From pixels to ink–How to design prints that look as great on paper as they do on your monitor

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Whether you’re printing it yourself or sending it to a professional printer, there is an art to getting digital images to appear the same way on paper.

Digital screens can display just about anything, but there are limits to what paper and ink can do.

Taking these limits into account is the key to creating faithful prints. Below are a few tips that I use to help me get a faithful print from screen to paper:

Calibrate your monitor

The first thing is to make sure that your monitor is properly calibrated. If you’re not seeing colours the way they should be on your screen, there is no way they’re going appear the same when they end up on paper.

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Proper monitor calibration requires a specialist device, so if you’re doing serious design work then beg, borrow or buy one at the earliest opportunity.

Colour profiles

After calibrating your monitor, colour profiles are probably the most important aspect to getting your digital proof to translate on paper.

There are two schools of thought to this. The ‘old-school’ way is to work in CMYK from the beginning (as that’s how printer’s work), but some designers now argue that you should work in RGB for the highest resolution and only convert to CMYK at the end.

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Thanks to ICC colour profiles, which emulate most common printer set ups (both the printer and the paper), the argument is that you can work in the RGB environment (maximising the processing efficacy of your effects) while seeing what the end result will look like thanks to the colour profile’s printer/paper simulation.

Should you work in RGB or CMYK? Leave a comment and tell us what side you take?

Soft proofing

Whichever way you work, if your design is going to be printed on a number of different papers (e.g. an ad that appears in newspapers, magazines, on posters etc.) then it’s well worth soft-proofing the image for each of these settings.

Although you may be able to use generic colour profiles, it’s well worth speaking to the printer to find out exactly what they’ll be using.

Some difference is inevitable between the RGB image and the end result, and it’s not always a bad thing – just like how some film buffs prefer the look of 35mm to HD, the characteristics of the medium can be pleasant in themselves.

But what you do particularly need to look out for is any colours that are out of gamut (i.e. outside of the printer’s capabilities) and that losing these doesn’t lose any vital information.

How do you make your prints look great?

There are lots of things to consider when it comes to making your on-screen designs look great when they’re printed. Can you share a few with the rest of us by leaving a comment?

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About Nick Lewis

a technology and design writer, writing on behalf of premedia specialists Rhapsody.

Leave a Comment



  1. You should try to any print design in illustrator or indesign. They are better equipped for dealing with print design. I try to only use Photoshop for elements to insert into other programs – or occasionally if it’s just a poster or flyer that has alot of Photoshop work involved and not much typesetting I’ll do the whole thing in Photoshop.

    I always work in RGB in Photoshop then convert to CMYK at the end. I don’t flatten the whole document however, just the layers styles, adjustments etc, so tweaks can be made to individual layers as needed. Then convert to CMYK using “edit -> Convert to profile”. NEVER use the “image -> mode” method to convert!
    Using the Convert to profile method lets you change the rendering intents to suit the graphic. Perceptual or relative colorimetric for photos, absolute colorimetric or saturation for flat vector style colour, etc. It takes a bit of playing around to get best results for each job. You can also load in custom ICC profiles to convert to – some printers (especially photo printers) usually provide these for best results.

    THEN check the entire thing with the eyedropper to look for trouble spots – i.e. a yellow that has 1% cyan in it (makes a yuck acidic tint in print), oversaturated blacks etc.

    When providing your artwork to a printer always check what file format will give the best result. One printer I worked with had their own profiles they used RGB to CMYK so I just sent over the whole PSD. Some will want TIFFs, some JPGS etc.
    If your printer wants a PDF I recomend placing the PSD in Illustrator and exporting from there.

    Just my 2 cents!

  2. I strongly agree with Nick: with an accurately calibrated & profiled monitor, prepare all your images in RGB. Use soft-proofing to see how an RGB image will look after conversion, and take steps to minimize loss of important detail while holding plenty of color. These RGB master image files can be re-purposed any time for print, web, interactive.

    Best to check with the printer. These days in the U.S. most quality printing companies are dialed-in to use the GRACoL2006 profile for commercial sheetfed work. For web offset, it’s best to use SWOP2006_Coated3v2.icc, rather than the obsolete U.S. Web Coated (SWOP) v2.

    For good looking print work, also remember to sharpen properly, best done with images at actual print size.

  3. Thanks for the information above. I have had problems a few times getting documents to print properly, what about the use of pantone bridge, does anyone else use this?

  4. Seen as the colour space for CMYK is a lot smaller than RGB. And a different kinda way colour is made in a scientific way there is no easy solution to this.
    Being aware that nice blues are NEVER gonna be reached with CMYK is a worthy consideration. So I would suggest a pallet of colours that initially work in CMYK as well as they do in RGB.

  5. I always work with RGB. Monitors are setup that way so emulating CMYK does not make sense. In RGB more photo retouching features are enabled, also my clients want the same work done mostly online for web etc.. It is an ideal setup. Majority of my clients are switching from print to web, so now and then doing a print job and converting a few colors that do not translate well manually (assigning pantone/cmyk values), like Blues is easier if needed.

  6. I work in the color space that’s going to be the primary final output. If it’s a printed document, I work in CMYK. If web/digital, RGB, though I’m much more proficient in understanding how to mix CMYK to get any color than I am in RGB. (e.g. your standard orange is 100% M&Y.)

    The use of InDesign’s Separations window can greatly improve the quality of your printed pieces as you can preview the CMYK separations as well as spot colors.

    Also, you can set up multiple calibrations to switch between a digital white and simulated white paper, which makes the screen initially look tinged a dirty yellow. (Your eyes adjust pretty quickly.) This helps when designing for printed pieces.

    Also with printed pieces, you have to take into consideration the weight of the inks. Black is much stronger than yellow (duh), but this doesn’t play out on-screen. What looks like a great yellow on-screen often comes out muddy brown in print because 5% black will significantly change the printed piece but not the on-screen proof.

    You also have to account for overprinting (the “Overprint Preview” in Illustrator and InDesign help) as well as, for offset printing, trapping, registration, and dot gain.

    I agree, Nick, monitor calibration is a must, and if you have a relationship with a local printer, creating a calibration just for them is essential! This way if you know what looks tan on your screen looks yellowy in print, you can adjust your files for the best output.

    Happy printing!

  7. Darrell Pharmer says:

    As some of you have said working RGB allows the maximum use of effects, filters, etc. However if you are not needing those options I have found that it is easier to start in CMYK or Pantone color systems right away since that is where you will end up. So it can depend on what is going into the design. Another consideration is how the printer will print the final piece. Silk Screen, Flexo, Offset and Digital Printing all have their ups and downs and require some tweaking on our end to ensure that what is on the soft proof will be what is output in the end. To that end if you have access to ICC profiles that will help give you a good idea of what your color will look like when it is output as well.

  8. Thank you. Informative. Backed up some of what I already do, had wondered about and wasn’t aware of. Cheers.

  9. Besides all the color calibration, remember images on the web only need to be 72 dpi while for paper printing, they need to be almost four times higher (300 dpi) otherwise they look bitmapped. You can’t just grab a small image from a site and think it’s going to print out ok. This is my #1 problem when trying to get photos for speakers–they think I can just grab it from their site and enlarge to what I need. You can decrease but not enlarge raster images without losing quality.

  10. Also check the transparency if you use Pantone colors. Transparency in offset print will not be displayed correctly if the pantone color that is used in transparancy is not converted into cmyk.

  11. In a global world please remember that printing inks differs. CMYK hues in SWOP inks is different from ISO inks. To be able to use the original artwork in different countries, which is important in global companies, (Adobe) RGB or CIE Lab offers far more flexibility than device dependent CMYK. Separation is made as late as possible.

    Where I spend my days we don’t know in advance if the photo is going to end up on the web, in a newspaper, on a billboard, or in a brochure. Or all and more. Hence we try to have all photos in Adobe RGB. Technical illustrations, however, we still treat in CMYK.

    Problems arise when internal customers provide images shot with mobile phones or created in any M$ application … and think they are sufficient, ’cause they look great on screen.

  12. Calibrating your screen is a good point – so many people forget to do it and it really is a basic, makes a big difference and isn’t hard to do.


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