January 26, 2021
Despite the oft-used quote, print isn’t dead. On the contrary; while certain print-centric industries are no longer as prosperous as they once were, others are flourishing. If there’s one thing I know for certain, the direct mail industry isn’t just flourishing but in its glory days thanks to the innovations by the USPS.
However, with print comes a certain set of rules that you must follow to ensure your artwork is print-ready. If you fail to meet these standards, then you can look forward to off-color, poorly cropped, misaligned, and blurry materials even after all of your hard planning. With that said, the most common mistakes in print-ready art are easy to circumvent once you understand them. Let’s take a look at those mistakes and what you can do about them.
Images Do Not Use CMYK Color Profile
There are two primary color profiles when it comes to creating artwork. They’re broken down into either RGB, which is typically used for digital-only art, and CMYK, which is in turn reserved for printed art. On the screen, the two may have almost no difference.
Once you print your materials, however, you’ll quickly understand your mistake. For one, the kind of printing press that prints direct mail is going to want your file in CMYK; it will tell them how much of the four colors that make up the printed color spectrum you should be using. CMYK stands for, “cyan, magenta, yellow, and black”. On the other hand, RGB stands for its colors; “red, green, blue”, which are the spectrum of colors that make up a pixel on your screen.
Without getting too technical, CMYK colors give you a more “true-to-life” result as you create your artwork. Furthermore, it translates better to your printer, giving them the information they need to make sure your purple font looks purple and not, say, a strange shade of gray.
Printer’s Marks Are Missing
The two most common printer’s marks that you should include on your digital files when sending to a printer are known as “trim” and “bleed”. The two may look almost pointless to someone staring at them on a computer. Yet, once you print the document and go to cut it to its proper size you’ll understand why they are so necessary.
Trim is exactly as it sounds; it’s a grouping of 4 “crosshairs” on the edges of your document that tell a production person where to trim (or cut) your material. The “trim” should be the literal edge of your document.
The term “bleed” is a little harder to understand. I explain it to clients as a “surplus” zone of background color or artwork to ensure your trimmed document doesn’t have any unnecessary white edges. Have you ever used a cookie cutter on sugar cookie dough? The concept is the same! You wouldn’t roll out exactly the amount of dough you need to fit the shape of your cutter, would you? No, you roll out more dough than you need, press the cutter in, and then pull away the excess to ensure that the result is clean and accurate to the original shape.
Bleed serves one other purpose, which is to ensure that a document that is printed on both sides of a piece of paper can be cut to size without being misaligned on either side. A printer, when printing on two sides of a piece of paper, isn’t perfect, so you need to plan for a slight amount of offset alignment. Having ample bleed on both sides means you have room for error; no one wants to turn your direct mail over and see a swath of white paper instead of the background color you originally intended. Bleed fixes that.
Incorrect or No Margins for Text and Artwork
Have you ever read a dime store novel that was published with little or no thought to its text spacing and margins? It’s borderline illegible. It can make you kind of frustrated, too! Margins are just as important in the direct mail world; they give your artwork and text space to breathe.
Unless you’re advertising a claustrophobia-inspired escape room experience (I’m grasping for straws here.) the last thing you want to do is wall your audience in with tiny margins on your direct mail. At a minimum, you should set your margins at .25″ from the trim line, but you are free to make your margins larger. Do you want your audience to feel a sense of Zen-like calm when they pull your mail piece from their pile? Then give them some space! Beyond legibility, a margin also ensures none of your text or artwork gets cut off when your piece if trimmed to size.
Resolution and Dots Per Inch (DPI) Not High Enough
As I mentioned earlier, RGB and CMYK are both specific to how you plan on using your artwork. One is reserved for screens (RGB) and one is reserved for print (CMYK). Print has two other distinctions from digital as well, two things that could get you in trouble if you simply open your favorite design software and don’t give it a second thought. Those distinctions are the document’s resolution and its DPI.
While screens have become incredibly high resolution over the past decade, they still smooth over a lot of the imperfections that would otherwise stand out on paper. For this reason, you need to make sure your document’s image resolution is much higher for print than it would be for digital. The rule of thumb? It all depends on the dimensions of your document. However, I like to tell clients that, on a computer, you can blow up a photo and get away with it. For print, you want to keep it as-is. Don’t make it larger than it already is; it won’t look good.
Dots Per Inch, otherwise known as DPI, is a similar concept but is much easier to create a set of rules for. An image’s “dots per inch” is just that; the amount of “dots” per inch of space. This is a term from before the digital era. Think of an old comic; you can see that the images are made up of a bunch of tiny dots. With a digital screen, those dots are replaced by pixels, which equates to almost the same thing.
A digital screen will display an image crisply at a DPI of just 72 DPI. While high-resolution displays like an Apple Retina Display will pick up on its low-res nature, it’ll be passable. However, when your goal is to print something, it should be at a minimum of 150 DPI, if not double that. The printing industry generally agrees that, after 300 DPI, you get a diminished return while your file size balloons.
Print Ready Artwork Takes Planning but it Still Dazzles
Our attention spans, when looking at a digital screen versus a printed piece of paper, are profoundly different. In the marketing world, you want as much memorability as possible. That’s why direct mail is still a primary tool for marketers. Not only does it increase your audience’s recall but it’s beautiful and tactile.
While there are caveats to this medium they can be easily understood and their mistakes can be avoided. If all else fails, you can always outsource your campaign to a communications agency like ours. Don’t get me wrong; I think the digital tools we have as marketers are completely changing the game of marketing, I think there is still something genuine about a great printed piece. You can feel it, save it, and even share it.
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