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When Should You Start the Paper Selection Process?

Selecting the right paper for a project shouldn’t be an afterthought, yet for many creatives that’s exactly what happens. Designers begin with a concept and most dive right into the design phase, leaving the paper selection process for the end.  This process does not give much consideration to how the process of print will impact their design.

I’ve seen it happen time and again, especially with junior designers or those creatives new to print. They wait until they’ve finished designing the project and ready to get print quotes before they even think about the paper. That’s when things can get messy – not to mention expensive. Producing successful print projects requires a multi-sensory approach, balancing the visual and physical aspects of the design to communicate effectively. Paper selection is as important to the process as any other design component. Here are some important considerations for selecting the right paper for the print job.

When it comes to the paper selection process, the most important consideration is the type of print elements necessary for the project.

For example, if you’re working on a brand identity project you need to consider all the printed identity system components. These typically consist of items like business cards, letterhead, envelopes, pocket folders, notecards, and possibly mailing labels and packaging. Stationery components are highly tactile and tend to use a variety of different uncoated papers, requiring different properties. For example, most letterhead is going to be used with desktop printers and perhaps some more high-speed copiers/prints – is the ink technology the same and will the paper chosen work both for inkjet and laser toner? Business cards are highly tactile; paper finish will impact your choice. Pocket folders are used to contain other items, how durable do they need to be?

The reality is that there are a ton of factors that will impact print design. One of the easiest ways to begin to think about paper as it relates to the type of project at hand is by looking at print samples. Ask your reps to show you examples of projects similar to what you’re working on. If you don’t have a rep there are resources available, and plenty of online inspiration like Domtar’s Paper Gallery.  Collect samples everywhere you go and save them to refer to, it’ll be one of the best career investments you make.

Next, think about how a paper’s innate characteristics can help reinforce brand messaging. For example, maybe you’re working on a packaging project for an eco-friendly brand. How can the paper reinforce that message? Maybe it’s through a color like green or kraft. Maybe it’s through the finish of the paper, something like vellum whose feel helps convey it as more natural and less refined. Perhaps, it’s with the paper’s environmental pedigree like post-consumer waste or being sustainably sourced and FSC certified. Selecting the right paper can go a long way in helping communicate a brand’s message when thoughtfully incorporated into the design.

Another important consideration when designing for print is to think about how it will actually be produced. You don’t need to know everything about production but you should think about some of the basics. How will the project be printed – digital, offset or possibly web? Your print rep will advise you on this but it is important to know before selecting the paper. Not all papers are available across all platforms in every color, finish and basis weight. This is where a swatchbook can be a designer’s best friend. Make sure to refer to the stock chart usually listed next to or underneath the waterfall in the swatchbook.

I had a designer whose heart was set on using 200# Cover for business cards. What she didn’t think about was the fact the business cards were printing digitally. 200# Cover is way too heavy to go through a digital press and isn’t available in digital format for that reason. Had she checked the swatchbook first she would have seen this and avoided disappointment for her client.

As a former paper rep, I can tell you availability is always an issue especially for print projects with smaller quantities and those requiring envelopes. If that’s the case, work with your local paper rep to find out what grades are stocked locally so they’re easy to get.

How often have you heard, a certain paper is a mill item and will take a week to get? By working with your local rep, you know what is available which not only helps with deadlines, but also keeping the budget in check. Most independent local paper merchants will break cartons on many papers they stock, this means less wasted paper and a savings on the budget.

Finally, get some actual dummies made to spec on the paper or papers you’re considering using. I caution designers to use good judgement here, and narrow down your options first. But it’s always a good idea to get a couple dummies made to spec. You can show the client how the printed project will look and feel, making this paper selection process more exciting. Samples help bring the project to life – and can be a great way to help convince unsure clients.

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