7 Mistakes to Avoid When Designing for Print

7 Mistakes to Avoid When Designing for Print

Designing for print can be a minefield for beginners. There’s so many easy mistakes to make that can have a serious impact on the quality of your final prints. With print runs also being very expensive, these mistakes can prove very costly. Hopefully today’s discussion about common beginner mistakes to avoid will help prepare you with the crucial knowledge required to correctly set up a design for print.



The most obvious mistake that newcomers fall victim to is the misuse of RGB and CMYK color modes. RGB (red, green & blue) is an additive color system where light is used to mix colors; the more light you add the brighter and more vibrant the color gets. When working on digital designs you’ll often be working in RGB mode because that’s how your monitor works, but the problem arises when we’re creating a design for print using a RGB based tool.

CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow & black (key)) is a subtractive color system where inks are mixed to create a range of different hues, much like mixing paint as a traditional artist. The more ink you mix the darker the color gets. The spectrum of colors that can be produced by light is much wider than the range achievable by ink, so our design applications have a special CMYK mode to limit the “gamut” of the colors we have available when creating a design that will ultimately be printed.

Failing to select the CMYK color mode and instead creating your designs in RGB may result in you selecting awesome colors that just can’t be reproduced in print (without special inks). If you don’t realize this early on you’re going to be in for a surprise when your prints come back all dull and muted.



We’ve already talked about how the typical CMYK color model gets darker as you add more ink. In the printing process this is done using an offset lithographic printing press (or a digital printer for small runs). This machine lays down a coverage of the four inks of cyan, magenta, yellow and black over the same area of paper to overlay the inks and create a much wider range of colors. Tiny halftone screens determine how much ink from each plate is applied across the print.

In our design applications we can easily select colors using the color picker tool as well as ready made swatches and adjustable sliders for the C, M, Y & K values. You must keep in mind that colors that use large amounts of cyan, magenta, yellow and black will quickly become oversaturated and any total values containing over 280% coverage may result in ugly muddy colors and set-off (when the ink remains wet and transfers from one sheet to another). Our computer applications might show the color looking fine on screen, but in reality prints always appear darker than your original design.


Using mixtures of multiple inks will also result in potential fuzziness, especially when applied to fine artwork such as text. If those four C, M, Y & K plates are just slightly misaligned (known as registration), your text will appear blurry and difficult to read. Perfectly sharp text can be created by using just one process color value, so 100% K (black) will be as crisp as you can possibly get.



Open Photoshop and hit the D key to reset the foreground and background colors to their default values. Select the black that has been generated for you, it looks… black, right? Now look at the CMYK values that colors is made from, you’ll find 75% cyan, 68% magenta, 67% yellow and 90% black (300% total coverage). This is a lot of ink to put down on paper. Always manually set your black appropriately. This could be 0,0,0,100 for that crisp black for text, however this doesn’t look great when used as a background color with it looking more like a dark grey than black. Instead you might opt for a “rich black”, of which there’s many recommendations, but 50,40,40,100 is a popular choice. This addition of other colors darkens the black to provide a much deeper color, but it’s still well within the coverage limit.



Those halftone screens in the printing press do a great job of controlling how much ink is placed onto the paper. They work by simply using a lower density of tiny dots in areas that don’t need much coverage. The trouble is you also lose detail when you try going too small, so tiny text and fine hairlines in your artwork are the first elements to become illegible. A limit of 6pt text size is the rule of thumb, but it all depends on the style of your typeface. Helvetica Ultra Light will probably disappear at much larger sizes due to its super fine lines! Keep this in mind when setting any small print within your designs.



On your computer the resolution only really alters how large your image physically looks on screen, whereas in print resolution determines how sharp and crisp your designs will appear. 72ppi is the usual figure for web images, but in print 300ppi is the standard. The more dots or pixels you can put in every inch the more detail the overall image will retain when the image is reproduced in ink.

Make sure all your artwork is created at 300ppi, that includes all images and photography. If you happen to throw in a 72ppi image into your 300ppi working document it will appear tiny because it will be resized accordingly. You’re going to need massive images to fill most documents at 300ppi, so random images from the web just aren’t going to cut it.

You can’t scale a design up in resolution, so make sure you set the document size correctly to begin with to avoid having to start from scratch.



Resolution isn’t the only crucial factor when setting up a print design layout. You’ll also need to remember to accommodate for bleed. Bleed is an extra margin around the edge of your design where any background elements that touch the edge of the page are extended slightly. This allows for slight inaccuracies when the printed sheet is trimmed to size, so cutting through that buffer of color will avoid leaving any thin white strips of paper along the edge of your print.

The actual amount of bleed you require will differ between print supplier and project, so be sure to select a printer beforehand and acquire their specs.

Learn how to set bleed in your print designs


Bachelor Degree spelling mistake (real!)

Typos suck! Despite proofreading this blog post there’s probably a couple of errors that still slipped past me. Fixing mistakes is easy on the web, but imagine how devastating it would be if you take delivery of your 5000 prints only to find a glaring error staring right back at you on every single one! Mistakes in print can’t be rectified, so take your time to check for ugly kerning, misuse of em/en dashes, curly quotes and the usual there/their/they’re errors that aren’t picked up by spell check.

BONUS: Top 7 spelling and grammar mistakes

1. YOUR versus YOU’RE

Incorrect: “Come to my office when your finished making that presentation.” Correct: “Come to my office when you’re finished making that presentation.” Correct: “What time is your next appointment?”

‣ You’re is a contraction of “you are.” Test your sentence by replacing your with “you are.” If it makes sense to use “you are” then the correct choice is “you’re.”

2. IT’S versus ITS

Incorrect: “Bring the CD along with it’s software key.” Correct: “Bring the CD along with its software key.” Correct: “It’s on the second shelf from the left.”

‣ It’s is a contraction of “it is.” Test your sentence by replacing it’s with “it is.” If it makes sense to use “it is” then the correct choice is “it’s.”

3. THEN versus THAN

Incorrect: “The fourth quarter sales were far more then the third quarter sales.” Correct: “The fourth quarter sales were far more than the third quarter sales.” Correct: “Create this presentation then finish up the reports.”

‣ Use than when a comparison is being made or use then when there is a time topic.


Incorrect: “The server outage will not effect our office employees.” Correct: “The server outage will will not affect our office employees.” Correct: “What effect will these new sales figures have on next year’s budget?”

‣ Affect is used as a verb while effect is most often used as a noun.

5. LOSE versus LOOSE

Incorrect: “Don’t loose the key to the new office.” Correct: “Don’t lose the key to the new office.” Correct: “This part fell off my laptop because the bolt was loose.”


Incorrect: “I had a couple files on my desk and now they are gone.” Correct: “I had a couple of files on my desk and now they are gone.”

‣ The word “of” should always follow “couple.”

7. Redundancies

Why say one word when you can say two?

Incorrect: “I bought the exact same laptop for myself.” Correct: “I bought the exact laptop for myself.” Correct: “I bought the same laptop for myself.”

Incorrect: “This new product is very unique.” Correct: “This new product is unique.”

‣ Unique and exact are absolutes. A thing cannot be more exact or more unique than something else.


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