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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) 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: Whole Foods Equals Great Branding

October 13th, 2019

Posted in Corporate Branding | Comments »

After a medical procedure today and nap during which I slept like the dead, I stumbled downstairs and grabbed the mail on my desk. I could barely see anything. My eyesight wasn’t right yet. But I knew by its colors and its feel that I held in my hand the new Whole Foods Market catalog/brochure—even if the address panel of the folded marketing piece didn’t contain the Whole Foods logo.

Now that’s good branding. So here’s a breakdown of what Whole Foods is doing right (in my opinion).

Branding: The Logo and Signature Colors

First of all, this 8.5” x 11”, 12-page, saddle-stitched print catalog comes to my fiancee’s and my house regularly. (Literally, at the same time each month.) This is important because it sets up an expectation in the reader. I think that the intangibles of a brand (in this case, reliability) are just as much a part of the brand as the shape and color of the logo.

When you open the wafer seals (to keep the folded piece small enough in format to mail economically: 5.5” x 8.5”), the first thing you see is the Whole Foods logo in the top left, bleeding off the top of the page. This is relevant because the eye starts at the top of the page and goes down. Why? Because that’s how we’ve been taught to read.

That said, there’s a large silhouette of an apple tart in the bottom right, also bleeding off the page. (That’s important because bleeds make the printed piece look bigger than it is. This is because your subconscious thinks there’s more of the apple tart—in this case—that exists beyond the edge of the page.)

The green logo at the top of the page and the apple tart capture the reader’s attention and link the Whole Foods brand with the visceral experience of culinary delights. This in itself could be their mission statement.

Branding also involves the paper choice: in this case a less-than-bright-white, uncoated press sheet. The more subdued look and the tactile feel, along with the presumption that fewer chemicals were used to bleach the paper, highlight the Whole Foods brand as being sensitive to the environment. This value draws in the clientele, who presumably feel the same way.

Page Layout

The brochure designer (who is masterful, and from whom I can learn a lot about design) continues the design through the remaining eleven pages within the following structure.

Photos are large and contain groups of delectable food products. In some pages, the photo takes up one and a half pages (bleeds across the gutter), leaving the balance of the two-page spread for a column of type. Alternatively, a photo of multiple products on a light background contains chunks of copy describing the products. (Actually, even the large photos that extend across the page spread have ghosted boxes for product descriptions. There is an air of sophistication in the way you can see the plates of food through the text boxes overlapping them.)

The designer also contrasts large and small images. (Contrast in size of visual elements creates interest—a rule of design. It also makes the large photos look larger and the small photos look smaller.)

Product prices are larger than the text type and therefore easily identifiable. (The reader’s being able to scan the booklet quickly makes product sales more likely.) Red ink highlights the word “SALE” when it appears throughout the booklet (enhancing reader expectation through repetition of similar visual elements).

Also, periodically, the signature green of the Whole Foods logo appears (for example, in a circular burst that says “New”). The circle of the “New” burst reminds the viewer of the circular green Whole Foods logo, and the repetition of the color and shape adds consistency (unity) to the catalog/brochure. (Unity is another principle of design, crafted through repetition of colors, images, typefaces, and such.)

In many cases the food (apples, for instance) appear to have been tossed around at random on the light background. (This is even true in some cases for the bottles of product on a white, randomly-patterned tile wall.) All of this lends an air of casual movement and excitement to the printed piece. (Just as you might toss a salad full of sun-dried tomatoes.)

One page is replete with “Prime” (as in Amazon Prime) member deals, and this icon as well is noted with a blue circle from which the type has been reversed. This hearkens back to the other circular logos, even though it is blue. On this page there’s a three-item by three-item grid of nine products. The structure of this symmetrical arrangement adds contrast to the bottles of sauces in active motion on the opposite page of the design spread.

The Piece de Resistance

I actually remember where I was standing thirty years ago when I was first asked to design a print catalog of government books for a non-profit organization, while including “lifestyle blurbs” periodically that pertained to government but not to the print books. I was behind the times in my confusion.

Within the Whole Foods booklet, there are periodic recipes. This is considered “evergreen” “lifestyle” content. People who read this brochure or print catalog presumably want to affiliate themselves with the brand, in part by expanding the food-shopping experience into a cooking experience. (Granted, even without the branding goal, the recipes are still useful information—which is why they hook the reader. After all, if you like the products and the environment, it makes sense that you’ll want ideas for using the food. I personally read Trader Joe’s marketing materials for the same reasons.)

The Last Page

As a recovering designer, I remember back when I was designing print catalogs like these and was faced with what to put on the back of the booklet (prime selling space).

First of all, you need to follow the postal regulations. I’m sure they’re online now, but we used to get books from the Post Office. These print books covered where to print the address information, where to place the indicia, and most importantly where to print noting at all, since it would disturb the optical character reader (and render the printed piece non-machinable). In your own work, follow these Post Office requirements religiously. If you don’t, at best the Post Office will charge you more per piece to mail the non-machinable brochures. But at worst the Post Office will reject your mailing outright, and you’ll need to reprint the job.

Fortunately, you can ask for a direct market specialist to bless your mock-up (size, placement, tab sealing, everything) before you print. It behooves you to develop a good working relationship with such a USPS professional.

Back to the design of the Whole Foods catalog/brochure. The unfolded back panel has a stack of sliced apple bits on the left, which brings the eye up to some “sale information” at the top and down to more “sale information” at the bottom of the page. When the page is folded for mailing, this stack of apple bits is visible on either side of the page (remember, this is what you see when you get the mail—the mailer and the back panel, not the front of the catalog—so it has to be recognizable and appetizing, so to speak).

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

I can really keep this to one basic concept: Find examples of what you like and then deconstruct them. That’s how you learn. That’s how I learned.

Think about the paper, colors, and typefaces. Think about the overall design grid. Think about the photos. Think about what’s included (like Whole Foods’ recipes) and what’s not.

Use generous white space. It makes the design seem airy, opulent—and it’s easier to read.

Make sure the reader’s eye flows through the printed piece in exactly the way you want it to. (Use color and the contrasting size of the visual elements to achieve this.)

A well-designed brochure, print catalog, or booklet is a better teacher than a “how-to” print book or even a professor droning on in front of the design-principles class. Find designs you like. Look closely. Learn. Then bring into your own design work what you’ve learned from others’ work. If you do this, even a groggy reader collecting the mail will recognize the branding of the piece and associate it with the company you’re promoting.

And that instant of recognition alone is worth lots of money to the company your custom printing product promotes.

Posted in Corporate Branding | Comments »

Commercial Printing: Thoughts on Designing and Tweaking a Logo

October 7th, 2019

Posted in Design | Comments »

A custom printing client of mine recently asked me for help with her rebranding efforts. Over the years, I have been a designer and art director, and I have also done marketing writing and design work. In addition, I have focused on marketing as subject matter for the PIE Blog articles and Quick Tips articles, so I spend a lot of time studying this aspect of communications and commercial printing.

Since my client just offered me this new work, it seemed fortuitous that I just found an article on adjusting your logo for reproduction at different sizes and in different media (internet vs. print, for instance). The article is “Designing a Logo for Every Size and Usage.” It was written by Ilene Strizver and published on www.creativepro.com on 8/13/19.

Strizver notes that logos must be immediately recognizable at different sizes. Although you may first see a logo on a business card, you need to see the same visual image when you find the logo again on a large-format banner on the side of a building.

Or, you may see the logo first on a brochure and then online. The first rendering will be achieved with ink or toner, and the second will be composed of colored pixels on a backlit computer screen, which provides a very different visual experience.

Much of what “Designing a Logo for Every Size and Usage” offers is an approach to the letterforms used in the logo. That is, we must first understand that the size of the logo changes the appearance of the letterforms.

For instance, if you create a logo that is 3” wide (an arbitrary width) and then shrink it down to a useful size for a business card, certain portions of the letterforms will fill in and be unreadable. Granted, if you look through a magnifying glass, these strokes in the letters will still be there, but at a normal reading distance, your eye will fool you. The “counters” (the technical word for the curved, enclosed spaces in the letterforms, such as the enclosed portion of a “P”) will fill in or at least not be visible.

Or the letterforms will appear to run together. They may not be distinct from one another. Or the serifs in the typeface may disappear (they’re still there, just below the threshold of readability).

Or, depending on your substrate, the commercial printing technology might be problematic, according to Strizver’s article. For example, if you’re printing on fabric, the inks may bleed into the fibers, making parts of the letterforms fatten up or become blobs of ink.

Enlarging the logo might also be problematic. If you take the 3” logo and enlarge it for use on a banner, the letters may seem to be too far apart. This can impede readability because the letterforms don’t appear to be as connected to one another as you’re used to (that is, you begin to see the strokes as individual letters instead of seeing them as one word). If you have to think about the word you’re reading, this will hinder your comprehension.

And all of this is just for printing with ink or toner. That’s just half the battle.

Rendering your logo on a smartphone screen or tablet or computer monitor may make the letterforms look different than you’re used to. Colors are not always the same as in print (so they may not match the PMS colors of your printed logo). In addition, the backlighting of computer screens makes it harder to read small type. And even though serif faces have been proven easier to read in print, the opposite is true online, where sans serif typefaces are easier to read.

All of this can slow down your reader. And a major rule of marketing and psychology is that anything that slows down a reader or confuses her/him will dilute your marketing message. At best, your prospective client’s reading speed will be impaired. But at worst, you’ll lose your reader entirely.

What to Do / How to Fix These Problems

“Designing a Logo for Every Size and Usage” doesn’t really tell you what to do. Rather it lets you know what to look for in designing a logo, so you can tweak it for optimal readability. Moreover, it presents a novel concept in this light. That is, you should create different versions of your logo for different uses. Not very different, just optimized for the size and medium in which it will be presented. The goal is to massage the logo in such as way that the reader’s eye (with all its limitations) thinks all of the different sized iterations of the logo are exactly the same.

As an approach to doing this, here are the things Strizver says you should consider:

  1. Adjust the letterspacing as needed. (This is the space between letters, which can be altered with “kerning” controls in InDesign.) It should be more open for smaller versions of your logo and tighter for larger versions.
  2. The same holds true for word spacing (the space between words). You need more word spacing for smaller versions of the logo and less word spacing for larger versions.
  3. If your logo has multiple lines of type (perhaps a logo word mark with a tag line under it), add more space between lines (“leading”) for smaller versions of the logo and less space for larger versions.
  4. Adjust the thickness of thin strokes (like serifs) as needed.
  5. Make the “counters” of the letterforms (like the enclosed space in a “P”) more open if you’re rendering a logo at a small size.
  6. Narrow and condensed fonts can be even harder to read (and therefore may need more adjusting).
  7. Readability can be improved by using a slightly different weight for the font (some fonts come in demi-bold and bold, for instance, or other slight variations from one another).
  8. Changing the strokes of a letterform can be daunting. Remember you’re not doing this to an entire font. You’re just tweaking (presumably) a limited number of letters in a logo. You may choose to do this in Illustrator. (This was not in Strizver’s article. It’s my own commentary.)
  9. Another related suggestion of mine (not in Strizver’s article) is that you be conscious of the reader’s age. As we get older, our eyes become less flexible in changing focus. In this case, paying attention to Strizver’s suggestions becomes even more important to your readership.
  10. Make subtle changes to the letterforms, not dramatic ones.
  11. After all, the goal is for none of your readers to see what you’re doing. You’re not creating a new typeface. You’re just making it easier for customers and prospective customers to see your logo and not stumble over the limits of human eyesight or the liabilities of various media.

An Approach to Your Own Design Work

As noted above, I have a new logo/rebranding client. It would be very easy for me to forget all of this in forging ahead with the rebranding work. Therefore, it’s best to slow down and think. If you’re in a similar position, here are some things to consider, based on my own experience as a designer and art director.

  1. Focus on the logo type treatment and any image you will use first. Think like an artist at this point. Try different type treatments and approaches to the logo.
  2. Then view the logo at different sizes. At this point, just observe and make mental notes of potential problems.
  3. Then check your logo on different media. Try printing it out (both black and white and color). Then see how it looks online in various sizes.
  4. Consider all of the suggestions presented in “Designing a Logo for Every Size and Usage.” Make changes and develop a logo style-and-use document for the client based on presenting the logo at different sizes, in different ways, and on different media. But do this last. First, make sure you have an aesthetically designed, dramatic logo that will be a powerful statement at different sizes. Then focus on Strizver’s article as a way only to “tweak” the designs and present them in their best light.

You may be surprised at how effective this can be. I just did this with my fiancee’s daughter’s logo for her yoga studio. I tightened up the spacing between a few letters in her logo (also knows as “kerning”), and the name of her studio, which had initially appeared as a few small clumps of separate letters, visually (and therefore cognitively) became one word. In the case of my fiancee’s daughter’s logo, all it took was equalizing the space between all of the letters in her logotype.

Posted in Design | Comments »

Custom Printing: Three Fine Art Printing Techniques

September 28th, 2019

Posted in Fine Art Printing | Comments »

In addition to my work in the commercial printing field, I do art therapy work with my fiancee. We teach autistic students to make art. We do everything from drawing to painting to sculpture to custom printing.

In past issues of the PIE Blog I have written about a number of the techniques of custom printing that we have brought to our students, and in the last week I have been studying one that we have not yet used: collography. I’d like to briefly describe this technique along with another one I just discovered in researching Andy Warhol for a recent painting class. His technique was called “the blotting line,” and this along with his tracing work developed into the Pop Art custom screen printing for which he was famous. Finally, I want to describe “monotyping,” a third technique I plan to share with my fiancee’s and my autistic students.

What makes all of these interesting to me is that all can be done with simple materials and no commercial printing press. These printing plates can be inked and printed by hand. What this means is that anyone with the interest can do any of these techniques with a fair amount of success. Moreover, there’s nothing that makes you understand the artistry in current, automated, commercial printing like a personal experience with one of the hand-printing techniques. After all, custom printing is both an art and a craft.

Collagraphy

The word “collagraphy” (also spelled “collography”) is derived from the Greek words for “glue” and “writing.” The process was developed in 1955 by Glen Alps. Collagraphy starts with a printing plate made of wood or paperboard (bristol or perhaps chipboard, for instance). You add materials to build up texture (and/or subject matter). Then you paint ink or roll ink onto the raised areas of the plate (to produce a “relief” or raised print), or you use a roller or paint brush to flood the plate with printing ink, and then you wipe the ink off the raised areas. (This yields an “intaglio” print in which the recessed areas of the plate transfer the ink to the paper substrate.)

What makes this interesting is all the materials you can use. In addition to gluing down pieces of cardboard, you can build up texture with gesso or other acrylic media, or you can glue leaves or even banana peels, textiles, string, or sandpaper to the plate. In this way you can create patterns or textures.

Overall, this process will allow you to create dramatic tonal variations due to the depth (i.e., thickness) of the relief plate and the textures you can create.

(If you think about it, this is not that different from the raised areas that are built up for creasing and scoring paper using the Highcon Euclud digital machine. With this equipment, you can use digital data to produce raised areas on a plate that will then crease and score press sheets.)

One thing I have read about collagraphy in some art books is that once you make the plate, you can shellac it. This will seal the plate and provide an impermeable surface that you can more easily wipe clean as you change or add ink colors.

Once you have created the plate, you can print it. Since most of you (myself included, actually) won’t have access to an art printing press, you can just lay the printing paper on top of the inked plate and then burnish it with the back of a wooden spoon. When you peel off the printing paper, the image will transfer from the collagraph plate to your printing sheet.

(To refer back to the art therapy work my fiancee and I do, we once made tribal masks using the fluting of corrugated board for texture. Our students glued pieces of this fluting to flat corrugated liner board, creating relief sculptures of the masks. Although we didn’t have time to do any printing, we could easily have used these relief mask sculptures as collagraph plates and printed the masks onto press sheets. In fact I hope to do this same project again sometime and have the students not only make the masks but use them as custom printing plates as well.)

Andy Warhol’s Blotting Techniques

I studied Andy Warhol’s work for a recent art class with our autistic students so I could provide background information as the students drew and then painted shoes. Early in his career, Andy Warhol, who was actually born Andy Warhola, did illustrations for Glamour magazine. If you look him up online, you will find many of his drawings of high-fashion shoes. My fiancee and I used these shoe illustrations as a starting point for this week’s art therapy painting project.

While Warhol was drawing and painting shoes, he came up with a technique called the “blotting line” technique which involved drawing a line in ink and then blotting it while it was still wet. This changed the texture of the line and was in a very basic way a printing technique (transferring an image from one flat surface to another by blotting). As simple as this sounds, it developed over time into not only Warhol’s signature style of advertising art but also the photo-silkscreen printing for which he is so well known. In both cases (and in his use of photocopy machines and tracing), Warhol explored the artistic effects of repeated images. (You may have seen Warhol’s multiple images of Campbell’s Soup Cans or multiple images of Marilyn Monroe’s iconic face.) All of this, plus the initial “printing” quality of the “blotting line” technique, was incorporated into Warhol’s artistic style.

Monotype Printing

Here’s another technique you can do at home without a commercial printing press. It’s called monotyping, and you can do it in a number of ways. You can paint an image onto a non-porous plate (such as a plexiglass, glass, or—as was done historically—copper plate). Then you place the printing paper over the inked plate, and you burnish it with even pressure all across the back of the sheet using the back of a wooden spoon to press the paper into the ink. You can do this with a printing press as well, but in this case, you can’t use a glass plate, or it will shatter from the pressure.

Another way to make a monotype (in this case called a transfer monotype) is to first ink the plate completely in a single color. Then you lay the printing sheet over the ink and carefully draw an image on the back of the sheet with a pencil or stylus. (If your fingers touch the paper, even slight pressure will transfer ink from the plate to the printing paper.) When you peel the press sheet off the plate, the areas you have drawn will be in color (the pressure of the pencil picks up ink from the printing plate), and everything else will be the unprinted paper.

A third way to approach monotypes is to ink the plate completely and then use paintbrushes, rags, and/or a stylus to remove ink selectively from the solid background prior to printing.

Monotyping yields one good print. However, the transfer from the plate to the substrate changes the nature of the lines and solids in subtle ways (the pressure does this to the ink film). Therefore, you wind up with a single, somewhat uncontrolled but nevertheless unique image. If you try to print the plate again, you will usually get only a faint image.

(If you do some research, you’ll find that the British Romantic poet William Blake made monotypes to illustrate his poetry.)

Choosing the ink is an important step. I have read about printing with watercolors, but I have had more success with actual oil-based printing inks. If you choose oil-based inks you can print the substrate either wet or dry. If the printing stock is dry, there will be more contrast in the print. If the paper is wet, you’ll get a greater range of tones.

Once you have printed the plate, you can go back into the image with watercolor, ink, or any other medium to embellish the work.

What you get out of this is the serendipitous accidents akin to watercolor painting. Since you can’t control every element of monotyping, you incorporate the elements of chance and irregularity into your work, and this often makes the art print more unique.

How Does This Pertain to Commercial Printing?

Even though some artists consider fine arts to be superior to commercial art, if you do the research you’ll find that such famous artists as Toulouse Lautrec (posters), Piet Mondrain (Mondrain layout grids for graphic design), Andy Warhol (screen printing and illustration), and N.C. Wyeth (magazine illustrations) all worked in both the fine arts and graphic (or commercial) arts. After all, the principles of good design cross over from one discipline to the other.

If you are a graphic designer or a printer, it can only enhance your appreciation of your craft to see how famous artists have approached custom printing. Understanding the history of the arts broadens and deepens your own knowledge and skill in your craft.

As noted before, learning to hand-print images will help you understand the art and craft that underlie the automation of contemporary commercial printing. You will understand, for instance, what it means for images to be “in register.” This concept comes into play whether you’re using a million dollar press or printing colors from a glass printing plate, using a wooden spoon to rub the image from the plate onto the paper.

So the short answer is that nothing empowers us like knowledge and personal experience. Moreover, knowledge and experience can enhance our love for our craft.

Posted in Fine Art Printing | Comments »

Book Printing: Thoughts on Designing with Photographs

September 23rd, 2019

Posted in Book Printing | Comments Off on Book Printing: Thoughts on Designing with Photographs

A long-standing consulting client of mine designs print books for the World Bank, the United Nations, and other governmental and non-governmental agencies. She pays me to review her designs over the phone with her, page by page. She started as an editor, and over the years I have helped her learn to also be a print book designer. She’s very good. Sometimes I look at her work and say to myself, “I wish I had designed that.”

Needless to say, in your own design work, it’s always good to have another print professional check your work. As I have learned from working with my consulting client, sometimes the reader does not immediately “get” why we have made design decisions, photo selections, or type choices, and being able to bounce these design decisions off another designer always improves the final product.

A Few Issues with My Client’s Photo Treatment

I thought it might be useful to discuss some of the overall choices my client made regarding photos. You may learn something applicable to your own print book design work from my client’s photo choices and my responses.

Last night’s two-hour design analysis session focused on a book about Bangladesh. All of the design issues (type, design grid, infographics) had been addressed, and my client’s client was happy. The only variables to address were photo selection and photo treatment.

First of all, in this book my client either presented the photos as duotones (brown and black, like old sepia-toned photos) or as full-color images. This choice depended on the placement of the photos (within text or within sidebars and such).

My client told me that she had screened back (ghosted) the 4-color images by 25 percent because they were not of professional quality (i.e., they were snapshots). She thought this reduction in image color saturation (I believe she had used the “Luminosity” control in InDesign) would make the flaws in the photos less evident.

I actually voiced some concern about this choice. I told my client that when I was an art director I used to do the same thing (ghost photos), but that I would only do this if I planned to position type over the ghosted image. The ghosting of the image made the reader see it as less important than the surprinted type. (The fainter-than-usual image appeared to be in the background, which made the type stand out more.)

In my client’s design, I thought that readers would view the ghosted (less saturated) images as less important, or as too lightly inked (i.e., as a flaw). So I suggested that she only “dial back” the intensity of the colors (their saturation) by about 10 percent instead of 25 percent. I said I thought her readers would be less critical of non-professional photography than of what appeared to be an error in printing (the overly light photos).

On a more positive note, I did tell my client that her duotones were outstanding. I think she achieved her goal (giving the images less of a journalistic feel and more of an artistic feel). Many of these photos were of stellar quality, and she made them quite large (a focal point of the design). I told her I thought this was also effective, just as I thought making the less professional images smaller might make their flaws less visible to the reader.

Design Motifs (and Considerations)

One of the design motifs my client used in her print book on Bangladesh was to stack horizontal strips of photos (duotones) one over the other on the divider pages. She then repeated these strips as running headers at the tops of all following pages (repeating the image on the left and right at the top of the page until the next section, when she would change to the next photo in the stack).

I said I thought this was a good way to set up a rhythm in the design. I also said that it provided a visual anchor at the top of the pages from which to “hang” the columns of type and photos. I said I also liked how she had reversed the folios (page numbers) out of these thin (maybe 1” deep by the width of the page) photos.

That said, I did note one potential problem. The top of the head of a girl alone on a roof in one photo came very close to the trim (head trim, or top of the page). I noted that printers’ trimming capabilities are not perfect. If the trimming knife came too close to the girl’s head (or cut into it), the reader would see this and consider it a flaw. So I suggested that my client re-crop the photo to give the girl’s image more head room.

The tight cropping of images in the running headers, particularly those images that contained a number of faces, posed challenges. I loved the motif, but I suggested to my client that she change the crop of one photo in particular. Everyone else’s head was either fully in the horizontal frame or cropped (somewhat severely) below the nose. However, one woman’s face extended off the top of the page, eliminating her eyes and forehead.

I told my client that severe photo cropping did add drama to her images. I liked the motif. I thought the reader would accept tight photo cropping as long as one or both of the subject’s eyes were visible. Cropping through the mouth was more acceptable, but having the woman’s face extend off the page and omitting her eyes would be seen as a flaw. Granted, I did note that tight cropping of such photos (to fit in the 1” tall strip at the top of the pages)–when they included numerous people’s heads at different levels–would be a major challenge.

Technical Difficulties

My client noted that she had been given the photos (as JPEGs) by her client and that she had to use them. Two of these were initially 72dpi photos. My client’s client had changed them to 300dpi images (also known as interpolation), inadvertently adding noise and other flaws to the images. I told my client that this had happened because interpolation “makes up” picture information that is not really there in the first place. The better way to address photos is to always request 300dpi images and then never enlarge them (i.e., reduce but never enlarge). In addition, my client’s client had overly sharpened one image in Photoshop before sending it to my client for use in the print book.

Since it was very late at night, and since the print book had to go to press the next morning, this is what I said. I told my client to use Gaussian Blur (under the Filters menu, under Blur) in Photoshop to “slightly blur” the dots all over the photo subject’s face (the result of oversharpening). Then I had her use Unsharp Masking (also under the Filters menu, under Sharpen) to make the photo appear crisper. (Photoshop does this by increasing the contrast between adjacent pixels.) I then told my client to only do this in an absolute emergency. I reminded her that starting with a 300dpi image is the “best practice.” She agreed.

I did however note that if you can reduce the size of an image or turn it into a duotone or even interpolate an image and then print it very small, as long as you are below the threshold of visibility, your reader won’t see the flaw.

I would even add to this caveat that producing a print book on highly textured paper will also minimize flaws in photos, because the paper will scatter the reflected light rather than direct it straight back to the viewer’s eyes (as will a gloss coated paper stock).

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Be objective in judging your photos. Consider their technical quality as well as their content and aesthetics.
  2. Often you can minimize flaws in photos. Make them smaller than the better photos. Turn them into duotones (or use another approach that highlights the aesthetics of the photo and minimizes its technical flaws).
  3. Don’t come too close to the trim. Either bleed an image off the page or give it at least a 3/8” or more (ask your printer) margin of error. The trimming knife in the printer’s bindery is not always precise.
  4. Always use photos that are 300dpi at the final size (100 percent size). Then crop them close to the final dimensions (in Photoshop). If you don’t have this option, as my client did not, research Gaussian Blur and Unsharp Masking on the Internet. These image tools, in combination, might save your photo. But then remember to make the photo as small as you can, because interpolation is never a good thing.

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Custom Printing: What Is Collagraphy?

September 16th, 2019

Posted in Fine Art Printing | Comments Off on Custom Printing: What Is Collagraphy?

I’ve been looking for new art projects my fiancee and I can share with our autistic students. Having been in the field of custom printing for over 40 years, I’m particularly drawn to hand-crafted approaches to what have become the super-automated technologies of commercial printing.

At the moment I’m still considering monoprinting (painting a design on a flat glass, metal, or plastic surface, and then burnishing damp printing paper against the plate to pull a single impression), but just recently I came upon another approach to custom printing that may also have promise for our art therapy work. That is collagraphy.

Collagraphy, also spelled collography, is relatively new, having been invented in 1955 by Glen Alps (according to Wikipedia). In fact, the description I read in Wikipedia makes it sound very much like a fine arts version of an offset “paper plate” or “polyester plate.” Granted, offset plates are flat. They have the image area and the non-image area on the same surface, and the ability of the image area to attract the greasy custom printing ink and the ability of the water-covered non-image area to repel the oily printing ink are what make offset printing “work.” That is, you can effectively (and definitively) separate the image areas from the non-image areas.

Not so with collagraphy. Collagraphy is either a relief process or an intaglio process (unlike offset printing). These are different from one another, but you can use a single collagraphic plate to produce either a relief print or intaglio print or both on the same substrate.

First of all, a relief printing process (which would include such techniques as woodcut printing and linoleum cut printing) involves creating a printing plate with a raised image area. The plate is inked and then brought into contact with printing paper, transferring the image from the plate to the substrate.

This image transfer is achieved with pressure (between the paper and the printing plate), but the pressure can be applied either with a printing press or with a burnisher of some type (such as the back of a spoon) rubbed across the back of the printing paper when it is in contact with the inked plate surface.

This pressure transfers the image. That is what makes this a custom printing process. And that is also what makes this process—at its most rudimentary level—akin to a more developed printing technology called letterpress (and another one called flexography). If you find a commercial printing vendor with a letterpress or flexographic press, this is exactly what he is doing with his equipment.

In contrast to relief printing, intaglio printing involves wiping the thick commercial printing ink across the surface of the printing plate (which has recessed image areas cut into the base substrate of the plate). When you then wipe the surface of the printing plate clean, the only ink left on the plate is in the recesses cut into the substrate. When you place printing paper (damp but not actually wet) onto the inked plate and then run it through a press, the damp paper (combined with the pressure of the process) pulls the ink out of the recessed image areas on the plate and deposits it on the paper.

What makes collagraphy unique is that you create a paper plate with multiple textures in the image areas, and then you either apply printer’s ink onto the relief areas of the plate (anything that sticks up above the flat printing surface), or you ink the entire plate and then remove (wipe off) any ink on the plate’s surface, leaving ink only in the recessed areas of the paper plate. (All of this is prior to the printing step.)

Or you can do both relief and intaglio printing with the same plate. In this case you would just print one version intaglio (recessed image areas) and one version relief (anything that rises above the surface). Presumably you would print both images in register (alignment).

What Makes Collagraphy Different?

So far, anything I have just described can refer to any relief or intaglio process. If, however, you are doing collagraphy, you start with a paper (or actually sometimes wood) substrate, and then you build up its surface in a number of different ways.

Wikipedia notes that you can use “acrylic texture mediums, sandpapers, textiles, bubble wrap, string or other fibers, cut card, leaves, and grass” (Wikipedia, Collagraphy). You affix these to the printing plate surface with glue. Other articles I have read suggest using wallpaper (since it has depth and texture). These articles also mention carborundum (since it is a powder that you can sprinkle over glue to create a rough texture that holds a lot of printing ink). Even thick glue-drenched threads can be used to create depth on the printing plate.

Interestingly enough, the Greek word “koll” or “kolla” means glue, and “graph” means drawing, so you are effectively drawing with glue. Or, more specifically, in making the collagraphic plate, you are creating a custom printing plate on a paper board (or sometimes wood) using glue and all manner of other items to create raised image areas that will accept ink from a “brayer” (a roller made for applying ink) or brush. And even the glue itself can be used to build up raised areas such as lines and curves that will accept ink and print it on the substrate.

Once you have created the plate, you coat it with shellac to seal everything so it does not degrade as you add the ink, print the plate, and then wipe off the ink to clean the plate. The shellac acts as a sealant and protective coating while also strengthening the plate.

But it doesn’t stop here. You can actually build up areas of the plate with wall filler. You can then shape the wall filler with tools or press textured items into the wall filler before it dries to transfer the texture from the items (such as the fabric) onto the printing plate.

Printing the Plate

Once you have crafted the plate to your satisfaction, and the wall fill and shellac coating have dried, you can wet the printing paper in a tray of water. The paper has to be of sufficient thickness to not come apart with the pressure applied by the raised areas of the plate (which actually embosses the paper).

Articles I read suggested using brushes (such as toothbrushes) to work the thick ink into all recesses of the printing plate. You can also use scrim material to work the ink into the plate or to clean off excess ink. (Scrim is a gauzy textile with a dominant weave pattern that will help in either applying or removing ink.) Paper or fabric can be used to “polish” the plate, ensuring that those areas you want to be white (highlights) will retain no ink.

When the plate is ready, you place it in the bed of the press, check its alignment with a registration sheet, ink the plate, take a piece of printing paper out of the tray in which it has been soaking in water, place it between sheets of blotter paper to remove some of the water (to make it damp but not actually wet), put the paper in the press, and pull a proof.

If the ink is muddy, dark, and/or sticky, you need to back off on the ink. If your print is too light, you may need to increase the pressure of the press.

If you want to use more than one color, you can wipe the plate clean with the tissue and scrim, and then apply different colors of ink to different areas of the plate before pulling your next proof.

How Does This Relate to Commercial Printing?

If you actually go through the process of hand printing anything, you will better understand the computerized and mechanized technology currently in use. The huge, multi-unit presses in commercial printing establishments still apply ink to paper substrates, even if they are run by computers and even if they use closed-loop electric eye mechanisms to control the color. The better you understand the core custom printing process (intaglio and relief printing in the case of collagraphy), the better able you will be to create the printing nuances you need in order to achieve the precise effects you desire.

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Book Printing: Pearson Shifts from Textbooks to Digital

September 9th, 2019

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I spend a lot of time in thrift stores with my fiancee. She looks at the clothes; I go for the print books. In fact, I’ve collected quite a library of textbooks, which I have used since graduating from college to augment my education (and particularly my knowledge of commercial printing, art, and business).

So I’m familiar with the name Pearson, a mammoth United Kingdom publisher of textbooks. I have many of their titles on my bookshelves, all purchased second hand.

Pearson’s Move from Print Books to “Digital First”

Given my predisposition to learning from print books, and my work as a printing broker, I was surprised and a bit saddened by the news that Pearson will be “ending all regular revisions for its print college textbooks.” (I took this quote from an article I found today entitled “Pearson Ditches Print Textbooks for College Students in Digital First Strategy,” published on 07/16/19 by Sarah Min, of online Money Watch.)

According to Min’s article, Pearson will “focus on updating its digital products more frequently, offering artificial intelligence capabilities, data analytics, and research.”

This has to be taken in context, I think. The price of textbooks has been soaring, costing as much as $200 to $300 for a single print book. In contrast, e-books are closer to $40 each.

In addition, students, most of whom are on a tight budget, have been motivated to approach the secondary market to buy used textbooks, thus reducing the revenue of textbook publishers like Pearson. And this is not a situation affecting only Pearson. Other textbook publishers such as McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt have been moving in a digital direction for a while now, investing heavily in artificial intelligence (as it pertains to textbook material, such as online audio, video, etc.).

According to “Pearson Ditches Print Textbooks for College Students in Digital First Strategy,” Pearson considers this shift to digital first to be a win/win for students and publishers. The students get the enhanced learning capabilities of online media, and the publishers can eliminate the direct materials costs associated with book printing (all the paper) as well as the costs of storing printed books and fulfilling orders for print textbooks. In the long run, publishers will make more with this business model.

According to Pearson CEO John Fallon, as quoted in Min’s article, “ Students are getting more comfortable with e-books as the functionality gets better” (“Pearson Ditches Print Textbooks for College Students in Digital First Strategy”).

The Other Side of the Coin

Being a print broker and a lover of print books, I was not sold on this approach, so I did some more research.

I found an article entitled “A Textbook Dilemma, Digital or Paper?” that provides a different view. It is from The Science of Learning and is dated 08/23/17. It was written by Claudia Wallis.

I was not deterred by the date (approximately two years ago) because of the scientific evidence it presents, which I don’t think would have changed in two years.

The gist of Wallis’ argument is the following:

1. Students learn better from a print book, in part because there are fewer distractions, in contrast to the multi-tasking approach of the Internet.

2. Students learn better when they can make notes in the margins of a print book. It has not yet been proven whether copying and pasting text electronically from source material works as well as underlining and hand-note-taking in fostering reading comprehension and the retention of facts.

3. Wallis references the work of Patricia Alexander, a University of Maryland literary scholar, whose research from 1992 to 2017 uncovered only 36 studies (out of 878 potentially pertinent studies) that directly addressed whether online learning was as effective (in terms of retention and understanding) as learning from a textbook. So the bottom line is that more work needs to be done regarding how people learn and how online resources and print books compare in this regard.

4. Wallace references the work of Patricia Alexander in Review of Educational Research, which confirms that, for longer works (above 500 words), reading on a digital device reduces comprehension, when compared to a print book. (Apparently this is due in part to the flickering of the screen, the scrolling, the glare of the screen, and the fact that we are accustomed to multitasking on a digital device instead of focusing intently in a linear manner on the subject matter.) According to Alexander’s research, digital book readers have more confidence in the depth of their learning (due to the perceived increased reading speed on digital media) but had lower actual comprehension and retention. Apparently, readers of print books absorbed and retained more details.

5. Regardless of the medium, the most powerful approach to education is one that involves students’ “deeply questioning the text” (“A Textbook Dilemma, Digital or Paper?”).

6. Some texts (and some subjects) are linear and lend themselves to print books (as Wallis notes, based on findings by Joost Kircz, a Dutch scholar on this subject). You read them from beginning to end. Other subjects and books lend themselves to a less linear approach. These might benefit from the added videos and audio tracks accessible through online media. According to Kircz, these enhancements might include links to “annotation, elaboration, contrary views, media, etc.” (“A Textbook Dilemma, Digital or Paper?”). One benefit of digital media is “in a digital environment we can easily enable a plurality of reading paths in educational and scholarly texts.” (Joost Kircz and August Hans Den Boef in The Unbound Book). “Not all information is linear or even layered.” “The question is to what extent can we mimic human understanding” (Joost Kircz in “A Textbook Dilemma, Digital or Paper?”).

The Takeaway

So, from my perspective, the question of whether to choose digital or print books involves the following issues:

  1. How do people learn? We need to better understand the mechanics (i.e., the brain functions) involved in the comprehension and retention of new subject matter.
  2. Do some kinds of subject matter lend themselves to one medium or the other? For instance, can a novel (a linear text, presumably), work better as a print book? Can the digital enhancements of online video and audio hyperlinks improve one’s ability to learn other kinds of subject matter?
  3. Do all people learn more efficiently and effectively from the same media, whether online texts or print books?
  4. Are we making decisions based on the effectiveness of the medium or its cost (from the point of view of the student) or its potential for revenue generation (from the point of view of the publisher)?

My educated guess is that “digital vs. print” will eventually be like the “radio vs. television” dilemma. People thought images would replace words. Now we have both. I think some people will learn better from printed books while others will learn better from online media. And I think this will change based on the kind of subject matter in question.

I think print books will be with us for a long time, although I think the ones that remain will incorporate the higher production values (for example, intricate die cuts or nuanced cover coatings) that set print books apart from digital books.

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Book Printing: Finding Your Optimal Minimum Print Order

September 3rd, 2019

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A commercial printing client whom I have mentioned before regularly reprints a series of color swatch books during the year. They are a bit like miniature PMS color swatch books, but their purpose is to help my client’s clients choose colors for make-up and clothing based on their complexions.

These little books are approximately 1.5” x 3.5” in size, are 118 pages plus covers, and are bound with a single screw and post assembly in one corner. The printer prints the swatches, drills and round corners the pages, collates the pages, and then binds each print book prior to shrink-wrapping it.

There are 28 master copies with titles related to the four seasons. During the year my client reprints a certain number of copies of each master text based on the orders she has received from her clients. The most recent reprint, for instance, was for 81 books. For these she paid $1,862.00, or $22.99 per book. On another occasion, she printed 154 books for $2,809.00 or $18.24 per book.

Explaining the Numbers

The first question most people will ask is why the unit costs are different. Why should my client have to pay $18.24 per book for one reprint and then several months later, when she has another batch of customers interested in her product, why should she pay $22.99 per book? Moreover, how can she know what to charge her clients if the unit cost keeps changing?

First of all, the overall price at any level, whether 81 books or 154 books, reflects two things: fixed costs and variable costs. I never formally studied economics, but I have learned this over the years. The fixed costs reflect the activities needed to prepare the job and set up the print run. These tasks include loading and opening the job files for my client’s product, making any corrections, producing PDF proofs, and, after proof approval, reloading the job into the computer and preparing for the actual print run.

My client usually prints between one and six copies of each master print book depending on her clients’ needs. This is one of the reasons the job is printed on an HP Indigo press. That is, her job is produced digitally via electrophotography (laser printing). Fortunately this involves less make-ready of the press than offset lithography, but there is still some work to do before the actual custom printing process. After the set up is complete, the press run cost varies based on the number of copies produced: hence, the range noted above from $1,862.00 to $2,809.00 for 81 to 154 copies. The length of the press run itself reflects the variable costs because these change depending on the number of copies produced, ranging from $18.24 to $22.99 per book.

Ideally, my client will produce more rather than fewer books. This actually benefits everyone. The printer makes more, and my client pays less per print book (you can see graphs of this sort of thing in economics books, where the unit cost drops as the manufacturing run increases).

If my client wanted significantly more copies of each master book (and a printer would need to figure out the exact number that would be appropriate for this), it would be less expensive to produce the books via offset lithography rather than laser printing. In this case, the make-ready (all activities, in this case, related to getting the offset press ready to produce the first and then all subsequent copies of each page) would be more involved. It’s a more time consuming, and more complex, procedure to make and hang custom printing plates on the press, prepare the ink, wash up the press when needed, etc., than it is to run clean, contained digital printing equipment.

That said, there would be a large magnitude of an increase in the final number of printed pages, so the overall cost of the print run (in the multiple thousands of copies range) would yield a lower unit cost (fixed preparation costs plus variable job-run costs divided by the number of books in the press run).

As noted before, in your own work it is prudent to ask your printer where the optimal transition point would be in choosing digital laser vs. offset lithography for your print books. It will depend on the number of copies and the number of pages in your print book, as well as the commercial printing equipment your supplier has on his factory floor.

Your Minimum Order Based on Page Count and Press Run

My client just took orders and deposits from a handful of customers and now wants to produce a reprint costing approximately $1,000.00. That’s her target “spend.” So I asked the book printer how many final copies this would yield, assuming that there could be any number of copies of any of the 28 master print books.

Since the $1,862.00 press run yielded 81 copies, I guessed that $1,000.00 might yield 20 or 30 copies, at most, since a lot of the $1,000.00 would be committed to the make-ready costs.

So I was surprised to receive the following cost spreadsheet from the printer:

5 copies: $1,765.00
50 copies: $1,806.00
81 copies: $1,862.00

In his email, the printer noted that the high cost was due to the set up time and minimum charges for lamination.

Now upon further review, I also thought about the following. The round cornering is a die-cutting operation (a metal die cuts rounded corners on all sides of each color swatch card). So between the laminating of each sheet (done by an outside vendor) and the die-cutting, the job is more complex than initially conceived, and it also involves minimum orders for the subcontractor to avoid his losing money on a short run.

Therefore, the book printer advised that my client use the 81-copy press run as a target minimum order (an order yielding a reasonable unit cost and factoring in all preparation and clean-up costs). This would avoid the $353.00 unit cost for 5 copies or $36.12 unit cost for 50 copies (as noted in the printer’s spreadsheet above).

With this information plus the job history of printing 81 to 154 copies over the last year or so, my client could get a really good idea of how much each print book (each unit) would cost, depending on how much her overall “spend” was ($1,862.00 to $2,809.00 ), and she could determine an amount to charge her clients for each book that would cover the costs and also yield a profit. (On small orders, then, she would make less per unit; the cost to her clients would be closer to what the printer had charged her per unit. And on larger orders for clients, she would make more per unit.)

Again, it would behoove her to wait until the last possible moment to receive client orders and then place an order with her book printer. Larger orders would always be better.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

I’d encourage you to do what I did. Get an economics textbook at a thrift store and study the section on fixed expenses, variable expenses, unit costs, and marginal costs (the cost of “one more unit” of anything produced). It will be much more interesting than it was in school because it will apply directly to your own print buying work, right now. Studying this will help you understand why longer press runs are better.

Learn the differences between digital printing (such as inkjet and laser printing) and analog printing (such as offset lithography, screen printing, flexography, or gravure). Pay particular attention to the steps involved in “make-ready” for each kind of commercial printing technology. This will help you understand the differences in fixed and variable costs for different jobs produced with different technology.

Discuss with your printer what the optimal transition point would be for your print book (whether you should print it digitally or via offset lithography). You will need to tell him the page count and number of copies needed.

Don’t assume the quality will be exactly the same for digital vs. analog (traditional offset). Ask for printed samples, preferably with whatever cover coating you have chosen (UV or matte laminate, for instance). Fortunately, digital printing is getting to the point that it usually looks great compared to offset lithography, but if your job involves 4-color images, it’s always best to review printed samples before making your decision.

And if you don’t like the samples of a digitally printed cover for whatever reason (different digital technologies, such as laser vs. inkjet, or different brands of digital printing equipment yield different levels of quality), consider hybrid printing. For instance, you may want to produce the text of your book digitally and then have the printer offset print the covers. It’s always smart to discuss all of these options with your print sales rep based on both price and quality, and to confirm your choice based on your review of printed samples.

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Custom Printing: The Place of Digital Printing in “Retailtainment”

August 26th, 2019

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On the one hand I like it when new words are created. I was a Literature major in college. On the other hand, I know to look closely when this happens. (An example is when Photoshop was turned from a noun—the computer program—into a verb, as in “just Photoshop” the image, meaning “Turn the fuzzy, low-res image into a crisp, press-ready photo.”

So when I heard the word “Retailtainment,” I was both intrigued and wary. It seemed to tell me something about the shift in buying trends, and in this particular case I think it signals an outcome that will be favorable to commercial printing.

The Thesis: Canon’s Approach to Contemporary Sales

That said, I read an article today entitled “The Age of ‘Retailtainment’: How Digital Disruption Is Driving Trends in Physical Retail Decor.” I read it on www.africanews.com. It was published on 06/29/19 by Canon-CNA.com (Canon Central and North Africa—CCNA, presumably presented as a press release).

The background (not noted in the article but definitely noted anecdotally in many of the articles I’ve read over the past few years) is that the Internet has drawn traffic away from retail stores. This is nothing new. I would think most people would agree that it’s easier to buy online. Nevertheless, you miss a few things when you do this. You don’t see the product, and you can’t interact with the knowledgeable sales rep in the store. The Africa News article bears this out.

Canon notes “the importance of the settings and ambiences of physical shops as they become more than just a buying space, an opportunity for the brand to build and maintain relationships with its customers” (“The Age of ‘Retailtainment’: How Digital Disruption Is Driving Trends in Physical Retail Decor”). Canon then goes further to say that a lot of this ambience comes from décor that is ideally suited to production via digital custom printing.

The press release then notes that “just under 90 percent of worldwide retail sales still take place in physical stores” (“The Age of ‘Retailtainment’: How Digital Disruption Is Driving Trends in Physical Retail Decor”). This actually surprised me, given my own, and my fiancee’s, avid use of the “buy now” button on any number of websites. But Canon’s press release goes on to identify the things you cannot get online (“atmosphere, face-to-face customer service, and the ability to see and try products”).

Because of this, the goal of retail stores is shifting rather than dying out (since, according to Canon’s article, they “play a role in sales 79 percent of the time and excel at converting interest to sales”).

What this means is that buyers will spend time in a retail store if they feel it is a good use of their time: that is, if it’s interesting, educational, and fun. This is why sports stores often have climbing walls, why home repair stores often have classes in how to do your own plumbing, and why cooking stores often provide a restaurant, food to cook, cooking equipment, and cooking classes. The more time a retail store can hold the interest of potential clients, the larger the amount of money they will spend. Why? Because they’re enjoying the experience.

Canon’s article goes on to say that the retail establishments “that continue to thrive are those embracing ‘omni-channel’ strategies; focusing on delivering a seamless customer experience across every channel where they have a presence—physical stores, catalogs, e-commerce, mobile, social media, and more” (“The Age of ‘Retailtainment’: How Digital Disruption Is Driving Trends in Physical Retail Decor”).

People these days seem to value experiences more than things (according to Canon’s article), and therefore to keep the interest of a customer, a retailer has to “engage shoppers with the emotional and multi-sensory experiences that are missing from online purchases.”

What this means to me is that there’s a lot of room for commercial printing technology and products in this new retail experience.

Moreover, the goal is to ensure a seamless transition from one channel to another: from the in-store experience to the online experience to the print collateral. Potential customers must recognize the branding. It must be consistent as the customer transitions from one marketing channel to the next.

Canon calls this a “unified journey” (“The Age of ‘Retailtainment’: How Digital Disruption Is Driving Trends in Physical Retail Decor”).

“Retailtainment” and the In-Store Environment

Canon states that the goal is to create “spaces where customers want to spend time” (“The Age of ‘Retailtainment’: How Digital Disruption Is Driving Trends in Physical Retail Decor”). This is the “experience economy,” according to Canon. The approach may have started thirty years ago, but Canon sees a transformation particularly over the last ten years. The customer’s in-store goal has become “time well spent.” This has led to “showroom-style environments that encourage customers to experience products…to linger” (“The Age of ‘Retailtainment’: How Digital Disruption Is Driving Trends in Physical Retail Decor”).

And one thing that all retail environments need to provide captivating environments that never become boring is compelling décor. “Atmosphere” and “sensory appeal” are essential to creating an “immersive experience,” according to “The Age of ‘Retailtainment’: How Digital Disruption Is Driving Trends in Physical Retail Decor.” And digital custom printing is ideally suited to all of these goals.

Digial custom printing excels at making environments new, trendy, and continually different for an economical price, especially if designers and retailers approach environmental upgrades as changing the skin of the retail store: that is, updating the wall and floor coverings, the images adorning the surfaces of the environment, rather than moving the walls.

You can completely transform an environment, making it surprising and new, with large format graphics from commercial printing vendors on all surfaces: walls, floors, cabinets. And a novel environment encourages customers to come back again and again to see something new.

According to “The Age of ‘Retailtainment’: How Digital Disruption Is Driving Trends in Physical Retail Decor,” “51 percent of customers are more likely to buy from brands whose stores are ‘interesting or different.’” This encourages repeat visits, and repeat visits foster continued spending.

This means the in-store goal has shifted, according to Canon, from “directly driving sales” to “creating a branded experience…reflecting the ‘personality’ of the brands…and encouraging dwell time” (“The Age of ‘Retailtainment’: How Digital Disruption Is Driving Trends in Physical Retail Decor”).

Moreover, since social media has become the leading motivator for customers’ choosing one brand over another (i.e., making buying decisions based on the recommendations of family and friends), brands are increasingly focusing on maintaining a consistent branded experience, from the retail store to the Internet experience, to the catalog, and also encouraging the use of social media within the retail store. For instance, this might mean providing ample opportunities for selfie photos that can be shared on social media with the customers’ friends and family.

What this means from the point of view of a designer and commercial printing vendor is that the environment must be kept fresh and enticing with digitally printed environmental graphics.

The Place of Digital Custom Printing in “Retailtainment”

Canon notes the following in its article, “The Age of ‘Retailtainment’: How Digital Disruption Is Driving Trends in Physical Retail Decor”:

  1. Digital custom printing helps create a trendy environment “with minimal disruption” and “within tight budget constraints.”
  2. Digital printing is flexible and cost effective in enhancing a branded environment.
  3. Retail companies can provide unique wallpaper, displays, floor and window graphics, and other surface imagery consistent with their brand.
  4. The goal is to welcome and captivate the customer. Digital printing plays an integral part in this experience.

What You Can Learn from This Article by Canon

  1. Design skills are essential. If you understand how to create a consistent brand image over multiple channels (print, environmental, social, mobile, e-commerce), you will always be employed.
  2. Learn everything you can about the technological aspects (as well as the design aspects) of all marketing channels: print, digital, and e-commerce. The more you understand the specifics, the more in demand you will be.
  3. Study the psychology behind all channels. Understand what motivates various customer groups (segments) such as Baby Boomers and Millennials. Understand how they approach buying decisions differently. If you can understand their values and motivations, you can better communicate with them through all marketing channels.
  4. Understand the options you have within the realm of commercial printing. This means knowing what technologies are relevant for particular purposes, such as offset lithography, inkjet printing, and laser printing. (For instance, people still trust catalogs because there is something about their physical permanence that the Internet does not offer. So, in this case, the more you know about the offset printing process and what your options are for paper, ink, cover coatings, etc., the more in demand you will be. In contrast, one-off printed products like wall banners depend more on digital printing technology.)
  5. The short version: The more you know, the more valuable you will be.

Final Words

I have two final things to share:

I had an “Aha” moment about fifteen years ago when I realized that eating out wasn’t about food. It was about entertainment. The dining out experience had become an event.

I had a similar “Aha” moment today in Best Buy, when I realized that they were doing exactly what the Canon article was espousing. I could see it in the Best Buy signage and other environmental branding, in their digital presentation on the small computers in the store, and even in our interactions with the sales reps. When we were leaving, my fiancee noted that she had had a good time when we were in the store. Point taken.

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Book Printing: Ensuring On-Time, Accurate Delivery

August 19th, 2019

Posted in Book Printing | Comments Off on Book Printing: Ensuring On-Time, Accurate Delivery

“We uploaded the art files to the printer only a day late. Why can’t the printer make up the time? Don’t they want our business?”

A print brokering client of mine asked these questions recently, reminding me that their print books needed to be in the book distributor’s possession on time, and not even a day late. (To be completely honest, I have exaggerated my client’s actual questions a bit in order to make a point: Schedules matter.)

It is important to remember that your commercial printing job (and in most cases your schedule, or drop-dead delivery date) is of utmost importance to you, but at the same time your print provider has many clients who feel exactly the same way about their projects. Some of these will flow smoothly through the process. They will arrive on time and then proceed through all the various stages of the process (prepress, printing, finishing, packing, and delivery).

Others will hit snags. Maybe your files will not pass preflight (perhaps there will be problems with the resolution of the photos). Maybe, when you receive the hard-copy proof, you’ll catch an error or two.

Errors like these, the ones you have inadvertently introduced into the process, will slow you down. These are different from errors the printer introduces into the process (such as a broken saddle stitching machine that slows down his bindery work, perhaps necessitating overtime work to compensate).

Error-Free Files

I had a client earlier this year who submitted three 5.5” x 8.5” print books to press. There was a simple editorial correction needed on one of the book covers. Because of this, the printer put all three books on hold while the cover designer made and uploaded corrections and while new proofs were generated and approved (fortunately they were PDF proofs, so no further time was lost mailing proofs to the client and then back to the book printer).

This revision process (for as small a correction as was needed) added a week to the overall production schedule. Did the printer need to take this much time? After all, the book printer’s actual production time was probably only minimal. While it’s true that fixing the problem most likely took very little time, it disrupted the overall workflow of the book printing plant. To minimize this, the printer focused first on the clients who had provided accurate, error-free files—on time—and then came back to my client’s three print books.

Not all printers are like this. Printing is a business, and different printers have different business models. The one in question has rock-bottom prices but provides stellar-quality products. Therefore, they are always booked. In fact, since the overall volume of book printing has been increasing year over year in the recent past, the turn-around time this book printer now offers is much longer than even a year ago.

Other Options

My client could go elsewhere. A reasonable choice. I work with another printer that’s huge. They are a consolidator. They have branches all across the country. They also do digital printing (which my client needed for these three titles due to their short press runs). But this printer’s business model involves limiting the choices for digital binding to keep their machinery costs down. After all, if they offered all types of binding (French flaps on the paperback covers, for instance), this would require additional machinery, which would require additional expense, which would drive up the costs the printer must charge customers.

A third book printer will do almost anything I need. They’re great. However, I have to pay a premium for this. Some of my customers prefer this treatment and are willing to pay for it.

So my client made his choice. He chose two of the three manufacturing goals (quality, price, but not speed). In effect, we paid for the discounted price.

Some will say that clients now demand more, and it’s possible to hit all three goals (quality, price, and speed). That sounds good, but in reality those printers who over-promise eventually go out of business.

For instance, I’ve had clients leave for other printers who promise more only to find that their schedules were not met or that the printed jobs were not of the highest quality. These clients then came back to me. In my case, as a printing broker, I try to advise clients not to do this because it takes time: going out, finding a new printer, having problems, and then coming back. This can also waste a lot of money.

Now I want to make it clear that the situation I’m describing is very different from working with a printer who is slow, sloppy, and/or inaccessible. Most are not. Some get into trouble precisely because they are trying to be all things to all people. They are charging less than the competition, taking in too much work, and turning it around with too few staff. Eventually they go out of business.

How do you know what’s really happening with a particular printer? You don’t. This is where experience comes in. If a long-standing relationship with a printer who has been a good partner hits a bump in the road, you can discuss matters, be frank, and come up with solutions. But if you’re working with a new printer, it’s usually smart to start slowly. Make your first few jobs small ones with flexible deadlines. Then you can build up to large, deadline-critical custom printing projects.

The Solution

After the first set of this year’s print books came too close for comfort to my client’s drop-dead delivery date, I came up with a solution for the next set of three jobs. I asked for the printer’s longest projected time frame for each component of the schedule based on the printer’s workload at that particular time (which was heavy). Then I listed them:

  1. Prepress and proofing
  2. Printing
  3. Binding
  4. Shipping and delivery

Then I added a week to the estimated prepress and proofing stage. Then I added a week to the shipping stage. Then I added a week to the whole process just for safety’s sake. Would I have done this for all printers’ schedules? No. In some cases my clients want to go go with the more expensive printers I frequent, and these book printers don’t often present this problem.

So in the simplest terms, I acknowledged reality. Then I made a conservative schedule. Not just a realistic schedule, but a conservative one, with wiggle room. With this in hand, I approached both my client and the printer, received their approval of the schedule, and made sure everyone had a final copy. This was our agreement. At this point it was set in stone, but I sweetened the pot by arranging prepayment. The printer needed half of the cost up front, but since my client “got it” (he understood human motivation), my client offered to pay for the entire order at once, up front.

Keep in mind two important things. My client had been exceptionally pleased with this book printer’s prior work. All books delivered for several jobs had been gorgeous. Also, this printer (and most others) require cash-only clients (as opposed to credit clients) to pay the first 50 percent prior to the onset of the job and the final 50 percent prior to its shipment. This is the norm (an accepted trade custom in commercial printing). So by paying both 50 percent, up-front payments together, my client showed good will, made it clear that the job was a real job, and didn’t pay any more than was required (he just paid it earlier).

Final Check of Art Files

When the text designer sent me final art files for the three print books, I carefully checked the individual pages in the PDF file and also the trim size (format) of the books. Two of the three had the correct format. One was slightly off-size–in error. I brought this to the text designer’s attention, and she quickly fixed it. (If I hadn’t caught this error, the printer would have caught it in preflight, and this would have used up precious time in the schedule. In fact, all three books might have been put on hold until the problem had been fixed.)

My client also caught errors on the cover of one of the three books. He asked whether I thought it would be better to upload the files now (one day past the submission deadline) and make corrections at the proof stage, or whether he should take the time to correct the files first. My response was that it was definitely worth taking the time now.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Make a schedule. Pad it. Then get everyone’s buy-in. Then, don’t deviate from the schedule. Remember the consequences of missed deadlines.
  2. Realize that you can have any two of the following: quality, speed, price. Any vendor can make wild promises. Choose printers that under-promise and over-deliver. Don’t waste time looking for the perfect printer. It’s more than likely that you’ll spend a lot of money and time, and wind up back at your first printer’s door.
  3. That said, develop relationships with printers prudently. Start with small jobs and then build to larger ones.
  4. Have more than one person check your art files. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s always better to fix them before submitting files. Don’t wait until the proofing stage. You will not make up lost time.

Posted in Book Printing | Comments Off on Book Printing: Ensuring On-Time, Accurate Delivery

Book Printing: Pearson Shifts from Textbooks to Digital

August 11th, 2019

Posted in Book Printing | Comments Off on Book Printing: Pearson Shifts from Textbooks to Digital

I spend a lot of time in thrift stores with my fiancee. She looks at the clothes; I go for the print books. In fact, I’ve collected quite a library of textbooks, which I have used since graduating from college to augment my education (and particularly my knowledge of commercial printing, art, and business).

So I’m familiar with the name Pearson, a mammoth United Kingdom publisher of textbooks. I have many of their titles on my bookshelves, all purchased second hand.

Pearson’s Move from Print Books to “Digital First”

Given my predisposition to learning from print books, and my work as a printing broker, I was surprised and a bit saddened by the news that Pearson will be “ending all regular revisions for its print college textbooks.” (I took this quote from an article I found today entitled “Pearson Ditches Print Textbooks for College Students in Digital First Strategy,” published on 07/16/19 by Sarah Min of online Money Watch.)

According to Min’s article, Pearson will “focus on updating its digital products more frequently, offering artificial intelligence capabilities, data analytics, and research.”

This has to be taken in context, I think. The price of textbooks has been soaring, costing as much as $200 to $300 for a single print book. In contrast, e-books are closer to $40 each.

In addition, students, most of whom are on a tight budget, have been motivated to approach the secondary market to buy used textbooks, thus reducing the revenue of textbook publishers like Pearson. And this is not a situation affecting only Pearson. Other textbook publishers such as McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt have been moving in a digital direction for a while now, investing heavily in artificial intelligence (as it pertains to textbook material, such as online audio, video, etc.).

According to “Pearson Ditches Print Textbooks for College Students in Digital First Strategy,” Pearson considers this shift to digital first to be a win/win for students and publishers. The students get the enhanced learning capabilities of online media, and the publishers can eliminate the direct materials costs associated with book printing (all the paper) as well as the costs of storing printed books and fulfilling orders for print textbooks. In the long run, publishers will make more with this business model.

According to Pearson CEO John Fallon, as quoted in Min’s article, “ Students are getting more comfortable with e-books as the functionality gets better” (“Pearson Ditches Print Textbooks for College Students in Digital First Strategy”).

The Other Side of the Coin

Being a print broker and a lover of print books, I was not sold on this approach, so I did some more research.

I found an article entitled “A Textbook Dilemma, Digital or Paper?” that provides a different view. It is from The Science of Learning and is dated 08/23/17. It was written by Claudia Wallis.

I was not deterred by the date (approximately two years ago) because of the scientific evidence it presents, which I don’t think would have changed in two years.

The gist of Wallis’ argument is the following:

  1. Students learn better from a print book, in part because there are fewer distractions, in contrast to the multi-tasking approach of the Internet.
  2. Students learn better when they can make notes in the margins of a print book. It has not yet been proven whether copying and pasting text electronically from source material works as well as underlining and hand-note-taking in fostering reading comprehension and the retention of facts.
  3. Wallis references the work of Patricia Alexander, a University of Maryland literary scholar, whose research from 1992 to 2017 uncovered only 36 studies (out of 878 potentially pertinent studies) that directly addressed whether online learning was as effective (in terms of retention and understanding) as learning from a textbook. So the bottom line is that more work needs to be done regarding how people learn and how online resources and print books compare in this regard.
  4. Wallace references the work of Patricia Alexander in Review of Educational Research, which confirms that, for longer works (above 500 words), reading on a digital device reduces comprehension when compared to a print book. (Apparently this is due in part to the flickering of the screen, the scrolling, the glare of the screen, and the fact that we are accustomed to multitasking on a digital device instead of focusing intently in a linear manner on the subject matter.) According to Alexander’s research, digital book readers have more confidence in the depth of their learning (due to the perceived increased reading speed on digital media) but had lower actual comprehension and retention. Apparently, readers of print books absorbed and retained more details.
  5. Regardless of the medium, the most powerful approach to education is one that involves students’ “deeply questioning the text” (“A Textbook Dilemma, Digital or Paper?”).
  6. Some texts (and some subjects) are linear and lend themselves to print books (as Wallis notes, based on findings by Joost Kircz, a Dutch scholar on this subject). You read them from beginning to end. Other subjects and books lend themselves to a less linear approach. These might benefit from the added videos and audio tracks accessible through online media. According to Kircz, these enhancements might include links to “annotation, elaboration, contrary views, media, etc.” (“A Textbook Dilemma, Digital or Paper?”). One benefit of digital media is “in a digital environment we can easily enable a plurality of reading paths in educational and scholarly texts.” (Joost Kircz and August Hans Den Boef in The Unbound Book). “Not all information is linear or even layered.” “The question is to what extent can we mimic human understanding” (Joost Kircz in “A Textbook Dilemma, Digital or Paper?”).

The Takeaway

So, from my perspective, the question of whether to choose digital or print books involves the following issues:

  1. How do people learn? We need to better understand the mechanics (i.e., the brain functions) involved in the comprehension and retention of new subject matter.
  2. Do some kinds of subject matter lend themselves to one medium or the other? For instance, can a novel (a linear text, presumably), work better as a print book? Can the digital enhancements of online video and audio hyperlinks improve one’s ability to learn other kinds of subject matter?
  3. Do all people learn more efficiently and effectively from the same media, whether online texts or print books?
  4. Are we making decisions based on the effectiveness of the medium or its cost (from the point of view of the student), or its potential for revenue generation (from the point of view of the publisher)?

My educated guess is that “digital vs. print” will eventually be like the “radio vs. television” dilemma. People thought images would replace words. Now we have both. I think some people will learn better from printed books while others will learn better from online media. And I think this will change based on the kind of subject matter in question.

I think print books will be with us for a long time, although I think the ones that remain will incorporate the higher production values (for example, intricate die cuts or nuanced cover coatings) that set print books apart from digital books.

Posted in Book Printing | Comments Off on Book Printing: Pearson Shifts from Textbooks to Digital

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