Thursday, April 16, 2009

Bridget in Paperland...

I was asked to give a studio tour to an aspiring design student. Since I believe that knowledge is power, I made every effort to give her the most thorough tour I possibly could. This included a trip into what could conceivably be viewed as MORRIS’s rabbit hole… the ever so overwhelming paper cabinet, filled with oodles and oodles of inspirational and intricately designed paper sample books (I love those books!). As I explained the different papers, from uncoated to coated to specialty papers, from brightness to finish to weight, her eyes became big as the saucers you would find on the Mad Hatter’s table itself. Finally, she remarked, “Wow, I never would have imagined there were so many papers.” Well, me neither.

I have the amazing privilege of working with top notch designers at a studio that empowers its’ employees to drive big picture decisions for our clients. The most fulfilling jobs are those in which our clients instill their trust in our abilities to work within their budget to design the most aesthetically appealing project we possibly can. This includes selecting the right paper for the job. Paper creates a mood and speaks to its’ audience. It is intrinsically tied to the strategy of design, as it relates to its affect on the demographic the client is trying to reach.

There are three basic categories of paper: Coated, Uncoated, and Specialty. Within each category, there are several subcategories. For now, I’ll briefly stick with the basics.

Coated papers have a surface sealant. The sealant is made up of various liquids and clay. Coating allows ink to sit up on top of the surface of the paper without seeping into the paper fibers (aka dot gain).

Within the realm of coated stock, there are options: matte, dull, satin, and gloss. All give you varying amounts of surface sheen.

Uncoated papers do not have a surface sealant and are more susceptible to dot gain on press. The natural feel of an uncoated sheet varies from that of a coated sheet. Uncoated papers also come in various finishes from news stock to premium ultra-smooth sheets.

Specialty papers range from exotic finishes, which affect the texture of the paper, to papers printed with intricate design patterns. You can find opalescent papers, papers that emulate pigskin, papers that are made out of hops and barley, see-through, plastic, and synthetic papers, papers made from seeds, colored papers, etc. There are a wide variety of specialty papers that can have a strong impact on design. The French Paper company is a leader in the specialty paper industry. Here are some examples of their specialty papers:

Each of these paper types can be further categorized into different weights. There does not seem to be an overriding system of classification when it comes to paper weight. Sometimes you will see paper listed in points and other times you will see it listed in pounds (aka #).

Typically, we work with either TEXT weight or COVER weight stocks.

TEXT weight stocks are commonly used for pages in catalogs, books, as letterhead, etc.

COVER weight stocks are typically used for business cards, as covers on catalogs and books, for greeting cards, postcards, and items that require substantial reinforcement or protection from extensive use.

Simply phrased, COVER weight stocks are thicker/heavier than TEXT weight stocks.


Paper selection should be considered as early in the design process as possible. There are a variety of things to take into consideration when choosing a paper.

Who is your client? Are you designing for the technological sector or for folks in the educational field? Who is their target audience? Is it a children’s product or a product for seniors? Do you need to catch your audiences’ attention?

This could be the single most important aspect of selecting the right paper for the job.

  • If your client is an eco-conscious company, you can cater to their values by choosing a paper that is either FSC ( ) or SFI ( certified.
  • If your client wants to market their product to hip tweens, you can enhance your design by choosing a specialty paper that has a unique finish, such as a sheet that glimmers or is soft to the touch.
  • If your client is a top-notch college, a sophisticated, premium paper choice is appropriate for communicating with their demographic.
  • If your client sells underground art, a grungier paper such as newsprint or a paper with a grittier texture would help convey their message.
  • If your client is a children’s book publisher, consider a heavier weight stock, which will endure the routine of repeated use.

Now that you get the picture, here are some additional items to consider when making your paper choice:

How much coverage (aka ink) is there within the design? Are you flooding your pages with dark colors?

If you are using a lot of dark or solid inks in your design, choose a more opaque and/or heavier weight paper. There’s nothing more distracting than trying to decipher a sentence due to the show-through on the opposing page.

Is the item you are creating mostly pictures? Is it meant to be read? Where will people be viewing the document?

The content of your document and the final function is an important consideration when choosing paper.

  • If the purpose of the piece is to really showcase the imagery, typically, a coated sheet will reproduce images in greater detail, giving it a more photographic quality.
  • If the end-user is ultimately going to be viewing the document indoors, keep in mind the glare effect that is often associated with glossy papers under fluorescent/unnatural lighting.
  • If the majority of the design consists of copy, as in magazines, books and stories, an uncoated sheet or a dull/matte coated sheet is much softer on the eyes.

Does your design include folds? Does your design have die cuts?

  • Certain papers take better to folding or cutting than others.
  • If you intend to fold your design and it has heavy ink coverage, you could be in trouble. If you select a paper that is too heavy, it is likely you will see a lot of cracking in the creases (aka areas where the ink sloughs off).
  • For items that require die cutting, if your paper is too thick, when it’s cut it may leave ragged edges.

Regardless of your project, when selecting paper, lean on the professionals and test, test, test your papers!! Find a good paper rep ( or print vendor and utilize them as a resource! Contact the paper mills and request printed samples on the stock(s) you are considering AND request plain ole paper samples of the paper in its’ varying applicable weights. Another thing you can do, once you’ve determined or are close to deciding upon the specifications on your project, is to order dummies (samples of the items) made from the paper you are considering. You can order dummies directly through your paper rep and often times, through your printer. Ultimately, seeing and feeling the paper as you intend it to function will help you make the right decision.

A co-worker referred me to this hilarious link from American Psycho (The Card of Cards) on “The Daily Heller” site (brought to you by It really drives the point home.

Until next time, happy paper hunting!


  1. WOW...everything but the kitchen sink about paper...who knew?

    I don’t think I’ll even look at my fax paper the same again...thanks for the education Bridget!

  2. I love how to-the-point this is. No messing about. Just the important stuff. Which I need. Love it!