The Zen of Trifold

“Send me pricing on this brochure,” read the e-mail. “I want 200 and if the pricing is real good I might do more.”

Feeling only slightly motivated by the prospect of such a massive order, I took a look at the file. The file extension was .psd. “A Photoshop file,” I thought, “at least it’s not put together in KidPix, like the last one of these I received.”

I opened the file. A trifold, Black and white, with photography, at least one strange font, all at 72 dpi. The size was nearly 9″ by nearly 12″. The columns were off, so there was no possibility of ever folding it. The file had been flattened, so editing in Photoshop was out of the question (even if the fonts had been included). Alarms began to sound and the blue screen of death popped up on my monitor.

WARNING: This file has failed Preflight. Your computer will meltdown in 30 seconds unless you CLOSE THIS FILE!

Grasshopper, DIY trifold brochures really shouldn’t be all that tough. Assume the lotus position, take four cleansing breaths and follow Poor Richard’s guidelines.

Step One: Measure

A standard piece of U.S. letter-sized paper measures 8.5″ x 11″. You can certainly use paper of a different size, but be conscious that it must be cut from a larger sheet. This is OK, but it will increase the price of the project slightly, perhaps too much for the opulent budget of our email correspondent.

Allow for margins on the outside of the sheet and gutters between the columns. A minimal margin for any press printed job is 3/8″. The margins are necessary to allow the grippers, which essentially are little clamps in a printing press, to grab the paper and carry it through the press. You can’t put ink in the area underneath the grippers, hence the need for a margin. For digital printing, you can probably get by with .25″, but you might lose a page number or two.

The gutters are the spaces between the columns. The basic rule of thumb for gutters is 2x the width of the margin. This will allow the text and graphics to center in the panels when the piece is folded. An amateur designer who forgets this rule and makes the gutters too small or large is termed a gutter snipe.

Step 2: Measure Some More

Now take a few more measurements into consideration, beginning with the front panel of the brochure.

As you begin your layout, you must decide whether you want the image to bleed. A bleed is when ink is actually printed beyond the finished edge of the paper. If you choose this feature, oversized paper will be required. The bleed is achieved by cutting into the printed area. Your printer will require that the images that bleed extend 1/8″ past the finished page size. If you are working with a good page layout program, like Adobe Indesign, you can define the bleed in your document settings.

Remember that you must send the oversized image to your printer. If you send a native page layout file, the information will be there. On the other hand, if you save to a .pdf file, you must specify the final size of the piece including the bleeds. In this case, the final size would be 8.75 x 11.25.

Poor Richard’s Tips:

  • As you begin the layout, you may also want to make one slight modification to the panels that will help your printer greatly and make the finished product look more professional. In the image above, the leftmost panel folds in to make the trifold. Because of very small variations in both paper size throughout a print run and the tolerances of mechanical folders, it is necessary to shorten the fold-in panel by a very small amount. Usually 1/16″ is plenty. The two rightmost panels should be slightly longer and the leftmost panel slightly shorter.
  • If colors change from one panel to the next, it’s also good to determine where the overlap will occur. Remember that the fold line falls in the middle of the gutter lines. The blue screen behind Ben in the layout above actually laps over to the back panel by just a small amount. It will look better to have a small stripe of blue on the back panel than to have a stripe of white on the front of the brochure. If you are concerned about the folds, ask your printer for a blueline or a folding dummy before proof approval.

Step 3: Consider the Reader

It’s a common mistake to design a folding brochure on a flat sheet with the assumption that the reader will treat it like a letter. Remember that a trifold is folded. It won’t be read left to right and top to bottom. Rather, it will be unfolded and read panel by panel. Follow Ben’s glasses below:



Panel one, the front panel, will of course be the first one that the reader sees. He may actually turn the brochure and look at the back panel next, but it is more likely that he will open the brochure next. The second panel he will see is the inside left panel, followed by (Surprise!) the outside left panel, which is folded in next to the inside left. If your brochure is text heavy, your message should carry from the inside left panel to the outside left then to the remaining inside panels. If your brochure is heavy on art or photos, make sure that colors or photos on the inside left panel doesn’t conflict with the outside fold-in. And remember that if you use a photo or text that bridges the left two panels on the inside, part of it will be covered up by the fold-in.

Poor Richard’s Tip:

  • You can use the center and right hand panels on the inside as a single layout area. In the illustration above, Ben’s printing press falls in the gutter between the two panels. This is a great place for diagrams, illustrations or a large photo.

Step Four: Finishing Up

In the illustration above, panel #6 is the outside center panel. This is the back panel of the folded brochure. This is the place for contact information, directions, a map, or a final photo. This panel will probably get the least attention from your reader, so put the most important information somewhere else.

Poor Richard’s Tip:

  • You can design your trifold as a self mailer. If so, the back panel should be your address panel. Remember that the USPS will require a gummed tab to seal the brochure to receive automation rates. If the tab can be placed at the top of the panel, only one is required. If you orient the address so that the return address is at the open end (bottom left of the panel), you’ll save a little money and time when tabs are applied.

Last Words:

We missed the massive order for 200 trifolds. Not wanting to make too many assumptions about the art I’d received, I called the customer to ask the right questions. It was her cell phone. Her voice mail said, “Leave a message and I might call you back.” I did. She didn’t.


7 Responses to The Zen of Trifold

  1. Kevin says:

    Very informative! I’d been wondering what kind of margins/margin of error to set up for trifold brochures.

    And yes, don’t you love it when customers leave a cellphone number that they never answer?

  2. 10th Way says:

    Ha-haa! I know exactly how you feel. Thanks for the article and the 72dpi sarcasm.

  3. kabababrubarta says:

    Good site! kabababrubarta

  4. Lisa Ann says:

    Thanks for the insight and humour. It was both entertaining and educational. In a previous life I was involved in producing print material – and now, not so much.
    Thanks for reminding me of the things that I used to know! It was fun learning it again.

    Best wishes to you.

  5. Amybeader says:

    Great article on a confusing subject. Appreciated the humor. I’m currently a graphic design student, and a fellow student was trying to figure out a brochure for another class. She had completely missed the alignment and adjustments needed for folding. So I’ve been searching for helpful info. Am going to forward this to her.

    And in the meantime I’ve bookmarked it for me. I know I will return to learn more!

  6. Lonnie says:

    Excellent article. Appreciate the illustrations.

  7. Bobbie Gonzales says:

    Thanks for the heads up. The tri-fold layout is more than half the battle, and your shared wisdom saves me many hours.

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