It’s easy to get deeply invested in the look of your custom label. After all the technical decision-making and arduous work that goes into launching a new product, designing a custom label gives your brand a chance to let your personality and creativity shine.
(And we can’t overlook the fact that a label is often the first thing that attracts consumers to a new product.)
But a great custom label design is more than just a beautiful image.
There are several critical (and yes, technical) decisions to make during the design phase that can help smooth over the production process and ensure not only a visually stunning label but a high-performing one.
First, it’s important to make sure you, your designer, and your custom label printer are speaking the same language.
Know Your Basic Custom Label Design Terms
Designing custom labels typically involves managing a three-way conversation between a designer (either in-house, or an outsourced individual or firm), your company and a label printer. Understanding fundamental design and label printing terminology will help make this back-and-forth communication as productive as possible.
DPI stands for dots per inch, but you’re more likely to hear printers and designers using the acronym. Magnify a digital or printed image, and you’ll see that it’s made up of individual dots of color. The denser the dots, the higher the DPI, and therefore, the sharper the image.
Why it matters: Printers prefer to work with high-resolution images. Lower DPIs can look pixelated, especially when blown up to larger sizes. Higher DPIs (300 DPI or more) give printers and designers more size options to play with.
Bleed refers to extending a printed image beyond the trim edge of the label. For solid backgrounds, borders or images that need to print to the edges of the label, the designer will need to extend those features beyond the trim, or crop marks, of the artwork. This ensures no unprinted areas will be visible after the label is trimmed to size.
Why it matters: Bleed compensates for slight imprecisions that can occur during printing, giving your artwork full coverage to the end of the label. Typically, a label printer will recommend designing for a bleed of 1/16th of an inch.
The Pantone company is the creator and overseer of the Pantone Matching System, or PMS, a universally recognized color reproduction standard. Within the PMS, each color is identified by a unique, independent number. For example, last year’s Pantone Color of the Year, “Classic Blue,” goes by the moniker 19-4052.
Why it matters: Pantone colors are often referred to as “spot” colors, and they’re different from shades that are created by blending basic ink colors (see “CMYK versus RGB” below). Spot colors are often used when color matching is absolutely critical – in logos or corporate colors, for example. In cases where color matching doesn’t need to be quite so precise, your label printer can show you options for the four-color process, which gives you more range and flexibility when choosing colors.
CMYK Versus RGB
Printing equipment and electronic displays (like your computer monitor) both create broad color spectrums by blending a few primary colors. Digital displays use red, green and blue light – RGB. Printing processes use cyan, magenta, yellow and black ink – CMYK (the “K” stands for key, printer’s lingo for black).
Keep in mind that because monitors display using RGB – and because of variations in lighting and resolution – the colors in your digital file may vary slightly in appearance from your final printed colors. You may want to ask your printer about a color-match proof or printed press samples; there may be additional costs associated for these.
Why it matters: Your label printer will ask for artwork files saved in CMYK mode. This is because the CMYK gamut is smaller than the RGB gamut, meaning some RGB colors cannot be reproduced precisely using the CMYK process. Designers should design for print, not digital display.
Related content: Learn more about how color works with label design in our blog, Product Labels and the Science of Color.
Vector Versus Bitmap
Vector and bitmap are both ways to encode two-dimensional graphics digitally. If you take digital photos, you’re probably familiar with bitmap file formats such as .jpg, .gif, or .png. Bitmaps are composed of pixels, tiny dots of individual color (see DPI, above).
Vector graphics are defined by mathematical equations rather than pixels. Their attributes can include lines, curves, shapes, colors, fills and outlines. Common vector formats include .ai (Adobe Illustrator) and .eps.
Why it matters: Label printers love working with vector graphics because they are infinitely scalable; zoom in and out and they will never lose resolution. Vector graphics work well for text and logos. Bitmaps are more suitable for photos and hand-drawn artwork.
Related content: From “abrasion resistance” to “zigzag fold,” master more label printing terminology with our complete glossary.
Understand Your Software Options to Design Custom Labels
If you’re setting out to design your own custom labels, you’ll want to make sure you’re equipped with the right software.
Applications you might use to put together presentations to share around the office are not suitable for professional graphic design. These include Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Publisher, or pretty much anything that came pre-installed on your business computer.
The gold standard for software in the design world is the Adobe family of products, especially Illustrator (a vector graphics editor), Photoshop (for bitmap images), and InDesign (a desktop publishing application).
Keep in mind, these products do have a rather steep learning curve. So, if you’re a small business looking to design just one type of label, you may want to seek out something a little less labor-intensive.
Fortunately, we’re living in a golden age of online tools that make professional-looking design accessible to people who don’t have the time to go back to school for a degree in graphic arts or the budget for expensive software. The most accessible and popular web-based design app is Canva, which doesn’t require any design skills at all.
When in doubt, contact your label printer for assistance before you invest too much time and money. They can guide you to the right tools and resources.
Choose Your Designer Carefully
If you lack the inclination, talent, or software to design custom labels yourself, we have good news: You probably don’t need an expensive top-tier design agency. Big design firms can do mind-blowing work – if you have the budget for it. But the world is also full of exceptional freelance designers and even students who are eager to show off what they’re capable of.
Budget shouldn’t be your only consideration when choosing a designer, however. You’ll want a designer who “gets” your brand. For example, if your company values sustainability, you’ll appreciate a designer who is mindful of what resources their design ideas might require – and who creates designs that use less raw material.
If your company can afford it, it’s often beneficial to choose a designer with production experience (in other words, someone who understands the nuances of label printing, color, and file formats we’ve discussed in this article). This will help ensure your designer’s vision stays in the realm of real-world practicality as it moves from the drawing board to the printing press.
Engage a Label Printer Early On
Regardless of whether you’re working with a freelancer, a design agency, or handling custom label design in-house, it’s always a good idea to bring your label printer into the conversation as early as possible.
A good label printer will advise you as you design custom labels, pointing you and your design team toward smart choices that maximize efficiency and make the most of your budget. You might be surprised at all the smart tricks your label printer has up their sleeve that will save you money while helping you get an incredible-looking label.
But, if the label is already designed and approved before you even talk to a printer, you’re immediately limiting your options (or setting yourself up to go back to the drawing board once you realize your design is too expensive or unfeasible.)
As any experienced label printer will tell you, it’s invariably easier to avoid pitfalls upfront than correct errors later. So, the earlier you bring your printer on board, the easier it is to avoid costly wrong turns.
Understand Your Expectations and Communicate Them
If your label printer and your designer know their stuff, they’ll inundate you with questions at the beginning of any custom label design project.
They’re not trying to overwhelm you – quite the opposite. They simply want to spare you the disappointment and dissatisfaction that can happen when your printed label fails to meet your expectations.
Questions are good. Your designer and label printer will want to understand the label elements you consider the “need to haves” versus the “nice to haves.” They’ll also want to know how you plan to use your label so that they can help you make design choices that fit your application.
Your label printer or your designer might ask:
- Is a unique, visually striking design important to your brand? If you really want to stand out, your label printer might encourage you to spend a bit more on high-end materials such as textured paper or metallic inks. Or your printer might recommend affordable alternatives that look almost as good.
- Will your label need to perform in challenging environments? Moisture, heat, and sunlight can disfigure labels that aren’t built to withstand the elements, turning your meticulous label design into a faded, pulpy mess.
- Are you on a tight budget? A great-looking label doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. Designers and label printers know all kinds of creative strategies for reducing costs.
You don’t need to be a label printing or design expert to create an amazing label that represents everything your brand stands for. But by understanding a little more about the process and what’s involved, you now have the information you need to make great decisions – resulting in a great label.
We’ve covered some of the basics in this article. If you’re ready to go deeper, visit our Custom Label Buying Guide, which answers all your questions, from design best practices, to brand protection, to the anatomy of a custom label.