How to design for print – Episode I

printWhen you’re designing for print, many factors can come into play, most of which are aesthetic. As a designer, you work in the abstract at first, working on comps and simple designs, and develop it into a final, comprehensive design that your client will approve. But when that design gets to the final stages, such as getting a price from your print services provider, it can end up being way over the client’s print budget, and often can entail things that you had not anticipated when you were even doing the concepts. So, let’s take a look at a basic axiom of print design….


As a designer, the first questions to ask are what is going to happen to the piece. Is it going to mail? And if so, is it a self-mailer or going into some kind of envelope? How does it finish? What is going to happen to the piece?


Mailing in and of itself is a complex and often changing variable in designing for print,direct-mail-marketing because the US Post Office can often alter the rules on mailing. For example, check out this video which covers folded self-mailers. This gives you a great tutorial on the rules established in 2012. But when you are getting things set up for mailing, you have to know and understand the rules of how each type of piece is going to mail out. For example, flats have different rules than letter, and different postal rates. Non-profit mailing has to have specific dimensions and the indicia has to read a specific way, and the font can be no less than 7 pt. in size.

In addition to creating a self-mailing piece, you have to keep in mind designing something that will fit into an envelope, so knowing standard envelope sizes are beneficial. There are instances where you may design a piece for an envelope, but it may be square, which will be a challenge to find an envelope for, as well as it will have a postage surcharge because it isn’t rectangular. Also, check with your print services provider to see if a size you’re looking at is a stocked item, or might require converting from a flat press sheet.


13cf3831557cfb7a820add1400dc8f55Another major concern is to design with finishing in mind. Is it going to die-cut, die-score, or have foiling or embossing? Is the fold going to happen along a solid color, potentially creating cracking issues? Have you created a beautiful piece that when laid flat requires it to be run on a 40” press. These are some of the considerations you must take into account when designing the piece. If you’re working on a piece that is structural or dimensional, and has capacities and folds, with gluing, you need to start with the die-line first, working with you print services provider and create paper dummies, also called “white samples”, to see how the piece will work together 3-dimensionally.


Junk-MailThis is a crucial question, because it can have an impact on how you design. While, as a designer, you may want to do your best to create a stunning piece, but you might be constrained by the client’s budget. Also, think about if the piece is a self mailer, and may be subjected to the machines that do the automated sorting. Maybe the piece is being stuffed into an envelope, so you want to make sure that it’s inserted into the envelope correctly, and have some kind of impact when the envelope is opened. Or what is the piece for? Is it like an advertising piece that you anticipate the client’s end user to review regularly? Do you want to build in social media icons to lead them to the client’s social media pages? Think of design like layers, with simple 4-color as the first layer, and 4-color with spot colors, varnishes, UV coatings, and special finishing as the more complex layers.

So, the first step in successfully designing a piece for print is design for the end in mind. Ask the kind of questions that will help you understand the client’s ultimate goal, and their expectations. Be honest if you feel that their ideas might be over budget, or be problematic in finishing or mailing. Bring your print services provider in early so they can be part of the collaborative effort.

Next week we’ll discuss the limitations for designing for offset, digital and large format presses and devices.

Connect with John on Google+Twitter and LinkedIn.


About John Prothero

John Prothero is a print professional with over 30 years experience in the print industry. Starting out as a driver delivering jobs, he worked in bindery, proofing, plating, traditional prepress (camera and stripping), scheduling, job planning, job management, account management and digital job production. His skills also run in the area of blog authorship, social media management, and lead generation and qualification of prospective clients. John is also a contributor to Rhode Island Creative Magazine, a digital publication that highlights the creative spirit of the state of Rhode Island. You can read their online issues at
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