Not everything on a page is equally important. As I mentioned in maxims of page layout, I think of documents as having a foreground, containing the most important elements, and a background, containing everything else. Typography communicates this distinction to the reader visually.
Yet letterhead often suffers from two problems. First, the address block (the background) dominates the page, upstaging the text of the letter (the foreground). Second, the foreground and background don’t relate to each other visually.
Body text in danger of being crushed by massive address block.
Screen-oriented system font (Verdana) used for a printed document.
Too much centered text.
Too much space wasted in top margin.
Generally pompous and overbaked.
This letterhead can be improved by making the text of the letter more prominent, reducing the weight of the address block, and making the overall layout less disjointed.
Body text visually occupies more space than the address block, reinforcing foreground–background relationship.
Letter starts at top of page.
Simpler, cleaner two-column layout.
No centered text.
The finest letterhead comes from letterpress printers, who use old-fashioned metal type. Every major city supports at least a couple of letterpress printers. Most of their business comes from wedding invitations and stationery. It’s more expensive than other methods, but the results are nonpareil.
Next up are offset printers. (Offset is short for offset lithography, the process used to make 99% of printed goods.) Offset printers range from high-end commercial outfits to tiny neighborhood shops. I’d like to assure you that price and quality correlate, but in this case, they don’t. I’ve worked with neighborhood shops that have done a great job, and big printers that have seriously goofed. Ask a colleague to recommend a printer. If the work isn’t right, ask to have it reprinted.
Many offset printers offer graphic-design services as a convenience to their customers, much the same way that bowling alleys rent shoes. These design services are usually fine unless you want the finished work to contain more than a modicum of originality or finesse. In that case, hire an independent graphic designer. (More on that below.)
What about internet offset printers? (Meaning, websites where you upload a PDF, which is then printed and shipped back to you in a week or so.) I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality of their work. I can recommend them for jobs where you need a small print run (e.g., less than 500 pieces) and a custom offset-printing job wouldn’t be economical.
Internet printers keep their prices low by combining multiple print jobs into one. This means your paper choices are limited. Also, every print job is done in process color, which involves four basic ink colors being combined to simulate other colors. Most commercial full-color printing is done using process color. But for stationery, it’s usually best to use spot color, where each color gets its own print run. (See color for more about the differences.)
The cheapest option is to make letterhead yourself with your laser printer. If you think that would be anathema to a typography snob like me, think again. In fact, I’m not ashamed to admit it—I only use laser-printed letterhead.
Why? I never mail a letter if an email or PDF will suffice. I use so little letterhead that it’s never been economical to have it professionally printed. I imagine that describes an increasing number of self-employed people. So for them, some tips.
Laser-printed letterhead often looks flat and cheap. Therefore, you must overcome the three telltale signs of laser-printed letterhead.
The typography is terrible. That’s been covered above—take the same care with your letterhead typography that you would if you were going to spend $5,000 printing it.
It’s printed on basic white printer paper. Splurge on some deluxe paper at your local specialty-paper store. (I use Crane’s Crest cotton paper. It’s not cheap.) Get off-white or ivory paper—pure white tends to highlight flaws in the laser printing. Choose wove paper, which is smooth, rather than laid paper, which has a ribbed texture. Laser toner affixes better to a smooth surface. (More about this in printers and paper.)
The name and address are printed in black. Compared to black printing ink, black laser toner has a characteristic luster, and is usually closer to dark gray than black. Heighten the illusion by printing the name and address in a color—something pale and noncontroversial. Color laser printers also use process color, so run tests to make sure the color you pick doesn’t have a gritty dot pattern. Grayish-blue tones often work well.
Graphic designers are everywhere, at every price point. As with offset printers, I wish I could say that price and quality correlate, but they don’t.
The most common error made by people hiring graphic designers is devoting too little time to selecting the designer, and too much time to critiquing the design work. Instead, spend all the time you want choosing a designer. But once you choose, get out of the way and let the designer do their thing. You’ll get better results.
These days, any graphic designer worth their salt has an online portfolio. Reviewing online portfolios is the easiest way to find potential designers.
It’s fine to ask a graphic designer to show you samples of work they’ve done for similar clients. It’s also fine to ask for a detailed proposal with deliverables and budget. But I recommend getting detailed proposals from only two designers, and at most three—after that you’ll be hopelessly confused.
It’s not fine to ask a graphic designer to work for free, or for a discount, or on spec. If you don’t like the fee, you can always find someone cheaper. If you’re worried about paying for work you don’t like, put approval milestones in the contract that give you the option to terminate for a pro rata fee.
Beyond the design advantages, a graphic designer will often know of good local printers and will work with the printer to get the job done—so you don’t have to.
If you hire a graphic designer to make your letterhead, always test sample designs by printing out a real letter, or have the designer mock one up. You can’t decide on letterhead just by looking at the name and address block in isolation. As these examples illustrate, everything has to work together.