Designing Print-Ready Business Cards in Inkscape

When designing something for print, we have to go about it differently than we would if we were designing something to be displayed digitally. There’s certain measures that need to be taken when designing for print in order to have a successful outcome.

Color Management

In the context of graphic design, color management is the process of ensuring that your design will appear the same once printed as it does on a digital display. Since colors are generated differently on a digital display than they are on inked paper, it makes sense to create a working environment that simulates the end result printing produces as closely as possible.

Digital displays render color by emitting light, whereas paper uses ink. Monitors, tablets, smart phones, etc. use an additive color model known as RGB for this. Print materials require a subtractive color model known as CMYK. A printer will use some combination of all four of these colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) to render every other color.

The RGB spectrum is far wider than CMYK, so it’s very important to make sure that you’re designing within the CMYK gamut. If you send a file with an RGB color profile to a print shop, they will either 1.) refuse it and request a CMYK file, or 2.) convert the file to CMYK themselves, which can be a little risky because some RGB colors don’t translate very nicely to CMYK…

Notice how RGB colors tend to appear muddy once converted to CMYK and printed

Unfortunately, this is an area where Inkscape falls short, because it only supports RGB and doesn’t allow us to restrict our design work to the CMYK gamut for the time being. To work around this, we’re going to create our design in Inkscape, and later on we’ll make the color correction and output a CMYK document using Scribus.

Monitor Calibration

Before you start designing anything for print, you should make sure your monitor is displaying everything correctly, otherwise there can be inconsistencies between how your design looks on screen versus how it looks once printed. To do this, you’ll need external hardware known as a colorimeter. If you already have a colorimeter, then you probably know how it works and why you need it. If you don’t, I would suggest reading up on it and finding a device that best fits your needs.

If you don’t currently have a colorimeter, and acquiring one in the near future isn’t an option, you can adjust your monitor by eye using a series of test images and patterns. The Lagom LCD monitor test pages are an excellent resource for calibrating your monitor manually. The process isn’t as in-depth and precise as using a colorimeter would be, but in my opinion the results are acceptable.

This will require that you have a monitor that allows you to manually adjust contrast, brightness, RGB values, clock and phase, etc. Before taking the test, make sure that your monitor has been on for at least 30 minutes and that it is running at its native resolution, which would be the highest resolution it provides.

Preparing Your Document for Print

Once your monitor is calibrated, it’s time to open up Inkscape and prepare your document for print. We’re going to use the US standard business card size for this example, which is 3.5″ by 2″ with a .25″ bleed.

Bleed & Safe Area

Bleed lines are what a printer uses as a guide to trim documents. The bleed area is an extension of each of the design’s dimensions (width & height) to be trimmed off during printing. This ensures that the final product will have no unprinted edges.

In my experience, most print shops call for a .25″ bleed when it comes to business cards, so how we go about applying this is to add .25″ to each dimension (both width & height), which would mean our document size should be 3.75″ by 2.25″. Our design should extend into the bleed, all the way to the edge of the document. The 3.5″ x 2″ portion of the document will be how the design looks once printed and trimmed.

All important contents (logos, icons, text) should not extend past the safe area, which will ensure that nothing important will be trimmed off after print. To generate the portion of our graphic that will represent the safe area, we’re going to simply subtract .25″ from each dimension of the intended document size, which would be 3.25″ by 1.75″.

Once set up, your document should look like this…

Document Setup

To set this up, I like to use layers for each individual element, then lock the bleed and safe area layers until I’m finished with the design.

Since this is a lot to explain by typing, I put together a brief screencast tutorial demonstrating how to prepare the document in Inkscape…

Here’s the document formatted & prepared for print, which you can keep on file as a template if you’d like: USBusinessCardQuarterInchBleed.svg

Finishing Up the Design

Once you’re finished with your design, make sure to delete the bleed and safe area layers as those lines and guides are only there for our reference and should not be included in the final design that you send to the printer. Make sure you’ve converted all text objects to paths and that you haven’t used any blurs, clips, masks or filters. These effects will not transfer well to our intended output format.

We’re going to save the file as a PDF document, so go to File -> Save As and choose PDF. A window will then pop up asking what DPI you’d like the save the document in. DPI stands for dots per inch. Smaller products like business cards and post cards require a higher DPI since they’ll typically be viewed up close and fine details will need to be present. Larger products like billboards and trade show banners require a far lower DPI since the product will be viewed from afar, meaning you can get away with using less dots per inch.

Think of a collage where a bunch of small images are used to make up a larger image. If you view the collage from a distance, you won’t be able to notice the individual little images that make up the main images, but if you view it up close, the small images become noticeable. This is a similar concept.

For business cards, most print shops I’ve worked with require the graphic to be at 350 DPI, so make sure to set the DPI to 350 before saving your PDF document.

The PDF menu in Inkscape

Color Separation

So we now have an almost print-ready document to send off to the printer. The last and final step is to render the document with a CMYK color profile. To do this, we’re going to use another open source program known as Scribus. Since this is far too lengthy of a process to type out, you can reference the screencast tutorial I made about the subject here…

Once you’ve generated your CMYK PDF file using Scribus, you will have a print-ready file to send off to the printer. Every print shop I’ve ever worked with (including VistaPrint and GotPrint) accept PDF documents for print, so this should not be an issue.

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17 thoughts on “Designing Print-Ready Business Cards in Inkscape

  1. I was recently looking into business cards design, in your tutorial you used the US version as a reference, I want to design the European version, could you help me with the dimensions for bleed and safe area, considering the European business cards are 85mm by 55mm

  2. Hi Nick,
    Gimp seems to have the same problem with lack of CMYK support. Do you happen to know why CMYK seems to be absent in the Linux universe? This tutorial with Scribus is really useful although it is not a real fix, especially for complicated documents with multiple colours and gradients. You mention that you yourself still use illustrator for this reason. That is such a shame we cannot do without Adobe products, even after so many years.
    As a pure Linux Ubuntu user this poses a particular problem for my designs. Is anyone working on developing a solution?
    Thanks for the tutorial nonetheless. Cheers!

      1. hey Nick, what if i need to add crop and bleed marks to my PDF for print shop, what figures should i put under printing settings in scribus: bleed on each side, offset value etc. I need to make 90 by 55 mm card, the bleed would be 3mm each side so the full PDF size should be 96 by 61 mm, how do reflect it in my PDF?

  3. Oh, it’s really important, Nick.

    I was searching for something like this article. I had this problem twice when you made that video about Scribus. Now it will help me to improve my jobs. Thanks.

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