is a pair of essays on production-specific topics that I hope to post in the next few days. The first is about paper and the next is about ink — both are topics that have come up in class recently. If
you’ve something to add, please feel free to post in the comments section.
When beginning a discussion about print-production for the graphic
design student, there are many places one could start. The other day I was thinking about how I
learned this stuff and what was the most baffling and clarifying to me — and how I might explain it today to our students. Paper and ink have been a fundamental part of the communication designer's toolkit and — even in a digital world — paper has a place... yet is perhaps the most difficult your get your head around when thinking about type, weight and size.
[Most production-orieted things I learned while on the job as we didn’t have
production classes (or the internet) when I was in school. I also picked
up a lot by working as my own production manager in my first job at a
very small studio and later with production managers at larger firms.
Many thanks to Elizabeth, Jan and Melissa for their patience and
It might be a while before you’re picking your own paper for a print job
— but even as students you’re communicating with production
vendors, so it’s good to know the ropes. Also, you can often impress a
new employer with your wisdom. Remember that Epson heavy weight matte
is not what we’re talking about here. While there’s a whole
discussion to be had about inkjets and inkjet papers, we’re talking
about big sheets of paper running though million dollar presses...
because you don’t print annual reports (real ones) on Epsons. It’s true.
So, to start the discussion we need to get a sense of the scope of
what we’re talking about. Unfortunately, the North American/US system of
measurement, size and weight isn't ideal. Once you sleuth it out, it's not hard to navigate — but, like inches, feet and yards (as opposed to millimeters, centimeters and meters), things aren’t quite as intuitive. I’m not quite sure how the
US system of paper measurements and weights started — you can look that
up on Wikipedia — but we can at least talk about it from a practical
Starting with size is an easy one: Letter, Tabloid, Monarch,
Foolscap? A3, A4? The DIN system is of German origin — and
it is based on a “parent” sheet (A0) and chops in in half, then in half
again, etc. to come up with the smaller sizes, A1 being the biggest, A2
being half of that, A3 being half of that and so on. This make sense,
right? The US system (sometimes called ANSI) is not quite as logical. Granted, Letter is half
the size of Tabloid, but I'm completely baffled as to how Monarch and
Legal sizes fit in here.
To make matters even more confusing, the US system also has an
“A” (for “announcement”) and A7 is used to describe an envelope size
that holds a 5x7in card. Thusly, you might imagine A6 holding 4x6 card,
but it actually holds a 4.5x6.25 card. And unlike the DIN system where
A2 is larger than A3, in the US system (speaking of envelopes,
specifically) A6 is smaller than A7. Confused yet?
The important thing to remember is that if you’re going to be
practicing design in the US, you just have to sit down with a paper
chart and get familiar these sizes. I wish there were more insight into a
“trick”, but I haven’t found one yet. If you do, let us know...
Wikipedia has a good entry on US paper sizes.
Paper in the US is noted by paper
category — cover, text, writing and so on — then weight. The weight
usually refers to how much a certain quantity (500 sheets) of paper
weighs... however, the the sizes of the sheets in the stack aren't consistent which creates some confusion.
For instance, when weighing cover stock, they weigh 500 sheets of 20X26
whereas when they weigh text paper, the size is 25X38 (a larger sheet),
so with this in mind, "100 pound text" weights more as a stack (because
each sheet is physically larger) than "80 pound cover" which is weighed
as a smaller sheet. However, 80#C is actually thicker — or more stiff —
than 100#T. Fun, huh?
When you see this written out in shorthand (100#T, for instance), the
number designates the weigh (55, 60, 80, 100, etc.), the # = "pound"
and the letter refers to the category of paper (C = cover, T = text, W =
writing, I = index). Again, it’s the kind of thing you have to commit
to memory, but the rundown goes something like this (from lightest
category to heaviest category): writing > text > index >
cover. There are a few more thrown in here, like “book” and “bond”, but
these are the major ones. In fact, text and cover (T and C) are the
two most common. I don’t think i’ve ever speced a job on “index”
paper, although I’ve bought Index-weight reams at the paper store.
A classic combination in the commercial/business world for softcover books (perfect-bound
or saddle stitched) is 80#T for the pages and 80#C for the
cover — the art/design world, however, is fond of slightly heavier stocks (100#T
and 100#C). 100#C or heavier is great for cards, like business cards — however, postcard weight is measured in "points" which adds another
level of mystery.
Here’s a link to chase down, too, for more information.
In the world of commercial papers, there are 2 major categories of
paper: coated and uncoated — and each have very different
Coated paper has a clay (or polymer blend)
coating applied to the paper to give it certain
characteristics -— namely sheen and ink/moisture/wear resistance. Once
mixed, the paper is passed through rollers and is calendered to give it
its sheen: high gloss, satin, matte, etcetera. Calendaring is the
process where paper travels through big rollers at the paper factory to
make it flat and smooth. Because of the
coating, the paper takes ink differently — specifically, it doesn’t
“soak in” as much and seems to be more vibrant. While coated paper can often has a
“slick” feel, the matte coated papers — especially
the lower quality papers — often feel more like uncoated
Uncoated paper has little to nothing applied to the surface. It is
porous, like unpainted wood, and absorbs ink readily. It has a “natural”
hand-feel and often feels thicker than it’s equivalent coated
counterpart (i.e.: 80#C-uncoated will feel thicker/stiffer than
80#C-coated)... This is because the coating and calendaring process of
coated paper making actually compresses the paper a bit making it seem
In addition to “type”, paper comes in “finishes”. For instance, uncoated
paper comes in “smooth” which is smooth in testure, “vellum” which is a bit more
rough, and “laid” and “linen” (and others) which have a texture applied
to the surface. Generally, I've printed most jobs on smooth or vellum
finishes. Vellum is often nice for a business card because of the
slightly rougher, more tactile “tooth”. Each paper mill has it’s own
custom finishes, too, like “ultrasmooth”. Mohawk Paper, a popular
national mill, even has a paper called Navajo which is an
uncoated paper that has been put through the calendering process to
compress the fibers — actually burnishing it — to give it almost a
galvanized-like finish. The result is an uncoated paper that takes ink
in a very interesting way (almost like a coated paper in some ways).
Each mill has it’s own slightly different way of doing things, so make
sure to check out the samples to see what you're getting and look at how
the ink sits on — or in — the paper.
PMS inks, too, look very different on coated or uncoated paper.
PMS109 — a medium yellow — looks like yellow mustard on coated paper and
dijon on uncoated paper. Make sure to check your colors on the type of
paper you plan on using. In a commercial world, you can request from
your printer something called a "draw down" which is a physical sample of the ink you're
using applied to the paper you're printing on. This is often good to
share with the client so you can both be assured what you'll get after
the expensive print job delivers.
When paper is printed in a commercial setting, it is printed on one of two main types of presses: sheet-fed or web.
Web presses use paper on rolls and pass these continuous sheets
through a maze (web) of rollers. These presses are extremely fast and
sometimes employ drying units which flash-dry the ink (which can effect
the look of the ink on the paper) and are generally always used for
large jobs because once you get it running and warmed up, it's already
printed a thousand copies. Catalogs and newspapers are printed on web
Like the name indicates, sheet-fed presses feed single sheets at a time
and are good for small to medium sized jobs as they're smaller and less
expensive to buy and operate and therefore less expensive to print on. A
sheetfed press is still larger than a minivan (and costs more than a
house), but smaller than a web-press which can be larger than a
train-car and cost millions of dollars.
Format matters because the paper needs to be ordered to the proper format: sheets or rolls.
One thing to remember: when
printing large jobs, most paper is made to order and this takes time.
For instance, if you were printing a million catalogs, no one has that
much paper just sitting around — it's made to order for that specific
job and can often take weeks to deliver. Make sure to build that into
Like beef, wood, and other commodities, paper comes in grades,
indicating quality and price. In order of finest to crappiest, the order
goes: premium / number 1 / number 2 / number 3 / opaque ... There are a
few others thrown in there from time to time (like ultra, book or
offset), but these are the main ones.
As with anything, you want to match your materials with your message
(and often your budget). Sometimes lower-cost papers not only perform
well, but feel right for the job. For instance, printing an instruction
manual (or the annual report of a company whose stock is dropping) on
premium paper could seem weird. Some of my favorite papers are #3 papers
as they're a good blend of performance, feel and value. Make sure to
make friends with your local paper reps and begin to request paper
sample books so that you can begin to learn and appreciate the wide
range of papers out there.
Why do we care?
As a designer, knowing what is possible is a great first step when
thinking about a project and it also can give you some inkling about
where boundaries could and should be pushed.
And it’s also good to start making friends with the people who can help you to fulfill your vision.
Printers, programmers, production managers and taxi drivers can be
among a designer's best friends, so it's good to begin to build your network and community. Some of the best friends you’ll make in the industry are your paper
representatives (paper reps) responsible for promoting a certain type of
paper in your region. They can hook you up with sample books of the
types of paper they sell as well as provide samples.
You’ll have two
kinds of paper reps: mill reps who represent certain mills — or makers of paper — and distribution reps
who work for the wholesalers of the paper. Often these guys travel in
pairs. Some of the local SF distributors are Xpedex and Kelley paper.
Some of the popular national mills for paper are: Appleton, Mohawk,
Weyerhaeuser, Potlatch, Smart and Neenah... There’s even boutique mills
like French Paper Company. You might also find "brokers" like New Leaf
Paper which is an interesting model — they neither make nor warehouse
their papers but instead have various mills make the paper to their
specifications and send directly to the job site. This works well for
large print jobs, but it means you'll likely not find their samples on
the shelf at the Kelley paper store. Additionally, some mills specialize
in certain types of paper (uncoated, for instance) and some make lots
of different lines/brands of coated, uncoated and specialty papers.
Appleton, for instance, just makes coated papers while Mohawk makes a wide variety of
different lines of paper.
It’s a very complex web of folks, but once you know a little, it’s
easy to navigate a cocktail party. Fortunately, too, these folks are
very generous with information... It’s their job to get you to like
their paper, so they’ve very interested in talking to you about it.
You'll see them hanging out at booths at the AIGA design shows and
events, so make sure you talk to them.