Acquainting Yourself With the Specifics of the Printing Process


For graphic designers in this day and age an increasing amount of the day’s workload is prepared for the digital medium. The move to a digital environment has elevated work destined for print to a more exact practice, requiring adjustments to the finished product that might not be immediately apparent.

In this article we’ll be taking you through some of the nuances of preparing print-ready posters with optimisation tips to have things rolling off the press as smoothly as possible. However, just as with digital work the best place to start is with a solid understanding of what the client wants.

If you’ve been given a solid brief, you’ll be able to get your head around the specifications of the job. For example, are you adapting logos and branding that have been designed in-house, or are you responsible for moving that branding forward with a redesign?

What’s Different between Print and Digital?

If you’re used to mainly digital work, be sure to distance yourself from that mindset and go into things with a fresh pair of eyes. In a lot of ways it can be liberating no longer having to worry what a design will look like on mobile phones and tablets, or worrying about what the alt text on a certain graphic would be.

Presenting your work in CMYK can stop anything getting lost in translation

On the other hand, screens go on pretty much forever within the limits of good taste, posters definitely do not. It can be surprising to see how many habits designers have picked up since the dawn of the digital age which seem second nature to the job now.

Find out who is printing the poster. It’s possible that they’ll require final templates to conform to different specifications, a quick email now to confirm can save tedious reworking and fiddling further down the line.

  • What file format is the printer looking for? You’ll usually be asked for a .pdf.
  • Is file size an issue?
  • What colour mode does the printer use? Printers mainly use CMYK.

Get to Know Your Audience

What about the differing impact print has on the audience? After all, although the skills you’re employing to design your poster are fundamentally the same as preparing, say, a flyer to post on social media, the way your audience interacts with them are profoundly different.

The web is a highly interactive medium, any work you do there will be presented with accompanying links for those wishing to know more. With print you’re working in inches, not pixels and you need to convey your message at a glance, but in a way that then demands further attention.

Your ace in the hole here is that you’ll be producing a design to go on a physical product. Be sure to fully capitalise on the emotional connection that comes from having an audience see your design in the flesh and not just on a screen.

When considering the target audience, do so not only in terms of design, but also delivery. How is the final printed piece going to be distributed? What size will the printed poster be?

  • A4 will suit customers handling the poster similar to a flyer.
  • A3 is best for small or medium venues where it can be viewed fairly close-up.
  • B1 is for use in display stands on the high street, in train stations or similar.

A lot of this is likely to be covered in your initial meetings with your client, or can be easily caught up on now you know what questions to ask. What tends to cause a lot of back and forth between designers and printers (sometimes with the mutual client as a frustrated go-between) are the technical specifications to bear in mind at the design end of things.

As mentioned before, the RGB colour mode is used mainly on displays like computer monitors. Printers favour CMYK as it worked better in a subtractive colour scheme, resulting in a wider range of better colours.

Presenting your work in CMYK can stop anything getting lost in translation. The most common applications used by designers, Photoshop, InDesign and Illustrator all provide the means for you to switch to working in this mode.

Presenting your work in CMYK can stop anything getting lost in translation

Consider what the poster will be printed on, using what. What ink does the printer use? What paper will the poster find itself on in its tangible form? Without detailing all the major combinations thereof in impossible depth, suffice to say that a quick bit of research can net you some handy hints as to what colours might look best.

For example, your printer could be using soy based inks, which are eco friendly and cost effective, that give you beautifully rich colours and have a low resistance when it comes to rubbing off. On the flip side, if you’re printing window stickers or metallic boards, your printer will use white inks so careful consideration of how that contrast will work for your design.

Elanders uses wet inks which allow the paper to absorb the ink rather than laying on top of the paper in a similar fashion to toner printers. As for paper, if your printer is using a digital press, they tend to utilise SRA3 paper whereas lithographic or offset presses use 80gsm thin paper, which is ideal for books. They, however, use a 400gsm board that they find to be ideal for most printed communications such as invitations and greetings cards.

Know Where Your Print Is Coming From

Just as important as the materials used is the method used. You and your client will likely be faced with the choice between lithographic printing and digital printing. The former, also known as offset printing, works by transferring the inked image onto the printing material by means of a plate and rubber roller. The plate transfers the ink to the paper, attracting the inks loaded into the print machine. Meanwhile, the non-imaged areas attract a water-based film that keeps them clear.

You and your client will likely be faced with the choice between lithographic printing and digital printing

Digital printing, on the other hand, uses an image which is transferred directly onto the medium chosen for the poster. It probably goes without saying that the setup costs for a run of digital printing are far lower than an offset equivalent.

Digital printing lets you personalise documents, not so handy for posters but useful for projects like a direct mail campaign. It can be set up easily, allowing you to print on demand and stay in control of your costs. Overall, it’s the far cheaper option.

That being said, offset printing has its place. Where digital printing tends to use A3-sized plates, offset printing uses plates of B1 size, roughly nine times larger than an A4 sheet. This makes offset printing more suited to larger print runs and lets you turn out huge volumes of print at the highest quality. Maps, brochures and other large-scale print jobs which require immaculate precision are best handled with offset printing.

Presenting your work in CMYK can stop anything getting lost in translation

The transition between working for digital and print can be a tricky one. Thankfully, by spending a little time acquainting yourself with the specifics of the process your printer will be using, you can ensure that your design skills translate as well as possible.

Image Source: Icon Series in Flat Colors Style via Shutterstock.

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