Here you are, cooking for your future in-laws for the very first time. Clearly the meal needs to be perfect, nothing less will suffice. Yet you’ve decided to prepare a challenging dish, where each ingredient needs to be just right for the dish to work. A little too much cayenne, or a shortage of sage, and you’re dead in the water.

Getting your design project printed—whether it’s a brochure, business card or packaging design—has the same requirements. Like a complex dish each ingredient needs to come together to create a beautiful, finished piece. In the printing industry, these ingredients are known as the specifications. The right production specifications are the essential building blocks of a successful printing project. In this article you’ll learn everything you need to know about printing your design projects, for perfect print results that will dazzle your in-laws—er, I mean clients.

food menu for mr. biers taproom
Just like the ingredients in a perfect entree, the specifications within a print print project need to be just right. Menu design by A-Sz.

Up-front questions before you start printing

There are a number of up-front questions that should be addressed by the graphic designer and the client, which help to determine the direction the production specifications will take. Here are the most important questions to ask before you start the printing process:

printing illustration
There are so many options to consider when printing your projects.
  • Who is the audience for this printed piece?
  • What mood should the project convey?
  • How long will the piece be used (what is its shelf-life)?
  • What is the budget for this project?
  • How and where will this piece be used?
  • How will it be distributed?
  • What quantity is needed?

Answering these questions beforehand will give you a good idea of what you’ll need when it comes to making print decisions later on.

The pretty and the practical: aesthetic and logistical specifications

printed cover design
Successful print projects are the end-product of carefully-chosen aesthetic and logistical specifications. Cover design by Ariesta05.

As these questions are answered, the specifications begin to meld and take shape. The recipe is now in the works! Here are some aesthetic and logistical specifications to consider when planning your print project:

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If your project is a sales brochure for cabins nestled in the leafy woods of New England, a gloss-coated paper stock is probably aesthetically too slick for the marketing message. Similarly, if the project is a one-time use, four-page program for a three-hour psychology seminar, stamping the front cover in a metallic foil leaf is overkill and an unnecessary expense.

trave guide design
Design for a New Zealand travel guide by Neal2607.

But let’s say that the attendees of that psychology seminar are given a 136-page book of every speech made at the event. The sheer length of the book mandates that only certain types of binding be considered (like perfect-binding, which features a a square, glued spine) instantly eliminating other binding options, such as saddle-stitching (two staples inserted thru the spine), which cannot physically handle that number of pages.

And when the seminar event planners decide to mail a save-the-date postcard for next year’s event they must be sure to avoid printing it on 100 lb. text weight paper stock, which is too light to meet postal regulations.

Being aware of the specification options, both aesthetic and logistical, allows you to create a piece that is appropriate for the needs of the project, while also considering ensuring that the result is high-quality, cost-efficient, on-time and implementable.

Should you go digital or offset?

A Hewlett Packard Indigo digital press
A Hewlett Packard Indigo digital press. Via

Day after day, print production specifications navigate their way to print estimators’ desks so they can determine the cost of a project. As the estimator reviews the laundry list of specifications, factoring in time and budget constraints, the very first question to be answered is whether to proceed with the estimate as a digital or offset printing project.

Digital printing is essentially your home printer on steroids. Offset printing involves more production material, namely plates, which adds cost to a project. Each production method has its pros and cons.

brochure design
Brochure design by bmp design.

For experienced estimators, it’s easy to see which printing avenue is best for a project simply by scanning its specifications. However, some projects fall into a grey area which requires the project be estimated via digital and offset reproduction to determine which is more cost-efficient.

Digital reproduction has advanced light-years over the past decade or so. Many print purists say that offset reproduction is still of a higher quality than digital; but digital does successfully fill many voids. Digital’s main selling points are quicker turnaround time (in large part because metal printing plates do not need to be made) and a much lower out-of-pocket cost for short runs. Digital is a great solution for small quantities, and for producing a pre-run, or test-run, of a publication.

If you’re not sure which method of printing would be best for your particular project, ask your printer for his or her honest assessment of the best way to proceed.

Life between the sheets: deciding on paper stock

colorful magazine design
A magazine design with brilliant, deep colors—like this one—needs the right paper to really shine. Design by Shwin.

Paper is such a huge topic that my printing company devotes a four-hour workshop on the topic, with no redundant information.

As described above in the New England cottage example, the paper specification should help convey a mood or a message, by complementing and even enhancing, the project’s artwork.

In the broadest strokes, paper falls into two main categories: coated and uncoated.

wedding magazine design
Design for a wedding magazine by n i n a.

Coated stocks come in a myriad of finishes, including matte-coated, silk or satin, dull, gloss and cast-coated. Coated stocks are best-suited for holding detail and contrast in photos, and for giving ink colors “pop” on the paper. This is because the ink is sitting on top of the paper surface, rather than being absorbed into the paper as with uncoated stocks.

Traditionally, uncoated stocks have been available as smooth, vellum, linen, laid, wove and felt finishes. Uncoated stocks are far more reader-friendly than coated, because they lack reflection or gloss. While photos and other images tend to look flatter on uncoated stocks they are usually the choice for text-heavy publications.

But you’re not getting off that easily on paper specification. Sure, you’ve addressed the aesthetic paper spec, but there is still the logistical spec to address—namely paper weight.

Every project, whether it’s a postcard or a poster or a business card, has an appropriate paper weight. This may be slightly subjective, but there is always a “best” weight for every printed piece. Paper weight will impact other areas, too, such as postage cost, for a project destined for the mail.

To play it safe, ask your printer to supply a sample of the paper stock before you commit to it. Seeing the stock, and doing an actual touchy/feely evaluation, may raise some red flags that need to be further investigated.

Ink insights

Pantone Matching System color guides
Pantone Matching System color guides. Via

Whether a project is printed in Pantone Matching System (PMS) colors or CMYK (four-color process) may be largely influenced by the digital versus offset printing decision. All digital work is printed CMYK, with some digital presses now offering the option of a fifth or sixth color. Certain inks, such as metallic colors, are often not available via digital printing. Offset work can go a variety of ways: straight CMYK; only PMS colors; or a combination thereof.

Like paper, there is a logistical side to this, too. Depending on end-use, special types of ink may have to be specified; such as heat-resistant; fluorescent; wax-free, and so on.

It is important that the digital art files are prepared in the exact color format that the piece will be printed in so that there are no color surprises once the project is printed.

Pulling it all together: bindery options

The two most common book binding specifications
The two most common book binding specifications. Via

If your print project is a booklet, brochure or magazine, you’ll need to think about your bindery options. Bindery work falls into two rather broad categories: folding and book-binding. This post-press process takes the finished press sheets and transforms them into something usable like an 8-page accordion-style brochure, or a 200-page plus cover case-bound book.

Although this conceivably may be the very last step of a project’s production journey, the binding specifications must be determined way in advance. When focusing on the paper weight specification, the designer needs to know whether a specific paper weight is too light or too heavy for the desired binding choice. Likewise, the printer will imposition the project on the plates according to how it will ultimately be bound.

For a book job, the designer will need to decide whether to proceed with a self-cover publication (the cover is the same paper weight as the inside pages) or a plus-cover (cover is a heavier paper stock than the inside pages).

There are probably close to two dozen folding options for any brochure or pamphlet project and perhaps half as many book-binding choices. A good designer will be aware of these options and address this particular specification early in the process.

Finishing touches: adding embellishments

hot sauce label design
These labels for a hot sauce range have gold foil embellishments to make them extra fancy. Label design by Iva Tan.

Time for the finesse! This specification is the one that makes your printed project stand out from the crowd (and another area that I could talk about for ages). Some of these embellishments are done in-line on press, while others are strictly post-press processes and techniques. This is a specification which allows a designer and client to produce a memorable project which goes beyond mere ink on paper.

A die-cut brochure, open and folded
A die-cut brochure, open and folded. Design by YaseenArt for DirectDialyze.

These embellishments include: spot varnishes and aqueous coatings; UV and film laminations, foil stamping, embossing and debossing, die-cutting and more. Hard to choose, right? A graphic designer with a thorough understanding of the various finishing option specifications can be a great resource when it comes to picking the right embellishments for your specific project.

Wanna go green?

Last, but not least, are the specifications that determine how environmentally-friendly a project will be produced. Specified paper stock can be made from totally virgin fiber, or manufactured with anywhere from 10% to 100% post-consumer waste. Today’s recycled paper is far more ink-friendly and printable than it was when first introduced several decades ago.

Likewise, inks can be petroleum-based or environmentally-friendly soy-based. Besides green material, a printer may also have environmental initiatives in place such as an active waste-management program or use of water-based chemicals on their presses. Some printers are also Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified, an additional green designation.

The whole enchilada

logo for a taqueria
So much goes into the final product. Logo design by wayang_art.

While we’ve explored the major building-block specifications for getting a project printed, there are still other specifications that require attention like the trim sizes for printed pieces. A project’s deadline or due date also becomes an essential specification to consider as it influences what other production elements can be included in the mix.

Try to learn the ins and outs of each specification area and focus on them early in the design process. This knowledge can make a design come to life and makes a designer a vital resource to a client, and an informed buyer to a printer. The final printed piece is like one big enchilada, made up of oh-so many ingredients.

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