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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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Commercial Printing: Print Samples in a Hotel Room

April 17th, 2014

Posted in Printing | Comments »

My fiancee and I are now living in a hotel. We had a house fire, just like a surprising number of other tenants on their way through hotel rooms to their final accommodations in a long-term rental house or condo. Fire is a big business.

The again, so is commercial printing. And one item I managed to extract from the house is my printer’s loupe. Another is my sense of adventure and my love of custom printing. Needless to say, living in a hotel room with these tools, I have noticed samples of printing that I want to share with you.

The Printed Plastic Key Cards

I looked at the key cards under my loupe and didn’t see a dot pattern in the graphic images adorning my fiancee’s card and my own. Therefore, I surmised that neither offset printing nor laser printing (electrophotography) had been used to print these plastic keys. Since this leaves inkjet printing, my educated guess is that the images and text had been inkjet printed using UV inks or solvent inks, since plastic is not porous. The cards might also have been laminated, but this didn’t seem to be the case.

An online search made it very clear that magnetic strip technology and RFID are booming, with plastic key cards being the preferred security vehicle for numerous industries.

From a design point of view I was equally impressed. My fiancee and I each had a key card. However, the two images were not only attractive and branded to the hotel chain, but they were also totally different. My fiancee and I could tell immediately whether we had both keys. And given our experience at the first hotel after the fire, we were clear that the keys could be easily encoded and rendered void as needed. Can you say that about a metal key?

The Usual Amenities: Soap, Shampoo, Etc.

I didn’t want to leave out the usual amenities you find in a hotel room, since these include the most basic staples of the commercial printing industry: the door hanger, boxes of soap, printed shampoo tubes, even flexible packaging containing shaving cream.

While these were not especially dramatic when compared to the full-color images on the keycards, they were nevertheless quite useful (there’s nothing like the first shower and shampoo after a house fire). Also, they’re clearly keeping both printers and graphic designers employed, and when taken together they provide a portfolio of grooming amenities analogous to an identity package (business card, envelope, and letterhead) for a small business.

The Wall Signage

While not as theatrical as the large format print standees my fiancee and I install, the functional hotel signage played an important role in our stay. Plastic relief signs (the letters were raised and printed in a secondary color to contrast with the background) showed where the laundry room was and how to get out of the building in case of fire. (I would think that many of the long-term residents at this extended-stay hotel already had learned how to get out of a fire at their own homes.)

It looked like these signs had been produced with custom screen printing due to the thick ink used on the raised letterforms. Furthermore, I would think that the background plastic material had been tinted beige with some sort of dye added to the liquid plastic prior to its thermoforming.

One sign showing the escape routes had actually been printed on fiberglass (I noticed the filaments on the four sides that had been cut to create the sign). When I looked closely with my loupe, I saw that the text and drawings had been recessed beneath the surface of the sign. It seems that the printing is either inside the fiberglass sign or there is a coating over the sign. Regardless, the sign isn’t going anywhere. It’s bolted to the front door.

Another plastic sign notes the penalty for smoking (the clean-up fee). Fortunately I don’t smoke. Under a loupe, I can see the equal sized dots that suggest the text had been printed onto the plastic using inkjet technology (probably solvent or UV inks, again, since the plastic substrate is nonporous).

The Refrigerator Magnets

Adorned with everything from “Have a nice day” to a description of how you might want your morning cereal at the hotel’s continental breakfast, the printed magnets all carry a message on small-format, magnet-backed vinyl sheets. Based on their appearance under a loupe, I would say they had been offset printed (probably due to the length of the press run, since digital printing would have been the alternative for a shorter press run). Other samples with thicker ink may have even been produced via custom screen printing.

The Room Service Menu

I can always eat, no matter what disaster has befallen me and mine, so I read the menu at the first hotel (I hadn’t taken any print books out of the fire-damaged and condemned house). Printed on thick paper and coated with a laminate, this menu clearly will tolerate numerous greasy fingers.

The Table-Tent Hotel Instruction Manual

This may not quite be a table tent, but the free-standing, four-ring binders with directions to all manner of hotel-related subjects clearly had required commercial printing, lamination, drilling, and assembly onto the rings. Moreover they were attractive as well as useful.

It All Comes Together to Create a Brand

The piece de resistance was that all items went together on a graphic level to ensure a coordinated branding of the hotel chain. Now that’s foresight.

Posted in Printing | Comments »

Custom Printing: An Approach to Integrated Marketing

April 14th, 2014

Posted in Business Cards, Integrated Marketing | Comments »

A few weeks ago while visiting with a book printing client of mine, I made a few suggestions about promoting three new titles this small publisher was about to produce with my help. He and his wife had a website and some marketing postcards, and they had asked my opinion of how to approach the promotion of these new print books.

I was excited about the helping this couple, so I closely reviewed this publisher’s printed and online materials to get a sense of their current marketing strategy and hopefully help improve it.

My Approach to Their Website

First of all, the three print books I have helped him and his wife produce have been glorious, with French Flaps, deckled edged cream paper, and a heavy cover stock. They epitomize the tactile qualities that only a good print book can provide.

I reviewed the publisher’s website and made these suggestions:

  1. He and his wife should have a goal in mind. The website should be more than an online brochure. It should reflect the visual branding of their books, and it should invite the reader to contact the publisher and order more books, sign up for a mailing list, or whatever else my client wants the reader to do. But it needs to encourage the reader to actually do something.
  2. The website should be simple and easily navigable, with links to print book descriptions, a publisher’s contact page that can accept reader address information, and perhaps a calendar of the book launches and other promotional events the publisher hosts periodically. These links should be immediately visible at the top of the web page, and should perhaps be accompanied by a large image that reflects the tenor of his and his wife’s publishing house. I don’t think the website needs a lot of pages. Only a few, with immediately visible contact information, will do nicely.

My Approach to Their Postcard

The publisher suggested that we create a marketing postcard that would ask for information about the reader to create a book sales list and a subscription newsletter. I encouraged him and his wife to also link electronically back to their website, perhaps using PURLs (personalized landing pages), which would give a consistent look to the promotional campaign.

The postcards could be inserted into the books, so readers could immediately get back in touch with the publisher, get on a mailing list, and continue a dialogue about the book. I thought that a tie between a print book presence, a marketing postcard, and an online presence would reinforce each of the three marketing initiatives. In fact, it wouldn’t hurt to not only insert the marketing postcard into the books but to also send it to a select list of prospective buyers.

My Approach to The PURLs

My client could add a web link to the postcard text that the recipient of the postcard could type into his or her browser to connect to the publisher’s website. Or the publisher could include a 2-D barcode (known as a QR, or Quick Response, code that the reader could capture with his or her smartphone). This could send the reader to the publisher’s website. If my client wanted to go further, image recognition software now exists that would allow the reader to point his or her smartphone camera at a photographic image on the postcard (not a QR code) and be linked to the publisher’s website.

My Approach to Their Signage

My client and his wife also attend trade shows. As a small print book publisher, they can expand the visual identity reflected in their books, marketing postcards, and website by choosing from a number of trade show graphic devices.

They could cover their trade show table with a table-throw, which could have their logo and identity information emblazoned on the side facing the show attendees.

They could also produce banner stands (large format print graphics that could completely surround their space at the booth), or smaller collapsible graphic stands.

Some of the banner stands are miniature, and would go nicely on the top of the table. Others are larger, and could be placed on the floor for a more dynamic look (one at a time or three or more side by side). And the most dramatic large format print graphics would completely surround the back of the booth, providing a startling view of the color, imagery, and tone of my client’s publishing house.

Posted in Business Cards, Integrated Marketing | Comments »

Book Printing: How to Review a Book “Blueline” Proof

April 3rd, 2014

Posted in Book Printing | Comments »

I realize they’re not really “bluelines” anymore, now that printer’s proofs are produced via inkjet technology, but the term is resilient, and some printers still call these digital inkjet proofs by their former name.

I received a printer’s digital blueline for a print book I’m designing and print brokering. It is a directory, composed of covers that print on both sides of the press sheet (ads on three covers, plus the art for the spine and front cover), 36 pages of four-color front matter (editorial, photos, and ads), and a 144-page, two-color directory listing. The book is 180 pages in length.

I approached the task of checking the proof before handing it off to my client in the following way. I thought you might find this useful information as you craft your own approach to reviewing a print book proof.

What I Looked For in the Proof

As a designer, I was clear that this proof was my last chance to check everything. According to commercial printing industry standards, once I (and my client) had approved the proof, any errors would no longer be the book printer’s responsibility.

Checking for Completeness of Copy

First I compared the hard-copy proof to the final, on-screen PDF of the job. I wanted to make sure all elements were present. That is, I checked the ads I had placed on the book covers and in the front matter. Since I had placed them as PDFs (as provided by the ad clients of this particular nonprofit agency), I knew it was very unlikely that any problems would have arisen.

Although I had provided the covers and book front-matter as InDesign files (editable by the commercial printing vendor, if necessary), I knew the PDFs of the ads were pretty much indestructible. In contrast, I carefully checked the completeness of all editorial copy (produced from editable, InDesign data) as well as line breaks and use of italics, boldface, and color in the text.

I also checked the running headers (knowing that since I had placed them on InDesign master pages they would probably be fine, or at least that they would all be the same). And I checked the folios (to make sure they were all present, accurate, and in order).

Checking Margin, Trim, and Placement of Design Elements

This includes the alignment of facing pages. They were off in some cases, not aligning across the top margin. I assumed that the misalignment was due to the printer’s having hand-trimmed the inkjet proof. However, to be certain, I noted the pages that did not align. When I met with my client to hand off the proof, I also pointed out the quantity, color usage, cover coating, and paper specifications noted on the book printer’s proof sign-off sheets.

In addition, I checked the cropping of the photos on the proof. Had I provided PDF files (which some printers prefer), I would have been less meticulous about all this checking. After all, it’s a trade-off. Starting with an InDesign file rather than a PDF, the printer could easily repair any problems he found, rather than having me correct the files and resubmit them, but he could also inadvertently introduce errors into the InDesign files.

Checking Color

Knowing that the color in the ads and editorial photos would not be as brilliant as they had appeared on the computer screen (i.e., reflective art in the proof vs. a backlit, on-screen image on the computer), I checked the color in the book. Since it was pleasing (editorial images were essentially snapshots, and the ads were imaged exactly as provided by the ad agency), I passed the proof on to my client at the non-profit agency.

Checking the Cover

I had submitted the cover as individual pages and a spine. Some printers prefer this. When they have figured out the thickness of the spine based on the caliper of the interior pages, they stitch the covers and spine together onto one large InDesign page. Again, since the printer did this to the InDesign file I had provided, I checked the proof very carefully. The type on the spine seemed to ride a little high (it didn’t seem to be floating on the spine exactly halfway between the front and back covers), so I noted this on the correction list.

Checking the Directory Listings

Since I had provided the directory listings section of the book as a high-res PDF, I knew these proof pages would pretty much be perfect. After all, PDFs are locked-down files. You can edit them in minor ways with preflight software, but they are not easily damaged (unlike InDesign files).

That said, I still checked the running footers one last time to make sure they accurately reflected the contents of the directory pages (the categories of the listings). I also checked the table of contents page numbers for accuracy as well as the advertiser index page numbers (after all, advertisers had paid good money to be listed in the print book, and I wanted them to be happy).

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Remember that reviewing a book printer’s proof is not a good time for editing. However, if you see a glaring error, this is the time to fix it. You can always ask the printer how much a correction will cost, and then make your decision whether to proceed. And always ask the printer to send you a revised PDF proof of any pages you change.
  2. Don’t try to check all items in one pass through the print book proof. You’ll miss something. Check the folios throughout the book, then the running headers—or create a system that works for you. Draft a checklist of what needs to be reviewed, and then make a pass through the book for each item (or a few items).
  3. Mark the corrections in the book proof with a red pen (so the notations will stand out), but also include a list of corrections (by page number).
  4. Make sure you check the production specifications on the proof sign-off sheet before you approve the proof. That is, check the quantity, paper specs, color usage, etc. Also note whether you’ll need to see a revised proof.

Posted in Book Printing | Comments »

Book Printing: Seeking Quality, Service, and Price

March 31st, 2014

Posted in Book Printing | Comments »

It is a truism that in custom printing you can have any two of the following: “Quality, Service, and/or Price.” In the recent past, however, to be competitive in a tight commercial printing market, the motto has become more like “Free, Perfect, and Now” (which also happens to be the title of a book by Robert Rodin).

I have been doing some preliminary research for a 600-page case bound print book that I have brokered for a number of years. During this time, one company has won the bid every year. In fact, since my client has been so happy with the quality of the printer’s product and customer service, she asked that I just give the printer the job last year rather than bidding it out.

Some people might think this isn’t fair, not giving other printers the opportunity to bid. I would disagree. In this case the relationship between the book printer and my client had become more of a partnership, in which the goal was for both the printer and my client to “win.” And the reason the relationship had morphed into a partnership was that the printer consistently provided quality books, responsive service, and timely delivery.

Granted, I had solicited bids for the prior five years and this same printer had been low bid, so the financial side of things had been addressed as well.

Experiencing Printer Pricing Sticker Shock

This year my client asked me to bid out the annual casebound book job to a number of book printers. She had a new boss, and she wanted to show due diligence, making a case that the book printer was still cost-effective.

Unfortunately, the printer’s prices had risen. Why? Because he had disposed of an antiquated press. Oddly enough, this short-run (1,000 copies), black-text-only, 8.5” x 10.875” book had fit exactly on this particular press, which had accommodated 64-page signatures. Printing the long casebound book in 64-page signatures rather than 32-page signatures had yielded a phenomenal price (due to the reduced number of makereadies and press runs needed to produce the project). Unfortunately, for a press run this short, it was not possible for the printer to provide the same discount on the new equipment.

What to Do Next?

In response to my client’s request for additional bids, I uploaded specifications to the PIE custom printing web server and also contacted about five printers I have worked with that specialize in print books (specifically web-fed offset printers, so I would not be comparing sheetfed printers’ prices to web-fed printers’ prices). Some of the printers I hadn’t worked with in decades, so this was really the same as an initial vendor contact in these cases.

The bids arrived, and I carefully reviewed them and created a pricing grid to compare the various line items, shipping costs, and costs for foil stamping dies for the decoration of the book cover.

In a number of cases I noticed that the book printers had substituted paper stocks for the book paper I had requested, or they had left out the additional price for foil stamping dies or for shipping. In each case I contacted the printers in question and requested updated pricing.

I also contacted the printer who had produced the book for a number of years. I had developed a relationship with the printer and wanted to give him a head’s up that he might lose the job this year based on price. I asked if he would shop around for a better deal on paper, or make any other suggestions that might lower the cost. I didn’t want to cut into his profit. I just wanted him to consider options for the supplies and book production workflow.

Switching Paper Is an Option

Since some of the print suppliers had ready access to the printing paper I had specified, and some did not (i.e., it was a house stock for only some of the printers, so they could buy it in bulk at a discount), I opened my mind to alternative stocks. Many of the printers’ estimates had noted the specific press sheet they had chosen as an alternative stock. Some had not, only noting the weight and caliper of the paper. So I asked for clarification.

To avoid show-through from one side of a page to the other, I had specified a 60# opaque sheet. I did some research online to make sure that the opacity, caliper, smoothness, and brightness of any paper that any of the printers had substituted would be adequate for my client’s book. Since it is an annual publication, I wanted to avoid any sense of lowered quality on any of these specs.

Requesting Samples and References

I also asked the printers whose estimates had clustered at the low end of the pricing grid to send me samples and references. I wanted to make sure that if the original book printer who had done the job for years could not find a way to cut costs, I would still have a back-up plan.

The jury is out. We’ll see what happens. I plan to present all bids to my client and, if the original printer’s bid is close (but not the low bid), I plan to ask my client to consider not only cost but also proven quality and service over a number of years in deciding which book printer to choose.

What You Can Learn From This

  1. Always have a back-up plan. If you don’t bid out an annual job yearly, but instead choose to stick with a printer that has become a partner, at least check the pricing against other vendors’ estimates periodically.
  2. Never assume a print bid is correct. In particular, check for paper substitutions and added costs, such as foil stamping dies. When in doubt, ask for clarification.
  3. Check for freight costs and responsibility. “FOB Printer’s Plant” means you are responsible for the books starting at the printer’s loading dock. That includes both the cost of freight and the potential for any damage.
  4. Prices may look good in a bid, but until you see samples, you really don’t know what you’re buying. That’s why it’s good to also call up some of the references. Ask how the printer responds when a job has problems. Does he make good on the job?
  5. Proven relationships are golden. Don’t make your decision solely on price. Often the low bid is low for a reason.

Posted in Book Printing | Comments »

Custom Printing: A Print Media Renaissance

March 24th, 2014

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I have been overjoyed recently to have read several articles on the return to favor of print materials.

The first of these appeared in a magazine called E-Content (Digital Content, Media, and Publishing Strategies). This March 2014 article, as noted on the cover of this print magazine, is entitled “Is Print Making a Comeback?” Written by Lin Grensing-Pophal, this article answers the question with a resounding “Yes.”

Starting with the recent announcement that Newsweek would once again publish a print edition, the E-Content article states that:

  1. Print and digital are both essential in communicating information and marketing products and services.
  2. The main goal is to determine whether the specific audience prefers print or digital and then engage them within that medium.
  3. The next goal is to carefully craft a multi-channel blend of communications, using custom printing where it is most effective and digital media where they are most effective.

Custom Printing Cuts Through the Clutter

The E-Content article goes further, explaining that, given the huge amount of digital information available (many people receive upwards of 200 emails a day), a few powerful print marketing items in the mailbox can be a far more powerful marketing tool. After all, with the decreasing amount of physical mail, a well-designed direct mail piece will have less competition for the reader’s attention.

Print Is Taken More Seriously

Because custom printing materials (such as an annual report) are permanent, they seem to be taken more seriously, according to Michael Shepherd, a public relations professional and CEO of The Shepherd Group, as quoted in Lin Grensing-Pophal’s article. “The impact of print articles in the C-suite and boardroom surpasses digital,” according to Shepherd. “To senior executives, it’s often perceived as more tangible, more visually compelling, more influential…and certainly less disposable.”

Print Invites Slower, Deeper, and More Thoughtful Reading

The E-Content article notes that, due to its physical nature, print invites a deeper and more thoughtful reading. Its tactile qualities are very appealing to an increasingly virtual audience that spends a huge amount of time in front of a screen. The article posits that this is true for younger audiences as well as older audiences. It’s a sensual experience, and it’s pleasurable. Custom printing isn’t going away.

The Mix of Media Is the Key

It’s ironic that E-Content is a print magazine primarily focused on digital media, and it’s also ironic that this print magazine is extolling the virtues of print publications and print marketing.

The key is the balance between digital and print, according to the article, as well as the tracking of reader preferences. Using online analytics that measure reader engagement with digital media, and tracking revenue attained through print ads and subscriptions, it is possible to get a clear picture of what works for various audiences and to put this into practice, finding the “sweet spot,” as the article calls it, the best mix of print and digital.

Moreover, it has been found that multiple exposures to marketing images reinforce the message in the reader’s mind, and this is particularly true when the reader sees the message presented across multiple media. When a branded message is presented across digital and print venues, according to the E-Content article, the effect is augmented. The multiple impressions are seen to reinforce each other with a “consensus” effect.

“A New Beginning for Print?”

The second article on the importance of print is entitled “A New Begging for Print? How Digital Innovations Are Injecting New Life Into an Old Medium” (by Katie McQuater, in, 8/2/13).

This article focuses on the importance of print from a slightly different angle. It showcases the actual integration of print and digital media through such applications as augmented reality and near field communications (NFC).

McQuater’s article notes that:

“Technologies such as augmented reality, printed electronics, and NFC are paving the way for a new type of content consumption in the digital age—and by integrating the tangibility of print with the immediacy of digital, they are injecting new life into one of the oldest mediums, allowing print to become more interactive, engaging, and useful.”

Custom printing can be the starting point. It can be used to trigger a two-way interaction with the reader. The evolving image-recognition technology can be used to provide supplemental content when a reader uses a smart phone or tablet to interact with a poster or a magazine, for instance. As an example, McQuater’s article references a Lexus ad in Wired, which allowed readers to use their NFC-enabled phones to access a Lexus app. (This was possible without image recognition technology due to near-field communications—NFC—capabilities.)

Blending digital and print in this way can make the reading experience more immersive and personal. Reading becomes a two-way experience, with the reader not only able to digest the material but also to respond to it.

The Goal Is a Seamless Experience

“A New Begging for Print? How Digital Innovations Are Injecting New Life Into an Old Medium” makes it clear that technology for its own sake is not the goal. Rather, using technology in a seamless manner to integrate the print world and the digital world can create a more pleasurable, and more comprehensive, experience for the reader, as well as one more personally tailored to his or her needs.

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Large Format Printing: Battling Showrooming and Surprising Passersby

March 21st, 2014

Posted in Large-Format Printing | Comments Off

The online experience has its place. I surf the Internet daily, learning things and buying things. But I don’t believe it is the only venue for learning and commerce.

Beyond the blogs I’ve written about the value of custom printing for promotional pieces and publications, I’d like to address the value of print in marketing in-store commerce: still a viable option to online buying.

More specifically, there is a new phenomenon called “showrooming,” which has received a lot of buzz recently. Wikipedia defines showrooming in the following way:

“Showrooming is the practice of examining merchandise in a traditional brick and mortar retail store without purchasing it, but then shopping online to find a lower price for the same item.”

If you own, manage, or work in a retail establishment, showrooming may be the bane of your existence. People come into your shop, ask questions, test the merchandise, and then go elsewhere (in this case online) to buy. So you lose the sale.

It’s Not the Same Relationship

But online buying is not as personal as the in-store experience, and smart retailers are taking advantage of this fact.

I just read an article entitled “Sport Chek Flagship Continues Assault on Showrooming” (, 2/28/14). It concerns a Canadian retail sporting goods shop (Sport Chek) that incorporates digital signage, attentive service, and knowledgeable associates to provide “an energy-filled experience for anyone who is passionate about a great customer experience and shopping for an unparalleled array of sporting goods.”

Sport Chek is fighting back in the best way possible—by improving the in-store shopping experience. Sport Chek is “integrat[ing] digital signage and interactive technologies” (not to mention the finest experts in the field) to “provide detailed and personalized service to customers, ranging from bike and ski fittings to gait analysis for runners” (“Sport Chek Flagship Continues Assault on Showrooming”). More specifically, this involves 800 digital screens, 220 channels of athletics-related content, and 250 knowledgeable staff.

If you read the article closely, you will see that the in-store experience provides a particular level of assistance not available online. You just can’t get bike and ski fittings (not to mention gait analysis) online, since they involve a physical interaction with sports equipment. Even the most attentive online retailer can’t match this.

What Does This Have to Do with Commercial Printing?

You may ask how this pertains to custom printing, since this is a printing blog. Fair enough. As the Sport Chek franchise rolls out new versions of this personalized service to other retail outlets, there will be a need for large format printing as well as digital signage to promote and brand this in-store experience. Like TV and radio, both are necessary—not just digital and not just print. In fact, I’d expect that the Sport Chek rebranding process will require all manner of print catalogs and other marketing collateral, as well as large format print signage, to market the Sport Chek experience.

Moving Subway Signage

Another article caught my eye as well. Lily Hay Newman wrote a blog for Slate (“This High-Tech Shampoo Ad Makes Windblown Hair a Marvel,” 2/27/14), and she also included a short video of a novel backlit sign in a Stockholm, Sweeden, Metro station.

The signage showcases hair products by Apotek, under the tagline “Apolosophy.” If you watch the video, you see what appears to be large format, backlit image of a model with long hair. It looks like any other backlit signage. But as the subway approaches, the model in the poster blinks, and her hair starts to move in the breeze of the incoming subway train.

Ultrasonic sensors trigger the digital signage and provide a startling experience to passersby.

It’s an Homage to Large Format Print Signage

If you think about it, this digital signage works precisely because it’s so unexpected. And it is unexpected because it looks just like any other large format print signage—until the train arrives. Oddly enough, we have seen so much digital signage in recent years that it has often become “just part of the background.” We may no longer even see it, or at least we may glance at it and then move on. But digital signage that mimics print signage and then surprises us—that’s priceless. And it gives Apotek the buzz it desires.

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Large Format Printing: Versioned Standees and “A/B Tests”

March 19th, 2014

Posted in Large-Format Printing | Comments Off

I never thought it would happen, but it did. I just saw a “versioned” movie standee. Actually, I only figured this out by chance tonight, as my fiancee and I installed a second copy of the Rio 2 standee at a second movie theater. I went to look for two animal “lugs” (a panther and what looked like an anteater, Charlie). I couldn’t find them, and I assumed the distributor had inadvertently left them out of the box (which has happened in the past).

What Happened to the Standee?

Lo and behold, when I looked at the instructions, I saw an adjusted set of animals distributed around the background box structure of the standee. When I compared the instruction sheet for the first installation to the instruction sheet for the second, I noticed that two animal “lugs” were gone and one had been moved.

Why Would The Standees Be Different?

I thought long and hard about why the marketing company that had created the large format print standee would have made such a change. My fiancee thought it was their solution to a custom printing problem, but due to the specific change in the instructions, I thought it was more likely a conscious and planned decision to engage in “A/B Testing.”

What Is A/B Testing?

A/B Testing is a marketing device in which one element of a creative design (perhaps on a web page or a print product) is changed with the goal of determining whether the change in creative will result in a change in behavior of the viewer or user.

In other words, will the change promote “conversion,” the marketing term for the prospect’s taking the desired action. In the case of the two versions of the standee, the question would be whether making the standee less complex by omitting the anteater and panther, and moving a group of monkeys, would affect the viewer’s engagement with the standee and his or her impulse to buy a movie ticket.

Making the Design Change Easier to Actually Produce

Upon closer observation of the print book of instructions and the standee itself, I noticed that the drill holes that allowed the installer to attach the lugs to the top of the background structure were the same as on the prior standee. In essence, the designer had made a change in design that would not require making new custom printing plates or new diecutting dies. Clearly this would save money.

The set of monkeys that had moved several feet to the right in the assembly instructions would not cause a problem for the following reason. They were to be attached to the background only with double sided tape, not screws. Again, I saw this as evidence of forethought.

Was This The Real Reason for the Change in Design?

It’s a good question. I don’t know. There was no one to ask. However, if this is the reason for the change (which I have never before seen on a standee), it most probably would have been implemented in this way with this marketing goal in mind.

How You Can Apply This Knowledge

The preceding example of A/B Testing might seem totally removed from most custom printing work, but here’s why I think it is relevant.

If you’re designing a high-end automotive brochure, for instance, and you have two different product shots of a car, you may want to produce half the press run with one photo, change plates, and finish off the press run with the second photo replacing the first. Something as simple as a color change (from a white sports car to a red one, for instance) could have a dramatic effect on the readers’ response rate. And this information might give you insight into consumer buying patterns.

Granted, you might want to change the text instead of the photos. Perhaps the first version might include one product offer (a particular item for a particular price) and the second version of the A/B Test might include a different offer. Again, this might yield insightful marketing data.

Keep It Simple

To go back to the standee in which the creative could be changed without adding new folds, drill holes, or anything else that might inflate the production costs, it would be prudent in your A/B Test to look for simple changes you can make that will have minimal impact on the design or production of the piece.

For instance, if you are testing two versions of copy on an outgoing envelope to see which wording draws the most responses to the direct mail campaign, something as simple as the number of words in version A and B could affect the results.

More specifically, let’s say you write twice as much copy for version A’s envelope teaser as for version B’s teaser. Such a change might necessitate reducing the type size for the longer teaser copy to make it fit in the allotted space. This might then affect the readability of the text and therefore reduce the reader’s engagement with the direct mail piece. And all the while, none of this would be related to the actual content of the teaser copy change on the envelope.

So a good rule of thumb is to keep the changes definitive and simple, just as the movie standee designer only removed two characters from the standee (necessitating no other changes), and moved a group of monkeys (that could be attached with double-sided tape). The graphic artist created a simpler alternate design without raising the custom printing, diecutting, gluing, or distribution costs of the large format print product. Consider approaching your A/B Test in the same manner.

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Large Format Printing: Options for Backwall Exhibits

March 17th, 2014

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I can’t help but think of movie “standees” when I see a “backwall” display at a tradeshow. These large format print products are most often composed of a stretch fabric that has been printed using dye sublimation technology and then stretched over a collapsible aluminum frame.

Some of these exhibits look just like printed fabric walls, in that the fabric is stretched across (and completely obscures) the lattice of black or silver aluminum supports underneath the graphic.

Other displays of this sort showcase the geometric patterns and futuristic look of the frames by leaving portions of the aluminum struts visible to passersby. These also allow you to hang, or stretch, difference large format print graphics across different portions of the metal structure to create a “modular” design effect.

Still other displays are composed of multiple retractable banner stands placed side by side, creating one overall image.

In all cases, the goal is to present a powerful graphic image that captures the look and feel of your business, like an indoor billboard, and brings passersby into your tradeshow booth.

Options for the Display and Its Surroundings

A large percentage of rented spaces at tradeshows provide room for a ten-foot backwall exhibit. These convention venues also have width and height requirements to allow visibility to adjacent booths.

Other display spaces are much larger, and the backwalls can be augmented by adding additional units. You can even add tables, podiums, printed floor graphics, or a tower display. Some of the larger units even have multiple rooms (product demonstration rooms and rooms with theater seating for presentations), hook-ups for large format digital signage, or even a bridge coming off the front of the display wall (to create a more three-dimensional, immersive experience). The larger backwalls truly are environments as well as signage, although the graphic presentation is always the most important element in order to present the company’s brand image.

Adding Sound Effects and Light to the Environment

Many of these backwalls are curved. This contains the space visually but also acts to focus the sound within the booth, improving acoustics and making presentations easier to hear over the din of the convention center.

Marketers can also enhance the visual effect by adding LED lighting to the top of the backwall, thus showcasing the large format print graphics.

Portability of the Display Is Essential

The life of a trade show participant is an itinerant one, so being able to pack up the exhibit and transport it by air freight to the next staging location is of paramount importance. In all cases, these structures come apart into the graphic elements and the geometric frames. The frames are light and collapsible, and the images and frames can fit in hard plastic transport cases, which can be wrapped with graphic panels to double as podiums. The cases are durable and have wheels. Simplicity is key, since a display product has to make a quick change from a dramatic environment to a collection of easily moved boxes that will withstand abuse until the next presentation.

Designing Backwall Graphics

The best thing I can suggest is that you study photos of backwalls in Google Images to get an overview of your options. Some are large and wide, providing one uninterrupted image space. Others have wrap-around sections that might be ideal for alternate graphics or text. Still others provide a modular design incorporating multiple smaller images. Depending on the fabric used (cotton or polyester), you can decide whether to use inkjet technology or dye sublimation in your large format print graphic presentation.

Consider the overall look you’re trying to achieve, and make smaller mock-ups of the physical space (like an architect’s scale model). This will help you determine the best set up and structure for your backwall display as well as the most efficient placement of such elements as product literature tables, podiums, spotlights, digital signage panels, and such.

Above all else, remember that this is a product in physical space. Consider how participants will travel through the space to make sure your tables do not block either the people or the graphics.

Many firms deal specifically with this kind of large format print display work, and they are well equipped to provide experience and knowledge to help you achieve your goals.

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Custom Printing: Fabric Printing for Small Design Shops

March 15th, 2014

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In an earlier blog I mentioned that among other things my fiancee and I install displays for a major cosmetics conglomerate. What that has done for my print brokering work is open my eyes to the plethora of signage options (print and digital) as well as the variety of packaging and product design options that are out there. It also has been an education in itself in cross-media marketing, given the selection of wall and floor displays, large format print banners, walls of digital signage, and screen printed cosmetic bottles.

It has also made me more conscious of fashion design, or—more specifically—printing on fabric.

Digital technology has made inroads into what had been almost exclusively a custom screen printing venue. I just read two articles about fabric printing and learned a few things.

“Technology Strikes Again: Digital Prints Invade Fashion” (El Paso Inc., 2/23/14, by Nan Napier) and “Introduction to Digital Fabric Printing” (, 6/24/10) extol the benefits of digital fabric printing, but they also show how the more flexible workflow and reduced set-up and manufacturing costs will allow more new fabric designers to enter the field.

Benefits of Low-Minimum Print Runs

Prior to the advent of digital printing, custom screen printing was the only option for decorating fabric. Since this required a new screen for each color, plus extended set-up and clean-up times, the print runs had to be long to justify the cost, the time, and the staff.

The implication of this financial hurdle and time constraint was that short print runs were not cost-effective. So new designers could not set up, print, and distribute their work. Also, it was not feasible to produce a short run of a design to test buyer interest. Nor was it possible to cost-effectively vary the design within the print run for aesthetic purposes (to make unique items or to satisfy niche markets). For rotary or flatbed custom screen printing presses, you had to commit to producing several thousand yards of fabric.

In contrast, digital custom printing on fabric is available starting at a yard or less of fabric. So you can test a design on a particular fabric—or on multiple fabrics. This is particularly useful, since the color and texture of the fabric change the ink colors, dulling them down or giving them sheen and making them pop. You could even gang up a number of designs and print them on the same fabric to test the results. Or, you could personalize every item. With custom screen printing, this is out of the question.

If you’re a small designer, your financial entry into digital printing is not insurmountable. Digital fabric printing equipment costs between $10,000 and $70,000 (according to “Introduction to Digital Fabric Printing”), plus the computer, plus the equipment for curing the ink. Once you have purchased the equipment (or have access to someone else’s equipment), you can immediately produce your fabric designs for a reasonable cost. Furthermore, electronic components quickly drop in price, so the cost of entry into the field will go down over time.

Benefits of Having No Inventory

In the days of custom screen printing, you produced a thousand or more yards of printed fabric and therefore had to maintain an inventory of unfinished and finished work. Of course, you also had to pay for storage space. Furthermore, printing the fabric and producing the garments took time, so it could take a year to bring a design to market.

In contrast, you can come up with a design and digitally print the fabric the same day. The process is far more immediate, without all of the preparation, production, and clean-up time. In addition, if a design doesn’t work, you can change it immediately and proceed with the print run. What this means is that a designer can “take advantage of current trends and even change prints or colors mid-season.” (“Introduction to Digital Fabric Printing”) Instead of taking a year to bring a product to market, with digital fabric printing you can complete a run within weeks.

Flexibility in Image Color and Placement

In most custom screen printing, only a limited number of colors are used for a particular fabric design, since each color requires a separate screen. This has kept most fabric designs to six or eight colors. (Granted, some screen printers can produce full-color work using CMYK halftone screens, but in the majority of cases fabric printers have focused on a limited color palette.)

In contrast, digital custom printing widens the color gamut to hundreds of colors, or more, as well as photo-realistic images and color gradations impossible to achieve on a flatbed or rotary screen press.

In addition, screen printers usually create a pattern that seamlessly repeats across the length of fabric. With digital printing, however, fashion designers have more control over the actual placement of the art, allowing them to position an element “at the waistline” or “across the shoulder” of a garment (“Technology Strikes Again: Digital Prints Invade Fashion”).

In this way, digital printing technology invites new designers into the field and provides a wide latitude for creative fabric design.

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Custom Printing: 11 Suggestions for a Press Inspection

March 12th, 2014

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It has been years since I’ve been on a commercial printing press inspection. Between the computerized consoles that constantly monitor conditions within the press and adjust for any ink density variance or problems with register, to the on-screen proofs that allow multiple people at a client’s office to check proofs online, it is rarely necessary to check a job on press.

That said, sometimes it’s essential. Let’s say your job resembles any of the following:

  1. A print catalog in which photos of designer clothes must precisely match the color of the actual fabric
  2. A high-end gift box with intricate diecuts or multiple foil stamping treatments and a colored lining produced on special commercial printing stock
  3. Any four-color job related to food, fashion, or the automotive industry (i.e., critical color)

In these cases you may be called upon to attend a press check. If the job involves multiple signatures (a print catalog or magazine, for instance), your commercial printing vendor will probably produce these signatures sequentially, and you may be on press at 6:00 a.m., noon, 6:00 p.m., and so forth. It can be exhausting, and the decisions you make will probably be critical.

So here are some things to look for when you’re checking the custom printing sheets:

  1. Check the commercial printing paper (color, thickness, surface texture, etc.).
  2. Check the page imposition (make sure everything is there). Check the page size.
  3. Make sure any corrections from the printer’s proof have been made.
  4. Check any PMS colors against a PMS swatch book.
  5. Make sure the overall color is good. If the color looks off, point this out to the pressman, but let him determine how to fix it (i.e., whether more or less of a color is needed). Look for memory colors, such as flesh tones and green grass. Check the press pulls against the proof to make sure the color matches.
  6. Check the color images under a loupe to ensure good register (look for process color halftone screens hanging out beyond the edges of type and photos), but keep in mind that it’s more important for the job to be visually accurate than 100 percent exact under a loupe.
  7. Look for custom printing problems like hickies (caused by dust on a press blanket), ink in non-image areas, trails of ink on the type letterforms, and such.
  8. Use a pen and straight edge, or ruler, to rule out a page (from trim mark to trim mark) to make sure the dimensions will be as you expect, and fold the signature to make sure the pages are in proper order, that they will align (side by side), and that they will back up correctly (on the front and back of a press sheet). Be especially conscious of this if you have critical alignments that cross over from one page to another.
  9. Keep in mind that any changes you make due to your errors will cost you (more at this stage than at any other stage). So they should be absolutely essential. Weigh the cost of the corrections against the reality that all print jobs will have some flaws. Keep in mind that changes will also take time and may compromise the schedule (i.e., time is a secondary cost).
  10. For absolutely critical work, check the binding as well. This may mean coming back on another day, but if the job just cannot have any problems, it may be worth it. Failing that, it’s a good idea to have your custom printing vendor send samples to your office for approval before the balance of the job goes to the mail house.
  11. Keep in mind that the pressman’s comment, “That will go away when the press gets up to speed” (i.e., color problems or technical problems like hickies), may actually be correct. After all, he has a lot of experience with his particular press. However, in cases like these, it’s a good idea to wait around and have him pull a few copies for you from the middle of the job, after the press has gotten up to speed, just to make sure.

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