Published on 10 August 2012 (Updated 9 November 2023)
When planning a printing project, it’s very common to receive unclear customer requests. Since the creative process is so poorly understood, many of you “omit” the printing characteristics in your requests for quotations, even though they are necessary for drawing up the latter.
In the printing industry, each technical criterion chosen will define which processes or types of machine will be used, depending on their output, starting wedge, quality, etc. Consequently, each printer has its own specific machinery and a well-defined market: high-volume, made-to-measure, and so on.
All the characteristics detailed in the following points are therefore essential in defining a print project, from its manufacturing process to its planning and cost.
When discussing a future print project, it’s very important to specify the finished (final) dimensions of your document, as well as its “open” format if applicable (leaflets, brochures, etc.). By convention, formats are generally expressed in millimeters, with width first.
This section describes the most commonly used and/or standardized formats. It is, of course, possible to produce customized documents with specific dimensions to suit your project, such as square formats.
International “A”, “B” and “C” formats
The most widely used “A” series dimensions are based on the basic A0 format with a surface area of 1 m². To obtain the next format (A1), you just need to fold the A0 sheet in half across its width, and so forth, respecting the proportions in this way.
- A0 : 841 x 1189 mm.
- A1 : 841 x 594 mm.
- A2 : 420 x 594 mm.
- A3 : 420 x 297 mm.
- A4 : 210 x 297 mm.
- A5 : 210 x 148 mm.
- A6 : 105 x 148 mm.
There are also corresponding, non-standard “+” formats: for example, the closed A4+ or A3+ flap folder is slightly larger than the A4 or A3 sheets it contains to avoid damaging them.
The “B” and “C” series are much less common. Only certain “C” formats are used for envelopes. Being slightly larger than “A” formats, they can hold “A” series documents of the same number: for example, C4 envelopes are large enough to hold A4 sheets without folding them. Note: the 220 x 110 mm “DL” format also exists for envelopes and it contains an A4 sheet folded in three.
Mainly used in the fine arts sector, they are defined by AFNOR standards. Each format is available in double (two sheets), half (folded in two) or quarter (folded in four). Here are the most common:
- Universe: 1300 x 1000 mm.
- Large world: 1200 x 800 mm.
- Big Eagle: 1060 x 750 mm (sometimes also 1100 x 750 mm).
- Dovecote: 900 x 630 mm.
- Sun: 800 x 600 mm.
- Jesus: 750 x 560 mm.
- Grape: 650 x 500 mm.
- Rider: 620 x 460 mm.
Other formats adopted by convention
Over time, certain non-standardized formats have become established, particularly for the cardboard industry:
- Business cards: 55 x 85 mm (the traditional format used to be 126 x 80 mm).
- Postcards/correspondence cards: 150 x 100 mm / 210 x 100 mm.
1 – The color
The number of colors (four-color process, black/grayscale, etc.) and the sides to be printed (single-sided or double-sided) are further criteria to discuss with your printer or agency. During this stage, any specific colors envisaged should be mentioned, such as Pantone®, along with their reference numbers.
Attention: the number of colors used is chosen from the four printing inks: cyan, magenta, yellow (the three primaries) and black. Thus, a “two-color” print means the use of two machine inks only. For example, despite appearances, a dark blue/orange logo on a white background will be processed in four colors, not two: cyan + black for dark blue, and magenta + yellow for orange.
2 – Offset or digital: the choice of printing technique
Two printing processes are generally used in the printing industry. The first is offset, a high-quality technique based on the repulsion of water and ink (fatty substances), and requiring extensive preparation prior to printing: plate creation, start-up, adjustments, cleaning, etc. Secondly, digital printing which is a computerized technique of equivalent quality to offset printing.
The two processes do not have the same yields, nor do they target the same products: offset, with its high fixed costs, is very interesting for large print runs, while digital requires less prior preparation and becomes really advantageous for small print runs.
The final choice of the printing technique used is therefore left entirely up to the printer, who will decide according to his machine park, the number of copies to be printed, deadlines, etc.
3 – Other printing processes
In addition to offset and digital, other printing processes exist, each corresponding to very specific needs in terms of end product use, printed materials or budget (textiles, plastics, small or large runs, etc.). These include screen printing, pad printing, letterpress printing, lithography (the ancestor of offset printing), flexography, rotogravure (derived from intaglio printing), and more.
As this article focuses on the most common paper printing techniques, these complex processes will not be developed further. Today, offset printing monopolizes large-scale production runs, while digital printing continues to gain ground for short and medium runs. However, it’s worth noting that most of the processes mentioned in this section are still in use today. Traditional printing know-how can bring real added value and an undeniable stamp of authenticity to communication documents.
Paper is also an important criterion, and you should discuss it carefully with your agency or printer to make the best choice for your budget and needs. For all print projects, this criterion must be mentioned along with the desired grammage (expressed in g/m², i.e. the weight of an A0 sheet). If your designs feature solid colors, it’s also at this stage that the choice between a white printed paper or one “tinted in the mass” (colored directly during manufacture) comes into play.
Here are the main categories of paper available:
- Modern coated paper: paper coated with a thin “gloss”, “mat” or “satin” (half-mat) layer during manufacture, on one or both sides (recto verso), making it smoother. There are many types of coated paper, depending on brand and range, either white or solution-dyed.
Uncoated paper: paper in its natural state, with very slight irregularities on its surface, perfectly suited to handwriting or office printing (all types of ink can be easily applied). There are also many types of uncoated, white or tinted paper.
- Creative” paper: paper with special finishes, colors or textures. Examples include metallic (pearlescent or iridescent), transparent (tracing paper), grained (with highly irregular surfaces) or textured (like wood, leather or parchment, etc.), laid (with watermarks: very tight, parallel watermarked lines) or vellum (silky, without grain or watermarks). Each type of paper exists in a number of well-defined grammages, differing according to brand and product range. While it’s always best to ask a printer for advice, there are a number of recurring uses and “standard” grammages: 80 to 100 g/m² for office papers, 135 to 170 g/m² for flyers or leaflets, for example, and 250 to 350 g/m² for covers or small items (cardboard).
In terms of the environment, the graphic arts and paper industries are increasingly moving towards sustainable management of the entire paper manufacturing chain (resources, processes and techniques, etc.). As a result, virtually all papers on the market today carry the 100% FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) or PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification schemes) label, regardless of type: coated or uncoated, dyed or undyed, “creative”, etc. This label certifies that they are sourced from sustainable sources. This label certifies that they come from sustainably managed forests.
Recycling, which contributes to the sustainable management of waste generated by paper consumption, has also come a long way these days. The greyish, aged look that usually accompanies it is gradually disappearing, to be replaced by immaculate, top-quality recycled paper (again, in all the categories mentioned above). Note: at least 50% of recycled paper is made from previously used and recovered paper.
Whatever your choice of paper for your communications, today it’s possible to combine eco-design and quality/aesthetics. You’ll just have to talk to your agency or printer.
Finishing and processing
In a print project, knowing the specifications for finishing is essential for drawing up an estimate or setting up a schedule. In fact, each element concerns a certain type of machine, requiring a specific set-up or drying time. It is therefore essential to know what your requirements are regarding print quality, so that you can discuss them with your printer or agency and make the best choices.
As many processes are available, only the most common finishing steps are presented in detail.
Laminating and selective varnishing
Laminating is the application of a glossy or matte (satin effect) plastic film to a document after printing to protect it. This operation is carried out on one side (recto or recto/verso) and generally on coated paper. It can be a costly operation for small print runs, generally costing from one to several hundred euros.
After lamination, a selective gloss or matte varnish can be added to just a small part of the page, to represent a motif and create a material effect to the touch (gloss varnish on matte lamination and vice-versa). Please note that this finishing stage requires the creation of sparticular PDF files called “black files”, and lengthens production times (ink drying time). There is also a considerable extra cost for this additional finish, generally used for medium/large runs in terms of profitability and budget.
(Pre)cutting and perforating
To produce a cutout or pre-cutout (dotted line) of a particular shape, it is necessary to create a “cutting tool”. Generally costing in the order of a few hundred euros, this type of production is only profitable for large print runs. Please note that this step also requires the creation of “black files”.
For simple, small-diameter notches (round, oval or square for bindery, for example), a perforating machine can be used. Less costly than creating a cutting tool, the shapes are nevertheless very limited, so it’s best to seek advice from graphic professionals.
Creasing and folding
There exist various types of folding, and it’s important to specify them to your agency or printer:
- The center or offset fold (otherwise known as the “single fold”): folding the sheet in two parts to obtain a 2-panel document.
Rolled folds (number to be specified): parallel folds cutting the sheet into several parts in the same direction, like a page rolled on itself and then flattened. The inner flap(s) should be slightly narrower than the others, so as not to interfere with folding when the leaflet is closed.
- “Accordion” folds (number to be specified): parallel folds cutting the sheet into several parts, alternating the direction of folding (recto then verso and so on) in the manner of an accordion. The final fold is thus reminiscent of a Z or an M, depending on the number of flaps.
- Window” or “wallet” folds: The “window” fold divides the document into three parts, with two parallel folds. The two ends of the sheet, smaller than the center, are folded inwards (in the middle) to form a 3-panel document. Wallet folding, on the other hand, divides the document into four equal parts: the two ends are folded in the middle, then the document is folded in half again. In the latter case, the inner flaps should also be slightly narrower than the other two, so as not to interfere with folding when the folder is closed. Paper weighing over 170 g/m² is generally too thick to be folded directly, so creasing is essential to crush the paper and prevent it from breaking during folding. At this stage, you need to specify whether the documents will be delivered folded or creased flat (for cost and convenience during transport).
The choice of binding depends on several criteria, from the total number of pages to the type of end use of the document and of course, the budget allocated to the design/manufacture. Here are the most common bindings used by professional printers:
- Wire-O or Ibico plastic binding: sheets are perforated on one side and then bound with a metal or plastic comb. This binding is generally used for documents that will be handled many times, such as notebooks or academic papers.
Metal stitched binding: pages are assembled four by four by folding 2 flaps, then bound together by a row of metal staples. Note that the number of pages in the stitched document must be a multiple of 4 (e.g. 4, 8, 12 or 16 pages, etc.).
- Glued square spine” and “sewn square spine” binding: the pages are nested and glued into a thick-edged cover, the glued square spine. If the document is really voluminous (e.g. a dictionary), the page books can be sewn together before gluing, for greater solidity.
This is often the last stage in the finishing process when a machine cuts away the excess paper to give the document its final format. There’s no need to specify this point to the agency or printer, as they will automatically trim the printed matter.
Other processing and finishing stages
The above list of printing and finishing processes is not exhaustive, as there are many other techniques, each different from the next. These include gilding (gold or silver) and hot stamping, embossing (punching or stamping paper to create reliefs), encapsulation (matt or glossy plastification of documents such as identity cards), laminating (of a cover to cardboard, for example), and many more.
Related information to remember
After detailing the various stages in the design/printing of a document, note that other related information should be mentioned or discussed with your service provider, including in particular:
- The number of copies required is all too often forgotten in customer inquiries. This information is crucial, as it often determines the offset, digital or other printing process. At this stage, be sure to specify the number of models to be printed: for example, 2 different card models printed in 500 copies each will give a total of 1,000 copies, making the service more expensive than printing 1,000 cards of a single model.
- Whether or not to order a paper or digital proof.
- Your files for printing, if already created: do they meet professional printing standards (high-definition quality, CMYK color space, 300 dpi resolution, good management of solid and support colors, presence of bleeds and crop/edit marks, etc.)?
- Content and creative brief if your files are to be designed by the agency: what content can you provide (high-definition vector logo, high-definition images with or without clipping at 300 dpi, finalized or raw texts to be reworked, etc.)? A creative briefing with the technical team is essential to discuss your needs, ideas, expectations, etc.
- Any deadlines and transport constraints (delivery to different locations, etc.).
Conclusion: features that can’t be chosen at random…
Without appearing to be so, every printing feature is important. They bring real added value to the document, helping to shape the image of your organization (whether professional, associative or private) through the medium. The sole aim of this article is to provide an overview of the various stages in the printing process (in the most informative sense); many more pages would be needed to discuss the different qualitative contributions of this or that process.
However, it’s important to remember that the choices made must meet a real need and have a precise objective in order to be relevant. Be careful, then, not to fall into the trap of the standard, the eternal “basic flyer on classic paper, as cheap as possible for the best quality, please”. Miracles don’t exist, and everything will depend on your choice of product positioning.