The basics of paper specs and how to use it to your benefit 

As a former paper rep, I’m pretty familiar with the attributes that make up paper and I also know they are not the end all, be all when it comes to indicating quality print results. So when a rep tries to convince me their sheet was the best because that paper was “whiter” and “brighter” than others, my radar would go up.

It’s not that paper specs don’t matter, they’re kind of like statistics.  You can use them to compel whatever case you want to make, this is why I never rely on paper’s specs to tell me the whole story.

For years, the industry used brightness as the benchmark standard for measuring the quality of a paper. It used to be the brighter the sheet, the better the sheet. That’s because brightness indicates the amount of reflectivity of a paper.

In North America, GE/TAPPI standard is used to measure the amount of blue light reflected off a sheet of paper on a scale of 0 – 100. So a 95 bright paper reflects more light than an 85 bright paper, and the brighter the paper the more vivid the color.

But using brightness as the sole indicator of quality can be misleading and result in unexpected outcomes. For one thing, brightness levels vary by manufacturer. As I mentioned earlier, North American paper manufactures use the GE/TAPPI standard, while European and Asian manufacturers use ISO and D65 standards. Some of these imported papers register brightness level of 100+ (D65). So it’s not necessarily an apples to apples comparison using brightness as the sole indicator of quality.

The same can be said for whiteness. Whiteness is the measurement of all spectrums of light reflected off of a sheet. Papers typically fall into three categories of whiteness: blue white, balanced white and warm white – each shade of whiteness has an effect on print results. Papers with a blue white shade appear whiter to the human eye and are often labeled “bright white” on many grades.

When it comes to finding the right brightness and shade in a paper, one sheet does not fit all. It’s important to consider how all of the paper specs will affect the overall print quality of the design.

Papers with higher brightness levels are a good choice for producing vibrant and vivid color, crisp details and sharper contrast. For projects heavy in photography, brighter papers in the 91 bright and up offer the best print results. While one-color projects designed with heavy amounts of text may be just fine produced on a less bright paper, reducing glare and making them easier to read.

If you are working on projects that require precision and accuracy in color or subject matter featuring people or food, a balanced white paper may give you the results you’re looking for. Projects featuring skin tones, pinks or oranges might benefit more from a warm white shade of paper. While using a bright, blue white shade of paper might enhance artwork featuring cooler shades of blues, grays and greens.

Other specifications that can vary widely from paper to paper are attributes like smoothness, formation, stiffness/rigidity and opacity (show-through). For example, when printing areas of heavy solids or metallics a papers formation and smoothness will greatly affect uniformity of the ink lay. A sheet’s optics may be bright and white but it’s formation may be clumpy, giving areas of heavy solids an undesirably, mottled appearance.

For identity systems with components like matching pocket folders, notecards and business cards, rigidity and stiffness are going to be an important consideration. And when selecting papers for high profile marketing collateral or publications, opacity is a key attribute to pay attention to – a solid image showing through to the back of the following page can detract from the overall message.

So while paper specs can offer an indication of quality, your best bet is to consider the desired results your want to achieve based on the concept, design and artwork. This is where samples are a critical part of the process. Requesting print samples, particularly in the same industry or type of project can be a far better indicator of expected print results. The same goes for plain paper samples and dummies.

While specs may be a KPI for some, for me, the proof is in the printing.

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