The considerations and challenges of print design
Creative design plays many roles in your company. From the smallest business card to the biggest billboard, from Facebook pics to entire websites, design remains a pertinent task in any business’s marketing.
Where and how designs are viewed will greatly affect the decisions and duties of your designer. After all, there is a big difference between how we interact with the physical (print design) and the digital (web design).
Today, our focus is on print design. We will explore the many different considerations that a professional designer faces during that process, including choosing the right paper, understanding CMYK and RGB colour models, utilising layout techniques, choosing the right file type, and more.
Picking the right paper for your print project can be tricky, and will likely be the first decision in the design process. The function and quality of your chosen paper can affect the look and feel of your printed media, as well as the overall production costs.
At the beginning of a project, designers will consider:
The thickness or weight of paper stock is crucial. This is referred to as GSM (grams per square metre); the higher the GSM, the heavier the paper. Here is a general guide to GSM and print media choices.
- 90-100 GSM: commonly used for stationery, such as envelopes and letterheads, as well as text pages in magazines or booklets. This GSM is sometimes called ‘offset’ or ‘laser’ paper, and can also be a cost-effective choice for flyers and brochures.
- 115-170 GSM: a popular choice for brochures, flyers, calendars, posters, and magazines with a more ‘upmarket’ feel.
- 200-250 GSM: perfect for magazine and booklet covers, as well as flyers with a thicker, more durable make.
- 300-420 GSM: ideal for business cards, promo cards, invitations, flyers and more.
Coated or uncoated
The coating (or lack thereof) of your chosen paper stock can alter the look and feel (both literally and figuratively) of your project. There are several choices:
- Gloss: a high sheen, low bulk coated paper stock. The surface sealant restricts ink from absorbing into the surface of the paper, making it a less expensive alternative to matte stocks. This is a popular choice for visual designs, but is often avoided for text-heavy projects, as the sheen can be wearying for reading.
- Satin/silk: a smooth surface paper with little sheen. Silk coatings tend to fall between gloss and matte in regard to bulk, opacity and cost. Their high-quality, non-reflective results make them suitable for a wide range of jobs, including leaflets, magazines, annual reports and more.
- Matte: a non-glossy, sheenless stock. Matte paper is more opaque and tends to contain greater bulk than other coated choices. This can be perfect for large, artistic projects that will be displayed in places where reflection might otherwise be a problem.
- Uncoated: paper stock that has not been coated with any kind of clay or surface sealant. Inks absorb into the paper, giving it a muted, dull, and sometimes textured appearance. Uncoated paper is often used for letterheads, envelopes, book pages, and other productions that feature a lot of text.
Print design projects use the CMYK colour model. To understand this, we will first look at RGB colour.
The RGB colour model (an acronym for red, green and blue) refers to the colours used on a computer monitor; these are the colours you perceive when you view a digital project while it is on a screen. These colours are viewed with produced light (such as in a computer monitor or smartphone), and thus do not correlate with the printed page.
This brings us to the CMYK colour model. When any two RGB colours are equally mixed, they create subtractive primaries:
- Green and blue make cyan (C).
- Red and blue make magenta (M).
- Red and green create yellow (Y).
- The ‘K’ stands for ‘key’, and refers to black — a crucial addition to the CMYK model, as black cannot be created by combining the three subtractive primaries.
If this seems familiar to you, your printer is probably the reason why; after all, many of us have seen the CMYK model as the ink cartridges we load into our printers on a regular basis.
But for graphic designers, knowledge and understanding about the CMYK model is essential in being able to create great print projects. Professional designers face the challenge of seeing their work-in-progress on screen in RGB, and producing a final project that will print in CMYK. This can be particularly important when creating media pieces that use specific branded colours; for instance, we want a company’s logo to appear the same on a print booklet as it does on their website.
Swatches, or the Pantone Matching System, are useful tools to ensure exact colour matching. Designers can check that the colours translate from screen to paper by using their associated references numbers; the digital colours may look different, but good designers can always ensure that the final print product looks as intended.
The priority for any designer, whether they’re working on a print project or digital media, is to communicate a message in a clear, effective, and appealing way. For print design specifically, this involves consideration of several factors and techniques, some of which we’ll explore below:
Surface size and resolution
First thing’s first — the size of the printing surface will determine what a designer can and cannot do. How much text should be included? How big will the font be? What visuals will be used?
This leads us to resolution. You may have heard of PPI (pixels per inch), which refers to the number and density of pixels that appear within a square inch of a digital design. But we are more concerned with DPI (dots per inch), which comes into play in the actual printing process.
Printing at a higher resolution means printing with a higher DPI; this will produce a higher quality result. Unlike PPI (which relates to the overall size of the design), DPI has more to do with the capabilities and effectiveness of the designer’s printing equipment. Naturally, a professional designer is more likely to have the software, skills, and technology to produce superior quality prints.
Grids are a popular technique used in the creation of both print and digital designs. By using a grid to inform the positioning of various elements, designers can create a sense of balance and order. The clear structural reference of a grid can lend itself to a cleaner, connected layout, easing the viewer’s access to the content.
Grids can also help designers to identify a key focal point of the design. This could be a headline, an eye-catching visual, a pull quote, and so on. The aim is to create visual interest that draws the viewer in and help to communicate the key message.
Rule of thirds
Similarly, many designers use the rule of thirds in their designs. This means visualising grid lines, effectively dividing the design into thirds, vertically and horizontally. The points at which the lines intersect are the natural focal points of the design. Positioning the strongest elements on these points can create a more pleasing, less confronting composition than perfectly centred visuals.
It can be the temptation of clients and novice designers to fill every inch of a print design with content. But in fact, a little bit of nothingness can be an effective layout technique. The use of white space — such as in the page margins of a booklet or beneath the headings in a brochure — can provide viewers with a bit of breathing room. This allows them to focus on the more important elements of the composition.
However, using negative space requires practiced hands; too much white space can have the adverse effect of creating a sense of disconnect in the design. As with most things, balance is key.
You see them at the end of file names on your computer: JPG, PDF, GIF, TIFF… but what do they mean? Designers have a wide range of file types at their disposal, and each format can affect the appearance and usability of the files.
Here’s a quick rundown of some common terms used in design:
- Raster: images composed of pixels (such as digital photographs). Their quality depends on their resolution; if the image is enlarged beyond its resolution, it is likely to become distorted.
- Vector: images defined by mathematical equations. That means they are limited by pixels; these images can be scaled to any size without loss of quality.
- JPG: a common file format that must be saved with the correct colour model (CMYK for print, RGB for digital) and the right resolution.
- PNG: a high quality format that supports the transparency and opacity of the file.
- EPS: the most common format for preserving the scalability of vector graphics. These types of files are not always accessible on PCs.
- TIFF: a file format with high image quality and large file size. Used for print design only, TIFFs can compress images without affecting quality, unlike JPGs, and are compatible with both Macs and PCs.
All of this (and much more!) is part of the day-to-day thought processes of a design pro. If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed, never fear! Our large and growing team of creative designers at nucleo are here to help. They get excited for a fresh ream of paper, they think in dots and pixels, and they see the world through CMYK-coloured glasses.
nucleo can optimise your designs for print and web, and deliver projects that get attention. Have a chat with us for any of your design needs!