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Three Ways Designers Can Learn More About Paper

Learning about paper can be a bit overwhelming, especially for a newbie. But if you want your print design to really stand out, understanding the features and benefits of commercial printing papers is essential. When I first started working in paper, I didn’t know the difference between a paper mill and a paper grade, let alone the important attributes like finish, brightness or opacity. I had no idea how I was going to learn it all, lucky for me I had some help, and so do you.

Even though spec reps are few and far between these days, there are still available resources to help designers learn about paper. Here are three readily-available resources any graphic designer can tap into:


I learned all about paper by spending three months in the sample department. When you’re surrounded by it every day, and that’s the only language people around you speak, it starts to sink in. I know most people don’t have that luxury but if you print, you have the next best thing – a print rep.

The best graphic designers understand their reps are so much more than a print service provider. The smart ones embrace the opportunity to work with their sales reps. Whether they be a rep from a local printer, paper merchant or paper mill, these people are experts – and if they’re not, they know someone who is. And they are more than willing to help connect you to them. The best advice I can give a newbie, or a seasoned pro, that wants to learn about paper is to develop a relationship with these reps.

Make time to meet with print and paper vendors. Listen to what they have to say, yes they will ultimately be trying to sell you something, but hear them out and then ask questions. Ask to see samples of their work on different types of paper (not just their house sheet). And start to collect those samples to use as a reference.

I have a keeper file full of fab print and paper samples that I refer to daily, you will find these samples to be a huge help as you progress throughout your career.

Moving up the supply chain, every printer works with a local paper supplier – it’s how they get their paper to print on. Find out what paper mill makes those grades and ask your print rep to bring the mill/paper rep by on their next visit.

To this day, I rely heavily on my relationships with paper mill, local paper merchant and printer sales reps. I know a lot about paper, but not everything. So I call on my network of experts to help fill in the blanks and answer questions ranging from availability and pricing to help with production details. I am only as good as my network of resources.


Most markets have access to trade associations, for graphics designers, AIGA is a great place to start. Paper companies are very active with AIGA both locally and nationally. So get involved, attend local meetings and see who is sponsoring those events (usually a paper company is among the sponsors). Attend those seminars or lectures, take notes and ask questions. I always suggest introducing yourself afterward. As a sponsor, I can tell you I will always make time at these events to answer questions or help provide info. This is often the time when I’m able to answer questions about specific projects. And if I get can get detailed information, I usually send some samples that I think will help with their specific needs.

If you have the opportunity to attend national/regional conferences like AIGA, HOW Design Live, Adobe Max, UCDA, Creative South, Weapons of Mass Creation, etc. there are usually some sessions involving print and paper and can be full of good insights. And yet another opportunity to network, and meet paper suppliers.


The one thing I highly recommend is getting on the paper mills mailing lists – almost all of them have an option to sign up on their website. They send out actual paper samples from time to time, in addition to communicating information about their products like what’s new or being discontinued.

Along those lines, I advise reading the industry blogs. Here’s where you can get a ton of really great knowledge for free.

Here’s a list of some other online resources for learning about paper:

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