Designed to Print

As designers, it’s important for us to recognize our shared responsibility with the printer to produce high quality work. It’s easy for us to shirk responsibility and put all the onus on the printer, but that doesn’t serve us, the printer, or most importantly, our clients very well.

Get the Printer Involved Sooner Than Later

The sooner we get the printer involved in the design process, the better. Understanding the printing process makes us better designers. Printing is not only science, it’s also a craft and thus is subject to the skills and attention of each person who touches the job and the equipment they use. We need to know and understand the limitations of their equipment so that we can design around those limitations. If we take the attitude that it’s the printer’s responsibility and not ours, the job will suffer. You want your jobs to print their best and the best way to ensure that happening is to learn more about what your printer needs in order to transform your design concepts into tangible printed materials. It’s also important to choose the right printer for the job. Understanding the different print shops and their capabilities will help you choose the printer best suited for each project. Does your job require coatings, die-cutting, trapping, overprints, underprints, double-hits, binding, embossing, debossing, imposition or folding? Your printer can provide you with invaluable advice and tips that will save you time and money, as well as prevent a catastrophe.

Meet Face to Face

It’s a great idea to schedule a meeting with the printer before the design is done. Bring in thumbnail sketches or samples of similar pieces and discuss the specifics of your job before you build the files. If you wait until the job is designed and approved by the customer, you may have to go back and make changes to approved file(s). That means your signed proof would no longer be valid. You could either ask your client to approve another proof (which would not build trust and confidence with them) or you could just hope for the best (which puts you at risk). If you can incorporate the printer’s recommendations into your job as it’s being built, the customer will sign off on the correct version and you’ll end up with a job that’s built right, the first time.

Communicate, Communicate

The only way to work effectively as a team is through communication. This means communication between the designer, the pre-press technician, the press operator and the bindery/finishing operator. There are no shortcuts to good communication and the better you build your relationship and your level of communication with your printer, the more effective your team will be and the better your jobs will look (and the fewer surprises you will encounter).


Following are Some Tips for Designing to Print

Rich Black

Did you know that large black solids should use a “Rich Black” or “Built Black”? If you use regular black, it’s likely to look washed out and it will probably overprint any other items which are below it (which could be obvious). If you use a rich black, it won’t overprint by default. Do you know what build your printer prefers? All presses are not created equal, some printers like 60%M, 40%M, 20%C, 100%K. Others prefer 30%C, 30%M, 30%Y, 100%C. Don’t assume you know the best build, ask.


Many designers don’t understand trapping and feel it’s the printer’s responsibility to trap the job. I ask you, would you want your printer to choose the weight of the fonts in your piece? Because in essence, that’s what you’re doing if you let them manage the trapping without your help.

Let’s say you are using 8 pt Adobe Garamond Light in red and that red type runs just over the edge of a photograph in the page. By default, that red type will spread and by the time it’s printed, will look more like a bloated version of Adobe Garamond Bold than Adobe Garamond Light. If you and the printer recognize this color relationship up front, you can design around it or have the printer (or you) manually trap around it.


Do you know how to build an Adobe Illustrator file that can be used to build dies? Talk to the printer and the shop who is doing the diecutting (if it’s being outsourced). Usually you will want to use a custom spot color named DIESTRIKE or EMBOSS. That color should overprint everything. (You probably don’t want your ink knocking out where the die hits.) Learn what your printer or bindery house needs and you can save everyone time and effort.

How Many Colors?

Does your job require 2 colors, 4 colors or 6 colors? Sometimes you might assume 4-color process but your printer could suggest an additional spot color either to match a PMS in a logo or to bolster the look of a photograph. The printer can create additional plates to make your photos pop. But they are not usually going to take it upon themselves to do so, you need to ask them if there’s anything they can suggest that might help the piece look better. Take advantage of their experience.

Metallic Inks

Did you know that it’s a good idea to use coatings anytime you are printing metallics? Especially if you’re printing a large solid metallic. Metallic colors are very slow to cure and can smear days after the print job is done. Most printers will recommend dull or gloss varnish, aqueous or UV coating over a metallic solid. Ask your printer which coatings they recommend and see if you need to create a spot varnish die in your file(s).


What paper is best to print your job? Printers know paper and can help you choose the perfect sheet for your job. They can also tell what is and is not available. It’s no fun to spec the perfect paper only to find out it isn’t available or it’s a mill item. Tell the printer what type of paper you’re considering (coated, uncoated, smooth, textured, glossy, dull), then ask them which paper they recommend for your job. Make sure to ask what weights are available and touch samples of the ones you are considering.

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