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Print Finishes Add an Edge to Print Design

Print Finishes Add an Edge to Print Design

The internet has grown to become an immensely important factor in modern life influencing the way we communicate and the way we handle much of our business. Consequently, its growth has caused some negative effects on the printing industry. The newspaper industry for example, is being threatened of becoming a dying industry because of the convenience of online publication. Going paperless with bills and other mail as a means to go green is great for the environment but bad for the printing industry.

However, although it seems everything is moving toward the internet these days, it’s far from over for print which is fighting back with high quality printing. Designers and printers are bringing innovation and experimentation to print design through the use of print finishes which can intensify the aesthetics and tactility of a printed product. Thus, creating more memorable work with an edge over web.

Through this blog, I hope to create a resource for designers like myself who aren’t very familiar with print finishes and are wanting to further their possibilities with print design.

“Although the application of print-finishing techniques signals the end of the production process, these techniques should not be considered as afterthoughts, but as an integral part of a design, and one that needs to be considered during the planning stage (67, Ambrose/Harris).”

Listed here are explanations of the various print finishes that you should know about. These are a compilation of the information I found in Computer Arts magazine issue 163 (pgs. 48-52), and Print & Finish by Ambrose/ Harris.

The Finishes You Should Know:

Die Cut

The technique of cutting a desired design into a substrate using a metal block called a die. The die is used to cut away specified sections of the design in order to create a decorative and tactile effect or to reveal a part of the proceeding page.

A die can cost anywhere around $100-200 bucks and up. You might want to consider wisely what you create a die for. It is most useful to invest in one if you are planning to create many reproductions of a project involving the die.


You may be familiar with varnishes in relation to wood finishes on furniture and decks. Essentially, varnishes for print are the same thing. It is a colorless coating that is applied to work to protect it from scuffing while also enhancing the visual effect of the design or elements within it. Varnishes can be matte, gloss, or silk/satin, and can be applied to wet or dry ink. When applied to dry ink, varnishes tend to be absorbed less.

  • matte – typically used with text–heavy pages to diffuse light and increase readability. Gives a non­–glossy, smooth finish to the printed pages.
  • gloss – a gloss varnish reflects back light and is frequently used to enhance the appearance of photographs or other graphic elements.
  • satin/silk – this varnish is a middle option between gloss and matte varnishes. It provides some highlight, but is not as flat as a matte varnish.

Spot UV

Ultraviolet varnishing is a way to really make colors pop in a design. It is a clear liquid that is cured instantly with ultraviolet light. This treatment can make colors appear more vibrant when used as a spot covering to highlight specific areas of a design and also gives off a different texture.

Emboss and Debossing

An emboss or deboss is type of treatment where a die is used as a stamp that impresses a part of a design into a substrate to enhance that particular part in the design. This creates a three-dimensional, decorative and textural element to a design.

An emboss is a raised impression while a deboss is a recessed impression. Embossing and debossing can be done with ink, foil or without either which is called a blind emboss/deboss. Embossing and debossing typically work better on thicker paper weights than light ones.

Blind Deboss

Foil Blocking

Foil blocking is a process where a colored foil is pressed onto a printed piece with a heated die. This separates the foil from its backing and allows it to adhere to the printed material. A foil block can also be known as a foil stamp, heat stamp, hot stamp, block print and foil emboss.


You might want to try out some special types of foil blocking like a holographic foil or a mirror foil which can help emphasize surrounding colors in a design. A mirror foil can add a nice shine in contrast to dark imagery.

holographic foil


A cheaper way to achieve a similar effect to foil blocking is to use metallic inks which have a reflective property, however, it is less reflective and eye catching.


This is the process of printing one color on top of another creating an interesting visual effect by having the colors interfere with one another.



Designed by Delicious Design League


A thin film applied to one or both sides of a printed stock. Lamination can be gloss or luster and has several benefits. It helps increase sheet stability or rigidity, protect work from moisture and handling, and can make work waterproof and tear-proof.


Helvetica 50 project workbook. Designed by Breakmould design agency


You don’t always have to do the typical valley fold (folding your paper in half). Different folding methods can help present your work in creative and visually interesting ways. Think about what would appropriate for your project and your budget.

  • French FoldingIn a French fold, the paper is printed on one side and then it is folded horizontally and vertically to create a four-sided, uncut document or section.
  • Throw outsA folding and scoring technique that is bound into a publication to give extra space to showcase a particular image or visual element. Usually found in magazines.
  • GatefoldWhen a sheet is folded into four panels and placed into a publication so that the left and right panels fold parallel and inward to the spine without overlapping. This kind of fold is useful if the spread has a large key image or a lot of content to be displayed.
  • Accordion / Concertina Fold – This fold comprises two or more parallel folds that go in opposite directions and open out. This folding method enables many pages to be collapsed into a smaller size publication. (88, Ambrose / Harris)
  • Roll Fold – A roll fold is composed of a series of parallel valley folds, which are further folded into one another. (90, Ambrose / Harris)

French Fold

Nikolaus Schmidt
Self Promotional Book by Nikolaus Schmidt
Designed by Davidesign

Triple Darkness Music Packaging by Sawdust

Roll Fold
Designed by AV Browne

Accordion / Concertina Fold
Multi Concertina Folding by Clinical Print Finishers (U.K.) LTD

This site found on The Designcubicle, provides instructions for properly folding using these techniques.


Perforation (or perf cutting) is a process that creates a cut-out area in a substrate, which weakens it for detaching. (108, Ambrose / Harris)


The dos and don’ts of working with combination finishes (52, Computer Arts issue 163):

  1. Spot UV and Embossing
    Spot UV combined with embossed elements can look great, because it seems to lift the embossed portion off the page.
  2. Heavy gloss lamination and light stock
    Light stock that is only laminated on one side can cause curling. To solve this problem, change to a heavier stock or laminate both sides.
  3. Spot UV and lamination
    Unfortunately, spot UV won’t work with lamination because the heat process interferes.


How to prepare your file for a print finish

Generally speaking, from my own experience and from what I have heard from other designers, I have found that schools aren’t really preparing design students well enough with the knowledge of the printing process and how to prepare files before sending them to a printer. Learning how to prepare your files properly will make things run more smoothly when working with a printer.

If you ever feel unsure about how to accomplish a particular treatment in a design, it is best to sit and talk with a printer. It is important to communicate with your printer to ensure that a project will come out as planned.

Liz Anderson, from AlphaGraphics on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, gave me some valuable advice about working with a printer. She suggests to:
Involve a printer as early on as you can when working on a project. You can send the printer a PDF of your work in progress just to see if what you are planning to do will work with what the printer can offer and also can give you an estimate of the cost of the treatment(s) you may have in mind.

Setting up your files for many of these print finishes is easy to do and they are pretty much done in the same fashion. For example, you can set up a diecut, emboss/deboss, foil stamp, and varnish all in the same way.

There are a couple of ways you can go about doing this:

  1. The first method consists of making separate files for the design content. For whatever treatment you are planning to do, make a file that only has the element(s) that will have the particular print finish. Then, make a separate file that contains the rest of the design EXCLUDING the element(s) meant for the print finish.
    Example: Lets say we want to make “Push” embossed in this poster.
    Make a two separate files. One file containing “Push” for the emboss and a second file with everything else.
  2. The second method involves only one file and is simply done by separating the area to-be-treated from the rest of the design by putting it in its own layer. Just indicate to the printer that the particular layer is meant for the print finish.

In this image, “Push” is in its own layer to distinguish it as what will be embossed.


You can ask the printer if he or she has a preference on which way to approach preparing your files.

Setting up for a fold or perforation:

If you are planning to have a score made for a fold, or perforation in your design, it seems easy to go with the second technique mentioned above to set up your file. In the native file, just create lines as guides on a separate layer and name them as score guides/perforation guides/ or whatever so that the printer knows what they are for. Keep the visibility of this layer with these guides off  because you don’t want them to appear on the finished product when printed.

Good luck, and I hope this gave you some insight on some techniques you might not have known about. Feel free to contribute any advice you may have on this topic or any sites you feel are good resources. If any of this information presented is inaccurate, please correct me. This article is supposed to be a resource for those like me who are learning. Thanks.

Related articles:

8 print finishes to spice up your print work by Brian Hoff of thedesigncubicle
Print Finishing from fullcolorprinting.co.uk

Sources for examples of beautifully made print work.
Take a look at these and find more implementations of print finishes.
Print Inspiration: 40 Hidden Gems by Francesco Mugnai
GraphicExchange > Print
Beautiful Brochures and Booklets by Smashing Magazine
Stationary Style

Sources for this article:
Ambrose, and Harris. Print and Finish. Switzerland: AVA Publishing, 2006.

Walsh, Jason. “The Finishing Line.” Computer Arts Magazine. July 2009: 48-52

Liz Anderson, from AlphaGraphics on Michigan Avenue in Chicago

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