Printing Terms for the Bride-to-Be, Part III

Third Time Wife, Wedding Planning

Designing for Commercial Printing

The vocabulary lesson is over, now it’s time to figure out how to get the best possible results from whichever printer you choose for your wedding stationery. Maybe you’re going with a local commercial shop, the nearest FedEx/Kinko’s, or maybe you’re getting ready to upload your files to one of the many online print-on-demand services out there. Regardless of who you choose to print your stuff, there’s one rule that is universal:

Garbage In = Garbage Out

If you give your printer 72dpi clipart you yanked off the web (or payed the minimum on a stock image site for the smallest file size), it’s going to look like pixelated crap when it comes off that press and there’s nothing anyone can do to fix it. If you don’t allow for a bleed in your design, you’re going to either end up with a white border around your image or some of the printed area cut off–and that might include the words if you’re not careful! And if you give them files of the wrong color mode, the colors you so carefully picked on your computer monitor are very likely to look very, very different.

To avoid those unfortunate situations (and a whole host of others like them), here’s some tips on setting up your files correctly for commercial printing.

Just to give you an idea of how close you can cut it--any more than one insert, though, and you'd need to make your invitation smaller.

Just to give you an idea of how close you can cut it–any more than one insert, though, and you’d need to make your invitation smaller.

1. Start with your envelope and work your way backwards from there.

While it’s true you can make your own envelopes, it’s a lot easier to buy them and they come in so many wonderful colors these days it’s a shame to let all of that go to waste. That said, they only make envelopes in certain sizes, and if your invitation, save the date, or RSVP is slightly too big for the target envelope, you’re going to have to buy the next size up. This can mean anything from your card swimming in an over-sized envelope to paying more postage than you need to.

So, if your printed piece needs an envelope, make sure you find out the size of the envelope available in your color and design around that. A single insert needs to be at least an eighth of an inch smaller than the envelope (though 1/4 inch is better–it’ll certainly make it easier to stuff, later), and the more pieces you want to include the smaller the overall size needs to be to for the envelope accommodate the thickness.

Another thing worth thinking about: If you have any intention of lining your envelopes, do yourself a favor and look for A-style envelopes as they feature a rectangular flap instead of the pointed flap of the Baronial-style envelopes. That flap style means a lot less in the way of fiddly cuts.

CMYK (left) vs RGB (right)

CMYK (left) vs RGB (right)

2. If it’s color, it needs to be CMYK.

Anything you see on a screen or monitor is in RGB and uses light to adjust the colors blended from the red, green, and blue values present. This visible light spectrum is amazing and can give you over 16 million distinct color variations. Gorgeous, right? And most of the time your home printer prints those exact same colors, even if you have separate tanks for each of the 4 colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black).

Commercial presses, on the other hand, work in CMYK, and CMYK is limited to a measly 1 million colors, give or take, and that’s where problems set in. There’s no fool-proof method (though there are plenty of strategies) to convert an RGB file to print in CMYK and retain the same brilliance of color you see on your RGB monitor. Yes, it’s frustrating, but them’s the breaks. [Now, I will say, some online printers prefer RGB because of the equipment they use. It’s easier to convert from CMYK to RGB, though, so I still stand by designing in CMYK to give you the best possible options.]

In a program (like Photoshop, for instance) that supports CMYK, it’s as simple as choosing your Image > Mode > CMYK when you begin your document. Unfortunately, the more consumer-level a product is (meant for home use and not professional), the less likely CMYK will be an option and so the file you create may not work as well. Many places can use them, but you’re not likely to get a color match.

The good news is that (if you’re a quick study), you can download a 30-day trial of almost any Adobe product (like Photoshop or Illustrator), and you can also use their Cloud subscription service to “rent” the use of a program for a number of months. $20 or so a month isn’t so bad compared to the $600 each program usually runs (or the $2000 the full Suite costs). You can also use open-source programs like GIMP or InkScape and get most, if not all, of the same functionality.

One other thing that makes colors hinky: monitors. Just because what you see on your screen looks right, doesn’t mean your screen is showing you the truth. Every time we adjust our monitor’s brightness, contrast, etc. we are increasing the chance that what we see is not what we’ll get. If exact colors are crucial to your wedding vision, look into calibrating your monitor. There are programs and devices that will do this for a fee, of course, but you can also use simple tests and the controls on your monitor or laptop to do it yourself, like this Monitor Calibration page from epaperpress.

Just an example why resolution matters.

Just an example why resolution matters.

3. Less is not more when it comes to DPI: resolution matters.

The way CMYK printing works is by laying down four layers of teeny tiny dot patterns (generally) only visible under something resembling a jeweler’s loupe to determine the strength of each color. They work in percentages and the dots can be very spread out or very close together–the closer together (and therefore smaller) the dots, the crisper the images. Potentially. These dots are measure per inch, hence dpi = dots-per-inch.

300 dpi is about the smallest you ever want to submit to a printer. The downside is that these files can be rather big, especially the more layers and details within each file, but 300 dpi is the happy medium in the struggle between file size and image quality. Occasionally, for the very large items (like banners and large signs), a printer may request a lower dpi, but that’s the only exception I’ve come across.

And just because you set up your file to be 300dpi doesn’t mean you can slap a 72dpi (the usual resolution for web images–smaller files means quicker loading times) image in there, drag to the right size and come out the same. My little illustration above shows why that’s not such a hot idea!

That said, most digital cameras save photos at 180dpi. DO NOT go in and change the resolution without good reason (and never muck around with your original file, while we’re on the subject)! Those 180dpi files are also around 2765 x 2074 pixels—unless you’re wanting to blow them up to billboard size (and who knows, maybe not even then), that’s plenty of pixels to work with.

There's just something more polished about images that bleed, especially "random" patterns.

There’s just something more polished about images that bleed, especially “random” patterns.

4. Set up your bleeds correctly.

This is one of those things that really separated the novices from the in-the-know. If you’re using an online printer, chances are they’ve got templates you can download for the various products that show the different areas of the file you submit. The live area is the safe zone for all your important details and images, the cut line lies just outside and shows where the images will be cut off at–it’s usually 1/8″ to 1/4″ outside of that safe area. Finally, the bleed line is 1/8″ all the way around your cut image.

So when you want to create a small card, for instance, that is 4.25″ x 5.5″, you would set your image size at 4.5″ x 5.75″–1/8″ is .125 and since you have to add it to both sides, you’d add .25 or a 1/4″ to each overall measurement. See, that’s not so tough! Then you’d want to set up guides (horizontally at 0.125 and 5.625; vertically at 0.125 and 4.325 for this example) to show where your finished image will stop. Anything you want to extend “off the page” needs to go all the way out to the true margins of the image, while all of your text needs to stay well within your guides.

You also want to make sure you turn off those guides before you save the file for submission, just in case. Normally they wouldn’t print, but we certainly don’t want to take any unnecessary chances, right?

5. All PDFs are not created equal.

Finally, it’s important that the type of file you submit be the right one. PDFs are probably the most common and most universally accepted, but they do come in different flavors. Most pdf files are intended for transmission by email or web download, so they’re lean and stripped down and not meant for more than maybe printing on your home computer.

By contrast, the type of pdf you need to submit to a printer is a Print Ready pdf and it’s got a few more bells and whistles. For one thing, any fonts you used in creating your document need to be embedded to prevent any issues when the printer opens them up. If the fonts are not embedded and printer doesn’t have those fonts himself, the computer will pick a font it thinks might match but it’s just a computer and isn’t going to always make the best decisions. And the more automated the process, the less likely it is that someone will notice before it gets to you. (Though this is also a reason to request a proof, even if there’s a slight upcharge or time delay–better safe than sorry).

A print-ready pdf also retains the highest quality of the document you created, so will have a larger file-size than one intended for web distribution. To insure the maximum compatibility between systems, ask if your printer has a .joboptions file available. This document gets placed in a particular folder of your system and will be available as an option when you export your pdf, preventing many mistakes along the way.

When you’ve created a program or other multi-page document, it’s best to export these as multi-page pdfs, in the order they would be read. To do this you’ll need a desktop publishing program like Adobe’s InDesign or the open source Scribus to do it natively, or a copy of Acrobat (this is different from the free Reader that you need just to open the files) to string your separately-created pages together. Single-sided items like cards or invitations are fine to save as individual images.

If pdf isn’t accepted by your printer or an option in your system, a .tiff file is better than a .jpg. If a .jpg is all you can manage, make it the highest quality you can and don’t keep resaving it as each time you’ll lose some image quality in the process. PNG or GIF files are not good options for print-ready files.


There. Those are my tips to diy-designing your wedding papers to get the best possible results. They represent the questions we have to answer most often at work or items we most have to explain to new customers and designers. Armed with this you’ll have one more tool in your arsenal, should you choose the diy route for your wedding stationery. It may not make the design process any simpler, but at least now you stand less chance of a nasty surprise when you open that box!

Printing Terms for the Bride-to-Be, Part II

Third Time Wife, Wedding Planning

Paper, Inks and Bleeds

Last time we talked about what is a page and how many of them you have. In this second part we’ll talk about paper basics, all the pretty colors, and why your printer might ask if your image bleeds. (It’s not as gross as it sounds, I promise.)

Look at all the pretty colors!

Look at all the pretty colors!


Let’s go back and talk a little more about paper (aka stock), okay? Paper comes in different weights, finishes, and sometimes different colors (beside the standard white and ivory/natural), though as mills react to the tighter economy, a lot of the variation is going away–especially colors. Standard copy paper is described as 20lb or 50lb offset. The slightly heavier paper you might use for a resume or other stationery is usually a 24lb or 28lb writing and often has a texture to it, like linen or laid. Offset (when describing paper*) means that it’s otherwise uncoated, writing sheets are also uncoated.

Text stocks have a significant amount of bend in them, going up to 100lb, though 70lb and 80lb are the most common. Cover stocks, on the other hand, are what you’d call card stock and also come in various weights and also in points (10pt, 12 pt, 14pt, etc.). Both text and cover paper can be uncoated or coated. Coated stocks can either be glossy or dull/matte. What the coating does is it prevents the ink from seeping so far into the paper and dulling out the color.

Paper weights are determined by how heavy a stack of 500 sheets of a certain size (it’s different for text and cover) from the mill would weigh. So the higher the number, the heavier or thicker the sheet of paper.
Points speak to a specific sheet thickness, measured in how many thousandths of an inch a sheet is thick.

Your project might use one stock throughout if you’re dealing with your invitation suite, but if you have a program or other booklet, you might want a heavier or colored stock for the cover and a lighter stock for the insides.

For a program that is all the same paper throughout, you’d request a quote for an “8-page self-cover” (or however many pages it is), but if you want that heavier stock for the cover, then it would be a “4-page plus cover“, with the understanding that a wrap-around cover will always be 4 pages. They’ll know what you mean.


If you’re going for elegant, all you might need is just some crisp black ink on a piece of white or ivory cover to get the job done. If, however, you want color(s), things get a little more specific. You’ve got two ways to approach color: spot colors or full-color process. Spot color uses specific colors as defined by the Pantone Matching System (or PMS; yes, really). If you are trying to match a specific item (like the ribbon on your dress or the color of your beloved’s eyes), PMS is the way to go. Keep in mind, though, that black is a color, too, so if you’ve got a red and black design, you’ve got a 2-color job.

By that same token, with the exception of specialized processes, white is generally not considered a color for ink purposes. In a print job, the white areas are left blank and the color of the paper shows through. If the paper you’ve chosen isn’t stark white, not only will your white spaces be something else, but the colors you’ve chosen will deepen as well.

Full-color/4-color process means CMYK printing , and it’s what you’ll want if you’re printing anything including color photographs or lots of different colors. Instead of mixing a specific color of ink at the beginning, the paper goes through 4 sets of printing plates, each laying down different strengths of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black to build the final project. In the big digital copiers at your local office supply or copy shop it’s the same process, only they use toner instead of ink.

When you call up your local printer (or fill out an online request for quote), you’ll need to know how to describe the color options you want. Now, if you’re talking about your black and red invitation with printing on only 1 side you’d describe it as “2 over zero” or write it “2/0”, which tells the printer that you’ve got two colors printing on one side and nothing on the back. That 4-color process job, on the other hand, would be “4/0” (or “4/4” if both sides printed).

With more involved jobs–again, thinking back to your program–it becomes a case of the highest common denominator. You might have a full color photograph or graphic on 1 page of your 8-page self-covering program, but the whole thing counts as 4/4 unless you are absolutely, positively sure they are going to run it as a single 8-page signature. This can be something to discuss with the printer you choose, to see if there’s a way to work it so that you save some money, but in the case of digital copiers, sometimes that means putting it through 2 different machines and you really wouldn’t save anything. Still, it never hurts to ask.

If that same sample program has a separate cover, like we discussed above, and only the cover is in color, then you would describe the job in parts. A cover with color printing on the front with nothing on the inside cover (front or back) and the “text” simply black and white would be:

a 4-page program, 1/1, plus 4/0 cover

A couple more color tips:

  • If it’s a spot color you’re after and you don’t already know the PMS number, bring something in that they can match or find someone with a Pantone guide to help you out (you cannot always go by what you see on the screen, and I’ll explain why in part 3).
  • In commercial printing it is possible to combine the two and run jobs that go through the 4-color process and then print a spot color on top of all of that, but that’s more than most people generally need.

Does It Bleed?

Sounds kinda gruesome, right?

Bleed just means that the image extends to the very edge of the paper. Or, really, that it goes off the edge of the paper.

Unlike your home printer, there is no “borderless printing” option on printing presses. They need something to hold onto on at least 1 of the edges (aka gripper). Furthermore, most of these presses run big sheets, so your invitation might be printed 4-, 6-, or 8-up to maximize the available space. Many of the online printers do gang runs (combining similar jobs into one print run), spreading out the running and maintenance costs that come with just turning on the press each time.

So you’ve got several items up on a single sheet and then they get cut down to size.

Now, these cutters are incredibly precise, but even still, it’s just not practical to print an image to size and then make sure you cut riiiiight along the edge so there’s no white border around your printed item. Instead, they’re smart and print bigger than the finished size and cut into the printed edges to avoid any borders.

Which is also why you need to know if your image bleeds, so you can set up your files to make that possible–which leads us right into Part 3 where we’ll discuss the ins and outs of setting up your files for commercial printing.

*Offset has a couple of other meanings in the print world. If something is offset from another something, it just means it’s not lining up perfectly–copiers will do this when printing multiple sets so you can easily separate the one set from another without counting individual pages. Also, if the ink hasn’t completely dried on a sheet and it’s placed on another (with or without any sort of additional pressure being applied), transfer can happen from one sheet to the other and this is called offsetting, too. It’s generally a bad thing, but it can happen on humid days or with printed pieces that have a lot of ink coverage, so jobs in those conditions sometimes take longer to avoid just that problem.