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Do you need a design proof? The answer is likely yes. If you're curious about design proofs, what they're for, and why you'd need one, find out all the answers in this article. 

What Is a Design Proof?

A design proof is a preview of your work—think of it as a visual representation that's created for review and/or approval before the final version of your project is produced. 

Design proofs are an essential step in the design process. This step allows for feedback and review to ensure that all requirements and expectations are met. In contrast, imagine sending a large-scale project to print without checking out a test copy first. You could end up with thousands of copies with a mistake or something you hadn't anticipated. Instead, having a proof gives you the opportunity to check out a "test version" of the project before you green-light production.

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Use design proofs to preview your work before its sent to production. Mockup templates from Envato Elements.

Why Do You Need a Design Proof?

Design proofs have many purposes. Here are some of the reasons why a design proof is such an essential part of a solid workflow:

  • Checking your work—proofing is a major part of checking your work for any mistakes. This is your opportunity to see (or even hold and use) a preview of your work. Your graphics, text, images, colors, and layout are presented as they will be in the final version. This means that if something's off, you can catch it before it goes live or into larger production.
  • Sharing your work for feedback—design proofs can be a crucial part of working with clients too. This is an opportunity to get feedback at vital points in the design process, including the final sign-off before going live or into production. It might look correct to you, but what if the client catches something they don't approve of? Better to catch it before the project goes live.
  • Iterations and revisions—proofing is also a strong addition to the revision process. As designers, we typically expect revisions. It's just part of the process. Presenting clients with a proof can help take any ambiguity out of the project's process and outcome.
  • Quality assurance—you never know when there might be an unexpected quality issue. Maybe the client's paper choice just doesn't look as good as they'd hoped. Maybe, in an interactive project, something just doesn't flow like everyone thought it would. Proofs are an essential part of testing and making sure the quality is what it should be.
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Stock photo from Envato Elements

Types of Design Proofs Explained

There are several types of design proofs, each with its own benefits. Let's take a look at the different kinds of proofs that you may want to work with in your next design project.

Hard Proofs

Hard proofs are hard copies of your project—like a physical, tangible test version. Let's say you're designing packaging, a magazine, or a poster. A hard proof would be a printed version of your project that you could touch, interact with, and check for any issues, errors, or places where adjustments are necessary.

This phase of the design process can also be helpful for checking things like color management, color accuracy, and print quality. 

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Hard proofs are a hard-copy "test version" of your final project. Mockup template from Envato Elements.

However, hard proofs can come in many varieties. For example, let's say you're designing a magazine. You could get a hard proof that's almost a perfect match to the finished project if you wanted to. Or you could get a lower-quality hard copy, just to get a feel for the final project—maybe even without any binding. 

Different Types of Hard Proofing

Plotter proofs are a lower-quality hard-copy proof. This can be helpful if you want to be able to page through your magazine, for example, just to get a feel for the layout, the margins, and other aspects.

Press proofs, however, are created using the same press that the final project will be printed on. So the proof created here is pretty true to the final result. Keep in mind, however, that this type of proof is likely more expensive.

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Mockup template from Envato Elements.

It's important to note that hard proofs almost always have a cost—and that cost can be significant, so you'll want to budget it into your project. While it might be tempting to skip hard proofing, let me tell you from experience—it's far more expensive to reprint an entire project than to allot funding to proofing in your budget from the start.

Soft Proofs and Digital Proofs

A soft proof, also known as a digital proof, is a proof that is strictly provided in a digital format. Its purpose, just like a hard proof, is for review, feedback, and approval. One of the main benefits of a soft proof is how easy it is to share it electronically among your team, your clients, and other parties related to your project. Soft proofs are also typically free or low cost—there's no physical production, making them quicker and less expensive than hard-copy proofs.

Check out the example below—this is a completely digital representation of a business card design. Impressive, right? While we can't actually hold it, we can get a feel for it in a high-resolution environment. 

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Soft proofs can be an inexpensive and quick way to preview your work. Mockup template from Envato Elements.

Here are some reasons why you should use soft proofing in your workflow:

  • Digital Files Are Convenient to Share—soft proofs are digital files, like PDFs, JPEGs, PNGs, or other image formats. These files can be easily shared via email or other digital messaging. 
  • It's Even Easier to Revise—this is particularly advantageous for remote collaborations and teams. Something wrong with the proof? Easily change it and send out a new soft proof for a second review.
  • Ideal for Interactive Elements—if your project is web-based or interactive, soft proofs aren't just convenient: they're essential. This test version could allow your client to use a clickable prototype, for example, for feedback before things go live.
  • Efficency and Cost—the cost associated with hard proofing isn't an issue here. In addition, soft proofs potentially save time because they're quicker and easier to share.
  • Easy Annotations and Comments—soft proofing makes it easy to add annotations and comments directly on the proof about specific changes.

Hard Proofs vs. Soft Proofs

So which is better, and what's the difference when it comes to hard proofs vs. soft proofs? The nature of them is largely where they differ, but they're both very useful.

  • Hard proofs are a hard-copy example of your work.
  • Soft proofs are a digital example of your work.
  • Both are tools for gauging the output of your work.

There really isn't a "winner" here because they both serve a similar purpose, but in a different way. In most projects, I tend to use both. Here's a simple overview of the two, for reference:

Hard Proofs

  • Physical test copy of your design.
  • Can come in different degrees of polish—from a rough low-res copy to a fully polished version.
  • Can add to your project's cost significantly, especially if you need more than one proof.
  • Hard proofs take some time to produce.
  • Not as simple to share as a soft proof.

Soft Proofs

  • Quick and simple digital preview of your design, typically a PDF file.
  • Easy to share with others, like a team or clients—as well as sharing notes and comments directly.
  • Can lack some of the details, like color accuracy, that you'd see in a hard proof.
  • Very cost-effective.
  • Generally easy and quick to create and edit.

Ideally, consider relying on soft proofing early in your design process, when you're expecting more revisions. Reserve hard proofs for when things are further along. I like to reserve my final, hard-copy proof for that moment when everything is complete—so there can be a final check for colors, quality, typos, and any other final catches that might be needed. 

How to Proof Your Work

Now that you know what proofing is and why it's necessary, how do you proof your work? There are a number of ways to do so.

  • Check with your printer for proofing availability and pricing associated with your project. You should be able to get pricing and estimates early on, so you can gauge this as part of your project. 
  • Many providers will offer both hard proofs and soft proofs. 
  • However, you're not stuck with a professional printer when it comes to proofing. You can do it on your own too.

If you have a printer in your office or studio, you can create simple hard-copy proofs on your own—perhaps at a lower quality or even at a smaller scale. However, soft proofing can be a really convenient and simple way to preview your work on your own. Things like design mockups can make it very easy to see your work in action before you print.

Check out these examples. All of them are digital files where you can insert your work and then get a preview of what it would look like in action. Of course, this is just a preview—it's not the same as a hard proof—but it can be a valuable way to get a feel for your project during the design process.

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Digital Mockups to Try Now

Interested in trying out some digital mockups? You can find thousands of digital mockup templates on Envato Elements—and the entire library is available for one low price. They're professional-quality, high-resolution files too, so they're absolutely ready for sharing and presenting in a professional setting.

Check out this sample of amazing digital mockups you could use to preview and showcase your work right now. 

1. Book Mockup Templates (PSD, AI)

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Designing a book cover? This mockup template set includes six different compositions you can use to preview what your cover will look like when it's printed.

2. Corporate Stationery Mockups (PSD)

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Creating a professional stationery system? A mockup like this one is the perfect way to preview your design work. Show all of the pieces together to get a feel for how they work as a group.

3. Realistic Business Card Mockup (PSD)

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Business card mockups are a simple and easy way to get a soft preview of what your business card will look like when it's printed. This mockup set comes with several scenes you can test out.

4. T-Shirt Apparel Mockups (PSD)

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If you're designing apparel, you're going to want a feel for what it's going to look like on a model. Mockup templates like this one make it quick and easy to get that soft preview you need.

5. Realistic Magazine Mockup Templates (PSD) 

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Magazine mockups are a great way to get a preview of your magazine cover and spreads. You'll likely want a hard-copy proof for your work, but start things off with a soft preview to get a feel for the overall design.

Learn More About Print and Design Concepts

Want to learn more about print design and design processes? There's plenty more to check out right here at Envato Tuts+. Even better, you can keep learning for free! Here are some free tutorials and resources you can continue with right now. 

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