Designer's Guide to Crop Marks

Crop marks indicate the trim lines on a printed sheet of paper

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Trim lines that are placed at the corners of a printed document image or page by a graphic designer or commercial printer are known as crop marks. They tell the printing company where to trim the final printed piece to size. Crop marks may be drawn on manually or automatically applied in the document's digital files with publishing software programs.

Crop marks are necessary when several documents or sheets are printed on a large sheet of paper. The marks tell the printing company where to trim the documents to reach the final trim size. This is especially important when the document has bleeds, which are elements that run off the edge of the printed piece.

For example, it is common to print business cards many "up" on a sheet of paper because printing presses don't run paper that is as small as business cards. Using a larger sheet and imposing several business cards on the sheet shortens the press run. Then, the business cards are trimmed to size in the company's finishing department.

Some publishing software has templates you can use for printing documents in multiples on one sheet. Many times these templates include crop marks and other internal trim marks. For example, if you use one of the business card templates in Apple's Pages or Microsoft Word software that prints 10 business cards on a larger sheet of cardstock, the crop marks are included in the file. This works fine for this simple example, but many printed files are larger and more complicated.

The Need for Crop Marks

If you set up your document the size that it will be when it is trimmed, you may not need crop marks at all. Your commercial printer will likely use imposition software to arrange your document on the large sheet of paper and apply all the crop and trim marks necessary. If you aren't sure, just check with your printer.

How to Add Crop Marks to a File

Most of the established publishing software programs can add crop marks to any digital file, including those from Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign, CorelDRAW, QuarkXpress, and Publisher. For example, in Photoshop, with the image open, you choose Print and then Printing Marks where you can select corner crop marks. In InDesign, you choose Crop Marks in the Marks section of the PDF Export Bleed and Slug area. Each software program uses a different set of instructions, but you can either look for the setup, which is usually in the Print or Export section or do a search on how to apply crop marks in your particular software

Applying Crop Marks Manually

You can apply crop marks manually, and you might want to do this if your digital file includes a business card, letterhead and envelope all in one big file, where automatic crop marks won't be helpful. Those items don't all print on the same type of paper, so they'll need to be split up by the commercial printer before printing. You can draw crop marks at the precise trim size for each item to indicate to the printer how to trim each element or (in the case of the envelope) where to position the art on the paper. Use Registration color where available, so the marks appear on each color to be printed, and then draw two short half-inch lines at a 90-degree angle at each corner using a thin stroke positioned exactly along an extension of where the side trims and outside the actual trim area. 

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Your Citation
Bear, Jacci Howard. "Designer's Guide to Crop Marks." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, Bear, Jacci Howard. (2021, September 8). Designer's Guide to Crop Marks. Retrieved from Bear, Jacci Howard. "Designer's Guide to Crop Marks." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).