Bleed in Printing Explained: A Definition With Examples

Posted on October 16, 2023 | Updated on October 16, 2023

A bleed in printing can improve a design’s visual appeal and simplify the post-print process. Many people aren’t aware it could be the solution to their print problems. Here’s what it is and how to use it in your projects.

What Does Bleed in Printing Mean?

Bleed in printing is the thin margin around a document’s final dimensions. It’s the area the machine should cut off during the printing process. To understand it fully, you should know the other relevant terms.

Here is some essential printing terminology :

  • Bleed: The area extending past the crop marks into the margins. It’s past the trim, where the design should technically cut off. You only use it to prevent uneven white margins.
  • Crop marks: The marks telling the machine where to cut the paper. They go at the horizontal and vertical edges.
  • Live: The area on the page that is safe for the design. No text, images, or important graphics should extend beyond it. The bleed and live are right next to each other, so knowing where the boundary is is vital.

Printers have to hold a document in place to print the design on it, creating a white space around it. Machines also sometimes misalign and cut incorrectly, which has the same effect. Bleed fills in the area past the trim to ensure there is no odd emptiness. 

Does Bleed Affect the Design?

Bleed doesn’t change the overall design. Instead, it just ensures everything looks good and there isn’t any odd-looking empty space in the margins. Even minor mismeasurements can leave uneven gaps on the edges of a project, potentially ruining it. Instead of getting an even border, you can end up with small, skewed slivers of white on random edges. 

That being said, extending your design past the trim can change how it looks. Since you use bleed exclusively for this purpose, it can elevate your project. Art, photos, and graphics that fill the entire page will typically look more clean and spacious.

The effect is so significant that many kinds of designs almost exclusively print without white margins. For example, it’s rare to see a book cover or business card with empty space around the edges. Imagine how a magazine cover would look if it had a white border instead of taking up the entire page — it might look out of place or take away from the design’s appeal.

When your design takes up the entire page, it has an air of authority and looks visually appealing. While you don’t technically need a bleed to achieve this look, it ensures you do. The result is an impressive, professional, clean project with a unique artistic appeal.

Should You Add Bleed When Printing?

You should add bleed when printing if you want your design to take up the entire page. It’s the only way to ensure your background evenly extends to the borders. Plus, it can save you a tremendous amount of time since you won’t have to reformat or manually trim. If you prefer borders or still need to hit the goal of having 40% white space, then don’t use it.

Not using bleed can be a stylistic choice. Many projects look much more clean and legible when they have a nice white border. If you don’t want to use it, continue printing as you normally would and keep your design in the live area. 

Alternatively, not using bleed can be a money-saving choice. When you use bleed in printing, you technically waste ink. Unless you use a laser printer, it can get expensive. In fact, it costs around $35 for a color cartridge and $25 for a black one. Those numbers add up quickly when they only last for a few months at a time. 

Someone who prints infrequently shouldn’t worry about the cost of using extra printer ink in the bleed. However, small business owners and college students should be mindful. It can elevate the design, but it isn’t essential for every kind of project. 

What Does Bleed Look Good On?

Bleed looks good on a wide variety of things. Usually, it’s most common in magazine covers, posters, photos, book covers, and banners. However, you’ll also see it on stickers, labels, business cards, infographics, and letterheads. Technically, any project can use it and look good.

People in marketing commonly use bleed on various print materials because it looks clean and professional. Try to remember if you’ve ever seen a movie poster with huge, empty borders — it doesn’t happen often. The type of project you work on determines how often you use it.

For instance, professional and editorial work often uses bleed in printing to appear more artistic and prominent. Images and designs draw much more attention when they’re the only thing on a page. The audience views them as the most important thing on the paper instead of additions.

However, there aren’t strict rules around when you should use bleed in your designs. For example, artwork prints typically look more professional with no white borders. On the other hand, you might want white margins to save ink if you plan on framing your work.

How Do You Add Bleed in Printing?

You can add bleed in printing through your platform’s dedicated bleed feature or create a new, larger document. Many design apps — like Adobe and Canva — give you the option to set it before you print. However, some don’t have this feature. Luckily, there’s a way to do it manually.

You can simply create a new document to add it by hand. Whatever you do, don’t use the default settings. What should the bleed be in printing? The standard width is 3 millimeters, but you adjust it as you need. To put it into perspective, an 11” x 17” poster should be around 11.25” x 17.25” on average. You could make it bigger, but you’d only be wasting ink. 

However, the bleed’s size does increase with your document. For instance, if the poster were 18” x 24” instead, you would want 18.5” x 24.5” dimensions. A half-inch is typically the largest you need unless you’re working on a massive project like a banner or billboard. Adjust the area’s width whenever you change your document size to avoid bleed errors.

Other than sizing, the fundamental rule is to not add anything to the bleed you aren’t comfortable with losing. Since it’s the area the printer is supposed to get rid of, you risk cutting off your design if you put it past the live space. The best approach is to extend your background color or pattern beyond the trim.

Do You Need to Use Bleed?

Whether or not you use bleed in printing is up to you. While some types of print design use it almost exclusively, it’s not essential. A borderless design can look fantastic and professional, but a bleed can waste ink and isn’t necessary. It’s a good idea to repeatedly decide for every project you have instead of choosing one method and sticking to it.

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