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So You Want to Be a Print Designer?

This post is part of a series called Careers in Design & Illustration.
So You Want to Be a Gallery Artist?
So You Want to Be an Art Director?
Sticker designs for Stickeroni and Hallmark Cards by Maria Sarria
Sticker designs for Stickeroni and Hallmark Cards by Maria Sarria.

Print design is a varied category of commercial art. Graphic designers in the industry of print design find themselves working on magazine layouts, book covers and layouts, catalogs, greeting cards, packaging, textile prints, and more. It’s a long, fantastic list of artwork and design meant to be recreated in a tangible, printed form.

I interviewed an assortment of designers within the print design industry to get an insight into their work, experiences, and goals as a designer. Consider this your guide to the role of a working print designer.

What Is Print Design?

Anything that is designed with printed media in mind is under the print design umbrella. After poring over my questionnaires and going through my own experiences, here’s a general list of what constitutes print design and what you as a current or future print designer may encounter within a project:

  • Magazine and Newspaper Layout: Readability is key in printed material. Designers may find themselves laying out magazine pages, newspapers, and other media aimed at the reading populace. Much of this work these days also has a digital component, but the general ideas remain the same: present editorial and assorted copy within the boundaries of the medium in a readable and aesthetically pleasing manner.
  • Book Design: From cover to cover, designers have shaped the look and feel of a reader’s experience since long before the days of illuminated manuscripts. Whether you’re the one creating the cover design, giving readers their first look into the book’s contents, or laying out the author’s words within the book itself, designers contribute to books in fantastic ways.
  • Catalogs and Print Ads: Every business needs marketing materials. The limits found within printed marketing materials provide an interesting challenge for designers. As with the categories above, designers have to work within specific print boundaries, making sure all images and content are legible, aesthetically pleasing, and print correctly. No one wants the nightmare of ordering 1,000 copies of a catalog with typos, misaligned images, or on the wrong paper stock.
  • Greeting Cards: You'll find aisles and aisles of cards for every occasion and then some thanks to the designers employed by greeting card companies the world over. Whether they’re designing from scratch with their own illustrations or photos, or using content from elsewhere in their team, combining imagery with witty or heartfelt sayings is a learned skill that needs to sell the card to the consumer within seconds of that card being looked over and read.
  • Packaging Design: Everything that you see on store shelves has been designed by a graphic designer or a team of designers. When designing for packaging, artists lay out product information and artwork using templates that have either been created by product designers in-house or come from another source (stock, industry standard designs housed with manufacturers, etc.). Innovation within packaging design can sell a product without a consumer knowing much about it or the brand. A product’s package is like the cover of a book: it hooks the consumer into it if no other marketing has done so previously.
  • Textile Design and Apparel Prints: This category covers anything from fabric to T-shirts to shoes: any printed media we wear or use for decoration that’s meant to be recreated onto fabric in some way. Designers have to keep track of the product’s limits, ranging from design templates to printing process to resolution. It’s within these boundaries that artists can create fantastic work for textiles.
  • And More… Posters, fliers, postcards, products, and anything that is printed into a tangible object or even published digitally falls under the umbrella of print design and is tasked to graphic designers working in the industry. Understanding a product’s dimensions, printing process, and other limits is among the skill set learned and used on a daily basis by the designer.
Textile design for Converse Inc by Allison Bamcat
Textile design for Converse, Inc. by Allison Bamcat.
"I currently work as a textile pattern designer, illustrating and spec'ing silkscreen, sublimated, and digital prints for textiles. I work closely with a materials team to execute new techniques and finishes for footwear." — Allison Bamcat, Graphics Artist for Converse, Inc.

What Training Do Print Designers Need?

As with other art careers we've covered in this ever growing series of articles, the training necessary to work as a print designer varies from project to project, company to company, and artist to artist. Most I spoke to have some formal training under their belt, often in graphic design or illustration. While a degree may not be necessary (though most I spoke to did have a related BFA), designers do have to build up their portfolio to acquire such work regardless of whether they're working in‑house or on a freelance basis.

Formal schooling allows designers to hone their skills, get a feel for various print design projects, and build up their portfolio with interaction from other students and professors. Additionally, ideas, projects, and techniques that may have never occurred to the student could be assigned. Having the chance to try things out and fail before gunning for proper work is a great experience for artists everywhere, however they manage to find it.

"I went to Wayne State University for a Bachelor of Arts in Graphic Design, graduating Cum Laude in 2007. I started working in a graphic design position in 2005, so a lot of the skills I learned were on the job. [...] I had to learn a lot of digital stuff on my own to keep up with the industry. It gave me a unique set of skills though because I know a lot of the print industry and a good amount of the digital as well." — Julie Miller, In-House Graphic Designer.

Knowing the ins and outs of layout programs like Adobe InDesign and QuarkXPress is often a must-have for resumes (along with image editing, vector, and assorted digital design programs) as most, if not all, design is created or compiled digitally these days. Often digital art classes help with learning such programs, though that’s also quite circumstantial. The point isn't how you learn your craft and the tools necessary to create it, but that you do learn it.

Catalogue design by Shari Cote
Catalogue design by Shari Coté.
"I'm a senior in a technical high school in a design & visual communication shop. We're actually right next to a graphic design shop that handles mostly printing presses and the like. Basically my shop is graphic design without the manual labor." — Shari Coté, Print Design Student.

Where Do Print Designers Work and Who Do They Work With?

Much like other graphic design jobs, wherever there’s a need for print design, there’s (hopefully) room for a designer to fill that position or be contracted for that project. From newspapers and magazines to various consumer products, print designers will find their skills are necessary in order to pull a company or brand’s product together and make it consumer-ready.

The artists I interviewed have worked at apparel companies, book publishers, for comics, in the greeting card industry, for toy companies, and more. Household names like Converse and Hallmark appear on some of their resumes, while many others have worked for smaller companies or indie brands.  

Some designers work by themselves bringing a concept to print-ready status, while others work in a team, whether in-house or freelance, making sure their part is done effectively so that the project proceeds as planned. It’s likely that the larger the company or agency, the more teamwork will be needed.

If you are studying design and aiming to transition into a career after graduation (or after building up their skill set and portfolio), you may find assignments are constructed to mirror real-life agency projects where you're assigned the roles of layout designer, graphic designer, or art director and have to navigate the process of bringing your design to life in a printed, tangible form.

Bon Art product licensing by Stephanie Moran
Bon Art product poster design by Stephanie Moran.
"I work for a Fine Art publisher known as Bon Art, short for Bonartique. We print out posters for wall decor. Many of our prints can be found in Wal-Mart, Kohl’s, Target, etc. I am currently the Art Director." — Stephanie Moran

What Do Designers Need to Know When Designing for Print?

It’s the biggest question and the most important, I think, when it comes to discussing print design. What aspects of the printing process are considered by designers? What information does an art director or client need to tell the designer before a project begins? How can not having the right information affect a project?

Firstly, designers need to know if they’re designing or laying out content to a provided template or one they’re creating themselves. Knowing what the product is ahead of time is a must for every artist involved. Designing a magazine spread and finding out later that the margins are wrong or the orientation is wrong can waste time and money, and may change an entire design depending on how unique it was in the first place.

If, for instance, you're designing a pair of shoes to be manufactured by another company, you need to know what the printer's color limits are, if any, and what the best orientation of your design will be for the template later used by the printer and manufacturer. 

In my own experience, communication has been key in making sure a printed design sent off to a factory came back to me in sample form as originally envisioned. I had to request the templates being used by the factory themselves so I could not only send my print files in the correct format but also show them how the design should be laid out on the template and what the final product should look like.

Comic books from M Victoria Robados portfolio
Comic books from M. Victoria Robado's Sushi Press.
“I get the original pages from the Japanese editorials. I make sure they’re the right size and dpi to begin lettering. I do all the lettering work in Photoshop, then lay them out in Adobe Indesign using the printer requirements (and a template I created), and package everything so my editor can add the finishing touches. Page size varies a lot. Around 6500 px x 9000 px, 1200 dpi (B&W offset printing requests 1200 dpi) for the cleanest line art.” — M. Victoria Robado, when working for Seven Seas Entertainment.

Secondly, a designer needs to know a bit about the final printing process. If a document needs to be in CMYK but was designed in RGB, it can be converted later but the colors may be off. Additionally, if it’s never changed, the sample product or final product may present bizarre tones the designer or client didn’t expect. Knowing the color limits, document types expected by the printers, and whether gradients or flat colors are acceptable contributes heavily to a well-executed project.

Thirdly, I mentioned previously that not having the right product or document information before a project begins (or during its run where it can be changed easily) can waste a lot of time and money correcting that mistake once sent to the printers. Often it’s wise to request a printing proof before the product is put into production. Doing so allows those involved in the project to iron out any issues that may have been overlooked or miscommunications with the printer.

Stephanie Moran for Bon Arts
Stephanie Moran, printed wall decal for Bon Art.
"300 dpi is the most important thing to remember and working large! Some standard sizes I use are 20x20 and 24x36. Even when the most common size for wall decor is 12x12 and 16x20 sometimes we get a request to make an image large for an “over the couch” piece and it’s nice to know the image will not fall apart if enlarged to the size requested." — Stephanie Moran, Art Director at Bon Art.

What Are Deadlines Like?

To answer this question I asked my interview subjects what their project experiences have been over the years. I find having a general understanding of what’s expected of the designer in terms of their role, content, and deadlines can be helpful when checking out career options or getting into a new facet of commercial art.

Spot illustration by Maria Sarria
Spot illustration by Maria Sarria.
“Deadlines have come to me in just about every fashion! From a comfortable time-frame of a month for a small painting, to a grueling (and highly unrealistic) 2 days for 140 original illustrations! […] What is really important is to consistently give them updates between start and deadline date!” — Maria Sarria, Freelance Illustrator and Designer.
Infographic layout design by Stephanie Moran
Infographic layout design by Stephanie Moran.
"[The Client] will request a category and their meeting date. Sometimes the requests are broad. For example they have a meeting for Inspirational images and have a week until the meeting. This gives me enough time to collect any existing images, reach out to artist and get to design a new one myself." — Stephanie Moran, Art Director at Bon Art.

Advice From Print Designers

"Do not give up. It took me nearly 10 years to finally make something of my art in the business world and be published." — Jenifer Chetwin of MadMouseMedia.
Eerie cuties comic with inks and color by M Victoria Robado aka Shouri
Eerie Cuties comic with inks and color by M. Victoria Robado, aka Shouri.
"If you wanna be a comic artist/etc, learning how books/magazines are made is a must for me. I think it’s a good thing I became a graphic designer first, as I have the tools to create the books myself, and a lot of insight about marketing/logos, etc, everything needed to get the comic going." — M. Victoria Robado, aka Shouri.
"I am just starting, so really I may be in the same boat as you. Freelancing is not that easy but it can be worth it when you and the client are both happy with the results." — Mariana Flores, Freelance Designer.
Oilhead Press Kit 2012 by Allison Bamcat
Oilhead Press Kit 2012 by Allison Bamcat.
"Not everything you're proud of is what makes it to market, but when you can be proud of everything you do, you'll always win. There is always more to learn, and there is always a better, quicker way to do things. And when you work with a large team of people, staying humble helps." — Allison Bamcat, Graphics Artist for Converse, Inc.


So you want to be a print designer? There’s a lot more to consider for print design than just how fantastic your artwork or layout will look on screen, at your workstation. 

Print designers need to know product specifications, printing processes, and how to get the best print quality from their work. Whether working on a project in a team or solo, designers need to be on their toes to make sure layout, art, and designs are ready for the next step, which is often out of their hands. Get to know print processes, product designs, and how to communicate effectively with clients, printers, and manufacturers, and you’ll have a brilliant career for sure.

I’d like to thank the designers who took time out of their busy schedules and lives to answer my questions, share their experiences, and share their artwork with us. You can check out their work or social media accounts in the links below:

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