Digital design that flops in print

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An important component of design is knowing how the image onscreen will look once translated in to print. Not everything that looks good on a screen will print perfectly. Here are some warning signs that your digital design is not print-friendly, along with advice on how to catch those mistakes before you send it off to print.

Incorrectly Sized Design

One costly mistake that might make you have to redesign or redo your business cards is an incorrect use of the bleed area and safety line. If the card’s background design is meant to extend all the way out to its edges, the background should be larger than the intended cut area. This prevents thin white lines at one or more of the card’s edges that you sometimes see after bad cutting jobs.

Bad Social Media Elements

Even though you’re using a computer to design your print material, you have to resist using social-media hyperlinks and realistic button icons — you can’t click on a piece of paper! This seems like a no-brainer, but it is a common mistake that designers forget. Unfortunately, there are several posters and flyers out there that feature a social media button, but no identifiable information. Spelling out all of your contact info is safer than simply placing a social icon and assuming that your viewers will know what to do.

Other related tips for social media and print conversion include:

  • Linking only to active, quality social profiles
  • Making sure the medium you use is friendly to QR codes and/or clickable papers.

Low-Quality Color Settings

Your computer screen is backlit. Unless you are designing an ad for a lightbox display, your printed design will not be. Keep this in mind when you are choosing color settings and true blacks in your ad. The CYMK color option is designed for print, whereas RGB is light-based and works best on a monitor. Both your colors and your blacks will look crisper and more professional when they’re printed in CYMK. One way to avoid making color mistakes that look weird on paper or vinyl is to work in a color-neutral environment. (Note that this doesn’t mean your workspace should be completely boring and sterile. The blogger referenced here likes to work with his He-Man, Gollum, and Skeletor figurines close by, among other fun elements.


Please, please, please use spell check. Then read the whole thing through with your own eyeballs. If you’re not sure which homonym to use, have an orthographically inclined friend look your ad over for you. It isn’t the printing house’s job to catch your typos, and they may or may not let you know if they think there might be a misspelling. They have no way of knowing if you had your own reasons for spelling the word that way.

Low-Resolution Images

This one might also look painfully obvious, but you can’t always tell from looking at a screen if the picture will be equally sharp in print. Look at the image properties and make sure it is at least 300 dpi/ppi (dots per inch/pixels per inch). Other facepalm moments will result from submitting a .GIF or .png file. The file extension optimized for print is .Tiff, so use that if you can.

Unwise Font Choice

Badly kerned, ultra-thin, or dated fonts will give your work the wrong tone, especially in print. Look for readable print fonts that still fit the mood of the advertisement. When mixing fonts, use a service like Font Combinator or Google Font Combinations (examples here) to make sure your choices don’t clash. Two fonts that are beautiful on their own won’t immediately be beautiful together.

Design that is Just Bad

If it looks bad on the screen, it’ll look even worse in print. Let others see your mock-ups, and don’t be afraid of constructive criticism. If someone sees a weakness in your design that you honestly overlooked, it doesn’t reflect on your design skill — it means you’re human! Be humble enough to take advice. Even people with no graphic design experience can sometimes pick out a flaw that you would have missed until there were 500 copies of it in your hands.

Tips that Will Save You from Tearing Your Hair Out

  • Show the client your final digital design (preferably in PDF format) before it goes to print. Even if you’ve done exactly what they asked for, they will probably think of at least one tweak for you to implement before it’s final.
  • Find a printer with a good reputation and the right kind of printer for your project. Lithographic (traditional) printing can be pricey, but it’s good for unusual media and extremely precise colors. Digital, the printing of the future, cranks out your items in a hurry and eliminates the small variations between copies that you get from an ink printer.If at all possible, get a print proof in your hands. There’s no substitute that can show you as accurately as what the finished product will look like. If you have the opportunity to get a proof, but you don’t, you and your client may be kicking you later — mentally and physically.
  • Once you get the finished set, inspect the top, bottom, and middle of the stack, to make sure there are no blemished copies that the printer tried to hide from you.
  • Beware of clients who are very specific about the design they want … and their specifications include a terrible font or clashing color choice. Explain kindly how their customers will be driven away by the bad design if you fulfill their requests to the letter. If they won’t budge, think carefully about whether you really need this job. You don’t want anything in your portfolio that you’d be embarrassed to show a big-time company or client.

Katherine Halek is the lead advertising and print strategy advisor at Signazon, leading online printers that provide marketing collateral for thousands of designers around the United States. Katherine enjoys writing about web design, print strategy, and the ins and outs of designing. Connect with her on Twitter and Google+.

Header image courtesy of Gordon Ross