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Demystifying Printing Lingo and Why It Should Matter to You

If you’ve ever been to a print shop or copy center, you may have heard terms such as bleed, CMYK, copy, crop marks, margins, print run, proof, resolution, or widow. Maybe you simply nodded your head in agreement as these odd terms snuck their way into what you thought was a simple conversation with your print clerk.

Even if you’re not a designer, it’s important to understand key printing terms if you use, or plan on using, printed marketing materials for your business.

Why It Matters

At the very least, understanding print lingo will help you know what to ask for and how to communicate changes when speaking to print staff, which could save you time and prevent some frustration. But having a grasp of the vocab could also prevent the chaos that would ensue if a mistake or oversight called for a complete reprint of your project, costing more time, possibly hundreds more dollars, and some embarrassment to boot.

Getting acquainted with just some of the most basic printing terms will help ensure your pieces come out as intended and with minimal hiccups along the way.


CMYK (or 4-Color-Process) and RGB: Known as “color spaces,” CMYK (which stands for “cyan, magenta, yellow and black [key]”) and RGB (“red, green and blue”) denote the amount of each of color required to create a certain more complex one. But since most color printers use CMYK, and since the two spaces create color in different ways, it’s best to use that space when creating your files or selecting artwork for printing. It will give you a more accurate on-screen preview of how your final project will come out.


Copy: The words to be included in your piece. If the designer you’re working with to create a piece has a layout ready to show you before the copy is complete, he may use text that begins with, “Lorem ipsum…” where the final text will be. Don’t panic! This nonsensical, Latin-esque text is meant to mimic natural English text, allowing our minds to consider the layout as a whole without getting distracted by the fact our copy has yet to be finalized.

Weight: The boldness of a letter or font. It’s also the thickness of a piece of paper, where it’s most commonly expressed as “grams per square meter” and determined by the weight of one ream (500 sheets).

Orphans and Widows: Don’t ignore that pang of loneliness you felt when you read those terms. Use it to remember that, in the print world, an orphan is a single word left by itself at the bottom of a paragraph, and a widow is the last line of a paragraph that’s been pushed to the top of the next column. Both are undesirable when it comes to layouts, typesetting and pagination.


Resolution: The quality of a print job, or a piece displayed on a computer monitor. A high resolution (or “hi-res”) piece is crisper and clearer than its low resolution (“lo-res”) counterpart.

PPI: The number of pixels per inch in images viewed on-screen (more pixels means higher resolution).

DPI: The number of dots per inch in a print piece. The higher the dpi, the better the quality and the more an image can be resized without compromising that quality. A resolution of 300 dpi is sufficient for most print jobs, but be sure to ask your printer about project-specific requirements.

Extras You’ll Hear

Margins and Bleeds: Margins keep your copy and images from continuing off the edges of the page. When they do extend to the edges of the page, leaving no white space, it’s called a bleed.

Gutter: The blank space between two facing pages (picture the inside of an open book’s spine). Can you guess what a gutter bleed is?

Crop Marks: Two little lines in the corners of your piece indicating where to trim when it’s complete.

Up: For a job printed “one up,” the image will appear just once on the page. “Two up” means two copies of the image will appear, and so on. This comes in handy when printing double-sided postcards, for example.

Print Run: A set of materials all being printed at the same time.

Proof: A sample printed for your review and approval. This is the time to catch any errors and communicate final changes you want with margins, gutter, etc. Once you give the go-ahead, the print run on all 500 of those marketing flyers begins, and there’s no going back (without being billed extra, of course).

Now that you know some key printing logo, you’ll no longer wonder why your print clerk insists on using only four colors, shows no compassion for parentless children, and asks if you’d like to bleed out in a gutter. You’ll be able to ask—and answer—important questions and make your print materials look their absolute best.