printing lingo

Printing lingo, to newcomers it can seem like commercial printers are talking another language, an abbreviation based one at that!

To get the best from your print it’s a good idea to gain a basic understanding of some of the more commonly used phrases and how they affect the finished product. This post will bust the jargon out of GSM, bleed, litho, CMYK and DPI, five of the most common WTF’s you will come across.

Printing lingo explained: To print leaflets, flyers, business cards or anything else on a commercial scale, is a rather complicated process. As with any industry it comes with it’s own language / set of phrases that at first seem more than just a little bit baffling. If you have recently found yourself in the position of wondering what on earth all this printing lingo means, then fear not! Read on for the unjargoned (is that even a word?) explanations…


In unabbreviated terms, grams per square meter – It’s essentially the thickness of the paper you are printing on. The higher the GSM the higher the weight, meaning the thicker the paper. 100gsm would be a very thin paper stock, whilst 400gsm is a much thicker card. Deciding on the best option for yourself will depend on the intended use, as well as your budget. 

Example 1 – Business Cards: Always at the higher end of the scale due to a) needing to make a good first impression, and b) needing to last once they are given out. Normally between 350gsm and 450gsm.

Example 2 – Leaflets & Flyers: A number of choices usually ranging from 130gsm to 400gsm. The budget friendly 130gsm is suitable for sitting on display stands, or hand to hand distribution. For residential leaflet distribution the minimum recommendation is 170gsm, however if your budget allows, 300gsm will give a more premium / postcard fee. 

In summary, the higher the GSM the heavier the paper stock. Lower ends are budget friendly but only suitable for certain uses. Higher ends offer a premium feel but with a higher price.

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One of the most common printing lingo terms. The vast majority of print will have a design that at least in some parts, goes right to the edge of the page. In this instance the background image must extend over the edge, creating a boarder that will then be trimmed after printing. This is the bleed. 

All design software should make it pretty easy to add bleed. Adobe Illustrator for example, lets you set it up as you create a new document, or you can add it at any point through document set up. 

How much bleed do I need? This will vary slightly between print companies and will also depend on what you are printing. As a general rule it’s normally 3mm. Always double check with the printers you are using to see exactly how much they require. 

In summary, bleed is essential when elements or images on your design / artwork go right to the edge. It prevents any unsightly white lines around the edge once the leaflet has been trimmed after printing.

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Standing for cyan, magenta, yellow and key (black). CMYK is the colour of the inks used in the vast majority of commercial printing. As a general rule RGB is best for viewing on screens, CMYK is best for viewing on print.

Again your design software will let you pick from the two as you set up the document. All files exported ready to print with a lithographic (more on this in the next section) printer should be in CMYK.

In summery, cyan magenta, yellow and key (black) are the four inks used when printing professionally. Setting your artwork / design up in this colour mode is essential if it is to be printed. Otherwise RGB is the best option for the web and screens.

commercial printers derbyLitho:

Offset lithographic (litho) printing is simply a method used by most commercial printers, mainly when producing large quantities. The options you will normally find available are digital or litho. Both have their advantages for different reasons. 

Digital printing can be cost effective on smaller print runs. Litho printing is a much more complex and time consuming procedure, but offers a premium quality that you won’t always find with digital. 

In summery, the vast majority of professional print companies use offset lithographic printers. Many also offer digital printing on shorter runs or to provide certain finishes / effects.

Learn more about the Lithographic process.   


Lastly, DPI, meaning dots per inch. It’s the number of dots in each square inch of artwork. The higher the DPI the higher the resolution, meaning the more detailed it will be at the printing stage. 

Different settings can be used for different sized products. Always check with your printer for their exact requirements. 

Example 1 – Leaflets, flyers & business cards: Normally 300 DPI which would result in a sharp, detailed end product. People would be viewing this sort of print from close up, so it needs to be a high resolution. 

Example 2 – Banners & large advertisements, posters etc: The larger the print, the lower the DPI can be. Most items of this type can be printed at 150 DPI as they will not usually be viewed from close up. Billboard sized adverts are often as low as 15 – 30 DPI. 

In summery, DPI is the resolution of the design or artwork being produced. The higher it is, the sharper it will appear. Smaller products need a higher DPI, whilst larger ones can often be much lower.

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Hopefully we’ve covered the basics of printing lingo here for you. Need further help or info? Get in touch with us here and we’ll gladly help out…
01332 416558

We’re a Derby based commercial printers and graphic design studio. Driven by a passion for creativity, we’re here to help your business rise above the crowded market place.

Printing Lingo – Originally posted on Clearcut Leaflet Distribution in May 2018.  

Owner / director & graphic designer here at Clearcut Print Studio in Derby. An uncontrollable passion for creativity in all forms. Keen explorer and photographer. INFJ.