Chris Parker | Emmy Winning Media Designer

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Why Do My Graphics Look So Good On My Computer But So Bad When I Print Them?

OK, Here’s the scenario:

Your boss wants to mail out a cool looking sales flyer based on your company’s website.

You say, “No problem, Chief, I’ll get right on that.”

You sit down at your desk, call up the website, place the site’s graphics into a pre-made flyer template you found in Word and then hit print.

You sashay over to your printer to look over your brand new document, when suddenly it sinks in.  Your snazzy new sales flyer looks all blurry and out of focus.  Your company’s sleek logo design looks jagged and distorted.  And the colors seem to be faded and washed out.

What Happened?  Why does it look so good on the computer screen, but so poor on paper?

This isn’t the first time this has happened.  A week ago you tried to print out a still photo from video taken of your daughter, but that too looked real fuzzy and crunchy.

What’s going on?  Is it my computer?  Maybe it’s the printer?

Well, as it happens, neither one.

The problem lies with the inherent difference between digital (or electronic) media and print media.  Put simply, different media types have their own unique set of attributes and specifications when it comes to appearance, size, resolution and color.  What works on the screen may not work on paper or vice versa.

By the nature of today’s marketplace, designers find themselves producing content for a myriad of media uses, print, web, mobile devices, and television to name but a few.  So it is not surprising that many designs get lost in translation between different media types.  What makes it even more difficult is that, today, all media content is created digitally on a computer or device, even though some projects will end up non-digital upon delivery.

To achieve consistent and quality results, it is important to learn how multi-media is created, formatted and delivered.

So where do you start?  How do you measure say a web site in comparison to a print ad?  What about video?  How does high-definition translate to still photos?

Well, to begin let’s break multi-media into two camps, electronic (or digital) media and print media.

Electronic media is any content displayed on an electronic monitor or screen.  This encompasses everything from video, digital cameras, television, computers, the web, and mobile devices to even jumbotrons and digital movie screens.  You can’t physically ‘touch’ an image displayed on a computer, you can only view it or interact with it through your mouse or touch screen.   Today’s electronic media is exclusively digital by nature.

In contrast, print media exists in the physical world.  It has size and substance.  Printed media can be anything from a book, newspaper, magazine, postcard, pamphlet, flyer, poster, billboard, or even a printed item such as a t-shirt or hat.  Printed media uses ink or other processes such as engraving tools to print or stamp an image onto anything in the ‘real’ world.

Because print media is substantive, meaning it can be touched; it is easily measured by the conventional width, length and height either in inches and feet or the metric system’s centimeters and meters.

This makes creating a printed piece on your computer fairly simple.  For example if you need to print graphics onto a 9”x6” sized postcard then you need to make a document that is 9”x6” on your computer.

This does not mean that you take your ruler and measure your computer screen.  Remember, images on your computer screen exist in the electronic digital world not in the ‘real’ world.

So how do we measure electronic images compared to print?

The answer is pixels.

Most have heard of pixels, but many may not understand exactly what a pixel is.

Vincent van Gogh, Self Portrait, 1887, using pointillist technique.

A pixel is a picture element.  Put simply it’s a speck of light on a monitor or TV.  Together, all these specks create an image.  Think of it as “pointillism”, where tiny specs are arranged on a canvas to create a larger image.

The number of pixels across and the number of pixels up and down determines the resolution of the image.  For example most high-definition monitors have 1,920 pixels across and 1,080 pixels up and down creating an image that’s made up of over 2 million pixels.

The important thing to remember is that pixels, NOT inches determine the true size and resolution of an electronic digital image.  An HD image of 1920×1080 pixels is the same across multiple monitors even if those monitors are different sizes.

So yeah, that’s right, your neighbor’s giant-sized 60” 1920×1080 HDTV has no better resolution that your smaller 32” 1920×1080 HDTV.  All that a bigger monitor does is spread those 2 million pixels over a wider space.  In fact if a screen is too big then 2 million pixels won’t be enough to retain a sharp image.  That’s why cinemas use what’s called 2k or 4k, we’re talking over 3 to12 million pixels.  Now that’s a lot of pixels!

Here is a breakdown of various video sizes used.  Note the differences in pixels and frame aspect ratios.

Now that we know that pixels determine the size of electronic digital images, how do we translate this to inches?  Remember a monitor’s physical size doesn’t affect the image’s actual size.

This is where resolution comes into play, more specifically dots per inch or dpi for short.  As you can guess, the more dots per inch or larger the dpi, the better the resolution.

Print uses ink to print tiny dots to form an image, very much like pixels are used to form an electronic image.  However, unlike monitors, print needs a heavier concentration of dots to deliver a clean image.

All digital and electronic images have a base dpi of 72.  Which means that every image grabbed from the web or every still printed from video has a dpi of 72.  That is 72 dots per inch.  This is way to small for a quality print.

The print medium needs around 300 dots per inch or greater to create an acceptable image.

So how do we make sure our document is the right size and resolution?

Well, let’s go back to our 6”x9” postcard idea.

There are many apps available to create graphics.  We’ll be using Adobe’s Photoshop as an example.

(Oh, by the way, using Microsoft Word is probably not a good idea.)

So let’s get started.

We’ll launch Photoshop and click on the ‘File’ menu and choose ‘New’.   A dialogue box will appear asking for input.  Notice the two fields marked as ‘width’ and ‘height’.  Also notice, that to the right each field has a drop-down menu.  It is here that we’ll choose the units of measurement.

Most of these measurements are for print.  To create our 9”x6” postcard document we need to choose ‘inches’ and then enter ‘9’ in the ‘width’ field and ‘6’ in the ‘height’ field.  This will create the properly sized documents for our needs.

Now here comes that dpi ‘thing’ we’re talking about. Below the ‘width’ and ‘height’ fields there is one marked ‘pixels/inch’.  This is the same as dots per inch.  We can also use ‘cm/inch’.

We’ll stick with ‘pixels/inch’ since our document is in inches.  In order to achieve a quality image we’ll need to type in ‘300’.  We’ll ignore the rest of the dialogue box for now.

We’ll hit ‘OK’ and voila.  We now have a document canvas that’s digital in nature, but has a high enough dpi to create a quality print.  Anything you create in this canvas will now be print ready.  If you drop in an image that is only 72 dpi it will be scaled down appropriately.

Now just for laughs, still using Photoshop, let’s see the actual size in inches if we were to print a still from an HD video.

We’ll create a new ‘File’ and choose from the drop down preset menu, ‘Film & Video.’  Under size we’ll select ‘HDTV 1080p/29.97’.  We’ll hit ‘OK’ to create our canvas.  Now under ‘Image’, we’ll select ‘Image Size’ calling up yet another dialogue box.

We can now plainly see that our ‘Pixel Dimensions’ match the HD standard of 1920×1080 pixels.  Yet, what’s this?  Our document size is a whopping 26.6” wide by 15” high.  So it appears to be plenty big enough to print.  We can even scale it down some.  But wait.  Notice the ‘pixels/inch’.  It is the default digital resolution of 72.  Yeah, we can print a 26.6” wide by 15 “ high document, but the quality will still be very poor.

Now let’s change our dpi to 300.  Notice the width and height.  Even though our ‘Pixel Dimensions’ remain at 1920×1080, our inches have shrunk drastically to 6.4” by 3.6”.  This means, you guessed it, if we print out a still from HD video on a 6.4”x3.6” photo paper, then we will get a nice quality print.  This means HD video is good enough to print for most small to mid size documents.  If we try to print a bigger image then our quality will start to decay fast.

Now let’s go backwards.  We’ll enter 72 back into our ‘pixels/inch’, resetting our document.  Now, before we type back in 300 let’s check the ‘Resample image’ check box below our fields.

This will tell us how many pixels we’ll need to actually print out a quality 26.6”x15” document.

We’ll type ‘300’ back into our ‘resolution’ field, then we’ll take a peek at our ‘Pixel Dimensions’.  As you can see that’s a lot of pixels.  So it stands to reason that print requires much more detail and resolution than digital electronic images.

So getting back to our poor office worker, in order for him to produce a quality flyer (and avoid the boss’ wrath), he’ll need to rework all the web images as 300 dpi which probably means re-creating most of the images from scratch.  Or if they were lucky their web designer probably already had the raw files saved as 300 dpi.  Let’s cross our fingers.

In any event, since the advent of digital desktop publishing, both designers and their clients have had to learn multi-media’s unique language of size and resolution in order to produce the highest quality products as well as consistent results.

Thinking ahead by creating ‘print-ready’ images alleviates not only headaches, but also time and money.

Ok, folks it’s almost that time of year where spooks and ghosts come out to play.  That’s right be on the look out for a Halloween video posted right here on The Emmy Winning Blog.

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