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

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Custom Printing: Laser vs. Rotary Die Cutting

February 21st, 2017

Posted in Die cutting | Comments »

I watched a video recently on YouTube. It showed a laser cutting machine producing a series of “kiss-cut” labels and then winding up the roll of labels while removing the scrap, or waste. I felt like it was the mid-’60s again and I was watching the original Star Trek TV show. The laser really has come of age.

First of all, a point of information. “Kiss-cutting” is cutting through the matte label stock while leaving the backing paper intact. To do this with a laser, which essentially burns rather than cuts the substrate, is impressive.

The YouTube Laser Cutting Video

Here’s a short description of the video, which can be found online. (I’m sure a number of laser cutting manufacturers have their own version.) First, a wide roll of preprinted labels unwound through tension rollers into a glass-covered tower in which a laser darted across the printed press sheet to trace the outline of all of the labels. You could see the bright flame as the laser burned through the paper stock, while a vacuum immediately pulled the smoke and paper dust out of the enclosure. (For the video, the cover of the laser console had been removed so you could see exactly how the laser worked.)

As the web of litho paper left the laser enclosure, it passed through more rollers, which removed the unprinted waste paper surrounding the series of labels. The rollers then wound up the web of paper onto the take-up reel.

I encourage you to find this or any other video demonstrating laser cutting. It’s really rather impressive.

Old and New Die-Cutting Processes

Prior to the advent of laser cutting, printers used rotary dies or dies on flatbed letterpresses. Metal rules inserted into wood on one side of the die cutter punched through the paper substrate and came to rest on the wood or metal beneath the paper. Then the waste material (anything not needed) was removed.

You could make anything from pocket folders to business cards to wine bottle labels this way. However, it took time and cost money to make the metal dies. Therefore, you couldn’t economically make a die for a single prototype. It was only cost-effective for long print runs of die-cut products.

Then, with the coming of laser cutting, commercial printing vendors could use digital data controlling a laser beam to cut anywhere from one copy to an unlimited number of copies of their finished product. Since laser cutting didn’t require metal dies, there was no need to pay for the dies, wait for them to be made by specialists, and store them carefully after their use.

Laser or Rotary Die Cutting: The Pros and Cons of Each

As with TV and radio, the advent of laser cutting has become more of an issue of options. Rotary dies are still used, and they offer benefits lasers do not. Here’s a rundown of when to use one vs. the other:

  1. Lasers can cut intricate patterns. Metal rotary dies cannot. So if you are die cutting a snowflake into a business card, for instance, you would want to use a laser.
  2. Lasers can cost-effectively cut one product, since no money goes into making the die. Therefore, if you want to produce a prototype of a fancy cologne carton with die cuts, laser cutting would be the technology of choice. If you then want to roll out a huge run of the same cologne carton, rotary die cutting might be advisable, since it is much faster than laser cutting. And at that point, you can spread the cost of the metal die across the entire press run.
  3. Speed to market is usually important for new products. If this is the case, a laser cut job is ideal because there’s no wait time for a die maker to create a die for a rotary press or flatbed press.
  4. Lasers don’t get dull like metal cutting rules. If you’re using metal rotary dies, they will eventually get dull and need to be replaced. This takes time and costs money. Laser cutting avoids this problem.
  5. Lasers are slower than rotary die cutting, particularly when cutting thick material. Thick paper (or any other substrate) slows down a laser cutter but has no effect on the metal dies of rotary or flatbed die cutting.
  6. If you’re using a laser cutter for 100 different cutting patterns, there’s no storage space, since the die specifications exist only in digital form on a computer. On the other hand, if you’re doing rotary die cutting and then storing 100 dies, you will need extra storage space to keep them safe and sharp.
  7. Not only the crafting of metal dies but also their use on rotary or flatbed presses requires skilled labor. In contrast, once you know how to use a laser cutter, the overall operation of the equipment is easier than rotary die cutting since it requires far less hand work.
  8. Laser cutting equipment costs much more to buy than rotary die-cutting equipment.
  9. Laser cutting equipment can be set up and then reconfigured for a new job far more quickly than rotary die-cutting equipment.

So a quick answer to the question of which to use is probably both: laser for prototypes and short runs where making quick changes is necessary, and rotary or flatbed (traditional metal die cutting) when the substrate is hard to cut and/or when you have a long run of die cutting to do. Ideally you would have access to both technologies.

Another Option: A Knife Plotter

I failed to mention one other option I have come across, which incorporates both metal cutting tools and the digital information of laser cutting. The machine is called a “knife plotter,” and some large format inkjet presses are configured with such a tool.

Basically a vertically held knife handle travels around a sheet of vinyl (above the preprinted labels, for instance), using digital information from the computer to precisely trace the perimeter of each label. Then the operator can peel off the scrap, leaving the “kiss-cut” printed label on the backing sheet.

The plotters I have seen online (Mimaki makes some of these) are small, slower than metal rule die cutting, but ideal for a small run produced by a small shop. In fact, it would be ideal for a commercial printing vendor who doesn’t want to commit to full-fledged rotary die cutting, has short-run jobs, and doesn’t want to subcontract the work.

Implications for the Custom Printing Trade

All of these options actually say a lot about the state of commercial printing, specifically:

  1. Creating labels is a large and quickly growing component of the world of custom printing. It’s big business, and there’s ever-increasing demand. Otherwise, manufacturers would not be scrambling to provide digital options for die cutting.
  2. The particular size of the die-cutting presses on the market (plotters and laser cutters) seems to precisely fit the requirements for label creation.
  3. It is clear that short, personalized runs are now the norm for labels, stickers, and such. The size, format, and economics of laser cutting all support the small formats, short runs, and personalization requirements of label and sticker production.

Posted in Die cutting | Comments »

Book Printing: Reap Savings with HP’s T410 Inkjet Press

February 12th, 2017

Posted in Digital Printing | Comments »

I was helping a client recently with a high page count print book with a short press run: 500 copies of a 488-page, 8.5” x 11” perfect-bound book. The inside text was to be 4-color throughout. I assumed that due to the short run length, this would be a perfect fit for a digital press. Since I had worked closely with a printer with an HP Indigo, I approached my sales rep with the specs, but I was surprised by her answer.

She said the print book would be cheaper to produce via offset lighography due to the 4-color process work on each page. She said the “click charges” would be a killer when you factored in four clicks per page (C, M, Y, and K) for 488 pages. So she bid the book for me on her commercial printing company’s offset equipment.

What Are Click Charges?

Most printers lease their digital printing equipment. They don’t own it. Therefore, digital press manufacturers charge printers a fee (a per-click charge) to cover the cost of maintenance (repairing equipment on-site to keep “down-time” to an absolute minimum) and sometimes consumables (liquid toner, for instance). This click charge is usually added on a per-page and per-color rate (i.e., the number of impressions made by the digital press). Therefore, the commercial printing supplier passes this cost on to the customer.

So the printer to whom I had bid my client’s job was saying that assuming 500 copies of a 488-page book with four click charges per page for cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, the price would actually exceed the cost to print the job via offset lithography.

How Does Digital Printing Compare to Offset Lithography?

A digital press (the HP Indigo in the case of the commercial printing vendor I was working with) produces four individual images (layered on top of each other) to create the full-color image on a blanket cylinder and then transfers the image from the blanket to the printing paper. Electrostatic charges hold the liquid toner (ink) on the blanket until it is transferred to the paper.

In a similar manner, an offset press prints an image, color by color, as the paper travels through the press, from inking unit to inking unit. The four printing plates (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) produce an image on each press blanket, and the blankets transfer the four process images onto the substrate (one on top of the other). Once the press sheet has traveled through all four inking units, the paper has received images in all process colors laid over one another. (Keep in mind that process colors are transparent, so the cyan, magenta, yellow, and black images don’t obscure one another. Rather they work together to create and enhance the full-color images.)

You could say that digital and offset commercial printing are similar in that both transfer the final printed image onto a blanket and from the blanket onto the printing paper. Therefore, it didn’t surprise me that a bid on the HP Indigo digital press for my client’s four-color, 488-page book would be high and would actually cost more than an offset lithographic press run of the job.

What’s the Alternative?

With this in mind I was pleased to hear from a colleague that custom printing work priced for the HP T410 digital press was based on the actual use of printing ink rather than on a per-click charge.

So I did some research. The HP T410 is a large-format, roll-fed book press. Essentially it is a web press (much like an offset web press). But in this case instead of using printing plates, the digital press prints book pages via its array of inkjet print heads (like a huge, roll-fed version of a desktop inkjet printer).

When you compare the literature describing these two presses (HP Indigo and HP T410), you will see that the drying of the ink is handled differently on each machine. On an electrophotographic digital presses (the HP Indigo, for example), the image is already dry when it is transferred from the blanket roller to the substrate (all four colors transferred at one time). Therefore, there’s a lot of flexibility in what printing substrate you can use, because the dry image won’t seep into the paper fibers.

In contrast, on the HP T410, an inkjet press, the specification sheet references float infrared (IR) scalable dryer zones as the drying method. So basically a specific frequency of light will cure the ink (presumably instantly, as with UV inks, which are cured under UV light).

Why Does This Matter?

My colleague noted that there were no click charges for this digital printer, that clients only had to pay for color by the square inch. With this information, I did more research. I verified his claim (the product literature confirmed that you only pay for the ink you use).

Now this is a novel and rather dramatic claim for the following reason. In offset lithography, if you put any process-color images on even one page, you are still paying for 4-color on all pages on that particular side of a press sheet. (This may be 8 pages of a 16-page press form or 16 pages of a 32-page press form.) In short, you’re paying a lot to “open” a side of a press form to process color. So if you’re wise, you’ll take advantage of the expense and put process color on (many) other pages of this particular side of the press “form” (one side of a press sheet that will eventually be folded into a press “signature”) in order to distribute the cost.

In contrast, on the HP Indigo, if you print any process color on any individual page of a book, you’re charged for all four colors (four click charges). This is true even if your 4-color image is a small logo.

But based on HP’s literature, if you’re using the HP T410, your charge for the same process color distribution will be higher or lower depending only on the size in square inches of the color printed image.

For my client’s print book, pricing the job based on the amount of color rather than on the number of color pages may yield a huge savings. We shall see.

What I Would Need to See First

My assumption is that not all printers have the HP T410. In fact, I would assume that relatively few printers do. After all, the concept of printing books on a web press using inkjet technology is relatively new.

However, if I can find such a commercial printing supplier, and if the samples of inkjet printed work produced on coated paper compare favorably to the electrophotographic digital printing of the HP Indigo, I will be pleasantly surprised.

And the cost may just make the difference for my client.

Posted in Digital Printing | Comments »

Custom Printing: Making Car Parts with a 3-D Printer

February 6th, 2017

Posted in 3D Printing | Comments »

A close friend of mine is a car aficionado. He recently brought to my attention an article in the March issue of Motor Trend magazine that describes advances in 3-D printed car parts. I’ll have to admit that I was skeptical, as I was in the 1970s when I took a ride on my step-brother’s plastic motorcycle. But I was wrong then (it was a good bike), and in doing some reading now on 3-D printed car parts, I’ve become intrigued by the benefits.

The New Technology

The article my friend sent me was a column by Frank Markus entitled “3-D Classes: Showing the Industry a New Way to Design and Build Cars” (Motor Trend, March 2017).

The article addresses the work of Kevin Czinger, who researched the environmental impact of gas and hybrid automobiles due to his concern for the planet. He found that manufacturing the vehicles and the fuel accounted for more than 75 percent of the vehicle’s environmental impact (according to Argonne National Lab’s life cycle GREET model data). So he began to look for alternatives to metal stamping and welding car parts.

Czinger therefore founded Divergent 3D in Gardena, California, where he uses “off-the-shelf carbon-fiber tubing and sheet goods,” along with 3-D custom printing, to create an auto chassis that is cheaper to manufacture and significantly lighter in weight than a traditionally produced product. It will “accommodate any type of body, powertrain, and feature content” (“3-D Classes: Showing the Industry a New Way to Design and Build Cars”).

According to the article, Czinger’s process for a “prototype Blade uses 69 nodes, each of which are 3-D printed by laser sintering powdered aluminum to connect an intricate web of carbon-fiber tubes and honeycomb-aluminum or carbon-fiber sheer paneling—all off-the-shelf commodity parts” (“3-D Classes: Showing the Industry a New Way to Design and Build Cars”).

(As a point of interest, laser sintering is one of a number of processes, including direct metal laser sintering, selective laser sintering, and electron beam additive manufacturing, that use a laser or electron beam to melt and fuse powdered metal or wire into a usable—and stable—3-D form, building up the substance layer by layer from a 3-D computer aided design model.)

Frank Markus’ article then notes the bottom line: a “drastic drop in manufacturing cost and complexity.” And, by inference, if there’s a drop in the complexity of manufacturing, there will be a lessened effect on the environment.

The Effects of the New Technology

  1. As I read the article, I am reminded of the LEGO plastic building toy I had in the ‘60s that let children build practically anything with a limited number of interlocking plastic parts. What Czinger seems to be doing is identifying those parts that need to be unique, producing these via 3-D additive manufacturing, and then using these custom-built car parts along with standard (albeit simpler and lighter than usual) parts to complete the car chassis building process. Simpler equals cheaper and less damaging to the environment.
  2. If the chassis of the car is strong but much lighter than usual, it seems that fuel efficiency will increase. For performance cars (like those in Motor Trend magazine), this will equate to faster speeds. However, it will also equate to a dramatic increase in fuel efficiency. Less fuel, as Czinger found in his initial research, will combine with less complex manufacturing to reduce the impact of a vehicle on the environment.
  3. Czinger’s Divergent 3D process apparently sidesteps the need for painting car parts. Markus’ article notes that the “unstressed composite body panels get molded in color or wrapped” (“3-D Classes: Showing the Industry a New Way to Design and Build Cars”). Eliminating a painting step in car production will dramatically reduce volatile organic compounds (VOCs), further lessening the environmental impact of the manufacturing process.
  4. From the point of view of manufacturing in general (as opposed to the auto industry in particular), combining digitally produced unique parts with off-the-shelf commodity parts will streamline both research and development and the final production of vehicles. More specifically, a prototype can be made in-house quickly, and then changed any number of times in response to testing. In contrast, without 3-D manufacturing, the parts for the prototype would need to be sent out for injection molding, which would be a subcontracted process taking a lot of time and money. In short, additive manufacturing would make vehicle design more “nimble” and therefore quicker, cheaper, and more easily adjusted in response to testing.
  5. Applying 3-D custom printing technology to car production would simplify the manufacturing process, minimize inventory, and make the “assembly-line” paradigm obsolete. For instance, the traditional approach has been to rely on a limited number of manufacturing plants to produce all car parts. These parts are manufactured on an assembly line in bulk, and them shipped out and kept in inventory for their final use. (For the most part this is because it is cheaper to stamp out or injection mold a huge number of car parts at one time and then store them.) In contrast, using 3-D additive manufacturing, a car parts manufacturer can produce only those specific parts needed at the time, and presumably eliminate or dramatically reduce inventory as well as waste.
  6. It is much less expensive to install 3-D custom printing equipment than to build production facilities for metal stamping and injection molding. Another way to phrase this is to say that the entry cost for car parts manufacturers is lower if they use 3-D additive manufacturing than if they need to equip a traditional manufacturing plant with tool and die machinery. Presumably, this can lead to the growth of a multitude of small businesses across the country producing car parts on an as-needed basis. Instead of having a “hub” system, with all components being sent out from a central manufacturer, the manufacturing would be based on a “cell” system, with the nearest cell manufacturing the car parts as needed.
  7. This implies a paradigm shift from valuing the car parts themselves to valuing the digital information from which the car parts can be digitally printed. The car parts themselves would become a commodity, but the proprietary intellectual value of the digital manufacturing information would rise dramatically. Other than the decentralization of manufacturing, I think this may be one of the more far-reaching effects of 3-D custom printing, not only for the car industry but for any number of other industries as well.

Posted in 3D Printing | Comments »

Book Printing: Divining the State of the Print Book

January 30th, 2017

Posted in Book Printing | Comments Off

I read two articles online this week that have reinforced my belief that the print book is still going strong.

“Book Reading 2016”

The first article is from the Pew Research Center (Internet, Science & Tech) website. Dated 9/1/2016, this article, “Book Reading 2016,” makes a number of claims about the state of the print book and reading in general, which it then supports with charts and statistics. (Over the years I have developed an unreserved trust in the Pew Research Center.)

Here are the claims the Pew Research Center made based on its surveys and analyses (as quoted):

  1. “Print books continue to be more popular than e-books or audio books.” The article goes on to say that in the last twelve months more than twice as many people read a print book as read an e-book.
  2. “Nearly four-in-ten Americans read print books exclusively; just 6% are digital-only book readers.”
  3. “More than one-quarter (28%) of Americans read books in both print and digital formats.”
  4. “Some 38% read print books but did not read books in any digital formats.”
  5. “Compared with those who have not attended college, college graduates are more likely to read books in general, more likely to read print books, and more likely to consume digital-book content.”
  6. “…young adults are more likely than their elders to read books in various digital formats, but are also more likely to read print books as well: 72% have read a print book in the last year, compared with 61% of seniors.”
  7. “The share of Americans who read in order to research a specific topic of interest has increased in recent years.” This is in contrast to those who read to stay abreast of current affairs, those who study for school or work, and those who read for pleasure. Since 2011, “the share of Americans who read in order to research specific topics of interest has increased by 10-percentage points…, from 74% to 84%.”
  8. “Women are more likely than men to read books in general and also more likely to read print books.”

What We Can Learn from This Information

First of all, Pew Research Center statistics make it clear that print books aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. They are still way ahead of electronic media in terms of readership.

However, many people, especially younger ones, do read e-books as well as print books, for pleasure, to study for work or school, to stay abreast of current events, or to research topics of interest to them. But the ratio of print book readers to e-book readers is still exceptionally high.

The article also noted that although e-book readership increased from 2011 to 2014 from 17% to 28%, it has nevertheless remained stable since then.

Griffin Press, “the World’s Most Advanced Book Printer”

The second article was entitled “Griffin Launches End to End Digital.” Written by Wayne Robinson, the article was published on 9/7/2016 on www.proprint.com.au.

The article describes the hardware and workflow of a state-of-the-art book printer, noting the following (as quoted):

  1. “The company has installed a HPT410 monochrome digital printer.”
  2. It has “added a full Kolbus binding line onto the back.”
  3. “Covers–previously the stumbling block in attempts to create such lines–are printed on site on Griffin’s new HP Indigo 10000 and HP Indigo 7800 printers.”
  4. Griffin adds cover “embellishment on a Scodix Ultra Pro Foil.”
  5. “Griffin is looking to produce some 45,000 books per day or 16 million books a year, on the digital end-to-end line.”
  6. “It has two other HP monochrome reelfed digital printers.”
  7. Griffin “will keep its offset presses for long-run work.”
  8. Peter George, CEO of Griffin’s parent company, PMP, notes that “the entry of Amazon into the book market ‘changed everything’ and led to local publishers demanding rapid print and short runs.” He says that “Printed books are clearly here to stay. Kindle has plateaued.”

What We Can Learn from This Information

The article succinctly reflects the present moment in print book publishing. This is what I infer from my reading of “Griffin Launches End to End Digital”:

  1. For book printing, the most efficient equipment is a dedicated, black-only, toner-based digital press. To me, Griffin Press’ buying the HPT410 monochrome digital printer reflects the company’s view that the highest percentage of print book work will be for K-only text blocks.
  2. Conversely, there’s no better equipment for book covers than the HP Indigo digital press. In my opinion, nothing comes closer to offset-quality printing.
  3. That said, the demand for print books in general is high, as reflected in Griffin Press’ projected yearly output of 16 million books. (The HP T410 press–and HP’s latest T400 series presses–cost in the range of $2 to $3 million (depending on the press’ add-ons). This shows just how serious Griffin Press is regarding the future of “ink on paper.”
  4. Until recently, the focus has been on printing ink or toner digitally onto the paper substrate. Press sheets then went through traditional analog finishing operations. Now there are digital binders (the article referenced the Kolbus binding line). Press manufacturers have been developing end-to-end solutions that integrate digital printing and digital binding equipment. This reflects the manufacturers’ commitment to digital book production, and their awareness that consumers and businesses have shown a growing need for digital book printing.
  5. The reference in “Griffin Launches End to End Digital” to “embellishment on a Scodix Ultra Pro Foil” reflects a move from analog to digital equipment for die-cutting, foil stamping, embossing, and other processes that in prior years had required the making of metal cutting or stamping dies. Scodix has rendered die-making less necessary by inventing digital methods for building up 3D texture (coatings, foils) on a press sheet. This complements recent advances in laser creasing and cutting, which also sidestep the need for metal dies.
  6. Griffin Press’ purchasing additional reelfed monochrome printers implies that digital printing will also be essential for longer-run books, since rolls of printing stock are more economical than cut sheets for longer press runs.
  7. Griffin Press’ keeping its offset equipment implies that even though the bulk of book print jobs will be short run or variable data work, some publishers will still require longer press runs of books (black-text-only or multi-color-text).
  8. Griffin sees that the trend is toward shorter press runs and faster turn-around times, as noted by Peter George’s (CEO of Griffin’s parent company, PMP) comment that Amazon’s print-on-demand business model “changed everything.”
  9. As in the first article referenced in this blog posting, “Griffin Launches End to End Digital” notes that e-readers (the Kindle, as per the quote) are no longer displacing print books. The print book is still viable and will be for the foreseeable future.

At least that’s what I got out of reading the Pew article and ProPrint article.

Posted in Book Printing | Comments Off

Custom Printing: A Print Book Design Make-Over

January 24th, 2017

Posted in Book Printing | 2 Comments »

One of the many things I do in addition to writing is to analyze and help to improve clients’ publication design work. I help them with overall design, typeface choice, eye movement around a double-page spread, color, overall concept, you name it. I just did one of these sessions with a client who had hit a wall and didn’t know how to fix the design for her print book.

I thought you might find this case study helpful in your design work, in terms of how to approach a design and improve it.

The First Draft of the Design

First of all, what I received from my client was a PDF of a page spread from a government report on water and dams in developing countries. The print book format was 8.5” x 11” (or actually slightly larger, since the agency is global, and they work with an A3 page). My client, the designer, had a four-color palette to work with, but beyond the photos, she had chosen 4-color builds of a blue and a beige for accent colors.

I noticed right away that the initial draft page spread looked washed out. There was nothing dramatic to look at. The image was of a man standing on a support in a reservoir adjusting a pump. The colors were all earth tones, but the photo appeared to have been taken in the hot afternoon, and there was an overall greyness, or haze, in the photo.

This photo, which was on the left-hand page of the spread, was horizontal. Above it there was a solid area of blue bleeding on the left and top and extending to the gutter on the right. Below the photo there was a repeat of the blue solid with the opening chapter headline reversed out of the color. At the top left of the photo there was a circular cut-out into which a large “8” had been placed (presumably this mock-up was the introductory page spread for Chapter 8). The “8” extended up into the blue solid, and my client had reversed the “8” out of the blue color.

On the right-hand page there were two columns of justified type with an overly light initial cap to start the first paragraph. Below the two columns there was a box of type surrounded by a rule line. This was actually something I liked about the sample page spread. My client had chosen a condensed sans serif typeface for the headline. She had also reversed the words “Box 8.2” out of a little blue solid bar she had suspended from the top of the rule line surrounding the box (as a “tag,” to identify all boxes). What I really liked was that the headline was flush right instead of flush left. It was unexpected and daring, but it was quite readable in the sans serif face. I also liked the tight leading of the two-line heading. Finally, my client had made a few words in the text blue and bold for emphasis (and to distinguish between the two countries referenced in the text).

I told my client to start with the ruled box. I said it “worked.” She should understand why it worked and apply the design concepts to the rest of the page spread.

The Problems with the Design

I noted the following problems:

  1. The initial cap starting the first paragraph on the right-hand page was too light. It didn’t attract the reader’s eye. The reader’s eye had to go to this point to start reading, so the visual cue had to be more prominent.
  2. The headlines and subheads (other than those in the text box) were too light. This gave an overall greyness to the page spread (i.e., little distinction between the heads and text, and no immediate cue for the reader to go to the subheads). In addition, the headline typefaces in the text box were exceptionally close to, but not exactly the same as, the subhead typefaces in the main columns of text.
  3. The “8” that designated the chapter of the book was too light. In addition, the curve of the photo (knocked out to allow for the positioning of the “8”) seemed superfluous and cute.
  4. The justified text columns seemed too rigid. They also did not allow for an interesting contour around the columns of type (that is, the columns of type were just two tall rectangles providing no complexity or visual interest).
  5. The photo seemed boring since it was so monochromatic and since there was no action reflected in the image.
  6. There were too many visual points of alignment. That is, too few of the graphic elements (heads, subheads, photo, folios, etc.) aligned with one another, creating a chaotic look. The chaotic look worked against the simplicity needed to lead the reader’s eye through the page spread.
  7. The overall greyness of the page gave no direction as to how the reader’s eye should travel through the page spread.

The Design Solutions

I realized this was plenty of criticism to offer my client, so together we discussed options that wound up improving the two-page spread significantly. My client also created an additional page spread (an interior spread for pages following the chapter opening). With these two spreads I knew my client could create the remainder of the 48-page book, applying all of the design decisions (page grid, typeface choices and sizes, box rule lines, and so forth) to all successive pages of the book. All of the visual decisions had been made, allowing for creation of a coherent design product.

Here are the design decisions and why they helped:

  1. My client made the photo abut to the center gutter and bleed on the left. This gave it a sense of expansiveness. Immediately above it she placed the same light beige screen that she had used as a background for the text box on the opposite page. (She bled this screen off the top of the page above the 4-color photo.) Most importantly, she aligned the top of the photo on the left-hand page (which rested at about the two-inch mark below the top of the page) with the top of the two columns of type on the right-hand page. This created a visual “axis” (or alignment) running all the way across the two-page spread. It simplified the geometric, visual shape created by the photo and the text.
  2. Above the photo on the left, my client placed the “8” of the chapter head. She made it huge for emphasis. She also made it orange. (This kept it from being as “heavy” visually as an “8” printed in black ink.) On the opposite page, she also made the subhead orange, and she made the initial capital letter of the first text paragraph bolder, and orange as well. (This would make the reader’s eye jump from the chapter number “8” to the initial cap to the subhead. In general, knowing what to read first, second, and third puts the reader at ease and makes reading pleasurable.)
  3. Including the entirety of the photo (without cutting away a semicircle for the “8”) highlighted the beauty of the entire image. It made the reservoir and dam seem more expansive and interesting.
  4. My client made the heading at the bottom of the left-hand chapter-opening page much bolder than before and set it flush right to make it stand out (readers usually expect flush left heads). This gave a visual precedent for the flush right head in the text box on the opposite page. The heading was bigger, bolder, and the two lines were tightly set one above the other, as my client had done in the text box on the opposite page. (It is a useful rule of the graphic arts that consistency in the treatment of visual elements simplifies the design. This makes reading easier and more predictable.)
  5. My client placed a thin, vertical rule between the two main text columns. She also added folios (page numbers reversed out of a blue box). For interest, she raised them above the center line. She also aligned them with the top of the photo and the two text columns. The blue solid with reversed type echoed the treatment of the text box label (“Box 8.2”). The repetition made for easy identification of these visual elements. It also gave more coherence to the page within a simpler grid, or structure.
  6. Setting the subheads within the text in an orange color made them seem different enough from the head in the text box that I no longer minded that the two typefaces were close but not exactly the same.

What You Can Learn from this Case Study

This was the overall direction my client and I took to improve her design. Each time you deconstruct and analyze a design the process will be different, but it always helps if you look at a few things each time:

  1. Does the reader’s eye know how to proceed through the page spread? What is most important, secondary, tertiary? If your reader knows where to look for important information, reading will be easy and pleasurable. If not, he or she will stop reading altogether.
  2. Is your photo (or are your photos) interesting? Are they cropped in such a way that they tell a story. Does the photo cropping make it easier or harder to know what’s important?
  3. Can you simplify the page “geometry”? That is, can you draw fewer imaginary grid lines to which you can anchor graphic elements? The fewer these “axes,” the easier it is for the reader to progress through the page design.
  4. Can you use color (a secondary, highlight color) to help your reader progress through the page design?

These are just some thoughts, but the best way you can train yourself to think along these lines is to look at brochures, books, posters, signage—every printed item you see–and consider how the color choices, typefaces, page grid, type alignment, etc., make the printed products easier or harder to read. Then start to apply the same set of rules to your own design work.

Posted in Book Printing | 2 Comments »

Custom Printing: Infographic Shows “Print Is Everywhere”

January 16th, 2017

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Here’s a good example of multi-channel marketing. I just found an online article referencing an online Minuteman Press franchise advertisement that contains an infographic showing all the places you’ll find printed products on your travels through your business day.

The infographic is called, “Print Is Everywhere.”

“In Your Kitchen”

The Minuteman Press infographic begins in the kitchen and includes such printed products as a calendar, school stickers and schedules, birthday cards, menus, branded sports bottles, branded ceramic mugs, screen-printed t-shirts, promotional bags, and wine bottle labels.

Minuteman Press also includes statistics reflecting the ubiquity of offset and digital custom printing:

  1. “Americans buy approximately 6 billion greeting cards per year.”
  2. “53 percent of U.S. consumers own promotional drinkware.”
  3. “Promotianal bags generate more impressions (5,700+) than any other promotional item.”
  4. “Digital label printing accounts for approximately 33% of all labels.”
  5. “58 percent of U.S. consumers own promotional T-Shirts alone.”

What We Can Learn from the Infographic

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Even though we’re on the computer a huge portion of the day, we still have to dress, eat, drink, and carry stuff to our jobs. All of these activities involve potentially branded items (i.e., they require commercial printing services).
  2. Since we use our branded bags, cups, and t-shirts on a daily basis, we are exposed to their messages a remarkable number of times. In contrast, much of what we see online, I think, becomes background noise competing with other background noise since there’s so much of it.
  3. Digital commercial printing has captured a sizable portion of the label-making market. I personally hadn’t realized it was this high a percentage.

“On Your Way to Work”

The Minuteman Press infographic includes store signage, flyers, posters, and stickers in this portion of the day, and also includes these statistics:

  1. “50% of customers learn about a local store through on-site signage.”
  2. “Consumers get 11 hours of exposure daily to outdoor advertising.”

What We Can Learn from the Infographic

The take-away is that people buy brands they recognize. Granted, most people spend a lot of time surfing the web and reading peer reviews, but you need to actively search for brands on the Internet. In contrast, as you are driving around, or walking, or taking the bus, you are exposed to a huge amount of signage. In many cases this, along with what you see in the store windows, will interest you in a new store, product, or brand, and influence your buying decisions.

“In Your Office”

The Minuteman Press infographic includes printed checks, brochures, stationery, and USB promotional drives in this portion of the day, and notes these statistics:

  1. “The market for stationery products is projected to exceed $226 billion by 2020.”
  2. “18.3 billion checks were written in the U.S. in 2012.”
  3. “79% of brochure recipients either read, keep, or pass along to friends.”
  4. “45% of U.S. consumers own promotional USB drives.”

What We Can Learn from the Infographic

The take-away is that people do not just communicate over the Internet. A surprisingly large number of people still write paper checks, send physical letters in addition to email, and read and keep physical brochures. There is something permanent and perhaps more weighty about a print version of a letter or brochure. And regarding the USB drive noted in the infographic, any promotional product you use daily will put someone’s logo before your eyes again and again and again.

“When You’re at Lunch”

The Minuteman Press infographic includes printed menus, branded corporate wear such as uniforms worn by food service workers, table tents, and food packaging, noting the following statistics:

  1. “In 2015 corporate workwear was projected to be a $4.4 billion industry.”
  2. “52% of consumers are likely to make repeat purchases from a merchant that delivers premium branded packaging.”

What We Can Learn from the Infographic

Certain kinds of products cannot be duplicated online. As long as there are retail stores and food service workers, there will be branded uniforms, and this will involve commercial printing. In addition, anything purchased will need to be packaged in something (particularly food and pharmaceuticals), again involving commercial printing.

“On Your Way Home”

In this part of your day, the Minuteman Press infographic includes promotional writing instruments, branded sunglasses, printed drinkwear, and even branded power banks (to charge cell phones) and printed air fresheners (to hang from the car’s rear-view mirror). The infographic notes the following statistics:

  1. “The car air fresheners market in North America is projected to be $952 million by 2020.”
  2. “26% of U.S. consumers own mobile power banks.”

What We Can Learn from the Infographic

Between custom screen printing and pad printing, you can pretty much print on anything. So if you are a marketer, all you need to do is observe people’s habits. Watch what they do and what tools they use repeatedly, and then print your company logo on the product, whether it be an air freshener or a back-up charger for a cell phone.

“When You Get Home”

The Minuteman Press infographic includes catalogs and direct mail in this category, noting that:

  1. “In 2015, advertisers spent $46.8 billion on direct mail, compared to just $2.3 billion on email.”
  2. “90% of consumers use catalogs to learn and get ideas about things that interest them.”

What We Can Learn from the Infographic

Consumers are not just learning about products online. In fact, many people want to research potential purchases both online and in a catalog. Perhaps they like the luxury of paging through a physical book, something more tangible than a web page.

I’ve seen modern catalogs referred to as “look books,” and they may not always include order forms, but they are print products, and they inform potential buyers before they purchase an item they want.

The dramatic difference between the amount of money still spent on physical direct mail vs. online email shows just how important it is considered to be in the consumer’s buying decision (i.e., it may cost more to print something than to create an online ad campaign, but marketers are willing to pay the extra expense).

The Take Away

Even if you never want to become a Minuteman Press franchise owner, you can still benefit from seeing their infographic. Here is a link: http://bit.ly/print-is-everywhere. It will show you through thought-provoking statistics just how alive print really is. (The infographic also includes all sources for the statistics I’ve included.)

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Book Printing: Checking the Final, Delivered Print Job

January 9th, 2017

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I just received advance copies of a print job I had brokered. It’s a 6” x 9” perfect-bound textbook, but it actually could have been any printed product. My approach would have been the same. I did what I always do first, whenever I receive samples. I checked them thoroughly for any flaws.

What to Look For When Checking Your Print Job

(For this kind of a job–a print book–this is how I always proceed):

  1. First I checked the overall physical status of a sample copy. That is, I checked to see if the print book had been trimmed evenly and squarely. I made sure all pages lay flat with no ripples in the paper. I made sure the binding glue had been evenly applied and was secure. Fortunately this was a sheetfed offset job, so there was no chance of web growth. (This is a flaw that occasionally appears when the web-printed interior pages of a book begin to grow beyond the flush-trimmed, sheetfed-printed cover. This is due to the heat of the web-offset ovens removing all moisture from the text pages and then the pages reabsorbing moisture after the text and cover have been trimmed.)
  2. I opened the book and flipped through the pages, first checking to make sure the pages all aligned. To do this I checked the running headers to make sure they didn’t jump up and down (like the pages of an old flip book) when I paged through the text.
  3. I checked the cover coating, and was pleased that it was of a high gloss, evenly coated, and without cracks at the folds. It made the 4-color imagery on the print book cover really “pop.”
  4. I checked the extensive reversed copy on the back of the book. Fortunately the background was a single PMS color, so there was no chance of any color plates being out of register. This would have potentially made the small reversed type hard to read. Reversing the type out of a single PMS color averted this potential problem. All text was crisp, and the bounding rule of a text box was clean (no ink spatter in the areas that should be white).
  5. I noted that the 4-color imagery on the front cover had a a good range of tones, from light to dark, and the photos were crisp and in focus. Even though the cover was a montage of three separate images, all of them looked good together in terms of highlights, shadows, overall value, and color.
  6. When I opened the print book again, I made sure the pages were tightly held in the binding and that they turned easily (i.e., the paper grain was parallel to, instead of perpendicular to, the binding).
  7. I checked the screens, bleeds, halftones, and text “color.” The text was all black throughout the book, but it was also evenly inked, so the overall “grayness” of the type was consistent on every page. The halftones had a good tonal range from highlights to shadows, and the area screens (on page dividers and within charts) were even and smooth. Overall, there was a sense that all halftones in the print book had a similar look, with no halftones overly light or dark. The same held true for changes in tone within maps and charts. I could see adequate distinction between the 10 percent, 20 percent, 30 percent, etc., screens.

I expected this level of quality from this book printer, and I was pleased to see it. I felt confident when I contacted my client to see how she felt about her print job.

I Checked a Flaw My Client Had Identified

My client had initially reviewed a hard-copy color proof of the cover. She had then made changes and had requested a revised PDF virtual proof (or screen proof). Unfortunately, the type on the screen proof appeared to have thin rules around all type elements. Understandably, this concerned her. There wasn’t time in the schedule for her to see a revised hard-copy proof, and the printer assured me that the apparent rule lines were only an anomaly. They would not appear on the final, printed covers. They existed only on the virtual proof. So when I saw the final printed book, I checked all type on all covers.

What We Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. The first thing to remember is that when the cartoned print job arrives, it is your responsibility to check closely to ensure its high quality. If there are unreasonable flaws, this is the time to address them with your print rep to determine whether a reprint or discount is in order. Check a number of random copies in a number of randomly chosen cartons. In most cases everything will be fine, but in the few instances when it’s not, you need to address the issues immediately.
  2. Approach all jobs this way, not just books. Look closely at your printed newsletters, screen-printed t-shirts, posters—everything. Make sure they are exactly as you had expected.
  3. Check both the physical properties (size, paper, folding, trimming, etc.) and printing qualities of a job.
  4. Look critically at all color work. Check trapping and register and the overall look of 4-color imagery. Check the evenness of screens and color solids. Make sure any repeating elements, like color bars, are consistent throughout the job. And make sure the overall appearance of full-color photos is lifelike and consistent with the original artwork.
  5. Make sure that any issues identified during proof reviews have been corrected to your satisfaction.
  6. Take the time to do this thorough review immediately upon receipt of a print job. The job is not yours to distribute—or pay for—until you have taken delivery and accepted the product.
  7. Keep in mind that in most cases you will be pleased with the job as long as you have chosen the printer wisely, checked references, and reviewed his printed samples carefully.
  8. If something does go wrong, a good printer’s rep will do everything in her/his power to remedy the situation to your satisfaction.

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Custom Printing: Digital Signs, Posters, and NFC Chips

January 2nd, 2017

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My fiancee and I were in the car at a stoplight today, and I noticed a large digital sign on the side of a building. It was promoting a local campus of a major metropolitan university. I thought about what I liked and didn’t like about the sign, and about whether offset or digital custom printing could be used to achieve a similar effect.

A Description of the Sign

First of all, the digital sign must have been about thirty feet wide and twenty feet high. Obviously from where I was (sitting in the car), I couldn’t measure the digital sign, but I will say that it was large enough to stand out from all other distractions. It was about twenty feet up on the side of a university parking building.

What I remember the most is the effectiveness of the sign’s illumination and the drama of its constantly changing imagery. Since I’m used to static signage, the first thing I noticed was that the digital sign provided a number of messages, from a general tagline for the university plus the university logo, to a Facebook icon sending you to the Web for further information, to a list of some courses of study the university offers.

Although there was no sound, the movement and visual variety plus the bright colors and the backlit screen grabbed my attention.

What Didn’t Work for Me

Unfortunately the side of the parking building was exactly perpendicular to the road. Therefore, anyone driving by the sign would need to turn her/his head to read the message, and this would put their safety at risk. (I was lucky. I was a passenger at the time, so I could look at the sign for as long as I wanted.)

Granted, a less-traveled road intersected with this main road creating a “T” at the parking building. Drivers coming up to the intersection and about to turn left or right could look directly at the sign. They would not need to turn their heads. Moreover, since the sign was bright, drivers would be engaged with the presentation and the message of the sign for a while, from the time they first caught sight of the digital image until they turned left or right at the intersection.

How About the Print Version of a Sign?

I thought about how a few years back I would have seen a large format print sign hanging from the building and been equally surprised and engaged if the sign were large and dramatic. To a certain extent we have become so accustomed to static signage that advertisers can increase our “engagement” with their message with the bright lights and movement of digital signage.

However, there are new technologies that can add an extra dimension to large format print signage as well. A technology called “Near-Field-Communication,” or NFC, will allow you to tap your phone against an NFC-chip enabled poster and be directed to an online interactive experience.

Much has been written in recent years about the power of multi-channel marketing, and a large format print poster that can send a viewer to a website for further information, to do research, to sign up for text messages or emails, to see a video, or to respond to the poster and leave a message, can be a powerful marketing tool. This NFC chip technology can create a more personal connection with a prospect and even initiate a dialogue.

Granted, if the digital sign on the side of the parking building had been a static, large format print image instead of a series of changing digital images, you could not have tapped your phone against the print signage. However, you could have achieved the same result with a large QR code printed on the large format poster. Scanning the QR code with your phone camera and a downloadable phone app could send you to a website for similar interactive content, videos, or a place to request further information.

What We Can Learn from This Experience

Here are some random thoughts:

  1. Anything that captures your entire field of vision will draw you into an advertising experience. (Think about the large size of a movie screen in a theater compared to the much smaller TV in your house.) Also, the darkness of the movie theater helps you lose yourself in the experience. For an advertisement outside in bright sunlight, you can increase its attention getting power by making it huge. In fact, a grand-format inkjet image wrapped around a building could actually attract more attention than the digital sign I saw on the parking garage building. The building wrap’s sheer size could make up for its static nature.
  2. Movement trumps static imagery in attention getting power. Back-lighting also trumps reflected light illuminating a poster. However, you can overcome these limitations by using QR codes and NFC chips to bring the viewer of the poster or other large format print signage into an Internet-based experience.
  3. Such a transition from the print poster to the website can do a few things even digital signage might not achieve. For instance, once a marketer has brought a prospective client from the poster to the website, she/he can request contact information from the prospect. The web-based portal can also track the online experience of the prospect. In this way a marketing executive can collect marketing data regarding the effectiveness of the signage: who is viewing it and when, as well as whether the prospects are responding to the offer and requesting further information. Print signage enhanced with NFC technology or QR codes can facilitate two-way communication between the company and the prospect.
  4. Field of vision is important. If you’re designing static posters, digital signage, or posters with NFC chips, you need to capture the viewer’s full attention. The digital signage on the side of the building, perhaps, would have been more effective if it had had two angled screens (one facing either side of oncoming traffic). For a static poster, it’s important to locate the image where it will be seen. Make sure it is large enough to completely fill the viewer’s field of vision. Either increase its size, or put it closer to the viewer.
  5. Since a conventional large format print poster usually consists of only a slogan, an image, and a logo, adding NFC chip technology to direct the prospect to the Web can give the viewer much more information than a large format print poster by itself.

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Custom Printing: Consider the Cost of Digital vs. Offset

December 26th, 2016

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I had a conversation today with the director of operations and the sales manager at a local printer. We discussed options for a digital print job for a print brokering client of mine.

A client had requested pricing for 500 copies of a full-color, 488-page print book. She had specifically asked for offset printing, assuming that the quality would be superior to that of the same job printed digitally on an HP Indigo press.

The director of operations at the printer had noted that he’d be pleased to take the (approximately) $30,000.00 (his “off-the-cuff” guess) required to print the job via offset lithography, but he wanted to remind me that the digital option was closer to $10,000.00 (again, his initial guess), and the quality of the final print book would be just as good.

A Momentary Discourse on Price

To be fair, this $30,000.00 price for offset printing is very high. It is only one price from one vendor, reflecting his particular equipment (sheetfed offset presses) and his print shop’s pricing structure. I had bid this job out to a number of other printers, some with web-fed offset presses and some with sheetfed offset presses. For shorter-run options, I had also requested prices for digital printing.

In various options addressed over almost a year’s time, the press run for this job ranged from 500 copies to 10,000 copies.

Pricing for offset-printed versions of the same job never came in below $18,000.00 for 1,000 copies. This low price was for a job printed via offset lithography on a full-size heatset web press. Pricing for sheetfed offset lithography was higher. And again, the “off-the-top-of-the-head” pricing from the director of operations noted above was high at $30,000.00. His presses were all sheetfed offset presses. So the overall collection of estimates from all printers did have a surprisingly large range.

(On another note, two of the web-fed offset vendors would not print fewer than 1,000 copies via offset lithography. But assuming the cost for the 1,000-copy range, and factoring in the percentage of the total cost that would be attributable to make-ready, I would assume no less than a $16,000.00 or $17,000.00 approximate price for 500 copies printed via web-fed offset lithography–from most other vendors. And, to reiterate, the greater portion of this amount would be for set-up costs.)

Why Is It So Expensive?

First of all, the issues related to this print book would be equally relevant if the job were a magazine, a booklet, or any other signature work (4, 8, 16, or 32 pages laid out on a press sheet, printed, and then folded and trimmed into a bindable stack of consecutive pages).

In this particular case what had driven the cost up was the “full-color throughout” specification. Each of the four plates (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) would be necessary for all 488 pages plus cover. Even if the book signatures were 16-page forms (with eight pages on either side of the press sheet), there would be more than 30 press runs comprising the 488 pages (actually 30 16-page signatures plus one 8-page signature, with four plates each).

This would involve a huge amount of plate-making and press wash-ups. That’s why the director of operations at the printer I spoke with had floated an initial ballpark estimate of $30,000.00. For a press run of 40,000 copies, this (or even more) might be worth it. (After all, the high price would be spread out over a substantially longer press run, yielding a lower cost per copy.) But for 500 copies, the price was staggering. And it was due to the plate-making and plate-handling expenses.

Options to Reduce the Price

During our phone conversation, the printer’s director of operations and sales manager suggested that we go back to the HP Indigo digital option with 4-color throughout the book. (To initially keep prices low, we had included only 60 pages of color. Many of the pages my client had designed to be black with a highlight color of blue had become black only.) My client liked the 4-color-throughout option, and she now had new funding for her project, which is why the budget for the print book had expanded.

The discussion with the printer’s director of operations and sales manager yielded the following options for me to share with my client:

  1. Printing the entire job via offset lithography with 4-color ink throughout
  2. Printing the entire job digitally on the HP Indigo with 4-color ink throughout
  3. Printing the cover via offset lithography and printing the text digitally

To this we would add an option for a soft-touch laminate on the cover. This would make the print book feel good in the reader’s hands, which is why someone would choose a print version rather than a digital version of this book in the first place.

I did, however, note that my client’s request for 4-color offset printing prices reflected her assumption that digital printing was of a lesser quality. So the printer offered to send me samples of the same job printed digitally on the HP Indigo and also via offset lithography on a traditional press. He believed this would convince my client that no quality would be lost in choosing the digital option.

(To put this in perspective, if the initial guess by the printer’s director of operations holds true, and the job estimate is for $10,000.00, the unit cost would be $20.00. Digital pricing from other vendors have ranged from $19.00 to $34.00 per book for a 500-copy press run. Ironically the highest price came from a popular online vendor. Again, ironically, another printer would charge closer to $26.00 per book for a digital version—and, based on this printer’s specific digital press, I think it would be of lower quality than the Indigo-printed job.)

How About Larger Offset Presses and Automated Plate Hanging?

Some printers do have much larger offset presses. This means that instead of 16-page press signatures, some printers can produce 32-page or larger signatures. This means a 488-page book can be produced with fewer press runs. In addition, newer offset presses have incorporated increased automation into the workflow. This includes automated, closed-loop color control and automated plate hanging. Such improvements have made short-run offset printing more competitive with digital printing.

What We Can Learn from this Case Study

This case study offers a wealth of information:

  1. Consider the press run when deciding on digital printing vs. offset printing. In this case a 500-copy, 488-page book was more appropriate for digital printing due to its short press run, high page count, and extensive 4-color ink coverage.
  2. Choose a printer who actively makes suggestions to give you the best product for the best price. This particular printer acted as a consultant and partner, making suggestions to help my client.
  3. Get samples. Nothing will convince my client that her print book will look just as good produced digitally as seeing a sample job printed both digitally and via offset lithography.
  4. Exploit the benefits of the technology you select. For instance, there will be an oversized, folded insert in the print book. In a digitally produced product, the insert can be placed anywhere (it will need to go between pages 18 and 19 to be ideally placed relative to the text). On an offset press it might not be possible to easily place an insert here. It might not fall between press signatures. More specifically, on an offset press you print 4-page, 8-page, 16-page, or 32-page signatures, but on a digital press you can print and bind in increments of only two pages. This is a benefit of digital printing. It’s wise to take advantage of it.
  5. Not all digital presses are of this high quality, but there are more and more out there. I used to only like the HP Indigo press. Now the Kodak NexPress and some other digital presses are matching or exceeding offset print quality. But to be safe, always request printed samples.
  6. Remember this approach is prudent for all signature work, including magazines, books, or any other multi-page job.
  7. There is a sweet spot (an ideal combination of color, page count, and press run) for economical and efficient digital, web-fed offset, and sheet-fed offset work. Ask your printer what he thinks would be appropriate for your particular job.
  8. New automation of offset presses is worth watching closely. This includes automated color control, automated plate hanging, etc. Such improvements will reduce costs (and probably also printing prices), making offset lithography more competitive with digital printing for shorter press-runs.

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Large Format Printing: A Standee Light Box Case Study

December 19th, 2016

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My fiancee and I received a request from our California broker yesterday to install a lightbox standee in a local movie theater. The movie the standee promoted was Fifty Shades Darker, the next film in the Fifty Shades of Grey series.

To give you an idea of what a lightbox standee is, picture a cardboard rectangular box, taller than a soda vending machine as well as a bit wider. It is black, with a transparent graphic panel on the front and a light source within. The goal is to backlight the graphic image. As with a computer monitor, this backlighting gives the graphic image incredibly vivid colors. In addition, the whole box stands out from among the surrounding movie standees because it has a light source and is therefore brighter than the other standees, even the larger ones (called “theatrical standees”).

To add drama to the aforementioned description, the image on the lightbox is of Christian Grey holding a lace carnival mask over Anastasia Steele’s face and eyes. Everything else on the graphic panel is typography, promoting the film and providing marketing and film-opening information.

On a Deeper Level

It seems simple enough: an especially large format print poster, similar to the smaller “one-sheets” (posters with one image on the front and a reverse of the image on the back of the poster to intensify the colors when the poster is illuminated in a lightbox).

As my fiancee and I assembled the large format print lightbox standee, I thought about the benefits of such a standee for marketing purposes, about how such a structure fits into the “functional printing” category of commercial printing, and about exactly how the product was produced.

From a Marketing Perspective

I mentioned earlier just how dramatic a backlit standee can be. Many standees actually have their own light source, in my experience, but often these are just rows of LEDs, which highlight the three-dimensional image but don’t dramatically illuminate it. These are decorative, whereas a lightbox turns an image from “reflective” art into “transmissive art.”

To explain these two terms, think of a photographic slide, which in graphic arts terminology is called a transparency. Light from behind creates the image, much as an image is created on your cellphone, desktop computer or tablet screen, or your television. Since these images are created by transmitted light, the colors are brighter and the color gamut (number of reproducible colors) is larger than that of a printed poster. In contrast, a poster can only be seen when illuminated by reflected light coming from the front of the poster. For instance, in the movie theater lobby, a large format print banner is visible because of the ambient light.

From a marketing perspective, this makes for highly dramatic backlit images on lightboxes. When paired with a good design, this kind of display option enhances the marketing effect. In the case of Fifty Shades Darker, the simplicity of the graphic image, along with the focus on Anastasia’s face, benefits from the backlighting. The light makes her face “glow.” On a purely functional level, this is because there is only a thin film of bright, transparent ink (presumably inkjet ink) on the clear acetate base, in the area of her face, so the five banks of fluorescent light inside the cardboard lightbox structure come through this portion of the graphic in full intensity, drawing the viewer’s eyes magnetically to Anastasia’s face.

So from a marketing perspective, this clearly works. It will distract passersby from all of the other standees, presumably selling tickets (or at least sparking interest in the movie).

From a Functional Printing Perspective

“Functional printing” is all about physical products that include ink or toner on a substrate. Your car dashboard with its knobs and buttons is functional printing. So are elevator panels and computer keyboards. And so is an inkjet printed circuit board imaged with inks that can transmit an electric charge.

Functional printing involves the physical properties of an object, in this case a promotional lightbox. The box is an object in space. When you assemble one, you first build the back, walls, top, and bottom to create a “trough” that is larger than a bathtub made out of cardboard. The paper walls fold back over themselves to strengthen the paper board, and everything is held together with die cut tabs inserted in die cut slots (all prepared on a special die cutting press).

A separate unit, which is a scored and die cut piece of white cardboard, has holes for wires, which come out of 12” fluorescent tubes that are attached to the backing board with die cut cardboard clamps. When the fluorescent lights have been attached to the board, the white cardboard light panel is lowered into the exterior “trough” to which it is then attached with screws. At this point, the only commercial printing is the flexographic black ink laid down over all of the exterior panels of the lightbox, plus the white printed on the front of the light panel. The black draws the viewer’s attention away from the exterior of the lightbox, and the white background of the light panel enhances the reflected fluorescent light within the box (i.e., behind the transparent graphic panel covering the front of the box).

The transparent graphic panel is then screwed onto the exterior perimeter of the lightbox (like a swimming pool cover is stretched over a pool at the end of the season).

What made this particular lightbox standee interesting is that instead of printing white ink on the back of the printed graphic panel (of Christian an Anastasia), the standee creator had included a white plexiglass panel to position between the light and the graphic panel in order to diffuse the light.

(If you look at the back of a backlit display image in a cosmetics counter lightbox in a department store, you’ll see that the artwork of the model is printed on plexiglass or other thick plastic, and there is an opaque white film over the side of the image facing the light source. This diffuses the light so it will be of even brightness over the entirety of the graphic image. Without such a barrier, you would see brighter light–or brighter imagery–in those areas of the graphic panel immediately covering one of the illumination lamps. Diffusing the light with a backing of white ink behind the graphic image avoids that problem.)

In the case of the lightbox standee, the transparency (the large graphic image of Christian and Anastasia) had been printed on a thin sheet of plastic. My fiancee and I had to sandwich the additional sheet of thick, frosted white plastic between the cardboard lightbox frame we had just assembled and the thin, transparent graphic panel. We did this, and then we screwed the graphic onto the lightbox assembly with nuts and bolts. (In fact, due to the weight of the graphic panel and the plastic diffusion sheet, we had to first put several screws in strategic places around the perimeter of the lightbox to suspend the heavy plastic image evenly, and then fill in the remaining screws. It was not easy.)

However, once we had folded the exterior flexographic printed panels over the backing paper and plugged the lights into the wall socket, the overall effect was profound.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

I think the take-away from this case study is threefold:

  1. Commercial printing extends far beyond flat brochures, annual reports, and posters. In many cases printed press sheets are converted into three dimensional objects. These include product packaging and movie standees. In these instances, if you look closely, you can see the finishing operations of scoring, folding, pattern gluing, and die cutting. When you’re designing such a promotional piece as a movie standee, you have to think in terms of creating a physical object. You also have to think about the weight of the product (how the graphic panels will hang on the lightbox, for instance, and whether they will be too heavy to be supported by the cardboard structure).
  2. You also have to think about printing technologies that fit your purpose. In this particular case, the outside walls of the cardboard structure would have been crushed by the pressure of offset press rollers, so the printer had to use a flexographic press. For the transparent graphic panel, presumably the plastic sheet would not have gone through an offset press without shifting, so my assumption is that the printer had used large format print inkjet technology to produce the transparent graphic panel.
  3. In spite of the limitations inherent in creating a physical product, the overall effect has to be stunning. In the case of this lightbox movie standee, the designer and printer used two printing technologies, a lot of die cut cardboard, and lighting materials from the hardware store to promote a fantasy and create an image that captivated the viewer.

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