Dieline’s Dictionary of Print-Ready Design
by Bill McCool on 06/19/2023 | 7 Minute Read
While choosing the right paper has its challenges, print production is a complex beast in and of itself.
Last month, in collaboration with Monadnock Paper Mills, we dropped our guide and dictionary of paper terms, a mini-boot camp for designers on all things paper. Well, this time, we’re ready to focus on print production to ensure your design is print-ready before you run your first dummy.
Whether you're a seasoned pro or just starting, we've got you covered with all the information you need to know to ensure a successful print production and packaging experience.
And, yes, don’t worry—we’ve got another glossary for you.
Some common mistakes happen when creatives are gearing up for a print run, some of which are obvious. But it can be catastrophic if you don't address it from the get-go. “Always confirm with the printer that they’ve received the right paper stock, the right sheet size, and the right quantity,” says ??Lisa Berghaus, director of marketing communications at Monadnock Paper Mills. “Mistakes can be costly in press time and all sorts of scheduling issues—and a disaster if the mill doesn’t have the stock you need.”
You also want to ensure that everyone is working off the same proof, and when you get that first press sheet for approval, be sure to take a long, hard look. How does the artwork appear? Is it clean and blemish free? Is the paper the right shade? If coated on one side, are they printing on the right side of the sheet—some package designs call for coating on the inside, not the outside of the box.
Above all, you want to avoid any surprises and post-print disappointment. Digitally-printed proofs made on an HP Indigo press can give you a pretty close facsimile of your design. That way you’re viewing it on your specified paper stock. Most printers have also profiled their digital equipment to mimic what you’ll see on their offset presses.
But in the end, it’s all about seeing your design jump off the packaging so it can wow consumers. “The finer the printing paper, the better the result,” says Berghaus. “The paper property called formation refers to how evenly the fiber gets distributed in the sheet. The less uniform the sheet, the more disappointing the result.”
Berghaus notes that when using conventional offset printing on uncoated paper, “follow the recommended color curves (reduction in dot size). That way, you compensate for dot gain, an effect that plugs up your artwork and results in diminished contrast and detail.” She adds that if your printer uses stochastic screening, you'll need to ensure they don’t compromise that POP in color.
Some other pointers? Specify the line screen—the number of printing lines/dots per linear inch of a halftone. A standard laptop screen might not offer the highest resolution or the print-perfect results you’re expecting. A decent printer will push the limits to 200-plus. What’s more, you might want to find out how many printing press units there are to add extra color or texture—because everyone wants to play with bump plates, custom ink colors, metallic inks, or coatings/varnishes.
There are also sustainable considerations designers need to explore and research.
"Think about materials that speak to your brand values—hemp, cotton, PCW. But also consider packaging reuse," says Berghaus. "Is there a chance of a second life? Could it be used as something else instead of ending up in the bin? If that's not the case, consider the materials used in your design that you can easily recycle."
Understanding the difference between recycled and responsibly-sourced virgin fiber paper and packaging is critical. As is considering the layout on a press sheet—how much waste will you generate from the trim? Depending on the order size, mills and merchants can sheet products to optimize the yield and minimize waste.
It really comes down to a client's sustainability objectives, whether they're looking to prioritize recycled content, renewable energy, emissions reductions, conserving natural resources, or waste reduction.
But maybe the most critical pro tip? Be pro-prototypes.
“The more prototypes, the better—don’t stop until it’s perfect,” says Berghaus. “Your printer should have the experience to make recommendations from stock changes and dieline tweaks to a complete redesign. You might think you have the right solution. But until you hold that prototype in your hands and take that consumer journey, from the shelf (or online retailer) to unboxing, you won’t know for sure.”
And now, here's that dictionary on print-ready design we promised.
Adding spot color “bump plates” is an effective way to make an image “pop” using traditional printing methods. It is also possible to replace standard cyan, magenta, and yellow with fluorescent versions of the same colors to increase color intensity. Hexachrome printing adds green and orange to the standard CMYK mix for a fuller, brighter spectrum.
Varnishes and coatings get used to seal printed sheets to prevent rub-off, or “offsetting.” All are available in satin, matte, dull, and gloss finishes. Varnish, which is petroleum-based, can be applied overall, although it can yellow a sheet. Spot or “dot-for-dot” applications of varnish will minimize discoloration. Varnish can be applied in line with printing or, more commonly, off-line as an additional process. UV coatings, which require ultraviolet radiation for curing, provide the best sealant and deepen printed colors. Aqueous coatings are a popular choice to protect uncoated sheets, as they are run in-line, won’t yellow a sheet, and are environmentally preferable.
Dot gain is inevitable in printing on uncoated papers. To closely approximate the color, brightness, and detail present in your approved color proofs, be sure your printer’s prepress department has experience with adjusting color curves to compensate for dot gain.
The following suggested reductions to dot size are a starting point, as every combination of ink, plates, blankets, and paper gains differently. Each printer should establish its own unique profile for optimizing image resolution. These general rules of compensation should be applied to each image depending on its quality and the desired effect:
- Highlights: 2–3%
- Quartertones: 3–5%
- Midtones: 15–20%
- Three-quarter tones: 7–10%
- Shadow: 0% (keep dark for contrast)
Contract Proofs consist of composed color and help check color breaks once a loose color (if supplied) gets corrected. This proof will usually be used on the press by the client and printer to judge color.
Embossing and Foil Stamping
Premium uncoated papers provide a striking contrast to foil stamping, and they emboss beautifully, as they are capable of achieving great depth without cracking. Foil and embossing dies are limited in the amount of fine detail they can hold. It is best to avoid very fine or small type and detailed line motifs with limited space between lines.
Folding and Finishing
Understanding the dynamics of folding and finishing uncoated papers will help you achieve the best results. Folding paper with the grain creates a smoother edge than folding against the grain, although the fold is not as strong.
To avoid cracking, printers generally score papers folded against the grain or heavier than 100 lb. text. For double-thick covers, the recommended method is an off-line letterpress score. To ensure perfect folds, design to minimize cross-grain folding and heavy ink coverage on folds.
For critical spot colors, as in corporate logos, or for brand-color consistency on different papers, ink “drawdowns” are helpful. Ink drawdowns are ink formulations prepared on job-specified paper, particularly on uncoated stocks (which have different shades and absorption rates).
Ink type and application will affect the quality of reproduction. Conventional 4C printing typically utilizes petroleum-based or vegetable-based inks, which get applied as dots at different angles for each color. Images can get reproduced as halftones, duotones, tritones, or quadtones (typically CMYK) for various effects.
“Line screen” or “screen ruling” refers to the screen conversion of a continuous tone to image dots. It is the number of offset printing lines or dots per linear inch of halftone (not to be confused with “dpi,” which measures the resolution of a digital printer). The line screen determines the potential sharpness of the printed image.
Optimal reproduction on uncoated paper requires dot compensation. Reducing the dot size allows the use of finer line screens—typically 175–200 and higher. For best results, be sure your printer is comfortable printing on uncoated paper at line screens of 175 and higher.
When reproducing high-quality artwork, a press proof may be judicious. Produced on an offset press, it provides a reasonably close result to the final job when using the same paper and inks.
Proofing procedures vary depending on the demands of the job, and color accuracy is a challenge that one can address in various ways.
For projects with critical color, “loose color” (or “scatter” proofs) will often be provided. Photo images are scaled to reproduction size and ganged onto large sheets to review hue, value, and overall balance of color tone. These can sometimes get provided on stock specified for the printed job.
Stochastic screening, which relies on special software, is an alternative method of dot compensation that converts images into very small, randomly placed dots. With premium uncoated paper, the final results are comparable to those achieved with well-adjusted, high line-screen separations in conventional printing.
Because ink on paper doesn’t have the tonal range of original artwork, photographic film, or digitally rendered images, some tonal compression is inevitable; the loss of detail comes with compression. By working with a high-quality, higher-resolution original (within the range of the lithographic process), you will get results that meet or exceed your expectations.
Some printers prefer you leave your images in RGB instead of converting them to CMYK. Consult with your printer before preparing your files.
While conventional printing is a water-based process, you also have the option of waterless printing, which minimizes dot gain on uncoated papers. UV printing is another process that minimizes dot gain, in which special inks dry instantly under ultraviolet lights on press.
Once on press, ink density, balance, and blanket pressure are variables you can adjust to improve image quality.