Printing digital art doesn’t need to be a struggle. Bring your designs into the physical world using these professional guidelines.
There comes a time in every designer’s career when you have to make decisions about printing digital art. Even now, in a world chock-full of screens, print still has its rightful place. In fact, as screens come to dominate more and more of our lives, many designers—and their clients—are realizing the serendipitous qualities of creating a campaign based around print.
That’s all well and good, but designing for print is not the same as designing for digital. If you mess up the design or provide the wrong print parameters to the print shop, there’s no going back. You can’t press Undo on print. Once the ink hits the paper, what’s done is done.
As terrifying as that sounds, don’t despair! If you understand the basics, you can ensure that your print projects are glorious, no matter the situation. So, settle in as we delve into the beautiful world of printing and how to nail it every single time.
You may think printing is easy. You’re just fetching what’s on your screen onto paper, right?
Well, sure, that’s part of it. Suppose you want to create genuinely stunning printed digital art piece. In that case, your goal should always be to create a composition that is as truthful to the original artwork as possible.
Many more choices are open to you in print versus digital. How you decide upon those is critical to creating faithful reproductions of your artwork.
Here’s our handy checklist of the critical attributes for every print job.
Choosing the right software for printing digital art
By default, print projects require specific layout requirements and must be set at particular print sizes. InDesign and Publisher work with all the major print sizes, allowing you to effortlessly set up a project in a print-friendly format. Shutterstock’s editing suite Create also makes printing easy.
Familiarizing yourself with the software should be the first step if you’re not already up-to speed on how they work. You can find fantastic resources on the vendors’ websites, blogs, or learning platforms such as Skillshare or YouTube.
Understanding PPI, DPI, and art print sizes
Pixels are the smallest building block of any image. PPI, or pixels per inch, is a measurement that assess how pixel-dense an image is. Generally, the more pixels per inch, the better quality—or resolution—an image will be.
When printing digital art, the number of pixels per inch required to create an image of high quality is less than the number needed for a printed image (72–220 PPI for digital; 250PPI for black and white print; 300PPI or higher for color print).
Medium Required PPI
- Digital 72 PPI
- Black and white print 250PPI
- Color print/Fine detail print 300PPI
If you begin a new piece and believe it will be printed in the future, ensure you set up your document at a higher number of pixels per inch. Making changes later is difficult!
When creating artwork for print, you may also come across the abbreviation DPI, or dots per inch. Often confused with PPI, DPI refers to the number of dots per inch in a printed piece. Dots are the basic unit of print that a printer can produce, and the more printed per inch, the better the quality.
Though both are used for referencing the resolution of a piece, they refer to entirely different approaches. One is for the screen.The other is for print. They also use different color profiles, which we will cover later.
Ensuring your artwork is set at the correct DPI is essential to creating quality printed product. Anything below the required level will lack the necessary detail, look blurry, and feel unprofessional.
Use Preflight Profiles in InDesign to ensure your project is set up correctly. These profiles check that all the images in your piece are at least 300DPI. If any aren’t, you’ll be presented with an error, and you’ll be able to pinpoint the image in question so you can replace it or export at a higher resolution.
Understanding file types and formats
Another way to ensure tip-top print quality is understanding the underlying technology used to create different image formats.
Raster images are based on pixels, such as JPEGs, PNGs, and TIFFs. Vector images, however, such as SVGs, EPSs, and AI files, are based on math.
Raster images are great for high-density, complex pictures. and photography. Vectors are great for icons, logos, and other elements based on geometric shapes. Given that vector images are based on math, PPI is irrelevant. They can be blown up to any size and the quality will always be retained.
You may think you can avoid raster images and the PPI issue disappears. Unfortunately, vectors couldn’t be worse for creating complex images like photography. Therefore, employing a suitable image format in the correct scenario is crucial. It’s not a case of one-size-fits all, unfortunately.
Appreciate the best color profiles for printing digital art
As you may have realized, there’s generally one set of parameters for creating digital art and another for printed art. Use Illustrator or Photoshop for digital, but InDesign for print. Follow PPI for digital artwork, but DPI for print. Use high-quality raster imagery for complex artwork, such as photographs that are likely to be printed, but vector for more straightforward, digital based artwork.
Well, to add to that list are color profiles. There are two of these to consider; yup, you guessed it: one for digital and one for print.
The two major color profiles are RGB—red, green, blue—and CMYK—cyan, magenta, yellow, and key/black. RGB refers to the colors produced by a screen, making it the perfect choice when developing digital artwork. CMYK refers to the pigments mixed when creating printed artwork.
With fewer colors available in print than digital, you must set up print jobs in CMYK to avoid reproduction issues. A rookie mistake is thinking you can send off your RGB artwork and expect it to look the same printed as it did on screen. Beware: this will only result in disappointment. If you do this, your print will never look as you intended, as CMYK can’t reproduce all the colors available in RGB. You’ll inevitably end up with weird and unanticipated printing results.
Instead, either start by using CMYK from the beginning or, if you need to convert a digital piece to print, ensure that you match the colors in your work to the nearest available color in CMYK. There are many free tools available that can help with this process. Convert A Color is a good example. Input the RGB value and this nifty website will return the nearest equivalent in CMYK, alongside several other handy formats.
Finally, let’s suppose your artwork will be needed for both digital and print. In that case, it’s best to set up the project in duplicate, once in RGB and again in CMYK, and develop the pieces in tandem.
Evaluate the best materials for your specific printing job
With no real analogue in the digital world, picking materials is ultimately a decision you will only ever have to make when printing digital art. However, it’s likely the most important of the lot.
You can everything possible to match your color profile perfectly and ensure all artwork is set at the correct DPI. Still, the piece could feel cheap or unprofessional if you select the wrong materials—such as paper type (stock), inks, or finishes. Beyond that, material choice also has a part to play in ensuring the finished printed composition is as close a reproduction of the original artwork as possible.
For example, printing high-quality photography with a glossy finish would work perfectly for a piece in a fashion magazine. Thick paper or card with a matte finish will lend a high-quality feel to business cards and branded stationery. Uncoated stock may provide a contemporary look and finish for an edgy bar or restaurant, but it’s unlikely to last long if used to create a poster that will be mounted outside and subject to the elements.
Finally, it’s also worth considering the materials you use in a historical context. For example, if you’re recreating film posters from the Hollywood heyday, consider picking materials from that period to add a sense of authenticity. Weighty stock tends to lend a more professional aesthetic, whereas gloss and satins give a more visually impactful feel.
Your print shop can guide you if you’re unsure where to begin. And that brings us to our final point.
Spend time choosing the right printer, and keep them happy!
Your finished product will ultimately succeed or fail based on the relationship you foster with your print shop. Finding a solid printer who profoundly understands their craft is the best thing you can do to ensure quality every time.
We suggest supporting local printers rather than going with the first search result on Google. Although searches will present printers that are likely cheaper, there’s no substitute for visiting a print shop in person. You can discuss your requirements with the printer and come up with a solution that is the best fit for the job.
Local printers care as much about your artwork as you do. Nurture this relationship, and you’ll never look back.
Printing digital art doesn’t need to be a minefield. Getting everything right before printing is unquestionably important, but with patience you’ll be up and running quickly. To recap:
- Ensure you have the right software, and set it up for print
- Consider your print size and how that will affect PPI
- Choose proper image formats
- Choose suitable printing materials
- Find a local print shop, and treat them well
Oh, and most importantly, have fun with it. Picking out print materials is a glorious process we don’t get to accomplish as often as we once did.
Using your hands and getting acquainted with the materials is a great feeling. And now you know how to achieve success each and every time, your next printing your next digital artwork will be a breeze!
License this cover image via Sergey Peterman, MURRIRA, and Bibadash.
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