Design guide for print


I’ve learned that by streamlining the prepress process I am able to pass significant savings onto my clients. My prepress guidelines let me bypass common mistakes made when digital artwork is prepared for print.

Here I show how you can save money when printing.


With quality in mind, all files I send for print are in industry standard:

.ai, .indd, .qxp, .pdf, .eps

Software I use on an almost daily basis include Adobe InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop and Acrobat, QuarkXPress, and all filetypes created should be accepted by any commercial print company.

What to know before you print


A commercial printer requires all submitted files to be 300dpi (dots per inch). If you design a job at 72dpi or lower they cannot use the file for print purposes. Their prepress department will resize it to 300dpi therefore “stretching” the image. See the example above where one image was created at 300dpi, and the other was created at 72dpi, then stretched out to 300dpi.

Bleed, trim and safety


“About 3mm on all sides will be trimmed off. Everything that extends past the original canvas size is considered a bleed. Make sure you do not have any important content in this area. Adjust your canvas size to compensate for this; allow another 3mm. (See Size) Although printer cutting staffs are extremely precise, they usually cannot guarantee any print job cuts with out the added bleed. There are no exceptions. Also, please keep your text at least 6mm away from the edge of the piece unless it is an eighth page or smaller. This way your text is in a “safe” area.”


“The trim area is a space of 3mm after the bleed. Its purpose is to separate any text or important content from the edge.”


“The safety area is the space where its “safe” to put your layout, design and content.”

Bleed and trim

Bleed and trim


Your print files should be designed in the size that is being ordered. Printers assume that you desire what you have ordered, and files will be re-sized in accordance to the job. A printer will not stretch and enlarge a file unless at your request. For example a 4.25″x5.5″ quarter page ordered as a 4″x6″ postcard will print as a 4″x6″.


There are two types of colour spaces that are used for graphic and print design:

RGB (Red, Green, Blue)
These are the colours your monitor uses to display everything.

CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black)
These are the colours used for printing.

Colour shifts are usually not visible in colour photographs. However, rich and solid colours (like a background) can be affected by a colour conversion. Most of the time, colour shifts are minor and may not be noticeable.


Using the colour BLACK

Rich Black

Large, solid black areas and text over 36 points should use Rich Black to prevent the colour looking gray. Rich Black consists of 30% Cyan, 30% Magenta, 30% Yellow, 100% Black. For regular body text, do not use Rich Black.

4 Colour Build Black

If you have small, thin text on your piece, it is STRONGLY recommended that you do not use 4-colour build black on your piece. Although, using a 4-colour black is recommended on larger areas, using 4-colour text on small areas will make your text blurry and at times, unreadable.

Process printing uses 4 plates that overlay to make your full colour spectrum on your paper. Although precise, the registration of the 4 plates will shift during the print process. If you use all 4 colours to create your black, they will not line-up precisely, creating a ghosting effect.

This is especially evident on small lines, or small text, 12pt and smaller. In order to fix this, all small text should be created as 100% black, 0% Cyan, Magenta, Yellow. This way, as plates shift, it will not affect the black colour.

Four colour text


Convert fonts to paths when possible. By converting fonts to paths in programs like Illustrator and FreeHand, you will avoid having to send the fonts with your files. When converting to paths, the text becomes a vector shape and will look no different than its original state.

In Photoshop, text can be rasterized and therefore does not need the fonts. Keep in mind that after rasterizing, no changes can be made to the text.

If your fonts are not converted to paths or rasterized, your design may not be viewed the way it was meant to be seen.

File names

In order to make the pre-flight process more efficient, please use unique file names for files you are submitting. The file name should reflect the job name that was given when ordering. Example: jsmith_4x6_front.pdf

35 responses

  1. I’ve saved your page on to my bookmarks as it is a simple approach you’ve shown. I’m a Graphic Designer returning to the industry after quite a few years and really need a refresher with the whole print process and general Graphic Design do’s and dont’s , can you advise me to any such sites that go into depth or any more advice you may wish to share, even books on the topic?
    Kind Regards

  2. Also a great tip, especially for business cards, is the use of borders. It is highly recommended by myself and others to never use a border on business cards! Even with the bleed properly in place it can have treacherous outcomes. Great info for the amateurs David, thank you!

  3. I’m transitioning from Quark Xpress to InDesign CS3. I’m finding other designers in the industry are building layouts using Illustrator. I find this very frustrating when trying to work on the same project with 2 designers using 2 different programs. I talked with our printer and they said they highly recommend InDesign files as opposed to Quark. Now I’m dealing with ads in Illustrator. I also heard a local college student say his Graphic Design professor said to build layouts using Illustrator. Do you have a good explanation why Illustrator should not be used to build printing pieces such as layouts/catalogs, advertisements…etc.? Thanks in advance for all your helpful advice.

  4. Hi Robin, Illustrator is fine for single-page jobs — stationery, posters etc. — but for larger projects like brochures and magazines I’d opt for InDesign. The multipage options are more complete.

    I remember my transition from Quark to InDesign. I was a little wary, but I still think it was definitely the right decision. Didn’t take very long.

  5. About Fonts:
    Modern printeries accept final artwork as pdf which is great, because then you only need to send one file. The file has pictures and fonts embedded and therefore no need to outline text or send fonts along.

    Outlining fonts is by virtually all specialists not recommended as it destroys so called hinting. Outlined fonts in small sizes may print in less quality and the difference is quite obvious in pdf.

  6. Great job with your information. Explaining graphic design can sometimes be difficult, especially in the print world.

  7. Hi, David…
    I would like to know what’s your thought on using CorelDraw and have you used it before. I use it on a daily basis with Photoshop but would like to know if it’s a good software to use (CorelDraw)….

  8. Hello Bryton, it’s been years since I used CorelDraw, and I can’t remember much about (it came bundled with an old computer of mine). I’m not sure why you’d want to use it with Photoshop, however.

  9. Hi David,
    an old post, but I thought I’d make a little comment anyways:

    I think what Todd meant in his comment, was that placing a border/line close to the edge of the card makes small mistakes in the cutting very obvious – totally regardless of bleed.

    If, say, you place a “border” around the edge of the card, so that the outer 2mm is supposed to be solid black, it will show up very clearly if the printers have cut only 1/2mm wrong. Of course, this problem disappears as the thickness of the border/the distance to the edge gets larger, but on business cards there is so little space available, so the problem will show up very quickly.

    Of course, this is also an issue with all other kinds of prints.

  10. Hello Torstein,

    It’s always good to have people comment on my older posts, as it helps me see some kind of progression in my writing. Thanks for pointing out what Todd actually meant, and it’s clear I didn’t get what he was referring to (an important point).

  11. Hello David,

    I love your list. It captures nearly every issue that continuously comes up when working with clients (72dpi/300dpi and color matching/expectations). One issue that comes up, particulary with one client, is that we require all content and graphics they are supplying be provided to us before we start the project. I’m not saying we don’t ever use an FPO for a photo, but definitely all copy we want up front. I don’t think this is unique to us (a college graphics & editorial department); I worked for 30 years in the newspaper marketing industry before coming here and I have never in my life had a clinet who could not understand why. Is this ever an issue for you? How do you explain it to the client? Is there a Client Ettiquite document somewhere than tells clients how they should act with the designer and why? Would love to see your take on this. Thanks!

  12. Hi Sharon,

    Thanks for dropping by. I empathise with the copy and image concerns, but these days it’s takes a lot to have me work on a book or magazine, so I don’t have to worry. I don’t have any kind of etiquette form, and sorry I can’t be of much help. All the best.

  13. Hey David,
    Nice article on setting up design for print!

    I was just wondering,
    what printers have you actually outsourced
    your designs to, and which companies you
    would recommend?


  14. My clients usually take care of their own print requirements, Terry. I actually advise it, so they can build a lasting business relationship with a local supplier. When your printer gives advice, they can save you a lot of money, and I prefer not to act as a middle-man.

  15. It’s really quite simple Michael, I can a make a template for you if you need it, but I think you’ll manage to do it yourself quite fine:

    If your final document should be 200x280mm, and the printers say they need 3mm bleed (3-4mm is very common), your working document including bleed should be the final document size, plus 2x the bleed; 200+3+3=206mm, and 280+3+3=286mm.

    The outer 3mm on every border are then cut away after printing, so that your images can go all the way to the edge. Also, there is a zone along the edge, where things MAY get cut away, because of inaccuracy, so you should keep important details, text and such, at least the same distance as the bleed away from the edge, so in this example, you should keep important stuff at least 6mm away from every edge of the working document.

  16. Hi David,

    Thank you so much for your valuable advices. I am a graphic design student and working on my first project to design a black and white poster for a charity ball. However the black background turned out to be deep grey when I showed it to my customer. I fixed the background by adjusting the CMYK black build to Rich Black after reading your article.

    But I still have one question. Why shouldn’t we use Rich Black for regular body text? Thanks.

  17. Hi Edith, you’re very welcome. To answer your question, using four colours for body text can lead to registration problems, causing your words to appear blurred. Single colour black will avoid this.

  18. I’m not sure about that, Molly. When preparing files for print, your best bet is to ask commercial printers how they want to receive files. Many have different preferences, so even if you were to learn from a book, you might find it necessary to change what you’ve already created.

  19. I don’t typically design for print, more for web. But out of all the questions I’ve had asked the top one is probably.. “What’s the difference between CMYK and RGB?” That first picture says it all.
    When I first started out I had those color shifts and those aren’t pretty when that happens, now I even designed a cover for my father’s first book. The bleed information is also so vital, I don’t think people typically realize the thought process and technical difficulties that might arise when designing for print.
    Sorry for the late replies, David, I’m catching up to your articles. Thanks for sharing such vital information!

  20. For those of you stuggling with the change from using RGB to CMYK for designing for print, get yourself a Pantone Guide Book. You can get one that has the rgb or spot colours on one side and how the same colour will look printed in CMYK.

  21. Hi David, thank you so much for sharing this. I’m learning many things from you. :)

    I’m a graphic designer and just a newbie on packaging, my friend needs me to help her design some labels for her ice cream product and needs me to deliver final mechanicals done to specific package specs that can be sent to a printer. What are package specifications for ice cream products? Is it all just about choosing material? I don’t understand how to choose the best material for an ice cream label.

  22. Hi Margareth, it’ll depend on what surface the substrate is being placed, whether it’s paper directly against frozen ice cream, or labelling for a plastic container. Your best bet is to ask a printer for advice. They’ll know a lot more than I will. Good luck.

  23. David,
    I am flustered and your website is the closest resource I have been able to get the answer I am looking for. I am an art director for a marketing agency and have a specific printing issue that I am hoping you might be able to shed some light on. I am trying to print some very tight, white cross hatches over an image. The cross hatches started as a preset vector based shape in Adobe Illustrator. To make them white— I had to export the shape as an image (PNG with a transparent background) and then open it in Photoshop, invert it and save it as a PNG. The issue has been present from the start of this process with he large crosshatch shape in Illustrator. There appears to be tiny breaks the crosshatches creating a grid across the crosshatches. If you need see what I am talking about— I can contact you via email (ANY input would be GREATLY appreciated).

  24. I don’t think you need to export a PNG. You can copy and paste the vector into Photoshop, or take the image you want to print over and place it into Illustrator. I hope that helps.

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