Design Domination Podcast Episode #67: How to Choose Paper for a Design Project

Different types of paper.Are you neglecting paper’s place in the print design process? Do you leave it up to the client or the printer? If so, that means you may not be making necessary color adjustments for different papers. That can result in an unsightly and costly error. But it also means you’re missing out on such a cool part of the design process! Find out the importance of paper choice in the print design process, the different types of paper and finishes, how to choose paper for a design project and some ways you can incorporate paper into the design process for added creativity.

When you design for print, are you neglecting paper choice in the process? Do you leave it up to the client or the printer? If so, that means you may not be making necessary color adjustments for different papers. That can result in an unsightly and costly error. But it also means you’re missing out on such a cool part of the print design process!

Find out paper’s place in the design process, the different types of paper and finishes, what to consider when using them and some ways you can incorporate them into the design process for added creativity.

I absolutely love paper! I love talking about paper. I love selecting paper. I love looking at the color and texture options. I love smelling paper, preferably in a fresh stack or after it’s been delivered from the printer and has a varnish on it. I’ll take print over a digital document any day!

Some people don’t think so, but print is still important in today’s world because it’s often used as a tool to drive traffic to a website. It gives the customer something to have in hand as a reminder of their business. Paper choice is a crucial aspect of this, and I feel like this is a dying art.

I really miss the days when clients printed so much in two spot colors because, then, four-color process printing was much more expensive. We didn’t have digital printing and in the quality we do now that makes it much cheaper to print in four-color process.

We designers had to be super creative back then to find ways to produce print pieces that didn’t break the bank but still had big impact. Personally, I did a lot with spot colors, including mixing them in QuarkXPress or in individual channels in Photoshop in DCS format. (I know some of my old-school peeps will get what I mean by that.)

Depending on the two colors I chose, I could get really close to achieving the appearance of full color.

Brochure with two spot colors mimicking four-color process.

I used to do a lot with colored and textured papers to add color to the piece since it only had one or two colors.

One spot color used on textured paper with colored fibers.

I’d often choose a metallic or dayglo ink for one of the spot colors.

It was a lot of fun. If you’re interested, check out the episode page to see some of my work from back in those days (the 90s) to see what I’m talking about.

Coated Paper Stock

Let’s start out by talking about types of paper stock—coated and uncoated.

The first is coated. Coated paper stock has been coated with a surface sealant, which contributes to its degree of gloss and smoothness.

Coated paper stock has been coated with a surface sealant, which contributes to its degree of gloss and smoothness.

Coated paper stock can be coated on one side only, called C1S, or it can be coated on both sides, known as C2S (coated two sides). C1S would be good for book covers where the inside covers do not print. They would be blank, in other words.

It would also be a good choice for a postcard, to give you one side where the design would be the focus, while allowing for the uncoated side to be used for hand addressing or inkjetting of an address. We’ll get into that more later.


Coated paper stock is available in several finishes.


The first is gloss. Gloss paper has the most sheen to it. Gloss has less ink absorption, so the colors appear vibrant. Some papers are available in a high- or super-gloss, gloss or semigloss finish.

The caveat to gloss paper stocks is that they reflect a lot of light, so they don’t make a great choice for some audiences (older ones, for instance), certain types of print pieces or ones with a lot of text, as they can make them harder to read.


Another finish is satin. Satin paper has a less shiny finish. It is not as shiny as gloss.


Matte coated paper is not glossy and has very little sheen.


Paper with a dull finish has a smooth feel but is low on gloss.


Another one—and this is one of my faves—is metallic. Metallic finishes are so, so cool! They are really great for getting attention, especially if something is mailed in a metallic envelope. Just like with Pantone inks, there are so many colors of metallic papers to choose from.

What to Consider

There are some things to know and to consider with coated papers. Coated papers have reduced ink absorbency, which means that the ink sits on the surface of the paper. That also makes the colors appear more vibrant as a result.

Anything printed on coated paper that’s going to be handled should have a coating or varnish to prevent smudging. That could be a book or brochure cover, or it could be a pocket guide/map, to give you a few examples.

If you want to use a metallic or dayglo spot color (which I love), you’ll want to choose coated paper stock if you want the metallic to be shiny and the dayglo to be vibrant.

The caveat to some coated papers—usually high gloss—is that they don’t allow for someone to write on the sheet—at all or easily. If they do allow for that, the ink may smudge. In those cases, they aren’t a good choice for forms or for pages that you’d want someone to be able to write notes on.

Some coated paper stocks also aren’t good for anything that would need inkjetting, such as postcards or other self-mailers where mailhouses need to print the addresses directly on them. In those cases, inkjetting could be done on a label and then applied to the finished piece.

Some coated paper stocks could also be a problem if a client needs to print something through their office printer. That could be something that gets printed commercially first, such as letterhead, or is only going to be printed on the client’s office printer, like if they want to print a name and/or address on something. It might smudge going through their printer.

Other than going with an uncoated paper instead, you could potentially go with a C1S stock (coated one side).


Now onto uncoated. Uncoated paper stock has not been coated with a surface sealant, so there is no sheen.

The ink gets absorbed into the paper and to varying degrees based on the paper. As a result, colors appear duller or darker than they would on a coated sheet.


Uncoated papers are available in a variety of finishes. I’ll go into some of them.


Smooth is one. There are several types of smooth finishes, and I’ll go into some of those.


The first is wove. Wove paper is slightly textured but mostly smooth.


Next is smooth. Smooth papers have a very smooth surface.


Vellum finish is smooth but has an eggshell feel.


Writing paper stock is another. It is often used for letterhead.


Newsprint is used for newspapers. It’s super thin—and cheap—and totally soaks up ink, like a sponge.


There are several types of textured finishes too (another of my faves). These have visual and tactile textures.


The first one is laid. Laid paper has textured lines on the surface, like a grid. You often see it used for letterhead, envelopes and business cards.


Linen, which you’ve probably seen quite a bit, is similar to laid in terms of appearance and how it’s used. It also has textured lines on the surface, but they are finer and more regular than those with a laid finish.


Sample of textured paper with a stipple finish.

Stipple papers (another one of my faves) have a raised dot pattern, kind of like tiny pebbles, but not so pronounced.

Deckled Edges

There are smooth and textured papers that have one or more feathered edges, called a deckled edge. The edges look torn. Papers with a deckled edge can give a piece a very artistic or elegant look.

Recycled Papers

There are also recycled papers. If, as part of their branding, your client wants to be perceived as environmentally friendly, a recycled paper stock would be a good option.

There are papers that are FSC certified. FSC stands for Forest Stewardship Council. FSC certification means the paper comes from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social and economic benefits. You can use the FSC logo on a printed document, but it must have gone through the FSC Chain of Custody, which means from the FSC-certified forest, to a paper manufacturer, merchant, and then a printer who has FSC Chain-of-Custody certification.

What to Consider

There are lots of factors to consider when printing on uncoated paper stocks.

Earlier I mentioned using coated paper stock when printing metallic ink, right? But you can print metallic ink on uncoated stock. It won’t look shiny, but it will make for an interesting effect on uncoated paper, almost like metallic flakes. I think it looks cool. I’ve done it many times.

For color builds or spot colors, you definitely want to adjust them when you’re printing on uncoated paper stock. Ink soaks in more and therefore appears darker.

You might need to adjust the percentage of black in the color, especially if the design is printing on newsprint. Sometimes, it’s as easy as reducing the black by 10% or so.

You also should check color books to see if any colors will shift to a completely different color all together. For example—and I’ve mentioned this quite a few times on the podcast, so you might be sick of hearing this—there are some yellow color builds and Pantone colors that appear yellow on coated paper. But, when printed on uncoated paper, they actually look orange.

Not only that, but some blues will look more violet when printed on uncoated paper stock.

So you want to adjust the colors to prevent that. I recommend referring to Pantone books for the CMYK builds and the Pantone colors on coated and uncoated paper stocks to ensure they will look more consistent and more as expected.

You have to be really careful with photos too, adjusting the brightness and contrast. Otherwise, they could turn to mud when printed.

If you think I am just being picky, just think if your client is paying for ad space in a publication. That could be really expensive, several thousand dollars, tens of thousands of dollars! If you neglect to inquire about the paper type for that publication and don’t make adjustments accordingly, the ad likely will print dark or in other colors than their brand colors or with a muddy image. They’re going to be pissed that their ad doesn’t look like it should.

Not only is that money wasted for your client, but it makes them look bad. If you’re lucky, they’ll just be mad and ask you to fix it for future ads. If you’re not so lucky, they’ll ask you to reimburse you for that ad placement. After all, you’re the expert who should know this.

Paper Weight

Let’s move on to paper weight. By “paper weight,” I don’t mean that heavy object that sits on your desk and holds papers down.

In the United States at least, paper weight is categorized by its base size, which is used to calculate the basis weight. The basis weight equals the weight of one ream (500 sheets) of the base size.

If that’s not confusing enough, the basis weights do not correspond between cover and text weights because the starting base size is not the same between paper types. So, for example, 80# cover is much heavier than 80# text, even though they both use the same number.

You refer to paper weights by the number and the word “pound.” In paper swatch books, the samples are labeled with the color of the paper, the finish and the weight.

By the way, you don’t have to use cover stocks for covers and text weights only for text pages.

And then writing paper weights are typically 24# or 28#.

What to Consider

In-office Printing

If the client will need to print from their office printer, paper weight will be a consideration. If it’s too light or too thick, it will not pass through the printer well, if at all. It also may come out of the printer curled up from the heat and roller.

If the client does have a need for this, have them check their printer manual for the recommended paper weights. Then get a sample from a paper company and have the client test it by running it through their printer.

I speak from experience on this. I once had a client who wanted event invitations printed in a very tiny quantity. I went schlepping around to various stores to buy the paper I wanted. Then I needed to make sure it would go through my own printer, which was what we were printing from. I hadn’t thought about that until I tried to print on it and it was too thin and it wouldn’t go through the printer.


Let’s talk about longevity of a piece. If you’re designing a publication, consider its potential life span. Is it a book that goes on someone’s shelf that they will refer to time and time again, which might be a long life span? Or is it a weekly or monthly catalog, which has a much shorter life span?


A printed piece that needs to stick around long term should have a substantial enough cover weight and potentially a coating, such as aqueous coat or varnish, which gives added durability and protection against fingerprints.

If the book has a lot of pages, say hundreds, the cover stock also needs to be substantial enough to support its weight. On the other hand, if the paper weight of the text pages is thick and the book has hundreds of pages, it may become too heavy in general.

Another thing to consider is if it will be mailed. If it’s a self-mailer such as a postcard, it has a minimum and maximum allowed thickness, at least with the U.S. Postal Service. So it can’t be too flimsy.

If it will mail in an envelope or in a parcel, postage will be a consideration because the heavier it is, the more it will cost to mail.

Paper Brightness

The brightness of paper is measured by the percentage of a wavelength of blue light it reflects. The brightness ranges from 1 to 100, with 100 being the brightest.

The brightness of a paper affects its readability because it reflects more light (like I mentioned earlier about glossy stock).

A brighter paper also provides for more vivid colors than papers that are lower in brightness.


Opacity is a factor with paper choice too. Opacity is expressed in terms of its percentage of reflection, on a scale from 100% (completely opaque) to 0% (completely transparent).

A paper’s opacity is determined by its weight, ingredients and absorbency. Its opacity determines how much printing will show through on the reverse side of a sheet. This is called “show-through.”

If there will be a lot of ink on one side of a page, such as a full-color full-page ad, for example, and then a page with just black text on the other side, you want to make sure there won’t be too much show-through, so that someone can easily read the text on the page.

Sheets of metallic, translucent pastel and dayglo papers assembled together for a wedding program.

Translucent papers have low opacity, letting some light through. These are really cool and can provide for a really elegant effect, especially when you pair with a bright or a dark paper, which you can see through to. They are great for invitations or a wedding program.

Paper Color

Let’s talk about paper color. If you’re printing on colored paper—pastel, dayglo or metallic, for example—you need to account for the color build of the ink and of the paper.

Once the ink soaks in, it will mix with the paper color. Think about if you were to print blue ink on yellow paper. The blue ink would look more green than blue once printed.

What’s cool is that you can actually find out the equivalent CMYK values of the paper from the printer or paper company. (The Paper Mill Store makes it super easy to find that info for the papers they sell.)

What you do is subtract those values from your colors. For example, if the paper is M10 Y20 and you want the ink to be C20 M40 Y20, you should speck the color as C20 (the same) M30 (the difference between the ink color of M40 and the paper color of M10) and then your yellow value would be 0 because both the paper and the ink have a value of 20.

So you don’t need to add any yellow. You can ask the printer for what’s called a drawdown to see how the ink will actually appear on that paper before it gets printed, so can see it.

Ink Density

Ink density is a factor no matter what paper type you’re using.

You typically want no more than 300% of a CMYK build in any particular spot on a sheet of paper. For example, that could be 100% cyan, 100% magenta and 100% yellow. Those added together equal 300%.

In InDesign, you would go to Window > Output > Separations Preview to view the color separations and set the ink limit. By default, it’s already set to 300%. But if a printer ever asks you to change this number, this is where you would change it.

If you’re printing on very thin paper or very absorbent paper, such as newsprint, you might need to adjust this percentage to be less. When you’re looking at this ink limit in InDesign, it will show you in red the areas that you’ll need to adjust.


So there you have it! If you weren’t aware of how paper choice affects the design process, I hope you’ve learned from this and are inspired to check out some of these options.

If you find a paper that would be just perfect for a particular project but the client’s budget can’t accommodate it, something to consider is to change the number of colors you’re printing. Instead of printing four-color process on a gloss sheet, for example, maybe you can print black plus a metallic ink instead.

Sometimes it’s cheaper to get the effect you want with paper rather than with ink, or vice versa.

There are so many options. I recommend developing a relationship with a printer and consulting with them about your ideas before you present them to the client to make sure they’d be feasible for the client’s budget. After all, there’s no point in getting their hopes up if they can’t afford it. But on the other hand, you’ll know what options you have that they might be willing to pay more for.

Also, because every printer stocks different brands and types of paper, they might be able to recommend something similar to one you want to use to help keep costs down.

I hope you enjoyed this episode as much as I did. I could talk about paper. I could sniff paper all day long.

If you liked this episode, check out Perfect Your Print Process and Fold Some Fun Into Your Direct Mail Projects.

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