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Artwork Can Make or Break Your Label

Want to make your printed labels the best they can be? Over the next few months, we’ll talk about the different elements that will help you love your finished label products. This month, we’re going to talk about your graphics format. In the design phase, there are a few things that you should do to make sure your artwork will stand out and look right on your label, sticker, or tag. One of the very first things you need to decide is whether the artwork for your labels needs to be a vector design or if it can be raster. What’s the difference?

Raster Files

Raster graphics use pixels to display the image. Each pixel can be a different color, which allows the image to contain multiple colors and gradient shading. Pixels are a fixed size, and usually square, however, leading to non-smooth curves and edges (pixelation) when you scale the artwork up. This format may also be called a bitmap.

If you use a digital camera or cell phone camera, you’re familiar with raster images. Common file extensions for raster art are .jpg, .gif, or .png. If you want to know more about these file types, Gizmodo has a nice article on the differences between them.

Pros: Raster art can be very high quality, finely detailed, and easy to precisely edit (individual pixels).
Cons: Files can be very large, the image formats can be “lossy” (to make the large file smaller, information gets left out), and they cannot be scaled up or enlarged past a certain point.

Vector Files

Vector art is composed of paths based on mathematical formulas; they do not pixelate when enlarged. It can be scaled up to any size while remaining crisp and clear. It’s usually used for logos, illustrations, and the like. While vector art may not manage gradients or shading well, it can be quite colorful, although not quite photographic. (Note: This image shows just a first pass at vectorizing a raster file. More work could be done to make the transitions between colors smoother.)

Adobe Illustrator and CorelDRAW are the powerhouse vector graphic programs, but there are others, like Inkscape, that are available for free. Only art created in a vector editing program such as these is vector art, even if the file has a file extension commonly used by vector art programs (such as .ai, .cdr, .svg, or .eps).

Pros: Infinitely scaleable, small files, editing flexibility (layers don’t get flattened)
Cons: Limited special effects, limited level of detail

What Do We Mean by Pixelation?

When we say that raster images become pixelated when scaled, what do we mean? I took a copy of our ATLEE logo, created as an .svg (vector) file, and made a .png (raster) file from it. I then enlarged both the .svg and the .png files by the same percentage. If you view the details (at left), you can clearly see that the vector art doesn’t have the same jagged edges (pixelation) that the raster art does. (If you click on the ATLEE link above, you can go to the original .svg file and play with increasing the size of your browser window to see how smoothly the vector image resizes.)

Which Do You Want?

We could go on all day about the differences between these two artwork types, but let’s cut to the chase. Which format do you need to send us for your particular labels?

Vector art is cleaner and clearer, and can scale up with no issues. The final print size is not limited by the size or resolution of the vector file. Spot color is easier to implement with vector artwork, and spot color can be a more affordable process than full color. We prefer vector art, for speed and simplicity.

Although vector art works better for our processes, you may be able to use raster artwork for your labels. It all depends on the number of colors used and the color shading or gradient – and, more importantly, on the resolution of the image. Raster art should be at least 300 DPI (dots per inch) in order to print well. If the art on your label is going to be bigger than an inch or two, 600 DPI may be a better choice. Wait, DPI? Resolution? Let’s talk about those, too.

Raster Resolution

Resolution basically means the amount of detail in an image. Generally speaking, the better the resolution, the better the image quality, because there is more information available. Printers measure resolution in dots per inch, meaning the number of ink dots that can be printed within one inch of space. The higher the dpi, the more information can be printed, leading to a higher quality finished product.

Sometimes the term DPI is used when discussing monitor or screen image resolution as well, but that’s a misnomer – that’s actually PPI, or pixels per inch. Monitors display images and pixels differently than printers do. Because of the way our eyes work with the light of a computer screen, 72 or 96 PPI looks fine on the web or screen, but for print, you need to create your artwork at 300 DPI (or greater), because we’ll be using ink, not light, to create the color. (Note: This means you also need to consider color carefully; we’ll talk about that in the next installment.)

The higher the DPI, the more closely spaced the printed dots will be, and the higher the quality of the finished product. A lower DPI would have fewer ink dots making up each pixel in your image, making it look worse. Wikipedia has a very good description of DPI and PPI and how they relate to the printing process, if you want more information.

I Have Raster Art, But Want Vector

Already have artwork for your labels, and it’s not vector art? It may still work for you. If you have the pixel dimensions of the image, you can use an online calculator to determine the print size. There are some that will calculate the reverse, as well – if you know the printed size you want your image, you can enter those instead. The calculator will inform you of the pixel dimensions the image needs to be to print properly. Remember to use at least 300 DPI for labels. See http://www.auctionrepair.com/pixels.html for an example of both calculators.

If the pixel dimensions of your file are equal to or greater than the print size you want, you’re probably OK. If it turns out, however, that your raster art has pixel dimensions that are too small to print properly at the size you want, don’t despair! Convert your graphics.

Conversion Options

    1. You can hire a graphic designer to recreate your artwork (depending on your image, this may not require much work – there are tools in CorelDRAW and Illustrator for this type of conversion). Or maybe you have a friend with one of these programs; ask them if they can help you with the “auto-trace” and conversion process.
    2. You can use an online service to convert your raster art to vector. There are several free services, but after sampling some of them, we can only conclude that you get what you pay for. For a small fee, CopyArtWork can vectorize your art. We’ve worked with CopyArtWork files in the past; they do good work. (They have some beautiful examples of the conversions they’ve done between raster and vector artwork, too.) There are many other such services. Just look for “raster to vector conversion services” in your favorite search engine.
    3. If the artwork is simple and composed of only a few colors, you can send the file to us. Our prepress operators can probably vectorize the artwork prior to printing. (Note that this may increase the process timeline.) However, we do not send the vectorized artwork back to you. It is for our print use only – we will retain it in your file here for reorders and the like. If you need vector art of your image for purposes other than printing labels, you may want to use option 1 or 2 above.

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