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Better folding by design

Mar 1, 2004 12:00 AM

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As Jerry Seinfeld might say, what's the deal with brochure folding? There are literally hundreds of folding styles to choose from, yet if you monitor your mail for a month, you might conclude that there's only a few.

There are at least three potential reasons why designers rely on the same old folds:

  1. They don't know about other options

  2. They don't understand the folding process or how to prepare their files

  3. They don't realize their friendly printer would be glad to offer a few tips.

This article offers some advice you can share with your designer clients to help expand their folding horizons.

Planning for a brochure

Planning for the job and setting up the digital document are essential steps in the folding process. It is much harder to work backward — that's when mistakes are made.

Before starting any job, two key questions must be answered:

Question No. 1: What is the purpose of this brochure? Will it be a self-mailer, handed out at a trade show, mailed in an envelope, etc.? If the piece is a self-mailer, don't overlook postal regulations for wafer seals, weights, sizes and standards. Talk to your printer or call the local post office. The U.S. Postal Service offers reference materials and guidelines for standard and business reply mail.

If the piece will be mailed in an envelope and you're on a tight budget, choose a size that will fit into a standard envelope. And, when choosing a folding style, remember that some are poor choices for auto-insertion into envelopes (especially accordion folds).

Don't forget to weigh the piece. Have a paper dummy made, put it in the envelope sample and weigh it.

Question No. 2: What is the budget? Do your research. Can you afford any extras, or must you economize? Talk with your printer in the early stages of the job — sometimes they can help you decide where to scrimp and where to splurge to get the end result you're looking for. A simple change, such as switching paper or slightly reducing the finished size so that the piece can fit on a smaller press sheet, can yield dramatic savings.

Determining final dimensions

Once you've chosen a folding style, your next step is to determine the finished size (the dimensions of the piece once it has been trimmed and folded) so that you can set up the digital document.

When designing for print, you must design flat. Take any folded brochure, unfold it, lay it out flat and see what it looks like. This is exactly how the document should be set up. If it's printed on both sides, flip it over and you have page two of the digital document. Common mistakes include making separate documents for each side of the brochure, or designing a piece that “floats” on a larger page with crop marks. The document should be set up to the exact dimensions of the flat size, with bleeds pulled past the document edge at least ⅛ of an inch.

Compensation is key

Paper is three-dimensional, and therefore if one brochure panel is to fold into another, the inner panel must be slightly smaller. If the panel is not reduced in size, the folded sheet won't lie flat — resulting in a brochure with a roundish profile. The proper term for this is “telescoping.”

If forced, the bindery will adjust the panels to eliminate telescoping, but your margins and color breaks will shift noticeably. But this is an absolute worst-case scenario — neither a printer's prepress nor bindery departments should be correcting your files or adjusting the piece during the folding process. It's the designer's responsibility to incorporate folding compensation into the piece.

What is the general rule of folding compensation?

The general rule of compensation, based on my experience, is -3/32 to -⅛ of an inch for a single panel folding in, and -⅛ to -3/16 of an inch for a broadside (two sheets) folding in, depending on the weight of the paper. If the paper is lightweight, the low end of the range is safe; and as the stock gets heavier, it is better to compensate at the high end of the range. In every situation, it is a good idea to discuss your folding compensation plans with your printer.

Setting up the digital document

Some designers struggle when it comes to calculating document size, but there's an easy way to do it while still working within the page-layout application.

In this example, we will be using a four-panel roll fold with a finished size of 4 × 9 inches. Fig. 1 (p.25) is a compensation diagram for a roll fold.

For the moment, ignore the diagram and set up the document as if all panels will measure the same width. If the finished size is 4 × 9 inches, set the document to 16 × 9 inches (four panels × four inches each, with a height of nine inches).

Looking at the diagram, the first panel should measure 3/16 of an inch less than the finished width, or 313/16 inches. Grab a guide bar from the left ruler and drag it to 313/16 inches (Fig. 2).

Grab the crosshairs from the corner of your document and drag them to the guide you just set at 313/16 inches. This action resets the ruler to zero, making it easier to measure the width of the next panel.

Looking back to the diagram, the next panel should measure 3/32-inch less than the finished width, or 329/32 inches. Drag a guide bar from the left ruler to 329/32 inches. Now, as before, drag the crosshairs to the guide you just set, which gives you zero again. The remaining two panels should measure the finished width of four inches.

When measuring the last four-inch panel, you'll notice that the document extends past the last guide you set (Fig. 3).

No problem. Zoom out so that you can see the entire page, set the crosshairs to the upper left corner of the document. Simply grab the last guide and read the decimal measurement (in this case, the “x” coordinate measurement). That is the document width. Now, just go back and change the document size to the “x” coordinate measurement (Fig. 4).

Next, insert another page, and, following the diagram, set the folding guides for page two. When all of the guides have been set, place fold marks in the pasteboard — a 1-pt. rule above and below the guides you just set (but not crossing onto the live document). These fold marks will tell the printer where you want the piece to fold — the guides alone are insufficient.

Trish Witkowski is president of the Finishing Experts Group, Inc. and creative director for a marketing and communications firm in Baltimore. She contributed “Finding the folding culprit” to our February 2003 issue. Contact her at

For more folding help

If you're unsure about the proper compensation to apply for a given folding style, don't hesitate to call your printer or bindery and ask them to fax you a diagram or send you a digital template. And if you want to really understand how it all works, there is a comprehensive resource available on the topic, called “FOLD: The Professional's Guide to Folding.” The 850-page book has compensation diagrams for more than 180 different brochure folds. For more details, see