Art and design are subjective, apart from commonly accepted best practices, there are infinite possibilities for label designs. To double down on clichés, beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, and one man's trash is another man's treasure.
However, there are a few design issues that have nothing to do with the inherently subjective nature of art. With a little understanding you will be able to save yourself time and money while communicating more effectively with your graphic designer.
Garbage In, Garbage Out (Say NO to JPEGs)
JPEGs are the bane of any graphic designer. With few exceptions, JPEGs used in design and layout are going to print badly. It's an image compression format, meaning in order to keep the file size down, pixels are sacrificed (this is called lossy compression). Put simply, when pixels are similar enough to their neighbor, they all become averaged out at the expense of detail and sharpness. And that's the best case scenario. At a minimum, high quality printing requires 300 dots-per-inch (dpi). JPEGs are by default saved at 72 dpi, less than 25% of the required resolution.
Confusion tends to arise because the JPEG image probably looks pretty good to you... on your computer screen. That's because your computer screen displays the images at 72 dpi. When you view it on screen at 100% size it's going to look fine. Try this. In your image viewing application, zoom in about 400% on the JPEG image. See how the edges no longer look sharp, they look muddled and blended? That will give you a good idea of how the file will print. For more info on images and photos, see our previous blog post A Picture is Worth a Thousand Sales.
Make It Bleed (Or We'll Do It For You)
This one is a must, but don't worry we're not condoning violence. In the world of printing the "bleed" refers to the colors and graphics at the extreme outer edges of your design. Specifically, the bleed is the area where these design elements actually cross over the outside edge of your label – beyond what you will see when it's eventually applied to your product. In production the bleed area is cut off.
So why do it?
By adding a bleed (typically 1/8 inch on all sides) you give your printer a healthy margin for error. For example, if your background color stops at exactly the edge of the label, when it's trimmed that cut has to hit that exact color edge with absolutely no wiggle room. That's not going to happen with any type of printing. You'll end up with some labels that are trimmed a tiny bit outside the edge, leaving a paper colored line, and some that are a tiny bit inside the edge, which will look fine because that cut edge cut through the color - basically using the edge as a bleed. But if the left side is a tad inside the edge, it means the right side will be a tad outside the edge, and again you'll have that thin paper colored line on your final product.
Of course no reputable printer would ever print an art file without a necessary bleed, and a prepress department should examine and correct files as needed (known as "preflight"). Things become slightly more complicated if you have graphic elements or photos in your design that require a bleed. In order to bleed a photo over the trim edge, it will need to be enlarged – and that could impact the overall layout.
You could be billed for art production time if your files are not set up correctly, so to save you time and money it's best to have your graphic designer set up the files as accurately as possible.
If you are printing with Advanced Labels, whether we design your labels or not, we will not print them until the preflight is complete and the artwork is correct and approved by you.
Walk The (Die)Line
The trim size of your label is your dieline. It's a line in the art file that shows the final trim size. If it's a custom shape it requires a custom die, the tool that does the actual cutting of the paper. For standard shapes, we have house dies, for custom shapes you may need to purchase a custom die. Either way, your art file will have a line in it that shows the shape. The dieline will not print out, it's purpose is to show the designer where the trim edge is so vital information isn't too close to the edge. It's also the line we want to add that 1/8 inch bleed to.
When possible, please include a dieline with your art file. Just like with the bleed, your printer can create the dieline for you but you may incur an additional expense for art production time.
There are two acronyms for color you may be familiar with. CMYK and RGB. Chances are, many people can decipher the acronym above this section (it reads: too much information, in my honest opinion) but far fewer will know what CMYK or RGB stands for.
CMYK and RGB are color spaces. You probably know that much. And you probably know that CMYK is for PRINT and RGB is for screen display– what you see on your computer screen, TV, and smart phone. Just like the JPEGs mentioned above, for on-screen use this works great. In print, not so much.
RGB stands for Red, Green, Blue. Using these three colors and a light source, electronic displays can reproduce millions of colors.
CMYK stand for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black. Yes, the K stands for Black. There are two reasons it's not CMYB in case you're wondering. First, we've already established B stands for Blue in RGB, so CMYB would be confusing. Secondly, the K originally indicated Key, for Key Plate, which is the black plate in conventional four color process printing that showed the most detail when viewed separately. The image to the right illustrates how the 4 CMYK color plates combine to create a full color image of a barn.
Why is it important to understand CMYK versus RGB?
The conversion between the two, from on-screen display to printing is not always similar or comparable. Drastic shifts in color and contrast can occur. If you've selected an RGB photo for your label, it will be converted to CMYK for printing and end up looking very different in your hand than it did on the screen. Using a CMYK color space in design software can more accurately simulate the final printed piece. As with JPEGs, dielines, and bleeds, preflight should bring color issues to your attention but this is also an issue best resolved during the design process to avoid delays and increased costs.
Use the Right Tools for Your Label Designs
There's more than one graphic design tool out there, but there's also one set of programs that completely dominates the design world and has for many years: Adobe Creative Suite (CS). The synergy between the different software applications included in the suite is unmatched, and the absolute standard for graphic design.C ompetitive design and layout programs like Corel Draw, Aldus Freehand, and QuarkXpress fought (and lost) against Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign for graphic design and layout dominance.
Freehand was absorbed by Adobe, but QuarkXpress and Corel Draw exist to this day. Some people still use them religiously, comfortable with their familiar tools and confident in their ability to use them. It's true that these programs are still commercially available and supported by their developers, but it is also true that they have been relegated to the fringes of the print and design world.
While most reputable printers can work around the essentially obsolete files supplied by Corel Draw and QuarkXpress users, Adobe CS files are always preferred. Tech savvy printers will universally use Adobe CS products, so files created in other programs often require conversion, adding an extra step to the art setup process. Additional costs may also be incurred depending on the time it takes to convert these files.
The best method of submitting your art files is to send your printer native Adobe Illustrator files, packaged with any linked images and fonts used in the layout and design (see next section, 'Pack Your Bags'). It's also worth noting that designs created entirely in Adobe Photoshop are less than ideal. It can be done, but the resulting files are cumbersome and large, and do not output with the razor sharp clarity of vector based layouts created in Adobe Illustrator– especially with fonts and text. Photoshop is the premier pixel manipulating program, and for photo and image manipulation is has no equal. When it comes to label design and layout however, Illustrator is far and away the superior choice. If your label designs include variable data, Illustrator files are required by Advanced Labels NW.
Consider using a designer willing to stay up to date with their tools. If you are using antiquated software, take the challenge to update your skills with the gold standard in graphic design software, Adobe Creative Suite.
Pack it All Up
As mentioned in the previous section, your designer should be using Illustrator for your label designs. When submitting art files to the printer, remember to include all linked images if you have any. Images can be embedded into the layout, but this will result in larger file sizes and limit your label company's ability to make edits and color corrections to your images.
Including your fonts is also critical. There are thousands upon thousands of typefaces available, and no one can be expected to have them all. When artwork is submitted without the fonts, design software will attempt to find a substitution and that can cause enormous changes to the layout and appearance of the text in your layout. Even common fonts like Arial and Helvetica can have enough variation between operating systems to warrant their inclusion. Missing fonts can halt the prepress process and delay your label order.
You or your designer may be tempted to submit "flattened" image files, in a TIFF format for example, to avoid the extra step of including your fonts and linked images. This method results in one completely pixel based image, something like an uneditable photo of your final label. It may print okay, but there will be absolutely no way for an art department to edit the files, causing conflicts with the issues listed above like bleed and color correction.
As an example, consider a flat TIFF label design where the press is causing your red logo to appear to pink. With a flat file, when the art department attempts to adjust the logo color, the colors in the entire design would be effected. In an Illustrator layout where each element is its own separate object they can each be edited individually.
Help Us Help You
A little understanding can go a long way. Your printer should always be willing to discuss any issues with your label design and offer solutions. Of course you could always rely entirely on your print provider's art department to do the heavy lifting, but learning the basics of how to provide a bulletproof art file will only help you and your business in the long run.
The subjects covered here represent some of the most common issues with art file submission, but there are many little details that go into every label project. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Discussing label projects, troubleshooting challenges, and educating clients wherever possible is a privilege that benefits everyone who is working together.
"Make a habit of two things: to help; or at least to do no harm."
View Advanced Labels NW complete Label Art Submission Guidelines.
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A previous version of this post was published on March 26, 2014.