It may seem like the design world is all digital but there’s still a tremendous demand for print work. Graphic designers commonly jump around to various print jobs or even shift into digital interface design. But it’s slightly less common to see an interface designer move into print design – however this doesn’t mean print work is any less desirable or less valuable.
In fact, you can earn a good living by juggling print work at an agency or running your own freelance studio. But if you’re a general web/graphic designer who hasn’t really looked into print design, this can be a confusing area to learn.
I’d like to share a collection of helpful resources, tools and print design tutorials for designers who want to make the leap into print design. You may not brand yourself solely as a “print designer” but these skills will give you more leverage to adorn your resume & portfolio with a few print work samples.
A Print Practice Workflow
In the modern era of design, we’ve seen tremendous changes in both web and mobile design. But print work still follows a very similar workflow even with newer technologies.
Whether you’re an experienced designer or just getting started dabbling in print, it’s vital to cover the basics. How does print design work? What projects would you be excited to make?
Learn what you like and why you like it. Obviously, some jobs will require you to do work that you don’t particularly like (it’s a job, after all).
But if you can attack every project with enthusiasm you’re sure to come out the other side with some incredible experience.
When first getting started you probably won’t have paid print work so you’ll need to make up tasks for yourself.
Think posters, invitations, business cards, style guides, magazine spreads or even music album covers. Print work spans the gamut of all printed design material and there’s so much to create. And like with all other skills, the best way to learn is to just start somewhere and push through.
Thankfully the Internet makes learning a whole lot easier. And while there are many more tutorials related to digital web/mobile design, you can still find high-quality print guides and how-to articles that cover everything you’d need to study.
Learn by Asking Questions
As you start building your own projects you’ll undoubtedly run into trouble along the way. Many people get frustrated and ultimately give up on their short-lived dream of print design glory.
But giving up in the face of trouble is a thing of the past thanks to Internet help forums!
Unless you’re in school or working with a mentor you’ll be doing a lot of solo design work. You won’t always have someone in the room to answers questions, but someone online is the next best thing. So where should you go for technical design questions about print projects?
The Stack Exchange network has dozens of fantastic websites covering all sorts of topics from Apple devices to quantitative finance.
Graphic Design Exchange is the GD board for designers of all types. The community is filled with amazing questions, most already answered that should prove very helpful. But you can also sign up for a free account and post your own question(s) related to specific project work.
Be as detailed as possible and try to ask particular questions to receive more useful answers.
The social news website Reddit has grown rapidly over the past few years. It’s a community that runs on top of sub-communities called subreddits, each with a certain area of focus.
General designers may check out /r/graphic_design for particular questions or design inspiration. And while there isn’t a true “print design” subreddit, there is a sub for InDesign full of questions about the software. Adobe InDesign is the premiere suite for print work and you’ll certainly want to learn how to use it before calling yourself a competent print designer.
Lastly is the Adobe community itself with various forum topics devoted to aspects of design. Adobe does have their own InDesign forum but it’s more geared towards technical InDesign questions.
Adobe’s specialized print design community is perfect for more generic questions. It’s not as populated as the GD Exchange forum but it does offer a secondary resource when you’re truly stuck and don’t know where to turn for help.
Print Design Inspiration
When first delving into a creative area of design you won’t always have technical skills to come up with ideas & execute from scratch. With practice, you can reach this level, but it helps to practice striving for quality projects rather than novice-level designs.
One way to improve your eye and start recognizing quality is through other project work. Find other print projects online and save photos of your favorites. Then try to recreate these designs on your own just for practice.
You can learn a lot by studying people with more skill and you’ll also be improving your skills in the process.
The For Print Only(FPO) blog was originally launched in 2009 as an inspiration site for print designers. It covers projects ranging from annual reports to posters and product packages.
This is a fantastic site to browse because all of the work is of great quality and speaks volumes about professional-level design. If you can create anything within the same realm as these projects you’ll start training your eye and building a more comprehensive understanding of quality print work.
My favorite website for design inspiration is Dribbble. Although it’s an invite-only network you can still browse & search the site without an account.
If you’re only looking for print work just do a search for whatever you need(ex: poster, book cover) or browse through the print tag. Dribbble work is published by qualified designers with years of working experience, so you’re guaranteed to find some remarkable inspiration on the site.
Behance is very similar to Dribbble except it’s free for anyone to sign up. Behance portfolios are also organized a little differently whereby projects can include multiple photos of the design or the process(case study).
Behance also has a search function where you can limit results based on print projects or any other keywords.
InDesign Tools & Plugins
Print design can be accomplished in programs like Photoshop or Illustrator. In fact, most print assets are crafted in these programs.
But once the assets are created they most often get transferred into another program named InDesign. This is Adobe’s premiere suite for creating all types of print work. And while it is fantastic there are some features worth extending through plugins.
It should be noted that if you don’t already know how to use InDesign you should learn the basics first. Take a look at the free tutorials further down in this article to master the basics of InDesign.
From there you’ll be able to work with add-ons and get a little more crafty with print projects.
Indiscripts builds & releases InDesign scripts instead of add-ons, but they work very similarly as 3rd party extensions to the program. This one named FontMixer allows designers to quickly add special characters, diacritical marks, and ligatures into the text as needed.
This Indesign Authoring plugin is completely free for practicing print work. It’s released through Aquafadas which also has many other InDesign add-ons related to print design & publishing.
If you want to see how your projects will look when finalized I’d highly recommend this plugin. It runs very smoothly and will teach you a lot about finalizing print projects through InDesign.
Here’s a small yet intriguing add-on named Proper Fraction (currently “Proper Fraction 2”). You can quickly update inline text to form fractions without searching through a character map. The lite version is completely free but to run the full pro version it costs ~$70.
Separate text frames are very common pieces of an InDesign project. Sometimes you’ll want to merge various text frames together into one frame to make editing & composition easier. This free plugin does just that with no hassle and no price tag!
65bit Software is a development company specializing in various InDesign add-ons. You can find a handful of them on their site, but I want to focus on MultiDo which visually shows steps in a history panel for undoing and redoing actions.
This also has a complimentary plugin named EasyHistory which adds a history panel into the program. For some reason, InDesign doesn’t have this feature by default, but with MultiDo & EasyHistory you’ll be able to micromanage your actions to an incredible degree of accuracy.
Learning Online: Free Print Tutorials
Any design career can be fruitful if you put in the work to achieve a serious level of skill. Everyone starts out bad, some worse than others. But the skilled designers of our time didn’t get that way in a year, or even 2 years.
Everyone learns at different rates but it usually takes multiple years to reach serious proficiency. If you don’t know where to get started then tutorials are perfect stepping stones.
I’ve put together a series of tutorials ranging from the absolute basics of print design into some more beginner-to-intermediate InDesign practice projects.
This excellent write-up by Mary Winkler covers the career tasks & skill requirements of print designers. It features small bits of advice from full-time designers and gives a serious overview of what to expect in the print design world.
Anyone who’s brand new to print design or anyone who wants a refresher of terms should read this article. It covers all the tools, design lingo, and technical terms that print designers should have burned into their heads.
Folks who are interested in books or magazines will undoubtedly enjoy this article. Printing is a technical job that not all designers learn how to do. Just because you’re a print designer doesn’t mean you’ll be operating machinery.
But you should still understand how that stuff works so you’ll know more about the full workflow. Prepress is the typesetting & layout process done before publication which is just as important – especially to text-heavy publications or serials.
Anyone who has no idea how to use InDesign will get a lot from this video. It’s 40+ minutes long covering all the major tools and palettes of InDesign CS6.
The current InDesign version is CC but most features are identical. You could be running InDesign CS3 and still take away valuable information from this video. And if you have time check out the related videos for more free InDesign training on YouTube.
Once you’re beyond the basics you should try creating projects from scratch. If you don’t have the creative ingenuity to think up new ideas, then following a tutorial is the next best thing.
This tut written by Grace Fussell explains how to design a sophisticated print menu for a fictitious diner. You’ll learn about typography, composition, and the typical workflow to create such a project using Adobe InDesign.
If you’re looking for a more challenging project, then this magazine layout tutorial should be right up your alley. This was also written by Grace Fussell and hits upon many important topics like document size, margins, and layering graphics between readable columns of text.
Other Print & InDesign Resources
There are so many great resources online that It’d be almost impossible to list them all. The best place to start learning is with tutorials but from there you should really try making your own projects for fun & practice.
You can learn a lot by messing with InDesign plugins, freebies, or just checking out print work created by other designers. Take a look at the following resources and browse around reading anything that catches your attention.
- The InDesigner
- Tuts+ Adobe InDesign tutorials
- Layers Magazine InDesign tuts
- StockInDesign Freebies
- InDesign Secrets – Free Stuff
- Free InDesign Templates
- InDesign Scripts and Plugins to Speed Up Work
Print design is quite a different beast compared to digital interface design, but the learning process is basically the same. Regardless of your current level of knowledge you simply need to hunker down & create some stuff.
Along the way, you will hit roadblocks, but if you keep moving and designing you may be surprised how much you can learn with only 3-6 months of practice. Hopefully, these resources offer a boost to get you started on the right track.