Try to Tri-fold Correctly

Mike was nice enough to mail me a crowbar and my postal carrier (a rather awesome woman named RoJean, actually) was nice enough to apply a little bit of leverage once it arrived so I could crawl out from under that rather heavy load. And the timing was perfect since my cats had eaten through the supply of potato chips and were starting to eye my toes. *shudder*

But while I was under that looming hunka heaviness, I thought back on how my life has changed since I started doing page layout work for a living. I’ve been fortunate to work in a couple of different industries, including a service bureau that honestly felt like a Kinko’s-style copy center with nicer carpet. I punched and drilled and bound and proofed and pdf’d my little heart out. And while I recognized that most of our clients were administrative assistants who had to figure out how to get something printed, I hated them for using Excel to create posters and Powerpoint to create banners. But, I learned a lot at this job and a lot of what I learned was what NOT to do. It was at this job that I realized that there are a fair number of websites with introductory information and thanks to great Google-foo (If I could have a black belt in this I totally would!) I can usually find more information about my more obscure and advanced needs on the internet. But what is lacking, and what I’m *obviously* geekily interested in, is transitioning users from having the basic knowledge of how the tools work and making it possible for them to use those tools with slightly better practices to create files that work better and cleaner. And there are limitations to what you can get some pieces of software to do (personally I’d love to see Adobe completely rewrite the Office suite of products), but with a little creativity and finger-crossing you can often get something beautiful with crudely made tools. So not only am I hoping to write more often about some great ways to use InDesign better (to keep Mike from mailing me a wrecking-ball), but I also want to exorcise some of my previous-life print demons and share some information that many mind helpful.

One of the most commonly printed promotional items that this previous job printed was the tri-fold brochure. A tri-fold brochure is a really fancy way of saying a piece of paper that has been printed on both sides and then folded into thirds. So if you’re going to put together one for say, oh maybe a small accessories company, you’d probably just start with a basic InDesign document set up like this:
to get a page that looks like this:

1p gutter gives you room to fold the brochure without having anything important touching the fold line. The p3 margin keeps anything important 1/4″ away from the edge of the paper which should take into consideration most color copiers gripper edges. I’m assuming that you’re planning on having your brochure printed on letter-size paper on a standard color copier. If you’re getting your brochure printed on a more traditional press, or if you’re planning on having your items bleed off the edge and get trimmed to size later, then these limitations won’t matter. But I’m going to assume this is getting printed on the cheap.

However, what this very basic setup doesn’t take into account is the “turn” of the paper. If you’re going to have a piece of paper folded and then folded again, there is an extra piece of paper in the way of permitting your brochure to fold flat, and its even more noticeable if you’re using a sheet of 80 pound coverstock. Now if you take into consideration that the paper is getting folded by a machine and that if the machine isn’t calibrated perfectly, the inner-most folded flap could be just a wee bit wider so when the other fold happens you get flap interference that results in your inner-flap getting crinkled as it goes through the folding device.

But thankfully there is a very easy to prevent this. All you have to do is make three even panels, and then make the panel that gets folded in 1/16″-inch more narrow. You can either pay to have that narrow strip trimmed off your paper (but we’re going for cheap, right?) or you can divide that 1/16″ by two and add 1/32″ of an inch to the other two panels. No matter your paper width, your brochure formula looks like:
Panel 1- (front panel): 1/3 of the paper length + 1/32″
Panel 2- (back panel): 1/3 of the paper length + 1/32″
Panel 3- (inner panel): 1/3 of the paper length – 1/16″

If you’re going to be using letter-size paper, your panels look like this (converted to decimals, instead of fractions):

Panel 1: 3.67 + .03125 = 3.698
Panel 2: 3.67 + .03125 = 3.698
Panel 3: 3.67 – .0625 = 3.604

And if you think this little bit of extra math is so not important, then keep in mind that your print-shop will remember that they had to do extra work to your file last time so next time they’ll charge you more to make up for it. Or, your client (the accessories company) might decide that since your brochure had crinkled pages, they’d be better of finding someone else to layout their “really simple” brochure. Trust me that paying attention to the smallest of details will set you apart from the mass of people who don’t. I always, always, always recommend calling your print-shop and telling them what you’re getting printed and ask if they have any requirements.

So, now that we know what our brochure panels should be set to, what is the best way to set guides so we don’t have to draw guides and rules? Unfortunately the Margins and Columns option (shown in the first screenshot above) will no longer work for us since our columns aren’t even. So draw a ruler guide and make the X-location = 3.698. Copy the guide, paste in place, and type +3.698 into the x-location box so it reads
<b>3.698+3.698</b>. If you haven’t yet figured out that you can do basic math in these boxes, give it a shot.

Hit return and you should now have two guides on the page. This page is now the inside of your brochure. You’ll need to create another page to be the outside of your brochure. Since the last panel of your first page will be the first panel of your second page, you’ll create the panel widths differently. Draw a ruler guide and position it at 3.604 in the X-location. Copy the guide, paste it in place, and add 3.698 to position the second guide correctly.

You now have a very basic skeleton of a brochure template. And this setup is perfect if you know that the folding capabilities of your bindery or print shop is great and you can have full-color bleed go directly to the fold-line without it going over. However if you’re not sure about the folding accuracy of your final product, here are a few suggestions.
* If possible keep the inside of your brochure having no background fill in any of the columns. Think of it as one piece, instead of one piece divided in three.
* If you have to have solid fills of color, keep the fill 1/4″ from the outside edge of the paper and at least 1/8″ from the fold-line. This will prevent you from getting a sliver of your front cover bleeding into your back cover.
* As tempting as it is, try to not make the text and art on your front and back cover perfectly centered. If it is centered perfectly you’ll see exactly how badly the folding was. Try to keep the imagery and text balanced, but not even.
• Or, keep any items that need to be centered and as close to full-bleed as possible, at least 1/4″ away from the edges of the panel. This should keep you from getting a badly folded brochure that makes your panel look really off-kilter.

So if you’re really unsure about the quality of the final folding (keep in mind that your sample is most likely going to be folded by hand and therefore perfect), and you want your template to take this into consideration, here is a simple way to alter your template to create a “no ink zone” in the fold area.

Draw a line that overlaps your guide perfectly. In the stroke palette, change it to be .25″ wide. You know have a very wide stroke that you can make any color that makes you happy. Keep in mind that if you want to duplicate this line and move it to overlap your second guide, you should have the center square of your “reference point” chosen. Otherwise, the left edge of your guide will align if you have the top-left reference point chosen. And as we’ve proven, 1/32″ can make a difference in your final product. I suggest putting these strokes on a separate layer and setting it to be a non-printing layer.

10 Responses

  1. “keep in mind that your print-shop will remember that they had to do extra work to your file last time so next time they’ll charge you more to make up for it” – too true. I work in a print shop and that’s exactly what we do.

    Everything you’ve said is exactly what we do here, except our presses have a Gripper edge (margin that the press cannot print on the paper) of 3/8″. And the panel sizes we use are a bit bigger than yours – 2 panels at 3.75″ and the inside panel at 3.5″ So i would suggest to ask the print show what they prefer as you design your piece.

  2. […] Publicious article on making trifolds […]

  3. If you’re designing a self mailer, USPS regulations now require 2 or more wafer seals on most folded pieces. To check USPS requirements for a job you’re designing, contact a Mail Piece Design Analyst. You can find one in your area by going to

  4. I just spent almost an hour looking for this information. There’s tons of websites out there that have standard size templates for tri-folds but my client wants a non-standard size and I need to know where the folds need to be. Thanks for the info and bookmarking this page.

  5. Thanks for the info and the template! You just saved me some valuable time, cheers!

  6. Link for the template is not working

  7. Do you still have the template? The link is broken. Also do you find this is the easiest way and what happens when your brochure is larger or smaller than that size? Do you basically just divide add the same amount no matter what page size?

  8. Has the template file been moved? The link above results in a file unavailable page.

  9. Yes, sorry, the template file is not available. I’ll remove the link from the post.

  10. I’m attempting to create a trifold (CS6) which has a photo background spread across all three “inside” columns. Text & photos would be on top of the photo, & they would also be situated on each of those three columns. The “outside” columns would have just photos & text on each individual column. Future versions would (hopefully) have text & photos flowing across the various columns on both “inside” & “outside” columns. Suggestions (e.g., templates) would be appreciated. Size is 8.5×11, & 11×19. Printing on Epson laserjet & hand folded (Job is free for a nonprofit.).Thanks in advance!

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