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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: How CD Labels Are Printed

December 20th, 2014

Posted in Label Printing | Comments »

I just bought a CD at a thrift store, and I was struck by the beautiful artwork printed on the face of the disk. So I wondered how it had been printed. Then I pulled out a number of my CDs and noticed that some were printed differently from others. Unsure of what the options were, I went online and did some research. This is what I found.

Screen Printed CDs

CDs decorated with custom screen printing have a thick surface of ink. The ink has texture and gives an opulent sense to the product. Unfortunately, the surface of a CD has a number of different sections. Printing even the thick silkscreen inks directly over these three distinct portions (the regular surface, mirror band, and stacking ring of the CD) would produce an image with visible shifts from section to section. Therefore, laying down an initial background of white ink is preferable. The white is opaque, so it evens out the differences in the various “rings” of the CD.

In addition, the white ink also lightens colors printed over this background (since some custom screen printing inks are translucent). This avoids any dulling effect that might otherwise occur, since the unprinted, mirrored surface of the CD has a bit of a grayish tone (i.e., it is not pure white).

Halftones can be printed on CDs along with type and solid areas of ink. Many custom screen printing shops use lower frequency screens due to the thickness of the screen printing inks (such as a 100 lpi halftone screen). Because of this, fine detail in halftones can be lost. Therefore, it is wise to consider this limitation when choosing images for a CD label.

Some print shops, however, can print up to 200 lpi screens, which are more suited to the detail of full-color CMYK images.

Another thing to consider is the range of tones that can be captured on a screen printed CD. Unlike offset printing on paper, which may be able to hold detail from a 2 percent dot in the highlights to 90 percent dot in the shadows, a screen printed image may only have a tonal range of 15 percent to 85 percent. (Below 15 percent, the image would not print; above 85 percent, it would be solid ink.)

Finally, it’s wise to avoid gradations (also known as blends, which transition gradually from a lower to higher ink percentage). Since gradations are produced with halftone dots, since dot gain is a problem in custom screen printing, and since the photographic transfer of a gradation from film to the printing screen is not precise, there can be visible tonal jumps that show up as banding in screen printed gradations.

Even with all these caveats, screen printing is still ideal for longer runs of CD labels. The set up charge is higher than with digital printing (inkjet), but a long run will yield a much lower per-unit cost than will digital printing. In addition, the ink is thick and lush. I personally prefer the look. However, it does require forethought and the avoidance of certain problematic design elements.

Inkjet Printed Labels Affixed to CDs

I have seen labels that can be printed on inkjet printers, then peeled off a backing sheet (like a Crack’N Peel label) and affixed to the CD surface. This looks like an easy solution, but the labels do peel off the CDs occasionally and may damage the CD player (or computer optical drive). The main benefit I can see in adhesive labels for CDs, though, is the white background. As with screen printed CDs that have a white layer laid down beneath the colored ink, the white background of the paper CD labels does provide a bright, even ground for the inkjet inks.

Unlike screen printed CD labels, which require so much set-up work as to only be practical for very long runs, an adhesive label printed via inkjet technology can have a press run of a single CD label, and you can do the printing at home on your own inkjet printer.

Inkjet Printed CDs (Direct to CD)

Fortunately, inkjet printing has evolved over the years, and a number of inkjet printers now can print directly on the surface of a CD. The benefit of this process is that the label cannot peel up and damage the CD player or computer optical drive. The overall effect is also more aesthetically pleasing than a separate inkjet label (i.e., it avoids having a second layer).

If you look online, you will see images of inkjet printers with CD trays that can hold one, or even six or eight (or more) CDs in position for inkjet printing. These trays can be fed through small tabletop inkjet printers or larger commercial inkjet presses. In this way the CDs can be held in place and protected during the custom printing process.

Based on my research, it looks like the pretreated CDs for direct imaging have a layer of white (like gesso on a primed canvas board or stretched canvas). As noted in the description of the custom screen printing process, this white ground will both brighten the resulting inkjet image and also make it appear more consistent across the surface of the CD.

Unfortunately, due to the thinner consistency of inkjet inks, the printed image will not have the same thick, tactile feel as a screen printed product. However, it will allow you to print only a few (or a short run of) CDs with labels, since digital inkjet printing requires only minimal set-up time compared to custom screen printing.

Posted in Label Printing | Comments »

Custom Printing: That’s Weird. How Do They Do That?

December 16th, 2014

Posted in Industrial Printing | Comments »

Have you ever picked up a mug or a golf ball with a particularly interesting graphic and wondered how the manufacturer could possibly have printed it? After all, if most presses print flat images on flat substrates, just how can a graphic be printed on an irregular surface?

Or think about functional or industrial printing, in which the graphics are intended for informational rather than design or promotional purposes. How can a commercial printing supplier put a logo and text on the face plate of an appliance or a piece of electrical equipment when the surface is uneven?

Printing on Industrial Control Panels

I read an article today on Screen Web. “Printing on Porcupines” by Tamas Frecska (3/18/03) raises some intriguing issues in describing how to print on control boxes and other industrial components.

When you think about it, there are three options:

  1. pad printing (a direct printing option)
  2. decal printing (an indirect method, which is not as attractive or durable as the other options)
  3. and screen printing (a direct printing option)

Pad Printing

The first option, which I have described in prior blog articles, involves transferring an image from a gravure custom printing plate onto a silicone pad (like a bulb), and from the pad onto an irregular substrate (concave, convex, spherical, cylindrical, or uneven). For example, you would use such a process to print an image on a spherical golf ball. Since the silicone pad is flexible, it will compress as it is pressed down onto the golf ball, and the silicone surface will conform to the irregular surface as it deposits the ink.

Frecska’s article notes that such a technique might be appropriate for printing on an industrial control panel or box; however, the silicone pads are somewhat fragile. Therefore, the printing process would quickly damage them. The bolt heads and other protrusions on the industrial control panel would tear up the pad and require its frequent replacement.

In addition, silicone pads cannot be stored for long (and they quickly degrade, unlike custom screen printing equipment, for instance).

Finally, according to Frecska’s article, pad printing inks don’t adhere well to powder coated metal surfaces.

Printing and Affixing Decals

Frecska’s article goes on to note that decals would be another option for decorating a control panel with an irregular surface. For instance, you might print one decal for a logo, and then another decal for pertinent numbers or other information about the control panel. Then you would apply these to the powder coated metal individually. This way you could avoid all the metal pieces that stick up off the surface of the control panel.

The problem with this approach, according to Frecska’s article, is that in some cases regulatory agencies require that such functional printing be permanently attached to the surface of the control panel (or other industrial item). Adhesives of any kind are apparently not considered adequate. Therefore, you might even need to add rivets to the adhesive labels, which would not be efficient.

Furthermore, if you decide not to produce a series of individual small labels but rather to diecut holes for the protruding bolts and tags in one large label so it will lay flat, this process can become very expensive.

Screen Printing

In such a case as printing on an irregular surface of a control panel or box, custom screen printing would be ideal except for the fact that the bolts and other protruding elements of the control panel face plate would tear the screen. Or they would keep the screen from laying flat against the control panel or box. (For custom screen printing to work, the screen must maintain adequate contact with the substrate.)

So “Printing on Porcupines” by Tamas Frecska proposes an innovative solution. Cut holes in the screen to accommodate all the protruding parts of the control panel, or other industrial equipment, on which you’re printing.

Frecska notes that such a process would need to be manual (some custom screen printing is automated). However, he does not see this as being a problem since the print runs for such components are usually very small (100 to 1,000 copies).

Why This Is Relevant

You may wonder how this pertains to your work, particularly if you never produce design jobs for industrial or functional printing.

More than anything, an article like Frecska’s “Printing on Porcupines” can challenge you to ask the question, “How did they do that?” when you see a printed product that intrigues you.

In addition, this expanded mindset might lead you to consider not just one option, but rather multiple options, for custom printing your job. The more printing techniques you understand, the more options you have, and the more likely you are to find the most economical and most effective printing process for your particular project.

Finally, an article like “Printing on Porcupines” can open your mind to just how broad the field of custom printing really is. It extends well beyond promotional and educational materials into a huge realm of industrial or functional printing opportunities.

Nothing can benefit your career, or your craft, like keeping an open mind and expanding your awareness.

Posted in Industrial Printing | Comments »

Custom Printing: Vetting Digital Print Samples

December 12th, 2014

Posted in Digital Printing | Comments »

A print brokering client of mine wants to produce about 100 copies each of almost twenty color print books. I have mentioned this in past blogs, and I have noted that due to the variable-data nature of the job (different books with different colors), digital printing is the best way to approach the job. If you can envision a PMS swatch book, you’ve got a mental image of this product.

Selecting a Printer by Selecting a Custom Printing Process

For this job, the goal was not just to get the cheapest price, although this was a consideration. Getting the best product was equally important, and this actually involved choosing a particular custom printing process (digital, which would include either toner on paper or inkjet). Moreover, it really went beyond the process to the more specific choice of the custom printing press itself.

I had initially chosen an HP Indigo press as the target equipment, because I felt it was superior to other digital electrophotographic (laser toner) equipment on the market at present. I had not considered inkjet because I was not sure the heavy ink coverage of the color swatches in my client’s print book would fare as well as with a laser toner process.

With this in mind I approached all the vendors I knew and trusted that owned HP Indigo equipment. I solicited estimates, but they were higher than expected. I wasn’t pleased. One of the more expensive aspects of the job was the off-line coating process. The HP Indigo presses owned by the vendors with whom I work do not yet coat jobs inline.

Considering A New Option

I was visiting a friend at a local offset and digital printer, and he showed me a new press of his, a Kodak NexPress, which could add a gloss coating inline. His pricing was spectacularly low compared to the other vendors’ bids since all processes up to the drilling and round cornering (diecutting) would be done right on this press.

I had been cautious, since I don’t automatically trust electrophotography. Over the years I have seen uneven laydown of colored toners producing banding in solids, and I have not always liked type I have seen reversed out of laser-printed solids. After all, toner placement is less precise than ink placement in offset custom printing, so final output can look fuzzy or uneven.

That said, I tried to keep an open mind, and I was floored by the quality. Unfortunately, this printer could not find and send me a sample of the job I had seen that day, but it was stellar. It was a multi-panel brochure with metallic inks (or toners, actually) and a gloss coating that looked like gloss UV. Wow.

So after I had received prices, and once I felt this printer could do a great job on this press, I requested printed samples for my client. They arrived tonight. (I needed to see and vet the samples before passing them on to my client in the Midwest.)

What I was Looking For

As soon as I opened the box, I pulled out the samples, but I also grabbed my loupe and sat under a strong light. This is what I saw under the high magnification:

  1. The colors were brilliant, very bright and vibrant.
  2. The text was crisp. There were very few random particles of toner around the text letterforms. So the letters looked like offset printed text.
  3. Color builds reflected tight register. Overlapping colors were precisely positioned.
  4. The gloss coating made the photographic images look crisper than usual (i.e., the resolution looked higher than than I expected). In fact, the images looked like high-end inkjet photo prints.
  5. I saw that the solid areas of color were even. There was no banding, no sense that toner had been used instead of offset ink.
  6. Next I looked at a large area of type reversed out of a heavy coating of blue toner (apparently a mixture of all process colors). The letterforms of the reversed type were all clean with no stray particles of toner. Granted, the type was a sans serif face, but it was very small. It would have been interesting to see if the Kodak NexPress could hold the detail in a serif typeface at this small point size.
  7. The only thing I’m concerned about (and I expect there will be a work-around) is the rub resistance, or scratch resistance of the toners, with and without the additional gloss coating. Once this custom printing supplier can assure me that the color swatch book will be durable, I’ll be completely sold.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

First of all, if you’re vetting a printing technology, or a printing press that’s new to you, ask for printed samples. Then look at heavy coverage ink, reverses, the toner laydown at the folds (look for cracks), gradations, the scratch resistance of the coating, etc.

Then look for color fidelity of memory colors (like flesh tones and grass). Sometimes digital printing (especially toner-based processes) can look unnatural or waxy. Granted, the technology has been improving in leaps and bounds, so the product really is close to offset quality now. But nothing will help you decide how to proceed more effectively than seeing a handful of printed samples.

Posted in Digital Printing | Comments »

Commercial Printing: A Flexography Primer for Labels

December 9th, 2014

Posted in Printing | Comments »

I’ve been excited about label printing recently, reading whatever I can get my hands on and looking closely at samples of products at home and in the grocery store. Label printing is a growing field, and I find this thrilling, since many other printing arenas are in decline. One thing that intrigues me the most is the use of digital custom printing in this venue, as well as the relatively new shrink sleeve package printing technology. In a digital world, it’s encouraging to find an area of commercial printing that’s growing and spurring technological advances.

Label printing lends itself to printing technologies other than offset. In fact, the technology of choice is most often flexography. So here’s a brief primer on flexo to help you in your print buying work.

What Is Flexography?

Flexography uses flexible rubber custom printing plates with a raised image area to transfer ink from the press to the printed substrate. This actually sounds a lot like letterpress. And that’s exactly what is is: a contemporary spin on the older art of letterpress printing.

What makes flexography (often referred to as just “flexo”) ideal for labels is its ability to print on substrates that are inappropriate for offset, such as plastic sheets, metallic films, foils, and acetate.

In addition, the water-based nature of the flexo printing ink makes it easier to print on these plastic sheets and films. (Offset ink is oil-based.) Flexo inks can be printed on non-porous substrates, which makes this process ideal for food packaging. Also, flexo inks can be of a lower viscosity than offset inks, which allows them to dry much faster, making flexo a more economical process.

In addition, flexo presses can run very quickly. One article I read described a press operating at 2,000 feet per minute. Along with the quick drying time of the aqueous inks, the velocity of the press makes flexography cheap and efficient.

A Roll to Roll Printing Process

Unlike some offset printing (sheetfed as opposed to web-fed litho), flexography uses rolls rather than sheets of its printing substrate. The unprinted paper or plastic comes off one roll, goes through the press, and then is wound up onto another roll.

In addition to being an extremely fast process, the roll to roll nature of flexography allows for such in-line processes as inkjet personalization, hot foil stamping, custom screen printing, and embossing. And in-line processes are faster and therefore cheaper than off-line processes.

What Kinds of Products Are Appropriate for Flexo?

This is only a short list, since there are many more uses for flexo:

  1. wallpaper
  2. shopping bags
  3. corrugated board (cardboard boxes)
  4. food packaging
  5. paper and plastic cups

The intense pressure of offset press rollers would not allow such substrates to be printed without being damaged.

The Limitations of Flexography

I haven’t seen much written on the down-side of flexo, but I have seen samples of the printed products under a high-powered loupe. I have seen:

  1. slightly coarser halftone screens than with offset commercial printing
  2. slightly mottled, or uneven, solid areas of ink laydown, in contrast to the smooth solids of offset printing
  3. slightly less precise registration (colors seem to be less precisely positioned than in offset litho)
  4. and an odd halo effect, in which type letterforms seem to have a lighter area around both the inside and outside edge of each stroke of each letter.

That said, most people don’t read their product labels with a loupe, so these limitations don’t outweigh the huge advantages of flexography. Plus, you’d be hard pressed to print on corrugated boxes without such a technology (unless you chose custom screen printing to print the boxes). After all, an offset press would crush the fluting in corrugated board.

What This Means to You

In your design career, you may have an opportunity to design labels, bags, corrugated cartons, or product packaging that will be printed via flexography. Therefore, it will serve you well to observe products on the shelves of retail stores to see how the designs accentuate the benefits of flexo and minimize its limitations.

Posted in Printing | Comments »

Book Printing: Notes on Creating a Book Cover Art File

December 6th, 2014

Posted in Book Printing | Comments »

A print brokering client of mine recently had to upload to the book printer’s website two separate revised book cover art files (a total of three covers for each of two titles). This was to make sure all design elements had been placed properly, such that when printed and folded, everything would fall correctly on the front and back covers, the spine, and the two cover flaps (the print book has French Flaps).

To give this some context, the client is printing two trade paperbacks, 5.5” x 8.5” in dimension, perfect bound, with a 12 pt. cover (4-color plus UV coating on the outside) and 55# Sebago text inside the book (with black-only text ink). This client has produced about five titles with this particular printer.

The Specs of My Client’s Book

When covers are laid out prior to being uploaded to the book printer, the graphic designer creates a single, large page spread including the front and back covers, the spine, and the cover flaps (if there are any).

(French Flaps provide a more European look to the product. They fold back into the front and back of the book and make a perfect-bound book look like it has a dust jacket.)

Laying all of this out in one large InDesign file provides multiple opportunities for mistakes. Therefore, the book printer usually provides a template. Based on the number of pages in the book (one of my client’s books had 80 text pages, for instance), the printer computes the width of the spine. Using the page count and the caliper of the paper (360 ppi, or pages per inch, for example), the printer can arrive at an exact width of a print book spine (let’s say 1/4”). If the cover designer positions the spine art (background color and type, vertically) in an accurate manner, the front and back covers, once printed and folded over, will align precisely with the two sides of the spine.

If the measurement is off (or if the printer’s computation of the spine width based on the pages per inch of the particular printing stock is off), the edges of the spine may fold in such a way that the spine type and graphics wind up on the front or back of the book. Ouch.

It is easy not to foresee this when reviewing a cover proof because the proof is a single, unfolded page.

How You Should Approach Print Book Cover Creation

First of all, request a hard-copy proof. It helps to have something physical that you can fold. That way you can see where the front and back covers will be, how the French Flaps (if any) will look, and whether the spine will land in the right place. Better yet, make it a point to start proofing the cover at the laser proof stage. If the laser proofs are accurate, the printer’s high-quality “contract” proof of the cover will be far more likely to be accurate.

My client had a problem with the placement of type on the French Flaps. The copy was too close to the trim at the top and outside edge of both flaps. It was also too close to the folds of the flaps, and a photo came too close to the top (head margin).

My client had to adjust the copy so all elements of the design were at least 1/4” from any trim or fold. The first time, the art still wasn’t right (as evidenced by the proof). Fortunately, since my client had approved the color in the initial hard-copy contract proof, the printer could make the corrections using the cover designer’s revised cover art file and then send him only a PDF proof. This made proofing the cover quick and easy. Furthermore, in the proof there was a dashed line showing where the “live image area” was. That is, the designer was not supposed to extend any graphic element beyond this dashed line to avoid having it trimmed off by accident in the printer’s bindery.

It took two proofs, but the designer finally got it right by reducing the type size on the covers and flaps. However, since the book printer had to start over with each iteration of the covers, there was a surcharge.

What You Can Learn from this Case Study

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. First of all, always ask the book printer for a cover and spine template. Then follow this religiously, and ask the printer to give you feedback after the preflight check.
  2. Before you design the cover, find out what the live matter area should be. That is, past what line should no type or images extend?
  3. Ask how close to the fold any copy can be. For this printer, the distance was 1/4”.
  4. At the page proof stage, print out a 100 percent size, tiled copy of the flat page containing the front and back covers, the spine, and the flaps. Make sure you can see all bleeds. Rule this out with a straight-edge and a pencil. This will show exactly where the graphic elements will fall relative to the trim and the folds. It will also show whether the bleeds are sufficient (1/8”). Then fold this to make a mock-up of the cover. Make sure you like how it looks. It will be increasingly expensive to make corrections after the laser proof stage.
  5. If you have any questions, ask your book printer. Creating an accurate cover file is not an easy thing to do.
  6. If all else fails, create separate pieces for the front and back cover and spine (and flaps). Ask your printer to make the spine the correct width and then put all elements together. Keep in mind that this will cost more than making the cover file yourself.
  7. Think like a printer. Once this art has been correctly positioned in your InDesign file, it will travel to the offset press, and the final product will be a single-piece cover that folds correctly.
  8. If you print on the inside covers, make sure that you put no art or varnish or anything else where the glue will be deposited on the inside of the spine. Otherwise, the covers won’t adhere to the book blocks.

Posted in Book Printing | Comments »

Book Printing: How to Approach a Functional Print Job

December 3rd, 2014

Posted in Industrial Printing | Comments »

I always prefer to work with people who are more knowledgeable than I in their particular field. I consider these to be my gurus, and in the field of custom printing I have a number of resources for whom I am grateful. They have been a huge help in the following job.

Specs of the Functional Print Job

A client of mine is producing a print book of color swatches, in many respects very similar to a PMS swatch book or a color book you might find at a paint store. It contains 60+ leaves (120+ pages), and its only binding is a single screw and post assembly (one screws into the other, holding all pages together at one end of the print book). Each page has a full bleed color on one side (a process color build) and black-only, descriptive text on the other. The size is a little over 1.5” x 3.5”. So it’s very small.

Approaching the Experts for Advice

This is really more of a functional or industrial printing project than a commercial printing project. It’s a bit out of my area of expertise, so I chose two trusted advisors at two separate book printers to provide estimates and advice. What I like about them is that they always challenge my specifications for job estimates. This actually makes them particularly valuable because they always see things slightly differently from me, and they come up with novel questions and solutions.

As a functional print job, this project posed a few novel issues to consider:

  1. What will the clients do with the product? How will they handle it? What is its purpose, if not to convey information or a brand?
  2. Will everyone get the same product? Or will the screw and post binding be removable, and will some print books be altered prior being sent to my client’s clients?
  3. How long will the color swatch book be useful before it needs to be replaced by a new edition with new colors?

The Answers Lead to the Printing Process

After discussing the project with my client, I learned that some clients will get different iterations of the color book. For some end-users, my client intends to pull out some of the pages and replace them with other color swatches.

What This Means

  1. First of all, this is why the print book has a binding mechanism that can be disassembled and reassembled. In prior years, my client had been using plastic screw and post assemblies for binding, but apparently they broke easily in disassembly. So my advisor at one of the print shops suggested metal screw and post assemblies and worked this into his price. These would last longer and could be disassembled and reassembled more easily. My client could swap out pages without distress.
  2. The end users of this color book would need to use the books regularly. Therefore, protecting the heavy ink coverage on the pages would be important. The natural oil in the user’s hands might cause problems with ink rub off. I asked my two advisors to look into this. The verdict is still out.
  3. Since the press run is short (100 sets of sixteen books), the product is ideally suited for printing on an HP Indigo press. Fortunately both printer/advisors have access to this equipment. Based on the need for color fidelity, I made it clear early on that only the best digital press (the HP Indigo, in my opinion) would do. (This reflects the industrial printing nature of this product. More than with many other kinds of commercial printing jobs, in this case color accuracy and consistency over the entire press run are crucial.)
  4. An HP Indigo does not coat the printed product in-line. Both vendors would need to subcontract this work after the Indigo digital press had completed printing the press sheets. Outside work slows down the schedule, but, more importantly, it also raises the price. However, given the nature of digital printing (in this case with liquid toners), I wondered whether a cover coating would even be necessary.
  5. The client had requested rounded corners on the job. The samples she sent me showed this had been done in prior years. When I received pricing from the vendors, I heard two different stories. One vendor would do the diecutting for $160.00. The other would send it to a subcontractor, and the overall price of the job would go up significantly compared to the cost of a square-edged printed product.

What You Can Learn from this Case Study

  1. At this point I have no final answers, just questions. Fortunately, I have two respected advisors who will tell me the truth about the job. So the first point I would stress is the importance of developing strong professional relationships with commercial printing suppliers, and using them as resources for their expertise.
  2. Consider the function of a print job. Making it pretty is useless if the colors are not faithful or consistent throughout the press run. Conversely, keeping the price down by omitting the cover coating (such as a UV coating) makes no sense if this omission will allow fingerprinting and skin oils to damage the product.
  3. Consider how long the printed product needs to last. Is it a brochure that will be read and discarded, a print book that will be kept for decades, or a functional printing product that must endure harsh use and be color fast for a number of years?
  4. If you have a tight budget and no definitive answers, have your printer list the component prices of the job in a “menu” format. Perhaps some things can be sacrificed (like the rounded corners in my client’s job) to meet the budget. At the very least it will show you what components of the job are the most expensive. If you see what elements of a job need to be subcontracted, you can in some cases replace these with in-house procedures your printer can do himself. This will save money.
  5. Always get printed samples. In my case, I will get HP Indigo digital samples for my client. She can put both a UV coated and an uncoated sheet (hopefully from her own color book art file) through some stress tests to see if she really needs the cover coating.
  6. When in doubt, return to suggestion #1 above. Develop professional relationships with experts in your field. Do this before you need their help.

Posted in Industrial Printing | Comments »

Catalog Printing: A Spectacular Clothing Magazine

November 27th, 2014

Posted in Catalog Printing | Comments Off

I was out shopping in the mall yesterday with my fiancee. In one of the clothing stores I came upon a catalog. I was surprised and pleased with the quality of the printed piece. First and foremost, I was pleased to see print collateral in a digital age. I strongly believe in the efficacy of multichannel marketing. After all, something has to drive people to websites. I could see that in this clothing store there were catalogs to help visitors take with them a bit of the shopping experience, as a stepping off point to the Internet, to another visit to the mall, or as an introduction to the clothing brand.

A Description of the Print Catalog

What struck me first was the rough surface of the catalog paper. This felt right, since all of the clothing in the magazine had texture: wool with patterns, layered outfits, and macrame and other knotted effects.

It seemed a perfect choice to have what felt like an uncoated cover as an introduction to the print catalog. The lack of a cover coating made the paper seem to absorb all light, and it gave a soft and muted look to the cover model, her clothing, and her surroundings.

I looked at the interior paper under a bright incandescent light and noticed that it did have a bit of a sheen. It looked as though the designer had chosen a matte sheet to give a less polished look than a dull sheet, but still had opted for a coated paper to give the photos a crisp look. Since a paper coating provides a harder surface on which the ink can sit, and therefore keeps it from seeping into the paper fibers, the designer’s choice of a matte sheet gave the images a bright, highly detailed look.

When I looked again at the cover, I did see the faintest sense of a cover coating. My educated guess at this point is that the designer had added a varnish in spite of this being an uncoated paper.

Normally it is not the best idea to run a varnish on an uncoated sheet. Since it seeps into the paper fibers, the lack of ink “hold out” minimizes the effectiveness of the varnish both as a protective device and as an aesthetic statement. After all, you can barely see it.

My expectation is that the varnish had been added to maintain the more natural, muted effect of the uncoated sheet while slightly improving the durability of the ink. I have seen this done before, albeit infrequently. I think it works here.

The Photos in the Print Catalog

I was struck by the almost flawless skin of the models and the subtle transitions of color over the surface of the images. So I brought out my loupe.

The most dramatic part of the image under the loupe was the small size of the halftone dot. At first I thought the halftones had been created with an especially fine halftone screen (perhaps 200+ lpi), but I saw upon further observation that all halftone dots were the same size. In addition, there were no rosettes (the circular patterns of halftone dots visible in most screened images).

I thought about what I was observing and realized that the images in the fashion catalog had been printed with stochastic screening technology. Unlike traditional halftones that include halftone dots of various sizes all arranged on a grid and equidistant from one another, stochastic screening (also known as FM, or frequency modulated, screening) positions dots of equal size all over the halftone image. In areas that are dense, there are more of these equal-size dots, and in light areas with minimal ink coverage, there are fewer dots. In contrast, traditional screening (also known as AM, or amplitude modulated, screening) involves rotating each of the four process color screens at a slight angle to the others (to avoid moire patterns), and this creates the circular rosette patterns present in most halftones but absent in this print catalog.

It worked extraordinarily well in this catalog. The images almost looked like continuous tone photographs, and this highlighted the beautiful skin tones, outdoor backgrounds, and fiber art and clothing.

As an aside, I have even heard of (and seen samples of) halftone images that use hybrid screening technology, which combines both AM screening and FM screening.

Black and White Quadtone Images

One other technique used effectively in the fashion print catalog was the four-color black and white image. Through the loupe, and even with the stochastic screening, I could see the vaguest hint of cyan, magenta, and yellow halftone dots intermixed with the black dots in the halftones.

There were only two of these quadtone black and white images (both with a wide range of tones made possible by the four separate halftone screens), but they were elegant, and the technique reflected the stately tone of their content. What made them so effective was that by removing the color (or the appearance of color), the designer had made the photos look old fashioned. In so doing, he or she also drew attention to the aesthetic tone of the photos. The photos were not just a rendering of a product, a particular dress, but rather a stylized piece of art.

How You Can Apply This to Your Work

If your subject matter lends itself to almost continuous tone imagery, ask your printer about FM screening. It may cost a bit more, but for fashion, food, and automotive imagery this can be worth it. I have even seen the work of printers specializing in stochastic screening. In their case, this technology may not cost extra.

Also, choose printing papers integral to the design of your catalog. Don’t make the paper choice an afterthought. If you want a more natural feel, choose an uncoated paper. For a more slick, corporate tone, you may want to select a gloss stock instead. Or if your subject matter warrants it, choose something in the middle—a matte or dull paper substrate.

And consider four-color black and white imagery. We have grown so accustomed to full-color imagery that a black and white photo can be particularly dramatic just because it’s not expected.

Posted in Catalog Printing | Comments Off

Custom Printing: Office Printing Is Printing, Too

November 23rd, 2014

Posted in Office Printing | 2 Comments »

A close friend and associate sent me an article recently about Xerox’s work in minimizing needless printing. I had been so focused on commercial printing (offset lithography, digital printing, package printing, large-format printing, screen printing, and fabric printing) that I had missed the obvious. Office printing—all the printed materials produced across the world on office laser and inkjet equipment–is custom printing, too.

The article my friend sent me was entitled, “Xerox’s New Digital Alternatives Turns the Page On Paper; Redefines How Documents Are Used in the Enterprise,” presented in the 11/7/14 WhatTheyThink column online.

Ironically, the digital revolution has actually increased, rather than decreased, the amount of printed paper in offices. We can connect with vast sources of information online and share it with almost anyone, but we still love our paper copies. Xerox’s initiative to reduce paper consumption addresses this weighty issue head on.

The WhatTheyThink column notes that “Printing less isn’t just about using less paper – it’s about working smarter, improving productivity, connecting with clients faster and using data to bolster business,” (Mike Feldman, president, Large Enterprise Operations, Xerox, as quoted in the WhatTheyThink article).

Efficient Printing, Not Just Less Printing

The focus of Xerox’s Digital Alternatives seems to be less about reducing printing for purely ecological reasons and more about coordinating the multiple versions of documents spread across the diverse platforms of a business enterprise. (These would include the PDF, HTML, and epub versions read on desktops, laptops, smartphones, and tablets.) The goal is to reduce needless printing.

According to Xerox (as quoted in the article), Digital Alternatives “automates paper-based workflows that exist within any large organization” such that “Digital Alternatives users can easily sign, annotate, share, save and read documents from one interface.”

This allows office workers and mobile workers to coordinate their paper-based data, their digital data, and their messaging within both the Windows and Macintosh computing environments, while at the same time providing analytics (applications that show exactly how data and content are used) to turn this data into meaningful, actionable information. This makes business more efficient, and from reading this article, I believe that efficiency is the goal to which Xerox/s Digital Alternatives really is striving.

Xerox makes it clear that printed marketing and sales materials are still essential in business and communications. However, linking the information in the printed product and the purely digital information actually enhances the entire business process, particularly when this information is accessible on all computer devices.

In short, connectivity and data integration facilitate communication while reducing waste.

And It’s Green, Too

Xerox’s Digital Alternatives initiative, and the whole concept of reducing unnecessary printing, will reduce the carbon footprint of businesses. This is true, and this is a major goal of Xerox as well. To encourage employees to participate, the Digital Alternatives application includes “gamification” software (software that makes a competitive game out of reducing waste). Employees in offices using Xerox Digital Alternatives can track their reduced printing as well as compare their print reduction to that of others.

Electronic Signatures

When you are handling paper-based documents and need to sign them (perhaps a contract or an office document), you reach for a pen (I have heard this referred to as a “wet signature”).

So what do you do with an electronic document?

In the 1980s, this question arose regarding faxed copies of documents that needed authentication, validation and/or security confirmation (that is, confirmation that the person who signed the document is the one who wrote it, and/or that the person who signed the document agrees to its intent and contents). Now, if you sign and fax back a document, the signature is accepted as valid (in most cases, just as valid as an original).

Three decades later, as paper is being replaced in some cases by a completely virtual workflow, technologies have been developed to electronically validate your identity and acceptance of a document. “DocuSign” is one such technology, but there are others.

This process replicates one’s actual signature with a click of the mouse, places the signature at end of the contract, and forwards the document to a corporate database. The catch here is that this becomes a binding legal document. And at present, in many countries including the United States, electronic validation has the same legal intent and consequences as the more traditional hand signature.

What You Can Learn from This Article

Putting ink or toner on paper really is about communicating. Knowing what the best venue is for a particular act of communication is prudent, whether or not it helps protect the planet. Coordinating the collection and dissemination of information in a thoughtful (rather than thoughtless, or wasteful) manner makes communication and collaboration more efficient and more effective. Printing piles of paper that never get read or that never promote effective, joint action is not just wasteful. It’s meaningless.

In your design work for commercial printing, this concept can be reframed in the following manner (for instance): As you design a print book or brochure (or any other printed product), ask yourself what the goal of the printed piece is, and whether this printed piece will be effective in achieving this goal. Ask yourself whether a different format might make more sense. Would it be more persuasive? Does this particular product fit into the overall communications initiative? Or is it redundant? And finally, is the commercial printing method efficient and effective, or is it wasteful?

Food for thought. It’s good for business and for the planet.

Posted in Office Printing | 2 Comments »

Custom Printing: A Handful of Useful Type Terms

November 17th, 2014

Posted in Typography | Comments Off

I like type. I think it’s a beautiful art form worthy of close observation and study. I take this position not just from an aesthetic sensibility but from a practical marketing outlook. Type, if well chosen, can convey meaning or elicit emotion. It can inspire and persuade.

In this light, I recently paged through the Design Basics Index by Jim Krause (which I have shared before in PIE Blog posts) for a few useful type terms and descriptions. I will also note why I think they will improve your understanding of the functionality and aesthetics of type, and at the same time improve your design for custom printing.

X-Height and the Baseline

Picture a lowercase “x” in a line of type. Unlike a lowercase “q,” for instance, the “x” sits squarely on top of the “baseline.” The baseline is the imaginary line on which the letters rest: their support, if you will.

The lowercase “q” drops below this line. The portion of the letter that drops below the baseline is called a “descender.”

An important term to consider at this point is the “x-height” of a particular typeface. This is the height of a lowercase (not uppercase) “x.” If you look closely, you will see that the body of all lowercase letters in a particular font rests on the baseline and aligns with the top of other lowercase characters along the “x-height.”

That is, in the word “Design,” which Krause uses in his discussion of typefaces, the tops of the lowercase “e,” “s,” “i,” “g,” and “n” all align (except for the dot above the “i”). The “g” drops below the baseline, and if the word “design” were written with a lowerdase “d” rather than an uppercase “D,” you would say that the top of the “d” rising above the imaginary line across the top of all the other letters is an “ascender” because it ascends above their x-height.

How Is This Relevant to Design?

Beyond the aesthetics of a typeface, the “x-height” is very important in determining whether a typeface (set in a particular size) will be readable.

If you can’t read the words set in a particular typeface at a particular point size, your message will be lost. The type may be beautiful, but it will not communicate with your reader.

Look closely at type sample books or online samples of type, and you’ll see that every typeface has an “x-height” and that this varies from typeface to typeface. Some have higher x-heights; some have lower x-heights. The higher ones are much easier to read. Keep this in mind as you design your commercial printing projects.

Ascenders and Descenders

Going further, the concept of the “ascender” and “descender” described above also pertains to readability.

A word set in all capital letters has a “shape” if you look at it from a slight distance. Imagine a line tracing the outside boundary of all the letters in a word. The word’s shape is a rectangle when it is set in all uppercase letters. Unfortunately, no matter what the word set in all capital letters is, the shape will always be a rectangle.

Scientists who have studied reading patterns have noted that as people read, they don’t look at all the letters in a word. Instead, they look for the shape of the word, a shape they have seen before and have committed to memory.

The word “DESIGN,” for instance, has the shape of a rectangle, as noted above. If, however, you set the word in lowercase letters, “design,” the ascender (the top of the “d”) and the descender (the bottom of the “g” that drops below the baseline) give the word a unique shape, a shape that is not quite a rectangle. (It has a bulge at the top left and bottom right.) This unique shape allows the reader to immediately recognize the word without needing to read all the letters.

In contrast, the uppercase “DESIGN” actually slows down the reader, since he or she will have to look more closely (i.e., not skim the word to recognize it).

How Is This Relevant to Design?

If you want to use uppercase-only type, keep it to only a few words, or you’ll lose your reader. If you run the type over several lines, make the lines very short, and put a lot of extra horizontal space between them (i.e., add extra leading).

Serif and Sans Serif Type

Design Basics Index by Jim Krause includes a few magnified images of serifs (the little tails on letterforms that help draw your eye from one letter to the next as you read a line of text).

Old-Style serifs are curved. They taper gradually from the vertical and horizontal strokes of the letters. Krause uses Goudy as an example of an Old-Style typeface.

Modern serifs are thin and abrupt. They change direction instantly from the horizontal and vertical strokes of a letterform (there are no gradual curves in the serifs). Moreover, there is a more dramatic contrast between the thin and thick strokes of a letter in a Modern typeface than in an Old-Style typeface. Krause uses Bodoni as an example of a Modern typeface.

Slab Serif type has fat, chunky serifs. This category of type is also called “Egyptian type,” and you may be reminded of Old Wild West signs and posters when you see these typefaces. Krause has chosen Clarendon to illustrate Slab Serif typefaces.

In contrast, Sans Serif typefaces have no serifs. However, you will find that some are narrow and tall while others are wide and chunky. You will also find that some, like Optima, actually have letterforms that are thinner or thicker in different places (most sans serif faces are of equal weight in all strokes of the letterforms).

How Is This Relevant to Design?

Look closely at different serif and sans serif type samples (maybe a paragraph of each), and you’ll see that some are more legible than others. You’ll also find that each of these type samples has a slightly different mood or tone. An Old-Style typeface may seem more stately and serious, and a Modern typeface may seem more avant garde. For a poster, a slab serif typeface may be more dramatic and persuasive.

So the bottom line is that you should observe type closely, set your message in a number of different typefaces, and then think about which choice is most readable and also most congruent with the tone and content of the message you wish to convey. The more you know about type, the better able you will be to select the best typeface for a particular custom printing project.

Posted in Typography | Comments Off

Custom Printing: Printing Is More Than You May Think

November 11th, 2014

Posted in Fine Art Printing | Comments Off

How many of you, as children, cut a potato in half, cut a design into one half of the potato, and then inked up the relief image you had just carved and pressed it onto paper? That’s printing. Even though it bears little resemblance to the five- and six-color presses in a commercial printing shop, it’s still printing. (Actually, as a relief process, it bears more of a resemblance to letterpress.)

How many of you have taken a leaf, smeared ink on its surface, covered it with a flat sheet of paper, and run it through a manual printing press, only to find the veins on the leaf had printed an exact replica of the leaf on the surface of the paper?

Printing Is More Than You Might Imagine

The preceding examples illustrate the simplicity and elegance that can be found in printing images by hand. Sponge printing and fish printing provide still more examples.

My fiancee and I do art therapy with autistic students. This week, one of the members took a fragment of cellulose sponge we had provided, stuck it onto the back wooden tip of a paintbrush, dipped it in paint, and used it to make multiple impressions of the texture of the sponge on his acrylic painting.

The ink was a little watery and transparent, so it added a new layer to his painting, and the repeated pattern of the sponge differed from the brush strokes comprising the rest of his image, creating an interesting contrast. The student had combined a painting technique with a custom printing technique to create a new, mixed media art piece.

Printing With Real Fish and Rubber Fish

Long before photography, Japanese fishermen used to smear ink on the side of the fish they had caught and then place rice paper over them to create fish prints. This is called “Gyotaku,” and it was common practice in the mid-1800s. It provided a record of the kinds of fish they had caught as well as their size and markings. Since then, Gyotaku has become an art form used to reflect the natural beauty of fish.

In this case one side of the surface of the fish is inked, rice paper is placed over the fish, and the surface of the paper is rubbed to produce a single print, called a “monotype.” Each print in this case is unique. The process differs from what we commonly think of as custom printing (one plate imaging multiple copies), but it is still printing, in that an image is transferred from an inked surface to a receptive substrate.

In a similar vein to Gyotaku (but with a slightly different kind of fish), my fiancee and I once used rubber fish of various kinds to help autistic students make fish prints. The set of molded fish we used included both fish (such as flounder) and other ocean creatures such as starfish and seahorses. Once inked, the scales and other markings on the rubber fish produced a version of the Gyotaku prints that the autistic members could then add to with other colors.

Each time the members changed a color, they had to wash off the rubber fish, removing the custom screen printing ink we were using (we had chosen this particular ink since it was thick, vibrant, and fluid) in preparation for the next color application. In some cases, the autistic students painted on the prints; in other cases, the students printed successive colors using the rubber fish additional times.

What Can We Learn from This?

This is what I learned, at least, from a number of custom printing sessions with our students:

  1. Printing is far more than what we normally think of as a mechanical process for duplicating text and images. It goes back far beyond even Johannes Gutenberg and movable type in the 1400s. It even goes back to a more primitive time, when people ground up berries, insects, and rocks to make colors, which they then used to print images. Personally, I think that the only absolutely common theme among these custom printing techniques is that they all involve transferring an image from a “plate” of some kind to a “substrate” of some kind.
  2. Printing is as much an art form as a method of communication or persuasion. Editorial and promotional printing, and even the functional or industrial printing used on machinery, have their place, but so does the purely aesthetic printing hung in art museums.
  3. It is both possible and beneficial to bring natural elements into the process of printing, such as the printing of fish in Gyotaku. Furthermore, this brings a renewed appreciation of natural forms both to the printer and to those who see the print. Printing leaves and other natural objects echoes this approach, but this is just a beginning.
  4. It is possible to broaden one’s understanding of a culture, as well as the history of a culture, by understanding the kinds of custom printing done by its members. For instance, one can learn about both the history and economy of Japan (its dependence on fishing and its orientation toward the surrounding ocean) as well as the aesthetics of the Japanese by closely observing Gyotaku fish printing. The same holds true for other cultures and their printed artwork.

Posted in Fine Art Printing | Comments Off

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