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Paper 101 - How to Choose

– Monday, September 28, 2015

Something so simple as the humble piece of paper is invaluable and so important in our lives – and not just ours as designers, ours, you and me – everyone.

Paper has a rich, colourful history which has spanned the world’s geography and its cultures. To trace its development offers us insight into humanity’s relentless imagination, creativity and sometimes folly. Thanks to the wonderful creation of paper many descriptions of our world have been stored so that we may share and learn from them. (*1)

So where does paper come from?

Paper has been around for approximately 2,000 years originating in Ancient China 206 BC - 220 AD. Such a closely guarded secret was paper, that only a selected few were taught its process. But sooner or later (and over many centuries of time) the cat had to come out of the bag and now, in this present day, we are going to let you know what paper is all about.

If you’d like to read a more in-depth history about paper there are hundreds of articles that can briefly or long windily provide this. One short article we found interesting is this one (click here).

How is paper made?

When paper is first made it consists of pure wood pulp from harvested trees, which is chipped, cooked and slushed to be prepared in water, then flattened and dried. Recycled paper is made from previously used materials (such as household post-consumer waste) and printers trimming or offcuts that are re-pulped and prepared to be made back into paper materials.

If you'd like to know more, here is a site that breaks the process down, as simply as possible from the Paperone website . . .  or watch this cute and creative clip on YouTube.

 Choosing which stock to use, comes down to a few factors: let's first discuss weight and thickness…

Weight and thickness

Paper is grouped in a measurement called “GSM” which stands for grams per square metre.

This term is what most people are familiar with and use. GSM is the physical weight of a sheet of paper 100 cm x 100 cm for each paper stock. So basically the heavier the paper, the thicker it is (as long as it is exactly the same variety of paper stock). However when you compare one stock of the same GSM to another paper variety, it can look, feel and give a completely different appearance.

The actual measurement of physical thickness of paper is UMs (a metric unit of measure). We know a millimetre is one tenth of a centimetre so imagine what a thousandth of a millimetre is – in this case, an UM. Only specialised equipment used in paper and print industries can determine these micro measurements.

When comparing one stock to another we are experiencing the density, pigment, stiffness, finish, texture and feel. This is why different stock with the same GSM can have a different UM measurement because they have been processed, compacted and finished differently.

Here is a quick reference on what stock is generally used for with different print applications:

80 – 100 gsm 


Thinnest, lightest and economical choice. Great for stationery, pages and text in magazines, booklets, flyers and brochures. It's often the stock used for what we find in our letterboxes, more commonly known as junk mail.

120 – 170 gsm


Used for sleek brochures, flyers, books and booklets to give a professional finish. Posters of small to medium sizes are produced on this heavier stock weight. 

200 – 250 gsm


This heavier stock is good for covers for magazines and booklets as it protects the thinner pages inside and increases longevity. This is also a good choice for large posters and pull up banners.

280 – 420 gsm


A hard wearing option that is used for various stationery such as business cards, greeting cards, postcards, invitations, booklet and book covers, small paper signs and a various range of packaging. 

Coated and Uncoated

Another factor is the finishing of stock – whether it is coated or uncoated. And that’s not if they have a jacket on or not!

Coated paper has had a clay substance called Kaolinite and Calcium Carbonate added during its manufacture process, which fills the pours of the pulp giving a smooth result. This coating adds weight, and can add a gloss appearance (except when specified as matte), makes it smooth and reduces the adsorption of ink. Henceforth ink will sit on the surface rather than sit in the pours of paper, which means ink will take a little longer to dry. The varieties of coated stock come in different finishes, such as matte, satin, silk and gloss. Coated paper enhances colours, clarity and definition.

There is paper with a thin film of laminate added, known as Celloglaze. The enhances colour plus strengthens the paper and protects the fibres from moisture and normal tearing. Once paper is laminated, it can make it difficult to write on with normal ballpoint pens or ink markers.

Uncoated paper does not have extra additives that finish the surface. This paper reflects less light because of the rougher texture. The tiny pours of the exposed paper will soak up ink like a sponge and will dry quickly, by a slightly bleeding within the paper fibres.

Generally coated paper is used for:
• Images, photography, illustrations and colour displays.
• Print media that needs enhancement and clarity.
• To give a sleek and professional appearance.

Uncoated paper is usually used for:
• Books, booklets, some magazines, flyers, newsletters and newspapers.
• Print media that is text-based.
• To give a rustic and alternative appearance.

A good reference for not only finished paper and stock but all classifications and terms is within this useful glossary.


It's important to note that a variety of special embellishments can be added to your paper – after and during the print process – such as metallic foiling (super shiny stuff), metallic inks (a little bit shiny) and spot UV varnishes (super glossy stuff). We can go on and on about these and will save a lengthy explanation for a future blog post.

Pigment and Texture

I bet you thought white was white. Well it is, but it has many variations. White paper can come in different hues, for example a high-brightness has a cool tone, a low-brightness has a warm tone and there is a middle range of natural or soft tints. To enhance colours, the high-brightness is best, whereas a warm tinted paper is recommend for skin tones. These are also considerations we make when choosing paper for projects.

There are a high range of specialty paper with textures, such as linen, canvas, parchment, rustic, suede, metallic, leather and many versions of recycled textures and pigments. When considering texture and paper finish it is a question of what kind of message you would like to portray. Linen, leather, suede and metallic may express 'professional, expensive or luxurious' compared to parchment, rustic or recycled papers that can portray 'environmentally-friendly, relaxed or an alternative perspective' personality.

Paper Sizes

Here are some global recognised sizes, dimensions and some common print media use:




Measurements (mm)



Common Uses




1189 x 841



Very large posters




841 x 594



Large posters, charts, architectural plans




594 x 420



Medium posters, charts, architectural plans 




420 x 297



Small posters, diagrams 




420 x 210



Standard printed sheets, office stationery, folded flyers, booklets 




210 x 148 



Note pads, flyers 




148 x 105



Small note pads, postcards 




210 x 99



Flyers and brochures

business card



90 x 55



Cards for wallet-sized pockets

Paper sizes have common uses and are named for what the purpose is and where in the world it has originated from. These two links explain in more detail on paper measurements and size:

1. paper sizes
2. KW Doggett paper sizes

Wrapping Up

So hasn’t this been exciting! Paper has so much to offer, with multiple choice. However if you’re still confused with the best way to choose the right paper, try and answer these basic questions:

What is the durability of the printed media?
Consider the life-span. Is the handling going to be repetitious, for example a brochure or a manual.

What will the thickness need to be?
We look at durability by thickness and purpose and the paper size needed for the print media itself.

Is it sending the right message?
Here we consider the coated or uncoated stock, brightness and texture while making considerations for photographs, images and text. We look at the personality of the company,  the individual, print media and overall affect of the message. Break it down into terms such as luxury or stylish, and consider environmentally friendly with an alternative feel.

How much do I want to spend?
Weighing up all the above factors we now have to look at the expense. Do you need to produce great quantities and be economical? Or is it a quality media that can know no bounds for exploring what is available?

As designers, we consider these factors and encompass it into the end composition of each and every design that we create. What we produce as a creative piece, breathes life into the simple but humble piece of paper.

Contact us if you’d like help choosing some paper for your next print job. As you can see, we love to talk about it.

Click the images below to view our paper examples a little larger…



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