Amidst deadlines, computer crashes, and demanding
clients, it’s easy for paper to get short shrift.
Maybe you’ve got a few standby choices—papers
you know perform well on press and feel good in the
hand. Or perhaps you find yourself aimlessly sorting
through the swatchbooks stashed around the office.
Choosing paper can be a dreaded chore or a powerful
opportunity to help get your message across.
Take the guesswork out of the process with these
strategies for making the right choice every time.
The order of things
Clint! Runge, co-owner of Archrival in Lincoln, Neb., judges a lot of design
shows. And sometimes he comes across projects
with great design, but the piece just doesn’t fit the
paper it’s printed on. “The project wanted one paper
but the designer wanted another,” he says. Runge
believes personal taste shouldn’t be a factor in paper
selection. Instead, he suggests choosing paper in
much the same way you’d select a font, color, or
overall design strategy.
A mismatched paper choice is like an ill-fitting
suit; it works against the image or message you’re
trying to get across. The right paper, in contrast,
enhances communication. Runge says kicking off a
project by picking out a cool paper is backwards—
there needs to be some thought put into what design
is appropriate for the project first. The resulting decisions
help inform the paper choice. It doesn’t do any
good to go hunting through swatchbooks, he says,
until you have something in mind.
If there’s a strong concept, paper decisions often
fall into place rather quickly. For example, Runge
recently worked on posters for a musical called Bat-
Boy. Since the show was based on a famous tabloid
newspaper character, Archrival designers decided to
play up the tabloid angle. The posters look much like
the cover of a weekly you might peruse while waiting
to pay for groceries—complete with fanciful headlines
and copy. With this approach in place, it only
seemed appropriate to go with newsprint. This decision
enhanced the overall concept and was budgetfriendly
There’s always a chance your paper is sending subliminal
messages. Designer Jennifer O’Brien of
Minneapolis’ Catalyst Studios says everyone—even the nondesigner—passes
judgment on paper. “People notice it on a subconscious
level,” she says. “Everyone knows what a
cheap piece of paper feels like … or a really nice
sheet.” The everybody’s-got-an-opinion factor is
why Samantha Reitmayer, principal at Rovillo + Reitmayer in Dallas,
always goes with the heaviest weight—unless there’s
a reason not to. “It just feels more substantial and
important,” she says. Sometimes she’ll have multiple
sheets laminated to get just the right weight.
As in any communication endeavor, the key is
to know who your audience is and how they’ll perceive
a given paper choice. Think about the tactile
quality, Reitmayer says. How does the paper feel and
what impression does it give? Shiny sheets, for exam-
ple, can be really fun, but Reitmayer cautions that
they also need to be appropriate. An outgoing, glossy
paper might be just the thing for a party invite, she
says, but may not be as appropriate for a buttonedup
Sometimes it’s easy to match papers with a personality
or business segment. Linen sheets, Reitmayer
says, typically feel classy and might be appropriate for
a law firm or accountant. Conversely, a flecked paper
can give off an earthy, recycled vibe.
While it’s possible to make a few generalizations,
there are no hard-and-fast rules for which paper says
what. “I think you can make any paper go any direction
you want,” Runge says. It depends on how you
cut, fold, or otherwise utilize it. Instead of accepting
paper as paper, he views it as a material that can be
altered. Think about all the possibilities: burning,
ripping, folding, painting, and even washing. With
a little experimentation, there’s almost no limit to
Form follows function
Once you find the perfect match, make sure your
paper doesn’t have performance anxiety. Even the
most gorgeous sheet won’t send the right message if
it doesn’t respond well to folding or another project
must-have. Reitmayer always thinks about how a
potential paper is going to be used. “We send it to a
finishing house and ask them to test it to see how it
reacts to foiling or embossing,” she says. This safety
measure can prevent costly mistakes when it comes
time to produce the final product.
Different projects call for different paper capabilities.
It’s important to think about what you need
up front. “The first thing we usually look at is what
kind of information we’re printing,” says Kevin
Smith, a partner at Giampietro+Smith in New York. “Most of the time, we pick
the best paper we can.” The firm sometimes works
on art catalogs, for example, and needs to make sure
that colors will reproduce accurately on a given paper
choice. Smith says vendors are his best resources. He
often turns to his printer to help pick the right paper
for a given job.
Alyson Kuhn, a freelance
writer and former paper company rep, seconds the
printer vote of confidence. She suggests letting your
printer know everything a given project needs to do.
Will it be folded? Mailed? Handed out at a convention?
If you keep them in the loop, these savvy professionals
can help you head off potential problems
at the pass. Another good idea, Kuhn says, is asking
for real-life project samples featuring a potential
paper—as opposed to paper promos. These pieces
can give you a better idea how the paper performs
under normal conditions.
There are also some general tips and guidelines to
make the paper process go smoothly. While it may
seem obvious, this first point bears repeating: Build
good relationships with your paper reps. In addition
to keeping you posted on the latest offerings, these
professionals can also point you in the right direction
when you can’t come up with the appropriate
stock. O’Brien suggests calling your rep and describing
exactly what you’re looking for. You might be
pleasantly surprised with the results.
One big pitfall to avoid is what Kuhn calls
“envelope heartbreak hotel.” While there are countless
papers out there, she points out that only a few
come in readymade envelopes. Kuhn urges designers
to consider several important questions: Is the
project going to be mailed? Does an envelope exist
in the paper you want? How much would it cost to
make them? And how long would the process take?
She notes that swatchbooks can be misleading. Just
because it says envelopes are available doesn’t mean
they’re sitting on a shelf and you can buy them right
now. Long lead times and daunting order minimums
In at least one respect, the economics of paper
are the opposite of printing. “The smaller the quantity,
the more luxurious the materials can be in terms
of paper,” Kuhn says. If you’re doing a small batch of
invitations, for example, upgrading the paper won’t
cause as much budget strain as it would be for a large
direct-mail campaign. So what if your payoff will be
more modest than on a big project—how often do
you get to take your imagination off the leash?
SIDEBAR: Make Your Printer
Your Paper Pal
When it comes to paper
selection, printers are often
designers’ overlooked allies.
Here are tips from the pros
on how to tap into this knowledge
base the next time you
start a project.
1. Sooner is better.
Bumpthe call to the printer up on
your project to-do list. When’s
the best time? “After the first
meeting with a client,” says
Christian Hotte, a sales representative
for Montreal printer
Transcontinental. A printer
can help you work out the
budget and time frame, and
even make paper suggestions.
2. Haste makes waste.
Let the printer know the dimensions
of the job as soon as it’s
final. Hotte can save clients
money by ordering a special
size paper sheet—so the job
fits perfectly on the press—
but it often takes extra time.
Since paper is sold by weight,
this tactic can often represent
a cost savings over standardsize
3. Avoid disappointment.
It’s worth the time to talk with
the printer before you present
paper samples to a client.
Hotte helps designers make
sure potential choices are
available and works out any
4. Likeability vs. printability.
You’ve found a sample that
looks good and feels good,
but how will all those gorgeous,
four-color photos turn
out? Printers, says Hotte, can
give you a good idea of how a
given paper will perform.
The following books
are all available
through Rockport Publishers:
The Power of Paper
in Graphic Design, by
Catharine Fishel, $50
Building Great Designs
With Paper, by Lesa
100 Ideas for
Stationery, Cards, and
Invitations, by Laura
Forms, Folds, and
Sizes: All the Details
Need to Know But Can
Never Find, by Poppy