Custom label printing often involves specialized fonts and coloring for logos and other artwork. It can be difficult for non-graphic designers to understand exactly what criteria they need to provide for the printer to optimize the artwork for printing.
Labels need to look just as professional as storefront signs and require attention to detail with time and money invested. After all, the product bearing the label is what the customer will take home, and will see over and over. Store signs only get seen in passing. Thus, the quick-print labels are the ones that businesses often use because the high-quality printing of art labels is so perplexing.
Take a little time to learn about label artwork design and printing to ensure the labels on your products aren’t wasting your or your printer’s resources while potentially losing profit for your business.
Here is everything the non-graphic designer needs to know about label printing, with nine tips for optimizing your artwork for printing.
Learn Basic Adobe Illustrator
Illustrator is a vector graphics editor, meaning rather than using pixelated squares like a bitmap, or raster image, it uses polygons, making much smoother images which can be enlarged or otherwise edited more smoothly. It’s ideal for printing because the image is cleaner and crisper even after multiple manipulations.
To give an idea of how flexible vector imaging is, the same logo file used for small label printing can be used for giant highway billboards. A bitmap image may show pixelation if you enlarge it from a product label size to even just a business card size, and certainly couldn’t be used on a billboard.
Illustrator and Photoshop, along with other Adobe suite products, used to be cost-prohibitive for non-designers to own, but Illustrator can now be purchased for less than $20 a month, or $50 for all Adobe programs. This price means you can use it once for $20, or for $600 paid gradually in a year you can use all the products. If you only use it once, Adobe even often runs specials where it is free the first month, so you can have a feel for the programs before committing on making a purchase for the whole suite.
There are now free courses to learn Adobe Illustrator online, as well as built-in tutorials in the program.
For the Final Product, Use High DPI Images and a High DPI Printer
DPI stands for dots per inch, and printers spray color in dots. Hence, a higher DPI produces much higher-quality artwork printing for labels. The highest DPI printers are typically LaserJet with inkjets, capable of up to 720 DPI (that is low-end for laser) which can handle up to 2,400 DPI.
Screen images also deal in dots per inch. Common mistake non-designers make is thinking they can pull their logo off their website and use it for printing. Obviously, the image quality must have the same or higher quality DPI than the printer to achieve the result needed in printing, but web images usually degrade the DPI.
A good image should be printed at minimum 300 DPI, but the recommendation is a minimum of 600 DPI while images downloaded online are often only 72 DPI. Using 72 DPI is all that’s required to make an image look good on a monitor.
Make sure copies of all logos are saved in files so they never must be downloaded from your website for last minute jobs.
Decide Whether You’ll Use CMYK or Spot Color
The easiest way to explain CMYK color is that with all four colors mixed in custom combination, most colors in the spectrum can be printed. We learned as children in art class that C (blue/cyan), M (magenta), Y (yellow), and K (black, because a B would be confused with blue) make up all colors, and that’s the formula used in CMYK color.
However, exact shades are hard to produce, as are the fine black lines often used in text or outlining. For highly specific shades such as those used in logos and fine curved lines, spot color is the standard. Especially because of color issues, never approve final copy on a label based on what you see on your monitor.
Proofs are needed for CMYK color and drawdowns for spot color or, if you’re printing on your own, simply print one to see how it turns out before you waste your resources on ink and label sheets.
If you’re not sure which one to use, you can use the Adobe Illustrator color picker. The color squares will alert whether they fall into the CMYK gamut with a little alert triangle if they are not within the gamut. Illustrators can automatically pick a shade that is close and within the CMYK spectrum, and you can choose whether you like it or wish to use spot color.
Consider your budget while printing. The more color you use, the more expensive the job will be. Black and white are usually the cheapest, with CMYK next. Anything outside of CMYK becomes costly.
Outline Your Fonts
Everyone loves to use fancy fonts, especially graphic designers, so don’t let the complaints fool you! The problem is, there are countless fonts available with graphic designers creating new ones every day. Every font must be loaded onto your computer for it to show up. Depending on your program it will look like a generic block font, or it will bring the entire file up as an error. In Illustrator, it gives an error message. You may even be surprised to find your designer doesn’t have a font you use all the time, and the reason is simply that even if they’ve used it before, they need to make hard drive space occasionally and will remove fonts they haven’t used in a while.
So how do you use the font you love? There’s an easy way and the right way. For the non-designers, the easy way is to let your designer know what the font is and where you got it. The designer can pre-install and will have no problem with the file. The right way is to use Illustrator to outline the fonts. It’s easy! Simply select the type, go to the fonts menu, and select “outline fonts.”
Decide on Alias or Anti-alias
You might not know what this is, but you’ve seen it, and it drives you crazy. It’s quite technical to explain, but essentially it goes back to vectors versus bitmaps and black and white versus color. Anti-alias is when you have a black image or text on a white background, and it looks like it is bleeding into the white. This issue is especially a problem with curved lines. In Illustrator, black lines on a white background should be set to “no anti-alias.” The same is true in Photoshop but with the extra step that of the background is color and the text black, set it to “anti-alias.” Anti-alias is good for placing a color text or image over a background or photo because of the gradual fade, but it makes black and white look sloppy and pixelated.
Include a Bleed if You Want to Print to the Edges
It’s recommended you print all the way to the edge if your labels use a background color. It’s virtually impossible without intensive monitoring and a lot of waste (which in turn make your costs skyrocket) to get the labels to center exactly perfectly. Therefore, if color is intended to leave a blank edge, any unintentional off-center printing will be very noticeable. Printing only to the edge is even worse, as it will look off-center every time and will be the first thing customers notice. If your label screams “billboard,” you want that billboard to feature your product, not sloppy graphic design that looks like sloppy printing.
If you want the label to print to the edge, you actually need to print over the edge. It’s called a “bleed” because it bleeds over the edge of the label. While this is best for printing, it isn’t headache-free.
While designing your label, your settings bleed over the edge. You’ll want your text and graphic images to not go quite to the edge because they’ll bleed over, too. This overlap screams even louder to the client than the color bleed mistake does. So, for example, if you’re printing a 3-inch by 5-inch label, make the artwork for the label 3.125 inches by 5.125 inches.
You’ll want the actual text and graphics for your label to be designed within a space of 2.875 inches by 4.875 inches. That leaves .25 inches all around for a margin of error in printing. A professional graphic designer and printer won’t need that much margin, but it’s good for those designing the label on their own and printing on their own.
Make Borders Tight – or Better Yet, No Borders
This ties into the bleed issue. A lot of home printers love borders on their labels. Granted, when printed perfectly, they make a nice clean edge and call attention to the information within the border. But it isn’t necessary. Even with professional printers, there is movement and misalignment in the print and dye-cut of a label. If you want it very close to the edge or very thin, it will be noticeable, no matter how high-quality and highly skilled the printer is.
Make Sure to Proofread! And that Includes Checking Links and Graphics!
This idea seems like the one piece of advice no one should have to read, but it’s the most common error on labels. The printer doesn’t have time to verify you typed your business name, address, telephone number, or website correctly and certainly won’t catch errors in more detailed information such as nutritional values.
Complete the proofreading before you submit for printing! It’s understandable why so many misprints don’t get caught. For example, you’ve had the same phone number for ten years, so you type it in fast, and you don’t catch the error when you invert two digits. It happens all the time. But you’re the one who must catch it, not the printer and not the customer whom you may never hear from again if they don’t have the right phone number.
Checking links and graphics is less of a problem if you’re printing on your own or using the latest Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator, but older versions are an issue. Graphics must be embedded, or when the printer opens it, they’ll be missing. Some will be noticeable, and the printer will request confirmation before printing, delaying your print job until you correct the problem. Others won’t be noticeable, and you’ll end up with a mass-produced error on your hands.
Use the Right Format and Size It Correctly
This one’s easy to do but it can be a nightmare if you aren’t paying attention. If you work in Photoshop and Illustrator, there shouldn’t be any problems. Every printer can handle those formats. They’re the industry standard and print the highest quality product. But don’t send your printer a PDF or BMP or some proprietary file type. Send an EPS or TIF or, if necessary, a very high-resolution JPG.
Sizing is important too. If you’ve sent a high-quality file, the printer can increase or reduce file dimensions, but sometimes sizing variance is intentional. If you’re sending a 4-inch X 6-inch image but want it printed 5.25 inches by 4.125 inches or 10 inches by 12 inches, you need to say so, or you may end up with a lot of white space or a bleed so large the labels are unusable. The best way to avoid this is to send it in exactly the size you want your labels printed!
Following these tips will get you exactly what you need from your printer to have the highest quality labels possible, even if the printer is you. Labeling your products with exactly the information your business needs to convey to the public is your responsibility, and a professional, high-quality label prepared by you, with or without the assistance of a graphic designer, before being sent to a printer, makes that significantly easier.