Moving from Web design to print

It used to be that all things design started out in print. TV commercials, radio spots, outdoor boards and even Web sites started out with a print ad and were modified to fit other mediums.

That time has long-since passed. Many Web site designers nowadays are finding that the market for Web work is rough going and extremely competitive. Most sites are either way too large for one designer, or so small that the money just isn’t worth the trouble. Factor in ever-changing technology, and you have thousands of Web and multimedia designers scrambling to supplement their income—or slide over to print design completely.

So, if you’re a Web designer looking to add print to your stable of talents, what do you do?

Get the right hardware for your jobs

First comes the hurdle of upgrading to new hardware and software, if you haven’t done so already. Sure, you could continue to work on that graphite Power Mac G4, Titanium PowerBook or iMac—after all, they worked great for writing HTML and Javascript. But you’ll quickly see that they are the short road to a full-blown breakdown when working on 500MB images (or larger), which are common in print design.

For the budget-minded buyer I recommend going with the 24-inch iMac, with 2GB RAM, 250GB hard drive, built-in SuperDrive and wireless capabilities. The advantage to the iMac is that you get the beautiful 24-inch screen and a compact design. If you have a little more to spend, go with the Mac Pro and upgrade the RAM to 4GB. If you have a little more room in the budget I suggest adding a 20-inch Cinema Display to complement any monitor you already have, since graphics applications tend to be as palette-happy as Web tools like BBEdit or Dreamweaver.

You may already have a good portion of the software you’ll need, so use the following as a checklist of software you’ll need to at least get started:

  • Adobe Creative Suite Premium Edition : the Premium Edition includes everything you’ll need for image manipulation, illustration, page layout and PDF creation.
  • Quark XPress : I really recommend this only if you’re dead set against using Adobe’s InDesign for your page layout needs and you have the budget to spend several hundred dollars more.
  • Transmit : any FTP program will do, but Panic’s Transmit is one of the best.
  • Suitcase Fusion : font management is a whole new ball of wax in print design, and you’ll quickly find that your font collection can grow from the hundreds to the thousands in under a year. Extensis’ utility can be a life-saver.
  • FlightCheck Designer : Markzware’s preflight software will assist you in making sure your files are prepared correctly for the printing environment, sparing you from making costly printing errors.

Plan on budgeting for yearly upgrades to software to maintain compatibility with clients and vendors, as you will be sharing files quite frequently.

Size counts in a different way print design

Now that you have all the hardware and software you need, the next thing to remember is that, in print, everything counts. Low-resolution RGB images used for the Web are no longer acceptable. They’ll look absolutely horrible when output from a high-end imagesetter or ink-jet proofer. Your images must be in the range of 250-300 dpi at the size it will be actually printed. This equates to large image sizes, especially when you’re working on an 11x17-inch image with multiple layers in Photoshop.

You’ll also have to work in CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) rather than RGB, because print shops, newspapers and magazines all use this four-color process. The main difference between RGB and CMYK is that CMYK offers a much smaller gamut, or range of color. Those bright blues, greens and orange colors you see on Web pages simply won’t print in four-color process. For that, you need to work with Pantone Matching System inks (also known as spot color ). This introduces unique design issues, adding to the cost of printing and limiting your ability to blend colors together as you can with RGB—something you must take into consideration when you’re designing.

You’ll also have to deal with file complexity. In general, Adobe’s PDF technology has gone a long way in solving the problem, but many printers still insist (or at least strongly encourage) on having “working files” to output. That means they will require not only the InDesign or Quark master documents, but all the fonts, embedded graphic files and images as well. Reading through the articles linked in the above paragraph will give you an idea of what I’m talking about, but again, your local commercial printer is your best resource.

Another consideration is future use. You can’t just throw together a brochure to look good now, the way you can with a Web page. HTML and CSS allow for a lot of flexibility in how things are displayed on a Web page—especially if you want to go back later and make some changes in positioning, text or colors. With print design, you have to make sure to build your files so that they can be easily manipulated in the future by not only yourself, but possibly others, which means that you don’t flatten all those layers in a Photoshop document. Many times a client will request the working files to be sent to them for further minor edits. You can’t just send them a CD with a bunch of flattened Photoshop images and a gazillion overlapping text boxes in Quark. You have to be smart about it. Making your files “clean and neat” not only helps you in the design process, and helps your client and printers when they work with the files.

There are many other issues to consider when switching from Web to print design that only a print shop will be able to advise you on, but you can take a look at sites like PrePressure and PhotoshopCafe’s “ Preparing your files for Printing on a Commercial Printing Press,” for a little background info to get you started.

Designing for the differences between the Web and print

The gap between “design” for the Web and print is small; after all, great design is universal. But the techniques, tools and steps used to achieve great design are drastically different between the two mediums. One of the first “design” considerations to take note of is that you don’t have the option of simply adding more pages. Web design is about clicking and scrolling while print design relies on the reader to pick and choose where there eye goes to on the printed sheet. Pick up brochures, annual reports, booklets, posters and other printed materials for ideas. Or grab a book from the Best of Brochure Design series or get a subscription to Communication Arts for quick reference. Also consider that the paper you have your design printed on is part of the design process and many times can put over an otherwise mediocre design. Build your collection by visiting the Web sites of paper companies such as Smart Papers and request that samples be sent to you.

There are a lot of books available for learning more about the software you’ll be using. You’re probably fairly comfortable working in Photoshop, but you’ll most likely need to know about a few more of its features. InDesign and Illustrator may be completely alien to you. The following are just a few books and magazines that I’ve found to be fantastic resources:

Adobe Creative Suite:

Adobe Illustrator:

Adobe InDesign:

Adobe Photoshop:

And finally (and most importantly), schedule an appointment to sit down with a commercial print shop’s pre-press department for a day or two. It may seem like a real pain, but the knowledge you gain in one or two days can be extremely valuable. There is no book, magazine or Web site that can even begin to teach you what a veteran pre-press operator can teach you in just a few hours regarding how to set up files, get around bugs in software and just plain avoid making design decisions that just won’t work well.

If you can’t get time with the print shop, then call a local ad agency and ask to speak with the production artist. The P.A. is typically the "low-end" of the creative department in an ad agency, but they’re also almost always the most knowledgeable with regard to software and getting the most out of it.

[James Dempsey is the man behind the Creative Guy blog, which offers tips, tricks and opinion on a range of design topics.]

Shop Tech Products at Amazon