Once your design is finalized and you’re about to supply your printer with artwork, it’s important to make sure your document has been correctly prepared for the print process. Print specifications vary between printers and the surface your design will be printed on such as plastic or cloth. However, there are a few commonly used printing terms which you may encounter, one of which is the term “bleed”, here’s what that means:

What is Bleed?

When an image or background color extends right to the edge of the page leaving no white margin, we would describe that by saying the design has “bleed”. If the item bleeds on all four sides, that might be called “full bleed”. If components of your design bleed to the edge of the page, your artwork will need to be prepared for print in a specific way.

Business Card with bleed, a visual to demonstrate an image and color that bleed to the edge of the page.
Bleed is when an image or color extend right to the edge of the page leaving no white margin.

In most instances, to enable a printer to print an item with bleed, the designer must incorporate a “bleed area” into the artwork. The bleed area is when the printed area is set to extend beyond the finished item size, typically by .125″ on all four sides. In this instance, the printed area would be .25″ taller and wider than the final, trimmed item. I will explain more about why this is done later.

The Bleed Area, diagram demonstrating that the bleed extends beyound the final image size.
The white line signifies the trimmed size of the business card. The bleed area extends the print area typically by .125″ on each side beyond the finished card size.

Bleed should always be set in accordance with your printers specifications. Although bleed for standard sized paper items is commonly .125″, it can vary, especially for something large or if you’re printing on a material other than paper.

Why is a Bleed Area Necessary?

  • Borderless printing isn’t always possible. When you print from your home printer you will notice that even if your design extends right to the edge of the page, you will always see a small white border on your print out, print shop photocopiers usually have the same limitation. When you see a printed item with bleed, it’s often the case that the piece was printed on a larger piece of paper, and then trimmed to size.
  • As pages feed through a copier they will move slightly, causing the position of the printed area to vary. If you have ever filled a photocopier you will notice that as you place the paper into the drawer, the paper does not sit in the exact same location for the entire batch. As each sheet gets fed through the copier, the print can appear in a slightly different spot on each sheet, the difference is marginal but significant. Although a good print professional will do their best to minimize this, it’s an acknowledged and accepted problem that printers have to work around.
  • When cutting machines slice through stacked paper, some sheets will move. When a professional cutting machine is used, as the blade passes through the stacked paper, there is a slight shift in the stack, especially if the paper is glossy or smooth. You will find that your print and the cut will not always align perfectly.

To counteract the inevitable combined inaccuracies involved in the printing and trimming processes, it’s standard for printers to only guarantee accuracy of trimmed items to a .125″. Which is why it’s important for your artwork to compensate for this by including bleed.

This image demonstrates how a business card might look if it had been printed without bleed.
The black line indicates how the trimmed business card could include white, non printed area, if printed without bleed and cut to size.

The Safety Area

As discussed above, once you understand the necessity for a bleed on the outside of your desired crop, it makes sense that you need to make the same allowances for the inside of the design too. Even though the cutting area may shift, the dimensions of the finished piece should remain the same.

Money Saving Tip!

Depending on how your item is printed, it could be the case that having a bleed on your design will incur additional printing costs, especially for smaller print runs. For example, if the finished size of your printed piece is 8.5″ x 11″, and you are using a regular color copier, the only way to do this is by printing on a larger piece of paper and cutting to size. Larger sheets of paper cost more, as do trimming costs. If you’re on a budget, you may choose to allow for a white margin around the edge, and build that in as part of your design.

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