How to design for print – Episode III

ware 2We have covered designing from the back end, thinking of various finishing and post-press operations and how to design for them.  Last week we covered basic press mechanics to help you understand how to design for which press or device the job will print on. For this final installment, we will talk about paper, and how that impacts your design. Paper is the biggest variable in your design, so lets look at some of the things to discuss with your client and the printer when determining which paper you’re going to use:

  • Coated or uncoated | Dot gain | Grain direction | Colored paper | Cover or text weight Sheet size | Basis Weight | Thickness | Paper dummies 


The basics of paper cover the choice of using a coated sheet (gloss, dull, matte, silk, cast-coated) or an uncoated sheet (text, offset, opaque, smooth cover, super smooth cover). The thing to remember is that ink sits differently on coated sheets than uncoated sheets.  On a coated sheet, the ink dot or micron will sit up on top of the coating, and look brighter.  On an uncoated sheet, the dot will spread slightly and even absorb into the sheet slightly, which will affect the color and create a bit of dot gain (we’ll cover that in a bit).  Different types of coated sheets will affect ink dots as well, and some uncoated sheets have smoother surfaces, so the dot sits on the sheet better.


Dot gain is Dot Gainwhere the ink dot spreads slightly.  Many things can create dot gain: paper surface, viscosity and temperature of the ink; too much packing behind the blanket, etc. Paper, however, can have the most impact.  A vellum sheet will absorb more and create more dot gain, whereas a gloss coated sheet will have little dot gain.


This is VERY important in your design, particularly if you have solids and are running on cover-weight papers, since the printer will have to score the sheet. When manufactured, paper creates a grain direction, and when paper is sheeted at the mill into parent sizes, manufacturers and distributors indicate grain direction by how they spec out the dimension of the parent sheet, with the 2nd number indicating the grain direction.  For example, 25 x 38” means that the grain runs parallel to the long edge (38”).  Sometimes you’ll see books where its 25 x 38 or 25 x 38.  But if you have what is called a “short grain” sheet, the indication is 38 x 25, or 38 x 25 or 38 x 25.  Short grain means that the paper grain is running perpendicular to the long edge of the sheet.  Grain direction also can affect how the sheet runs through the press, and MOST printers prefer long grain running perpendicular to the sheet direction, since the sheet is rolled around various cylinders as it prints.


MOST coated sheet are white, with variations on whiteness or brightness, or blue-white or cream-white. These variances can affect how the ink will appear, since light passes through the ink, bounces off the paper, and then back through the ink again to your eyes.  There are many uncoated sheets that have a variety of colors and finishes, or flecs of recycled material, and these can GREATLY impact your design.  Make sure you get the most recent swatch book from your printer so you can see what that paper will look like.  Some print services providers can proof directly onto the paper, if they have a high-end proofing system.  You may wish to ask that question, particularly if you’re using a paper such as something in the Neenah Environment line.


Cover paper is, as it sounds, used for covers of books or other publications.  Text paper (often called book) is just as it sounds, for use in the text of a publication.  Now, cover can be in coated or uncoated, and text the same.  When I started in this industry, text meant uncoated text-weight sheets, and book was for coated text-weight sheets.  Currently, you’ll see “coated text” frequently used for coated book.


There are a myriad of sizes dependent upon if the sheet is coated book or text, offset, coated or uncoated cover.  The standards are anything that can come out of either a 25 x 38” sheet, or a 28 x 40” sheet.  But even with that, there are variations.  28 x 41” is not uncommon.  23 x 35” is what you’ll find for text or “writing” sheets.  25.5 x 38” is common too.  Again, pay attention to grain direction, and ask how your printer plans to run the job, in case they are running it in a way that won’t get the best optimization of the sheet.


Basis_WeightThere is a whole standard for how basis weight is determined, and it can be confusing. Primarily it’s based on the parent sheet size at a specific amount of sheets. This handy chart will help explain.  And printers love to use “#” for “pound”, so don’t be too surprised – it’s not a hashtag!


Obviously, thickness of a sheet of paper is crucial, and is often directly related to the basis weight.  European convention (and slowly being adopted here in the US) is GSM, or grams per square meter.  Digital presses particularly use GSM, and you need to know off the top of your head what your digital device’s max GSM is.


More_Packaging_Prototypes_054I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: paper dummies can truly save your skin, because they are the 3-dimensional realization of the design you have.  Have your print services provider create one for you, as well as keep one for themselves for reference.  Make sure it’s on the actual job stock.  And then get the final dieline from the printer to lay your files to.

I hope that this series on how to design for print is helpful, and I encourage you to reach out to me if you have any further questions, of if there’s anything you’d like to have explained in more depth.  You can email me at, or go to my Twitter feed @protheropress.

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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