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Is Your Artwork Ready for Print?

posted by Carlin Scuderi on May 4, 2010.

So, you’ve got a hit design blog, mastered the user experience and can code a PSD file to XHTML and CSS in about 5 minutes. You can run circles around digital media, and maybe you’ve even gotten your feet wet with HTML 5 and CSS3. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, your client asks for a quote on some fancy business cards with gold foil stamping. That’s when it hits you. When was the last time you prepared a file for professional printing?

So, you’ve got a hit design blog, mastered the user experience and can code a PSD file to XHTML and CSS in about 5 minutes. You can run circles around digital media, and maybe you’ve even gotten your feet wet with HTML 5 and CSS3. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, your client asks for a quote on some fancy business cards with gold foil stamping. That’s when it hits you. When was the last time you prepared a file for professional printing?

Is Your Artwork Ready for Print?

Is Your Artwork Ready for Print?

Thankfully, you’ve got one of the most powerful tools for learning at your disposal – the internet!

So, let’s take a look at a few things (in no particular order) your printable file is going to need in order to make it safely through the press into the hands of your happy clients. Please bear in mind that these are just standard rules and you should check with your printer to verify that they are using the same measurements, etc.

Proper Resolution

When you’re designing for web, your images are usually 72 dpi (Dots Per Inch), which is standard for screen resolution. For most print projects, you’re going to need more than 4 times that resolution: 300 dpi. If you try and print your files at 72 dpi you will end up with blurry, fuzzy pictures, and you want the highest quality for your clients, right?

72 dpi vs 300 dpi

72 dpi vs 300 dpi

One drawback to printing at such a high-resolution is that it can be taxing on your computer, especially for larger documents. Saving, moving layers and adding effects can become cumbersome. When this happens, it’s best to split the file you’re working on into parts and save them out as separate, smaller files, linked to the larger Photoshop file. A great way to utilize this effectively is through the use of Photoshop’s smart objects.

If your design is made up of 100% vector elements, you shouldn’t have this problem as long as the file is saved out properly in Illustrator, as a vector EPS, AI, or PDF. Check with your printer to see which file types they can handle.

Bleed, Trim and Safety Lines

Whenever I’m setting up a file for print, the first thing I do is create three important areas on the document:

Bleed: Whenever your artwork extends to the edge of a document, you must set up a bleed area so that when your work is being printed it doesn’t get cut-off irregularly at the edges and leave ugly white lines. Therefore, your artwork should extend 1/8″ (.125 inches) beyond the live area of your document whenever necessary. This means that if your business card is 2 x 3.5″ when it’s finished, then your document should be 2.25 x 3.75″ when you are designing the piece.

Trim: The trim line is simply the line that shows where your document is going to be cut, and is usually 1/8″ after the bleed. So if your page is going to be 8.5 x 11″ when it’s done, the trim line would make an 8.5 x 11″ box inside your document.

Safety: The safety line is an additional 1/8″ inside the trim line. All of your artwork and text should be inside this box to ensure that it is not cut-off when the page is cut.

Trim, Bleed and Safety

Trim, Bleed and Safety

So why do we need bleed, trim and safety lines? Well, paper is an organic material, meaning it is subject to temperature and moisture. When your printer is running many pages through the press, the paper can expand or contract very slightly and offset the registration of the printer. On most professional machines this offset is minimal, but in my experience it’s always better to be safe than sorry!

Here’s a bonus tip: In Photoshop you can right-click on the rulers when visible to switch between different areas of measurement!

RGB, CMYK, 100K Black & Rich Black

As a web designer, you’re probably used to seeing your work rendered in millions of colours, in gorgeous RGB format.

As a print designer, your work must be created in CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black) format. This is because most printers have Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black inks that they use to reproduce your artwork. If you convert a vivid RGB image to CMYK you can see that a lot of the colours become muted and washed out. CMYK doesn’t quite have the same reach in the colour spectrum as RGB.

In CMYK printing, values can be measured in percentages of C, M, Y or K much like RGB values can be measured in amounts of R, G and B.

RGB, CMYK, 100K Black and Rich Black

RGB, CMYK, 100K Black and Rich Black

To create Rich Black, you can use a mixture of 30% Cyan, 30% Magenta, 60% Yellow and 100% Black. Rich Black is best used for larger areas of black, and not on thin lines or text (text over 34 or 36pt is OK). If you use it on small body text or thin lines, the inks could saturate and blur the artwork.

100K Black is created using, you guessed it, a mixture of 0% Cyan, Magenta and Yellow, with 100% Black. For large areas, 100K Black would just look gray. For small text, it helps keep the text crisp since the printer only has to worry about lining up one colour instead of four.

Print Formats & Fonts

I have yet to come across a printer that doesn’t accept PDF files (vector and raster). That being said, you should be sensitive to the needs of your printer.

Building a good working relationship with your printer is important (especially if they are local). They might not have the same fonts that you do on their machines. Whenever possible, you should create outlines of your text or embed fonts (packaging the fonts with the files also works, make sure you have proper permissions). Not following this step might lead into possible delays or the issue might get missed altogether.

Some printers like it when you give them a low-res JPG reference file to check against when they are setting up your files. It’s usually not a bad idea to include one with your print files if your printer allows for it.


To many, print is a dying art. Digital media has taken a huge stand and proved why it is in many ways, easier, cheaper and more efficient. There will always be a need for print, but is this need going to be as strong in 5 years? 10 years?

At any rate, it is likely that it will be in demand, big or small, and that you will be called upon to create print work. In that regard, I hope this article finds you well, and that even if you’ve done print many times before, you’re able to learn a thing or two.

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About the Author

Carlin Scuderi is an aspiring graphic designer looking to learn everything I can about digital media, print and web. I'm always looking for fascinating artwork and fantastic graphic design! Find me on Twitter!

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May 4, 2010

Aidan says:

I think a lot of web designer first started from print. Unless, we recycle our print artwork, print might starting to lost it’s foothold especially with all the green consideration.

Nonetheless, nice article and congrats for writing on Echo Enduring.

Keep more coming, Carlin!

May 5, 2010

Carlin Scuderi says:

Point taken about the green thing, that’s another reason it’s no longer at the forefront!

Thanks for your comments!!

May 5, 2010

kresna akhmadi says:

wow, this is so useful, and i’m currently workin on printable artwork just now!
fyuuuhh, that just close as i may made mistakes…

many thanks!

May 5, 2010

Carlin Scuderi says:

You’re very welcome! Glad you found it useful.

May 5, 2010

joe says:

If you’re a true designer, not some hack, this should never be a problem. There are way too many “designers” self-proclaimed or otherwise, out there that couldn’t set up a properly formatted document to save their lives.

I have printers thank me for setting up my files the way I do. Get it in, rip it, proof it, print it. No problems. It’s like everything else, There is a right way and the way that will cost your clients more money… i.e., the wrong way.

For those that think that print will go away… you’d better start putting in your applications at the nearest McD’s.

May 5, 2010

Vadoota says:

great article, wish you could have touched on Pantone/spot colors as well.. i work for a rather large printing company, dealing to PMS #’s a lot. we are a wholesaler, getting 99% of our work from other printing companies, and guess what, most of the time the artwork is jacked up and i either have to preform a miracle or keep the order on hold until the customer can get with a “designer”, only to send me another 72 dpi rgb raster image, not color sep’d.

get with it people, remember, your printer is your friend, but don’t expect us to do everything for you. thanks!

May 5, 2010

Carlin Scuderi says:

Thanks for your comments, Vadoota!

I really considered going into Pantones, but I didn’t want to confuse people too much. I think Pantones could probably get an entire post dedicated just to them!

I feel your pain regarding getting files submitted incorrectly. Hopefully more people educate themselves and consider that printer’s time is worth money, too!

May 5, 2010

Carlin Scuderi says:

I see your point, Joe!

A lot of designers (very good ones, too) are self-taught and may have built the foundation of their careers in the web design industry. If that’s the case, I think they could find some use in articles such as this!

Thanks for your comments.

May 5, 2010

Matt Ward says:

I absolutely agree Carlin! I’ve kind of followed that path myself. I started my design career doing mostly web stuff and then slowly moved into a little bit of print from there. An article like this would have save me a few headaches with my first major print jobs, which were somewhat of a trial-by-fire kind of experience.

May 5, 2010

Nicole says:

This is basic stuff. If designing a “fancy business cards with gold foil stamping” is a problem for you, your not a designer and i recommend going to a school that teaches you that.

Another idea: Read a book about it, or did the 5 minutes PSD to XTHML coding (which is bullshit and/or probably a poor example both of designing and coding) take too much of your precious time?

May 7, 2010

Tom Something says:

The author is talking about preparing the work for print, not designing it. There may be web designers out there who land a gig, do the job, and are then asked to do print, which they’ve never done before. The purpose of this article is to reassure and encourage the less-experienced folks out there.

In general, if someone finds a tutorial too “basic”, I think they should avoid sharing that sentiment altogether. It tends to come off as a thinly-veiled pat on one’s own back, and I know that’s not your intention.

May 5, 2010

Matthew Potter says:

Regarding your comment about the 300dpii images; if you know what the linescreen is of your printer is, the most optimum resolution is actually double that. Most press line screens that I’ve dealt with is either 120lpi or 144lpi depending on the method, which means that resolution of the images would be either 240dpi or 288dpi.

Anything more than those will be good if there are modifications needed later but if you need to transfer files through FTP or processing power is an issue, the output PDF that you use will be able to have these lower resolutions without any impact on quality of the printout.

May 6, 2010

Omer says:

Thanx for sharing this useful information.

May 6, 2010

Thomas Silkjær says:

Working directly in CMYK will give you a far smaller colour spectrum. Instead I would advice to work in at least RGB, and then when exporting the final file for the printer, convert it to CMYK in that process with an ICC profile matching the paper+printer. This makes sure that the colours are converted so printed result gets a more closer look to the original RGB material (imagine printing on a yellow shade paper, you probably want less yellow in your colours).

Many printers can also do this for you, convert RGB material to CMYK.

May 6, 2010

west says:

this is of so much help…lots of thanxx

May 6, 2010

Bruno says:

Really nice article, thanks!

May 6, 2010

Taliya says:

A good starting point for web designers turning to doing print design as well…

However, personally don’t think it’s a good idea to do the whole artwork in photoshop. It’s always better to do the images in photoshop and port them to indesign or illustrator which handles the text better =)

May 6, 2010

Carlin Scuderi says:

For larger projects, that is definitely a good idea. I think it’s a matter of personal preference when it comes to smaller projects (business cards/flyers), though.

May 6, 2010

loic says:

I was told Rich black was C60 M50 Y50 K100.
Will try your values.

Nice overview howverer

May 6, 2010

Carlin Scuderi says:

There are actually a few different ways of manufacturing Rich Black. Some people use them for different applications. For example, adding more Cyan to the mix will create a darker, cooler black. Adding more Magenta will create a warmer black. You can play around with the values to achieve subtle but nice results!

May 6, 2010

vadoota says:

Some other pointers (and PS, sorry if i seemed agitated in my previous comment, I was at work feeling frusterated LOL).

1. get a press proof. a press proof is an actual run of the print job. your printer may send 1-50 samples. they can be pricey, but if you’re doing a high dollar job, i highly recommend it. that way things can be modified and fixed before running the whole job.

2. i’m not for sure about other printing companies, but i know where i work our clients can send in artwork and ask us “is it usable? if not, what do i need to do”

3. get the printer’s print guidelines and specifications for both spot (pantone or whatever color library they are using, i’ve only used pantone) and for cmyk/full color process jobs.

4. 99% of the time, text is always better in vector format. line art as well, especially if you’re dealing with a flexo printer (rubber plates).

5. and just because it prints well on your deskjet/inkjet, which while i was in school we would save our DPI as 150 for class projects, but in the printing industry, i suggest either vector, or 300+ dpi, if not 600+ dpi. the printer can always lower the DPI, but we can’t always raise it, causing the pixels to become yucky and therefore your print job to print yucky.

its unfortunate, my schooling only taught me to design, but it doesn’t do a damn thing unless it prints well, which they didn’t teach us. luckily i fell into a prepress job and let me tell you, it helps A LOT.

May 6, 2010

Carlin Scuderi says:

Great pointers.

Regarding no. 2, a lot of companies might even post this information online as a download, so designers can check it before they submit it. That sounds like a really handy service, though!

You’re lucky to land a job that helps so much!
Thanks for your contribution!

May 14, 2010

Sumyunguy says:

Voodata is so right on with all his points. I am the prepress manager for a printer here in Los Angeles.

Half of my time is probably spent ripping jobs apart to get them to print correctly. Most of it from big name “design firms”.

A couple more tips of the trade:

1. Print your own color separations! – File > Print > Output Tab (“Colors” in Quark *shudder*)> Color or Mode = Separations
– This will Output a page for each color CMYK (or spot PMS) and show you if there are any holes or problems in your artwork. Which leads to…

2. Overprint BLACK text or small logos, etc. – Imagine trying to make a stamp of the black letters in your job and then, as pieces of paper are flying by at 10,000 sheets an hour, get that stamp to fit in a white space the exact shape of your stamp. That is what a pressman has to do with all that black text you have on top of a color background. The Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow plates all make a hole into which all the black text needs to fit. Paper stretches, plates stretch, yada yada. It is hard to fit. Set your black text to overprint. Yes, trapping can fix that to a point, but you still have to fit it.

3. Use a REAL design Program – Microsoft Word is NOT a design program, EXCEL…NOT a design program. Publisher..NOT a design program. Paint…NOT a design Program. Some random program you got at Office Depot…NOT a design program. As noted above, AutoCAD…is NOT a design program. (Believe it or not, yesterday someone sent me a .VSD file…VISIO?)

Photoshop is great for images…Lousy for text. I only use Quark if a customer sends me files already designed in it. Illustrator is a great design tool, but I always default to InDesign as my personal preference. That is what it is made for. Make your pictures and logos pretty in Photoshop and Illustrator, then slap ’em into InDesign for all the text. You can’t go wrong.

As Vadoota also mentions, outputting a hires PDF (Note I said HIRES) with fonts and images embedded is awesome as long as you have checked and triple checked that it is correct.

(SECRET: If you change the “Standard” selection when outputting the PDF to PDF/X-1a it will automatically convert to CMYK and embed fonts and images…awww snap!)

Another personal preference…Turn off ALL compression. See http://forums.adobe.com/servlet/JiveServlet/showImage/2-2630374-21120/Compression.png except turn off the check marks at the bottom. I would rather get a 100MB PDF that looks exactly like you want it than a 5MB PDF with pixelated images and you complaining about it.

Print your separations and check your spelling. If you are going to outline fonts, it is much more difficult for me to fix spelling errors at $100/hr.

4. Interestingly, 2-color jobs are often the most difficult to setup for print – This gets into Spot colors to a point, but has to be said. Also touches on overprint & separations again. Pantone 185C and Pantone 185U are technically the same color, we just put that ink in the press and that is what gets printed. But when you create a logo in Illustrator as 185C and then use an image from photoshop that is “185C” (but is really still in RGB), then pull it into Indesign and use text that is 185U. You will drive the guys in prepress at your printer CRAZY! The combination above will output 6 colors. The RGB image will output as Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black, the illustrator logo will out put 185C, and the text 185U.

6. A Trifold 8.5×11 brochure does NOT fold equally in thirds. On any folding piece, your outside panels should be exactly the same size and then EACH additional panel should be at least .0625″ smaller, if not .125″. All those panels have to fit inside all the other panels and can’t touch the fold or they will dog-ear.

7. Plan Ahead and prep your job ahead of time – Don’t email your artwork at 4pm, two days before your customer is expecting their job to arrive across country and ask if we can please get it on press (with a press check) tomorrow. There are other customers that gave us their job 5 days ago and need it tomorrow too. We already have the paper in house, the plates are made, the press is inked up and tomorrow THAT job is getting on press. Now, we are going to do our best to get your job on, but be realistic.

8. If you are worried about the color on your job, ask for a press check. If there is something specific you want a certain way, let your saleperson/rep know what it is and what you are looking for ahead of time. Send a prior sample. The pressman can get as close as they can to what you want prior to your arrival.

Be realistic. DON’T be TOO picky. The color you saw on your monitor at home is probably not EXACTLY going to match. (NOTE: get a PMS color bridge so you can see what a sport color will look like in CMYK)

and finally

9. ASK! Don’t pretend to be this awesome designer and then end up getting your job delayed or reprinted at YOUR expense because you didn’t ask how to prep your job. Most of us have been doing this much longer than you and we have seen the problems come up. We can take a quick look at your job ahead of time, usually at no cost, point out some possible problems and give you time to correct them. Maybe if we have some extra time (and you brought some doughnuts with you), we can probably even show you how to do it.

I hope I don’t sound like a jerk. Just the reality that I deal with everyday.

May 31, 2010

Carlin Scuderi says:

These are fantastic points!!

May 6, 2010

Jason Stanley says:

Thanks for this post!

It’s always good to keep in mind the basic principles of design for print.

I work on a quarterly magazine and regularly use Adobe Indesign for all my printwork.

May 6, 2010

Carlin Scuderi says:

You’re very welcome!

InDesign is fantastic for a lot of print applications, especially laying out text and images for magazines, etc.

May 6, 2010

Kevin says:

Excellent post. I work for an in-plant and a major University and will be sharing this link when the time comes to explain bleeds and trim for the millionth time.

May 6, 2010

Carlin Scuderi says:

So glad it was of use to you!

May 7, 2010

Vadoota says:

The more bleed the better. Sometimes that 1/8″ isn’t enough, believe it or not. lol.

Since my printing company deals with stickers/labels/bumpers/etc, saving files in Illustrator or out as a PDF from InDesign is more efficient and easier for us to prepress. An InDesign package with links/images/fonts isn’t always necessary for a sticker or a business card. I don’t have time to load your fonts, relink your images, and then save it out of illustrator anyways due to our inhouse workflow system. true story. a pdf with images embedded, fonts converted to outlines, set up in the correct cmyk values/spot colors works pretty well.

My coworker who sits next to me has seen this post and his two cents is “don’t sent autocad files. ever”.

May 10, 2010

Comunicarte says:

Nice Stuff :)

May 10, 2010

Thinkstock says:

In our ever-increasingly digital world, this is a great reminder of getting back to where many of us started. Print isn’t dead yet, and we’re always looking for interesting and inspiring content to help out our followers to @Thinkstock. Thanks for the good fodder!

May 10, 2010

Dan says:

Great article with some useful tips. Like it a lot

May 17, 2010

Kamal says:

Thank you so much. This article as well some of the fine comments here from people experienced with print work are great help. Thanks.

May 19, 2010

abeedo21 says:

thanx alot

briefed and accurate

Jul 16, 2010

doris says:

Thanx for sharing this useful information.

Aug 2, 2010

Kanwaljit Singh Nagra says:

Very good refresher! Always good
to be reminde of the basics :D

Aug 17, 2010

Getty Images Representative Philippines says:

These are good basic reminders for anyone who ventures into web design. I’m particularly peeved when I see pictures with text that has been cut off because they didn’t consider the bleed, trim and safety lines. Thanks!

Sep 16, 2010

Michael B. says:

Awesome post by Sumyunguy. Everyone should read that!

Good handy article for newbies at printing.

I’ve was in print for many years, still am, and my best piece of advice would be – if you’re not sure about something get on the phone to your printer and ASK THEM. They’d be only too happy to put you straight, as it’s going to help them out in the long run.


Sep 17, 2010

rafael armstrong says:

Thanks for an excellent post. As someone who started out doing production, all these things are second nature to me at this point, but I’m constantly amazed at the number of (primarily print) designers out there (with a formalized education, no less) that don’t have this (at least to me) as part of their basic skill set.

Sep 28, 2010

door name plates says:

In our ever-increasingly digital world, this is a great reminder of getting back to where many of us started. Print isn’t dead yet, and we’re always looking for interesting and inspiring content to help out our followers on our blog.

Oct 19, 2010

Craig says:

Excellent post on artwork for print, and some of the additional comments have some great points too and as above print is not dead yet, Thanks

Oct 26, 2010

w3planting says:

Really nice & in depth article, thanks for sharing valuable information!

Nov 7, 2010

Matt Bansberg says:

thank you very much for this article. Your first paragraph caught my attention and YES i was driven to read the rest of it.

The trend now a days is to easily choose digital media. Your thoughts are only relevant since many of graphic designers out there don’t know even the basics when it comes to converting the digital to a real printed product.

Again thank you, this is very refreshing.

Jun 15, 2011

GeckoPrint | Digital Printing says:

Thanks for sharing.

Great guidelines for setting up your artwork for a commercial printer

Sep 12, 2011

smsnchz says:

nice post esp. on Bleed, Trim and Safety Lines tips..

Sep 21, 2011

Leah says:

This is really a great guide, specially that we are now at the digital age, and printing is done digitally too. Thanks!

Jan 29, 2012

Agência de Comunicação says:

Hi Carlin
Great stuff here… today with a lot of digital designers, sometimes it’s very hard to find good answers about some type of things that you’ve described… My great problems is always with the colors: RGB vs CMYK… And worst when my clients ask me for using spot colors… It’s kind of hard to convert cmyk to pantones, for example…

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