Friday, March 6, 2020

Printing and cutting graphics professionally

As most of us have access to cheap printers these days, many want to print stuff like business cards, greeting cards and other “collateral” (as these are often referred to in the advertising industry). While clicking “print” seems easy, there are a few more things to know and do in order to create a professional looking result. Today, I will discuss some of these techniques and processes.
While printing is not difficult, there is a difference in designing graphics products that make a lot of difference between a “hobbyist” level piece and what is more professional. The 4 main things that make the most difference, in my opinion (*) are paper weight, cutting, crop-marks and Bleed
In this article, I will talk mostly about business cards, as many people need to print just a handful, while most printing shops would only do a minimum of 100, which many people won’t want to waste money on.

* I myself am NOT a professional graphics designer, but I lived with one for two decades and picked up a skill or two.

Paper Weight
Paper weight refers to the thickness of the paper you print on, and using the right one makes a lot of difference. The main challenge is that in America, paper weight is calculated in a way that’s somewhat convoluted, and often times it’s hard to find the right one, or even understand what the number on the packaging means. For example, business cards are printed on fairly thick paper, but there’s no paper in office supply stores that says “Business card paper”. In Europe, paper is labeled almost universally, so if you buy “170 GSM”, or close to it, you can know for sure it’s a fit. In America, the closest paper you can easily find to that is labeled “poster board”. You could also get “65 lb Cover” or “90 lb Index”, and if you want even thicker, you could get “110 lb Index”, “80 lb Cover” or “100 lb Cover”. In this weird labeling system, “Cover” and “index” refer to other properties of the paper, rather than it’s thickness, and so “100 lb cover” is actually thicker than “110 lb index” (in Europe, 110 lb index would be labeled “200 gsm” and 100 lb cover “275 gsm”, which much more clearly illustrates the thickness).

This also means that many times, you might find yourself staring at bundles of paper in the store, unsure what the thickness ACTUALLY is (if the package is sealed, that is). Also, you might find that certain paper types come in sizes that won’t match what you want to do. For example, poster board is a very available and affordable paper for postcards, greeting cards and business cards, but it comes in large format that you can’t feed into your printer. For me, almost every print I do other than simple copy-paper is done on poster board, and to get around the size issue, I buy the big sheets (about $1 in most office/craft stores, and 2 for 1$ at the Dollar Tree) and then cut them into “Letter” size manually. This way I get 12 sheets for 1 dollar (from the Dollar tree), and since I can print 10 business cards on one sheet, that dollar yields 120 cards (not including ink, of course). If I were doing greeting cards, the common folded-style 5x7 card would require a 7”x10” surface, which fits on one “letter” size sheet, giving me 12 cards for 1$. Both of these are good deals for small-scale production.
Poster board also comes in additional colors, which can be nice for some designs that aren’t based on white. A close option to that is photo paper, which isn’t quite as thick, but it’s glossy, fairly affordable, and can be found pre-cut to letter-size, so you can jump in and print without much trouble and cutting.
When printing at home, we would usually have the paper larger than what we’re printing. Whether it’s a greeting card that needs to be trimmed down to 7x10 or business cards that need to be cut into individuals, we would need to cut it down, and that is more complex than it looks. Sure, you can use simple household scissors to cut it, but very few people can hold scissors straight enough to get that “professional” look. Even if you cut along the line (which you shouldn’t…but we’ll get to that), it’s just not feasible to keep it perfectly straight. The answer is to use a box-cutter (a.k.a. Snap Knife) and ruler to do the cutting, on a cutting board. This way, the ruler helps you keep a straight line…but that’s not always that simple either.

Cutting paper
First lesson in cutting is getting the right ruler. Wood rulers are not suitable, as the blade can cut into them instead of along them. Metal rulers are better, but they are often thin, meaning there’s a risk of the blade slipping over their edge and cutting into YOUR fingers. Plastic rulers are also soft and can be accidentally cut-into by the blade. I recommend PCB ruler (a.k.a Circuit Board ruler). These are mostly made to be decorative and cool, but they are also very suitable for this purpose as they are both thick, and resistant to cutting. These can be found on eBay. Another option is to use thick Acrylic, which can be found at plastic stores. Yet another option is to take a simple and thin metal ruler, and just stick two of these on top of each other with glue. Either way, make sure your ruler is long enough. It’s ideal for it to be larger than the paper you’re cutting, but a 12” ruler that you move during the cut will do the job…but if you go to short (like a 6” ruler), you’ll be moving it too much and risk getting lines that aren’t straight. If you are very new to using a snap-knife, I might also suggest wearing a protective glove on the hand that holds the ruler. A Thick leather glove, or fish-handling glove would be ideal, as they are designed to stop a blade.

As for the knife – box cutters come in either “small” or “big”, and I recommend the small, as it gives you finer control. However, it’s also important to get replacement blades and replace them often. A dull knife seem less dangerous, but it’s actually is more so, because the dullness would drive us to put more pressure on it, which increases the chance of it breaking and flying somewhere, or causing it to slip and cut your fingers. Box cutters usually have blades that can be trimmed, thus get a new cutting point without replacing the whole blade…but even replacing the whole blade would only cost about 10 cents, so that too can be done without spending too much. I recommend snapping the blade for a new point every 100 cuts or so and don’t cheap out…that’s where people lose fingers. Another reason to keep the edge sharp and new is that a dull edge might tear your paper instead of cutting it, resulting in ugly work that’s hard to recover.

Next, it’s important to cut on a good surface. You don’t want to do this on your table, as it would ruin it, but there are plenty of cutting board options. Office supply stores have “self healing” boards made of special rubber that’s hard, but can “take” a knife. A kitchen cutting board is another option, but those are usually both too small, and if you grab one from your own kitchen, it probably has a lot of “wounds”, making for a less smooth cut. It could also dirty your paper if it’s not perfectly clean. There are plenty of glass-based cutting boards, but I don’t recommend those, as they put a lot of wear on the blade, and also tend to be slippery for the knife, making it more risky.

When cutting, it’s important to put pressure on the knife, but not TOO much pressure. It’s common for people to try to stack sheets, and cut many together, but that’s once-again where fingers get slices, and paper gets cut crocked. I suggest putting a low amount of pressure, to only cut one or two layers, and passing the knife over it over-and-over to cut deeper and deeper. When doing so, make sure you are STANDING and not sitting down. Our hands aren’t built to apply pressure sideways, so standing above your surface will get much better and more reliable results.

Crop Marks
Since we will be printing an image that’s smaller than the paper, we would need to trim it to size, and thus need to know where to cut. The beginner way of doing this is by printing the image with a border around it, and then cutting along the border. However, this is suboptimal, as we risk having the border be visible in the result (unless the design is supposed to have it, of course). The answer to this is using “crop marks”. Crop marks are cross-like graphics that are placed on the image’s sides, but outside the usable graphics area. Then, we would place the ruler on the marks and cut along it.
Professional design software includes built-in functions for crop marks, but they are not that hard to do manually. If your graphics software supports layers, then it’s fairly easy:

1.      Resize your project “paper size” to be about 1/8” larger on each side (if working at 300 DPI, that’s about 37 pixels)
2.      Create another layer above the current one
3.      Use the pen/line tool with a line thickness of “1” (pixel) to draw lines across the image and around it, like so:

(I’m actually using a 4 pixel line here, to make it easier to see)
4.      Use the select tool to select a few pixels outside the frame, and delete it, thus leaving just partial crosses at each corner:

5.      You can now merge-down the layer, if you like, or if you need to export it to JPG or PNG
If you are planning on printing multiple copies of the same graphics on a page, then you would do similarly, but also put in lines in-between the copies, and delete them the same way:

If your graphics software does not support layers, then you’d be better off switching to something better (even the free Paint.NET has support for layers). If there’s no option, then you can draw the marks manually outside the area with layering, but that’s a lot more work, and would potentially be less accurate.

One caveat of crop marks is that they do take a bit of space, thus limiting you from using the entirety of the paper you’re printing on, but that’s a small price to pay, in my opinion. If you do this, you will notice how your results are more accurate and professional looking right away!

Another challenge with printing is that we typically use white paper, while the print may have a different colored background. When we cut a print to size, even if do it very accurately, there’s always a risk of having a thin white line at the edge, and this is where the concept of Bleed comes in.
Bleed is an adjustment in the design of the graphics that extends beyond the border of the target cut. This way, even if the cut is not perfectly accurate, it will still be in the graphics and not on the background, thus looking more professional.

Bleed needs to be part of the design process, and it basically means doing the graphics so that they go outside the target by 30-50 pixels. If we are working with an existing design, then it’s usually possible to simply replicate the last few pixels of the graphics (this is less easy if the graphics is very complex or patterned). Naturally, we would also need to adjust the Crop Marks to align to the original size. This is how this could look like:

As you may notice, the top-left crop marks are not highly visible in this example, because the graphics is red. In some situations, it might be better to use white or yellow crop-marks, to make then stand-out better. You may also notice that the graphics are imperfect on the left and top sides, as I replicated the pixels and the bubbles don’t align. This could be fixed with a bit more work (which I do with real designs), but I intentionally left it here like this to show the “down and dirty” way. Since the bleed would be almost completely (depending on how accurate you cut) outside the result, then it usually doesn’t really matter if it’s perfect or not.