General Print Design Tips

Some years ago there was a TV commercial for Snickers candy bars that featured the Kansas City Chiefs football team practicing in a stadium while a member of the grounds crew was painting the team’s name in one end zone. At one point a player approaches the groundskeeper. “That looks great!” the player says, “but who are the Chefs?” The camera pulls back and reveals that the groundskeeper had indeed painted “CHEFS” in the end zone.

Your wide-format printing project may not be as wide as a football field, but the lesson is the same: Plan ahead.

Doing Large Printing Projects Without Going Insane

Planning ahead is the key to completing your large-format printing project without tearing your hair out. Here are some tips for good planning:

  • Understand the purpose: If you’re doing a large-format printing project, it’s because you either have a large amount of information to convey (as in a map or blueprint) or you want it to be visible from a long distance. Understanding which of these you are trying to achieve will drive your subsequent design decisions. Map and blueprint printing is fairly straightforward—you really just need to know what size the output needs to be and make sure it will fit on the large printer or plotter you are using. Designing for wide-area viewing is a bit trickier and is the focus of the rest of these tips.
  • Know where the end product will be used: Will it need to be visible outside, or in darkness or bad weather? Or will it be a well-lighted indoor setting? Knowing this will lead you to select the correct print medium.
  • Make the lettering and graphics big enough: Have you ever seen a “Yard Sale” sign hand-lettered in ballpoint pen on a sheet of notebook paper taped to a light pole? If you were driving past it, the answer is “no,” because at 35 mph you can’t possibly see the thing, let alone read it. Make sure the lettering and graphical elements are large enough to be understood from the farthest distance away your intended audience will be viewing it. For roadside signs, this means far enough away that a driver can plan and execute a turn if needed. In the same vein, choose your font face carefully—even at a large size, fancy script-type fonts are harder to read than simple sans-serif fonts.
  • Be careful with color: In general, color is a good thing, but some combinations of colors clash so badly that the text is illegible no matter how big the lettering is. Make sure there is enough contrast between the lettering and the background color, and avoid combinations of colors that color-blind readers have trouble distinguishing, such as red and green. Similarly, avoid busy multicolored backgrounds that drown out the lettering.

And finally: Check your copy! As the groundskeeper in the Snickers commercial demonstrated, it’s easy to mess up even a one-word sign. Before you waste a bunch of expensive plotter paper (or an even more expensive material, such as vinyl or plastic)—not to mention the expensive large-printer ink—check your copy for errors, then check it again, and then again. When you’re done with that, have other people look at it, because they are guaranteed to find an error you missed.

With these tips in mind, you should be able to plan your large printing project and get it done right the first time. Because you probably have time to do it right, you probably don’t have time (or budget) to do it over.