Psychology-Driven Brand Design. Creating and Refining Remarkable Brand Identities.

“G” is for: Glossy

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There are two points in the printing process that will impact the glossiness of your finished product:

  1. the type of paper you print on, and
  2. the finishing you add afterwards.

And there’s one question you need to ask yourself:

  1. “Just how glossy do I want this to be?”

Your paper choice – Coated or uncoated?

Paper stock falls into two categories: coated and uncoated. I’ve come across people who assumed coated meant glossy and uncoated meant matte. It certainly sounds logical, but that’s not what those terms mean. Don’t get them confused! Coated stock can be either glossy or matte.

What’s the difference?

Stock that is classified as coated paper simply means the paper is treated with a clay-based sealant during the paper-making process. This is done to make the paper surface smoother and reduce the amount of ink that can be absorbed into the paper — this is the advantage of using coated paper.

If you choose to print on glossy paper, you’re selecting a coated paper with high reflectivity. That means it has a shine to it and makes colors pop more. By contrast, matte paper has a low reflectivity. It is non-glossy and flat-looking and colors tend to be softer or more muted.

Whether the coated paper is glossy, semi-gloss (satin), silk, matte, or dull depends on how much the paper was buffed and polished when the clay sealant was being applied.

The alternative to coated paper is uncoated paper. This means that when the paper was made at the paper mill, it did not have a sealant added to the surface. Uncoated papers tend to be thicker and more textural, and they absorb and spread ink more than a coated paper will. You can find uncoated paper in a variety of textures (linen, felt, ribbed) and colors. In general, you’ll use uncoated paper for letterhead, envelopes, invitations, or for pieces where you want a higher-end or specialty look.

Once you’ve picked your paper, you can turn your attention to the finishing options!

Choose to finish with a varnish, aqueous, or UV coating after printing.

The primary purpose of a coating finish is to protect the piece (or seal the ink in the case of using uncoated paper). It is also used for visual effect. Just like your paper can have different levels of reflectivity, your coatings can have different levels of shine as well. Not all coatings are glossy!

UV coating

Ultraviolet (UV) coating adds great protection to your print piece, making it stronger and thicker. You can achieve a high shine with UV coating if you choose the glossy finish (there is also the option of a flat matte UV coating if you want the durability without the high shine). While the coating shows fingerprints, smudges, and dust easily, the slippery surface also allows them to be wiped off easily. But you cannot write on it, as ink will wipe right off as well. UV coating is beneficial if your piece is expected to have a long lifespan, since it helps prevent ink fading.

The coating is relatively environmentally-friendly: it’s not petroleum-based, and in most cases, the piece is recycleable. A benefit of UV coating is that it allows for fast turnaround – once the UV coating is applied, it is cured almost instantly with UV lights. This gets your job out the door faster than some other procedures that may require a longer drying time.

Aqueous coating

Aqueous coating, as the name suggests, is water-based, making it the most environmentally-friendly finish available. Aqueous coating provides good protection from smudges and fingerprints, though not as much as UV coating. Like UV, the finish can be glossy, satin, or dull. Unlike UV, you can still write on aqueous coatings with a ballpoint pen.


A varnish was the original method of finishing a piece, before UV and aqueous came along. While still extremely common, a varnish offers the least amount of protection and is the least environmentally-friendly. It was originally petroleum-based, and some still is, though vegetable-based varnish now exists. As with the other finishing options, you can choose a glossy, satin, or dull varnish. Varnish is often the least expensive finishing option, which is good if you’re on a tighter budget. But if longevity is a concern, it may not be the right one for you. In addition to the low degree of protection, over time a varnish tends to yellow.

Spot coating

A nice touch is to only have selective areas of your piece glossy, like maybe just your logo. This can be achieved by spot coating. In this case, the finish is not for protection so much as visual effect. Spot coating can be done with varnish, UV, or aqueous; though varnish allows the most precise application.

When to go glossy?

Hopefully by now you understand how you can achieve varying degrees of gloss in your print pieces. If you want a super-glossy piece, you can start with a gloss coated paper, and finish it with a high-gloss UV coating. There are three cases when you may want to consider this route:

  1. When you want your color to pop. If you are using saturated rich colors that you want to appear vibrant, a glossy finish will do this beautifully. Blues and blacks in particular will benefit greatly from a glossy finish. Beware though, that gloss UV coatings can potentially cause spot colors to shift slightly.
  2. When you are using photographs. Similarly to the above, if you are using photographic images that you want to look as crisp and detailed as possible, a glossy finish will accentuate them.
  3. When you want to increase the durability of the piece. A UV coating resists scuffing and scratching and increases the thickness of the piece. This is important for direct mail, which is at the mercy of our postal service. (Keep in mind though, that the address side of a postcard should be left uncoated [or addressed before being coated] so the address can later be added successfully.)

Beware of too much gloss.

Yes, there is a such thing as too glossy! The high reflectivity can cause glare, and the higher the gloss, the more the glare. This can impede legibility and be bothersome for readers. If you are planning to photograph the piece, you’ll have a tough time dealing with the glare as well. This comes into play particularly nowadays with the rise of business card scanning apps, which many people use to snap pictures of your business card to store your contact details. You don’t want your glossiness to get in the way of that!

Also, a UV coating will tend to crack if folded, due to the thickness and hardness of the coating. This means it’s not always the best option for a brochure or folded piece, particularly if it’s printed on a heavier weight of paper. The lighter aqueous coating is preferable to UV in this case, though you won’t get the high gloss that UV can provide.

The eternal debate: Is glossy ‘classy’ or ‘tacky’?

Whether you choose glossy, matte, or an uncoated stock is up to the feel you want your finished piece to project. Some believe gloss makes something look polished and professional. Others think it’s tacky and cheap-looking. For the most part, I tend to agree with the latter camp. To me, glossy can easily communicate slick (as in used-car salesman slick), or trying too hard, overcompensating. A matte business card done right projects a higher-end, classier, and sophisticated feel. I once heard someone say that she would only order glossy business cards simply because she associated matte with the business cards she used to print herself from home. I understand the instinct, but what an limited mindset! Likely, what made her cards look homemade had less to do with the lack of glossiness and more to do with the quality and weight of the paper used, the limited capability of her home office printer, and the lack of a professional design.

So, go glossy if you like, but don’t do it just because you think it will make you seem more legitimate! If your main purpose for getting a glossy coating is for the protection and durability, ask your printer for a sample of matte UV coating to determine if that might be a good option for you.

For every piece you print, consider how much the piece will be handled, where it will be used, the lifespan of the piece, and whether you want a sharp and crisp effect or softer and natural. Taking into account these factors will make you well-equipped to make an informed decision about gloss!

Photo credit:  Cloud Gate. Flickr (user InfoMofo)

Picture of Nyla Smith

Nyla Smith

Nyla is a Graphic Designer, Web Designer, Front-End Web Developer and Consultant with over 15 years of experience. She is the owner of n-Vision Designs, LLC in Hampton Roads, Virginia, which exists to provide marketing support and brand consulting to small- and medium-sized businesses needing creative solutions. Contact Nyla if you'd like to discuss your next creative project. She can usually be bribed to a meeting with a cup of green tea and an oatmeal cookie.

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