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Everything You Never Knew You'd Have To Know About Envelopes

May 5, 2008
Part 2: Printed Envelopes

Once you have you're envelopes picked out, you need to figure out how to get your design printed on them. Sounds easy right? It will be much easier if you know a few key points about envelope printing.

Some Folks to Know: The Pre-Press Department

Now that you've made your way past the fast talking (but hopefully friendly) sales rep, you may have to talk with another type of envelope enthusiast -- the Pre-Press department. While not as intimidating as speaking to a pressman in the middle of a loud warehouse, pre-press workers are still pretty technically involved and close to the front lines. They may sit at computers all day like most office workers, but they will spout out print jargon you've never heard. Someone in the department is bound to have some customer service skills, so you can usually ask for some clarification. Going through your sales rep for artwork issues is not usually a good idea, because they often do not have any artwork training.

Your artwork will always come to pre-press if it is new art or if anything has changed with the art. They get it ready for the presses by making sure all the colors separate properly, that you've complied with postal regulations, and that your design is actually printable (some things are not!). They get the artwork to a point where it can be printed on plates, which will be inked, put on the press, and used to print your envelopes.

Pre-press can also make changes to your art if necessary, in the event that you cannot make the changes yourself. Some changes may incur fees, but you should be notified of these. Most pre-press departments also handle typesetting. If you have absolutely nothing, they can at least type up an address for you, in the font of your choice and stick it on an envelope!

Your Return Address Design

By far the most common thing printed on an envelope is a simple return address, sometimes with a logo. Aside from the return address information above, there are a few things that you need to pay attention to as far as the printing process goes.

- The edge of the envelope - Depending on how many colors you are printing, you can put your logo at different distances from the edge. For 1 or 2 colors, you can get it as close as 1/16 inch from the top and left sides, although 1/8 inch is usually recommended. The press has what we call "bounce" which means very small distances can't be guaranteed to stay true, and your logo might end up going off the edge. For 3 or more colors, a different type of press is used, and you may need to put the logo up to 3/8 inch from the edges. The white space around the logo is used for what we call a "gripper." The 3 color press needs an edge to grip to pull the envelope through the press. Check with your printer to see how much room you need. If your logo is already set up and it needs to be moved away form the edge, your printer can usually do that for you without a fuss.

- Bleeds - Many logos include a square of color or another design behind the text that goes off the edge of the envelope. Anything that goes off the edge is called a "bleed." There are often extra charges for bleeds so consider whether the look is absolutely necessary for your design. The charges are not that prohibitive for 1 or 2 color jobs, but when those special 3 or more color presses get involved, they may need to print your envelopes unfolded, and then fold them after printing. Another thing that would require the envelopes to be printed flat and then folded is if the ink coverage is too heavy so be careful!! All this extra work takes more time and comes at a higher cost.

- Address font - Make sure your address is legible. Humans are much better at filling in the blanks when we can't read something, but the machines will just chew up your envelope and spit it out, so to speak. If it takes any effort for a human to decipher the numbers, you need to use a different font. Make sure it is at least 8 points as well. The legibility rule goes for your reply addresses too, but use at least a 10 point font for those. An envelope is not the place to show off all the new fonts you've just downloaded. Pick something simple that goes with your company's "feel" and, again, save the fancy stuff for the mailings inside. Pre-press can probably recommend something.

This may all seem very simple but I have seen a lot of strange things come through prepress. Sometimes a very weird design that is too busy or can't be made to fit postal regulations sits in the to-do bin waiting on an answer from the customer, and several follow-ups later it gets canceled because they couldn't decide what to do to make their envelopes work. Design with these things in mind, and you won't miss deadlines or have to cancel jobs altogether.

The Colors - Understanding Separations and Traditional Printing

The first important thing to understand about traditional printing is that it is not Kinkos. Traditional printing requires properly color separated artwork, with only one color on each plate, and high resolution artwork. It is too often that a customer replies, when told their artwork is not printable, that they had their business cards printed from the same art last week. The business cards were most likely printed at a quick-print shop on an inkjet printer which requires no color separations, and the resolution is probably mediocre. Traditional printing requires the colors to be physically applied to the envelopes by plates of different colors on a highly calibrated machine, not mixed on the fly by a computer printer.

Process and Spot Color

These strict rules don't mean you can't have every color of the rainbow in your design. The magic of screens (those little dots you see when you look close up at a magazine) allows for infinite possibilities of mixed colors, in much truer tones and higher resolutions than allowed by inket printing. In most four color applications, the process colors Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and blacK (CMYK) are applied in varying screens to create realistic, gradiated color. This can also be achieved with screens of spot color.

Spot colors are industry wide colors that are standardized (to some degree), and include Pantone matched colors. Some examples are black, reflex blue, and any Pantone number you can think of. They are often printed solid, and used for 1 and 2 color jobs.

Making the Art Separate

The most important part of all this color nonsense is to make sure you design your image with color in mind. You may need a professional designer to get your digital logo to work for this kind of application. Some logos just need minor adjustments that can be done by pre-press for a fee. Just remember that if you are printing spot colors, you can't submit something that's CMYK, and vice-versa. Pre-press may be able to convert it, but the colors may be altered in the process.

Fonts and File Formats

Check with pre-press to see what kind of artwork they prefer. Universally, line art or vector art (not Photoshop art!) is in use in the graphics industry. This provides the highest quality resolution and the best color separations. Again, if this is Greek to you, it may be time to call in a professional designer.

Three tips for sending files that I can't stress enough:

- Line art only! (except for photo graphics and the like) created in Illustrator or another vector art application.

- Save fonts to outlines! Because not everyone has your fonts, and Mac/PC fonts often conflict (pre-press will have mostly Macs). This turns the font into artwork that can be read on any computer.

- Call pre-press if you don't know what to do! Save everyone precious turn-around time and get your envelopes done right.

We hope these little articles haven't hurt your brain too much. We just want the printing customer to be aware of all the choices out there, and all the pitfalls to avoid when printing envelopes. Trust your sales rep and your pre-press helpers. It's not always fun to admit, but they know more than you do about printing envelopes.
About the Author
Jeff Moriarty Printing You Can Trust Envelope Printing
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