Looking for a Resolution

Posted August 28, 2013, under Gosh, That's Handy!

When Impressionism came along in the 19th Century, people were polarized by the art form. Short, “broken” brush strokes of mixed and unmixed color; an emphasis on overall visual effects over detail… love it or hate it, the style was like nothing anyone had seen before – and some say it’s because the painters, particularly Claude Monet, were painting exactly what they were seeing. Through cataracts.

Fast forward to today, and you might suspect your designer has the same problem. Particularly when you need a print job from a designer accustomed to web work.

Let’s Clear This Up

It’s important to tell your designer whether a piece is destined for print or web. Because when it comes to images, what works online usually doesn’t work in print – and vice versa. That’s because the different media require different resolutions.

Resolution just means how crisp and detailed an image is. It is measured in “dots per inch” (dpi).

A screen and printed material have one thing in common: They display images using little dots. More dots (or pixels) per inch = higher resolution.

The constant march of technology notwithstanding, the current standard for online images is 72dpi. But when you try to bring that same image over to a printed piece, you get Impressionism. That’s because the required resolution for most print work is 300dpi.

Pictured: Liars, or sorcerers? You decide.

You can’t just use your favorite image-editing software to “make it 300 dpi,” either. “Zoom and enhance” will never work as well as Harrison Ford’s character in Blade Runner or any given episode of CSI: Computers Are Magic would have you believe. The information just isn’t in the image (which is also composed of little dots). Breaking those dots into more dots just makes everything look fuzzy.

On the other hand, it’s not wise to throw a 300dpi image up onto your website either. That’s because usually higher resolution means more data, leading to larger files. Larger files will take longer to load. This creates problems for the user and for the host, and no one wants that. At 72dpi, images load faster and in most cases will look fine.

The images below give an idea of how this works. Even though you’re looking at both on a screen, the one on the left is noticeably sharper. This effect is even more pronounced in print – and even this deliberately degraded image isn’t as bad as it could be.

Left: Higher resolution; right: lower resolution.
Dramatic recreation using trained images in a closed system. Do not attempt.

The moral of the story: There are a lot of variables in any design job. Make sure your designer has a clear picture of what you want.