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!