Crop marks explained: understanding safety, trim and bleed lines

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Crop marks are short lines at the edges of a print design indicating the desired print dimensions. Safety, trim and bleed lines are guidelines that prepare the design layout for printing. As insignificant as they appear, these marks guide the transition from a digital design to a successful print.

It’s easy for novices to overlook these technical guides, especially when using a printing service. But these small measurements can have a big impact on how your print file turns out, regardless of how well-designed it is. Luckily, crop marks and print guidelines are easy to use once you understand what they are and how they work.

Table of contents

When and how to use crop marks

Crop marks, a type of printer mark, are used on any design file that will be sent to a professional service for printing. This includes posters, product packaging, business cards, signage, flyers, books, magazines, brochures and more.

Print designs are generally printed on a larger sheet than is necessary, allowing printers to use the same-sized sheets for any project size. Once the design is printed, a machine or technician cuts it out of this larger sheet using small ticks in the corners of the design document, known as crop marks.

Close-up of a person checking an offset printing proof

Multiple smaller designs can be printed at once using crop marks to cut them out of a large sheet. Source: via Depositphotos.

In short, any design that needs to be trimmed after printing will need crop marks; apparel, for example, would not require them. If you are unsure whether this applies to your project, check with your printing service ahead of time.

Who is responsible for adding crop marks?

Some printers may add crop marks to designs that are missing them. However, the printer is not the designer; they can make a guess, but they don’t know how the design is intended to turn out.

That’s why adding crop marks is ultimately the designer’s or client’s responsibility. The client must communicate the dimensions for their final print product to the designer and the designer must size the document by adding printer marks onto the design file as necessary.

Safety, trim and bleed lines

The print guidelines that frame a design document are the safety, trim and bleed measurements. While predominantly used for the design and setup of the document, crop marks take their cue from these lines, making them an important—if indirect—consideration for printing.

The “slug” is sometimes included with print guidelines. It is an area outside the design containing notes such as titles, dates, design version numbers or special instructions intended for the printer. This is entirely optional, but if you decide to use one, ensure that the slug lies beyond the crop marks so that it is cut away after printing.

Image with bleed, crop and trim line marks

Bleed area, trim line, and safety line on a standard US/Canada business card, 3.5 × 2 in. (88.9 × 50.8 mm). Source: by kendhie via 99designs by Vista.

What is a safety line?

The safety line is added to a print file to create an inner margin between the edge of the paper and the design content. Essentially, any information that you don’t want to run to the edge of the document should be kept within this safety zone. While a safety line is not necessary for the printing process, it keeps the borders around the design consistent and the inner content centered.

The exact placement of the safety guideline depends on how big you want the inner margins to be, but it should be at least 0.125 inches (3mm) from the edge of the document.

Holiday flyer design with centered text and a wreath illustration around the edges

The text and logo would sit within the safety line in this flyer design, whereas the illustrated border would extend beyond it. Source: by M A D H A N via 99designs by Vista.

What is a trim line?

The trim line is added to a print file to mark the actual edge of the print document; where it will be cut. Because crop marks are aligned with trim lines, these guidelines are essential for both printers and designers. The edge of the document may get covered up when the bleed is added, making it important to keep the trim line visible throughout the design process.

The placement of the trim line is exactly the same as the actual dimensions of the final print product. Most printing services have standard dimensions for each type of print product, while some offer custom dimensions for unique materials.

Business card design for a florist brand

In this business card design, the flower graphic extends right up to the trim line for a creative effect. Source: by Bojana via 99designs by Vista.

What is a bleed?

The bleed is added to a print document to indicate the exterior margin for background color and graphics. This is one of the more challenging guidelines for novices to wrap their heads around, but once you understand how printing and cutting work, it becomes second nature.

Product packaging pouch design for a dried beef jerky brand

In this product packaging design, the background color and upper graphics would all extend to the bleed line, while everything else would be kept within the safety line. Source: by Mj.vass via 99designs by Vista.

Print designs are generally printed on white paper. That means that if you have a solid color background or graphics intended to run right up against the edge of the document, human or machine error when cutting can leave a white border from the underlying printer paper.

This has nothing to do with the quality of the printing service; even minute misalignments between the cutting device and the document edge can leave a noticeable white line. The bleed is just an easy way to ensure this never happens by extending background graphics beyond the trim line. Basically, it’s called the bleed because the graphics “bleed” off the edge of the document.

While adding a bleed to all print documents is never a bad idea, it’s imperative for projects involving graphics that extend to the edge. The bleed line is commonly 0.125 inches (3mm) beyond the trim line. Once the bleed line is added, the designer must also stretch the background graphics to meet it.

What are the standard measurements for print guidelines?

The measurements for each print guideline will vary depending on the document type. Additionally, different countries use different standards. For that reason, it’s always important to check with your printing service and research the standard print dimensions for the specific region you are in. These are the commonly used measurements for print projects in the US:

Business card1.875” x 3.375”2” x 3.5”2.125” x 3.625”
Letter (flyers and brochures)8.375” x 10.875”8.5” x 11”8.625” x 11.125”
A48.175” x 11.575”8.3” x 11.7”8.425” x 11.825”
A58.175” x 5.675”8.3” x 5.8”8.425” x 5.925”
A65.675” x 3.975”5.8” x 4.1”5.925” x 4.225”
Tabloid (posters and brochures)10.875” x 16.875”11” x 17”11.125” x 17.125”

How to add crop marks and print guidelines to your design file

Adding print guidelines to your design document is a technical issue and each creative software brand will have its own specific set of instructions. Read on for basic tutorials for the most common software, but first here are the general steps for adding guidelines to your document:

  1. Ensure you have the right file type: Ideally, guidelines should be added to the source file—the original file created in the design software. Check with your printer to see which image file type they require and ensure that the exported file contains the crop marks.
  2. Add print guidelines in the correct position: Follow the recommended measurements to place the safety, trim and bleed lines. For precise measurements, input the guidelines by entering numerical values in the appropriate dialogue box rather than relying on drag-and-drop tools.
  3. Extend graphics to the bleed line: Extend all edge graphics to the bleed line using the software’s resize tools. If your design includes a background image, make sure it is big enough to extend to the bleed ahead of time (stretching a photo beyond its original dimensions will lower the resolution).
Packaging design for a skincare brand that includes a photographic image

Make sure that background images are large enough to extend to the bleed. Source: Packaging design by JianBranding™ via 99designs by Vista.

Most creative software use print guidelines that appear only in the editing window and disappear after exporting. This is ideal for print guidelines. If the print guidelines are created with actual graphics, such as a dotted rectangular box, these will be printed onto your document. Check the exported file and hide any print guidelines before sending it off to the printer. The crop marks, however, must appear in the ready-to-print file so that the printer knows where to cut the final print product.

Here are the common ways to add print guidelines to design files (note that “safety” is often referred to as “margins”):

Margins, trim, bleedCrop marks
Adobe Indesign, Illustrator, PhotoshopFile > Document SetupFile > Print > Marks and Bleed
Affinity PublisherFile > Document SetupFile > Print > Show Details > Bleeds and Marks
Microsoft PublisherPage Design > Size > Page Setup > “Target paper size” optionsFile > Print > right click on printer > Advanced Output Settings > Marks and Bleed tab > select the “Crop marks” box

Begin your print project with crop marks

Crop marks should never be a print design afterthought. From the very start of the design process, you must size the document, add the trim, bleed and safety guidelines in the correct positions, and fit all of the design elements within them to avoid making last-minute adjustments. Although these guidelines are technical requirements, they all come down to simple measurements. If you take care of these right away, you can focus on the more creative aspects of bringing a stellar print design to life.

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