

Whether you’ve got a tri-fold, a gate fold, a letterfold, or whatever, you need to consider the layout and final orientation of all the art from the very beginning.

3. Make it the right size

Again, this one seems very simple but I guarantee you that print shops get files that are incorrectly sized each and every day.

As soon as you create a new document, you set the page size and orientation. This defines everything you do going forward so you must be certain that you type in the correct dimensions from the beginning or you will suffer for it in the end.

One of the most common errors printers see is a mail piece that doesn’t fit in its envelope. Sounds silly, right? It happens all the time – people get excited about their beautiful 5×7″ invitation and completely forget that they ordered A6 envelopes (4.75×6.5″). If you’re making a 12×18″ poster, then don’t create your art on an 8.5×11″ sheet; it won’t scale properly and it just costs everyone time, frustration, and ultimately money.

Most paper size errors are at least fixable but why not just get it right from the beginning?

4. Make it bleed

This tip always sounds so gruesome but it’s not as bad as you think. “Bleed” is an extra bit of artwork – usually .125″ on each side – that gives the person cutting down your print job a little bit of slack when they’re trimming your piece to size.

Print shops almost never run something at finished size because that’s just not very efficient and it would be nearly impossible to get images to go all the way to the edge of the paper that way. Instead, printers run several of each piece up on a larger sheet of paper and then trim them down to final size. This allows them to run jobs in a cost-effective way that also results in better-looking pieces.

Because of this, you need to build bleed into your files. On the set up screen for programs like InDesign and Illustrator, there is a bleed option just after you type in your document size. From there, all you need to do is make sure your images go all the way to the bleed line but keep any text or crucial elements at least .125″ away from the edge of the paper – remember that the bleed will be trimmed off so don’t put anything pertinent in there.

5. Think about color

Color is one of the easiest aspects of document set up because for the most part, the design software takes care of all of this for you. However, don’t get too wild with your colors and pay attention to the types of colors you’re adding in.

For example, avoid using RGB swatches for print pieces. Print uses the CMYK color spectrum so, while the colors can be easily converted from one to the other, they never look quite the same. You don’t want to select the perfect color only to be very disappointed by its CMYK counterpart.

Also avoid using too many spot colors. They slow the process down and confuse your prepress technician. They’re alright for logos and such but can cause issues down the road so keep them to a minimum if possible.

Lastly, use 4-color text very sparingly. If you’ve got 8-point text that is 60% cyan, 60% magenta, 60% yellow, and 100% black, your poor pressman has to try to get all of those tiny dots perfectly aligned on press, which is simply not going to happen. Make all small text 100% black if at all possible.

And stop using the ‘Registration’ color swatch. Period.

6. It’s all about images

Photos and illustrations are probably the most important and yet most overlooked aspect of any print piece. Invest the time and money into getting good images. Color-correct them so that no one in your photos looks orange or green and keep them from getting too dark or too washed out. And, above all, check the resolution of each and every photo you use.

Nothing says ‘I know nothing about print design’ quite like an ugly, pixelated image. One of the reasons I love InDesign so much is because of its handy ‘Links’ panel, where it will give you a host of details about each image, including its actual and effective resolutions. I check this panel relentlessly as I design because nothing spoils a piece like a fuzzy image.

Invest the time in finding good images for your pieces, whether you cruise through stock photo sites or go out and snap a few of your own. It is worth it.


There you have it! There’s always more to learn and more ways to improve but these basic tips should at least get you started on the right foot. Still think you need some assistance? I know someone who can help with that.

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