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Key Considerations When Designing for Digital Print

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Whether you're new to the world of digital print or are looking to brush up on your knowledge, having a basic understanding of how to design for digital is critical. 

Digital print meets the needs of faster timelines, collaboration, iteration, personalization, dare-we-say instant gratification, and the ever-climbing expectations for beauty supported by function. The modern maker must consider design from pixel to print—using materials and processes to translate ideas on a screen into physical experiences.

Here are a few key considerations to keep in mind when designing for digital print.
 

Digital vs. Offset

One major difference between digital and offset print processes is how the image is actually created on the page. With an offset press, the wet ink is "transferred" onto the paper by a rubber blanket. Ink is pushed onto the paper, absorbed into the fibers and either dries via oxidation or UV light. 

With digital print, the dry or liquid toner is actually attracted to the front of the sheet by electrostatic charges and transferred to the paper via a blanket, belt, or roller. In this process, the toner primarily sits on top of the sheet’s surface (there are a few exceptions when using uncoated paper). 

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Spencer Menu
Always remember that the primary purpose of type is to be read, so keep point sizes readable.
Print Process
Printed on Strathmore, Wove, Dusk Blue, 80 Text with black on a Canon imagePRESS C700.

Type

The same basic rules of type that apply for offset print also apply for digital processes. Always remember that the primary purpose of type is to be read, so keep point sizes readable and refrain from reversing out light tints. Keeping C, M, and K values above 80% will help to avoid any jagged edges or pixelated artifacts, in output. 

A common rule of thumb is to never dip below a font size of 2 point for solid text and 4 point for tinted text. Also, whenever possible, ensure to embed all fonts (or convert them to outlines), as this will protect against your fonts going missing if they don’t reside on the digital front end (RIP) of the printer.

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A Maker's Field Guide to Digital Materials and Processes
While gradients can add great impact to the design of a piece, they can pose challenges for digital print.
Print Process
Printed on Carnival, Groove, White, 100 Cover with a 4-color process on a Konica Minolta Accuriojet KM-1.

Gradients

While gradients can add great impact to the design of a piece, they can pose challenges for digital print. If not created properly, the resulting output will resemble a ‘banding’ look, where the transitions between colors will begin to group into visible and unsightly stripes. Taking proper care when designing the gradient can alleviate this issue. Some tips to keep in mind: 

  1. Gradient length should span less than 7.5 inches, using a color change of 100 percent for at least one color separation.
  2. For gradients less than 3.25 inches in length, use a color change of 50 percent.
  3. Adding a texture, such as a ‘noise’ filter, or a Gaussian blur in Photoshop can help prevent banding.

Tints

As initially discussed, toner is attracted to the surface of the substrate by an electrostatic charge. Occasionally, that charge can be uneven, resulting in a mottling effect. 

Similar to the banding issues noted above with gradients, some digital presses have difficulty reproducing consistency across large areas of solid tints. Because of the smoothness associated with coated papers, these imperfections may be accentuated. 

Luckily, there are precautionary design steps you can take to combat this. First, consider reducing the size of the tint area. If large flat tints are required, you may wish to break them up using design elements. For best results, add a noise, pattern or texture to the background of the tint. 

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Pond Farm Event Collateral
If your design requires color that goes to the edge of the sheet, you must design the file so that the bleed extends outside the edge of the boundary of the finished page after trimming. 
Print Process
Printed on Superfine, Eggshell, Ultrawhite, 120 Cover with 4-color process on a Konica Minolta Accuriojet KM-1.

Design with Bleed

It’s important to keep in mind that digital presses have a default deletion edge, meaning you cannot print off the edge of a sheet. This is to prevent excess dry or liquid toner from contaminating the inside of the press. If your design requires color that goes to the edge of the sheet, you must design the file so that the bleed extends outside the edge of the boundary of the finished page after trimming. 

To determine the amount of bleed required, it is typically best to consult with the print provider and ask them the maximum image area of their digital press.

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January Smith
When it comes to imagery look for crisp lines, precise detail and vibrancy in oranges and blues.
Print Process
Printed with Dry Toner on a Xerox iGen 5, Inkjet on a Konica Minolta Accuriojet KM-1 and Liquid Toner on a HP Indigo 12000.

Saving Images

When designing for digital and saving image files, always make sure to embed the correct source color space (We’ve discussed color basics here). It is best to save images in either TIFF or EPS, although ICC Profiles in TIFF typically can’t be embedded into the PostScript code on print. EPS, on the other hand, can embed color information into the PostScript code.

Transparencies

When properly accounted for, transparencies represent another powerful arrow in a designer’s quiver. Objects become transparent when applying effects such as opacity, blending modes, feathering, glows and drop shadows. 

While these can have great visual impact, they must be designed with care. Stacking order is critical, and a common rule of thumb is to ensure transparencies occur on the top-most layer, otherwise information may be lost during the flattening process. Flattening occurs when saving as PostScript or EPS, since these two formats don’t support live transparencies. Oftentimes the safest bet is to flatten all layers before print production. Make sure to check your settings for overprinting, if required. 

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Fat Cake Membership Card
Variable data printing can personalize printed objects from one piece to one million.
Print Process
Printed with 4-color process on a Canon imagePRESS C700.

Test your Variable Information

One of the many benefits of digital print is the ability to incorporate variable information, allowing each printed page to be unique and personalized. It is important that you carefully consider the placement of static and variable information within your document. Always check your database to ensure information is correct. It is also important to consider how longer strings of data will work within the layout of your piece and the designated variable fields. Check to see how longer names, for example, are handled and keep an eye open for unnatural line breaks.

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Attaboy Beer Playing Cards
Think about where your projects live in the world. The environment can inform what material properties and finishing techniques to consider.
Print Process
Printed on Carnival, Vellum, Digital with i-Tone, Deep Blue, 80 Cover with 8 hits of white ink and 4-color process on an HP Indigo 12000.

Finishing Considerations

When designing for digital, always be considerate for how the final piece will be finished. In digital processes, because the toner sits atop of the paper in most cases, any area containing toner that will require folding is susceptible to cracking. To minimize this, consider avoiding heavy area coverage at folds. If that isn’t possible, you may look into scoring the sheet prior to folding. 


Digital used to feel like a compromise, not anymore. Whether you are a creative designer heavily immersed in the world of print, or a print provider looking to equip your customers with basic knowledge, this discussion is incredibly relevant. Reacquaint yourself with the basics of digital papers, including sheet formation, surface treatments, grain direction and moisture content for maximum impact on and off press.



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