You're a web design ninja who eats CSS layouts, responsive design, and web standards for breakfast. But when a client asks you to design and produce a print project, you don't even know where to begin. Web design and print production involve different skill sets. And the stakes are high — unlike editing a web page, a small printing mistake can be expensive to resolve.
As a web designer, there are a few things you’ll need to learn to create print materials, including how to set up documents and prepare files for a print vendor. Once you’ve mastered these skills and the best practices I share in this article, you’ll be eating print materials for breakfast, too.
Like embarking on a web design project, starting a print project involves gathering the requirements and determining the scope of the project. Its content will dictate which tools you use to design the print file. Is the design comprised exclusively of photographic images? Does it include stylized text? Are you designing a text-only single page flyer? Or are you printing a multipage brochure with columns of text and a variety of images?
While there are no hard and fast rules, here are some basic guidelines:
Print pro: The unparalleled page-layout control. No browser differences to interfere with your vision!
Print con: CMYK ink applied to paper can't replicate the look of the RGB light-emitting pixels emanating from your monitor’s screen.
Before you begin a print project, ask your client the following questions:
In web design, the length of a page is variable. If you add text, the page simply grows longer and scrolls in a browser window. You don't have this luxury with print. You have to know the exact dimensions of the page in advance so that when you create the source file, you can set the width and height to match the final print output.
The number of colors is important because a print vendor will charge by the color. A CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) print is charged as a four-color print job. Each of the colors is printed in a separate pass and involves an additional step. These four inks are standard on most color print jobs; even color photos are rendered in CMYK.
It's smart to identify the print shop that will produce the job so you can contact them in advance to discuss your goals. They can provide helpful information specific to their press and maybe even give you template files to work from. Follow their advice to produce a file that results in the best possible print quality.
Once you have these details and you’ve determined which tool best suits the content you're designing, it's time to create your document.
If you’re ready for some hands-on learning, follow along with steps below to lay out a project with InDesign. If you don't already have InDesign CC installed, download it here.
If you want a head start on setting up print documents, you can purchase templates online. For example, StockLayouts.com sells a set of templates for folded brochures, flyers, letterheads, business cards, and more. These templates include the crop marks, color schemes, type styles, and other settings. Simply open the predefined pages in InDesign to begin editing them.
For raster images, such as photos, remember this rule of thumb: Use images that are 300 PPI (pixels per inch) at final size. A two-inch by two-inch image set to 300 PPI will print well if you place it in InDesign and keep the size at 100%. But if you place the image and scale it to 200%, you essentially reduce its resolution to 150 PPI. If the image is scaled above 100%, the printed result has less detail and may look pixelated. For digital press printing, 250 PPI is usually sufficient, but use the recommendations provided by your print vendor.
Beware resampling, the process of increasing or decreasing a bitmap image's size or resolution. Say you want to use a photo with dimensions that are too small and a resolution that's too low for your layout. You may be tempted to use Photoshop to upsample the file. While its newest algorithm-powered interpolations are surprisingly good, the upsampled file probably won't have sufficient quality for print.
Best practice: Create a source file at the full resolution you need for printing. You can always downsample it to make it smaller later.
It's helpful to compare the different ways colors are generated for web and print materials. Consider the two types of color mixing (see Figure 6):
Usually you'll create print documents using CMYK color mode, not RGB. But if you’ve edited photos in Photoshop using the RGB color mode, images contain a wider array of color values than CMYK. Contact your print vendor to confirm. If their press supports RGB, they may recommend leaving placed images set to RGB because the bitmaps will print with more color detail.
When you're filling a solid space with black color (such as black-filled rectangle), use rich black, which is a combination of CMYK colors printed on top of each other. The values are typically set to 60=C, 40=M, 40=Y, and 100=K (black), although these values can be varied to create a warmer (redder) or cooler (bluer) black color. If you use only 100=K, the large black area will look slightly gray when printed, especially compared to other colors that are comprised of multiple process color values. For jobs that will be output on an offset press, ask your print vendor which values they recommend for rich black builds. On toner-based digital presses, rich blacks aren't necessary.
Never use rich black for text. Black text should be set to use 100=K (black), rather than printing all four CMYK colors on top of each other. Too many layers of ink will saturate the paper and make the text muddy and difficult to read. This is especially critical when importing text from a Microsoft Word document. After placing it, make sure to set the text color to 100=K black.
To ensure legibility, set text content to 8 points or higher (see Figure 7).
The most common font types are OpenType, PostScript, and TrueType. You can install these fonts and use them interchangeably in a project. When you export as PDF, these fonts are embedded in the file, ready to be printed. To learn more about font types, read this article on font formats. For more tips, see Using fonts in InDesign.
You can also use fonts from Typekit on your desktop as part of your Creative Cloud membership. Typekit’s service was initially scoped to just host web fonts, but you can now sync fonts from Typekit to your desktop for use in print projects, too. You can embed these fonts in PDFs and convert them to outlines. However, due to licensing restrictions, Illustrator and InDesign cannot package Typekit desktop fonts. If you submit a packaged InDesign CC or Illustrator CC job using Typekit desktop fonts to a printer, the printer will need a current membership to Creative Cloud to obtain InDesign CC or Illustrator CC so they can open your file. Using their membership, they can also access and sync the same fonts from Typekit to their own desktops.
Don’t make lines thinner than .25 points (.003 inches) because they may not be visible in the printed page.
While you're laying out a folded design, use your software program's guides as fold marks to help visualize the end product. When creating a folded design, make the last of the three sections a bit smaller, enabling the folded edge to tuck in neatly (see Figure 8).
Before you send your job to the print vendor, delete unused graphic elements outside the artboard (in Illustrator) or page (in InDesign). Those items won't print, and they add unnecessarily to the file’s size.
To get a closer representation of the final product's colors, calibrate your monitor. You’ll never replicate the exact look (because a screen is shining light into your eyes, whereas ink on paper reflects ambient light into your eyes), but calibration can help. On a Mac, choose System Preferences > Display > Colors and click Calibration. Cinema displays and iMac screens are fairly accurate. Microsoft describes the process for Windows users here.
If you're working on a project at home, you may want to make a trial print using your ink jet printer. This can be helpful to check the dimensions of a printed item. Keep in mind, however, that the output won't match the colors of a professional printer.
It's always safest to submit a PDF file to your print vendor, rather than an InDesign, Illustrator, or Photoshop document (called "native" files). PDF files encapsulate layouts and most fonts, so your print designs can't be changed. However, the printer may ask you for your native files to perform changes necessary for successful printing. Many printers use both PDFs and native files.
Before you output that final PDF, contact your print vendor and ask for a PDF preset. A PDF preset is a .joboptions file that contains all the export options for the PDF when you export the file. Install the PDF preset to add a new name in the list of PDF options when you choose Export > PDF in InDesign (or File > Save As in Illustrator). Choosing your print vendor's PDF preset ensures that the PDF you send them matches their requirements.
Choose a short, descriptive name for the PDF file, and avoid spaces and special characters in the name. The print vendor will likely rename your file using an internal job number.
If you create a folder of print elements (fonts, image files, and linked files), use a consistent naming system for all elements, save them in a folder, and compress the folder into a ZIP file.
Most print vendors make it easy to send them the PDF file or native files using an online form or an FTP site. You can also use other methods, such as sending the link to a Dropbox file or attaching the PDF to an email message. If you're working with a local print shop to produce a more complicated job, it's a good idea to deliver the files via USB drive and discuss the details in person.
To learn more about printing projects, see the following online resources:
Also, check out the newest edition of Claudia McCue’s book Real World Print Production.
Tommi West is a freelance web designer and creative director at tommiland.com. Prior to starting her own business in 2004, she worked at Macromedia for six years as a technical writer, editor, and web producer. Tommi is an Adobe Community Professional.