I'm designing a simple flyer that will be printed (I have little experience in the print world) and it might need to bleed to the edges, though I'm waiting to hear back from the person I'm designing it for.
1. If it does bleed to the edges, do I only need to make sure that the artwork on my artboard touches the edges of my artboard? OR is there something else that needs to be done?
You artwork should go beyond the edges of your artboard to allow some wiggle room for trimming.
When saving as a .pdf, go to the Marks and Bleed options. Here you can set the desired bleed measurement (specified by your printer). I've included crop marks to further illustrate the result.
Here I have the document open in Acrobat, so you can see how the file exported. The trim marks line up with the artboard of your original document, so when the flyer is trimmed down your artwork will go all the way to the edge, even if the trim is slightly off.
For more information, check out this link:
Forum discussion: http://forums.adobe.com/message/2742531
(EDIT: I took off one of the links because, after closer inspection, I didn't think the instructions were best practice.)
1. Does it cause a problem to design something without knowing what to do with the bleed measurements from the beginning of a project?
2. Just for clarification, in your example with the file open in Acrobat, the white edge is the part that is going to be trimmed?
1 - It should not cause a problem as long as you know the final document size. if you go back to your .ai document and choose save as PDF, you will be able to change the bleed measurement again for the new version.
2 - Everything beyond the crop marks (pink and purple areas in the image below) is trimmed away, blue and white areas alike.
Best practice is to offset the crop marks at least the width of the bleed, in the US, .125" bleed is common, so the marks should be offset to .125". The reason for this is to avoid a bit of crop mark on the finished piece if the final cutting is off.
0.125" is a common bleed for publishing and small collateral (such as a flyer). But it's always best practice to check with your printer to ensure what bleed they would actually like (especially for larger graphics).
I work for a printing company and I can't tell you how many times I've been sent 0.125" bleed for large- and grand-format graphics. Too many designers think 0.125" is an all-encompassing "industry standard" when it's anything but.