By Beth Evans
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Designing for print

When designing for print, you’ve got to get it right, or suffer the costly consequences of reprinting.

What do you want to print?

Research how your design will be printed before you start designing. You may find there are options for printing that you hadn’t considered before.


How big will it be? Consider how the person will engage with it, are they holding a small flyer, or standing metres away from a poster, or driving past a billboard? Changing the size of a design isn’t usually a case of simply scaling up or down, the design will need to be reworked to fit the new parameters. When you are selecting a size to work with, you will find printing will be cheaper if you select a standard size. Business cards for example are often 85mm x 55mm.


This is the thickness of the paper, it is measured in GSM (grams per square metre). The higher the number the thicker the paper. A newspaper may be printed on 35-55gsm, but a business card (which needs to survive being passed around and held inside people’s pockets) may be printed on 350-450gsm. This is useful to know in advance as it may affect the levels of ink coverage you use in your design.


The three main finishes are gloss (very shiny), matt (no shine) and silk (somewhere in between). For a luxury feel you could consider a spot varnish (a gloss finish applied to a specific area of the print) or metallic foiling (a metallic finish to a specific area). Laminating the design will harden and protect the print, which is useful for well-handled items like restaurant menus.


Consider whether you’d like your design to be folded, cut or bound in a specific way, and find a design template to download on your chosen printer’s website as your starting point. Many printers will meet custom requirements, so be creative.

Set up your document


Set the raster effect to 300ppi (pixels per inch) when designing for print. PPI is the amount of pixels that get printed (horizontally and vertically) in a 1 inch line. 300ppi is when a single pixel is just barely discernible to the human eye. Your design will look pixelated (fuzzy), if it is printed at a lower resolution.

Using 300dpi when designing for print

300dpi and 72dpi close up


Set the colour mode to CMYK. RGB is the colour mode for web. Using RGB can result in your design looking odd and dull when printed, particularly the greens!

CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (well, the K stands for key). Within the printing process, a design is split up into the four colours and each colour is engraved onto thin sheets of metal called plates. The plates are then used to print your design onto paper.

Pantone colours are custom made mixes that get printed separately, on top of the CMYK plates. Therefore, a print job takes more time when a Pantone colour is used, so you would typically only use a Pantone colour for a very specific and important brand colour.

Etching a printing plate for Cyan
A printer using yellow ink
Designing for print using crops and a guilotine


A 3mm bleed is standard for any printed document. This is a space outside of the document, which will be cut off by the printer, using a guillotine. It allows the ink to go right to the edge of the paper, and avoid the risk of an unintentional white border.

Designing for print


Margins are essential to a clean layout. It is the space around the content of your design. From a practical point of view, you should leave a margin of at least 5mm from the edge of the paper to allow for any trimming errors. But it’s worth saying that if your main content sits right close to the edge, it may look unprofessional. Use margins to set up consistent page titles, page numbers, a footer and a logo etc.


Gutters are inside margins, they are needed when multiple pages will be bound together. The size of the guttering will depend on how many pages there are, and how those pages will be bound together. A ‘perfect bound’ book is bound together with glue, and will require at least a couple of cm space which you will need to account for in your design. You won’t, for example, want to include any text over the gutter, as it will disappear when printing!


Your document is set to 300dpi, and the images you add to it also need to be 300dpi. Use high resolution photos, and vector graphics for illustrations if you can. Save images as tiff, png or eps for print. jpg files are primarily used for web because they compress the image for faster loading speeds, but for print they can result in a lower resolution.


Typical reading size is 10-12pts, and optimal line length for reading is 50-75 characters. Always think about who will be reading it, for instance a menu for a local cafe with typically older visitors, you might consider printing the text a bit larger!

Total Ink Coverage

There is a limit to the amount of ink or toner that can be put on paper. CMYK values are measured as a percentage, so if all four colours are set to 100% you have a Total Ink Coverage (TIC) of 400%. It’s generally considered that anything with a CMYK value of 280% or more can be problematic during the print process. The sheer amount of ink needed can result in the print not drying fast enough, or the final colour may not attach properly, resulting in murky browns. The total ink coverage which is acceptable depends on the weight and finish of the design. Thin, uncoated paper will have a lower acceptable TIC than thick, coated paper. The good news is many printers can use software to reduce the total ink coverage (without changing the colours), however it is still useful to keep this in mind when working on a particularly colourful document. If you’re concerned, double check with your chosen printers.

Final Checklist

Check for errors

If you can, print out a test page (don’t scale to fit) on a home/office printer to see how the design really does look. Remember to read the content to pick up any spelling or grammar errors, and it’s worth getting someone else to look over it to test how it reads, if the tone is right and if it all makes sense.

Expand text and strokes

When you send your final file to the printers, it is unlikely that they will have the same fonts installed on their machines as you have on yours. If your fonts aren’t expanded, you may get your final design back with all your fonts changed to Times New Roman or something (disaster!). Expanding the text turns the content into a vector (an image), which means there is no risk that your fonts will change or shift in any way when they reach the printers. The same applies to any brush strokes you may have used in your illustrations. Safer always to expand. When you do expand your text, be sure to check that your numbers and bullets are still showing – they’ll need to be converted before you expand!

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