Taggraphic design

Designing for Digital Printing

Designing for digital printing is similar to designing for offset printing. The disadvantages of digital printing (compared to offset) can be handled easily in the design stage. And the advantages you can plan into your design from the beginning, isn’t that easy and awesome?!

Advantages of digital printing

  • Short-run—No minimums! You can just order one and you may be surprised to know that digital printing can be cost-effective for a quantity up to 5,000 depending on the size of the finished piece and the number of inks needed.
  • Less paper color shift—Digital press inks are more opaque resulting in more accurate CMYK approximation of spot colors and less of a shift on colored stock. A 100% black looks like rich black because DMAX percentages do not apply to laser builds. (more about that tech stuff in another post)
  • Versioning and personalization—Versioning uses variable data to customize the printed item for the recipient. For example, a brochure mailed to a woman might feature a photograph of a woman on the front, while the same brochure sent to a man might feature a photograph of a man. Personalizing can be more than simply inserting the recipient’s name in a letter. It can also be about telling Suzie that her particular make of car is due for service or sending a letter to Frank with a personalized message that his heating system is due for duct cleaning. If you are thinking of customers that would love to have these features into their marketing campaign, but you and they do not have the database expertise, don’t worry. All you need to do is look for a printer that does mailing and they will help you integrate your clients’ marketing with versioning and personalization.


Some digital presses can print on transparent media and even lay down white ink, now that’s incredible!

Digital printing also has disadvantages:

  • Small type may look messy, especially if it is in color
  • Solid areas looking blotchy, there are some workarounds we will discuss later.
  • Not all printing papers will work. Metallic papers, super thick papers, it depends on what kind of press your printer is using.
  • Difficult, if not impossible to apply finishing processes that require exact registration, such as foiling or embossing and coatings such as varnishes or AQ.
  • Don’t expect match color from one print run to the next.

The majority of digital presses are toner/dry ink based, but also include liquid ink digital presses. Large-format digital printing, which is only inkjet (i.e., liquid ink), will be described in a separate post.

Things to do for a digitally printed project:

  • If you have small type in color, make one color at least 100% (the same as for offset printing).
  • When knocking-out type from a background that has a screen build of multiple CMYK colors, make sure that the screen build has at least one color that is set to 100%. This helps the type look cleaner.
  • Minimum 1200 dpi for line art.
  • If you use a large solid-colored or tinted area in the design, ask for a sample or test from your printer. If you are not 100% happy with how the sample looks, get suggestions from your print provider on what technique will work best to achieve the look you want. Sometimes changing the screen percentage or adding a texture can improve the appearance of the solid or tint.
  • Know the size limitations of your print provider’s equipment before you start designing, especially if your job involves scoring.
  • When building a gradient to create a gradual transition of color, for example from black to white, set the “white” part to 0% black, not white.
  • Check with your vendor before including metallic paper, or imprinting a shell with a metallic ink, or foil stamping, in a digital project. Most digital presses cannot print on metallic paper or imprint on paper that has a metallic foil-stamped element in place.


  • Do not use type below 8pt in the file.
  • Do not apply a color to type that has less than 100% of one color, e.g. 80% cyan or 40% yellow.
  • Do not have large areas of solid color unless at least one of the colors is 100%, and even then that could be risky.
  • Do not build rich black in your file if you want a rich black. 100% black is the densest, darkest black on a digital press. If you want a black that shifts to red or green, for example, then use a CMYK formula.
  • Do not have large areas of tint color. If you do, then you can expect banding, splotching, and general unevenness.
  • Make sure that any lines/rules are set to an actual width and not “hairline.” Avoid rules under .25pt.
  • Do not convert RGB (Red, Green, Blue) images to CMYK. The look-up tables in your print provider’s RIP are specifically designed for their digital inks and their particular digital press.  Do not use the look-up tables in Photoshop or InDesign, which are designed for lithography inks.
  • Do not place a score through an area of solid ink coverage. Dry ink or toner is especially brittle and difficult to fold without cracking.
  • Do not use a digital shell for imprinting in laser printers—unless the digital shell was printed on a laser-compatible device. The output from some digital presses will smear in a laser printer.
  • Do not specify a Pantone color in your file unless the following occurs:
    A. Your print provider has digital equipment that can use a spot ink/toner (this is uncommon, and there may be a hefty surcharge to get a digital PMS on your job).
    B. Specify a Pantone color with the knowledge that it will be converted to CMYK or CMYK plus additional hifi colors such as orange or green, and let your print provider’s rip do the conversion; its look-up tables are superior to what you would specify from a Pantone selector or library because they are designed for the press manufacturer’s inks/toners. If you have a client with a substantial amount of digital printing and the branding includes a tricky Pantone color, ask your print provider to work with you on specifying a digital CMYK equivalent that your client will be happy with. This might involve some extra tests but is worth it in the long run.
  • Some digital presses that are dry ink or toner-based leave a film over the entire sheet that is very difficult to write on with pencil or pen making it impossible to use for forms that need to be filled out manually, and labels or adhesive may not stick.
  • Do not include die-cutting, embossing, or foiling in a design that will be digitally printed.

digital test

This image shows the same page printed on two different digital presses. In the center is the Pantone Bridge selector showing the PMS and CMYK equivalents for PMS 647. It’s difficult to make this really clear online… but you can see that the print on the right is slightly more red in both the solids and screen tints. The page on the left rendered the solids and screen tints ever-so-slightly less smoothly than the page on the right. There are slight differences as well in the way the type was imaged on both pages. The moral of the story is, today’s digital presses are all very, very capable presses. They are designed to have different strengths than sheetfed presses.

Comment below with digital printing surprises you have experienced. I would love to hear about them!

Confused about digital printing?

For a limited time to can get the actual decision tree in my book, for free! The ultimate tool for figuring out if a project can be digitally printed or if it needs to go on press. PLUS you'll get a heads up when the Kickstarter campaign launches.

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Choosing Logo Colors That Work for Web and Print

If you’re a designer who works in the digital space, you know how to use logos on the screen. But how do you specify a logo color for print when it only exists in RGB?

With a little bit of upfront work, you can completely bypass this problem.

For instance, the way you perceive color is dependent on how and where you’re looking at it. If you’re outside, is it a sunny day or is it overcast? If you’re inside, are you under fluorescent lights or color-correct lighting? Are you viewing color on a calibrated monitor or your five-year-old Macbook? There are so many variants.

Remember high school biology and chemistry classes? We learned about “controls,” and how to use a control to measure deviation. Um, that, and other random, nonsensical things that I quickly forgot (sorry Mr. Frost)!


In the world of graphic design, we have a fantastic control. It’s called the Pantone Color Bridge. It is aptly named Bridge because it bridges the gap between digital colors to printing inks.

Let’s get a closer look at the Bridge.Pantone232

The left swatch is printed in a spot Pantone ink, PMS 232 C. These spot colors used to be called PMS colors, although Pantone doesn’t call it that anymore. The ‘C’ in the name means that this color resides in the Coated fan deck. The left swatch also indicates the RGB and HTML hexadecimal formulas for that color.

On the right is the CMYK equivalent for the spot color on the left. In this case, the swatch is printed with 3% Cyan, 60% Magenta 0% Yellow and 0% Black. The ‘CP’ in the name means that this is a Color Process specification.

Note that the swatch on the right is lighter and less saturated than the swatch on the left. This is as close as these two colors can get. Ever.

If you design a logo that uses the RGB formula above, and you have a print job that needs to match, you now know:

1. The Pantone number to specify or the CMYK equivalent to use in your file (good!)

2. This is as close as it is going to get (bad!)

This next example shows two colors that are nearly identical.PantoneRhod

Again, the left swatch is a single ink, Rhodamine Red, and the right swatch is it’s CMYK equivalent. WOW. It’s hard to tell them apart, right?

If you specify Rhodamine Red in the Bridge you now know that it can be replicated closer to a CMYK equivalent. BINGO.

The Pantone Color Bridge set is not inexpensive, but it will save you loads of heartache and money in the end.

Here’s a little bit of background on why we need a tool like the Pantone Color Bridge.

When you look at a color, it is being interpreted by the source.

Outside in a garden, you see a pink rose. The color of that rose is going to be affected by the sunlight.

  • Is it bright or overcast?
  • Are you wearing sunglasses?
  • Do you have a degree of color blindness? (probably not if you are a graphic designer!)

When you look at color on a monitor, is it calibrated? Is it new or old?

And when looking at a printed sample, what is the lighting, the type of color — spot or CMYK, is the paper coated or uncoated?


All of these examples describe gamut. Color gamut is the range of color that can be created by a device. This diagram shows the gamut of color perceived or reproducible by different color systems or “devices.”



The outer edge is the visible gamut that our eyes can perceive. The left diagram shows the gamuts of various RGB profiles (because you are viewing this on a monitor, you are not “really” seeing the true visible spectrum, which is why there are a zillion greens in nature). And isn’t it crazy that there are multiple RGB gamuts? The diagram on the right contains Pantone, CMYK, Hexachrome and SWOP CMYK gamuts.


If you are designing a logo for a website, in the RGB space area (the triangle at left, outside the inner CMYK area and you want it to match when printed, you are going to stress out. As you can see, in the lower diagram, the grayed out area is showing everything within the Adobe RGB gamut that is impossible to create with CMYK inks. Nearly the full orange wedge is outside the CMYK gamut. The Pantone bridge illustrates this for the Pantone universe.

Study this color model and you’ll see the areas to avoid. If you stick to the CMYK circle you will be able to match colors across CMYK, Pantone, and RGB. This may seem very limiting, but the truth is that in the CMYK circle, there are MILLIONS of colors. Also, don’t forget that rarely monitors are not calibrated, so reducing your RGB color space to a narrower CMYK reproducible space may increase your RGB consistency as well.

Before Pantone developed this product it was a real b*tch to try to match identity, and we had to keep logo colors in a really narrow spectrum. Now with the Pantone Color Bridge, we have millions of colors to work with!

Confused about digital printing?

For a limited time to can get the actual decision tree in my book, for free! The ultimate tool for figuring out if a project can be digitally printed or if it needs to go on press. PLUS you'll get a heads up when the Kickstarter campaign launches.

We respect your privacy.



Why Designers Need to Keep Up with Technology

Unfortunately, I missed DRUPA this year, so I have been furiously consuming tons of trade journals articles highlighting the most exciting news.

You might have never heard of DRUPA. It is the world’s largest trade show for printing and allied industries. It is held every four years in Dusseldorf, Germany coinciding with the Olympics and the soccer World Cup finals, which makes for some fun parties when Germany is in the finals! The convention center is ginormous. Imagine the largest convention center you have ever been in and multiply it by 10! Seriously! This year it was in 15 buildings and occupied thousands of square meters.


Although a show like DRUPA focuses on printing and bindery equipment, it also showcases workflow software, finishing methods, and new technologies. The big news this year was finishing capabilities on digital printing equipment. This is pretty big news.

A little bit of the background on this news: The best printing presses maintain very precise registration from sheet to sheet. That is part of why presses are made out of iron and steel and weigh hundreds of tons. Offline finishing processes like die cutting and foil stamping have the same precise tolerances as the best printing presses. Digital presses have not had the same sheet to sheet registration capabilities of sheetfed or web printing.

Because of this, offline finishing processes like spot coatings, foil, embossing etc. that rely on critical sheet to sheet registration have been nearly impossible on digitally printed sheets. (There are other issues with the dry ink or toner and adhesion of coatings but that is a separate post)

Digital press manufacturers have been tackling this problem with near-line finishing solutions. Near-line solutions are machines that need to be loaded with the material from the digital press. You can get some spot coatings with some digital presses but they still have less-than-perfect registration.

Sheet-to-sheet registration from the top manufacturers, like XEROX, CANON, and HP is getting closer and closer to sheetfed tolerances, but these are the top-of-the-line machines which cost $1,000,000 and up.

Why does this matter to designers? Because this year at DRUPA manufacturers and finishers showed finishing solutions such as clear spot coatings, cold foil, and other spot treatments, being applied INLINE. This is something that digital presses have really not been able to deliver. But it looks like, as of 2016 we have some technologies that are here and viable!

13391477_10209383735415635_4079372630480315499_oThat’s exciting because the digital advantages of quantities of ONE can have some of the shiny and sparkly stuff that up until now was not possible.

It doesn’t mean you can start designing for digital as if it were the same as offset or flexo, but it does mean that if your printer knocks on your door, you know the questions to ask about their digital printing capabilities. And once you are clear on what your printer can offer, you can start offering that to your customers in your designs.

Digital printing is unique in that the advantages available to a mega-corp Fortune 50 company are now also available to your corner coffee shop.

All it takes is having a conversation with your printer about your vision and delivering results for your customers! Woot! woot!

Drupa---globale-Leitmesse-der-Druckindustrie-158823-detailpDRUPA by the numbers

11 days May 31 – June 10, 2016

1837 exhibitors from 54 countries

19 exhibition halls 169000+ square meters

3D printing, functional printing, package printing, flexo, publication, commercial, industrial, digital, bindery, finishing, data streaming,

260,00 visitors from 188 countries

1900 journalists from 74 countries (that explains all those articles!)

Side events to the exhibit halls focused on technical innovations, 3D fabrication and printing, digital printing innovations, and binding. Manufacturing streamlining for printers means faster turnaround for print customers.



Andreas Weber with an over the shoulder peek at the Epson booth

Photos courtesy of Andreas Weber, my dear friend, and colleague, a genius and  Editor-in-Chief at valuetrendradar.com 

Here’s Andreas giving a quick twitter report from DRUPA: https://twitter.com/zeitenwende007/status/740847163811463168  

Confused about digital printing?

For a limited time to can get the actual decision tree in my book, for free! The ultimate tool for figuring out if a project can be digitally printed or if it needs to go on press. PLUS you'll get a heads up when the Kickstarter campaign launches.

We respect your privacy.