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Design

The A to Z of Print Design

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Perfecting, preparing and producing your designs for print can be a baffling process. From need-to-know printing methods, like offset and letterpress printing, to perfecting your design techniques for print, such as knowing your spot from your process colors, we take a look at the key terms you need to know.

Swot up on your knowledge of print design with this handy A to Z of essential print design terms, and pick up some helpful tips along the way!

A

acrobat

Acrobat: Software developed by Adobe to allow designers and printers to create, edit and print files in Portable Document Format (PDF) (see also PDF, P, below). 

Alignment: Adjusting the alignment of text on your layout can dramatically alter the appearance of your whole design. Experiment with flushing text to the left or right, centering it on the page, justifying large chunks of text to neaten its appearance, or aligning text towards or away from the spine to create a unique, modern look.

B

binding

Balance: Successful print layouts have one thing in common: they are balanced. Juxtaposing dense areas of text against clearer areas of the layout (see White Space, W, below), and drawing the eye to a single key focus on the layout—whether that’s one strong image or a dramatic piece of typography—help to create a sense of balance in the design.

Bevel: Applying an artificial bevel to a graphic element on your computer gives the element a lifted effect. Applying bevelling to print designs has fallen out of favor in recent years, with flat design now being the dominant trend.

Binding: Once your design has been printed, it may need to be bound if the document is made up of multiple pages. There are many options for binding a print document, each of which will be suited to particular products (e.g. paperback and hardback books, brochures, reports). It's also affected by the weight of the paper and the number of pages. Different sorts of binding include saddle-stitch, velo, fastback, Wir-O, perfect, side-stitch, case, sewn-and-glued, and lay-flat.

Bitmap: Bitmap graphics are made up of a number of tiny pixels, and differ in format from vector graphics (see Vector, V, below). Resizing bitmap graphics can result in a loss of quality and an undesirable pixelated appearance, so you should always be sure to use very high-quality bitmap images in your print designs.

Bleed: A bleed is a space that extends past the edge of the page(s) of your print layout. You should always include a bleed on your print-ready files if any elements (e.g. images, colored backgrounds) on your layout will cross the edge of the page (the trim edge). Once the layout is printed and trimmed, a bleed will minimise the visibility of any slight errors in trimming.

Book: Books are an ancient method of presenting written and visual information. They consist of multiple pages, bound along the inside edge, and encased in a cover. Bibles were among the first ever printed books produced in Europe, after Johannes Gutenberg introduced the wooden printing press to Germany in the 15th Century. Today, books are available in many different sizes and formats, including paperback (a more recent, inexpensive format, in use since the 19th Century) and hardback.

Brief: A clear, logical client brief is essential to pin down before you begin your print design. Coax the client into providing a brief that is to-the-point and covers all bases (to prevent any disputes later down the line!) by providing them with a template for the brief that asks specific questions about their hopes for the end result.

Brochure: Brochures are usually used to communicate information about a company’s services, ethos or products. They differ from flyers (see Flyers, F, below) in that they are usually printed on thicker, glossier paper and they may be folded (see Fold, F, below) or bound (see Binding, B, above).

Budget: Be sure to know your printing budget before you begin a print design. Variations in color use, paper finish and weight, number of pages, print volume, delivery, and special effects like foiling and die cutting will all have a direct impact on the cost of completing the print job. Pin down your allocated budget to help shape your design decisions before you begin!

C

CMYK

Client: Any print design project will involve a minimum of three parties: the client, the designer (you!) and the printer. While you should feel confident in your own abilities to meet the demands of the brief, you should be sure to keep your client involved at vital stages of the print design process, particularly during the budget negotiations, at the draft approval stage, and to seek approval of print proofs (see Proofing, P, below). Most importantly, you should never send anything to print without seeking the client’s sign-off for the job. Ignore this at your peril!

CMYK: CMYK refers to the four inks that are used in four-color printing: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (Black). Each color in your print design will be rendered through a combination of these four inks. You should always set color in your print designs in CMYK, not RGB, which is only suitable for layouts that will be rendered digitally online or on screen.

Color: Your print layouts will be rendered in color, even if that only involves application of black ink on the page. You should render color in CMYK (see above) to ensure the best printed result. But you can also apply spot colors (see Spot Colors, S, below) to your design if appropriate. It is common that the color you see on screen will differ from how the color appears in print. To minimise this difference, you can calibrate your screen.

Commercial Printing: You can send your print-ready files to a commercial printer, who can offer digital and traditional printing services. You can arrange to review proofs through a commercial printer, and also arrange for post-printing services (e.g. folding, binding, delivery, etc.) through the print shop or to be sent on to a recommended specialist trader.

Communication: The end result of the print design process should be effective visual communication. Designing for print is like copywriting, but in a visual medium. Your final design should be effective at communicating a message to the viewer. This means you should design for print with the viewer in mind at all times. It’s all well and good designing something you love, but if it fails to communicate with the relevant audience, the design has ultimately failed. 

Copies: Unless you’re producing a one-off bespoke print product, it’s likely you will want to have several copies of your item printed. High-volume print runs are better value than low-volume runs, and you should aim to have an accurate estimate of the number of copies needed—subsequent print runs of a product you have already had printed can be time-consuming and costly. 

Copy Shops: A copy shop is the right place to go when you want lower volumes of your document produced at short notice. Choices in things like paper weight and finish may be more limited than if you were to go through a commercial printer (see above)

Cover: Bound books, whether hardback or paperback, will need a separate cover consisting of front, back and spine, designed, exported and sent to the printer as a separate file to the inside pages. Pick up some tips for creating your own book cover designs from this Tuts+ tutorial.

Creativity: Even though you need to keep some print design rules in mind, such as sticking to a basic grid (see Grid, G, below) and maintaining balance (see Balance, B, above) in your layout, you shouldn’t let these limit your creativity. Print design is the perfect medium for showcasing exceptionally creative ideas and concepts. The print poster is a medium with a famous tradition of pushing creative boundaries. Check out advertising posters from the 20th and 21st Centuries to get your creative juices flowing!

D

Die

Deadline: Setting a realistic deadline that allows you to calmly move through each stage of your planned schedule (see Schedule, S, below) is an essential step towards a successful print project. Talk to your printer to get a realistic timeline for printing, before negotiating a final delivery deadline with your client. 

Debossing: The process of sinking a relief image into paper; the result will appear raised on the reversed side of the design (see also Embossing, E, below).

Delivery: Once your design is printed and post-produced (e.g. folded, bound, etc.), it will need to be delivered to the client’s address. Some designers prefer to have the delivery sent first to their own address, allowing a window to check out the final product, before arranging delivery to the client. Either way, you should allow adequate time in your schedule (see Schedule, S, below) to accommodate for delivery. 

Die: A die is a specially made tool for cutting or shaping paper, card or board in a press. A bit like a mould, a die is usually custom-made by the printer for the specific print project. Therefore, the cost of creating the die may be added to the invoice for the job. You can ask the printer to keep hold of the die for future jobs, or you may want to keep the die on your own premises.

Die-cutting: If you want to have a shape cut into your design, or have a custom edge, your design will need to be cut on a special die-cutting machine. Depending on how sophisticated the die-cutting machine is, a specialist can also cut, emboss or draw using the machine. 

Digitization: Most commercial printers now use digital printing to produce print products. Instead of needing to produce printing plates for more traditional offset printing (see Offset Printing, O, below), digital printing works straight from digitally-generated files. Generally, digital printing is quicker and less labor-intensive than traditional printing methods.

Duotone: Duotone is a generic term for describing multitone printing, using two (Duotone), three (Tritone) or four (Quadtone) inks.

E

Embossing

Embossing: The process of creating raised relief images on paper. Embossing is a separate stage of the production process, and is achieved using a die (see also Die, and Debossing, both D, above).

F

Foil

File Format: You should export your print design file to a suitable format for sending on to the printer. Most printers will normally ask you to provide the file in a print-ready PDF (see PDF, P, below) format, or as native Creative Suite files (e.g. .psd, .ai, .indd). Some vector formats (e.g. EPS) or bitmap formats (e.g. TIFF) may also be suitable.

Flyer: A flyer is a single-page, inexpensively produced paper advertisement, often used for on-street or postal distribution. 

Foil: Foil stamping is the process of applying metallic pigment, or foil, to a printed item. A heated die is used to apply the foil (usually in gold or silver, but numerous other options are available, such as pastels), and this is often paired with embossing (see Embossing, E, above) to enhance the effect. 

Fold: Many print documents, such as brochures, booklets and menus, will need to be folded after printing. Printers normally offer this service as part of the print process, but note that folded items may be more expensive and time-consuming to produce.

Four-Color Black: Black is actually made up of a combination of four CMYK inks, Four-Color Black. This means there are variants of black: C=0 M=0 Y=0 K=100 actually results in a less rich black, and may appear more grey when printed. Up your CMYK percentages to something like C=40 M=30 Y=30 K=100 to create a ‘rich black’.

G

Grid

Geometric Layouts: When first drafting a print layout, try to think of the layout in terms of a series of geometric shapes. Headings can be blocked out in rectangles, while other key elements (such as images and body text) could be rendered in circles, triangles, squares, or slim rectangular columns. Drawing a rough plan of the layout using simple shapes can be helpful for assessing how balanced (see Balance, B, above) the layout will be.

Grid: A grid is made up of intersecting vertical and horizontal lines on your layout that help structure the content of your design. The grid lines won’t be visible on the final printed product, only on your working files. A grid helps to promote balance (see BalanceB, above) in your print layout.

I

Invoice

‘In-House’ (or Desktop) Printing: If you don’t need to print many copies of your design, and are not too concerned with seeking professional printing advice, creating custom (or large) sizes, optimising color, or using different paper weights or finishes, then feel free to print on an in-house, desktop inkjet printer. You should only really do this for basic documents that are going to be shared in-house or for printing off drafts. Always go to a professional printer (see Commercial Printing, C, above) to produce high-quality prints of your designs.

Invoice: A copy shop (see C, above) may ask for payment up-front on receipt of goods, but a commercial printer is more likely to invoice you for the cost of the print job on delivery. There will then normally be around 28 days in which you are expected to process the payment. Be sure to acquire a quote (see Quote, Q, below) and to firm up your budget (see B, above) before allowing the printer to go ahead with the job, to avoid any nasty surprises on the invoice.

L

Letterpress

Leading: You can increase the line-spacing (leading) of text on your print design layout to increase legibility and generally make the layout appear more polished, clean and attractive. 

Legibility: Print design, as we’ve looked at already, is all about effective communication (see C, above). Even if your design looks attractive, if your typography fails to be clear and readable, your design has ultimately failed. Look at your layout from different distances—if it’s for a book, you don’t want to strain your eyes when close to the page, but for a large-scale poster, text size should be exaggerated to allow you to view the design from some distance away.

Letterpress: Letterpress printing is a traditional relief printing technique, using a press. The process is more time-consuming than digital (see D, above) and offset (see O, below) printing, but arguably produces more attractive results. Letterpress is enjoying a resurgence, as more people rediscover this traditional printing method.

M

Margins

Magazine: Magazines are an ever-popular print medium, and vary widely in subject matter as well as print quality. High-end glossies will be more expensive to produce, as they tend to have a higher page volume and are printed on glossier, heavier paper. Learn how to create your own magazine layout for print here.

Margins: Margins are a really important feature of print design layouts. Aesthetically, they give your design some breathing space, and make designs look polished and professional. From a technical perspective, margins that aren’t very generous can be a nightmare for printers, who will have a hard time trimming the page edge accurately without risking cutting into text or images.

Marks: When you export your print design to a print-ready PDF (see P, below), you will be prompted to include printer’s marks. These marks can be helpful for a printer when processing your document. Marks that you can include are Crop Marks, Bleed Marks, Registration Marks, Color Bars and Page Information.

N

Newspaper

Negative Space: To promote balance (see Balance, B, above) on your layouts, you should think about increasing the amount of white space (see W, below) and possibly negative space in your design. Negative space, the space around and between the boundaries of a shape or image, can create interest in your design while maintaining a minimal feel.

Newspaper: Inexpensive to print, newspapers are a traditional paper format for communicating news and events. Once printed only in monochrome, in more recent decades newspapers have included colored photos and text. 

O

Offset

Offset Printing: A traditional and common method of printing, offset printing is a technique where the inked image is ‘offset’ (transferred) from a plate to a rubber blanket, then finally to the printing surface. Offset printing on paper was developed in the USA in the early 20th Century.

Output Specifications: You may be asked to check output specifications for a print job when going through a commercial print house (see Commercial Printing, C, above). This may include information about the job, the client, and delivery options, as well as technical details such as information about separations and proofs.

P

Plates

Package (relevant to Adobe InDesign): If you’re providing a native InDesign file to your printer, you should make sure to package the file first before sending; this groups the InDesign file, image files and font files into one handy folder.

Page: A ‘page’ is a single readable surface in your print document; its content may be linked to other pages, but it exists as a single, isolated page. A single sheet of A4 paper could be transformed into four A5-sized pages when folded down the middle. 

Paper: Most print designs will be printed onto some kind of paper, unless you are producing something more specialist, like exhibition materials or outdoor banners. Paper comes in various colors (there are actually hundreds of variations on ‘white’ paper), weights (which is measured in grams per square meter, GSM), coatings and finishes.

PDF: Portable Document Format (PDF); the normally recommended format for providing your print-ready files to the printer. Adobe Acrobat (see A, above) is the software program used to create, edit and manage PDF files.

Planning: Arguably the most important stage of print design is the initial planning stage. This involves receiving and understanding a brief, negotiating a budget, creating a schedule (see S, below) and making contact with a printer to receive a printing timeline and a quote for the job.

Plates: Printing plates are used to transfer your design to paper. Printing plates can be made of metal, plastic, rubber, paper, or other materials. Plates are used in Offset Printing (see O, above).

Preflight: When you have finished creating a layout in InDesign, you should run a preflight to check for errors. Content errors, such as over-running text, will be highlighted in the preflight, as well as technical errors, such as color issues.

Printer: You guessed it—print design will result in having to print your work! You have several different options for printing, including In-House (Desktop) printing (see I, above), Copy Shops (see C, above) or Commercial Printing (see C, above).

Printing Press: A press is a machine used to transfer ink evenly onto paper or cloth. The world’s first printing press was invented in Germany in the 15th Century.

Print Run: A ‘print run’ describes the number of copies of a print product, e.g. a book, magazine, flyer, etc., printed at any one time. High-volume print runs (see Volume, V, below) can be better value than several low-volume runs.

Process Color Printing: A process color is printed using a mix of four process inks: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (Black) (see CMYK, C, above).

Proofing: You should ask your printer to provide you with a print proof, which is usually a single copy of your printed design, before giving the go-ahead for the full print run. There are many different kinds of proofs and they can involve some or all of the following: proofing text, proofing separations, proofing digital color, blueline proofs, laminate proofs, and press proofs.

Q

Quote

Quote: A commercial printer (see C, above) will ask you about the specifications of your print job and provide you with a quote. You can reduce the size of the quote, or improve its value, by adjusting the volume of the print run (see V, below) or changing the color of your design, e.g. dispensing with spot colors, or printing in Duotone (see D, above).

R

Resolution

Reader’s Spreads: This term describes how a reader would actually view your multi-page document once it’s printed and bound. This differs, however, from how the document is actually printed, which the printer would view as ‘Printer’s Spreads’. You don’t need to worry about setting up your working layout in printer’s spreads—your printer will use additional software to arrange your pages two-up onto larger plates, in printer spread order.

Resolution: You should always use images that are high resolution in your print designs. Low resolution images can appear pixelated or blurry when printed, and should be reserved only for digital design.

Right Brain (and Left Brain): It’s generally accepted that the left side of the brain is associated with logic, rational thought, and verbal reasoning skills. The right side of the brain, by contrast, controls more emotional thought and is more visual. You might feel you fall more on one side than the other, or have a good balance of both. 

When designing for print, your task is to present a balanced design that appeals to both more logical, less visual people and also to people who are more likely to connect with a print design in a more emotional sense. This is particularly important to keep in mind when you are designing for advertising print design. 

S

Spot color

Schedule: A key part of planning (see P, above) your print design project, setting a schedule for the process from start to finish will keep you feeling calm and organized. From receiving a clear brief, to reviewing drafts and proofs, to signing-off for print and post-production and delivery, allocate a realistic timeline for each stage of the process—and stick to it!

Separations: There are two kinds of separation, both of which determine how color is rendered on your printed document. Process color separation separates a color image into four different ink colors: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. These are then printed on top of each other to create a hugely diverse number of colors. Spot color separation (see Spot Colors, below) separates colors that are not to be mixed.

Signature (units) (see also Binding): A signature is a section of paper that makes up part of a whole bound book. All the paper used in a book is divided into a number of signatures and sewn together. The number of paper in a signature can vary, and can depend on the number of pages in the book and the weight (thickness) of the paper.

Size: When creating your design for print, you will work on a page of a size that you have specified in your working program (e.g. Adobe InDesign). There are standard sizes (e.g. A4, A3, US Letter) that can be easily printed on most desktop printers. Custom sizes, or sizes that are particularly small or large, will need to be printed and trimmed by a professional printer.

Slug: A slug is a bit of space that extends beyond the page edge (trim) and bleed of your InDesign document. This is a great little place to put draft notes or instructions if you’re sharing your file with other designers or printers.

Spot Colors: Spot, sometimes termed ‘Solid’, colors, are created by an ink, either pure or mixed, that is printed on a single print run. Pantone colors are spot colors, and the final printed color result is usually more predictable than process colors (see Process Color Printing, P, above). You should be aware that including spot colors in your layouts can make the print job more expensive, due to the additional print run needed to print the color.

Spread: A set of two facing pages in a multi-page print document. (See also Page, P, above).

Symmetry: Print layouts generally fall into two categories: symmetrical or asymmetrical. Each has its own sort of appeal, with asymmetrical layouts creating interest for the eye, while symmetrical layouts tend to emphasise the perfection of a design, which has a calming effect on the eye.

T

Tint

Tint: A tint is a lightened version of a color, which is created by mixing the color with white.

Trapping: Printers developed the technique of trapping, adjusting areas where two distinct, adjacent colors meet, so that press misregistration would not result in any white spaces. 

Trim: The edge of your page is also termed the ‘trim’ edge. This is the line along which your final printed design will be cut, or trimmed. 

Typography: Effective and legible (see Legible, L, above) typography can really lift your print design. Typography is the arrangement of type to make it appear attractive and uniform.

V

Volume

Vector: Vector graphics are made up of scalable objects, and as a result will not lose their quality if resized. Vector graphics are a great choice for ensuring your printed layout appears sharp and in high resolution (see Resolution, R, above). 

Volume: A high-volume print run can be much better value for money than a limited print run. Discuss your expected volume with your printer—you may find that the difference in printing a few hundred extra copies is relatively minimal once you’re in the high-volume numbers. (See also Copies, C, above).

W

Weight

Weight: Different kinds of paper (see P, above) have different weights, measured in GSM (grams per square meter). The weight effects how thick, or dense, the paper feels. Paper with a low GSM tends to be on the less expensive side, and you may be able to see the reverse printed side through the paper more easily. Papers with a high GSM tend to feel more robust and luxurious.

White Space: To promote balance (see Balance, B, above) in your print designs, try incorporating more white space into your layouts. White space doesn’t have to be white—it just has to be empty, to give the other elements on the page more breathing space.

Note on Fonts

To imitate the letterpress-style look of the images used throughout this article, download these beautiful free fonts: Matiz, and the decorative glyph font Adhesive Nr. Seven.

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