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10 common design mistakes

The following article was published earlier this year by Trish Witkowski, of Although written from the point of view of incorporating folding concepts in direct-mail campaigns, it contains some sound, solid advice about undertaking any printing project.
Forewarned is forearmed. Once you’ve gone through this list of strategic errors, you’ll know what not to do when working on print projects with folds.

Make the following mistakes and you’ll cost yourself time, money, maybe even a client. Here’s the good news: The errors are easy to avoid.

10. You didn’t take control.

Have you ever designed a gatefold and been terribly disappointed when you got the finished product back because the gap between the fold-in panels was huge? If what comes back is a surprise, it’s usually because you gave up control. Maybe you didn’t shorten your fold-in panels in the digital document and you casually asked the printer to trim them for you, or you didn’t communicate how important a tight gap was; the point is, you let someone else decide for you, and it was a disappointment.

Cost: the respect of your printer and a quality portfolio piece.

Lesson learned: take control of your projects. Set up your file correctly or have a discussion with your printer, rather than leaving important decisions up to interpretation.

9. You guessed at the paper weight.

You were pretty sure that, after feeling the page of a paper swatchbook, you had found the right sheet for your project. When the finished product delivered, it was floppy and lacked presence. Everyone in the office commented on how nice the design was but questioned the paper choice.

Cost: a frustrated client or boss, and the value of a first impression.

Lesson learned: Folding and paper go hand in hand. Choose the wrong stock and a great folded piece can look cheap and flimsy, or distractingly bulky and heavy. Don’t take a guess at an important decision. Ask your printer or paper representative for a folding dummy in the weights you’re considering.

8. You didn’t shop it around.

You had a special project, maybe a cool specialty fold with a custom envelope, and you sent it to your neighborhood printer, who ultimately had to outsource part of the production, or who had to do the finishing work by hand. Since your quantity was large, the per-piece cost ended up being very high. The end result was nice, but you feel like you paid too much.

Cost: extra money, potential reduction in quality and efficiency.

Lesson learned: For certain projects, it can pay to search for a specialty printer or bindery. “Extreme” printers and binderies love a challenge and may have additional resources, production tricks, technologies, techniques, and design services that can take your project to the next level. They also might be able to automate a process that would have been hand-folded in most mainstream print shops. I don’t recommend shopping around every project—I believe in loyalty and relationship-building—but it’s nice to know where you can go when you need specialized services.

7. You psyched yourself out.

Trying a new or specialty fold can be intimidating. Maybe it didn’t seem worth the effort, or maybe you didn’t have the time to figure it out, or maybe you thought you’d mess it up. But you talked yourself out of it and went back to your comfort zone.

Cost: a delighted client, a great portfolio piece, and a valuable learning experience.

Lesson learned: Next time, challenge yourself to take on something new. If you don’t know where to start, ask your printer for help with file setup.

6. You saved the production work for the end.

At the start of a project, it always seems like there’ll be enough time later to deal with the details of exact fold placement and format. It’s much more fun to dive into the concept work instead. But time always gets tight at the end, and suddenly the printer is waiting for the file and you’re scrambling to measure and make adjustments and critical details are overlooked.

Cost: stress, plus the expense of production edits or revised proofs.

Lesson learned: Next time, think finishing at the beginning. Take the time to nail the production details first so you can relax and focus the rest of the time on design.

5. You didn’t ask.

You had an idea for a cool die cut on the front cover of your brochure, but you figured you didn’t have the money because you were already pushing the budget with scoring. What you didn’t realize was that your printer could have scored and cut in the same letterpress die, or that they were using an economical rotary score on the folder and you actually could have afforded your die-cut.

Cost: missed opportunities.

Lesson learned: It never hurts to ask. Maybe you have a project coming up and you want to do something unique on a tight budget. Ask your printer if they have any interesting dies in storage that you could look through. You might be able to cut the cost of making the die by finding a used one.

4. You took a chance and skipped the score.

Your printer suggested scoring and you gambled to save a few bucks. The result was a poor-quality product.

Cost: regret.

Lesson learned: We score for many reasons—for 170gsm text weight and above, for folds against the grain, for folds through areas of heavy ink coverage, for critical fold placement, and for jobs that require hand folding. Next time, listen to your printer. If they’re recommending scoring, it’s for a reason. There are many economical ways to score these days, so ask your printer to explain your options.

3. You picked a size randomly.

It didn’t seem to matter what size the folded self-mailer was as long as it was within min/max Letter Mail sizing constraints. The surprise was when you were told that the piece missed aspect ratio by 5mm and would require an extra 20¢ per piece surcharge for nonmachinability.

Cost: unnecessarily high postal costs, paper waste, poor aesthetics, or even (gasp!) a reprint.

Lesson learned: The size of a printed project can make the difference between paying steep postal surcharges for direct mail, getting an extra piece up on a sheet, or fitting a standard envelope or holder. Depending upon what you’re doing with the piece—mailing it, putting it into a literature rack, or an envelope—the size is an important decision. When in doubt, ask a project manager, postal representative, or printer for help in choosing the right format for your project.

2. You assumed the finished product would fold correctly.

Printer’s proofs are always hand-folded. Often designers look at the proof and assume the printer knows that the color break is supposed to be exactly at the fold, or that when the “real” job prints, the fold-in panels will trim tighter. They make an assumption and sign off on the proof. Then inevitably there’s confusion and disappointment when the job delivers.

Cost: an imperfect product, a frustrated client.

Lesson learned: Always take the proof for exactly what it is, note any issues for the printer, and be very clear about folding intent.

1. You waited to get your printer involved.

This mistake is number one because it’s so common and unnecessary. Sometimes you have a great idea and you work on it and sell it to your team and your client, and you wait to talk it through with your printer until it’s time to think about printing the piece. What’s the big deal about a 10-panel accordion, right? It’s just an accordion fold—nothing fancy. What you didn’t realize was that an accordion with more than 6 parallel folds will likely require hand folding to finish. That, and the fact that you have to jump to a larger press sheet, will bust your budget. Nobody wants to crawl back to the client to ask for more money, or to tell them that the solution they love is out of reach.

Cost: angry client, disappointment, time spent on an alternative solution.

Lesson learned: Talk to your printer early and often. In many cases, they can help you get whet you want, and offer production tips to improve the quality of the product. Think of the printer as an extension of your team—that’s the best money-saving tip I can offer.


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