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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: A Unique Printer’s Holiday Card

January 19th, 2020

Posted in Cards | Comments »

A commercial printing supplier I work with producing jobs for a number of my clients sent me a unique holiday card recently. I was touched by the thought, but even more than that I was intrigued by the card’s production values.

This was a truly unique, striking digital (presumably) product, particularly considering the amount of time I have spent wondering just how this printer must have achieved the effect.

And that is what makes a printed product not only a work of art but also a masterful promotional product, in this particular case showcasing the skills of this commercial printing vendor.

A Description of the Card

First, let me describe for you exactly what makes it special. The card is presented in the horizontal holiday card format. It is printed in white ink on a thick black printing stock. On the front of the card is the contour of a sweater printed with snowflake patterns, a city skyline, a statue of George Washington, and a statue of what looks like a dancing Fred Astaire.

The printer’s logo is on the back of the card, and inside the fold-over holiday card are the words “Merry Christmas” and a handful of snowflake designs falling from the fold-over part of the card down into its main panel. Nothing else. Except for the name of the printer and a few snowflake designs on the words “Merry Christmas.”

Doesn’t sound unusual at all, does it? Not a show-stopper. So why am I gushing? Because the card is a dense black (unusual for winter holidays), the ink is white (and it actually covers the black background with no pinholes, which is very impressive), and the press sheet is a rigid, rubberized stock. If you don’t touch the card, it’s attractive. But once you pick it up, you’re sold. Not only on the quality of the card, but on the abilities of the commercial printing vendor. And that’s good advertising.

How Was It Done?

First of all, covering black custom printing stock with anything and making it appear opaque is hard to do. The process colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) for offset printing are transparent. So you would see the paper through the ink.

In the past, printers have gotten around this problem by foil stamping a black card with, say, a silver metallic foil. This involves making a metal die to stamp out the film, and this costs money and takes time (it’s almost always subcontracted work).

Another work-around has been to print a background of opaque white ink, and then print all CMYK text directly over this opaque background. (Opaque white includes titanium dioxide, and this will significantly reduce the visibility of the black paper behind it.)

So upon receiving the card from this commercial printing supplier and having my interest piqued, I took out my 12-power loupe and checked the card under a bright light. This is what I saw:

  1. The white ink/toner (not sure yet) was very thick.
  2. In spite of this, I could not peel off any of the type (so it doesn’t seem to be a hot-stamping foil).
  3. The white ink had random sparkles of red and blue in the body of the pigment.
  4. In other areas of the card (such as the line drawings of the snowflakes inside the card), the white ink was thinner, and a bit of the background black color showed through.
  5. Some of the type and images had a gloss coating not present on the other design elements.

What can I deduce from my observations?

  1. A card like this could have been done with some sort of custom screen printing process. (Screen printing ink is very thick and opaque.) However, this would have been an expensive job, and the ink would probably have been even thicker than it already is. In addition, the fine detail on the sweater outline (i.e., the fur on the squirrels printed on the sweater) would probably not have been possible to achieve due to the thickness of the ink.
  2. As noted above, the job could have been done with heat-applied white stamping foil. However, this would have been expensive, and I could probably have peeled off at least something from the design.
  3. The speckles are a dead give-away of a digital printing process. Toner-based laser printers scatter toner particles a bit, and the particles are very small. Digital ink jet printing also applies minuscule dots of colored ink side by side to create the impression of additional colors. But on this particular holiday card, the red and blue specs looked accidental, as though the toner particles had landed randomly on the otherwise white imagery.
  4. If financial prudence is taken into account, my educated guess at this point is that the holiday cards were created with a digital technology, not offset printing, custom screen printing, or foil stamping.
  5. With this in mind, I know the following about certain brands of toner-based digital printing equipment. Some of the equipment prints not only cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, but also a thick white toner mixture that can cover a black or transparent background to provide a bright base for any subsequent printing.
  6. I also know that these same digital toner presses can print spot gloss and matte coatings. This could explain the reflectivity/sheen on some but not all of the imagery on the card (the words “Merry Christmas” but not the name of the printer immediately below the holiday greeting, or the gloss coating on some but not all of the snowflakes above the holiday greeting).
  7. Now, for the paper. There are papers based on cotton (such as bond) or wood fibers (most other commercial printing papers), and then there are papers based on synthetic materials or plastic. Yupo is a synthetic paper. It has a rubbery feel.
  8. There are also luxury, soft-touch matte paper surface coatings that give printing stock a rubbery feel that kind of grabs onto your fingertips. My educated guess at this point would be that either the paper is a synthetic product, or it has been covered with a rubberized coating.
  9. I also know that many brands of digital laser printing equipment will also lay down coatings (so not just cyan, magenta, yellow, and black plus opaque white toners, but also usually one or two specialized coatings: either matte or gloss). And these can be used to flood the sheet (to make it feel rubbery or smooth), or they can be used to highlight one or more items on the page (i.e., as a spot gloss or spot matte application).

So What’s the Answer?

I haven’t a clue. I do think, however, that these options noted above are the potential technologies the commercial printing supplier could have employed. And, based on what I know, the most cost effective way to do this for a (presumably) short run that would go only to the printer’s clients, digital commercial printing would be the best option.

Just for fun, I also checked online and read the printer’s equipment list. They do have one digital toner press that could have produced this card. (Another one would have been Kodak’s NexPress.)

I also sent the sales rep an email asking for details. We’ll see what he says.

The Take Away

So how can you use this information in your own work? First of all, if you like something, deconstruct it. Figure out why you like it and how it was created. This includes not only the design but (as in this case) all of the custom printing and finishing operations employed. If you can understand how something was done, you can use this information and these techniques when designing your own jobs. You will also know exactly what to ask the printer, particularly if you have the physical samples. (For instance, you could show the printer this card and say, “Can you do this?”)

Finally, take a lesson from successful marketing professionals. If you can make someone take as much time as I have taken looking at the card and wondering how it was done, you can bet this same client will come back and buy such a product/process when an appropriate job comes up. That’s priceless advertising.

The Reality

Just prior to my submitting this article for publication, I heard back from the printer’s sales rep. The Christmas cards had been printed on Neenah Touché Black Soft Touch Cover, on a 5-color Ricoh 7210X (a digital, toner-based press). The first pass was white ink, and then the second pass was a clear spot overprint.

Posted in Cards | Comments »

Custom Printing: Two Cool Samples (and Why They’re Cool)

January 13th, 2020

Posted in Printing | Comments »

Every so often I receive a unique printed sample in the mail or pick one up in a mall. Sometimes it’s the folding technique that grabs my attention. Sometimes it’s a particular paper coating or even a unique custom printing technique or substrate material that piques my interest.

Over the last few weeks I have picked up two such samples. First, I’d like to describe them to you and then I want to explain why I think they are noteworthy. Why? If you design anything that is printed, then it helps to understand the strengths of print vs. online communication. Then you can ensure that your design work stands out from the crowd, because you will be playing to the strengths of this tactile medium.

The Chapbook

One of my clients is a husband-and-wife publishing team. They produce print books of fiction and poetry, and as such they have many other friends and colleagues who also publish books of this kind. Most of their readers are middle aged and above, so they have grown up with physical print books, and they appreciate their physical nature.

The particular print sample of which I speak is a “chapbook,” a small book of literature with a simple design, created to be shared with other poets and writers. This particular book is 4” x 6” in format, 80 pages in length, with almost nothing but text inside (black text only), with a 4-color cover coated with a matte film laminate, and perfect bound.

The cover has as its main visual motif a sculpture of a man with thumbs in his ears, wiggling his open fingers. He looks like a child, double-dog-daring someone to approach. (He also looks a bit like a moose, since the hands with outstretched fingers also look like moose’s horns.) According to the editor of this anthology about reading poetry in front of groups, the image may be of Syrophoenician origin. Apparently the statue recently sold at Sotheby’s. The open-fingered hand motif is reproduced in the text of the book, twice, once at the beginning and once at the end of the print book (sort of like bookends).

The typeface for the text is a simple, light sans serif with ample leading, justified. Because of the ample leading, I don’t mind that the single column of text is justified. It is still easy to read. The title of the book and the titles of the essays in the text are set in some variant of American Typewriter or Courier, with the letterforms slightly filled in, just like type from a typewriter.

The statue on the cover, unabashedly challenging the reader, is printed in full color over splashes of bright yellow, turquoise, and burnt sienna.

Why This Works / Why It’s Noteworthy

Here are some thoughts:

  1. The small format makes the book stand out in a world where most print books are closer to 6” x 9”.
  2. Although the book is small, the statue on the cover faces the reader and challenges him, much like David challenged Golliath. That said, there is an element of humor in the image (the “Na, na, na, na, nah” challenge set against the psychedelic colors and the distressed typewriter type). Humor sells because it puts the reader at ease.
  3. The matte film laminate is easy on the eyes in a world where many, if not the majority of, books have mirror-bright gloss cover coatings. So this one stands out, and it also feels good in the hands—not just because the book is so small but because of the soft-touch coating.
  4. The design is simple, and it reflects the contents. The book is an anthology of short essays about reading one’s poetry in front of groups. So it is fitting to have the typeface for the essay titles in what looks like typewriter type. Even though the grunge factor of the somewhat filled-in letterforms detracts from readability, all use of this typeface is for a few words here and a few words there. So you get the humor and irony, but you can still read the words.
  5. The book is a tactile experience, particularly because of the cover coating. You can’t simulate this on the Internet. You need a physical print book.

The Flexible Vase

As noted above, humor does sell. My fiancee and I received flowers recently in what would normally be called “flexible packaging.” You’ve seen this in the grocery store. When I grew up, tuna came in a can. Now it comes in a flexible pouch with edge-to-edge marketing text and imagery. And apple sauce used to come in a bottle, just like milk. Now apple sauce often comes in single-use servings in little pouches with quick-release nozzles for pouring out the contents. Again, you can print all over them, edge-to-edge.

So the printed sample in question, the plastic flexible vase for flowers, when opened and laid flat on a table, is in the shape of a very wide vase. It curves in and out at the top like the neck of a vase. It is wider than usual because when filled with water and flowers it becomes more of a cylinder. (At the moment, it is unfilled and flat on the table.)

Except for the top, there is heat welding all the way around, attaching the front of the vase to the back.

What makes this adorable is that on the front and back the printer has reproduced Vincent van Gogh’s “Cafe Terrace at Night.” I just looked closely with a 12-power printer’s loupe, and I didn’t see the rosette pattern of offset lithography, but I did see halftone dots of various sizes. Since inkjet printing uses a spray of minuscule dots, I can only assume this was done on some variant of an electrophotographic digital press (maybe something like an HP Indigo). Perhaps the plastic substrate can take the heat. It seems rigid when flat, so this might have been the technology used. I would think that flexographic printing would contain halftone dots that, like offset printing, would produce a prominent rosette pattern, and I could not see any rosette patterns on this printed bag.

Why This Works / Why It’s Noteworthy

Here are some thoughts:

  1. People still expect flowers to come in a glass or solid plastic vase, even if juice and apple sauce now come in bags. So what makes this unique is that it challenges one’s expectations. The viewer doesn’t expect a flexible vase, so she/he looks again and does a double take. (It’s a little like the Pop Art soft sculptures of the early 1960s.)
  2. People especially don’t expect a famous painting printed on a vase. To me, paintings of the masters suggest “old school” values. So it’s humorous (or at least eye-catching) to see new “flexible-package-printing” technology used to print a famous painting exactly where you’d never expect to see it. This entire product calls attention to itself as the offspring of modern technology, perhaps touched by the old-school sensibilities of Vincent van Gogh.
  3. This could not have been done without current commercial printing technology. In a world that sometimes touts the death of print, that’s gratifying to know.
  4. With digital custom printing now capable of printing on physical objects (direct-to-shape or DTS), plus the ability to print on glass, it will not be long before a digital inkjet press will be able to copy a Vincent van Gogh painting onto a glass vase (perhaps with UV inks). Then again, since they can already print directly onto the surface of a football, maybe it’s already possible to print a van Gogh on a rigid glass vase.

Posted in Printing | Comments »

Custom Printing: Book and Magazine Signature Work

January 6th, 2020

Posted in Book Printing | Comments »

If you’ve been in book or magazine printing for any length of time, the term “signature” is familiar to you. You probably think automatically about how your print book or magazine will break down into the most optimal press signatures to keep the printing cost down.

On the other hand, if you’re used to designing and printing flyers, large-format signage, and other products without multiple pages, then the term signature is probably new to you.

A signature is a press sheet with a certain number of pages printed on both sides, folded and trimmed such that the pages are all consecutive. Pages are laid out in this way (called a press imposition) so that four, eight, sixteen, or even thirty-two pages can be printed at the same time (if the press is “perfecting,” or printing both sides). If the press is not a perfecting press, then one side of the sheet is printed at a time. The ink is then allowed to dry. Then the job is “backed up.” (That is, the stack of press sheets is turned over, and then the sheets are fed through the press again–often with new press plates–to print the other side of the press form, which is the name for an unfolded signature.)

You can do the same thing with a smaller job. In this case, you would just print more than one copy of the job on a press sheet. For instance, if you’re printing a four-page, 8.5” x 11” (when folded) brochure, you might lay out two of these such that they will be printed simultaneously on a press sheet. In fact, to avoid changing the plates, you might even place one two-page spread face up and the other face down on the same sheet. In this way, without changing custom printing plates, you can print one side of the sheet, dry the ink, and then flip the stack over and print the other side of the sheet (called work and turn or work and tumble, depending on how the press sheets are turned over—side to side or end over end).

I know all of this may be confusing or maddening. But here is how it is relevant to commercial printing products with multiple pages.

The Case Study

A client of mine is producing a relatively simple print book. It is 5.5” x 8.5”, with 60# white vellum text paper and a 12pt. cover. The cover will be coated with a luxury matte film laminate. The book will be perfect bound. It will also have a 16-page insert printed on 80# gloss coated text paper. All told, the text will be 288 pages, and the insert will be 16 pages, so the total page count will be 304 pages plus cover.

Now, back to signature work. This would be absolutely the same if the product were a magazine. As long as we’re doing multi-page work, like a catalog, magazine, or print book, we talking about press signatures.

A 288-page book can be composed of 72 4-page signatures (highly inefficient), 36 8-page signatures, 18 16-page signatures (more reasonable), or 9 32-page signatures (ideal). Think about it. If your book page size is small enough and your press sheet size is large enough to fit 16 pages on either side of a press sheet, you can produce the entire print book in nine press runs (as opposed to 72 press runs if you can only fit four pages on a press sheet: two on either side of the page). Less time, less money. Also, fewer consumables such as press plates, fewer wash-ups, and therefore less labor.

If you take a sheet of paper, draw a rectangular press sheet, and rule out sixteen pages on this drawing, you can visualize what I’m saying. Now, write 40” on the long side of the rectangle and 28” on the short side. This is the total length and width of the press sheet, so you can further label the drawing by noting 8.5” (length of the individual pages) in each of the smaller book pages within the large rectangle across the 40” dimension and 5.5” (width of the pages) for each book page across the 28” dimension.

Of course, this assumes your press is large enough to accept a 28” x 40” press sheet.

When you have drawn out this miniature press sheet diagram, you will see that the long side will accept four 8.5” page dimensions equaling 34” (close enough to the 40” length to allow for gripper margin, printer’s color marks, and bleeds). The short side of the sheet will accept four 5.5” book pages, totaling 22” of the total 28” width of the press sheet.

So this is an economical use of the press sheet (less waste, and more print book pages per press sheet allowing for fewer press runs).

The Insert

My client’s insert will be 16 pages. It will be printed 8 pages on either side of the press sheet, so presumably it can be produced “two-up” on a 28” x 40” press sheet. This just means that when the press signature is folded and trimmed, you will get two full 16-page signatures from each press sheet. As noted before, the insert paper will be a gloss text sheet, and the book text pages will be uncoated book paper.

So this will be the marrying of two separate paper stocks: one a single, 16-page gloss text signature containing photos (which will look crisper on a gloss coated stock) and nine 32-page text signatures on an uncoated 60# offset paper.

Now the insert can’t go just anywhere. It has to go between press signatures. This may be a problem editorially. For instance, the gloss coated photo pages may pertain to certain pages of the remaining text. But if they all have to go together (all sixteen pages), and they all have to be positioned between text signatures (between any two of the nine comprising the text block), then their placement will be constrained.


Let’s say you had money to burn. You could do things slightly differently. If some of your text signatures were shorter than 32 pages (let’s say two 16-page signatures in one position in the print book), you would have more options for placing the insert. Conversely, you could break the 16-page photo signature into two 8-page signatures and position one in the first half of the book and the other closer to the end of the book.

Either way, you would be decreasing the size of a press signature and thus necessitating more press runs to create the same book (plus new plates and ink wash-ups, so more labor, more materials, and more time on press at the printer’s hourly rate). You may still want to do this, for editorial reasons (pertaining to the content of the print book rather than to its most efficient manner of production).

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

If you are doing signature work, the first thing to do is think in terms of signatures. This will gradually become an automatic approach. Ask your printer about the size of the press and the size of the largest press sheet it will print. (Some presses will even print a 50” sheet.)

Then think about the number of book, magazine, or catalog pages you can get on a sheet and what size they must be. You will need to ask your printer how much space he will need for color bars and other printer’s marks, for the commercial printing press gripper (to pull the press sheets through the press), and for bleeds on the book pages. You’ll need to leave this much space as you determine the page size of your book, catalog, or magazine.

Your printer can teach you how to fold a sheet of paper to create a model of a press signature. You can then number the pages to see how the press form (the unfolded press sheet) can be printed and then folded into a little 8-page, 16-page, or 32-page booklet, after which these little booklets can be stacked and then bound together.

It’s also most useful to see all of this actually happening at a printer’s plant (to see the printing of one side of the sheet and then the other), then to see the folding, signature stacking, binding, and trimming operations that yield multi-signature products.

Once you have seen all of this being done and also have the little folded models and drawings of the press sheets that you have made, you will find it a much more intuitive process to lay out each signature of a print book and to understand where you must position an insert produced on different paper.

Posted in Book Printing | Comments »

Book Printing: An Approach to Multiple-Signature Press Work

December 30th, 2019

Posted in Book Printing | Comments Off on Book Printing: An Approach to Multiple-Signature Press Work

A print brokering client of mine will soon produce a set of print books that provide a good object lesson in both the differences between digital and offset printing and also in ways to save money by creating larger press signatures.

Background Specs for the Two Books

To provide some context, the first job is a run of 20 copies of an 80-page, 5.5” x 8.5” perfect-bound book, on 60# white offset text with a 10pt cover. It is a reader’s “galley,” a proof for reviewers to check for errors prior to the final press run of the print book. In many prior printings of books for this particular client, I have contracted for the commercial printing of 50 or 75 copies, but to save money and meet the reviewers’ requests, my client only needs 20 this time. Other copies will be printed out from a PDF file as needed. This is not a problem, since only the content will be relevant for corrections. (That is, this doesn’t need to be a perfect rendering of the final print book.)

The second book is a higher-end version of the first. It has French flaps, luxury matte film laminate on the cover, a press score, and deckled edges on the face trim of the book. It also will be produced on a 60# natural eggshell text stock. It will be 5.75” x 8.5” (slightly larger in format than the first book) because the French flaps on the covers will extend slightly beyond the deckled edges of the text stock (thus requiring a wider horizontal measure). In contrast, the galley books will only be 5.5” wide (with no cover flaps). After all, they are only a proofing device; therefore they don’t need the expensive, high-end production values. My client will print either 1,500 or 2,000 copies of the final print book.

Considerations for the Books

My client had asked to produce a 78-page book (in both cases). For the sake of consistency, I made both books 80 pages, since the 1,500- or 2,000-copy run will need to be produced via offset lithography (too long a press run to be a cost-effective digital job), and this print book will therefore need to be a multiple of 4, 8, 16, or 32 pages. This is because it will be composed of press signatures (large flat press sheets folded down and trimmed into little 5.75” x 8.5” booklets). In contrast, since the 20-copy print book will be produced digitally, it will not need to be printed in press signatures. In fact, as long as the total length of the book is a multiple of two pages, the 20-copy “galley” book can even be a 78-page printed product (divisible by 2 pages but not by 4, 8, 16, or 32). (This is a benefit of digital printing, which is not really signature press work.)

When I received pricing from the book printer, the first thing I noticed was that he had given me the option for printing in 48-page signatures or 24-page signatures. This told me that in contrast to my original assumption about 4-, 8-, 16-, and 32-page signature options, this printer’s (larger than expected) press actually allowed for larger press signatures at this particular page size (5.75” x 8.5”). That is, the size of the press sheet the printer’s large book press could accommodate would allow 12 pages, or 24 pages) to be produced on each side of the press sheet before it is folded down to the 5.75” x 8.5” stacked press signatures that would comprise the 80-page book. The printer would offer an approximately $100-$200 discount for larger, 48-page signatures. Why? Presumably because they would necessitate fewer press runs.

(To provide an example, a 96-page book would comprise two 48-page press signatures. Or it could contain four 24-page signatures. If you can produce the book with two press signatures, you only have to run the press half as many times—two rather than four. This saves time and materials, and hence money.)

Going back to my client’s actual print book, 80 pages is not divisible by 24 or 48 pages. When I noted this to the printer, he said this was a general statement about ways to save money on his press, but that he would still give me the lower price because the 24-page vs. 48-page signature stipulation didn’t really apply to my client’s work. (It did, however, remind me why it is good to design books with the largest possible press signatures.)

What we finally settled on for the final print book with the French flaps was a signature composition of one 48-page signature, one 24-page signature, and one 8-page signature for a total book length of 80 pages. (My client did not plan to bind anything within the larger press signatures–a reply card or small press signature of photos on different paper stock, like gloss coated paper. Otherwise, this would have necessitated breaking the larger press signatures into smaller signatures–maybe three 24-page signatures with an 8-page photo signature on gloss stock between two of them–requiring more press runs for more money.)

Finally, I compared the estimated prices to those of another print book this client had produced in the same format but with a 128-page book length rather than an 80-page book length. The prices for the 80-page book almost exactly matched the prices for the earlier-produced 128-page book. Needless to say, I queried the printer. He said the 60# natural eggshell paper had driven up the cost by several hundred dollars (compared to the price of the 60# white vellum of the first book), despite the fact that the job was a short book with a 1,500- or 2,000-copy press run.

What We Can Learn from This Case Study

Even though the specifics of this case study are rather convoluted, there are a number of object lessons the job illustrates:

  1. If the normal assumptions for offset printing press signature lengths are 4-pages, 8-pages, 16-pages, and 32-pages, don’t make this a hard-and-fast rule, as I did. Ask the printer. Larger presses at some book printers can accept other signature page counts such as 24-page and 48-page signatures. The longer the press signatures, the fewer the press runs. Unless you need to break a press signature into smaller signatures to insert a card or alternate paper stock, go for the longer signatures to save money. But always ask your printer about this first.
  2. Understand that digital printing does not require (or for the most part even accept) traditional press signatures. Therefore, if you need to add or remove book pages, you can do this in multiples of two pages. Ask your printer if your combined page count and press run will benefit from either offset lithographic printing or digital printing.
  3. Nice paper costs extra money. The total cost can be surprising. Ask your printer about options, if you want a natural color—cream–rather than a standard blue-white press sheet. Sometimes your printer can get you a deal on paper if you list the required specifications—weight, thickness, color, brightness, etc.–instead of asking for a particular brand of paper. Get printed samples, particularly if you plan to print color images on natural paper. (The yellowish tinge of a cream stock can affect people’s flesh tones in bad ways.)
  4. If you don’t need a galley proof version and a final version of your print book, you still may benefit from a lower-production-value and higher-production-value version. This might be a case-bound version vs. a perfect-bound version. Or it may be a low-end version on white offset with flush-cut covers and a cover varnish for one version, and French flaps, luxury matte film laminate, press score, and natural eggshell paper for the other. You may want to sell these for different prices, as a normal version and a premium version.
  5. Regardless of what you do, remember two things: 1. Involve your printer early in the process in terms of available book printing techniques, pricing, and schedules; and 2. always ask for samples of the printing (or binding, or coating, or foil embellishing) effects you want for your print books.

Posted in Book Printing | Comments Off on Book Printing: An Approach to Multiple-Signature Press Work

Custom Printing: The Romance of Printed Tip-Ons

December 16th, 2019

Posted in Inserts | Comments Off on Custom Printing: The Romance of Printed Tip-Ons

My fiancee recently found a print book at the thrift store replete with “tip-ons.” It was an art book with avant garde photos and such, but it also included maps, fold-out posters, and even envelopes with inserts attached to various pages. I found it rather intriguing.

What it also did was to bring me back to the 1990s, when I first received copies of several Griffin and Sabine books (by Nick Bantock), which traced a romance (perhaps either real or a fantasy of the characters in the books) based on epistles between two characters in hand-written notes and postcards attached to the print book pages.

It was very intimate and romantic, in part because you had to open the envelopes and unfold the letters before reading them. (That is, the reader’s subconscious presumably registers these letters as “real”: perhaps as though they had been sent to the reader rather than to the characters.) These envelopes and cards were interspersed with pages of printed collages of all sorts, mostly with a romantic and classical ambiance. It was one of the first times I had seen that many items affixed to pages in a print book, and I knew that it had involved both creativity and a large budget to achieve such a compelling narrative.

So what does all of this mean to a print book designer or marketer in the present decade? Here are some thoughts:

Why They Work

I have heard the term “reader involvement device” in marketing venues. Basically, readers of promotional material (and I would extend this to fiction in the case of the Griffin and Sabine books) want to participate in what they are reading. It makes reading a print book more of a tactile experience and a more immersive experience as well. In a marketing piece, this may involve tearing out a business reply card to request further information on a product. When I was growing up, it involved putting a dime in a slot and sending back the mailer to request “something further.” All of this creates a relationship between either the marketer or the print book’s author and the reader.

In fact, I would argue that (within reason) if the reader involvement device is a little more challenging, the reader likes it even more. For instance, I’ve seen similar print books that have treasure maps affixed to the interior pages, or even puzzles or other intellectual challenges you have to successfully complete before moving onward in the book. This concept of reader involvement has also been big online in the past two decades, with interactive fiction, which changes the progress of the narrative as you make different decisions during the “game.”

But in this case, what has become a staple of the online gaming world is equally effective in involving the reader in either a fictional work (a story) or an interactive marketing piece (still a story).

Options to Consider

Here are some thoughts as to how you can include extra printed items in your print books or even your marketing materials:

  1. You can “tip on” (add to the outside of a printed press signature, usually with something like fugitive glue) a transparent pouch for a CD or DVD. Given the advances in music recording (i.e., digital music files), this might be more appropriate for a computer software premium for your print book (maybe the entire book on CD, allowing readers to search content automatically by subject matter). You could also include video files or supplemental computer programs. The key is, you produce the CDs or DVDs separately and have the book printer glue the little vinyl pouches to the interior back covers of the books. Or you can include what’s called a “hanger,” a separate piece of card stock bound between book press signatures and onto which the plastic CD holder can be glued.
  2. You can fold up printed material, such as a map produced on a thicker commercial printing stock, and then glue it to a book page with a removable fugitive glue dot. What’s good about this is that the glue holds the map in place, but it can be easily removed without damaging the print book page or the additional printed map. Keep in mind that when you add something like this within the text block of a book, it makes the text block fatter (sometimes in an uneven way). As I recall from my experience back in the 1990s with the Griffin and Sabine books, the inserts were single-page letters folded and inserted into the envelopes that had been tipped onto pages in such a way that they were reasonably flat. The postcard tip-ons in the books were even flatter.
  3. If you are including a full-page addition on a different commercial printing stock, you can bind this between two press signatures (printers usually call this an insert rather than a tip-on). For instance, I used to receive promotional graphic arts magazines in the mail that included ads for various custom printing papers. The publisher of the magazine just bound these full-page inserts into the perfect-bound magazines, albeit between signatures.

Custom Printing Considerations

Tip-ons and inserts can be a powerful tool because they involve the reader. Even a single-page advertisement on a stock that differs from the main paper in a magazine will affect the reader’s subconscious. After all, her or his fingers can tell the difference even before the intellect registers this change. That said, this can be an expensive addition to your magazine, print book, or marketing piece.

To keep costs down, here are some suggestions:

  1. If you add a tip-on within a printed press signature, the addition has to be done manually. (The printer has to pay workers to add the tip-ons one at a time by hand.) Hand-work takes time, slows down production, and costs money. However, in some cases you can include an addition (like a separate sheet of paper on a different printing stock) by placing it in a different unit of the binder (just as a separate press signature occupies a separate pocket in the bindery equipment). As the binding process progresses, the press signature–or the additional, separate sheet of paper–is fed into the stack of signatures that eventually comprise the print book’s text block.
  2. If you need to position an additional insert, or tip-on, or hanger, in a particular place and it doesn’t fall conveniently between press signatures, consider breaking a larger signature into smaller ones. For example, you could break a 32-page press signature into two 16-page signatures and include the insert between the two. Keep in mind that if you break a press signature in two like this, you will have two signatures to print, and extra press runs drive up the cost of a job.
  3. Finally, ask your print provider about automated work vs. hand-work. Make a mock-up or prototype of the kind of insert you want to include. For instance, make a little plastic envelope, insert a CD, and hot-melt glue this to the inside back cover of a sample (prototype) book. (You may even want to request a printer’s paper dummy that you can modify to show him what you’re looking for.) If you can stay away from hand-work and instead modify your design to involve more automated production work, you will save money.

End Thoughts

Adding tip-ons and inserts (whether you use fugitive glue–which is like rubber cement–or regular, hot-melt spot glue), or even using hangers to add these little extras to your catalogs, magazines, and promotional pieces, can be very exciting to the reader, and it can especially add value to a graphic novel or gaming product. In fact, one of the tip-ons I found in a booklet I received about five years ago was a small video player. A short video explained a cross between an interactive computer game and a graphic novel. By pairing the sound and visual impact of the video with the printed images on the page, this particular marketing premium set itself apart from other sales tools. Such a promotional piece may be expensive, but it can also be worth the price (i.e., an investment in future product sales).

Regardless, make sure you involve your book printer early with any of these products. Ask about budgets and ways to minimize costs, but also ask for samples of what has been successful in the past. (That is, always use physical samples to communicate your goals.)

Posted in Inserts | Comments Off on Custom Printing: The Romance of Printed Tip-Ons

Book Printing: Always Submit Accurate Art Files

December 9th, 2019

Posted in Book Printing | 2 Comments »

Over time, small errors often grow in their scope and effects, and in book printing this can mean that a problematic file you submit today can delay the ship date for your project (or incur extra fees). If your project is time sensitive, this can be a serious source of stress.

The Case Study: A Case-Bound Textbook

A client of mine has come back to me this year with a book printing project I used to broker for her company. Her boss had chosen a different printer for a few years, but I was fortunate enough to win back the work once my client had regained control of the print book.

My client is very detail oriented and schedule oriented. Therefore, I padded the schedule a bit before I presented it. I wanted to make sure there was room to address author’s alterations. After all, in the five years I had worked with her prior to our hiatus, her print book designers had often requested corrections on multiple pages at proof time.

That said, I was actually surprised this time that as early as the book printer’s preflight stage there were problems with the margins of the book, the placement and accuracy of running headers and folios, and, in the case of the dust jacket, missing artwork.

To put this in context, this particular job is a 305-page, case-bound textbook. Interestingly enough, the press run is only 350 copies, and the specs for the case-bound cover materials are quite unique, firm, and precise. Since most vendors with whom I work will not print anything less than a 1,000-copy run via offset lithography, and since these same vendors have only limited options for case-binding digitally printed books (in order to keep costs down), I returned to a vendor in the Midwest for this job, a vendor with precisely the equipment to use the exact materials my client needed to match a previously offset printed case-bound volume of this textbook.

So the art files didn’t pass preflight. Live matter art on the pages fell too close to the trim, and page numbers were inconsistent (and in some cases not even correct relative to odd-page and even-page placement). In addition, running headers (text at the top of the page close to the trim margin including the title of the book) were inconsistently placed.

In response, my client’s print book designer made changes in some cases, agreed to live with the limitations in other cases, and uploaded a complete new file for the entire book.

To make a long story short, this happened two more times. Additionally, on the third attempt (approximately three weeks from the start of prepress work on this title), he submitted individual corrected pages rather than a complete, single file for the print book.

Making Sense of All of This: The Implications

So at the end of the three-week period we were still at the beginning of the process. Keep in mind that this printer, like most, will not commit to a delivery date prior to receipt of a signed proof approval. If the original file submission date is eight weeks out from the requested delivery date, this is an irrelevant target if the files are wrong. Only after the proof approval form has been signed (and in this case only after a revised contract reflecting a different page count from the initial bid had been signed), does the printer schedule the printing, binding, packing, and shipping steps of the book manufacturing process.

And this is all quite reasonable since the printer did nothing wrong, and since the printer has many other clients who have carefully followed (to the letter) all protocols for preparing art files.

My guesstimate, at this point, is that the ship date will slip about three weeks. My client (the one coordinating the buying process, not the book designer) understands the problems completely and is very accommodating. She plans to change the delivery date on her marketing materials. No harm/no foul. Not every client would be this accommodating. Some would even blame the printer.

What We Can Learn From This Case Study

Learn from my client’s mistakes so you don’t make them yourself. Consider these suggestions:

  1. Determine when you will need finished print books (when you absolutely need them). You may be lucky. You may have wiggle room in your schedule.
  2. Tell your printer what this “drop-dead” date will be, and see how his schedule looks. Printers are often busier in certain months than in others. For case-bound print books, some will offer you six weeks, others will offer eight. (This is often prior to shipping. Be sure to ask.) Some printers, the pricier ones, will even do the work faster, particularly if they know far in advance and have been working with you for many years. But you often pay a premium for this kind of “Cadillac” treatment. Often it’s worth it.
  3. If your book printer says six weeks overall, plus shipping, make your schedule seven-weeks in length. Be safe. Assume there will be corrections at the proof stage.
  4. Consider all elements of the schedule: preflight, proofing, corrections, printing, binding, packing, shipping, and delivery.
  5. The particular printer with whom I’m working on this job has a current 20-day schedule for production. That’s four weeks. If there is a holiday in this period, that’s longer than four weeks. Weekends don’t count. This production schedule only begins after final proof approval. Keep this in mind for your own work.
  6. Assume the physical proof will ship about five to seven days after you upload book files. Confirm this with your printer. If you get a hard-copy proof, you have to add proof shipping time to this schedule (both ways, from the printer to you and back to the printer when you’re done). You may want to consider a PDF proof instead, particularly if your book has black-ink-only text. Maybe a hard-copy cover proof and a PDF of the text will suffice.
  7. If you need revised proofs, ask for PDF proofs. Don’t add additional time to ship proofs for successive revisions.
  8. The printer’s proof is not the place to edit your manuscript. Things happen. Granted. But make sure the margins are accurate, that you’re not too close to the trim margin, that your running headers or footers are consistently placed, and that everything else is as close to perfect as you can possibly make it.
  9. Ask how close you can come to the trim margin: Usually live matter can come no closer than 3/8” from any trim. Your printer can be more specific for his equipment. (My printer for the job I mentioned says it’s 1/2”.) If anything on the page (text, photos) comes closer, it might get trimmed off and land on the bindery room floor.
  10. Ask whether your printer wants a completely new file with your corrections or just individual corrected pages saved as PDFs. Ask about extra charges. The printer I’m working with at the moment charges an extra $19.00 per page for individual pages that need to be swapped out. He prefers to receive an entirely new file from my client (and will accept three sets of files, plus preflight time, prior to adding extra charges).
  11. Throughout the entire process of creating PDF files and uploading them via FTP to your printer, use the printer’s “file creation and transmission” cheat-sheet, and adhere to all of its requirements. Not doing this opens you to extra charges and longer production schedules. If you don’t understand something, ask your sales rep or customer service rep.
  12. Not all printers have the same sense of urgency that you do. Sometimes this depends on the culture of the particular part of the USA (or other country) in which you’re printing (no offense to anyone). Pushing the vendor seldom helps. They have other clients. Particularly if the errors are yours. Some of the printers I work with will give me their cell phone numbers and take calls after hours. Others won’t even return calls or text messages as fast as I want them to during the work day, but their work comes out looking perfect. You choose your battles based on the quality of the printed samples, the overall price, and your history with the printer. As with all relationships, some things go smoothly, while other things drive you nuts.

The best single piece of advice I can leave you with is to pad your schedule–amply. Leave time for errors. They happen. Better to factor this into the schedule than to let it take years off your life.

Posted in Book Printing | 2 Comments »

Book Printing: Design Unity and Variety Aid the Reader’s Eye

December 3rd, 2019

Posted in Magazine Printing | Comments Off on Book Printing: Design Unity and Variety Aid the Reader’s Eye

I found myself back in the hospital recently with an infection following a total hip replacement. After fasting for the better part of the day at the surgeon’s request, I was pleased when a change of doctor’s plans enabled me to finally eat.

In the surgery ward’s family room I sat down to the best hospital food one could imagine (hunger is the best seasoning), a plate of Beef Burgundy. Needless to say, I wanted reading material to go along with my dinner, and I found a copy of the hospital’s current print book/magazine for company.

As a student of commercial printing I found several things to recommend this print book, particularly in terms of design. And all of these design techniques centered around grouping a vast amount of disparate information and presenting it in digestible chunks.

As an object lesson for print book designers, magazine designers, or practically any other kind of designers, here’s how they did it.


To put this in perspective, this little print book is 16 pages, self-cover, saddle stitched, with an 8.5” x 11” format. (Self-cover, by the way, just means the entire print book is on the same paper stock—100# white gloss text—rather than having an additional, thicker cover.) The magazine is 4-color throughout. It is called Adventist Healthcare & You.

Interestingly enough, at 16 pages in length, it really is a good tool for understanding book design and magazine design. You can see specifically how the cover was designed to grab the reader’s attention and convey information. You can see how the first page is used for a table of contents and short news briefs. Then you can see how a two-column grid has been used to present three separate feature stories (articles on a medical center, stroke treatment, and heart surgery).

A three-page (presumably) pull-out section follows, using three-column layout and subject headlines reversed out of solid color bars to separate by topic all the educational seminars the hospital offers this particular month. The change in format alerts the reader to the change in content. It also groups related material for easy reading, topic by topic.

Now that we’re past the center pull-out spread, the print book goes back to feature articles in the original two-column format (showing the reader in a visual manner that we’re back into feature stories). One is about anti-inflammatory diets, the next discusses head injuries and concussions, and the third is about breast cancer.

All of these may initially appear very different, but if you look closely you will see similar running heads, reversed out of solid color bars, describing the content of the articles. You will also see similar fonts (at least some). Even if the large headlines and the highlight colors differ from article to article, there’s still enough similarity to create a unified “look.”

Moreover, this structure of the print book (cover, front matter, feature stories, calendar of events, more feature stories, infographic as an action device to involve readers, and final mailing back panel and two final short articles) makes it easy for the reader to skim the entire print book or jump from article of interest to article of interest. It’s the similarity of design that makes this possible.

Variety: Color Usage, Photos, Typefaces

There are a number of tips and tricks the designer has used to unify the design while also allowing for variety.

I had mentioned the consistent use of column width and text and subhead typefaces to reflect similar kinds of information, but for variety, the designer has used sidebars. These look alike because they are the same width (they break these sidebar pages into one wide column and one narrow sidebar column), but they are the same width and they employ the same typefaces. For variety, one is green and another is blue, and since the green one is dark enough, the type has been reversed rather than surprinted (as is the type in the blue sidebar).

Photo treatment is another design factor. The feature articles are replete with photos. Interestingly enough, the photos in each particular section have similar colors. For instance, one has a lot of earth tones. To unify the design of this particular two-page spread, the designer has used an orange hue for subheads, part of the main title, and an infographic.

For contrast, the next article, on heart care, includes a photo with a light purple hospital wall. Therefore, the designer has used purple as an accent color for a portion of the title of the article, the initial capital letters in the text column, and the sidebar. Finally, a third feature article does the same thing with dark blue and light blue.

So the take-away is that the structure is the same (based on column width and typeface—for the most part), but the font treatment of part of each feature story title and the color “key” of each two-page feature article shift for variety. Things look alike enough to feel unified and different enough to stand out and appear as unique.

I had also mentioned the slight difference in the typefaces used for part of each feature story title (to highlight certain words). Upon a further pass through the print book, I see that for the most part the different type is a script font. If you look closely, even though the type size differs from page spread to page spread, using the same script font makes for a further sense of unity. The same goes for a minimal use of a condensed sans serif font for contact information, registration for hospital seminars, and such.

Finally, if you page through the print book quickly, you will see that the running headers include two- or three-word all-caps descriptions of the contents of each page spread. They appear in the same place on each page, but their color differs (again allowing for both unity and variety).

The Book Cover

I often look at a book or magazine cover last when I’m deconstructing the design of a publication because I myself usually design the cover based on the contents of the book. In this case, the magazine title (also known as the “flag”) is at the top of the page in an all-caps condensed sans serif typeface (a heavier version of the type used in the book itself, again for unity).

The designer nestled the much smaller name of the hospital above the main title type and a description of the periodical (along with the date) below the magazine title. Everything is flush left for simplicity of design. For variety, the ampersand in Adventist Healthcare & You is reversed out of a blue circle. In two other positions on the book cover the same dark blue appears as well. How did the designer choose the color? The woman on the cover (the focal point of the photo) is wearing a dark blue dress, and there is blue in the flowers behind her. So again we have unity.

The piece de resistance is the fact that the subject of the cover photo (the woman) looks directly at the reader, and she’s smiling. This is an age-old technique (even used by the master fine arts painters) for involving the viewer in the photo. The fact that she’s smiling makes the overall tone of the magazine cover warm and approachable.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

Start to make it a habit to collect books, magazines, and brochures you like. Make a “swipe file.” Periodically go through these printed items and articulate for yourself exactly why each works as a design piece. Consider such issues as type choice, column width and placement, overall design grid, running headers, sidebars, and color placement. Moreover, consider how the cover, contents page, feature articles, and back matter have been designed for ease of readability and immediate recognition of their purpose.

Ask yourself how the designer has taken all the content and presented it in understandable chunks, how the designer can lead the viewer’s eyes through the page spread, and how the designer can introduce variety into the design (to keep it from becoming monotonous).

Posted in Magazine Printing | Comments Off on Book Printing: Design Unity and Variety Aid the Reader’s Eye

Custom Printing: A Box of Chocolate-Covered Strawberries

November 26th, 2019

Posted in Box Printing | Comments Off on Custom Printing: A Box of Chocolate-Covered Strawberries

One of the few benefits of having been in the hospital, aside from supportive comments like, “You’re still alive,” is the occasional gift of food. I am a creature who runs on its stomach, so I was pleased to receive a box of chocolate-covered strawberries, a sinfully delicious treat I had not heretofore sampled.

However, as a student of commercial printing I was not oblivious to both the design and the construction of the gift box. As noted in prior blog articles, I was well aware that it had to do the following:

  1. It had to hold and protect the strawberries.
  2. It had to tolerate a cold, somewhat damp refrigerator.
  3. It had to not taint the food it contained.
  4. It had to look great.

Description of the Gift Box

First of all, let me describe the box, and then I will address these goals one by one. The box seems to be made of a thick, coated-one-side cover stock, maybe 10pt in thickness. Inside it has been printed in bright red. Outside, on the coated side, it has been printed in bright red and then covered in an additional gloss coating. The cover of this (approximately 8” x 10”) presentation box opens to one side (i.e., it is not separate from the bottom of the box).

This gift box has an ingenious gusset device to allow for expansion when it is folded open and for contraction when it is folded closed. The front of the box includes the company logo on the left and a cascade of stylized white flowers on the right. These flowers even have a slight embossing effect and gloss coating, so they seem to rise off the page.

Inside, the flower motif is repeated, albeit without the gloss coating or the embossing. The edges of the box have been turned and folded over. This makes the sides of the box much thicker, lending an air of stability and substance to the chocolate strawberry packaging.

Assorted advertisements and interior packaging, plus a cover to protect the strawberries, plus the strawberries themselves (not to be forgotten) and their little paper containers (like paper cupcake holders) round out the contents of the package.

It’s impressive.

Back to the Design and Production Goals

A box is a three-dimensional item (more so than a brochure, for example). It is also a functional item. Therefore, it has physical requirements.

If it is flimsy, when you take the package out of the refrigerator a number of times (there are 12 chocolate strawberries), at some point it might collapse and dump the strawberries on the floor. This would not reflect well on the company. (After all, every printed product is an advertisement for the brand.) Therefore, the presentation box has been made for strength/durability as well as beauty. Hence, the turned edges.

Similar boxes might be made of chipboard covered with printed litho paper or even corrugated board with printed litho paper laminated to it. But in this case to save space, reduce weight, and because the strawberries are comparatively light, what looks like printed cover stock with lamination and turned edges seems to be the perfect choice for the substrate.

Now all of this has to live for a while in the refrigerator. Since they are large, I have been eating one chocolate strawberry each night. So far so good for the strength of the box. If you are a wine maker, you have the same issues with bottle labeling. The labels (and their printed ink and foil decoration) have to stay functional on cold, wet bottles presumably for an even longer time without degrading. In the case of the strawberries, keep in mind that the fruit is juicy and the chocolate is fluid enough—even straight out of the refrigerator—to cover the eater’s fingers and face. So chemical and moisture resistance is a plus.

Even more important than durability is the non-toxic nature of all of the custom printing (anywhere near the food). Everything that comes into contact with food has to be printed with food-safe inks that are acceptable to the Food and Drug Administration (and probably other legal organizations as well). The ink cannot “migrate,” or move from the packaging to the food. Hence, the little paper wells for each strawberry, and the unprinted cover sheet that keeps the strawberries secure in their little paper holders.

Finally, the whole package has to look good—upscale, sinfully delicious, awesome, like a sensuous delight. Not just the contents but the packaging as well. After all, it’s what you see first.

In the case of this package, let’s start with the color. Red, particularly the fire-engine red of this particular box, is a color of passion. Given that such a delicacy is often a shared token of love (as opposed to an “I’m glad you’re out of the hospital” gift), it is most appropriately decorated. The white (the only other color, or actually the absence of color, since all of the white is reversed out of the press sheet comprising the box) creates a dramatic contrast against the bright red. This is further enhanced by the embossing.

Why is this important? First, rule number one, as noted above. Everything is an advertisement. The beauty of the box sells it to the buyer. In my case, it also made me feel appreciated when I received the gift. It’s simple, well designed, and functional. Moreover, it contains a sensory delight—food.

What Can We Learn from This Case Study

As before, stay out of the hospital. It’s not worth it, even for chocolate-covered strawberries.

Next, start looking at packaging. Closely and carefully, as a printer and designer. I took a moment when analyzing this gift box to also check out some of my fiancee’s shoeboxes and designer shopping bags. (She collects both for our artwork with the autistic.) In all cases there was artistry, clearly applied to not only the decoration but also the structure of the bags and boxes. Some included foiling effects, embossing, different gloss and dull coatings. Some were made with corrugated board, some with chipboard, some with thick printed cover stock used in commercial printing. Many of the bags and boxes had turned edges. Some had interior linings pasted down over these turned edges (like endsheets pasted down in the front and back of a casebound print book).

An amazing amount of work has gone into these few boxes and bags in my fiancee’s and my house. You may well benefit from finding and analyzing similar packaging (and even taking it apart to see what kind of die cutting and laminating went into the final product).

We can also surmise, from the complexity of these packaging products, that it’s essential in your own print buying work to involve your commercial printing supplier early. Not every printer can do this kind of work. Do research and get referrals. Specific printers specialize in this kind of work. Make sure you like their samples and references.

When you have a handful of custom printing vendors in mind, communicate your design goals with physical samples: what you’ve collected or what your printer can show you. Don’t just send photos. After all, you have to be able to open and close a presentation box comfortably. It has to feel good in your hands. This is a physical experience. So ask for a paper dummy (an unprinted prototype of your final design) before any ink hits the paper.

Assume this will take a lot of time and cost a fair amount of money. This kind of work involves multiple finishing operations (die cutting, foiling, embossing, folding, gluing, and many more). Find out if your printer does these in house or subcontracts them. Also you may want to ask about using an existing box die (i.e., embellishing a standard box design rather than creating one from scratch). This will save you money.

Finally, as you work through the entire process, from design to manufacturing, keep your attention on what marketers call “the unboxing process.” In short, this refers to what a person feels when she/he opens the box and sees the strawberries, or anything else, nestled inside. (Think back to what it felt like as a child to receive and open a special, wrapped gift.)

Posted in Box Printing | Comments Off on Custom Printing: A Box of Chocolate-Covered Strawberries

Custom Printing: Functional Printing in the Hospital

November 18th, 2019

Posted in Industrial Printing | Comments Off on Custom Printing: Functional Printing in the Hospital

About five years ago my fiancee and I had a house fire. Being a student of printing, and initially having extra time on my hands, I noticed printing samples in all the hotels we lived in. I found printed maps on the walls, informational brochures on the hotel room tables, and pad-printed or screen printed letters and numbers on the stove and microwave.

All of this is considered “functional printing” in that the goal of the printing is utilitarian. (In contrast, you might say that book printing is informational and brochure printing is promotional in nature.)

Fast forward almost five years, and I found myself in the hospital this last week getting a total hip replacement. Again I was a captive audience with time on my hands. So I began to observe the printed products I found in my environment. And, as with the house fire, much of what I found was functional printing (which I have also heard referred to as “industrial printing”).

Samples From the Hospital

The first thing I noticed was the sign above my hospital bed. It read, “Call, Don’t Fall.” The words and surrounding triangle were printed in black ink on a yellow background, and the sign itself had been attached to the ceiling with some kind of contact adhesive.

So what can we learn from this first printed sample?

To begin with, it’s a sample of functional printing because it conveys functional information: If you need to use the bathroom, call a nurse. Don’t get out of bed yourself. You don’t want a fall to complicate matters.

What about the color, design, and placement? First of all, as a captive audience in a hospital bed, I was primarily looking up at the ceiling. So clearly there was no better place to install signage than within my immediate field of vision.

Let’s move on to the shape of the sign, a triangle. A triangle is a simple geometric shape, and the words “Call, Don’t Fall” fit nicely into the surrounding black rule line. Also, as a culture (i.e., in the USA), we have been trained through experience to associate triangular, black and yellow road signs with caution.

So the shape, color, typeface (a serious sans serif, probably Helvetica) all reinforced the (functional) message.

And the placement, which actually reminded me of the floor signage my fiancee and I had installed in movie theaters, was positioned exactly where it would be immediately visible. In a movie theater, people’s eyes are focused on the floor and walls. In a hospital bed, people’s eyes are fixed on the ceiling.

The Menu

From this week’s experience in the hospital I learned that eating is one of the few great joys of hospitalization.

The menu was typeset in a simple, sans serif font in simple columns with clearly readable food categories (headlines) and then printed in red and black.

So what can we learn? Red stands out. Like the yellow of the ceiling sign advising me not to fall, both are primary colors. They are also associated in our culture with important information. Safety and food. What else do you need?

Pad Printing and Screen Printing

I’ve been paying attention. Now that I’m back home and confined to a chair (and writing this article on a cell phone), I’m watching the word “Power” on my leg pump wear off rather quickly.

The printing on your computer keys is functional printing. So is the word “Power” on my leg pump. More importantly, all of the words printed on my life-support console in the hospital were functional printing. 

In the case of the life-support console in the hospital, I made the assumption that all printed words and letters had been added to the plastic pieces with pad printing (a flexible plastic or rubber bulb transfers the ink to the substrate) or screen printing. Perhaps in the near future digital inkjet (direct-to-shape printing) will be the technology of choice.

To get back to my leg pumps, a $60 appliance made to keep me from getting blood clots in my legs can afford to have its “Power” label rub off. In contrast, a $300,000 (life-or-death) appliance in the hospital has to have writing that stays put and doesn’t rub off with light use. (Mistakes could happen.)

So how did they do it? My educated guess would be that UV inks (which remain stable on non-porous substrates) were used, or that some kind of transparent sealant (a topcoat) covered all of the functional printing on my life-support console to provide “rub resistance.”

What We Can Learn From This Case Study

  1. Stay out of the hospital.
  2. Wherever you go, notice the presence of functional printing. You’ll see it on your car dashboard, you computer, and even your sewing machine.
  3. Notice the colors and shapes used in functional printing. Consider how these relate to the cultural associations with which you have grown up. Some colors suggest certain things. Remember that these colors may suggest different things in other cultures. (Sometimes, these meanings can even be the opposite of one’s own culture. For instance, if I understand correctly, the connotations associated with the colors black and white are the opposite in Japan and the USA.)
  4. Look at your computer keyboard. You may see the letters wearing off. Or, you may see a protective coating. When you look at other samples of functional printing, look for protective coatings the manufacturer has used to coat the printed type and improve rub resistance.
  5. Do some research on pad printing, screen printing, and direct-to-shape inkjet printing to better understand the present (and probable future) technologies of functional printing.

Posted in Industrial Printing | Comments Off on Custom Printing: Functional Printing in the Hospital

Commercial Printing: Creating a Design Grid

November 10th, 2019

Posted in Design | Comments Off on Commercial Printing: Creating a Design Grid

If you’re a designer, with a blank page-spread on the computer in front of you, how do you start your design? Perhaps you have photographs, some captions, a pull quote, and several paragraphs of text you want to organize and present to the reader as an advertisement. How do you put all of these elements together in such a way that your reader will “get” your most important point, then move on to your subsequent points?

The same question arises if you are designing a multi-page document, perhaps a print book or a furniture catalog (IKEA, for instance, has to do this very thing, and make it understandable, interesting, and consistent with their brand image).

After all, if you do not give your reader a “road map,” a set of directions regarding how to proceed through the material on the printed page, he or she will get frustrated. And a frustrated reader stops reading.

The Building Blocks of Design and Their Purpose

A few elements of design (for commercial printing or the Internet) that come to mind for me are the following: color, typefaces, treatment of photos, and—in some ways more importantly—the design grid.

Why is the design grid so important, and what exactly is it?

Think of a design grid like a structure of girders on which you build a building, or a wire armature around which you apply clay when making a sculpture, or even just the scaffolding built to paint or repair the interior or exterior of a building.

In all of these cases, the structure gives form and sturdiness to the building or sculpture. It is also like a skeleton, which gives sturdiness and form to a human or (other) animal body, while at the same time providing flexibility. Having a spine also allows you to bend and twist.

Using a design grid shows you where and how to position headlines, photos, color blocks, sidebars, or pull-quotes, on a page spread of the print book or on a single-page advertisement. Moreover, it does this by setting up expectations in a reader. The reader knows, for instance, that there will be one, two, or three columns of type on a print book page (twice as many on a double-page spread). Images will fit in these spaces or bleed off the edge of the paper. Headlines may be placed at the top of the page, and running headers along with filios (page numbers) may be at the top of each page with an underline, a half-point rule that bleeds into the gutter.

Consistency makes design elements on individual print book pages (as well as successive groups of print book pages) feel unified. Unity is a prime principle of both fine art and graphic art because it focuses the reader or viewer on the levels of importance among visual elements and on how they are interrelated.

Creating the Design Grid

When I started in graphic design more than 40 years ago, the initial step in creating a design grid, which I am about to teach you, had to be done on paper. We did not have computers, so I would first draw the outline of a page (let’s say 8.5” x 11”). Then I would add margins (let’s say 1” all the way around—top, bottom and sides). Then I might break the central column that remains (everything but the empty margin space) into two or three columns with gutters between them.

When I laid out two pages side by side (a page spread), I would have double the number of columns.

This is exactly what I would do when laying out a small community newspaper I produced in the early 1980s. Now you can do the same thing on your computer in your design program (such as InDesign) using colored guide lines that you can pull down out of the rulers on the page you’re designing. You can also set the number of columns and the space between columns on the computer.

But one thing I would strongly encourage you to do is to design two pages at a time (a spread). Why? Because the reader of a multi-page print book (this doesn’t apply to a single-page ad) always sees two pages side by side. So it behooves you to design multi-page commercial printing projects this way.

The Newspaper Grid I Used

When I laid out each issue of the community newspaper back in the early 1980s, I already had some fixed parameters. (In fact, I also had a stack of blank grid sheets ruled out with margins, columns, and gutters between columns). The type sizes and typefaces had already been determined for the body copy, headlines, subheads, etc. And the paper choice and color choices had also been determined. So I had fewer variables to concern myself with: mostly related to the use of (rather than the creation of) the design grid.

If I recall correctly, I had five narrow columns on the left-hand page and five on the right-hand page. Since the readers’ eyes went first to the outside edges of each two-page spread when she/he turned the page, I had to position the advertisements toward the outside. They were one, two, or five columns wide, and I built them upward (large to small) from the bottom to the outside edges, leaving a “well” in the center of the two-page spread into which I could place the headlines, pull-quotes, and single columns of editorial copy. Because all pages matched this general rule, the reader always knew where to look for both ads and editorial material. There was no confusion, and this regularity and lack of confusion put the reader at ease. (Here’s a summary of these rules of thumb: minimize variables, maintain consistency, set up reader expectations and keep to them—all to make reading easier.)

On the front of the newspaper I could be more creative. I could add a large photo. Perhaps I might bleed the photo off the page (or even tilt it). I could turn a short headline (only a few words) on its side and use it to take up one whole column (out of the five on the cover page). I could extend a headline over one, two, three, or more columns, depending on where the columns of editorial type associated with the headline were positioned.

With all of this I had a lot of options and could offer a lot of visual variety. However, at the same time everything looked like it had been designed by one person. Things were not jumbled around on the page. Each design element aligned with something else. So what the design grid really did for me was to simplify all of my design options while providing the reader with consistency and ease of reading.

Since my time at the newspaper I have had about 40 years of experience designing everything from large-format graphics to print books, from brochures to advertisements. All of these have been based on some form of this initial grid concept. It has made my life considerably easier because I haven’t needed to make up new design rules for each page spread.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

What I would suggest for you, if you’re a designer, is to use Google Search to find examples of design grids (one-, two-, three-, and five-column grids). Look for both the ruled-out design grids without headlines and photos and the very same grids with the design elements included.

Notice how all of the primary visual elements (photos, headlines, etc.) seem to nestle into a corner of one of the columns or extend across multiple columns or all of the columns. They don’t just float in the columns; they are anchored in some way. And each element is aligned in some way with other elements on the page (the fewer “axis lines” or “lines of alignment,” the stronger the structure).

There is no better way to learn this than by finding visual examples (printed and on the Internet) of multiple-column design grids and their uses in commercial printing. Learn from the masters of graphic design. Also, if you get a promotional piece in the mail and you like it, deconstruct the grid. Draw it out right on the brochure, noting the columns of type, the margins, the gutter between columns. Be able to articulate exactly how the designer has made her/his choices in positioning all elements of the design. This is exactly how I learned. Eventually it became second nature.

Posted in Design | Comments Off on Commercial Printing: Creating a Design Grid

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