How To Design For Large Format Printing
Designing for print is an entirely different proposition to creating graphics that are intended to be viewed on a screen.
Large format printing has its own unique set of technical and creative considerations.
What resolution should your document be set to, what are the technical requirements – and what makes an excellent large format design in general?
What resolution should I use for large format printing?
The regular industry standard resolution for printing is 600 dpi (dots per inch) for black-and-white artwork and 300 dpi for colour reproductions.
However, this ideal quickly becomes unworkable at very large sizes – good luck getting Photoshop to handle a 3-metre billboard at 300 dpi without your computer crashing!
Fortunately, the sharpness of 300 dpi is less critical for large format graphics, which are mostly designed to be viewed from a distance and don’t, in general, carry the same expectation for perfect clarity when seen at very close proximity.
For work larger than A2, the recommended resolution is between 75 and 150 dpi.
The general rule of thumb is to use as high a resolution as you can without the project becoming unworkable.
It all depends on what you’re designing and how it’s being printed, and in all cases of uncertainty, you should consult your printer for advice on what they need to deliver the best quality printed finish.
What are CMYK and RGB?
CMYK and RGB are colour profiles, and if you’re working in Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator, you will have the ability to choose between them.
The default is RGB, and this is the mode that is the best for designing on-screen graphics.
Within the mode of RGB there are a variety of different colour spaces with various uses such as sRGB and Adobe RGB, but in general RGB colour modes are not recommended for print work.
On the other hand, CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key (where Key is generally always black).
It is the standard format for printed graphics whereby colour is represented in the manner required by a printer, separating the four primary component colours like so:
The essential thing to know is that the two colour modes are fundamentally different, and there is no exact way to convert between them.
So don’t assume you can work in RGB and convert it later for a perfect colour match.
If you know the graphic you’re working on is for print, you must set your document to the CMYK format from the very beginning.
Raster and vector graphics for large format printing
Photoshop and Illustrator work very differently, with the former allowing the user to edit raster graphics and the latter being the industry standard for vector.
Raster images work by storing colour information for individual pixels and so are widely used for photographs, paintings and pictures that require smooth gradients of colour.
Vector files use mathematical calculations to create lines and colours and work very well for things that involve clean lines, text, and large blocks of colour.
Left: raster artwork, right: vector.
So which is better for large format printing?
It depends what you need to do.
Because vector graphics are generated by calculations, they can be rescaled with perfect clarity to any scale without affecting the file size, which works brilliantly for some types of illustrations and graphic design.
So why not use vector graphics for every large format project?
While you can convert photographs into vector formats, the results aren’t always pretty:
In the above example, all of the beautiful gradients in the sky and all of the texture details of the hills have been lost in the conversion to vector, resulting in an image comprised of messy and flat blobs of colour.
However, for some large format graphics and billboard designs, vector graphics might be entirely appropriate, as in this example:
What makes an excellent large format design?
The key to any good design is readability, and that goes double for large format work.
It’s vitally important that your image be clearly understandable from a distance, and depending on its destination it may need to do so quickly.
A billboard by the road may need to be easily understood by somebody passing in a car, and a logo on the side of a lorry might need to communicate quickly before the vehicle disappears around a corner!
If this is the case, rule one is to keep things simple.
Don’t clutter your design with too many elements – get to the heart of what you need to communicate with as few components as possible.
For example, consider the following:
Even a cursory glance at this billboard for a few seconds communicates the essential point: McDonald’s are selling a big new burger. Got it!
Aside from some additional, smaller elements with further details for those who linger to read more, the essentials are communicated very, very quickly.
A second tip for working on a good large format graphic design is always to check that your work reads well from a distance.
This can be as simple as zooming your project view out to 25% or 10% and checking that you can still interpret it clearly, or showing it to somebody else in that way.
Can you read the text?
Can you still understand what the photos are?
One more consideration when designing for large format printing is the context of the finished image.
If it’s being printed and installed somewhere, what are the surroundings going to be?
Is it a light or dark environment?
Do you know what colours might be predominantly in the environment?
If it’s going to be placed on a blue wall, consider using the complementary colour orange predominantly in your design so that it pops – and don’t design a black billboard for a dark room if you think it might be hard to see!
“Form follows function” is the absolute bedrock rule for designing anything, so be sure to work out what your design is for before you start.
Ultimately, it would be best if you always liaised with your client and the printing company in the case of any creative or technical questions, as every project is different.
Designing for large format printing is challenging, but is also an essential skill for any designer – and it can be gratifying to see your work reproduced on a massive scale for everybody to see.
This post was contributed by PressOn, one of the UK’s leading large format printing companies. Based in Chatham, Kent, they provide large format prints and banners for some of the UK’s leading retailers and brands.
If you wish to discuss how we can develop your brand or provide graphic design for your product or business, email us: [email protected]