Design #101: Print Specifications
This is one in a series of short articles about stuff related to graphic design.
In the age of Everything Internet, print design may seem quaint—but it’s not. For nearly every kind of outreach campaign, whether it’s marketing a product or service, or advocating for a political or social cause, printed pieces work hand-in-hand with online media to get the message across to your audience. And to make sure a printed piece looks its best, you need to tell the printer what you need.
Sounds simple, right? “Five hundred copies, folded into a brochure.” I’ve seen people tell their print reps that’s how they want their design fabricated. And while that’s the (very) basic info a printer may need, you owe it to yourself and your client to give them more. A detailed set of print specifications will result in a more accurate printing quote and a final piece that meets your expectations. Generalize at your own risk.
Note: You have different print options available to you, such as digital, sheet-fed offset, web, and letterpress. Talk to your printer about which option is the best fit for your job, in addition to going over the specifications below.
Here are some basic things to note for every printed piece:
Name of the piece. Really. It’ll help categorize your quote for both the printer and yourself when corresponding. Put the project name in the subject line of your email to the printer:
Request for Quote on ABC Inc.’s tri-fold branding brochure
Even though I should know better, I have a TON of emails to printers labeled, simple “Quote Request”. Makes it harder to find a particular message thread later on, if you need it. So make it easy on yourself and include a title.
Quantity. 500? 1,000? Do you have multiple pieces you’re printing at once? That’d be “500 each of 4”, for example. Some printing shorthand I picked up years ago that is (sometimes) still used is to specify thousands using an uppercase M (from the roman numeral notation for a thousand). So 1,000 would be 1M, 1,500 would be 1.5M. Not really necessary, but it’s a fun piece of print spec arcana you can whip out if you want to impress/confuse your print rep (their reaction will be dependent upon how old your rep is, most likely).
Flat Size. This is the size of the piece before it gets folded down into a booklet, brochure, folder, etc. You did make a paper dummy to test things like folds, crossovers, special shapes, and so on, right? For example, an 3.6 x 8.5-inch trifold brochure has a flat size of 11 x 8.5 inches, as it folds twice to make three 3.6-inch panels. Specify the width first, then the height.
Final Size. The size that your piece will fold down to when it’s ready to use. Also called “Trim Size”.
Paper Stock. There are a lot of papers to choose from. Look to your print or paper rep for advice. Some pressmen have preferred papers for their presses. Some paper is routinely stocked at the nearest paper house, while others have to be ordered from the mill, or even made just for your order. Knowing the options will help you, and the printer, to plan accordingly.
A good paper stock specification includes: brand name of the paper, paper surface (smooth, satin, etc.), whether the stock is coated or uncoated, the paper weight in pounds (as determined by their basis weight), color, and type (cover, text, duplex cover, or many other options).
Ink. How many, and what type, of inks are you printing with? Specify the numbers of inks for each side of the paper sheet you’re printing on, and then the type. 5/5 CMYK+PMS Cool Gray 5/same would tell the printer you want to print in full color, using the traditional four process colors Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and blacK, along with the spot color PMS Cool Gray 5, on both sides of the sheet. Indicate other coatings here as well, such as:
- Gloss/Dull AQ for Aqueous Coating,
- SGV/SDV for Spot Gloss/Dull Varnish
If you want to foil stamp or do a blind emboss or other specialty impression, indicate it on a separate line in this section.
Bleeds. Indicate if the ink will bleed off the finished sheet, once trimmed down to final size. This can make a difference if the printer is on the fence about which size press to use for a project that is near the limits of a smaller press, size-wise. An example might be Bleeds: all sides, or Bleeds: both sides along the 11-inch dimension.
Coverage. How much ink will be put down onto the sheet? Light/Medium/Heavy are good specifications here. The printer will look at this along with the paper specification to make sure the stock is up to the task of taking on large amounts of ink.
Bindery. Here is where you tell the printer how you want the piece folded, bound, die-cut, and trimmed-out. For our trifold brochure example, we’d say
Trim to flat size and letterpress score and fold twice along the 8.5-inch way where indicated in the file/on the paper proof accompanying this quote request.
For complex or unusual bindery work, it’s best to ask the printer for a paper dummy that mocks up how the piece will be folded and trimmed, so there is an opportunity to check the fit of the folds and make any adjustments that you may need. Printers routinely do this for clients, so don’t feel like you’re putting them out to ask for one! They usually mock up the dummy using the stock you’ve specified as well, so you can get a feel for how the finished piece is in your hands, how well it lays flat, and otherwise functions.
Proofing. Tell the printer what sort of proofs you expect to see during the process. At minimum I’d recommend a blueline (sometimes called “blues”) or more likely these days, a digital blueline equivalent (such as an improof, which is a commercial name for a type of inkjet print). This is a paper proof that will show how your layout will be printed, including text and image placement, the layout’s relationship to trimmed edges and folds, as well as any specialty bindery work you’ve asked for. It will not be color-accurate, which brings us to:
Matchprints. Ask for one, if you have color-critical imagery or graphics that you want to check before going on press. They are digitally produced these days, and like the Improof, in most pre-press workflows are made from the same printing file that will be sent to the platemaker that will image your project’s printing plates. Matchprints (again, a commercial name for this process, so it may be called something else) will provide a color proof that is around 99% color-accurate. These are usually provided as flat sheets, not as a finished piece, and for multi-sheet projects like a 32-page booklet the reader pages will be all mixed up on the press sheet. Thus, it’s handy to have both a blueline and a matchprint: one for looking at pagination, copy placement, trim-out, etc.; and one for color fidelity. For the best proofing of your project, though, you will want to do a:
Press check. This is where you go to the printer when they have your project on-press, and evaluate the colors, trapping, registration, and other print variables on site. Depending on the printer, the print rep, and how they do things, you may be taken to the pressroom floor, where you’ll meet the pressman running the job and view the press sheet at their station; or you’ll be taken into a conference room and the sheet will be brought in to you. Both the pressman’s station and the proofing/conference rooms should have color-balanced lighting, so you can accurately gauge the color fidelity. This is your final opportunity to make (slight) changes to the color balance or ink densities, as well as make sure closely-trapped colors are in line and in registration with each other, so don’t be shy about pointing out concerns. The pressmen know their presses best, so they’ll be able to suggest what they can (and can’t) do to meet your requests.
Art. Let the printer know what you’re sending them. Nearly everything is digital these days, but sometimes you have something analog they need to scan or convert for you, so let them know.
Delivery. Printers generally will deliver locally, or you can specify FOB (Freight On Board), which means they’ll pack it and have it ready for shipping over longer distances by a third party. If you need your project shipped out of your local area, let them know where it’s headed and ask for a shipping quote. If you need a certain quantity put into boxes (so Department A has 500 and Department B gets an extra 150), let them know.
How would all of this look together in one specification? Here’s an example:
Project Name: ABC Company Marketing Brochure
Quantity: 1M each of 2
Flat Size: 11 x 8.5 inches
Final Size: 3.66 x 8.5 inches
Paper Stock: Endeavor 80# gloss cover white
Ink: 6/6 CMYK + PMS Cool Gray 5 + Satin AQ/same
Bleeds: All sides
Coverage: Medium to heavy
Bindery: Trim, letterpress score and fold to final size, per fold guides in final art.
Proofing: Improof and Matchprint with press check required.
Art: Digital Files and PDF proof provided.
Delivery: Metro area, one location.
Most Importantly: remember the print rep is there to help you. If you have questions about the process, or what they need, or what’s possible, ask! A good rep will endeavor to find the answers for you.
I hope this was helpful. If I missed something, let me know in the comments and I’ll add it!
- Gloss/Dull AQ for Aqueous Coating,
Design, Defined: Points, Picas, and Pixels
If you’re a non-designer you may have heard your designer friends measuring things in points, picas, or pixels. Here’s the difference between the three:
Let’s start on the print design side, with points. A point is used as a measure of type height, and is traditionally equal to 1/72.27 of an inch.* Points have their standardization rooted, in very labyrinthine ways, to the standardization of the metre in France, and later in the English foot.
Body text, such as the words you’re reading now, are set in a range of sizes from 9 to 12 points. Headline text sizes are generally 18 points and larger, with display type being at least 24 or 36 points.
Points you’ve probably run into in Microsoft Word or other word processing programs. But what about picas? Picas (not pikas) are multiples of points, with one pica being equal to 12 points. Measuring page layout dimensions gets rather unwieldy in points, so they are notated in picas and points, instead—with points serving to denote a fraction of a point. For example, an 8-1/2 x 11 inch sheet of paper measures 612 x 792 points, but we’d say that sheet is 102 x 132 picas.
Why not just measure things in inches? Or even centimeters? Because for most typographic applications, you’d be constantly using fractions, or decimals, or millimeters. In the printed environment, points and picas make sense.
Pixels are probably more well-known than their analog cousin, the point. “Pixel” stands for “Picture ELement” (yes, the “x” was added to make it jazzier, I suppose), and is the smallest unit of measurement displayed by a computer screen. As technology has advanced, manufacturers have been able to squeeze more pixels into a square inch of screen space than before, resulting in higher resolution screens, as well as headaches for designers who yearn for spatial consistency.
*A note on how points and pixels work together: When Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were creating the Apple Macintosh computer, they wanted it to be a tool for design, and made one pixel equal to one point, with 72 pixels on the screen equal to one inch high. This worked nicely with Apple’s ImageWriter, which had a resolution of 144 dots per inch—exactly twice that of the screen resolution. This way, What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG). This made the Desktop Publishing Standard Pixel 1/72 of an inch, rather than the traditional 1/72.27 of an inch…a detail that is somewhat irrelevant to us today, but if you deal with pre-DTP metal type, for example, it’s a distinction to keep in mind.
These days, you have a lot more pixels per inch than 72, which makes reading on screen easier, but makes it harder to design on a point-to-pixel basis.
I hope this was helpful! For all things typographic, you can find out more in Robert Bringhurst’s classic “The Elements of Typographic Style"—a book so popular, every copy I’ve bought has been "borrowed" and never returned.
Work for Hire is bad for both designers and clients.
Note to Clients: Making your designer operate under Work For Hire will cost more than a simple licensing arrangement tailored to fit your needs.
All our working agreements with clients contain a section on how they can use the intellectual property that we are creating. This makes clear what you’re paying us for: the right to use a particular finished design product in a certain way or range of ways, for a certain duration. Often, as in the case of brand identity projects, the client is given unlimited, exclusive rights to use what’s been created for any use they see fit.
So why specify a different range of uses for different projects? Why not just allow unlimited use on everything we create for a client to use? It all comes down to value.
On very few occasions I’ve been asked to create design projects under a work-for-hire contract. When I have, I explained the benefits of licensing. If a client’s company culture is bound too tightly to the work-for-hire mentality, I raise my rates for that job—double them, at least. And that’s only if I take the job on those terms.
As a designer, why get so picky about licensing vs. work-for-hire? There are a lot of reasons, and a quick googling of “licensing vs. work-for-hire” will give you some background. But one of the main reasons comes down to the concept of “moral rights”—that is, the ability to tell people that you made the work you have made. When you sign a work-for-hire agreement, you are literally giving your client the legal and moral right to claim authorship over the work you’ve done. And they are within their rights to tell you that you can’t tell others you created it. This isn’t just a hypothetical argument; I’ve seen it in action, and it’s not pretty. The EU has moral rights protections for work-for-hire situations, so in Europe the argument is different, and falls more along the lines of the value a client is going to get out of the work, and making sure that the fees charged are appropriate to the value received. It becomes a pure economic argument. But in the US, it’s economics and rights of authorship, and that’s more than enough to tip the scales, for me anyway, in favor of always creating work under a license, and never for hire.