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7 common design mistakes in print, and how to avoid them

common design mistakes in print, and how to avoid them

By Marc Brabander

How to avoid the most common design mistakes for printed marketing material

One of the most common mistakes in print is the humble spelling error. One tiny little mistake - a comma in the wrong place, a missing number in your phone number. It doesn’t stop there though – there are plenty of pitfalls when designing for print to be aware of. When a mistakes makes it through to print it not only brings embarrassment, it actually could end up being a costly exercise and plain inconvenient.

A few years ago Myer, one of Australia’s leading department stores, managed to miss a blatant grammatical error on 7-storey high banners which were erected in their stores Australia-wide. It was ridiculed on social media and mentioned on prime-time news – the error in question being a Boxing Day Sale slogan “Early bird get’s the right size” (in case you missed it, the apostrophe in ‘gets’ is not required). In that instance, it was both embarrassing and a costly exercise to replace the banners.

Not everything warrants reprinting, and can either be handled with a block-out over-sticker, or just left as is – it really depends on the severity of the mistake or print error.

So, what are the 7 common design mistakes in print, and how do you avoid them?

1. Spelling errors

As I pointed out in the example in the introduction, mistake do happen and it doesn’t just apply to small business – it happens everywhere, including large corporates. I classify spelling errors at the top of common design mistakes.

Examples of spelling errors:
The obvious: misspelled words, missing number in phone number, incorrect website URL or email address.
The not so obvious/harder to spot: grammar - sentences that just don’t make sense, food items you might not be familiar with, industry specific information, technical information.

Why does it happen? Simple. The design piece wasn’t proof-read and spell-checked. And it’s easy to blame the designer or printer, and to some extent it might warrant it; however, it only goes so far. Ultimately it comes down to the project owner’s responsibility to ensure the information is correct.

So, how do you avoid spelling errors?

  • Use spell-checkers, but don’t rely on them. I find it handy to copy/paste text into Word, as they highlight misspelled words with a red squiggly line underneath and suggest a replacement word.
  • Ensure you work with a designer that you trust and that you know uses procedures that include checking spelling – a designer that is engaged and read what they design
    Ensure that your designer informs you of any changes they may have made, or suggestions they may have with regards to text.
  • Have a handy checklist beside you, to ensure you don’t miss anything. Download this FREE Checklist now.
  • Get someone else to read it over, preferably someone not involved with the project and someone that has a keen eye for detail.

2. Using the wrong file type of images

People often use images from the web. I am not going into the legal issues when sourcing images that have copyright associated with it – let’s just keep it to “you could be held liable for using images without the proper clearances.”

Sometimes people use images that have a clear watermark, indicating the images are a) very low in resolution (the lower the resolution the lower the quality); and, b) have not been paid for, and thus don’t have the proper licensing for use in print or online.

If you are sourcing images online, please use images sourced through stock image libraries such as www.istockphoto.com or www.stock.adobe.com and ensure you license/pay for their use.

We can get all technical when it comes to ensuring you’ve use good quality images, and bamboozle you with pixel dimensions, dots-per-inch (dpi) and whatever, but seriously, who has got time for that? Just ensure your image file size are above 1MB and use JPG files or TIF files. Photos from your camera tend to be in JPG format, and if you have them set to high quality (or highest) then you should be fine. If you want to take great photos yourself, please check-out DOWNLOAD John Lechner’s free photography guide.

If you’ve been caught using unlicensed images, please seek advice from your lawyer or talk to our friends at Tranter Lawyers.

3. No bleed

“Bleed” - sounds bloody awful. Simply put, the word describes artwork that extends beyond document boundaries. It is only applicable to print-related artwork. Bleed is necessary because when the printed document is trimmed (guillotined) to the correct size you don’t end up getting white edges where there should be an image.

Where possible, give all your artwork a 3mm bleed all the way around – the image below explains it in a visual way.

common design mistakes in print, and how to avoid them

4. Black colour set to overprint

So you have a nice image, and place a 100% black box on it that partially overlaps the photo.  Great design technique…. until it comes to print. Below is an example of what is likely to happen, and please check for the subtle spelling error too ;-):

common design mistakes in print, and how to avoid them

One the left side, you can clearly see the image filter through the black box – an unintended and disruptive side effect of when black is set to overprint. One reason for this occurring is that design programs usually have 100% black set to automatically overprint. You can prevent this ‘overprint’ by making the black box (or black text that sits over an image) a “rich black”. A rich black simply means that you change the colour black by adding a little cyan or magenta to the 100% black – generally 40% cyan or magenta does the trick.

5. Text on black background too small

A common design mistake is to have very small text on a black background (also called “reversed block”) – certainly looks good and it’s a great design tool to break the layout up.

The issue with small text on a black background then your text will possibly bleed in on the thinner bits of text (the technical print term is called “dot-gain” – it might look good on-screen, but when printed the black will soak into the paper, and thus bleed a little. In other words, if it were a dot then in print the dot would be a little bigger, hence the term dot-gain). The text might also come out a little fuzzy, particularly if the black is made up out of the cyan, magenta, yellow and black instead of only black.

How to avoid this? The general rule is that you don’t go below 8 points in font size. But really, best way is to check on a print-out (at actual size) and look yourself. You might find that you can actually drop the text a font-size or two smaller, particularly when you are using a non-serif font like Arial or Helvetica. Another trick is to increase the letter-spacing. (I’ll go into fonts in a later blog – fonts are fascinating and provide design with character!)

6. Photo mirrored or stretched

I admit, I freak-out a little when I see that designers have mirrored or stretched an image they’ve used in artwork, and missed that there is a logo, or a sign with words, or a number plate in the photo. Yikes!

My feeling is that the designed/printed piece reflects the company and what it stands for, and a mirrored or stretched photo generally doesn’t match a company’s images or values. True, most people probably don’t notice, or probably don’t even care, but it’s a pet hate of mine.

How to prevent this? Rule number one: don’t ever mirror, or stretch photos. Rule number two: repeat rule number one.

7. Using RGB images instead of CMYK.

These days PDF standards tend to convert RGB to CMYK automatically, but regardless, the impact on the appearance on your image colour-wise can still be dramatic.

First-up, ensure that your images look OK on screen – if they are too dark, too red, too stark etc. you’ll definitely need to adjust them. For basic editing of photos you can use (free) programs like Adobe Photoshop Express, Paint.NET, Photo Pos Pro, Pixlr Editor, Photoscape, Google NIK Collection, Picasa, GIMP, IrfanView.  Or contact a professional.

My general rule is that for artwork that gets printed on a digital press is that you go the “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” (WYSIWYG) route. Print it out on your printer, and better still get your printer to provide a proof printed on the actual digital press.  For artwork that is going to be printed on an offset press, you’ll need convert images to CMYK. Use a photo editing software that has the capability to convert RGB images into CMYK. If you’re concerned about how a photo looks, either on your screen, on your print-out (or both), please check with a professional designer and/or printer.


Yep, that’s industry lingo for you. RGB is a colour palette – it stands for Red, Green, and Blue. These colours are mixed with (white) light to produce the colours you see in on your computer screen.

CMYK is a colour palette too and is used on a printing press (ink-based), and in digital printers (toner-based). These inks are mixed and then applied to the substrate (paper most commonly).

So, there you have it! Get your checks and balances in place and be assured that you don’t get nasty surprises when your printed brochures or other items are delivered to your door. As always, contact me with any specific questions or comments, I’d love to hear from you – call me on (02) 4990 3230 or send an email at marc@binkcreative.com.au.

Happy designing!


Marc Brabander
BINK Creative

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