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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven 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.

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Custom Printing: The Web, a Great Way to Learn About Printing

October 24th, 2016

Posted in Printing | Comments »

I was brought up on paper. I like print books and paper invoices. There’s something permanent and tangible about ink or toner on paper. Ironically enough, however, I have found the Internet to be the best place to learn about the new commercial printing technologies.

For instance, while reading about the most recent drupa printing technology exhibition in Germany, I learned about a lot of new digital equipment, but I found myself unable to fully grasp some of the physical processes described only in words. So I went to YouTube for help.

Highcon Digital Finishing

The first technology I researched through videos rather than written descriptions and fact sheets was the new cutting and creasing equipment produced by Highcon: the Euclid line.

I had been so used to the traditional method of cutting and creasing—the creation and use of metal dies and rubber components attached to flat wood sheets—that I could not quite wrap my brain around how to do this digitally without physical, metal dies.

My trip to YouTube led me to videos of the Highcon Euclid. I could see the equipment jetting polymer ridges onto the press drums such that they would score the paper substrate as it traveled through the machine. Seeing this happen made the process immediately understandable.

Then I got to see how lasers could cut the paper substrate, providing finished cardboard box blanks that could then be assembled. The video showed actual burn patterns of lasers quickly darting around the moving paper substrate as it progressed through the equipment. Who could grasp this process as fully from a written description as from a few seconds of video? Clearly if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video is priceless.

Offset Printing on Bottles

I had been pretty clear that offset commercial printing was not an option for decorating plastic hair product bottles. My understanding of the process was that the heavy pressure of offset printing rollers would crush almost anything other than paper and packaging board. In fact, my understanding was that flexography or custom screen printing were the technologies of choice for any crushable substrate.

So when I read an article mentioning offset bottle printing, I looked to the Internet for video footage of offset printing being done on plastic hair product bottles. It was just like being a fly in the pressroom, witnessing from multiple vantage points exactly how the press blankets could come into contact with the bottles without crushing them.

Only a few seconds of video made the biggest impression on me, as I could see the chain operated conveyor bringing hundreds or thousands of bottles, one by one, to the rotating blanket cylinder of an offset lithographic press. I could see the exact point of contact as the rotating press cylinder deposited the inked graphics (and even the small descriptive type) onto the rotating plastic bottle. What could have been a mess was actually a never-ending line of bottles adorned with small, crisp type and graphics.

And again, I could not have envisioned this quite as well by reading a paragraph of text as by seeing even a few seconds of the video showing the operating press.

What We Can Learn from This Experience

Both of these experiences have taught me a few things about human psychology, the virtues of video as a learning tool, and the way print and digital media can actually complement one another. Here are some thoughts on the matter:

  1. I think people are creatures of habit. They see what they are used to seeing or expect to see, and they often can’t quite envision a new way of doing things. In my case, I was so used to the idea of hammering thin metal rules into wood to create both scoring (or creasing) dies and cutting dies that I couldn’t quite picture a machine that could use digital information to jet a fluid that could harden into a creasing rule—without the use of a metal die. In this case, a video made all the difference. It gave me the proverbial “aha!” moment of intuitively grasping the process.
  2. In understanding a physical process, such as commercial printing or finishing, even an amateur video is helpful. High-end video production values like professional actors, voice-overs, or music would have been unnecessary.
  3. Since I now understand the core manufacturing processes, if I want to expand my knowledge further, then a written document explaining the processes and reviewing the equipment specifications would be extremely helpful. In this case, print media and video would be complementary educational tools, each with its own strengths.
  4. My next insight pertains more to commercial printing than to digital media. I could see how inventive pressman can be. In producing the plastic bottles, the offset press actually printed a vertically oriented image, unlike that of any other press I have seen. The never-ending progression of plastic bottles dropped vertically to a position in front of the rotating blanket, which spun the bottles around at the precise speed to deposit the ink. (In most cases this would have been a horizontal process, and the rollers would have crushed the substrate.) The ingenuity behind this workflow is astounding.
  5. My fifth comment also pertains more to digital custom printing and finishing. Watching the lasers jet around the substrate cutting out blanks of cartons, and seeing the nozzle jetting a polymer material that would harden into creasing ridges on the rotating drums, made it clear to me that digital finishing—and not just digital printing—is coming into its own. Not that long ago, digital printing was more akin to laser copying. Then it improved, and the images were colorful and crisp, but you had to move the press sheets to traditional analog finishing equipment to complete the job. Now the manufacturers are getting serious and addressing all components of the manufacturing process, from laying down ink or toner on paper to cutting, creasing, and folding a job digitally.

Posted in Printing | Comments »

Custom Printing: New Orders For Nanography at drupa

October 17th, 2016

Posted in Digital Printing | Comments »

An associate just gave me a link to an article about drupa 2016 and Nanography. This time it seems to actually be a real, ready-for-primetime technology, and the proof is in the actual commitments at drupa by purchasers of the presses.

First of all, the press release from Landa is entitled, “Landa Announces Beta Sites and Major Orders.” You may find it interesting, and I’m sure it can be accessed online. It is dated 5/31/16.

Secondly, drupa is touted as, “the largest printing equipment exhibition in the world, held every three years (4 years in the past) by Messe Düsseldorf in Düsseldorf, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany.” (From Wikipedia).

Thirdly, in the simplest terms, Nanographic Printing involves inkjetting special nanographic ink onto a heated conveyor in a Nanographic press. The drops of ink quickly flatten and lose their water content, forming an ultra-thin polymer ink surface image on the conveyor. From the conveyor, the image is then transferred to the commercial printing paper. (Unlike inkjet, the ink is not jetted directly onto the paper.) By the time it is transferred to the substrate, the ink film is completely dry. This allows for superior ink holdout (the ink sits up on top of the paper fibers). Halftone dots are especially crisp (since there is no dot gain), and the thin film of ink not only cuts ink costs but also provides an especially wide color gamut. And due to the nature of the process (the ability to use off-the shelf printing stock), paper costs can be controlled.

So how do drupa, the Landa press release, the pre-orders for the new commercial printing equipment, and Nanographic Printing all relate to one another?

According to the press release, at drups 2016, the following heavy hitters committed to the Landa Nanography process:

  1. Quad/Graphics, “the largest publication printer in the US” (Landa press release), will bring Landa Nanography to the short-run, versioned publications market (magazines and journals). This will involve “magazine quality” (Landa press release) work on light-weight coated and uncoated press sheets.
  2. Cimpress, “the global leader in mass customization and web-to-print” (Landa press release) will buy and install up to 20 presses “upon completion of successful testing.” Cimpress “aggregate[s], via the Internet, large volumes of individually customized orders for a broad spectrum of print, signage, and other products.” (Landa press release).
  3. Landa will install its presses at beta sites across Europe and the United States in 2017.
  4. These beta sites will include such vendors as colordruck Baiersbronn (“Germany’s leading folding carton specialist,” according to “Landa Announces Beta Sites and Major Orders”). colordruck will install a Landa S10.
  5. Another beta site will be Elanders, “the Sweedish headquartered global print and packaging supplier” (as per the Landa press release). Elanders will install a Landa S10P Nanographic Printing press with perfecting capabilities.
  6. Imagine! (noted in the Landa press release as “North America’s leading provider of large-scale point-of-sale displays and in-store signage”) will beta test the Landa S10 B1 press, which is ideal for point of purchase and point of sale work due to its 41-inch format.

The Implications

Here are my thoughts:

  1. Granted, “Landa Announces Beta Sites and Major Orders” is a press release. You could say it is just promotional literature. However, I think it speaks volumes that such prominent vendors as Quad/Graphics, Cimpress, colordruck, Elanders, and Imagine! have gotten behind the technology. They are putting their reputations on the line, and this says a lot about their belief in Nanography.
  2. The technology will reduce make-ready times, allow for large-format printing, and maintain offset quality, which will establish Nanography as viable competition for offset lithography.
  3. The specific configurations of Landa’s Nanographic presses (the Landa S10 standard; the S10P for double-sided printing; and the W10P, a Nanographic web press that can print 656 feet per minute of publications, catalogs, and direct mail work) address the main growth sectors of commercial printing (general commercial printing; short-run, highly versioned periodicals; large-format point of purchase and point of sale displays; and folding cartons and flexible packaging).
  4. The short-run, variable nature of Nanography allows packaging printers to print smaller runs in response to market trends and economically alter the packaging for promotions or individualized messaging campaigns.
  5. In short, Benny Landa’s presses (Benny Landa is chairman of the Landa Group) will provide offset quality and speed while offering mass customization capabilities, the option of smaller press runs and versioned press runs, and even economical mock-ups and test marketing initiatives.
  6. If all of these beta sites are satisfied with their Landa Nanographic presses, this will establish Nanography as a mainstream, affordable alternative to the more traditional commercial printing technologies such as offset lithography and flexography.
  7. As an added bonus, Landa has developed “Nano-Metallography” for these presses, a replacement for hot foil stamping at half the price.

High quality, quick turn-arounds, and economical costs: You just can’t beat that combination.

Posted in Digital Printing | Comments »

Commercial Printing: A Shopping Bag Is Worth a Thousand Words

October 12th, 2016

Posted in Bag Printing | Comments »

My fiancee got a Lululemon shopping bag in the mail today. She bought it on eBay. I’m always pleased to see how easy it all is, pushing a button on the computer and then having boxes arrive at the door.

In this case, my fiancee asked me to look closely at the product, which I did. She said it was paper, but on closer examination it seemed to be plastic. It was almost entirely black and white, except for the red Lululemon logo.

Since I am a student of commercial printing and marketing (and since I’ve been intrigued by the almost cult-like approach to athletic apparel recently), I started my research online. First I wanted to know what it was and how it had been made.

The Printed Product

The bag is a little over a foot in either dimension, with gussets that give it a 6” depth. It is surrounded with black “piping,” made of a woven plastic fabric. Online promotional product articles speak of polypropylene bags such as recycled plastic gift totes and grocery totes that all seem to look like this one (structure, not design). So I will assume at this point that the bag my fiancee bought is a polypropylene tote.

It seems light but surprisingly durable, with a pattern of minuscule linked diamonds crossing the entire surface of the plastic fabric, except for the woven handle and the piping. Everything is reinforced with stitching, so apparently this bag can carry some weight.

In a world full of 4-color marketing excess, this bag is sophisticated in its black-and-white simplicity (except for the bright red logo–as mentioned before).

Interestingly enough, the artwork seemed at first to be strands of hair, drawn with charcoal or graphite. The image extends across the front and then continues on the back (but does not cross the side-panel gusset). The art has an almost Asian look, like a sytlized fish print in black ink with the signature “seal” in red at the bottom (the “hanko” on the “Gyotaku”).

The Manufacturing Process

I searched online for printers well-versed in this kind of work (there were many), and the techniques they used ranged from custom screen printing to thermal printing. Due to the thin ink coverage, I would assume the manufacturing process had not been custom screen printing. (If this had been the case, I think the screen printing ink would have been much thicker, like what you would see on sports cap visors and printed messenger bags.)

That left either direct thermal printing or thermal transfer printing. In my recollection of the 1990s, the direct method was achieved with wax sticks of color (like crayons) that were loaded into the thermal printer. These were heated until they liquefied, and the fluid was jetted (like inkjet printing) onto the substrate. The Phaser (invented by Tektronix and then purchased by Xerox) was an example of this technology.

Presumably, thermal transfer printing would be a comparable process but with a transfer-paper intermediate step (similar to dye sublimation, in which heating the transfer paper will turn the dyes into a gas that will then migrate to and bond with the polyester substrate).

Based on my reading, either approach could have been used. Apparently some thermal (direct or transfer) work does not have superior rub resistance (which would be a problem with an item like a shopping bag that needs to be durable). However, my reading suggests that thermal printing works well on polypropylene. (This actually made me think I was on the right track with both the polypropylene substrate assumption and the assumption of the custom printing technique used.)

Under a loupe I could see the halftone dots (a screen of red under the Lululemon match red logo, presumably added in order to intensify the color) and also in the hair-like pattern of the black and white art. If I had not already read about direct thermal printing and thermal transfer printing, the somewhat imperfect nature of the halftone dots would have suggested to me that flexography had been the commercial printing technology used for the bags.

So I’ll go with thermal printing as my educated guess, given my findings on the bag-printing website.

The Marketing Message

Inside the bag was a fabric tag with a URL pointing to several videos about the artist, Heather Hansen.

In these videos you see the artist using her entire body to make the art. Holding in each hand what appears to be a drawing charcoal stick (or graphite stick or conte crayon), she captures on the huge canvas (or paper) in repeated circles and loops the physical movement of her body (in various yoga-like stretches). (It is vaguely reminiscent of making angels in the snow—but using paper or canvas, and graphite or charcoal, as the media.)

Like the action paintings of Jackson Pollock, Heather Hansen’s work is a snapshot of her physical movement within the moment. She captures her athletic motions (almost a meditation with movement) in the circles and loops of graphite, ending up with repeated geometric patterns that remind me of the forms made by the “Spirograph” (a drawing toy popular in the 1960s that created a myriad of mathematically based shapes—like fractals).

From a marketing point of view, this is brilliant. The tag in the plastic tote (essentially a print product, even though it is also functional art) leads you to an online experience. In this feat of multichannel marketing, you get not only the plastic tote bag but also the multi-sensory experience (the video and audio track plus the sometimes ethereal and sometimes tribal soundtrack) describing the artist’s work.

Why This Works So Well on a Marketing Level

  1. The product is inexpensive but durable. This registers as “value,” which adds to Lululemon’s brand image (and the image of those who carry this tote bag).
  2. The overall “feel” of the bag is “fine art” rather than “graphic art.” (The commercial printing technique captures all of the smudges and imperfections of the charcoal drawing.) This along with the minimalism (and visual reference to Japanese fish painting) makes the overall tone of the bag one of high culture. Again, by affiliation, this extends to both Lululemon and the owner of the bag.
  3. The product is recycled. This appeals to environmentally conscious young adults, who are presumably Lululemon’s main clientele.

So my take-away from all of this is an enhanced appreciation for Lululemon’s marketing skills. No wonder it’s doing so well as a brand. Whoever is in charge understands art, digital technology, multi-channel marketing, and psychology.

Posted in Bag Printing | Comments »

Custom Printing: Harnessing the Power of Sticky Notes

September 17th, 2016

Posted in Sticky Notes | Comments Off

Without deeper consideration, you might just think the lowly sticky note, that little notepad on your desk, might not offer a wealth of marketing mojo, but that would not be the case.

Just think about it. If your company name were emblazoned on all sticky notes on a potential client’s desk, it would make an impression (conscious or unconscious) every time he or she had to write a note.

Granted, this would also be true for a branded notepad, but a sticky note is more likely to be seen by others as well. So let’s just say your prospective client sends a stack of papers to a colleague. He or she puts a sticky note on the top sheet as a marker to note what’s in the stack of papers. The sticky note and papers circulate around the office, and any number of new potential clients see the name of your company. That’s good advertising, particularly when you consider the low cost of the product.

A “Repositionable Note” Workhorse

At a colleague’s suggestion, I did some research into a South African company that manufactures “SAP,” which stands for “Specialized Adhesive Process.” The company is called Perfect Finish. I found it online at, and this is what they offer:

  1. Depending on the exact model, SAP is an A3- and A4-sized sheetfed “padding system” for sheets of repositionable notes, which are also known as Post-Its (the brand name) and sticky notes. A3 is the international paper system designation, which converted to the US standard would be 11.7” x 16.5”, whereas the A4 size is 8.3” x 11.7”. The larger size can yield a set of 16 standard sticky note pads (known as 16-up per sheet).
  2. The equipment can start with a stack of press sheets produced either via offset lithography or digital printing (laser or inkjet), so there’s flexibility in the SAP process.
  3. The SAP binding equipment essentially adds strips of glue between the individual press sheets as they travel through the machine. The glue can be precisely positioned, so the individual pads can be different sizes (from traditional sticky note squares to vertical bookmarks to mouse pad sized sticky notes).
  4. After the gluing step, the 16-up (or whatever number) pads can be trimmed into their individual final sizes on a guillotine cutter.
  5. One thing that makes the SAP machine stand out is that it’s very small (2,600 mm x 700 mm, which is 102.36” x 27.56”) and surprisingly inexpensive. To a commercial printing vendor, this means it’s affordable, easily positioned on the factory floor, and potentially very lucrative (since this is specialized work, and not all custom printing suppliers have a padding machine). To the buyer, this means the sticky note pads will be relatively inexpensive.
  6. The paper has to be long grain and uncoated, but it can be of various weights (usually about 80 to 90 gsm, which is about 60# uncoated stock), including a thicker backing sheet on card stock (up to 250 gsm, which is just over 90# cover stock). The backing sheet can also be printed. In this case, when you run out of sticky notes, you have a note on the thicker base paper telling you where to order more.
  7. The flat press sheets travel through the machine, which coats them with a thin layer of glue using a gravure roller system, and then flash dries the glue with infra-red lamps.
  8. When the guillotine cutter separates the printed and glued press sheets into smaller, individual pads, the pressure of the guillotine clamp tightens the grip of the padding glue.
  9. Since you can produce the press sheets on digital equipment, you can print and collate them to personalize or even sequentially number the resulting pages in each sticky note pad. You can even collate different colored press sheets into the pads.
  10. The process lends itself to either small or large runs, and either static or variable data commercial printing.
  11. The make-ready is minimal (almost nonexistent), and the first sheet is usable. Wash-up is quick and easy, and the equipment can be operated with minimal training.
  12. New jobs can be loaded while the SAP machine is already operating, so the process avoids downtime.
  13. The pads can even be die-cut into irregular shapes (the SAP website mentions heart-shaped sticky notes) off-line after the gluing process.
  14. The padding glue is a water-based, eco-friendly adhesive.

What This Means to the Designer, Marketer, and Print Buyer

While promotional in nature, the SAP website from which I learned all about this process does have some serious, positive implications for marketing, both from the standpoint of the designer and copywriter, and from the business viewpoint of the commercial printing vendor.

First of all, anything that gets a client’s name out there in front of multiple viewers is a good marketing tool, particularly if it is simple and inexpensive. In fact, sometimes the simplest marketing vehicles are the most effective (think of postcard print runs, for instance). Sticky notes just work, because the user sees them repeatedly and then usually hands them off to one or more colleagues (on the top of a stack of papers).

Secondly, from the vantage point of the custom printing supplier, buying this kind of padding equipment could be a good business decision in that it’s useful to clients, not everyone provides this service economically in both long and short runs, the equipment costs relatively little, and the machine takes up very little room on the pressroom floor. To me that looks like a “win-win” for everyone.

Posted in Sticky Notes | Comments Off

Book Printing: Folding Tolerance for Book Signatures

September 7th, 2016

Posted in Book Printing | Comments Off

I received an interesting question from a PIE Blog reader today. I think many other readers will benefit from the answer. Here’s the email:

“Hi Print Industry,

“I’ve been following the Print Industry blog since I started creating a book and looking for a printing business to produce it. I have a question from the customer side, and I’m hoping to establish whether or not the printer I’ve chosen can still do the job.

“I have a book that involves two separate, but side-by-side, images on each page. The images are to be separated by a line of perforation. There’s also another perforation line because each sheet needs to tear out from the book right at the edge of the image. I was contacted by the graphics person at this printer yesterday, and he said they couldn’t get the perforation perfect on every page, so some [perforation] lines might run onto the image. [He suggested that I] put white space between the perforation and image. He said this was because of the nature of perforation on paper and implied that this would be a problem everywhere.

“Is it true that perforation can’t be right on the mark on every page, or should I be looking to leave behind my deposit and look for a printer who can do this?

“Thanks so much,


This was my reply:


Books, in particular, are problematic, since the book printer starts with a large press sheet and folds it into a smaller signature (i.e., the press sheet is folded multiple times). Each fold can move a page slightly (and progressively) out of alignment. Therefore, when creating anything (especially a print book or other “signature-based” printed product, like a magazine), it is prudent to remember that folding is a mechanical process that is far from perfect, and to design the piece so a flaw in folding is not obvious. This includes avoiding “crossovers,” in which one graphic element continues across facing pages (unless they are side by side on an unfolded signature press sheet).

The same thing is true for other processes such as perforating, which will move slightly from sheet to sheet during the folding and trimming process.

Basically, your printer is trying to protect you from being disappointed. Some commercial printing suppliers producing some printed products on some equipment will do a better or worse job (depending on these variables: size, number of folds, operator skill, and equipment). However, this will be a challenge for all custom printing vendors, and there will be flaws. Personally, I’d defer to the suggestions of the book printer for avoiding problems–as long as you have confidence in his skill (based on his printed samples and other clients’ views of his work).

Thank you,



This PIE Blog reader’s question has several implications. Here are some thoughts:

How do you know when to trust/not trust a printer?

Like any good relationship, a relationship of mutual trust with a commercial printing supplier takes time to develop. Personally, I like to start by talking with the sales rep to get a sense of the printer’s strengths. Then I like to read the printer’s equipment list, request and review printed samples, and get some feedback on the printer from references. I check the samples closely for precision (trimming, for instance), color fidelity in the images, consistent ink coverage, and binding. Any flaws will say something not only about the printer but also about the sales rep who chose the samples. Then I start the printer off with a small job (a test). From there I gradually build a mutually supportive relationship with the printer, which takes time. Once I have developed mutual trust with the printer, I listen closely to his advice, since he will know more about his equipment and capabilities than I do.

What is reasonable tolerance?

For this kind of job, the book printers I spoke with said 1/32” in either direction. However, in a lot of print jobs, I’ve seen closer to a 1/16” tolerance (in either direction).

This means that if two halves of an image come together (as in a gatefold), there is a possibility that the image may not line up exactly across the fold (or page break). In fact, the match may be off by plus or minus 1/32” (or a total of 1/16”). In addition, the more folds your job has, the more this tolerance will add up (1/32” plus 1/32” plus 1/32”). If the fold is misaligned initially, it will get worse with each successive fold.

It is therefore prudent to discuss your job’s folding requirements with your printer and ask for suggestions about designing your job to minimize this inevitable problem. Designing signatures of a publication with this limitation in mind (for example, placing an image that crosses from page to page in the center spread of one signature rather than with half of the image on the last page of one signature and half on the first page of the following signature) can maximize alignment accuracy.

What printing/finishing processes are more challenging?

The more folds there are in a press sheet, the more problematic alignment can be. Therefore, a tri-fold brochure might be less of a challenge than a 16-page signature of a book. This is true for a fold, a perforation, or a trim. For instance, printing a rule line around the front cover of a book and expecting it to be perfectly centered on all trimmed copies of the press run is asking for trouble. If you omit the rule line, your eye will be more forgiving of any misalignment, but if the rule line is even a fraction of an inch out of alignment, it will bother you.

Basically, in my experience finishing equipment (folding, stitching, perfect binding, and trimming equipment) seems to have more fluctuation than printing equipment, and offset printing equipment seems to have a tighter tolerance (less movement of the paper) than digital printing equipment. That said, there are major improvements being made to all printing and finishing equipment (even as we speak), so the overall precision of print jobs has been improving in leaps and bounds in recent years.

The safest thing to do is ask your book printer or commercial printing supplier for advice and printed samples. If you have a good working relationship, believe what he says to you, particularly when he suggests ways to provide a superior printed product.

Posted in Book Printing | Comments Off

Digital Custom Printing: With Indigo, Seeing Is Believing

August 31st, 2016

Posted in Digital Printing | Comments Off

I read a lot about commercial printing. I mean, a lot. But nothing ever helps me understand a new technology quite like seeing it in action.

A while ago I described three new digital acquisitions by a local custom printing firm I’ve been working with for about a year as a broker. I have known the principals of the firm for over a decade, and I have a high level of trust in them. So when they invited me to an event to showcase their new HP Indigo 10000, Horizon Crossfolder AFC, and Horizon Stitchliner-SPF, I signed up immediately. I even talked my fiancee into coming—to meet people, eat good food, and see some terrific technology.

The HP Indigo 10000

I have written about this digital press a number of times in the PIE Blog, but a few things really impressed me when I actually saw the press sheets coming from this new commercial printing equipment:

I could no longer tell whether the output was offset or digital.

In fact, when I pointed this out to the owner of the company, instead of telling me how to distinguish one from the other, he just said, “That’s right. You can’t tell.” Then he explained to me why I was beginning to see the rosette patterns I had heretofore considered the hallmark of offset printing. He had been able to adjust the screening angles to match the “irrational tangent screening” of traditional analog halftones (that is, the angles at which the four plates—cyan, magenta, yellow, and black–are set relative to one another).

The colors were breathtaking.

The printer obviously knew which kinds of photos constituted “critical color.” That is, he had created a 12-page, self-cover showpiece that included images of food, fashion, a black-and-white photo with clearly more depth of tones than you could normally achieve on an offset press, and some landscapes and glamor shots with heightened color. To start with the color, the reds, purples, blues, and model skin tones were almost surreal, they were so intense.

Technically, all of this was due to the extended color set. That is, instead of the press using four colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) like most offset presses, the HP Indigo uses an up-to-seven-color inkset that can include green, orange, and violet along with the usual CMYK inks. Technically, what this means is a much wider color gamut than traditional offset printing will provide (unless, of course, you add offset “touch plates” to increase the offset printing color gamut—along with the price). But on a more visceral level, what this means is breathtaking color.

The images looked like they were continuous tone.

Most printing is done with halftone screens (I believe all but inkjet and some dye sublimation). Halftoning allows you to simulate varied color intensity, since the inks themselves cannot be lightened or darkened on a printing press. The size of the halftone dots will make the colors appear lighter or darker. However, on the HP Indigo the halftone line screens for the images I saw were 200 lines per inch (lpi). This is a very fine halftone screen ruling, and what it means is that the halftone dots are smaller than your eye can perceive without a printer’s loupe (i.e., without the dots being enlarged). On the glamor model shots and the images of food, this halftone line screen made the gradations of the skin tones creamy smooth and the food delectable. I had no awareness that these were images printed with halftone patterns.

The size of the press sheets was impressive.

I had grown used to viewing approximately 13” x 19” press sheets from digital presses, but these press sheets were closer to 20” x 29”. What that meant was that I was looking at stacks of large posters on the display tables this printer had set out for this gala event. They were no longer small but beautiful. The posters were so much bigger than I had grown used to, that I was really stunned, even though I was already familiar with the technical specifications of the HP Indigo 10000 digital press.

The Bottom Line

So the bottom line was that this printer’s evening event to showcase his new digital press made a huge impression on me, since I could no longer see a difference between offset and digital commercial printing output.

The Horizon Crossfolder AFC and Horizon Stitchliner-SPF

Recent advances in digital finishing show just how committed the industry is to doing “real” commercial printing work on digital presses. These are no longer glorified photocopiers. They are real presses.

I had read a lot about these two finishing machines before going to the event. But what struck me was twofold. Their “build quality” seemed more like the traditional analog machines I was used to and less like office equipment. And yet both machines had digital consoles that reduced make-ready to almost nothing. They had touch screens for all manner of pre-programmed folds (for the Horizon Crossfolder) and saddle-stitching configurations (for the Horizon Stitchliner).

In addition, I was pleased to see that the Stitchliner could take stacks of untrimmed press sheets, collate them, fold them, run them through a small saddle-stitching unit, and then trim the job to deliver a completely finished 12-page booklet. And all elements of the equipment fit together seamlessly into one small footprint, with all the quality I had come to expect from a handful of much larger analog machines.

I was very impressed—and anxious to see what the future will hold for digital printing and finishing.

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Custom Printing: Old, Old Time Printing

August 23rd, 2016

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In the spirit of spring, with all the flowers and trees in bloom, I thought it fitting to discuss some primitive custom printing techniques that have been around (in some cases) probably since the Stone Age. They’re ideal for children’s art parties, and you may even want to do these projects if you have an artistic bent.


The first technique is actually a photographic printing technique. It uses the juices of plants and the sun to make images. This is how to do it:

  1. You prepare the substrate with an emulsion made from the juice of plants, flower petals, or berries. You can grind these into a pulp by hand, using a mortar and pestle, or you can use a mixer. The mortar and pestle is easier to clean and more efficient for small batches, but the mixer is easier on your hands, and it’s more suited to larger batches. In addition, if you use a mortar and pestle, the skins of the berries will be strained away (you won’t be able to sufficiently pulverize them by hand). You can use any number of plants. Research the plants online, and take time to experiment and play.
  2. When you have crushed or mixed the flowers, berries, or plants into a pulp, strain out the liquid using cheesecloth or a coffee filter. (You can also dilute the liquid with denatured alcohol, olive oil, or distilled water, depending on the result you’re after.)
  3. Choose a substrate, like thick watercolor paper, and paint the liquid emulsion onto the material. Keep in mind that the paper will be outside for days or weeks, so it should be durable (not fragile, lightweight paper).
  4. Choose an object, such as a flower or plant. Place the object on the emulsion coated (dry) sheet of paper and cover the paper and object with a glass frame (a sheet of plexiglass will do). As the rays of the sun destroy the coloration in the emulsion, the object covering the emulsion will resist fading (since the paper underneath will get less light). In the course of hours, days, or weeks (depending on your choice of emulsion), you will get a positive image of the object. Remember to choose a positive rather than negative image (think photography) since the sun will lighten the emulsion rather than darken it (as would happen with traditional darkroom-based photographic printing).
  5. If you frame and hang your print, keep it out of the sun, because the fading process will continue in direct sunlight.
  6. For those of you with little patience (like myself) two good plants to start with are corn poppy and dahlia. I found these online. They produce very sensitive emulsions that react quickly to the sun.
  7. Totally unrelated to this process, but directly relevant to contemporary commercial printing, is the fact that even a commercial print book left in the sun will do the exact same thing. I have a number of books with dust jacket spines that are much lighter than the front and back covers. I had these in a bookcase for many years in an office that received intense afternoon sunlight. The sun lightened the ink on the dust covers just as it will lighten the anthotype plant emulsions.


You can produce a similar result to anthotypes with treated light-sensitive fabric (treated with ammonium iron (III) citrate and potassium ferricyanide). This process was initially invented to produce photographic reproductions of plants, seed pods, etc., laid on treated paper.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Buy the sunprint fabric (i.e., specially treated fabric made to be light sensitive).
  2. Pin plant specimens–leaves, seed pods, etc.–to the fabric in an artistic design.
  3. Unlike the aforementioned anthotypes, this process goes fast. Once you have covered the fabric with leaves and petals, expose it to direct sunlight. It may help to use a light frame (such as a piece of plexiglass laid over the project). This will keep everything stationary.
  4. In about 15 or 20 minutes for cotton (less for silk), you’ll be ready to bring the fabric indoors. Rinse the material under running water until the water runs clear. The colors should set in 12 to 24 hours.

Hammering the Juice Out of Plants

A third way to do custom printing with plants and flowers is to lay the leaves on thick, absorbent watercolor paper, cover them with paper towels, and beat them with hammers. This releases the natural juices and creates a “contact print.” Here’s how to do it:

  1. Choose a durable surface, like a cutting board, that will tolerate the abuse. Cover it with a paper bag.
  2. Place flowers on the watercolor paper. You can tape them down to make sure they don’t move.
  3. Cover the flowers and watercolor paper substrate with paper towels or some other form of blotter paper.
  4. You can mark on the paper towels with a pen to identify where you will need to strike the hammer to pulverize the flowers or plants to release their juices.
  5. Try different hammers (ball peen and cross peen hammers, for instance). Hammer across in rows, and then up and down in columns. You will need to hit every part of the underlying plant to release the juices that will print on the watercolor paper.
  6. You can check your work by lifting the paper towel. If you have a complete image of the flower or leaf on the paper towel, you are probably ready to remove the leaves.
  7. Peel, scratch, or rub the pulverized leaves or flower petals off the watercolor paper to reveal the printed images below, made from the juices of the plants.
  8. You will have more or less success with this technique based on the amount of water in the plant as well as the coloration of the flower and the stiffness of its fibers. The paper substrate and your technique with the hammer will also make a difference in the final product.

How Is This Relevant to Printing?

All three are traditional custom printing techniques. This is what people did before they could digitally inkjet images onto fabric substrates for their industrial design projects (presumably decorating their grass-thatched huts, tipis, and yurts).

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Digital Custom Printing: Form Follows Function

August 16th, 2016

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I was actually starting to write an article about a little book my fiancee bought for her grandson, a book about fish. I had planned to start with praise for the sophisticated use of white ink on clear divider pages to allow for opaque overlays with different art on either side.

This still holds true. And I plan to do it shortly. However, when I checked the printed page with my loupe, I was even more impressed with the color fidelity, the crispness of the images, and the overall color gamut when I realized it was a digital custom printing job.

Now I’ve seen quality inkjet. I’m used to that. But this is an electrophotographic print book—laser printing. It has all of the qualities of an outstanding offset print job, none of the “artifacts” of either inkjet or laser, and none of the waxy appearance of laser printing toner. Wow.

Granted, I am a firm believer in the link between appearance and utility. “Form follows function,” as they say. The press sheet is a dull coated paper, and the ink does have a sheen. My first thought was that the images had been varnished so they would “pop” off the page. But they absolutely do not look like waxy laser printed toner on paper.

How Do I Know This Was a Laser Printed Job?

The first thing I looked for under the loupe was the halftone dot structure and placement. I usually work by process of elimination. I didn’t see the minuscule droplets indicative of inkjet, so I first ruled out this particular technology.

Then I looked for rosette patterns in the color images. Halftone dots indicate either offset or laser printing, but an actual rosette pattern to me is a dead giveaway of an offset printed job. It reflects the “irrational angles” at which the four printing plates have been set (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black).

I saw no rosettes. Moreover, the black halftone dots were pretty much on top of each other in some places.

High quality laser printing would be my educated guess as to the method of reproduction: dot patterns but not at the exact angles that would create the signature “halftone rosettes” of offset; no minuscule (almost continuous tone) ink drops. So I’d say it’s probably electrophotography (xerography, laser printing). Perhaps it is even from an HP Indigo press, or even a Kodak NexPress (although I just compared it to a job I absolutely know just came off an HP Indigo 10000, and I saw a lot of similarities).

So what?

The technology is certainly light years ahead of the typical office color laser printer, with its waxy ink laydown, and it is moving forward with drama and determination. All of this bodes well for digital commercial printing in general.

Back to Form Following Function

Form should follow function. Even the ancient Greeks believed this. That’s why putting a Greek Revival column in front of a window is questionable architecture even now (in some government buildings). Windows are made to offer an exposed view of one’s surroundings, not a view of a supporting column.

In a similar vein, this print book actually uses the technology in smart ways, functional ways.

  1. The book is for young children. It happens to be bound using a combination of “Wire-O” mechanical binding and case binding. This is called “concealed Wire-O binding,” and you’ll find it on a large number of cookbooks. The binding is durable. The pages lie flat. The loops of the binding wire are less likely to come unhooked. And the overall product is attractive. It’s even harder to crush the wire loops because of the covering of the case-bound spine. For a children’s book, like a cookbook, this is perfect.
  2. Since this is a children’s book about fish, it’s helpful to have the transparent overlay pages in the center of the two-page spreads. These conceal a portion of what’s on the right-hand page, but they can be flopped over to the left to reveal something underneath. Kids love surprises. On one spread you see a school of fish swimming over a colorful sea formation, perhaps coral. When you flip the page over, you see a scary eel under the coral (or rock). I was even scared. What makes this effective (other than the ingenious use of the transparent sheet in the center of a two-page spread) is the opaque white printed on the acetate sheet under the colorful coral (or rock). The opaque white completely conceals the eel. The technology supports the editorial goal. Form follows function. Cool.
  3. On another page, the same technique is used to almost completely obscure a flounder lying on the seabed. (The flounder looks almost exactly like the sea floor. When the kids turn the page, they can see how mother nature hides fish in plain sight by making them look like their surroundings.) A hit of opaque white behind the image makes the difference here, too.
  4. On another page you can flip over the transparent acetate sheet to see a “before” and “after” shot of fish being hooked by a fisherman (or woman). On another spread you see the “before” and “after” images of a little bear pulling fish out of a stream for a meal. So in these cases the use of the overlay sheet, and the use of opaque white toner, can provide a time sequence, a sense of one thing happening followed by another. Again, the technology and custom printing techniques support the editorial intent of the author. Form follows function.

It almost makes me want to have kids.

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Custom Printing: Update on Dye-Sublimation Technology

August 11th, 2016

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I came upon an outstanding article about dye-sub fabric printing yesterday. It’s called “A Closer Look at Digital Dye-Sublimation Printing,” written by Richard Romano and published on 03/14/16 on I encourage you to Google it. It’s a great primer on this commercial printing technology.

Ever since my last trip to the beach, when I saw some of the new bikinis, I’ve been intrigued by the bright colors and intricate details printed on these bathing suits. Since they were for the most part polyester blends, it was clear to me that I was looking at the new generation of dye-sublimation fabric printing.

Romano’s Primer on Dye-Sublimation

In his article, Romano explains that sublimation is a process whereby a solid changes directly into a gas without first going through the intermediate liquid state. Dry ice would fit into this category, since a block of this substance turns into a cloud of gas rather than a puddle of liquid. Dye-sub commercial printing would be another example.

In dye-sub printing, solid particles of dye in a liquid suspension are jetted onto a receiver paper that has been specially treated to accept the solid dye particles and then to release them onto a substrate (in this case fabric). Since there is an intermediate step, the image printed on the paper transfer sheet is reversed, so it will print “right-reading” onto the fabric.

The next step is to “fix” or “outgas” the dyes onto the fabric. According to Romano, either a rotary or flatbed heat press is used for this step. Due to the heat (375 to 410 degrees Fahrenheit) and the pressure, the dye particles change from a solid state (on the transfer paper) to a gas. The gas then permeates the fibers of the fabric.

When they solidify, the dye particles bond with the fibers in the fabric. In fact, the heat actually melts the fabric slightly, “just enough to open up tiny gaps in the polyester fibers,” according to Romano’s article. When the fabric cools, the dye particles are strongly enmeshed in the fabric. This makes the resulting printed images durable, lightfast, and wash-resistant.

Why Use Dye-Sub for Polyester Fabrics?

Prior to reading “A Closer Look at Digital Dye-Sublimation Printing,” I had always wondered why this technology was best suited to either 100 percent polyester fabrics or fabrics with a high polyester content. Apparently, the high heat of the rotary and flatbed heat presses would burn cotton fabrics, but they only slightly melt polyester fabrics, allowing the dye to deeply penetrate the fibers.

Another question I had (which Romano answered) was how printers keep the transfer sheet in adequate contact with some of the new polyester fabrics, which are particularly stretchy. Apparently the transfer sheets can be fabricated with a slight tackiness, so they will hold firmly to the polyester substrate, keeping the material from shifting and preventing blurry images or ghosting.

Also a Good Choice for Rigid Substrates

In “A Closer Look at Digital Dye-Sublimation Printing,” Romano notes that dye-sublimation transfer sheets need not be confined to transferring images onto fabric. An additional use with wide appeal is to transfer images onto ceramic tile, wood, plastic, glass, or metal. This can be done as long as the material can first be treated with a polyester coating. This option opens up numerous industrial printing and interior design applications, from printing on wall coverings and drapes to printing on glass and flooring (albeit in some cases with an additional coating for protection).

In addition, dye-sub printing can be a useful technology for transferring images to mugs and other small novelty products (although for mugs, a special dye-sub press is necessary, which grips the cylindrical mug and applies both heat and pressure to transfer the image). Fortunately, these cost less than $300.

The Future of Dye-Sublimation Fabric Printing

Richard Romano describes the future direction of dye-sublimation fabric printing, noting that the trend is away from transfer paper and toward direct-to-fabric printing. However, in this case the dyes would still need to be sublimated in order to adequately bond with the fibers of the fabric.

What We Can Learn from Romano’s Article

  1. The first thing I see is explosive growth in the decoration of everything from garments to wall coverings, sheets, linens, and other useful and aesthetic fabric items. Furthermore, I see this spurring interior designers to create personalized environments for their clients, with no end to the vibrant coloration and intricate detail, as well as the unique, fully customizable presentation of the graphics.
  2. Client interest in fabric printing has spurred increased sophistication within the technology, which is creating a virtuous circle with manufacturers developing new dye-sub capabilities and thus further increasing consumer interest.
  3. Using a transfer-sheet-based workflow allows vendors to stock fewer items (for instance a stack of transfer sheets that can be applied to individual t-shirts as the client chooses a particular size and cut) instead of needing to stock multiple shirt colors in multiple sizes with the same printed images. This approach can reduce the need for both inventory and storage space.
  4. Any such growth in custom printing is exciting to see, particularly when it touches so many world economies.

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Custom Printing: Using Bags to Sell Fast Casual Food

August 2nd, 2016

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With our hectic schedules, my fiancee and I eat more fast food than I’d like to say. We have found that you can sleep, eat, and run a business from the privacy of your own car.

That said, a few of the bags in which the fast food has been served have piqued my interest due to both the simplicity of their presentation and the power of their marketing message.

The McDonald’s Bag

My fiancee is addicted to Egg McMuffins. I love the Filet-O-Fish sandwiches. What has struck me, though, is the power of simple, bold colors on unbleached kraft paper (i.e., paper bags). On its main bag, McDonald’s has printed its name, the golden arches, and its signature tag line (“I’m lovin’ it”) in bold primary colors. Moreover the golden arches are positioned slightly off center on the back of the bag, and they extend onto the bag’s side.

A small red vertical bar out of which the tag line is reversed balances the larger (but lighter) golden arches, creating an asymmetrical weight distribution. This actually evokes more drama, movement, and excitement than would a centered, symmetrical approach to the same information. In particular, the golden arches’ extending off the back and onto the side of the bag gives a more expansive feeling to the design.

What really intrigues me, though, is the treatment of the iconic “McDonald’s” moniker.

“McDonald’s” has been set in an extra-bold, sans serif typeface, broken down into three lines of type. It is printed in a light blue ink, so the heaviness of the typeface is somewhat subdued in an elegant and sophisticated way.

Keeping true to the current fashion of breaking words arbitrarily (not hyphenating them at syllabic points), the McDonald’s logo has been broken down into these three groups of letters: “McD/on/alds.” I understand and appreciate the first line. It offers the traditional nickname for the company: “McD’s.” The letters “o” and “n” fill the next line, which is set under the first line with just a smidgen of space, providing an almost sculptural look reminiscent of the “I(heart)/NY” image from 1977, created by Milton Glaser. The shape of the letters is striking, and the lack of leading makes this even more evident. It also ties the first line closely to the second.

As noted before, there are no hyphens. This is rather avant garde, placing the design (and the patron holding the bag) in the position of the intellectual or artist (i.e., stylish and contemporary). The third line contains the letters “alds” set in a much smaller point size but again placed under the preceding line with almost no leading.

Even though the word has not been broken into identifiable syllables, it nevertheless reads like the expected “McDonald’s” with the added benefit of looking avant garde, artistic, and cool.

As a final note, all three lines have been placed immediately against the left vertical fold of this panel of the bag with no surrounding space. That is, the type abuts to the fold. This creates even more drama. In addition, the structure of the three-line word, “McDonald’s,” is perfectly left and right justified. This accounts for the differences in type size of the letters on the three lines (so they will be precisely justified), but it also allows the bag-holder’s eye to travel down the contour of the letterforms on the right-hand margin.

So What Does This Get You?

Some people just eat the food. I like to read between the lines. This is what I learn from this McDonald’s bag:

  1. McDonalds is rebranding itself to look environmentally aware and sensitive. The bag is made of unbleached kraft paper (no caustic chemicals were used that might harm the environment). The lightness (thin ink film) of the red, yellow, and blue custom printing gives prominence to the absorbent kraft paper.
  2. McDonald’s has an artistic eye. The bag reflects an aesthetic sensibility.
  3. Artistic implies “intellectual.” Therefore, the branding invites the viewer to join the exclusive realm of the intellectual while eating his/her burger and fries. People have a need for affiliation, and a good marketer will draw the viewer into the small and exclusive “club.” And McDonalds is an ace at marketing.
  4. The homage to the big, blocky sculptures of the 50s and 60s (as reflected in the large, heavy type) reinforces this artistic, upscale look.

Pretty soon you’re stopping at McDonalds several times a week, as my fiancee and I do, absorbing both the food and the marketing message relayed through this custom printing job.

The Chipotle Bag

I’ve written in earlier PIE Blogs of my love for the simplicity of Chipotle’s commercial printing materials. A hand-drawn illustration, a little type in brown ink. The minimalist look can go a long way.

Chipotle has been producing “Cultivating Thought—Author’s Series” bags that wax philosophical. The one in front of me has about a thousand words, in stream-of-consciousness style (like William Faulkner or Gabriel Garcia Marquez), addressing our tendency as a species to not watch where we’re going or be present where we are. It’s called “Two Minute Driving Lesson” (by Jonathan Franzen). The article weaves in and out of driving skills, politics, the ecology, and philosophy, basically asking the question: “If you’re taking such an extremely short view, how are you even supposed to see a pedestrian who’s starting to cross the street?”

Actually, it literally asks this question. Franzen’s query takes up most of one side of the bag, printed in brown ink in a simple sans serif face (not unlike the McDonald’s bag but in a less bold type) with generous leading between the short lines of text. There’s also a Chipotle logo bleeding off the right bottom side of the bag, and the “Cultivating Thought—Author Series” tagline mentioned above reversed out of a solid brown that bleeds off the right, left, and bottom of the bag.

As a culture, we seem to be moving away from images in our marketing materials to embrace type, both for its message and for the sheer visual beauty of the letterforms.

So What Does This Get You?

Here are some thoughts:

  1. People still read. In fact, in the morning while eating cereal, a lot of people read the cereal box. Chipotle marketing execs are smart, and they realize they have a captive audience. Presumably people will read their fast casual food bags while eating (unless they are on their smartphones).
  2. Brown type on light brown kraft paper just feels ecologically sensitive. Perhaps it even makes you want to stop at Starbucks for a latte. Hand-drawn illustrations incorporating witty, provocative signs above a frazzled driver in a car (just like my fiancee and me, driving to and fro’ with our McDonald’s and Chipotle bags) add humor. However, they also evoke a sense of recognition in the reader. He or she is “hard-wired,” as the bag says, to be short-sighted. Like the McDonald’s bag, the Chipotle bag draws the reader into the experience and provides a sense of affiliation. “We are all part of this group,” the reader can say. And, as we know, affiliation sells product.

The Overall Outlook

First of all, I’m pleased to see any marketing collateral that requires people to read. We don’t do enough of that as a culture. More than that, I like marketing collateral that is edgy and that makes people think. Both the McDonald’s and Chipotle bags do this.

Finally, I think it’s masterful marketing to use a platform (or substrate in this case) that will be right before the eyes of the person eating the hamburger, fish sandwich, or burrito, to not only sell the product but to also challenge the user to think.

Andy Warhol would be proud.

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