As an artist you will need professional design. And I’m not only talking about your stage name font, but also about your logo, your record covers, posters, flyers, and much more.
Unless you’re a professional graphics designer or a highly talented hobby designer and you know how to work with Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign or Quark XPress, you will need HELP.
Downloading a cracked Photoshop version and trying to learn how to handle it within a few weeks is not a solution. If you don’t have years of experience working with those tools, then forget about it. Usually you should know someone who’s working in the graphics, advertising, or design business, especially if you have been doing music for some time already. Ask friends or colleagues, and you’ll find someone. If you can’t find someone, then you’ll need to get in touch with some graphics designer or agency, an option that may become quite expensive. Or look for services on the web, which can be risky as you don’t know who you’re dealing with.
The guy or the girl you’ll be working with should be a Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign (or XPress) geek. Maybe your designer will also work in a more analog way, with pen and paper for example, but you will still need someone who will convert everything into digital files later on. If your designer is not working with those products, then forget about it. Microsoft Paint is not what you’ll need. Someone using GIMP may be a computer nerd, but probably not a designer. Go for someone who has both the technical and the artistic skills.
Nonetheless it’s a good idea to have some basic knowledge and skills, so that you will understand what your graphics guy will be doing. This is why I’ll try to teach you some of the basics here, the things you absolutely have to know if you don’t want to look stupid when talking to people working in the graphics business (and you will have to deal with such people later on).
The first thing you’ll need to know is that there basically two kinds of image types:
- bitmap images (aka raster images), and
- vector graphics.
Bitmap images are files that describe an image of a certain size (width x height), they consist of pixels and contain color information for each pixel (from black & white to 24 bit true color, or even more). Most image files are bitmap images, especially photos. The files you’ll upload to Facebook, to Twitter, and to your own website will be bitmap files. The most popular formats are JPEG, PNG, and GIF for the web, as well as TIFF for professional use (high quality prints like your album cover for example). The most popular application to work with bitmap images is Adobe Photoshop.
Vector graphics files do not use pixels, but geometrical primitives such as points, lines, curves, shapes, and polygons to represent images. Logos and fonts will usually be created as vector graphics images. The most popular formats are SVG for the web (not that common), as well as EPS and AI for professional use (your official font or logo for example). Note that EPS and AI files may also include embedded bitmap images. The most popular application to work with vector graphics is Adobe Illustrator.
Vector graphics can easily be converted into bitmap images, while the opposite is often a bit more complicated.
There are two important color models:
- RGB (Red, Green, Blue), and
- CYMK (Cyan, Yellow, Magenta, blacK).
RGB is an additive color model in which red, green, and blue light are added together to reproduce a broad array of colors. This is the color mode your TV, your computer screen, your camera and your smartphone are using, and most images including images and photos on the web use this format.
CMYK is a subtractive color model in which uses cyan, yellow, magenta, and black ink to reproduce a broad array of colors. This is the color mode used by your color printer, and it’s also the color mode used to do professional prints. This means that your album covers, flyers, and posters will have to use the CMYK model.
Usually CMYK images can easily be converted to RGB, while the opposite can be more difficult, as not all RGB colors can be represented by the CYMK color model.
Resolution only applies to bitmap files.
Bitmap files will become quite ugly when making them larger, while vector graphics files can be scaled without losing any quality. The resolution is measured in dpi, which stands for dots per inch (or pixels per inch if you want, alhough this may technically not be correct). There are two important resolutions:
72 dpi is the traditional resolution used by computer screens. Today the screen resolution is much higher of course, even on a smartphone. Nevertheless 72 dpi remains the standard for images used on the web. Instead of using the resolution as a reference, it’s often easier to simply consider the actual pixel size of the image. Today larger photos on the web often use a width of about 800 pixels, while smaller ones may be only 400 pixels wide, or even less. Images used on your website should usually not be larger than 1500 pixels, while today’s cameras and smartphones often produce much larger files. This means that you may have to scale them down, although most of today’s web platforms (Facebook, Twitter, etc) automatically take care of resizing and compression.
300 dpi is the traditional resolution used for professional prints. 300 dpi will be used for your album cover and booklet, as well as for your flyers and posters. If you want to get good results, then all of your artwork has to be done using at least 300 dpi and the CMYK color mode, which can be converted into 72 dpi RGB images for the web later on. The image resolution can easily be changed by applications such as Adobe Photoshop. Reducing the resolution is usually not a problem, while converting to a higher resolution will often reveal the lower quality of the original image, or even compression artifacts. Unlimited zooms and size changes are only possible in cheap Hollywood movies.
Most image file formats offer compression, the only thing you have to know is that there are compression methods that are
- lossy, while others are
- not lossy.
Lossy image compression is used when slight quality loss is acceptable, while high compression rates are more important. This is the case for most images you’ll find on the web. The most popular formats are JPEG, GIF, and PNG, which all offer high compression rates. GIF images can be quite ugly when highly compressed, while JPEG images may show compression artifacts.
Image compression that’s not lossy is available on professional cameras (RAW formats or TIFF for example), and it’s used in files intended for professional print (TIFF or the Photoshop PSD format for example). That’s the kind of file that will be used for your cover artwork for example.
Converting a professional non-lossy file into a lossy format is easy. The opposite is possible too, but the quality problems caused by the earlier compression will not simply disappear of course (adding some noise using a filter sometimes helps a bit).
In most cases you will have images and text on the same page, and you will also have multiple pages. Creating text in Photoshop is possible, but creating an entire booklet that way may become a pain in the ass. In this case you’ll need a professional layout application. Your album artwork will not be created using Microsoft Word by the way. There are two major applications that allow to create professional layouts, that’s
- Adobe InDesign, and
- Quark XPress.
Both applications are very powerful and allow to create documents containing multiple pages using any dimensions that can be filled with bitmap images (300 dpi / CMYK), vector graphics, and text. The layout application will be able to create a non-lossy CMYK PDF file that will also include bleeds, cropmarks, color samples, and other information that will be needed by a professional printer. If you never heard of bleeds or cropmarks before, then you’ll definitely need to get help by a pro. Bleed is printing that goes beyond the edge of the sheet before trimming (required to avoid ugly white borders), while cropmarks tell the printer where to finally trim the sheet.
There are three important printing techniques (there are others of course, but they’re not relevant here):
- laser (aka digital), and
Inkjet printing recreates a digital image by propelling droplets of ink onto paper or other substrates. It’s the kind of printer that most people have at home, and it’s fine if you want to print letters or private photos, or if you want to test what your cover artwork will look like for example. But you cannot trust the output of your consumer printer, as colors will never be really accurate, even if you’re using photo paper. Only professional inkjet printers dedicated to this purpose (those are also called proof printers) will print accurate colors. Professional printing companies may offer proof printing services.
Laser printing is an electrostatic digital printing process, producing texts and images by repeatedly passing a laser beam back and forth over a negatively charged cylindrical drum. There are black-and-white as well as color laser printers, and they’re great if you have a home office. Again, you cannot trust the color output of your laser printer if you create an artwork. Professional printing companies may also offer so-called digital printing solutions, which will in most cases be high volume laser printers. This kind of technology will only be useful if you’ll be doing low quantities (less than 500 copies for example).
Offset printing is a commonly used technique in which the inked image is transferred from a plate to a rubber blanket, then to the printing surface. This is the technique that’s used to print newspapers and magazines, and this will also be used to print your album cover, your booklet, your flyers and posters, and everything else.
In 90% of all cases, your future products (covers / booklets, inlay cards, sleeves, flyers, posters, …) will be printed using OFFSET technology.
The most important exceptions to this rule will be letters you may print, merchandise (t-shirts, hoodies, …), as well as CD labels in some cases.
The four important file formats
All of the information above is, of course, simplified and incomplete – but if you remember all of this, then you’ll already have a good idea of how things are being done, and you will understand what the graphics and design people will be talking about. The most important thing to remember is that there are finally four important file types:
- On the web you’ll usually be using bitmap images in RGB format, using a 72 dpi resolution and lossy compression. Common file formats are JPEG, GIF, and PNG, and the most popular application to work with such images is Adobe Photoshop (check out Photoshop Elements if you want a cheaper one, or GIMP, which is free).
- Images that shall be scaled without quality loss (such as your logo or your official font for example) should be created as vector graphics. Those files have no resolution, common formats are EPS and AI, while the most popular application is Adobe Illustrator.
- Your cover artwork as well as every image that shall be professionally printed will use CMYK colors, along with 300 dpi resolution and non-lossy compression (or no compression at all). Common file formats will be TIFF, PSD, and sometimes even EPS (vector file with embedded bitmap image). Those images will probably be created using Adobe Photoshop.
- Your booklet or other files containing both images and text elements will created in a professional layout program, and the final output will usually be in PDF format using non-lossy compression or no compression at all. The most popular applications to create professional layouts are Adobe InDesign and Quark Xpress.
As mentioned before, if ANY of this sounds new to you, then you MUST find someone who will be able to help you with all of this stuff. You cannot learn to handle all of those applications within only a few days or even weeks, and there are many mistakes you may make that may lead to disastrous results and a big waste of money.