Card Design: Easy as 1, 2, 3

Nov 20th

We all love getting photo cards during the holidays.  See how the family/kids/pets have changed.  But we can tell right off what new web commerce site or box store someone has ordered their cards from.   Oops!  Sometimes we get two of the same card design, just different faces looking out at us.   Whatever happened to paper and paste and photos?  Whatever happened to handmade holiday cards?  If only there was some way to combine this technology and still give someone a little gift of a card that said – handmade.  I care about you enough to send you a handmade card.

This post is about how to make your own card design and make your card.  The process takes a few steps, so  we’ll go over three different areas, in three different parts.  Each part will teach you something that you can use in many different areas of your design process, they are not “card” specific.  It is just that we incorporate them all in this one card design.  Take your time getting used to each part before moving on to the next, and you’ll wind up with a great result.

Rather than get out the paper and paste, we’ll use technology that we have on hand:  Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop, and Make-the-Cut software (what I use for my digitial die cutter).  You can design your card using other software that lets you manipulate photos and design with your die cutter, and that works just fine, too.  But follow the guidelines and steps below, and adapt them to your own technology tools to make it work for you in your card design.


youtube icon

There is also a video to take a look at that is helpful.  Just click on the YouTube link above.


Part 1:  Using Adobe Illustrator (AI) to facilitate card design and font modification


Over the last few years  I have found myself using / learning the KnK software (proprietary software that came with my Klick-n-Kut digital die cutter) , the Make-the-Cut software,  Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop.  Each has it’s purpose and strengths.  But blended together, they can offer some simple magic which is what happened when I sat down this past weekend to make a holiday card. This section will give instruction in:

  • using Adobe Illustrator to plan your card design
  • Modifying fonts to be easily cut out without having to “stencil”
  • the importance of artboards when using AI with MTC

Lets start with the card design process.    First, I wanted to have a holiday card design where a photo would be framed by a snowflake cutout with text that was both written on the card and cut out.  I sized the card to fit in an A6 envelope which meant that two could be cut from a standard 81/2 x 11 piece of paper. A mock up really helps to get the basic format and design elements down.   A mock up helps you visualize the four sides of your card:  outside front, outside back, inside front, inside back.  You can see below my original artwork, which was the one I finally choose after several others.

Card Design photo 1

Mockup of card design

While your card will have four parts once it is folded, for card design purposes it has only three:

  1. print on the front
  2. print on the back
  3. cut areas on top of cutter
Card Design photo 2

Card design elements

Adobe Illustrator and Artboards

Now that I had an idea of how the front, back, inside and outside would look, it was time to go to the computer and open Adobe Illustrator.  I pulled open a new file and set my artboard size to my paper size, 81/2 x 11.   I created three artboards, one to match each part of the card design I’d be working with:

Elements to be cut out

Card Design photo 3

Card Design elements to be cut

Elements to be printed on front of paper

Card Design photo 4

Card design elements to be printed

Elements to be printed on back of paper

Card Design photo 5

Card design elements to be printed (inside)


Planning your artboards so that cutouts are separate from text is important when you make the transfer to MTC software.  You’ll want to separate the text from the cutout area when you print from MTC.  Basically, you will move your artboards into MTC individually, as separate layers.  Of course artboards in AI can have multiple layers, but when you put the single artboard into MTC, it goes in as one “layer” . Once my artboards were in place, I used the rulers and pulled the horizontal and vertical guide lines in place that I needed for the format.  These were my margins  and guide lines for the card design elements and fonts.  These guides held true for each artboard.  I also put labels on them so I could remember them.  You’ll see this in the video Next, I found a snowflake in vector format that I liked and modified it to carve away the inside so that I could make a scalloped design to frame my photo. The eraser tool in AI was simple to use and closed my paths.  I used the shape builder tool to clean things up and make a continuous design.  This is best viewed in the video. I am not going to get into the details of how to modify vector shapes with AI, there are plenty of YouTube and other tutorials on the Web that explain this much better than I can.  So I will assume you can do this yourself, either in AI or with MTC.  Using my guides, I scaled the card design down and placed it on my artboard.

Font Modification with AI

The main message in the card is “Wishing you a season of Peace”.  The font for all of the words is the same, but PEACE is cut out and “wishing you a season of” is printed.  Obviously the P and A in Peace were problematic for cutting out, and our solution is to “stencil” these letters so that the inner piece remains intact.  Here is where AI comes in and makes font modification REALLY easy.  Easy as 1, 2, 3. 1.  Type your text using the text tool. 2. Click outside the artboard and select the group selection tool, and select your text.  Now go to the TYPE pulldown menu and select “create outlines”.  See all those little squares that show up now?  Your text now has become a vector. 3. Go to your toolbox and select the eraser tool.  Define your eraser size, and just erase where you would normally stencil.  Hint:  If you hold down the shift key at the same time, you’ll get a straight line.  Making the font and the background the same color helps you see where the nodes have been erased.  The eraser tool closes your nodes for you, vs. the knife tool, for example.  We like closed nodes.


Card Design photo 6

card design stencil letters


I’ve just showed you how to use the eraser tool here, but of course, once you turn your font into an outline, you can do any type of easy modification to it, not just “stenciling“.  Again, the video helps.

Create your printed text artboards

The last thing in your AI card design is to create an artboard for the print that you want on both the front and back of the card design.  Looking at your mockup, determine where your font needs to be.  As you can see from my example, some of it is upside down, because that is how it will have to be printed out.  When it is folded, it will be right side up.  Do a separate artboard for each side that will have print.  Once you have the font in place, make sure you convert it to outline so that you have nodes.  Even though you might not need nodes in MTC, I’ve found that some fonts don’t translate over well, and having nodes gives you the ability to fix them easily in MTC.

Part 2: Using Make-The-Cut Software to print and cut without Print-and-Cut


This section of card design will give instruction in:

  • transferring your AI design to Make-the-Cut
  • Printing and cutting without using “print and cut”
  • set up your card design to accept your Photoshop image

Before we get started into the process of how to do “print and cut” without using a “print and cut” feature on your digital die cutter, let’s take a moment to explain how it all works.  This will help you understand the process we will follow to make the card below.  If you are already familiar with “Print and Cut” features on digital die cutters, or just don’t care about the hows, please feel free to skip on.  For the rest of you, here goes:

Have you ever wanted to print out a design, and then cut out the design from the paper you printed it on?  That is the concept behind “Print and Cut”.  One first prints out a design on paper (usually from within the digital die cutter software), and then puts that printed paper back into the die cutter and cuts it out.  You make both the vector design of where the design is to be cut, and the jpeg design of what to be printed.  Then the vector image is carefully aligned over the jpeg image to be cut.  Calibrations to each sheet of design to be cut are done EACH TIME a printed piece of paper is inserted into the die cutter, and beautiful exact cuts can be made.  An example of this is can be seen in this post.  Depending upon how carefully you have calibrated and set up your die cutter, you can get some very nice results with good precision.  The downside to this is that it takes a bit of time to set up each sheet to be cut out.  If you have a lot of sheets to be cut, this can be very time consuming.  And what if your die cutter software or die cutter itself does not support print and cut?

How does the “Print and Cut” feature work on die cutters that support this feature?  Through a series of calibrations of the four corners of a rectangle- alignment points that print out on the paper when a print and cut image is printed (of which we only need three corner points to determine the fourth), the cutter is given an exact size boundary that corresponds to the paper that the images are printed on.  By knowing the exact size of the rectangle boundary that encloses the images, and knowing the images (vector images, that is) that are within that rectangle boundary, it can determine exactly how far to move within that boundary to make the cuts.  By laying the vector image (your cut lines) directly at the edges of the jpeg image, and making sure that the rectangle boundary is exactly the same as the calibrated rectangle boundary (your printed alignment points), the digital cutter will then cut the paper with a fair degree of accuracy on your printed image.

Why do we need to do alignment each time?  Alignment basically tells the cutter how far to move within the rectangle boundary to cut.  If we are off on top, bottom or side, then the cut will not be directly over the image.  Even if we line up our paper perfectly, and tack it down perfectly straight on the matt, it will still be off.  Why?  Because the digital cutter itself is off.  And so are our matts.  Neither of them are precision instruments, they were not made to be.  So alignment is a necessary evil each time we do a “Print and Cut”, or want a very exact cut as we will be doing with this card.

There have been a lot of  requests for more detailed information on how to calibrate a matt and cutter for doing “Print and Cut” with out using the “Print and Cut” feature on a digital cutter, and I’ll get to work on making a special post to go into more detail on this in the near future.


When creating your card design in Adobe Illustrator (AI), it is important to make sure that each “side” of your card design; front, back, and cut out section; is on its own AI artboard.  That is because when you import your design into Make-The-Cut (MTC) you are going to import each artboard as a different layer.  Each artboard in AI translates into a layer in MTC.  If you think of it that way, your design process goes much more smoothly. In the card that we designed, there is writing on both sides of the paper (each it’s own layer), and we created in AI an artboard to reflect that.  We also have cut images.  Since cut images go through both sides of the paper, they are really only one layer/artboard.  BUT, we are folding the paper. That means that we have to carefully consider how the cutout is placed if it is text, etc.  That’s why it is so important to do your mockup (see part 1).   Making sure that your artboards correctly reflect how your final card design will look once it is printed out and folded, you now want to import the card design you have done into the MTC software where you will print and cut the paper.


Card Design photo 7

Import from AI one artboard at a time

As the screen shot below shows, you can choose which page you want to import from the AI file.  MTC will not automatically import all three artboards from AI.  It imports only one at a time, and you must specify which to import.  This can be confusing at first, as you import the file and find you only have one artboard!  But this is a good thing, as you may have artboards that you have used in your card design for other purposes that you do not want to import into MTC.  Click on the screen shot to blow it up and see more detail.


Now that we have imported our three artboards into MTC, we are going to check to make sure that our card design is clean.  I’ve found that while sometimes vector images are closed in AI, they don’t always import over to MTC that way.  With the fill on and the show nodes feature on in MTC, size up your image and check to make sure that all your nodes are connected so that things will print and cut as you had intended.  Using the node edit tools in MTC to easily connect and join one open node to the next closest node will take care of most of your stray open nodes. Be sure to check the printed images (remember, they are all vectors now) as well as the cut images.  If your nodes are not closed on all, the printed image may not print out as you had envisioned.

Pay close attention to this next set of instructions.   You will do two things that you normally don’t do:  reduce the size of your card design, and stack your layers.

It is important to provide yourself with a bit of “wiggle room” when cutting out with print and cut (but not using the print and cut feature on your digital die cutter).  With the card design cleaned up, set your matt size to be the same size as your paper.  Not the size of your actual matt, just the size of your paper that you will be printing and cutting out on.   If you are making two cards per sheet of paper as in our example, on the cut layer only, make a rectangle the exact size you want your final size to be and then a line down the middle to cut it apart.  Then take each layer, do a select all, and reduce your size so that it is now 1/4 inch smaller than the actual width and height of your paper.  For example, the 8 1/2 x 11 inch design will now become 8 1/4 x 10 3/4 inch.  Why do this? You can save a lot of time (hours) by not having to do a print and cut alignment adjustment for each sheet if you just make your card design a smidge smaller than the paper and cut it out with knife point (more on this later).  On two cards the overall size difference is negligible. With all layers visible, make sure to stack them upon each other to be sure your centering and alignment is correct.  You want every layer centered on each other so that when you print and cut, everything is lined up.


Card Design photo 9

Stack Layers to confirm alignment


Now it is time to print out the verbiage.  Using the print feature from within MTC, print out your first layer, then flip that printed side over and print out the second layer.  Use some test paper to make sure you have your alignment correct for feeding the top and bottom of the paper into your printer, as all printers are different.  Once you have that down, print out all your sheets.  I used standard Wassau astrobrights paper and ran it though my HP or Epson printer.


Card Design photo 10

One side of printed paper for two cards before cutting

Refer back to your original mock up to see how the cut outs must align with the text to properly position your now printed paper on the matt to be cut out.  With only the cut layer visible in MTC, get ready to cut your image using knife point. Wait!!  This is a print and cut application, don’t I need to use the Print and Cut feature and do all that alignment with the little laser light?  Nope.  That’s why we made the image a bit smaller. But wait!!  What about the cut skewing off to one side with knife point if my paper isn’t perfectly straight on the matt?  Won’t all my cuts be wonky?  Nope, we have a solution for that too.  You will love this fix, and it will become a staple in your cutting repertoire. Face it, print and cut is nifty, but you eat up a ton of time aligning the page with the three laser points.  If you have a lot of cuts on a page, OK, not so bad.  But we have at least 50 pages to cut out here (100 cards) and that is going to eat up too much time. So.  Line up your paper perfectly JUST ONCE.  Then every time after that it will be perfect. Perhaps you have a matt that already has lines drawn on it to help you accurately position paper.  But guess what.  For accurate work, it isn’t accurate.  The lines are fat, the matt may have warped a bit, or perhaps the lines didn’t get screened on it accurately from the sides.  There can be all sorts of things that go wrong.  We are going to find your perfect alignment,  set it on your matt, and never have a problem again.  (convo me if you want to send money or cookies because you are so happy with this trick). Here’s how:

  • Adhere your (test)  paper (in our case the 8 1/2 x 11) on your matt as accurately as you can.
  •  Cut out the cut design section of image (not the printed layers), by choosing  knife point.  Notice that this card design has a rectangle that is just somewhat smaller than the paper size.  The rectangle shape is all we are interested in here.  If you use this for another project, just do your testing with a rectangle only slightly smaller than the paper size.


  • Card Design photo 11

    Choose knife point

  • On your cutter, set the origin so the blade point at the very corner of the paper about 1/8 inch from the corner (this is because we made the card design 1/4 inch smaller than the paper size, and thus at each edge it would be about 1/8th inch from each edge).
  • Card Design photo 12

    blade alignment


  •  Cut out the design.
  • Remove the matt from the printer, but do not take the paper off of the matt.  Look carefully at the cut rectangle that is near the outer edge.  Is it even all around the edges of the paper, or does it veer off on the top or the bottom?  If it does not, with the paper still on the matt, take some blue masking tape and run the tape exactly along the bottom and side of the paper.  Don’t touch the paper, just run the tape exactly at the edges.
  • Card Design photo 13

    Taped Matt

  • If it does veer off, then adjust the paper accordingly, repeating the above steps until you have a perfectly even rectangle cut out inside your rectangle of paper, with edges equidistant on all sides.  Then do your tape.
  • I found it helpful to put down tape lines each time I cut, overlapping as I adjusted until it was perfect.

A couple other things to note:

  1. Take a closer look at the matt above by clicking on it.  You’ll notice the tape does not line up exactly with the printed lines.  Just goes to prove that they are not perfect, and finding your “true” alignment with your machine is the best way to go.
  2. If you are cutting out images from the same size stock again and again, it helps to have additional lines of tape that are placed where the pinch wheels roll.  That is what the left vertical tape line is in the pictured example.  coincidentally, the right pinch wheel rides on the right vertical tape strip.
  3. Once you have your “true” alignment on your matt, you can use it for multiple projects that call for that same sized paper.  Since I work with 81/2 x 11 paper frequently, I keep a mat with taped up all the time.  When I need to spray it with repositionable adhesive, I just “mask off” the masking taped areas and spray where the paper will be.

Now you can remove your (final) test paper.  You will use your masking tape guide lines to align your paper in exactly the same spot on your matt each time you cut.

Card Design photo 14

Taped Matt and Paper, ready to cut


Each time you put a new piece of paper on the matt, make sure to align your blade origin exactly at the same corner tip.  If you are cutting many cards one after the other, don’t turn the machine off.  Just load your paper on the matt, and place it in the cutter, moving the matt up or down so the blade is exactly positioned over your corner tip.  Then push your pinch wheels down.  You set your origin once, so your vertical alignment is fine.  (If you turn the cutter off, you will have to set your origin again, of course. ) Not setting origin with each sheet will save you a lot of time in cutting out.


Card Design photo 15

Cut and printed cards


Once your cards are cut out, you can score them.  It is much faster to score by hand with a product like Scor-Pal than reset the KnK pressure and cut the score line into the stock.


Card Design photo 16

Printed, cut and scored card


Once you have all your cards cut out there is one last thing to do in MTC to get you ready for the photo that you are going to put in your card.  Having the cut layer visible, but locked, create another new layer on top of the cut layer.  Using the circle tool, make a circle that covers up the open area where you want the photo to be.  Make it just large enough so that it covers where the face is, but not so large that it goes into the snowflake card design.  Now record the exact size of the circle, you’ll use this in our next step, with Photoshop.


Card Design photo 17

Remember that circle size for Photoshop!


Now you have all you need to get your cards printed and cut out.  Next step we will go over how to fit your photo into the card, and put it all together.  So get cutting!  Holidays  are coming up (don’t forget to send cookies…).


Part 3: Card design – inserting the photo

This is the last part in the series of card design using the tools of Adobe Illustrator, Make-The-Cut, and Photoshop with your digital cutter.  In this part we will:

  • crop image to size of card opening
  • assemble card

When we designed our card, we did so with the insertion of a photo in mind.  When we created the snowflake card design, the plan was to have the main picture in the center.  Certainly we could have the other smaller cutout elements show part of the picture as well, but in this case, we are going to use a different color in those sections to make a stronger graphic statement.  Check out the final card at the top of the post to see what I mean.

Therefore, our final photo image for the card will be a circular main photo surrounded by a solid color that will show through the smaller cutout elements.


Card Design Photo 18

Card design cutout. note circle for photo sizing…

Let’s start by selecting a photo to use.  I am not going to go into the specifics of Photoshop, as there are many great tutorials out there on the web that can tell you how to use it much better than I.  But I will lead you through the steps that I used to create my final photo.

From a photo I liked, I cleaned up the background, exposure, contrast and tone.


Card Design photo 19

Raw Photo


Then I cropped it to fit the opening in the card.  Remember when we created layers in MTC in part 2 of the tutorial?  Remember the last layer we did after we had cut out the card, the one with the circle that was just a tad larger than the center circular opening, but not so big that it would go into the area of the secondary cutouts.  We wrote that size down, right?


Oh well, we can always go back and look it up.  And that is what you need to do.  Open up and unlock your circle layer in MTC, and with the pointer tool, select the circle that you need to know the size of.  In the top right hand corner of the toolbar, the size will show up, in our example 1.6.  (double click on the image to enlarge to see detail better).


Card Design photo 19

circle size


In Adobe Photoshop, crop the photo so that you now have a circle the exact size that will fit in the card, that is of your image section that you want.  You may have to play around with the image size to fit in exactly what you want.


Card Design photo 20

Cropped Photo, same size as our circle


Now that we have our image the exact size that we want it, we need to place that image on  our “canvas”.  Image size and canvas size are two different things in AI, much like matt size and paper size are in MTC.   I decided to print out the image on a 4×6 piece of paper.   In AP, we make our canvas size 4×6.  Next, go back to your  physically cut out  cards that are scored, and measure down from the fold to your center opening so that you can  determine where to place your  image from the top of your canvas in Photoshop.   Since the  cutout is  centered on the cardstock, the image is then centered vertically, and adjusted horizontally to fit onto the card.  Print out a few photos to make sure that you get the measurements correct.  The photo sheet at 4×6 will then only need to be cut off at the bottom after it is printed, saving you a lot of time.

Once the image is centered, create another layer behind the image layer, and pick a color that you want to show through the secondary cutout images.  In the example we choose green to contrast with the red of the paper, although plain white looks nice, too (see first photo in post for example).  If you have made the background of your top layer transparent, then the color of your second layer will show through.


Card Design photo 21

Photo with green background


Once you have printed out and gotten your image exactly as you want it to fit in your card, you can upload it as a jpeg to a photo house and have multiple images printed out for your use.  When I did this, the cost for a hundred was under $15.00.

Now it’s a few days (or hours) later, and you have all your printed material in place.  It’s time to assemble your card.  Here’s what you need:

  • your printed and cut cardstock, scored
  • spray adhesive (my constant friend)
  • scrap paper
  • brayer
  • paper cutter
  • glitter (optional)
  • photos
  1. Using scrap paper to mask the inside bottom half of the card, spray your adhesive over the entire inside top of the card stock.  Masking tape attached to the scrap paper and carefully aligned over the score line is helpful to prevent spray from straying where it is not wanted.
  2. Carefully place the front of the card over the photo, aligning the image perfectly inside the circle, so that image and solid color match their respective areas (sounds hard, but it isn’t).  If you were exact with your image in AP, then the top of the photo sheet will line up with the score, and your entire inside top half of the card covered in glue will now be covered over by the photo.  Brayer.
  3. With the card not yet folded, take to the paper cutter, and cut off the bottom of the photo that is sticking out.  Optional is to dust a little glitter on the front cutout, the glitter will stick to any glue that my be hiding there, giving a nice touch.

If you would like to share a card you have made with this process, drop me a line, and we will get it posted for all to see!