Designing for professional printing

Tasked with delivering artwork to a professional printer? Then it’s worth understanding some print-specific concepts first.

Print concepts

CMYK

If you’re unfamiliar with this term, it stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (Black). This is a Colour model used in documents intended for professional lithographic printing (aka four-colour process printing). In pro-printing workflows, you should always be thinking in terms of these four colours for professional print output.

Professional printing is dependent on supplied artwork being separable into these four colours. Your print partner will create a physical aluminium plate for each colour from your PDF; each colour plate is loaded onto a respective colour Printing Unit in an offset lithographic printer. For example, a Magenta plate will be rolled onto the cylinder in the Magenta Printing Unit.

Magenta Printing Unit showing print cylinder

As paper passes through each Printing Unit, the colours are added in turn.

Colour management

This is all about keeping your colours consistent and accurate across your workflow. If used properly, you’ll get no unwelcome colour surprises in your final output—results will appear as intended.

Colour management is achieved by using colour profiles installed across different physical devices (monitors, printers, etc.) and onto apps and even documents themselves.

Colour profiles

Colour profiles define colour spaces, i.e. ranges (or gamut) of colours that an app, document or specific device can interpret—all profiles are referenced against standardised ICC colours.

For professional printing, allocating the same CMYK profile to your document (on document setup) and to your final exported artwork you’ll have absolute colour control and fidelity during design and production. If you design in a much larger colour gamut (e.g. using an RGB profile such as ProPhoto RGB) than that of your export CMYK profile, you will get a mismatch between colour gamuts—some colours used in your document simply can’t be reproduced by using the smaller gamut CMYK export profile.

If you’ve ever had some artwork printed and were shocked by how dull it was, it’s likely due to a mismatch between profiles used in your workflow.

“Adopt CMYK colour profiles at document setup and export time to ensure predictable print results with no surprises.”

DPI

A Dots per Inch (DPI) setting sets the quality of your print output. For professional print quality, you should provide artwork at 300DPI or above. Your print partner will likely inform you of artwork of <300DPI as part of their pre-press procedures. Here’s a visual comparison of different DPI settings, showing quality tail off at lower DPI values.

Bleed

Bleed optionally expands your page area by a small amount to ensure design elements run right to the edge of the page after being physically trimmed. Otherwise, without bleed setup, designing to the actual page edge may reveal unwanted white paper on trimming.

Of course this only matters if page content is designed to extend across the page edge. If not, bleed can be ignored entirely.

Printer marks

Printer marks are made up of three distinct components: Registration Marks, Colour Bars, and Crop Marks. These are all added outside the page area on PDF export to help your print partner position plates, check colour, and aid accurate trimming post-press.

Setting up documents

All sound confusing so far? If so, the good news is that only a few key settings need to be configured at Document Setup on most apps. In fact, Affinity apps make this easier by selecting a single Print (Press-Ready) preset which gathers up all the appropriate settings (CYMK, colour profile, DPI) ready for professional printing. Also, your final electronic print artwork can be set up using an export preset and handed off with pro printing in mind.

“If in doubt, always consult your print partner in advance of design. They may have their own preferred way of working or their printing equipment may necessitate specific print settings.”

Page size and orientation

A little obvious but vitally important, you must consider the page size you plan to print to before getting started. If client led, get this clearly stated in your project brief. Plus, consider page orientation, i.e. portrait or landscape. In document setup, document presets may suggest ISO page sizes (A4, A3, etc.) or US sizes (Letter, Legal, Tabloid, etc.). You may even be asked to work to a custom non-standard size.

CMYK colour

In document setup, ‘CMYK’ is used as the colour mode, as opposed to working in RGB1. This is called an end-to-end CMYK workflow, as you’d expect to be using CMYK profiles at export. The CMYK colour mode is intended for professional litho printing only.

1 Projects created in RGB mode are perfect for presenting output on screen—think web design and electronic digital art. In reality, you can still get good results working in RGB mode but you’d need to ensure you export as CMYK.

Colour profiles

Apps offer a selection of industry standard ICC CMYK profiles for you to adopt. Your profile choice is governed by your local print standards which differ across the world.

For example, US litho printer partners favour ‘Coated GRACoL 2006’ while in Europe (including UK) it’s the ‘Coated FOGRA39’ profile that is popular; Japan differs again in using ‘Japan Color 2002 Newspaper’.

Your printer will guide you in your choice, but the above profiles should keep you on the right track.

“Post document setup, you should be choosing your colours from the CMYK sliders in your Colour Tab, Panel or Studio instead of from the HSL Colour wheel.”

Setting bleed

A bleed setting of 3mm on all edges of your document is considered reasonable, but check with your print partner for their recommended bleed setting. In Affinity Designer, you’ll find this setting in Document Setup.

Exporting

OK. So that takes care of document setup. The flipside of this is Exporting.

Soft proofing

If you’re concerned that the final output may not look as you’d expect it, you can use soft proofing to get a preview of how your artwork would look before the export stage. You’ll be able to visually compare between different export profiles.

Export setup

What you now need to consider is the export setup of the final artwork needed before handing off to your print partner. Your print partner will typically take a high-resolution PDF file exported from your document. Again, a quick word with your print partner will help you decide how to approach PDF-specific settings.

Typically, PDF presets for professional printing may be available to you in your app. This can take away the headache of configuring individual settings.

PDF Settings

In Affinity products, the list of settings you should look out for when exporting your document are:

  • PDF/X: Use any PDF/X compatibility setting.
  • CMYK export profile: Either your document’s CMYK profile or an export-specific CMYK profile different to your document profile can be used.
  • Printer marks: Sets ‘off-page’ marks to help the printer align, colour check and accurately trim the print job:

    • Registration Marks
    • Colour Bars
    • Crop Marks
    • Bleed Marks
  • Bleed switch on: Having gone to the trouble of setting bleed, it’s a good idea to switch the feature on at print time.

Conclusion

This article should give you a better understanding of document setup for pro printing. In essence, setting the right document size and resolution, and then working in CMYK colours end-to-end is recommended.