Letterhead design

Developing an effective letterhead and getting it printed

Thought we could spend a few minutes talking about letterhead design and something that’s just as important – getting them printed, after the design phase is complete. Many clients and designers will choose to work directly with a local printer, but some might be new to working with offset print shops and some of the jargon involved. There are also some design issues that may effect how your stationery is printed, who you select to print it, and how much it will cost. Here’s a few pointers that may help steer you in the right direction.

Letterhead designs that bleed.

From a design perspective, letterhead artwork that bleeds can be visually appealing, but can add dramatically to the cost of printing. While many clients love the look of full bleed letterheads, the cost is often prohibitive – something we always warn about before continuing. When any artwork is placed on a printed piece, and the artwork is located on the absolute edge of the paper, it is said to ‘bleed’, referring to the artwork ‘bleeding’ off the edges of the page. In order to get images, color fields or artwork to ‘bleed’ off the edges, we have to print the artwork on paper that is larger than the desired size and cut it back. This can add significant cost to a printing job – larger paper, larger press and an additional step.

Printing letterheads using a desktop printer.

In terms of printing letterheads on a desktop printer, you should keep this in mind – many consumer level desktop printers cannot print ‘bleeds’ but rather need to place a margin (sometimes as large as 1/2? around the artwork) inside the edges of the sheet. If you’re only planning to print your letterhead personally using your PC and desktop printer as opposed to using commercial print service, it’s advisable that your artwork be set up accordingly. If you wish to print both commercially and personally, then you might want to have two sets of artwork files setup. This may cost a little more during the design phase, but well worth it for the flexibility.

Check your colors.

If your letterhead and stationery has been designed as spot color material, it is critical that BEFORE having them commercially printed that you ALWAYS check your colors with a Pantone Color Swatch Book (there’s also online color swatches available through Adobe). This is the only way to insure that the colors contained in your letterhead will print as you planned. The Pantone Matching System (PMS) is the ‘industry standard’ for matching colors so if your printer tells you that they don’t have one, you should probably think about selecting another printer. If you plan to print your letterheads on your personal printer, and depending on the software you’re using, it may not be able to reproduce spot colors accurately. The printer and software can only ‘guess’ what colors are contained in your artwork and may fudge things up as they try to create a ‘next best’ combination. If your long-range plans involve ONLY printing your stationery in your home office, it’s best to set up the artwork using CMYK colors – standard printing inks that personal printers use.

Printing letterheads commercially.

If you’ve decided to take the leap and have your stationery printed commercially, always ask for a ‘press proof’ of your job. While it’s sometimes difficult to get a proof that’s completely accurate when using spot colors (most proofing systems are set up for CMYK and 4 color process) it will give you a rough idea, and will also allow you to check for typos and spelling errors before it’s too late. Reprinting your letterheads or business cards because your address and phone number were wrong is an expensive proposition.

Matching letterhead and business card colors.

If you’re printing your letterhead, business card and envelope package on a combination of coated (glossy) and uncoated (matte) papers – typical with ‘glossy’ business cards and letterheads – keep in mind that the Coated and Uncoated surfaces may shift the colors and they may not match exactly across your stationery. Your printer can adjust for this by using different color inks for each part of your print job, but this may increase the price of the print run. It all depends on your focus – quality or economy. Using dual uncoated and coated colors can be very expensive but your colors will match (almost) exactly.

Switching color palettes.

Colors may not match exactly if you attempt to print spot colors as a CMYK (four color process) job. Many printers will simply change the colors to CMYK in your original files – this is haphazard at best. There’s a Pantone Spot to Process Formula book that allows you to choose CMYK equivalents to your spot colors. Use that beforehand, or ask an experienced designer to do it for you. Keep in mind that certain spot colors do not convert exactly. Also, if your printer is using a ‘gang run’ – grouping your letterheads and/or business cards with other pieces on a large sheet (that’s how these services are so cheap) – expect varying colors from run to run. This type of printing is designed to be cheap, not precise, and you’re not paying for exacting color standards. Be realistic in your expectations if using any printer with the phrase ‘discount’ repeated often in their advertising.

Budget printing & “gang runs.”

Gang printing is the type of printing used by most ‘online’ printers. It’s economical sure, but judging by our experience, the quality tends to be a little hit and miss.

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