The Art of Paper Folding

By Steve Bain

A simple fold can transform a flat sheet into many useful things. More complex folding can create delicate art or practical objects. Just ask anyone who’s worked in origami-the Japanese art of folding paper into unique shapes. Paper folding is a finishing process that is almost involved in the design of booklets, flyers, brochures, and marketing designs. In this installment, I’ll demonstrate a variety of folding examples and a few of the secrets needed to successfully pull them off.

The primary purpose of folding is traditionally to reduce the physical size of a flat sheet, but folding is also used to create unique and interesting design features such as pockets, paper closures, fasteners and so on. Planning a folded design requires both creativity and a sound knowledge of the technical limitations of the machinery processes involved.

First, I’ll explore a variety of folding formats -both conventional and non-standard – to contemplate when planning your next folding design. Although the folding concepts you’ll see here are based on different projects with non-existent budgets, allow yourself to consider adapting some or all of the possibilities presented here merely as design solutions.

Typical Fold Designs

As in origami, there are many ways you can fold a flat sheet to form a specific shape. Common vertical or horizontal half-page folds are simple enough to incorporate design-wise, enabling you to create the effect of multiple pages or panels. Single side folds enable you to create the traditional booklet style design, while top folds are often used to produce vertical style booklets or tent card designs.

But beyond the single fold, a variety of folding formats are possible. For example, a multi-panel gatefold usually involves folding two parallel folds equally dividing a flat sheet either vertically or horizontally into three panels where one panel folds toward the other (see the illustration below). Gatefolds enable you to divide a flat sheet into 6 panels, the inside three of which may be separate or combined. You’ll see these often used in the design of small projects such as flyers or direct mail advertisements.


The kit fold is a variation on the gatefold which involves creating two parallel folds where one panel folds toward the other at unequal points (see the illustration below). The third panel folds toward the second creating an enclosure of sorts. This technique is typical for storing loose inserts, and may be enhanced through other operations (such as die-cutting or gluing). A partially sealed sleeve or pocket can be designed to hold various custom-sized inserts. Kit folders most often crafted from heavy card stock and are common for containing any number of lighter loose or folded sheets. Modifications to the kit fold design via die-cutting can also make for more secure latch-style closures.


The poster or quarter fold involves two center folds perpendicular to each other (see the illustration below). This folding technique is also versatile since it enables you to create a variation on the booklet format with the added flexibility of combining the panels on one side into a single poster panel.


The next most common folding technique is a simpler variation and known as the tumble fold sometimes referred to as an accordion fold (as shown below). Tumble folds can involve any number of parallel folds in alternating directions to create any number of panels. The number of folds (and panels created) is limited only by the dimensions of the flat sheet being folded. These types of folding formats lend themselves well to such design projects as “vanity” style brochures since more than one panel may be viewed at a time in or out of sequence.


In what is likely the most specialized (and also the most complex) folding operation, the map fold provides a specific design solution for folding very large sheets into the smallest possible size (see the illustration below). Map folds are a combination of both gatefold and tumble folds, where both vertical and horizontal parallel folds are applied in a certain sequence. Map folds are typically used for cartography maps where large format printing is required.


Paper Folding as a Design Feature

There are several other processes you might require or consider for preparing the printing material to fit the design. Scoring and creasing are two processes which add enable heavier stock to be folded more easily for manual or automated folding operations to take place. While lighter bond-type stock used in typical brochure or flyer designs seldom requires scoring, heavier stock used for the design of kit folders, box construction, or cardboard preparation nearly always require some form of encouragement before folding. Paper scoring involves cutting only the surface fibers to prepare heavy stock for folding. Creasing operations involve flattening fibers using pressure. Both processes enable paper stock to be successfully folded while avoiding unfortunate results.

Die-cutting is a process whereby specialized shapes may be cut from paper stock in cookie-cutter style. Many print manufacturers often have on hand standardized die-cut formats to fit the most typical shapes for projects such as kit folders, brochures, and standardized box shapes. But, you can design your own shape if needed. Die-cutting opens design avenues which are otherwise impossible using the straight knife cutters typically used to trim printed designs. With die-cutting, you can use non-standard shapes and make your design really stand out from the crowd (see the illustrations below).


Die cutting also creates kit folders or containers which open and close in different ways or feature non-standard pockets or enclosures (see the multiple illustrations below).





Both drilling and perforating are post printing processes which have little to do with folding, but can nonetheless affect where folds are placed. Drilling is a process where by circular holes are literally drilled through the printed design. The diameter of the holes is a set standard, as is the distance from the trimmed or folded edge of the design. Drilled stock formats can be made to conform to standard two- or three-hole punch formats and are meant to be used in combination with ring-binding holders.

Drilling is often incorporated as a design feature for collectible or periodical publications such as newsletters or journals, but can also be used for specialty type documents such as archive, library, rolodex, or other database-type cards as well as loosely printed pages. Be sure to ask your printing vendor or print manufacturer for exact specifications and placement of drilled holes in your design. Perforations are a series of very tiny holes or slots which puncture completely through the printing material. Adding perforations to your design will make it easier for portions to be detached through tearing.

Besides book binding processes, gluing or stitching can be used to permanently fasten flaps or edges together in the production of typical books or specialty items such as kit folders and packaging or box design. Gluing operations are affected by the placement of folds (and other post printing processes) and are an option used in the design specialty items, such as gluing a sleeve holding a CD into a magazine. If your design fits a certain document or reproduction standard, glue can often be applied automatically by machine. In typical non-standard designs or for specialty items, gluing is often done manually.

Designing Content for Folds

For creative design projects, implementing a fold can positively or negatively affect the design or layout of a document. Folding physically creates a separation between areas where content can be placed. Depending on the direction of the fold and the orientation of the sheet, even a single fold will create a front (which can serve as a cover), a back, and either two separate panels or a combined panel spread inside. Although the flexibility of having an inner panel can be beneficial in certain designs, the placement of the content in relation to the fold can affect how the content is interpreted.

For example, two separate inside panels which feature lengthy headline-style text across the tops of two facing panels can easily be misinterpreted as a single heading. Or, the content of two facing panels can appear unrelated if the design characteristics aren’t similar or if there are no repeating elements or visual tie-ins.

In many cases, these design anomalies will only become obvious after a mockup of the design has been created. The evaluation offers you the opportunity to physically test and handle the fold planning. Testing a mockup is especially critical in box or packaging design, where complex folding and die-cutting are involved and the design content is often rotated to different orientations vertically or horizontally.

Avoid Folding Disasters

No matter how perfect the design content of a finished project is, one poorly placed fold can completely ruin the presentation, making the overall design seem flawed. Successful folding requires a high degree of precision and planning on the part of both the designer and the manufacturer or print services vendor. When designing for folds which involve panels folding into themselves, the type of stock used will significantly affect the placement of your fold. There are several key situations to avoid when planning fold positions. If your design uses a gatefold, be certain the inside folds are positioned so that the cover panel is the widest and opposite panel is the narrowest. If fold are positioned to divide the panels into equal width, the effect of the two folds on the innermost panel will cause the first panel folding inward to be too wide. Be sure to allow for this by offsetting the fold positions (see the illustration below).


One example of this which you may have noticed is on consumer maps which often feature exaggerated fold offsets (see the illustration below). The exaggerated fold offsets make unfolding and refolding easier.


If your design incorporates folds combined with perforations, avoid situations where the fold is superimposed over the perforation. This is actually quite common in print designs where brochures or flyers include tear-off coupons or response forms. The problem occurs when the perforation is weakened by the folding of the paper to the point where the tear-off portion becomes prematurely detached. The solution is to offset the position of folds away from the perforation lines by a safe distance-roughly 12 points is often more than enough (see the illustration below).


Although it may be entirely the responsibility of your print vendor, another issue relating to paper folding is grain direction. Paper grain is the general orientation of the paper fibers. For heavier stocks, paper grain direction can significantly affect folding if the stock is not prepared properly using creasing or scoring. Folding parallel or perpendicular to the paper grain generally produces nice results. Folding diagonally across the paper grain (especially with heavier stock weights) may cause the paper fibers to tear instead of bending. Again, check with your print vendor to verify whether the stock you have selected requires any special preparation before folding.

With these ideas and considerations in mind, it’s easy to see there’s more to folding than meets the eye. Whether you’re designing a simple brochure or flyer, or a full production package design it certainly helps to know which creative folding avenues you can pursue and the issues you need to contemplate.

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Steve Bain is an award-winning illustrator, graphic designer and author of numerous design and illustration books including multiple editions of Fundamental Illustrator, QuarkXPress The Complete Reference, CorelDRAW The Official Guide, and Looking Good Online.

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