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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 Primer on Corrugated Boxes

December 8th, 2016

Posted in Box Printing | Comments »

A client of mine is printing a 6” x 9” perfect-bound textbook with a press run of 3,000. But this article isn’t about her print book. It’s about the cartons in which her books will ship.

It’s easy to forget that the finest custom printing job (whether books, brochures, or whatever) is useless until you get it into the hands of your clients—in pristine condition. Thus, the cardboard box that contains your job and protects it in transit is an especially important component of the entire job.

My Client’s Boxes

Most boxes are a standard size. Whatever that standard size may be (there are a lot of options), it is usually still larger than my client’s boxes need to be. She needs each carton to contain 20 of the 6” x 9” textbooks, and she would like to have descriptive information (the title of the print books, a tagline, an address, and the number of books the cartons contain) printed right on the box—not on a label.

Last year there wasn’t time for the box printing, so she had to make do with self-stick litho labels. They looked ok, but they were not as attractive as information imprinted directly on the cartons.

Why is this important? Because the first thing my client’s clients will see will be the cartons, not the print books. And as a consultant once told me when I was an art director, “Everything that a company sends out is an advertisement for the company.” Back then it was a novel concept. Now it is a concept I live by. And my client lives by it, too. So the guiding rule is that the boxes are advertisements for my client’s company, and they have to look good.

So far, so good. But when the deadline arrived, my client still needed a number of supervisor approvals, and so the art file for the box imprint started to get a little late. I was concerned. Here’s why:

Specialized Work

Cardboard boxes need to be printed and then converted. They can be screen printed. They can be printed via flexography (for simpler art), using rubber printing plates and water-based ink. Or they can have offset litho-printed liners glued to the fluted, interior ribs of the corrugated board. The last option is the most expensive (and it provides the highest quality of printing).

After the flat corrugated board has been printed, it has to be diecut, folded, and glued. At this point the carton printing run exists as flat carton blanks that are strapped together and shipped. Once delivered, the flat cartons can be opened and folded into final boxes by the user. (Imagine the boxes you buy and then assemble when you move to a new house.)

The problem is that very few companies do this kind of work. In most cases, printers need to subcontract box printing and conversion. It’s harder to control subcontracted work, and it often takes longer than expected. In many cases the carton subcontractor has a backlog of jobs from many other custom printing suppliers.

Tight Schedules

In my client’s case, what this means is that printing the entire 6” x 9” textbook run of 3,000 copies will take three weeks, but within this time frame the carton printing and converting will take a full week, or one third of the entire production schedule.

Firm Deadlines

My client needed approvals, so the box art went to the subcontractor a little late. In addition, my client wanted to see a proof. Granted, this is a reasonable request. I would always encourage a client to see a proof. However, a hard-copy proof would have taken extra days for the box converter to ship to my client and for her to return via FedEx. So we opted for a PDF virtual proof.

The proof came via email, but it had to be reviewed and approved. Due to the tight schedule, my client had about forty minutes to get all office-staff approvals she needed. Fortunately she was able to do this. And at the exact close of business that day, I gave the approval to the customer service rep at the printer who was subcontracting the box production. That was too close for comfort.

What would have happened if we hadn’t made the schedule? If the box proof had gone back to the corrugated box manufacturer the next morning, my client might have lost her press slot to another client who had met the quick proof turn-around deadline. My client’s schedule might have been lengthened by a day, two days, maybe more. There’s no way to know. Since many box printing clients skip the proof entirely, then requesting a proof and holding it is a risk.

The Future of Corrugated Boxes

Things are changing in the field. If you read the press about the recent drupa printing trade show in Germany, you’ll see that packaging is a growth industry, and digital printing and converting are improving in leaps and bounds. Even now some vendors are able to inkjet your art right on the box. (The pressure of the offset printing rollers would crush corrugated stock, which is why screen printing and flexography are usually the ways boxes are decorated.) After the inkjet printing step, digital converting can use lasers to crease and cut the cardboard blanks instead of relying on metal dies (rules that take days to manually construct for the die cutting).

What We Can Learn from this Case Study

  1. Box manufacturing takes a long time and requires highly specialized skill. It involves subcontractors that usually require tight proof deadlines. This is not a buyer’s market. So submit your box art early and turn the proofs around immediately.
  2. Read the trade journals and keep abreast of developments in digital printing of corrugated boxes and digital box conversion. It will make your life much easier.
  3. Find out early from your commercial printing vendor whether your corrugated box will require custom work. Even if the price is low, the schedule might be daunting.
  4. Consider labels as an alternative. Your printer can buy standard boxes, and print and apply the labels in his own plant, avoiding any custom work by subcontractors. This may not look as nice, but in a pinch it’s often a good alternative.

Posted in Box Printing | Comments »

Book Printing: Always Respect Book Print Schedules

December 2nd, 2016

Posted in Book Printing | Comments »

I am brokering the custom printing for a 272-page, 6” x 9” perfect-bound textbook, printed on 70# opaque text paper with a 12pt UV coated cover. The press run for the print book is 3,000 copies.

Initially, I negotiated a three-week schedule with the printer and my client. The cover of the book would be ready on a Friday, and the text would be ready early the following Monday morning. Three weeks from the initial Friday start date, my client would receive her books.

Once the job had been finalized and awarded to this particular book printer (who was actually among the higher bids, and was chosen primarily on a past record of quality and timely delivery), there was a delay. Both the cover and the text were uploaded to the printer’s website on Monday at close of business. (So the clock really started on Tuesday morning.)

The first thing I did after confirming that the book printer had received all files was to confirm that the slight delay would not jeopardize the three-week printing and delivery schedule. Since this particular printer had in fact successfully met a two-week schedule in prior years, our customer service rep was not worried. However, it was important to have confirmed this.

The printer’s rep delivered text and cover proofs about 48 hours after my client had uploaded the print book art files. This was a quick turn-around. Normally, my client would have shipped the proof back to the printer the following day (a Thursday) for receipt on Friday, but she needed the approval of a supervisor who was away and who would return the next day. My client wanted to return the proofs on Friday for a Monday (8:00 a.m.) delivery. She asked me if this would compromise the schedule.

I checked with the printer’s customer service representative and was told that plating of the files was scheduled for Monday afternoon, so an early Monday receipt of the marked-up proofs along with resubmitted PDF pages (three corrected pages, it turns out) would leave time for corrections, revised PDF proofs, and plating.

What Does All of This Mean?

As mundane as all of this talk of schedules may seem, it illustrates the tight coordination of time and processes within a book printer’s plant. Here are some thoughts:

  1. First of all, your job is not the only one your printer is producing. Therefore, it is extremely important to discuss any changes to the schedule with your customer service rep as soon as possible. If the schedule is tight (for example, prior years’ two-week press schedules for my client’s book had no room for an extra day for proofing), this is doubly important. After all, your book and other clients’ books must all go through the manufacturing process and must all fit in the time allotted based on available equipment and labor.
  2. That said, there is usually a little wiggle room built in. The book printer’s schedule for my client’s job had plating scheduled for a week after submission of final art files. Since my client didn’t need all of this prep time, her late submission of files by a day and her late return of the proof by a day (to allow for her supervisor’s oversight) didn’t break the schedule. In some cases it’s possible to make up time.
  3. Some of the more tightly scheduled vendors might not have been able to hold this schedule. Many of my client’s other estimates were lower, and in some cases these vendors would have had more jobs coming through the pipeline. Even a day’s delay in these cases might have broken the schedule.
  4. If you have a long-standing relationship with a book printer, you are more likely to be able to overcome a delay. That’s not a guarantee, but your vendor wants you to come back with more jobs. So he will usually do whatever is humanly possible to accommodate your scheduling needs.
  5. If things get tight, your printer may be able to send you some advance copies, or a partial shipment. This comes with limits, however. Keep in mind that in addition to vying with other clients for time on press and post-press equipment, you are engaging in multiple complex processes (more so for books than for brochures and other small projects). For example, printing the book has to be done all at once, as does binding and packing the books. You can’t economically produce a portion of the press run and then go back to complete it later.
  6. Your book printer assumes that your final files are accurate. My client was a little late in submitting her files, but she only had three corrected pages (out of 272) that needed to be replaced in the printer’s imposed, press-ready files.
  7. When all else fails and your schedule has been compromised, you may be able to make up time by forgoing hard-copy proofs. In my client’s case, she received the proofs 48 hours after submission of files. The book printer delivered her the hard-copy proofs, and then she returned them via either FedEx or UPS. This added a day. If the schedule had been compromised, there would have been the option of handling all proofing virtually through an online server. This may not have been as precise as a hard-copy proof, but virtual proofing does eliminate any proof-shipping delay since the proofs are transmitted online instantly. In your own print buying work, you can always request a hard-copy proof for color work (like the cover) and then rely on virtual proofing for less critical pages.

Posted in Book Printing | Comments »

Book Printing: A Book Print-Buying Case Study

November 23rd, 2016

Posted in Book Printing | Comments »

I’m brokering a print job at the moment for a print buyer who used to be my assistant, long ago. Ironically, I used to design, produce, and buy the printing for this particular print book. What goes around, comes around.

The Print Book Specifications

The product in question is a 272-page perfect-bound textbook, 3000 copies, 6” x 9” format, produced on 70# opaque white uncoated stock with a 12pt cover. Since the front and back covers will print in four-color process ink plus one PMS, and the interior covers (front and back) will print in 4CP ink as well, the cover stock will be a coated-two-side (C2S) sheet. The text prints black only, so the 70# opaque stock will be adequate, if not generous. That is, the 272-page print book will have bulk due to the 70# text sheet (rather than a 60# text sheet, which also would have worked). Since the interior will be on a heavier text paper, it makes sense to print the covers on 12pt (instead of 10pt) stock.

My client initially gave me a page count of 270 pages for the text. This is not divisible by 4, 8, or 16, so the printer needs to add pages to complete the press signature. That makes a complete 272 pages (seventeen 16-page signatures), which is what the five printers to whom I bid out the job used in their print estimates.

I also added to my client’s specifications that three to five divider pages within the text bleed on all sides. In some cases, based on the size of the book (in this case 6” x 9”), the size of the press signature (in this case 16 pages), and the size of the printer’s press, there might not be enough room for the laid-out book pages, the printer’s marks, and the bleeds on a press sheet. To remedy this, a printer might move the book to another, larger press, and this might drive up the price. So I wanted the printers to know about the bleeds before estimating the job.

On the exterior covers, my client had requested a UV coating. Some printers do not have this capability. Instead they have chosen in-line aqueous coating equipment. Others would prefer to laminate the covers. In all cases, I just asked the book printers to be specific if they needed to deviate from the specs.

This was also true about substitutions for the text paper. My client had specified 70# Finch Opaque (or comparable). The printers had different “house” sheets (which would cost less, having been purchased in bulk for numerous clients). So what I did was ask the printers to be specific in their estimates, and I would let my client decide. (One printer bid on Finch, one selected Accent Opaque, and one chose Husky.)

Since I chose five printers located anywhere from the Midwest to the Eastern states, I knew that freight would be a consideration, so I provided the specific ZIP Code for the delivery.

How the Printers Responded

The first thing I noticed was that all printers responded immediately, acknowledging receipt of the specs. Many years ago, when I had my client’s job and was producing this book myself, it was not unusual for book printers to respond within 24 hours rather than immediately. Times have changed. Businesses are lean and hungry.

All bids but one arrived within 24 hours from my submission of specs. One printer’s rep was on vacation but she recovered immediately and actually submitted the low bid.

What I saw immediately was that three of the five bids clustered around an average price of about $13,500 plus freight. All of these were to be produced via sheetfed offset lithography. One bid was about $3,000 lower, but it was to be produced via web-fed offset lithography. (When I shared the prices with my client, I noted that web-fed offset runs the risk of web growth—text pages absorb moisture from the air and grow out beyond the trimmed covers. To pay less, she would have to understand this risk.)

When the final bid came in (from the printer’s rep who had been on vacation), it was about half the high bid. Why (particularly since she didn’t realize it was so low)? Personally, I think it is because the printer is located in a region of the country where prices (and salaries) are particularly low. Fortunately, when I saw the freight charge, I was pleased. It was higher than the rest of the bids from the other printers, but the total cost of printing and delivery was still lower than everybody else’s price.

To complicate matters, my client was on a tight schedule, and paper is not always immediately accessible (it has to be bought from the paper mill under acceptable terms and transported to the printer to be on hand for the press date). Therefore, the web-fed printer’s estimate was only good for a day (for this book printer to meet my client’s tight schedule, my client would need to make a commitment by the next morning; otherwise the paper would not arrive in time).

What We Can Learn From This Case Study

  1. Actually, as a print broker, I’m just like a print buyer (in the eyes of a printer, that is). I have access to information and pricing from multiple vendors, and yet many individual printers have far more knowledge of their own capabilities and pricing and less information about other vendors’ capabilities and costs. So if you are a print buyer, make it your business to know your printers’ specific equipment. Understand what equipment and printing technologies are most appropriate for your particular jobs, and then find a handful of printers that match your needs. Then develop partnerships (not adversarial relationships) with them.
  2. Consider printers located outside your geographical area. But keep in mind that if something goes wrong and you can’t resolve it over the phone, you may want to meet with your printer on-site at his plant. Keep in mind also that freight costs will be higher the farther away your printer is, so you’ll have to compare total costs (manufacturing and freight) to determine whether it’s worth it to go outside your immediate area.
  3. Allowing your printer to substitute paper may yield substantial savings. But make sure you know what paper your printer has included in the bid, and ask for printed samples to be safe.
  4. It’s easy to forget packing and shipping costs. If you need specific packaging (my client needs 20 books per carton), make it known and ask for the cost. To get a freight cost, provide a ZIP Code, a breakdown of all delivery locations, and whether the delivery locations have a loading dock (or are inside office deliveries). Breaking down a skid of books and then moving the cartons up the office elevators to another floor will cost more than a loading dock delivery. Don’t be caught off guard. Specify this early and discuss it with your printers.
  5. Consider the schedule. If you need the book immediately, you may have fewer options, since paper must be found, secured at favorable terms, and shipped before your printer starts the presswork. It’s better to contact your printers early and let them know a job is coming up, even if you don’t yet know exactly when it will be ready.

Posted in Book Printing | Comments »

Custom Printing: Expanded Ink Sets for Offset Printing

November 14th, 2016

Posted in Inks | Comments Off

As Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr once said, “The more things change the more they stay the same.”

In the case of custom printing this definitely holds true. I was amused to see (when I was reading “Key Themes at drupa 2016 Bring Industry 4.0 to the Forefront” by Cary Sherburne, 6/27/16, on that “fixed color palette printing” was one of the major trends in commercial printing.

The reason I found it amusing was that I had seen essentially the same (or perhaps similar) technology when I was an art director in the 1990s. Then I thought the concept was intriguing; now I’m pleased to see its return.

The Science Behind Color on Press

When you produce a job on an offset press you have a few options for adding color:

  1. You can add no additional color. That is, you can print the job in black ink only, or with additional screens of black (i.e., gray).
  2. You can print the job using the four process color inks (i.e., cyan, magenta, yellow, and black). By overlaying halftone screens of the four transparent process color inks, you can simulate a large range of hues.
  3. If you cannot quite match your chosen color with a process color build, you can add one or more PMS inks. These are special colors mixed by ink companies or in-house ink specialists. You print a PMS color using one of the inking units on press rather than simulate the color by overlapping transparent screens of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink.

The problem is that you just can’t simulate all of the possible colors within the PMS color gamut using only cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink. If your corporate logo color (for instance) has to be an exact match, you often need to add a PMS color to your CMYK (process color) ink set to make the match. (You can also use an additional “touch plate” of a PMS match color–say a deep blue–to enhance an offset litho reproduction of a fine art piece, or an intensely colored fashion, food, or automotive poster.)

The reason adding additional colors is problematic is that you need a larger press with more inking units (perhaps five or eight units rather than four). And this will raise the commercial printing price of your job.

From the point of view of the printer, shifting a press ink configuration from four colors to 4CP plus additional PMS colors can be time and labor intensive as well, because he will need to wash up the ink units to change the ink configuration. This will take time, so he will lose money (or need to raise his price).

The Idea Behind “Fixed Color Palette Printing”

To remedy these problems, ink companies have been working on expanded color sets—for a long time.

Back in the 1990s when I was an art director, one company I worked with added orange and green to the four process colors and called the result “Hexachrome” (apparently this became a Pantone-trademarked process). Another company had a version of the process they called “high-fidelity color.” Back then, the goal was to create the widest possible color gamut and match the most PMS colors. Saving money on wash-ups seemed to be less of an issue.

Now, according to “Key Themes at drupa 2016 Bring Industry 4.0 to the Forefront” by Cary Sherburne, the technology is back, known as “fixed color palette printing” or “extended gamut printing.” To quote from Sherbourne’s article describing the fixed-color offerings shown at drupa, “Companies including X-Rite Pantone, Esko, Asahi Photoproducts, Kodak, Heidelberg and more shared thoughts and solutions about this process printing technique using up to seven colors (CMYK plus orange, violet and green or blue) that enables more than 90% of Pantone colors to be achieved.”

What This Means: The Implications for Customers and Printers

Here are some thoughts:

  1. First of all, it’s interesting to note that between my experience of Hexachrome or Hi-Fidelity Color in the ’90s and the present moment, we have had a huge improvement in digital custom printing. For many years I have seen inkjet presses with “extended color sets.” That is, in order to expand the number of colors a large-format inkjet press can produce, manufacturers have added light versions of cyan and magenta; different black inks; orange and green; or red, green, and blue inks to the usual cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. In other words, by adding these colors (and creating a seven- or eight-color ink set), inkjet press manufacturers have dramatically enhanced color reproduction capabilities in large-format inkjet presses.
  2. The trend toward bringing this color management technique back to offset lithography and flexography tells me that the more traditional press manufacturers are trying to stay relevant by addressing the customer’s need for more accurate color.
  3. Moreover, a printer running presses with a fixed color palette can avoid extra wash ups and also gang together a number of jobs on press. In the past, with some jobs printing in process colors and other jobs printing in black plus one or more PMS colors, it was usually not possible to lay out a number of different customers’ jobs on the same press sheet. With fixed color palette printing, as long as all customers’ jobs are on the same paper stock (which is conceivable: say a 70# white gloss sheet), the only major determinants as to whether the jobs could be ganged up would be the dimensions of the jobs and the available room on the press sheet.
  4. Custom printing multiple jobs simultaneously and avoiding wash-ups by always using the same inksets will save the printers money and time. Quicker make-readies and ganged jobs will reduce the use of expensive materials, speed up the printing process, and therefore make offset printing more competitive with digital printing for shorter press runs. And for longer print jobs with no personalization, there will be a market demand for which offset lithography and flexography will still be the most cost-effective solutions.

Posted in Inks | Comments Off

Commercial Printing: Two Old-School Printing Options

November 7th, 2016

Posted in T-Shirts | Comments Off

I had two “Aha!” moments recently about the commercial printing field, and I’d like to share them with you because they reflect the current values of popular culture and the commercial media.

An Actual, Physical, Post-Office-Ready Letter

As a printing broker I’m always looking for new clients, usually by referral because it just works better that way. I was given two names by a former colleague, and after researching their companies, I drafted a letter to send to each describing the services I could offer them.

But when I was ready to send the emails, I couldn’t do it. Their websites had no email contact information. There were just phone numbers. One led to an answering machine, and the other led to a receptionist who didn’t have the potential print buyer’s email address.

I was stumped. What to do next? I considered these two potential clients to be warm leads, since my former colleague had spoken well of both and had said they would be good people for me to know.

Then a lightbulb went off over my head. Send a letter. Of course. A physical, hand-signed print letter. I had the address for both firms. Why not?

What We Can Learn From This “Aha!” Moment

First of all, most people get well over 100 emails a day. I personally do whatever I can to glance at and then delete as many of mine as I can. They all look alike. They all have a subject line that looks the same. I wouldn’t blame my two potential clients for avoiding contact via email.

But a letter is personal, physical, something to hold in your hands.

Those of you who get upwards of 100 emails a day probably do not also get 100 pieces of physical mail in the mailbox. If you’re like me, you at least look briefly at each of the pieces of physical mail that arrive. The more personal they look, the more attention they get. A letter is hand-signed. It’s printed on paper with a pleasing texture and color. It has a presence. It has a duration (it’s permanent, even if it gets wet or torn) unlike the evanescent email.

Think of these things when you need to communicate with someone, even if it is a marketing effort that will reach hundreds or thousands of people:

  1. If you choose a memorable medium for the communication, either letters or print postcards, your message will stand out more than one of the hundreds of emails that reach your potential client’s in-box each day. It will have more impact because it will have less competition.
  2. Making a letter seem more personal involves the paper choice (color and texture). It also involves the weight of the paper (thicker paper gives a message an air or importance, so consider a 70# text stock or thicker, perhaps with a texture or “tooth”).
  3. You can get precanceled stamps through your Post Office. Direct marketers have found that people are more likely to open mail that has a stamp instead of a permit indicia or postage meter mark. It seems more personal. So ask about precanceled stamps.
  4. Signing a marketing letter means there’s a real person behind the machine. It makes the letter more personal, even if you offset print (or digitally print) the signature (I realize this is cheating). You might also consider using more casual, readable, and even “friendly” typefaces for your marketing design.
  5. Finally, consider print postcards as an alternative to letters. The postcard has one advantage over a letter. The recipient doesn’t have to open it. The message is immediately visible.

So if you can’t reach someone through email, and the phone rolls over into voice mail, consider the printed, hand-signed letter or postcard as a viable and perhaps even more personal, direct, and effective option.

Direct-to-T-Shirt Photo Printing

When I first read the term “direct-to-garment” printing in a commercial printing journal, I envisioned inkjet and dye sublimation printing on the clothing of jet-setters, literati, and models. I imagined high-end fashion venues and catwalks.

So when my fiancee and I were strolling on the boardwalk at the beach, I was surprised to see a small t-shirt printing store offering to print photos “directly from your iPhone” onto their t-shirts.

Now this really is a measure of the current zeitgeist (the mood or tone of this particular period in history). It is the marriage of the “selfie” and the t-shirt. Moreover, it reflects the glorification of the amateur photographer. These aren’t professionally shot images of romantic beaches. They are your own photos on your own t-shirts, photos shot by you (maybe even photos of you).

What We Can Learn From This “Aha!” Moment

In sales, they say that to a prospective client nothing is more pleasing to hear than the sound of his or her own name. This is probably true. In this case, we can assume that to a lot of people no image is more pleasing than their own. The coining of the term “selfie,” as well as the proliferation of “selfie sticks” that allow you to hold the camera far enough away from your face to take your own photo, will attest to this.

So if you’re a marketer, keep this in mind. Consider also that people like to wear t-shirts that make a statement. For those who don’t wear suits to work, the t-shirt has become the new “power tie,” an opportunity to make a personal and even political statement about one’s likes, dislikes, values, aspirations, etc.

If you add to this the recent advances in direct-to-garment (DTG) printing, you can basically take the world’s favorite canvas (the t-shirt), use the world’s easiest to master printing press (the inkjet printer), add the world’s favorite image (one’s own face), and make a truly personal statement.

Posted in T-Shirts | Comments Off

Commercial Printing: Three Intriguing Printed Samples

October 29th, 2016

Posted in Packaging | 5 Comments »

My fiancee always has her eye out for exceptional printed samples because I’m always talking about custom printing. She has become a printing aficionado, and I always get a steady stream of new ideas from her.

We were at the beach recently, and she gave me three commercial printing samples that caught my eye. Here’s what she gave me, as well as my assessment of either why they work particularly well or what we can learn from them:

The Cosmopolitan Cover Tip-On

To begin with, a tip-on is a separate printed sheet glued to the front or back of a press signature. In many cases I have seen fugitive glue used in this process to allow for the easy removal of the attachment. Fugitive glue is like rubber cement. You can easily peel off a printed sheet (or even an object like a plastic card) that has been fugitive glued to another printed sheet.

This particular issue of Cosmopolitan magazine included a fake cover (or additional cover), with the logotype of the magazine (often referred to as its “flag”) printed at the top of a cover-weight gloss press sheet (above a perfume ad mocked up to look like an actual magazine cover). It had the word “Advertisement” printed at the top, but to me it looked like a real cover (complete with a knock-out box for the inkjetted address, carrier route sorting information, and the Intelligent Mail barcode).

Now I have seen many similar tip-ons added to the front cover of magazines, but for the most part they have been produced on uncoated vellum bristol paper (postcard stock). They have looked like cover wraps, and for the most part they have imparted information (usually that it was time to renew my subscription) adorned with the publication branding and some light marketing copy.

What made the Cosmopolitan tip-on so intriguing was that I was certain—until my fiancee peeled it off the actual magazine cover—that this was in fact the true cover. The logotype made it believable. It was sexy. Now that’s powerful marketing.

The Organic Apple Chip Bag

It takes some serious marketing mojo to get away with charging more than $5.00 for a small bag of chips. And this particular vendor succeeded masterfully.

The next piece, which would be considered “flexible packaging,” is printed in solid black heavy coverage ink. With a loupe I can see black halftone dots under the solid black ink coverage. I learned this technique when I was an art director. Black ink by itself can look washed out. Since I can see some imperfections in the ink when viewed through my loupe (it looks a little uneven and watery in places), my guess would be that the job had been printed with flexographic equipment. This is often used for flexible packaging.

To minimize the slightly washed out look of the ink, the designer had specified black ink over a black halftone screen (as an alternative, he or she could have also opted for a “rich black” ink, a composite of black ink and other process colors). This works beautifully. It makes the entire bag seem lush and indulgent. It also makes the 4-color apple and reversed, hand-lettered type (actually just a simulation of hand lettering) jump right off the page.

The design is cute (the logo is made of sliced apple chips placed to make letters), and the simulated hand lettering gives the product a relaxed, casual feel. The organic specifications (gluten-free, fat free, non-GMO, etc.) provide a healthful and sustainable aura, targeted at customers in the upper financial echelons who want to be healthy and environmentally sensitive. If I had the cash, I’d pay this much for a product of this caliber.

Needless to say, since you can’t test the chips before you buy them, all of this mojo has to be conveyed through the lush ink coverage, the contrast between the images and the background, the playful typefaces, and “crunchy granola” marketing copy. This is a success.

The Sidewalk Chalk Box

The third sample is really less of a marketing success and more of an educational tool, providing in a small format all you need in order to grasp the concepts of die cutting, scoring, and folding (as well as laminating a 4-color printed cover sheet to fluted cardboard stock).

What appeals to me about this simple package (known as “folding carton” work on “corrugated board”) is its educational value. If you disassemble the carton and lay it completely flat with the printed side down, you can see the fluting of the cardboard, all the scores for folding the flat box into a three-dimensional finished piece, all the die cut tabs plus the die cut window for the front of the box, plus the one tab that has been spot glued to allow for joining the four sides of the box (exclusive of the top and bottom) into a cardboard cube.

On the flip side, you have a sheet of enamel litho paper, printed in four colors and laminated to the corrugated board.

When you wrap it all up and stick the tabs where they should go, you have a three-dimensional product. It is no longer a flat, printed sheet. It is an object you can hold in your hands, a cube, even before the manufacturer puts the toy in the box.

What makes this interesting to me, beyond the education it provides in how boxes are constructed, is that in creating every box a designer must take into consideration the physical properties of the finished packaging as well as its design (how at appears) and its marketing message (both the content of the copy and the emotional effect of the graphic design).

But once it’s in the store on the shelf with innumerable other items, all of this goes out the window. Then it’s just you and the box. Will you buy it, or won’t you?

Posted in Packaging | 5 Comments »

Custom Printing: The Web, a Great Way to Learn About Printing

October 24th, 2016

Posted in Printing | 4 Comments »

I was brought up on paper. I like print books and paper invoices. There’s something permanent and tangible about ink or toner on paper. Ironically enough, however, I have found the Internet to be the best place to learn about the new commercial printing technologies.

For instance, while reading about the most recent drupa printing technology exhibition in Germany, I learned about a lot of new digital equipment, but I found myself unable to fully grasp some of the physical processes described only in words. So I went to YouTube for help.

Highcon Digital Finishing

The first technology I researched through videos rather than written descriptions and fact sheets was the new cutting and creasing equipment produced by Highcon: the Euclid line.

I had been so used to the traditional method of cutting and creasing—the creation and use of metal dies and rubber components attached to flat wood sheets—that I could not quite wrap my brain around how to do this digitally without physical, metal dies.

My trip to YouTube led me to videos of the Highcon Euclid. I could see the equipment jetting polymer ridges onto the press drums such that they would score the paper substrate as it traveled through the machine. Seeing this happen made the process immediately understandable.

Then I got to see how lasers could cut the paper substrate, providing finished cardboard box blanks that could then be assembled. The video showed actual burn patterns of lasers quickly darting around the moving paper substrate as it progressed through the equipment. Who could grasp this process as fully from a written description as from a few seconds of video? Clearly if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video is priceless.

Offset Printing on Bottles

I had been pretty clear that offset commercial printing was not an option for decorating plastic hair product bottles. My understanding of the process was that the heavy pressure of offset printing rollers would crush almost anything other than paper and packaging board. In fact, my understanding was that flexography or custom screen printing were the technologies of choice for any crushable substrate.

So when I read an article mentioning offset bottle printing, I looked to the Internet for video footage of offset printing being done on plastic hair product bottles. It was just like being a fly in the pressroom, witnessing from multiple vantage points exactly how the press blankets could come into contact with the bottles without crushing them.

Only a few seconds of video made the biggest impression on me, as I could see the chain operated conveyor bringing hundreds or thousands of bottles, one by one, to the rotating blanket cylinder of an offset lithographic press. I could see the exact point of contact as the rotating press cylinder deposited the inked graphics (and even the small descriptive type) onto the rotating plastic bottle. What could have been a mess was actually a never-ending line of bottles adorned with small, crisp type and graphics.

And again, I could not have envisioned this quite as well by reading a paragraph of text as by seeing even a few seconds of the video showing the operating press.

What We Can Learn from This Experience

Both of these experiences have taught me a few things about human psychology, the virtues of video as a learning tool, and the way print and digital media can actually complement one another. Here are some thoughts on the matter:

  1. I think people are creatures of habit. They see what they are used to seeing or expect to see, and they often can’t quite envision a new way of doing things. In my case, I was so used to the idea of hammering thin metal rules into wood to create both scoring (or creasing) dies and cutting dies that I couldn’t quite picture a machine that could use digital information to jet a fluid that could harden into a creasing rule—without the use of a metal die. In this case, a video made all the difference. It gave me the proverbial “aha!” moment of intuitively grasping the process.
  2. In understanding a physical process, such as commercial printing or finishing, even an amateur video is helpful. High-end video production values like professional actors, voice-overs, or music would have been unnecessary.
  3. Since I now understand the core manufacturing processes, if I want to expand my knowledge further, then a written document explaining the processes and reviewing the equipment specifications would be extremely helpful. In this case, print media and video would be complementary educational tools, each with its own strengths.
  4. My next insight pertains more to commercial printing than to digital media. I could see how inventive pressman can be. In producing the plastic bottles, the offset press actually printed a vertically oriented image, unlike that of any other press I have seen. The never-ending progression of plastic bottles dropped vertically to a position in front of the rotating blanket, which spun the bottles around at the precise speed to deposit the ink. (In most cases this would have been a horizontal process, and the rollers would have crushed the substrate.) The ingenuity behind this workflow is astounding.
  5. My fifth comment also pertains more to digital custom printing and finishing. Watching the lasers jet around the substrate cutting out blanks of cartons, and seeing the nozzle jetting a polymer material that would harden into creasing ridges on the rotating drums, made it clear to me that digital finishing—and not just digital printing—is coming into its own. Not that long ago, digital printing was more akin to laser copying. Then it improved, and the images were colorful and crisp, but you had to move the press sheets to traditional analog finishing equipment to complete the job. Now the manufacturers are getting serious and addressing all components of the manufacturing process, from laying down ink or toner on paper to cutting, creasing, and folding a job digitally.

Posted in Printing | 4 Comments »

Custom Printing: New Orders For Nanography at drupa

October 17th, 2016

Posted in Digital Printing | 2 Comments »

An associate just gave me a link to an article about drupa 2016 and Nanography. This time it seems to actually be a real, ready-for-primetime technology, and the proof is in the actual commitments at drupa by purchasers of the presses.

First of all, the press release from Landa is entitled, “Landa Announces Beta Sites and Major Orders.” You may find it interesting, and I’m sure it can be accessed online. It is dated 5/31/16.

Secondly, drupa is touted as, “the largest printing equipment exhibition in the world, held every three years (4 years in the past) by Messe Düsseldorf in Düsseldorf, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany.” (From Wikipedia).

Thirdly, in the simplest terms, Nanographic Printing involves inkjetting special nanographic ink onto a heated conveyor in a Nanographic press. The drops of ink quickly flatten and lose their water content, forming an ultra-thin polymer ink surface image on the conveyor. From the conveyor, the image is then transferred to the commercial printing paper. (Unlike inkjet, the ink is not jetted directly onto the paper.) By the time it is transferred to the substrate, the ink film is completely dry. This allows for superior ink holdout (the ink sits up on top of the paper fibers). Halftone dots are especially crisp (since there is no dot gain), and the thin film of ink not only cuts ink costs but also provides an especially wide color gamut. And due to the nature of the process (the ability to use off-the shelf printing stock), paper costs can be controlled.

So how do drupa, the Landa press release, the pre-orders for the new commercial printing equipment, and Nanographic Printing all relate to one another?

According to the press release, at drups 2016, the following heavy hitters committed to the Landa Nanography process:

  1. Quad/Graphics, “the largest publication printer in the US” (Landa press release), will bring Landa Nanography to the short-run, versioned publications market (magazines and journals). This will involve “magazine quality” (Landa press release) work on light-weight coated and uncoated press sheets.
  2. Cimpress, “the global leader in mass customization and web-to-print” (Landa press release) will buy and install up to 20 presses “upon completion of successful testing.” Cimpress “aggregate[s], via the Internet, large volumes of individually customized orders for a broad spectrum of print, signage, and other products.” (Landa press release).
  3. Landa will install its presses at beta sites across Europe and the United States in 2017.
  4. These beta sites will include such vendors as colordruck Baiersbronn (“Germany’s leading folding carton specialist,” according to “Landa Announces Beta Sites and Major Orders”). colordruck will install a Landa S10.
  5. Another beta site will be Elanders, “the Sweedish headquartered global print and packaging supplier” (as per the Landa press release). Elanders will install a Landa S10P Nanographic Printing press with perfecting capabilities.
  6. Imagine! (noted in the Landa press release as “North America’s leading provider of large-scale point-of-sale displays and in-store signage”) will beta test the Landa S10 B1 press, which is ideal for point of purchase and point of sale work due to its 41-inch format.

The Implications

Here are my thoughts:

  1. Granted, “Landa Announces Beta Sites and Major Orders” is a press release. You could say it is just promotional literature. However, I think it speaks volumes that such prominent vendors as Quad/Graphics, Cimpress, colordruck, Elanders, and Imagine! have gotten behind the technology. They are putting their reputations on the line, and this says a lot about their belief in Nanography.
  2. The technology will reduce make-ready times, allow for large-format printing, and maintain offset quality, which will establish Nanography as viable competition for offset lithography.
  3. The specific configurations of Landa’s Nanographic presses (the Landa S10 standard; the S10P for double-sided printing; and the W10P, a Nanographic web press that can print 656 feet per minute of publications, catalogs, and direct mail work) address the main growth sectors of commercial printing (general commercial printing; short-run, highly versioned periodicals; large-format point of purchase and point of sale displays; and folding cartons and flexible packaging).
  4. The short-run, variable nature of Nanography allows packaging printers to print smaller runs in response to market trends and economically alter the packaging for promotions or individualized messaging campaigns.
  5. In short, Benny Landa’s presses (Benny Landa is chairman of the Landa Group) will provide offset quality and speed while offering mass customization capabilities, the option of smaller press runs and versioned press runs, and even economical mock-ups and test marketing initiatives.
  6. If all of these beta sites are satisfied with their Landa Nanographic presses, this will establish Nanography as a mainstream, affordable alternative to the more traditional commercial printing technologies such as offset lithography and flexography.
  7. As an added bonus, Landa has developed “Nano-Metallography” for these presses, a replacement for hot foil stamping at half the price.

High quality, quick turn-arounds, and economical costs: You just can’t beat that combination.

Posted in Digital Printing | 2 Comments »

Commercial Printing: A Shopping Bag Is Worth a Thousand Words

October 12th, 2016

Posted in Bag Printing | Comments Off

My fiancee got a Lululemon shopping bag in the mail today. She bought it on eBay. I’m always pleased to see how easy it all is, pushing a button on the computer and then having boxes arrive at the door.

In this case, my fiancee asked me to look closely at the product, which I did. She said it was paper, but on closer examination it seemed to be plastic. It was almost entirely black and white, except for the red Lululemon logo.

Since I am a student of commercial printing and marketing (and since I’ve been intrigued by the almost cult-like approach to athletic apparel recently), I started my research online. First I wanted to know what it was and how it had been made.

The Printed Product

The bag is a little over a foot in either dimension, with gussets that give it a 6” depth. It is surrounded with black “piping,” made of a woven plastic fabric. Online promotional product articles speak of polypropylene bags such as recycled plastic gift totes and grocery totes that all seem to look like this one (structure, not design). So I will assume at this point that the bag my fiancee bought is a polypropylene tote.

It seems light but surprisingly durable, with a pattern of minuscule linked diamonds crossing the entire surface of the plastic fabric, except for the woven handle and the piping. Everything is reinforced with stitching, so apparently this bag can carry some weight.

In a world full of 4-color marketing excess, this bag is sophisticated in its black-and-white simplicity (except for the bright red logo–as mentioned before).

Interestingly enough, the artwork seemed at first to be strands of hair, drawn with charcoal or graphite. The image extends across the front and then continues on the back (but does not cross the side-panel gusset). The art has an almost Asian look, like a sytlized fish print in black ink with the signature “seal” in red at the bottom (the “hanko” on the “Gyotaku”).

The Manufacturing Process

I searched online for printers well-versed in this kind of work (there were many), and the techniques they used ranged from custom screen printing to thermal printing. Due to the thin ink coverage, I would assume the manufacturing process had not been custom screen printing. (If this had been the case, I think the screen printing ink would have been much thicker, like what you would see on sports cap visors and printed messenger bags.)

That left either direct thermal printing or thermal transfer printing. In my recollection of the 1990s, the direct method was achieved with wax sticks of color (like crayons) that were loaded into the thermal printer. These were heated until they liquefied, and the fluid was jetted (like inkjet printing) onto the substrate. The Phaser (invented by Tektronix and then purchased by Xerox) was an example of this technology.

Presumably, thermal transfer printing would be a comparable process but with a transfer-paper intermediate step (similar to dye sublimation, in which heating the transfer paper will turn the dyes into a gas that will then migrate to and bond with the polyester substrate).

Based on my reading, either approach could have been used. Apparently some thermal (direct or transfer) work does not have superior rub resistance (which would be a problem with an item like a shopping bag that needs to be durable). However, my reading suggests that thermal printing works well on polypropylene. (This actually made me think I was on the right track with both the polypropylene substrate assumption and the assumption of the custom printing technique used.)

Under a loupe I could see the halftone dots (a screen of red under the Lululemon match red logo, presumably added in order to intensify the color) and also in the hair-like pattern of the black and white art. If I had not already read about direct thermal printing and thermal transfer printing, the somewhat imperfect nature of the halftone dots would have suggested to me that flexography had been the commercial printing technology used for the bags.

So I’ll go with thermal printing as my educated guess, given my findings on the bag-printing website.

The Marketing Message

Inside the bag was a fabric tag with a URL pointing to several videos about the artist, Heather Hansen.

In these videos you see the artist using her entire body to make the art. Holding in each hand what appears to be a drawing charcoal stick (or graphite stick or conte crayon), she captures on the huge canvas (or paper) in repeated circles and loops the physical movement of her body (in various yoga-like stretches). (It is vaguely reminiscent of making angels in the snow—but using paper or canvas, and graphite or charcoal, as the media.)

Like the action paintings of Jackson Pollock, Heather Hansen’s work is a snapshot of her physical movement within the moment. She captures her athletic motions (almost a meditation with movement) in the circles and loops of graphite, ending up with repeated geometric patterns that remind me of the forms made by the “Spirograph” (a drawing toy popular in the 1960s that created a myriad of mathematically based shapes—like fractals).

From a marketing point of view, this is brilliant. The tag in the plastic tote (essentially a print product, even though it is also functional art) leads you to an online experience. In this feat of multichannel marketing, you get not only the plastic tote bag but also the multi-sensory experience (the video and audio track plus the sometimes ethereal and sometimes tribal soundtrack) describing the artist’s work.

Why This Works So Well on a Marketing Level

  1. The product is inexpensive but durable. This registers as “value,” which adds to Lululemon’s brand image (and the image of those who carry this tote bag).
  2. The overall “feel” of the bag is “fine art” rather than “graphic art.” (The commercial printing technique captures all of the smudges and imperfections of the charcoal drawing.) This along with the minimalism (and visual reference to Japanese fish painting) makes the overall tone of the bag one of high culture. Again, by affiliation, this extends to both Lululemon and the owner of the bag.
  3. The product is recycled. This appeals to environmentally conscious young adults, who are presumably Lululemon’s main clientele.

So my take-away from all of this is an enhanced appreciation for Lululemon’s marketing skills. No wonder it’s doing so well as a brand. Whoever is in charge understands art, digital technology, multi-channel marketing, and psychology.

Posted in Bag Printing | Comments Off

Custom Printing: Harnessing the Power of Sticky Notes

September 17th, 2016

Posted in Sticky Notes | Comments Off

Without deeper consideration, you might just think the lowly sticky note, that little notepad on your desk, might not offer a wealth of marketing mojo, but that would not be the case.

Just think about it. If your company name were emblazoned on all sticky notes on a potential client’s desk, it would make an impression (conscious or unconscious) every time he or she had to write a note.

Granted, this would also be true for a branded notepad, but a sticky note is more likely to be seen by others as well. So let’s just say your prospective client sends a stack of papers to a colleague. He or she puts a sticky note on the top sheet as a marker to note what’s in the stack of papers. The sticky note and papers circulate around the office, and any number of new potential clients see the name of your company. That’s good advertising, particularly when you consider the low cost of the product.

A “Repositionable Note” Workhorse

At a colleague’s suggestion, I did some research into a South African company that manufactures “SAP,” which stands for “Specialized Adhesive Process.” The company is called Perfect Finish. I found it online at, and this is what they offer:

  1. Depending on the exact model, SAP is an A3- and A4-sized sheetfed “padding system” for sheets of repositionable notes, which are also known as Post-Its (the brand name) and sticky notes. A3 is the international paper system designation, which converted to the US standard would be 11.7” x 16.5”, whereas the A4 size is 8.3” x 11.7”. The larger size can yield a set of 16 standard sticky note pads (known as 16-up per sheet).
  2. The equipment can start with a stack of press sheets produced either via offset lithography or digital printing (laser or inkjet), so there’s flexibility in the SAP process.
  3. The SAP binding equipment essentially adds strips of glue between the individual press sheets as they travel through the machine. The glue can be precisely positioned, so the individual pads can be different sizes (from traditional sticky note squares to vertical bookmarks to mouse pad sized sticky notes).
  4. After the gluing step, the 16-up (or whatever number) pads can be trimmed into their individual final sizes on a guillotine cutter.
  5. One thing that makes the SAP machine stand out is that it’s very small (2,600 mm x 700 mm, which is 102.36” x 27.56”) and surprisingly inexpensive. To a commercial printing vendor, this means it’s affordable, easily positioned on the factory floor, and potentially very lucrative (since this is specialized work, and not all custom printing suppliers have a padding machine). To the buyer, this means the sticky note pads will be relatively inexpensive.
  6. The paper has to be long grain and uncoated, but it can be of various weights (usually about 80 to 90 gsm, which is about 60# uncoated stock), including a thicker backing sheet on card stock (up to 250 gsm, which is just over 90# cover stock). The backing sheet can also be printed. In this case, when you run out of sticky notes, you have a note on the thicker base paper telling you where to order more.
  7. The flat press sheets travel through the machine, which coats them with a thin layer of glue using a gravure roller system, and then flash dries the glue with infra-red lamps.
  8. When the guillotine cutter separates the printed and glued press sheets into smaller, individual pads, the pressure of the guillotine clamp tightens the grip of the padding glue.
  9. Since you can produce the press sheets on digital equipment, you can print and collate them to personalize or even sequentially number the resulting pages in each sticky note pad. You can even collate different colored press sheets into the pads.
  10. The process lends itself to either small or large runs, and either static or variable data commercial printing.
  11. The make-ready is minimal (almost nonexistent), and the first sheet is usable. Wash-up is quick and easy, and the equipment can be operated with minimal training.
  12. New jobs can be loaded while the SAP machine is already operating, so the process avoids downtime.
  13. The pads can even be die-cut into irregular shapes (the SAP website mentions heart-shaped sticky notes) off-line after the gluing process.
  14. The padding glue is a water-based, eco-friendly adhesive.

What This Means to the Designer, Marketer, and Print Buyer

While promotional in nature, the SAP website from which I learned all about this process does have some serious, positive implications for marketing, both from the standpoint of the designer and copywriter, and from the business viewpoint of the commercial printing vendor.

First of all, anything that gets a client’s name out there in front of multiple viewers is a good marketing tool, particularly if it is simple and inexpensive. In fact, sometimes the simplest marketing vehicles are the most effective (think of postcard print runs, for instance). Sticky notes just work, because the user sees them repeatedly and then usually hands them off to one or more colleagues (on the top of a stack of papers).

Secondly, from the vantage point of the custom printing supplier, buying this kind of padding equipment could be a good business decision in that it’s useful to clients, not everyone provides this service economically in both long and short runs, the equipment costs relatively little, and the machine takes up very little room on the pressroom floor. To me that looks like a “win-win” for everyone.

Posted in Sticky Notes | Comments Off

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