Sketch was made for screen-based design.
Websites, app interfaces, icons… these objects of design exist within a world of pixel measurements, RGB colors, and presentation on digital screens. Unlike many of the Adobe creative tools which include 10,000 features and the kitchen sink, Sketch is laser-focused in its purpose—and consequently works far better (and more efficiently) for what it does do.
Sketch was not made for print-based design.
Business cards, brochures, posters… these exist within a physical world of inch/centimeter/point/pica measurements, CMYK or Pantone colors, and presentation on a variety of papers and materials. Adobe Illustrator and InDesign are two of the most popular tools in this arena.
If you’re like me, you’re far more efficient working in Sketch.
And when a print design project rolls around, you might find yourself yearning to continue using the same tool you’ve become so adept at using for web/UI design. I want you to know that it’s possible. Here’s how I do it:
(full disclosure: Adobe Illustrator is required)
The Magic Number 72
Dating back to the craft of setting lead type for a printing press, the primary units of measurement were points (72 per inch) and picas (12 per inch). Lead type (pictured here) is measured in points, and is produced in pica or half-pica increments such as 12, 18, 24, 36, and 72 points. Those numbers should sound familiar to you, as they became standard digital font sizes with the Macintosh. The first Macs used screens where every inch contained 72 pixels, resulting in 12pt text that looked practically the same size onscreen as in print. The evolution of pixels per inch (PPI) is too extensive for this article (especially since the advent of retina displays), although it’s important to know a bit about the origins of this 72:1 ratio.
This article will mostly use inch measurements, as used for print design in the US. If you are familiar with a centimeter workflow, I’d love to hear from you!
Sketch measures everything in pixel units, so we need a way to convert our design to the physical world of inches. By now you may have guessed where this is going: 72 pixels in Sketch converts to 1 inch in an exported PDF.
- An 8.5" × 11" piece of paper (US Letter) converts to a 612px × 792px artboard.
- A typical 3.5" × 2" business card converts to a 252px × 144px artboard.
- When adding a new artboard, Sketch 3 gives you a few “Paper Sizes” presets. Speed things up by adding your own custom artboard presets!
The pixel dimensions of a 72 PPI layout may be far smaller than you are used to when working on websites or user interfaces. Remember that the clarity of your print project is dictated by the print method you use—Sketch’s “Show Pixels” function is of no use here!
Tips for Designing Your Layout
- For elements in your design, try to use measurements that make sense in inches. 1px = 1pt for lines and font-sizes. I’ll often use 1/8 inch (9px) or 1/16 inch (4.5px) increments for layout elements.
- You can use Sketch’s Grid feature to make these inch-appropriate positions or measurements easier. I suggest a grid with a 9px (1/8 inch) block size and thick lines every 8 blocks (1 inch). Show/hide the grid with ⌃G on your keyboard.
- You can turn off “Pixel Fitting” in Preferences. There’s no need to be a stickler for pixel alignment as you would be for screen-based design.
Margins & Bleeds
Professional print shops often require your artwork to have extra space on all sides, extending any parts of your design that “bleed” out to the edge (see example below). This compensates for the slight, yet inevitable, variance in where the edges are cut on your final print. My printer asks for a 1/8 inch bleed, and I often add this to my Sketch layout (9px extra on all sides). If your design has elements that bleed, I suggest you do the same—if not, you can easily add these extra margins later when saving a PDF from Illustrator. Printers will also recommend that any text is at least 1/8 inch inside the trim lines (a “safe zone” or “critical print area”), as in the business card below.
Preparing the File for Print
99% of print shops are strict about the specifications of your “artwork” files. The following process will help you give printers the files they want! If your layout relies heavily on images, gradients, or shadows, skip to the next section!
When you have finished your design in Sketch, export it as a PDF at 1x scale. Many programs, such as Preview or Adobe Illustrator will automatically interpret the file at 72 PPI. You can view the PDF’s dimensions in inches in Preview (Tools > Show Inspector, ⌘I), or in pixels using Finder’s Get Info window (under “More Info”). If you save your PDF through Illustrator, pixel and inch dimensions will be automatically included in the file.
There are 2 other things we need to change about Sketch’s exported PDF:
- Text needs to be “Converted to Outlines”.
- The colors need to be CMYK values instead of RGB.
- Any images in the design need to be embeded as CMYK images.
Converting Text to Outlines
To ensure that your design is printed exactly how you see it on your computer, it is important to convert the text objects in the PDF to actual vector shapes, or “outlines”. This makes the text look exactly the same on any program on any computer, regardless of the fonts you’ve used in the design, and regardless of whether or not those fonts are installed on the printer’s computer.
You can convert text to outlines in Sketch (more about that here), although if your design has more than a few lines of text, Sketch will slow down dramatically. If you want a guaranteed way to crash Sketch, try selecting a dozen text objects and converting them to outlines all at once! Fortunately, Adobe Illustrator excels in this department, so we’ll use that instead.
- Open the PDF in Illustrator and navigate to Select > All (⌘A), from the menu bar.
- Also in the menu bar, navigate to Type > Convert Text to Outlines (⌘⇧O). Easy as that!
Converting to CMYK Colors
After opening your PDF in Illustrator, navigate to File > Document Color Mode > CMYK Color. This converts the entire document to a CMYK colorspace from RGB. That’s the easy step. Now we have to change the colors in our design to actual CMYK values.
If you’re used to screen-based design and appreciate great colors, I feel obligated to tell you that CMYK may disappoint you. Due to the nature of combining those 4 colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) in ink, many bright and saturated colors are difficult or impossible to recreate. Without diving into color theory or the pros/cons of various print methods, I will simply suggest that for any color that is important to your design you see a sample of that exact color value from a similar printer on a similar material. To do this I recommend choosing a close match on a Pantone swatchbook (a bit pricey, but a great investment), or ask your printer for a printed sample of a variety of colors printed on the paper you’ll use (they probably already have these, and can give you each color’s CMYK value).
Once you’ve chosen great CMYK values for all your colors, it’s time to replace the color value for each of the elements in your design. This sounds tedious—and to a certain extent it is—but I’ve discovered a few shortcuts to help you!
- First off, you will need to select the elements whose colors you want to change. If you aren’t familiar with Illustrator, know that a layer is only selected when you click the small circle to the right of it. Simply clicking on the layer’s name will not do anything!
- If your design has many elements with the same color (say, all green text), they can be selected all at once by first selecting one instance of the element then clicking the “Select Similar Objects” button on the right of the toolbar. If this toolbar or button isn’t available, try navigating to Select > Same in the menu bar.
- When your elements are selected, hold down the Shift key when you click on the fill color in the toolbar (fill color to the left, stroke/border color to the right). Even elements that are pure black need to be converted to CMYK black, for which there is a little swatch below the color sliders.
When all of your text has been converted to outlines and all of your colors are CMYK, it’s time to save a separate PDF (I add “-print” as a suffix to the new filename). By using File > Save As, you get a trillion options for the PDF. The single option I ever use is to add a bleed margin (my printer likes 1/8 inch) on all sides of the artwork. To do this, go to the “Marks and Bleeds” section on the left and uncheck “Use Document Bleed Settings”, as shown below.
You’re all done! Trust me, next time this process will take you half as long!
Is Your Design Image-Heavy?
If your Sketch design includes bitmap images (non-vector images), they will be automatically converted from RGB to CMYK when you change the Document Color Mode. Upon importing the PDF to Illustrator, any shadows in your design will be converted to bitmap images and any gradients will become un-editable “Non-Native Art”. Because of this, if images, shadows, or gradients are important to your design, I strongly suggest you instead save the entire Sketch layout as a PNG and convert it to a CMYK file in Photoshop using the following steps.
- Export the Sketch artboard as a PNG at 4.166x scale, which gives you the amount of pixels you’ll need for a 300 PPI print-ready file. Printers rarely accept bitmap images less than this resolution. Make sure your artboard includes the necessary bleed margins (described above) before export.
- Open the PNG in Photoshop and navigate to Image > Image Size, in the menu bar. Uncheck the “Resample” checkbox and type in either the artwork’s dimensions in inches or the “Pixels/Inch” you used when exporting from Sketch (again, this is often 300 PPI). Click “OK”.
- In the menu bar, navigate to Image > Mode > CMYK Color. This will alert you that Photoshop is converting the file to a default CMYK color profile. This step may visibly change the colors of your design. Rest assured that your computer screen is not an accurate representation of colors in print, although you should also not expect the same bright or saturated colors capable with RGB (as described above).
- Adjust the colors slightly if you desire, then Save As a .psd or .tif file. Be sure to tell the printer what bleed margins you included in the artwork!
Of course you can use this process in conjunction with the PDF + Illustrator workflow above, by embedding the Photoshopped images into your Illustrator document. But most of the time I stick to one process or the other.
Is This Workflow Right for You?
If you’re fast at designing in Sketch, feel more at ease or more creative using it, or aren’t very familiar with Illustrator/InDesign, this may be good for you. This may also be a useful workflow if you have existing designs from Sketch (an interface, icon, logo) that you want to prepare for professional printing. I can’t read the future, but with Bohemian Coding’s small team and success focusing on screen-based design, I don’t advise you to hold your breath for print features. It’s a huge can of worms!
I’ve written this article to share my workflow for print design projects, but also to learn of ways that I might improve this workflow in the future. If you have any suggestions, especially related to Illustrator or the print process, feel free to share them!
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