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Are you dreaming of starting a business as a desktop publisher, a production artist, a graphic designer, or another type of visual artist? Then you’re probably going to need to know these print design terms.

Print design language will be complete gobbledygook to someone not familiar with the basics. Without an understanding of basic print terminology, your print job could turn out less than perfect. Before you embark on your first print design project, these are the terms you simply must know to avoid the expense of a reprint.

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Offset Printing

This is the traditional printing process that requires different plates for each color. Offset printing uses plates, usually made from aluminum, to transfer an image onto a rubber “blanket.” This then rolls the image being printed onto paper or another media substrate.

Offset printing is a fairly expensive process because the set-up costs are high. However, the quality exceeds that of digital printing. This kind of printing is used mainly for large print runs of 1,000 items or more.

Digital Printing

Digital printing doesn’t use plates like offset printing. Instead of using metal plates, digital printing presses the image directly onto paper or the media substrate. Digital files or PDFs can be sent directly to a digital printing press. See more about how digital printing differs from offset printing here.

Print jobs have never been so easy. There are many online print companies, printing anything from letterheads and leaflets to books, posters, and business cards. This is great news for small businesses that generally don’t require large print runs.

DPI

DPI is really important when it comes to printing. The letters mean “dots per inch,” which is the number of tiny printed dots on a document. The more dots, the clearer and higher quality your print will be. Although a higher DPI usually means a higher quality print, it’s not always necessary to print at the highest DPI possible. As a rule of thumb, the following usually applies:

  • Letters, documents, flyers – 300 dpi
  • Branded stationery and business cards – 300-400 dpi
  • Professional photography or large advertisements – 1200 dpi

Generally, it’s better to have a DPI that is too high than too low. DPI refers to print design (not digital, which measures resolution in pixels).

PPI

In the world of digital printing PPI means “pixels per inch.” (However, don’t confuse this with payment protection insurance, which is something completely different altogether.) Computer monitors display images at 72 pixels per inch.

As with DPI, the higher the number of pixels when printing the better the quality. The professional print standard is 300 ppi. This is the PPI that professional photographers use in magazine and print publication. There is also a relationship between pixels and print size. If you print images with fewer pixels per inch, the size you can print increases, but quality suffers.

See image examples and more about the difference between DPI and PPI here.

Pantone Color

Pantone color is a universal color-matching system. It is used across a number of industries, including print, graphic design, paint, and make-up. The matching system, invented in the 1960’s, allows businesses to assign exact colors to branding and know it will match across different applications. Each Pantone color has a unique code. Pantone color applies to traditional lithographic printing, whereas digital printing uses CMYK. (See more about this below.)

Bleed

Nearly all printers will request that print projects include a bleed. Bleed refers to the ink that goes beyond the edge of the page or document to ensure print extends to the edge after trimming. Bleed margins vary according to printer specs (usually 3-5 mm). For more information on “bleed” take a look at these FAQs.

CMYK

Digital printing uses CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key, also known as Black). It is worth noting that digital printing can get close to Pantone colors but won’t reproduce them exactly.

RGB

RGB means “red, green, blue” and refers to the color combinations found on a computer screen. You’ll typically view print documents on a computer screen in RGB. Then, you’ll need to convert the document to CMYK in Photoshop before printing.

Crop Marks

Crop marks are the trim lines placed at the corner of a printed document to show the printing company where to trim the final document. Most publishing software programs can add crop marks. Crop marks are required when several documents are printed on the same sheet of paper (such as business cards).

Print Finish

Print finish refers to the effect applied to your print once the ink has dried. It contributes to the overall finished look and feel of the printed document. There are a number of print finishing techniques, including satin, matte, and gloss. The thin layer the publisher applies to printed items is known as lamination.

Printing Proof

A printing proof is a really important part of the printing process. It’s when you get to see a close representation of how your finished printed product will look. Essentially, a proof helps to identify any layout issues or mistakes before going to press, which avoids the unnecessary expense of a reprint.

Most printers will provide a soft proof (PDF) free of charge. Hard proofs (a physical copy of the desired book, brochure, or other document) usually incur an additional cost. However, it can be well worth it for complicated print projects. A hard copy can help to ensure things like unique folds or embossed areas are in the correct places.

Conclusion

Remember, as a digital designer you don’t have to be a print design expert. You do, however, need to familiarize yourself with the common print terms to ensure your next (first?) print project goes off without any hitches. The more informed you are, the less likely there will be mistakes.