“Caress the detail, the divine detail.”
You may suspect that the age of print is over. Digital things are cheap, have great exposure potential and are mighty convenient.
However, old school folk have powerful arguments for printing stuff:
- Print is physical. Proposals and brochures stick to the desk of your prospect, while their digital stuff is easily deleted or lost.
- Print gives legitimacy. Printed things feel timeless and full of authority. A physical brochure just feels more serious than a digital one.
- Print is engaging. It feels natural to skim a digital document, just as it feels natural to study a physical one.
Also, digital brochures and flyers are very handy. Your potential customer can review it at their leisure, or share it with colleagues and family.
I’ll explain how to do it right in a time and cost-effective manner.
- Rules for print
- How to choose a format
- How to select your elements
- How to source a design
- How to proof & print
Rules for print
Designing for print requires prudence. Mistakes are expensive because you need to re-print everything. It also causes delays. So there will be a scapegoat when a batch is botched:
To make sure the finger points elsewhere, let’s identify some rules.
They prevents most quality errors and delays.
Make sure every image has the right resolution
Low-resolution images will ruin your print run. The design feels amateurish if you can identify the individual pixels on an image.
Every image must have 300 dpi (dots per inch) at the size you’re printing.
Typical web resolution is only 72 dpi, so those Googled images can only be used at 1/4th their size. Your computer can measure the dpi of your images.
Make sure all your images have the right resolution for their output size.
Use CMYK to limit your design to printable colors
Most design work is done in Red, Green, and Blue. RGB gives extremely precise control and allows for almost 17 million colors.
However, no professional printer on this planet uses RGB. They define colors with Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key/Black (CMYK).
Why is that? Because a monitor displays color with light, where print displays colors with ink. That’s why CMYK has a smaller color gamut (reach) than RGB.
Printers convert RGB pictures and illustrations to CMYK. This replaces every out-of-gamut color. Needless to say, the result can disappoint because you can end up with radically different colors.
Set the color mode to CMYK in your design tool before you start.
This limits your design to colors that can actually be printed and avoids unpleasant surprises.
Set the bleeds, crop marks, and margins before you start
Documents are often printed together on a large sheet of paper, then trimmed to size. This trimming requires every design to have space beyond the actual dimensions, commonly known as the bleed area.
Add 6mm to the width and height of your designto get the standard 3mm bleed.
Crop marks show where the design ends and the bleed begins. It’s where the knife is put when the trimming starts.
Add crop marks to identify the trim lines on your document.
Finally, you should add margins around your design (at least 10 mm) to make sure your design elements don’t look like they’re falling off the page.
Add margins to give your design elements the space they need.
Always set the bleed areas (green), crop marks (red) and margins (blue) before you start designing to ensure your design can be printed correctly. Most design tools can add these for you.
Step 1: Choose your format, size, and materials
Every piece of print, from brochures to packaging, comes with options:
Format: The concept of the print – like folded versus normal business cards. If it can be imagined, it can probably be printed.
Size: The dimensions of the paper – like A4 vs A5 brochures. Small is easily carried, large accommodate more stuff.
Materials: The weight, texture, and finish of the material – like shine versus no-shine. Most printers send (white-labeled) samples on request.
A. Choose what (1) can contain your info, (2) suits your brand and (3) fits your budget.
The majority of brands play it safe. They use regular formats, sizes and paper types. You’ll easily stand out if you deviate from the standard.
But while exotic print catches the eye, it’s more expensive. And anything outside of A4 often has to be redesigned for PDF. When you’ve chosen:
B. Write down the dimensions of the required design, including the bleeds.
Or better yet, download the templates for your design software that your printer offers. These will save you a lot of headaches.
Step 2: List the elements and sketch the layout
Before investing in design, sketch a coarse layout first.
Start by listing all the elements you want to include in your design. Next, arrange them across the pages. You can use pen and paper or PowerPoint.
Try to be creative. Images can start on one page and continue on the other. Or make the headers complementary. Reading your print will be a tiny adventure if you’re creative enough with the layout.
The information density depends on the purpose of your print and your audience.
Always check how similar brands do it. Car brochures often contain multiple sheets of data that no-one reads but serve as authoritative stuffing. Lingerie billboards go with just some disrobed women and the brand’s logo.
Stuck? Try digging up some inspiration on Pinterest. It contains countless unique billboards, brochures, and business cards.
Step 3: Source your design
There are several ways to source your design, depending on your skills and budget:
Option 1: Design it yourself
Designing print is nothing more than putting the right elements in the right place. And Adobe InDesign – the leading software for this – isn’t hard to use.
That said, designing something that tickles the imagination often takes years of experience. And getting it pixel-perfect requires time and multiple iterations.
Option 2: Pay someone ($100 – $2,000)
Designing is not a rare skill, hence designers are not as expensive as coders. However, you get what you pay for. Bottom-shelf designers rarely produce masterpieces.
When paying someone, be sure to complete step 1.
You can also include step 2 in the briefing. It eliminates surprises but limits creative freedom. You can also send some examples that you find inspiring.
Before you commit to a designer:
- Check her portfolio to ensure their quality matches your ambition.
- Check her reviews to see if she delivers on time and budget.
- Make sure the price includes multiple rounds of iterations.
- Get a clear deadline, and include some margin for iterations.
- Make sure the copyrights and original files are transferred afterward.
Option 3: Write out a competition. ($200 – $1.000)
Again: step 1, and if possible step 2 can be used as a briefing. However, the more detailed you are, the more you limit their creative freedom.
Put up more money to attract better designers.
Option 4: Get a template ($10 – $50)
There’s a template for everything. Search for ‘Brochure Template’, and you’ll find a lot of free and paid ones. I use them for inspiration only – inserting all your fonts, colors and images can be laborious – and the uniqueness is always minimal.
Step 4: Review and print
Many errors creep into your design, from spelling to structure. To eliminate nasty surprises, review the design before you print.
Export your design in PDF-X1a. It includes all print-related requirements.
A. Export your design to a digital PDF and check it.
- Inspect the photos and illustrations. Can anything use retouching?
- Check the spelling. If your design tool won’t help, paste the text in a tool.
- Scan the last and first words in columns or pages for a correct flow.
- Are the headlines and text complete?
- Is the text consistently ragged (regular) or justified (touching the ends)?
B. Recruit fresh eyes to scan for errors.
The more time you spend with a design, the more invisible errors become. You should let others review your design to make sure it’s faultless.
C. Get a proof from your printer. (Optional)
Never do expensive print runs without a proof. This is a sample that shows you how your design file looks look in real life.
A PDF won’t do. Your monitor isn’t reality, so the colors might turn out different in print. And don’t use your desktop printer – the quality won’t be representative. So ask your printer for a proof. Then check:
- Is the paper size and type right?
- How did the colors turn out?
- Are all the images and graphics razor-sharp?
- Are the outer and inner margins correct and consistent?
- Does the binding cut off or hide things?
For big products – like billboards – ask for a reduced-size proof or one showing only a critical piece.
D. Print and publish
Printing the double quantity is often only marginally more expensive than the printing the quantity you actually need.
Don’t order more. You’ll have to make the inevitable changes. And who wants to deal with pounds and pounds of obsolete paper?
For publishing digital documents I recommend to:
- Export the design as an interactive PDF with Use the export options to keep your documents under 2 MB.
- Rename it so it is easily searched for: “Brand Name Brochure EN”
- Upload the document to your server or into your WordPress CRM.
- Create branded links that anaylse document traffic. (Optional)
OK, you can hit that send button now. Say a little prayer as you do.
Summary and steps for pixel-perfect print design
There are many advantages to print: it’s physical, gives legitimacy and is engaging. Also, digital documents always come in handy.
Always make sure (1) your images have the right resolution, (2) you design in CMYK and (3) set the bleeds, crop marks, and margins before you start designing.
Step 1: Choose the format:
- A. Choose the format, size, and materials that suit your purpose and budget.
- B. Write down the design dimensions and bleeds.
- Request a template from your printer (Optional).
Step 2: List the elements and sketch the layout.
Step 3: Source your design:
- Option 1: Design it yourself.
- Option 2: Pay someone. $100 – $2.000
- Option 3: Write out a competition. $200 – $1.000
- Option 4: Get a template. $10 – $50
Step 4: Review and print:
- A. Export your design to a digital PDF and check it.
- B. Recruit fresh eyes to scan for errors.
- C. Get a proof from your printer. (Optional)
- D. Print and publish.
Save your work in a folder called “/brandname/print/project/”.