Print bleed explained – what it is and how much you need

You’ve been tasked with creating some artwork files and are wondering what this print bleed thing is that you’re supposed to include? Then you’ve come to the right place.

Print bleed is one of the problems I see most often when I’m inspecting and fixing people’s artwork for their records and CDs. Even though manufacturing plants always indicate or explain bleed on the artwork templates they supply, a lot of people seemingly don’t understand what it is.

Note

I’m writing this using music packaging as examples, but the same principle applies to books, magazines, brochures, posters, flyers, stickers and anything else that involves commercial printing onto paper.

What is print bleed?

Imagine you’ve designed the artwork for your record sleeve. The printer doesn’t have a stack of pieces of blank paper or card cut to the right size, ready for printing. The design is printed onto either larger sheets or a continuous feed of material, which is trimmed after printing. And because it’s not possible to align this web of paper or stack of card to 100% accuracy, some misalignment occurs. The result is that the printed product is not always trimmed exactly where it should be.

If this occurs, the artwork – in this example your record or CD cover – would have a strip of white along one or more edges. To avoid this, you should create your artwork so that it bleeds beyond the point where it should theoretically be trimmed.

Here’s an example of a promotional mailing that’s missing the print bleed along the bottom:

Print bleed missing on a supermarket brochure
Print bleed missing from the pages of a supermarket’s promotional mailing

That’s not so much of a problem for this supermarket’s promotional mailing. It’s only valid for a week, and the majority of people who receive it probably put it straight into the recycling bin unread. But you don’t want your record or CD to look like this!

How much print bleed should you allow?

In Europe, print bleed is usually 3mm. In North America, it is usually ⅛” (which equals 3.175mm).

However, this can occasionally vary. For example, there’s a pressing plant that requires 5mm bleed on record sleeves and only 2mm on record labels. And magazine publishers sometimes specify different bleed amounts for adverts appearing in their publications.

It’s therefore best to check your printer’s technical specs.

How to create print bleed

InDesign® and Illustrator®

Adobe InDesign® is specifically intended for creating artwork for commercial printing. It’s therefore really easy to set up print bleed for documents, and also to amend it. The same instructions also apply to Illustrator®.

To set up your document in InDesign®, first press ⌘ + N (Windows: ctrl + N), or go to File > New > Document. In the resulting dialogue box, specify the document’s trimmed size, then look at the Bleed and slug section and set the bleed. If the chain icon is linked, as shown here, any value you enter into one of the boxes will automatically populate to the others once you click/tab out of it.

If for some reason you need different bleeds on different sides, for example for an advert in a magazine, click the chain icon to ‘break’ it. You are now free to enter different values for each side.

Click OK to create your document.

Setting print bleed in InDesign’s ‘New document’ dialogue box
Setting bleed in InDesign®’s ‘New document’ dialogue box

If, after creating a document, you need to adjust the bleed, go to File > Document setup. The keyboard shortcut is ⌘ + option + P (Windows: ctrl + alt + P). Then make the adjustments in the resulting dialogue box, as described above.

This creates the correct framework, but you still have to ensure that your artwork extends beyond the trim and to the bleed boundary.

For example, if your artwork has a plain coloured background, as shown here on the right-hand page in this example, it’s really easy. Just fill an object box with the colour and you’re done. The same principle applies with a gradient background, as shown in the left-hand page in this example.

Setting bleed in InDesign: plain coloured background and gradient background
Example of bleed in artwork with a flat coloured background and a gradient background

If your artwork background is a photograph or illustration, this must also be extended to the bleed boundary. As a result, not all of your photograph or illustration will appear on the final printed product. Therefore, ensure important elements such as faces are kept out of the bleed area and within an equivalent distance (‘safe zone’) from the edge of the trimmed document.

Setting bleed in InDesign: photo background
Example of bleed in artwork with a photo background

It’s crucial that the actual photo extends beyond the trim lines and to the outer bleed boundary.

I often get sent files in which the person laying out the artwork just positions the photo within the trim. They then fill the bleed area with a representative flat colour more or less matching the edge of the photo. See the photo below for an example. In this case, any misalignment during trimming would just produce a green line along one or more edges of the final printed item.

Setting bleed in InDesign: photo background – incorrectly set
Example of incorrectly setting bleed in artwork with a photo background

Photoshop®

In Photoshop®, you need to do a bit more work. Why’s that? As the name implies, Photoshop® is intended for editing photographic images. Theoretically, you would then use InDesign® to lay out these images, and other elements such as text, in your design. Photoshop® itself is not intended as a layout program for commercial printing.

Having said that, in the real-world independent music scenario, the vast majority of the artwork files people send me to inspect and fix are created in Photoshop®.

In Photoshop®, you need to create bleed manually, by adding the bleed amount to the document dimensions. For example, a common size for CD booklet spreads (unfolded pages) is 242mm wide x 120mm high. Adding 3mm all around gives you 248mm wide x 126mm high.

Create your document using the new, larger size, and add guides: View > New guide 3mm from the left, top, right and bottom, to represent where the printed document will be trimmed. (It is also a good idea to add additional guides 3mm on the ‘inside’ of these, to denote the safe zone. When working on your layout, keep text, faces and other important elements within this zone!)

Setting bleed in Photoshop
Setting up bleed in Photoshop®

Is bleed required for CD/DVD on-body print?

No, bleed is only required for the paper (or cardboard) parts of your record or CD packaging. Artwork for CD and DVD on-body printing (label side) is printed onto pre-manufactured discs. They’re not cut from a roll.

Summary

It’s now hopefully clear to you what print bleed is, why it’s needed and how you set it up in the programs you’re likely to be using for your record or CD artwork, or other graphic design projects.

Have you ever been caught out by not adding bleed to your flyers or posters etc, resulting in ugly white lines along the edges? Let me know in the comments below!

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