Printing and Design Tips: February 2010, Issue #103

Image Personalization

The very first goal of advertising is to grab the attention of your audience. Increasingly, everywhere you look, images compete with each other. There's sound, color, movement. An ad has to stand out, whether it's on a billboard or a direct marketing piece that arrives in your US mail. It has only a few seconds, or less, to do its job.

Personalization has been the most recent approach to gaining attention in a visual sea of noise. From Amazon's suggestions as to what you might like to buy based on your recent purchase history to the direct mail piece with your name inserted multiple times throughout the ad copy, this advertising tactic is growing exponentially. Even digitally printed--and Internet provided--newsletters can be tailored by the advertiser to reflect your unique interests and values.

While effective, such personalization has nevertheless become ubiquitous. So the problem remains: How can you stand out to your audience?

One of the newest flavors of "variable-data-printing" (VDP) is image personalization. And it's amazingly powerful in a deeply visceral way. Software now exists that will allow the advertiser to insert your name into a photo in a realistic manner. For example, your name can be typed into a database field below a photo of a bartender serving up a frosty beer, and upon your pressing "enter," your name appears wrapped around the mug of beer as though it had been traced there by hand on the frosty condensation.

This is powerful and emotionally engaging -- the prime ingredients of a successful ad. I recently received a calendar from a financial advisor, and every one of the twelve photos had my name placed strategically somewhere in the image on each calendar page. One image had me appearing in Las Vegas singing with Ringo Star. Another showed my name created out of patterns of balloons floating in the sky. In all cases, my name seemed to be part of the overall image--in an organic way, not just typed onto the page like an afterthought.

I did some research, and found that this process is called image personalization. Others call it dynamic imaging. Having worked extensively with Photoshop, I could envision the time needed to blend images and words. I could even imagine the patience needed to skew the type and warp it, such that it takes on the perspective of the background image.

What I didn't expect was the website I soon found offering a myriad of background images with a field below the photo in which to type my name. Within seconds of doing so, I saw my name in the photos. It was the combination of the immediacy, the naturalness of the image and type (no feeling of something pasted on), and the "Wow" factor that grabbed my attention. The process is now automatically programmed. There's no further need to struggle with Photoshop.

Direct imaging or image personalization is very new. A few vendors are providing this service to marketing clients, and software like Direct Smile and Adobe Graphics Server are also available to blend text with Illustrator and Photoshop files in a "batch-processing" approach. Images or portions of images can be turned into fonts (coffee beans distributed in patterns to spell out names, for instance). What's interesting is not that this can be done--it has been possible in Photoshop for a long time with filters and transformations--but that it's so immediate and accessible at the touch of a key. This XML-driven operation marries the database with the image, just as VDP has--up until now--married the database with words.

It's also exciting because it looks "real." Perspective (the ability to curve the name around a spherical surface), lighting effects (shadows within the letters of the names, making your name look like it was actually chiseled into stone, with all the natural lighting effects that would be present if this were actually so), even opacity (depending on the intended design, you can even see through your name to the objects below)--all of these are now available.

Just as "Mail Merge" used to take your address database and merge it into your text-based marketing letter, this new technology automatically merges your database of names into the Photoshop file prior to output on a digital press. And, of course, for cross-media marketing initiatives this can be done for Internet-based products as well--such as PURL's, e-mails, etc.

You'll find that the formats are the ones you're already used to: Input types for text include Excel, Access, XML, and CSV. Input types for images include JPG, EPS, PDF, and TIF. You can use TrueType, OpenType, or PostScript fonts, and you can build your designs in InDesign.

In advertising, it's the "Wow" factor that grabs your attention, engages you emotionally, holds onto your interest, and drives the sale. This new technology really works. Stay tuned.

Here at we do have a bid request form dedicated to variable data printing and image personalization -- just click on Variable Data in the Project List to the right, submit printing specs to our network of variable data printers.

[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]