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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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Book Printing: Everything Is Connected to Book Length

March 30th, 2020

Posted in Book Printing | Comments »

A print brokering client of mine (a husband and wife publishing team) has a perfect-bound print book going to press in a week. As initially bid, the book was 80 pages in length, 1500 copies, produced on 60# antique eggshell text stock with a 12pt. cover, 5.75” x 8.5” in format with French flaps, hinge score, luxury matte film laminate, and deckled edges on the text pages. It is one of a series of books with these very specific qualities, aimed at a market that appreciates the tactile qualities of print books.

A few days before the file upload date I found out that the actual book length was less than expected: 62 pages rather than 80. Of course, since the print run length will be 1500 copies (i.e., offset lithographic printing rather than digital printing), I knew this page count would need to rise to 64 pages to be a complete press signature. So I revised the specs and sent them back to the book printer for repricing.

However, it didn’t end there because in book printing, everything is connected.

Considerations (The Number of Signatures)

On the side of economics, the book will be shorter, so it will cost less to print. Specifically, here’s why. At 80 pages, the print book would have been three signatures (presumably), since this printer likes to work in 48- and 24-page press signatures, so the book would have included a 48-page signature, a 24-page signature, and an 8-page signature (i.e., for this particular book printer, it is apparently cheaper to break down the book like this—as opposed to breaking it into 32-page signatures).

But once you reduce the page count to 64 pages, presumably the signature count will now be two signatures rather than three (probably a 48-page signature and a 16-page signature, and for this particular printer the 16-page signature may be more expensive to print because it doesn’t fit the ideal scenario for the print shop—i.e., it may require a bit more work).

Why does all of this matter? It makes my head spin.

The short answer is that two press runs will be cheaper than three. So my client (the husband and wife publishing team) will pay less overall, even if the 16-page signature production will not be as efficient as the 48-page signature. But to be sure, we’ll have to wait for the revised estimate.

Considerations (Design Issues)

As noted above, all of this client’s print books follow the same format to support their brand. That is, the cover art may change, but the size, French flaps, luxury matte film coating, and deckled edges identify all books as originating with this publisher. Subconsciously, clients can tell.

That said, a 64-page print book is much thinner than an 80-page book, so the spine will not have room for text that is of a readable size. In fact, in many cases a book designer would produce this title as a saddle-stitched book rather than a perfect-bound book (i.e., with no spine). But this would make the book not match its peers from this publishing house.

In addition, for such a thin book, the 12pt. cover and the French flaps folding back under the front and back covers will make the cover feel more substantial than the text block (presumably). In fact, in other cases I might even suggest to the client that she/he request a paper dummy (unprinted book sample made with the chosen cover and text paper). But in this case, this publishing team has a consistent brand look to uphold by using their standard paper stock and cover format.

Now what I did do is provide options. I did ask whether my clients wanted to keep or forego the French flaps (to make the covers less substantial) and move the cover stock from 12pt. to 10pt. (the next lower paper thickness I would suggest), and as expected they said no.

Considerations (Art File Preparation Issues)

Since the print book will be going to press in a few days and the text of the book has already been laid out and finalized, one key art production task will be to create the cover file. The cover designer (a different person than the text designer) will need to create one flat piece of art in Photoshop that has a (reading from left to right) back cover, spine, and front cover (the interior covers, front and back, do not print in this case). Again, this has to be of one piece, and the spine in particular has to be the correct width, or the printed back, spine, and front of the cover will not fit correctly on the text block. (In fact, if the book were long enough to have a spine with the title on it, the title might not be centered on the spine if the spine were not of the correct width.)

So how do you determine the spine width?

The printer does this, based on the page count (64 pages) and the specific text stock (60# antique eggshell), which in this case has a caliper of 420 pages per inch. (My math says this yields a spine width of .15”, but I always have the printer do the math and actually give me this number to ensure accuracy.)

With this in mind the cover designer can create a Photoshop file with a 5.75” x 8.5” back cover, .15” spine, and 5.75” x 8.5” front cover stitched together, and with 1/8” of bleed past the trim edge for any art that bleeds off the page.

For those who are wondering, the 5.75” measure (rather than 5.5”) allows the cover to extend slightly over the deckled edge of the text pages.

What We Can Learn from This Case Study

First and foremost, remember that everything in book printing is connected. Even a change in the page count can affect not only the text but also the cover, any space you need on the spine for a title, the feel of the weight and size of the cover relative to the text block, and on and on.

Second, always ask for a cover template when you’re preparing the cover art. This will show you exactly what the book printer will need in the art file to ensure that the cover fits the text block accurately.

Third (and this does not apply to my clients because they want the same production specifications for all of their books), consider requesting a paper dummy of your book before you actually print it. How everything will look and feel (from the weight of the cover stock to the bright white or cream tint of the text) will be evident, so there will be no surprises when your printed job arrives.

Posted in Book Printing | Comments »

Custom Printing: A Few Random Thoughts on Halftones

March 24th, 2020

Posted in Photos | Comments »

With the Coronavirus threat upon us, I have had extra time recently, so I have taken this time to brush up on my knowledge of commercial printing. I thought I’d start by reviewing my textbooks on color prepress and custom printing.

In this light, I chose the subject of halftones. I thought my findings might be of interest to you.

Why Use Halftones?

Offset printing is a binary process. Either you print ink in a particular place on your press sheet, or you print nothing. You can’t print a continuous tone image (either color or black and white) where black tones transition into gray tones and finally into white.

So how do you get images to look right on a commercial printing press?

Long before computer prepress and scanning devices existed, it was discovered that if you photographed a continuous tone photo through a glass sheet covered with a matrix of “cells” (like small, separate windows), this process would yield an image composed of dots. Depending on the lightness or darkness of the area represented, you could have a light area comprising many small dots or a dark area comprising many large dots.

Due to the regular position of the little “windows” on the halftone screen (the same number of lines of halftone dots, all lined up across and up and down on the screen), there was a constant and finite number of halftone dots. They were just larger or smaller in size, depending on whether they were in dark or light areas.

The number of halftone dots per linear inch was called the screen ruling. For reproducing images on thin, porous paper like newsprint, commercial printing suppliers would use coarse screens (85 lines per inch, for example). For coated paper, printers would use 133lpi or 150lpi screens (or even much higher rulings).

As the printing and prepress processes were computerized in the ’80s and ’90s, all of the above information pretty much continued to be true (albeit on a digital rather than analog level).

On the plus side, the human eye is very forgiving, and from a normal reading distance, the dots in the finer halftone screens (133lpi or 150lpi) cannot be seen easily, whereas the dots of the coarser halftone screens (85lpi) printed in newspapers are usually visible. Unfortunately, trying to print finer line screens on newsprint yields muddy images, since the absorbent nature of newsprint makes the halftone dots spread. Ink goes into the paper fibers and travels. Images look horrible. So you really do need the coarse (lower-number) halftone screens for cheaper paper.

Fortunately, coated printing paper allows the ink to dry on the surface of the press sheet (rather than seeping into the paper fibers), so the halftone dots can be smaller without spreading (they’re called “hard halftone dots”). But these harder-surfaced, coated press sheets are more expensive than lower-grade papers like newsprint, so high quality photos, in which you can barely see (or not see at all) the halftone dots, usually wind up in higher-end publications.

To keep you apprised of the printer’s lingo, this growth of printing dots is called “dot gain.” One way commercial printing vendors compensate for this is to print less ink by intentionally lightening the halftone screens (by slightly reducing the halftone dot sizes) so the printed output will be correct after the inevitable dot gain.

What About Color Images?

Back in the day, printers separated 4-color images into four distinct negatives, one for each of the commercial printing process colors: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. Then the printers produced printing plates from these negatives. All of this was an analog, photographic process. Now, all of this is achieved digitally with scanners and computers, but the concept is the same. An image is scanned and then separated into the four process colors. These are then printed not to film but directly to custom printing plates, one for each color.

But here’s the trick. Each of these four separated images really is just one halftone, just like the halftone described above that is used for black and white images. The difference is that the four halftones for color printing are rotated at slightly different angles to one another. For example, one option is 15 degrees (cyan), 45 degrees (black), 75 degrees (magenta), and 90 degrees (yellow). Yellow dots are less visible, so they can be set closer to the angles of the other screens (15 degrees in this case). The best angle for viewing is 45 degrees (so it’s used here for the black plate).

Because of this distribution of the four halftone angles (just the halftone angles, not the printing plates themselves), once the image is printed, you will see a circular “rosette” pattern in the images if you use a 12-power printer’s loupe to magnify areas of the photos. These rosettes are the visual indication that the halftone screens have been rotated. And they appear larger or smaller depending on the size of the halftone dots in a particular area.

Another way to say this is that the rosettes are more visible in areas printed with more ink (dark areas) and less visible in areas that take less ink (lighter areas).

Dot Shape

These halftone dots can be a number of shapes, including round, square, and elliptical. Round dots are the norm (from very small to very large depending on the density of ink in a particular area). Elliptical dots, on the other hand, are very good for skin tones because as they grow in size (from small at the quarter-tones to larger at the three-quarter tones), the longer dimensions of the elliptical dots eventually touch each other, and this makes for smoother gradations in flesh tones.

(Square dots are good for detail work with lots of straight lines and angles.)

I’ll say this again because it’s very complex. But the overall concept is what’s important. The way elliptical dots touch at the long ends as they get larger (to allow for increased ink distribution) makes for smoother transitions in the tones of a human face. If you’re printing high-end glamour photos for Chanel, this is useful information indeed.

Amplitude-Modulated vs. Frequency-Modulated Screening

All of what I have been explaining is called “amplitude-modulated screening.” This just means the dots are all on a fixed grid (i.e., the same number of rows and columns of halftone dots in a 150lpi screen, for instance). They are just larger or smaller depending on the ink density.

In contrast, you can now use “frequency-modulated screening” or even a hybrid that blends both AM and FM screening. Frequency-modulated halftone screens are made up of equal-sized dots (minuscule ones). They’re all the same size, but where there’s a lot of color, there are a lot of small dots.

If you look closely at the output of an inkjet printer, you’ll see exactly this kind of pattern. In contrast, if you look at the output of a laser printer, you’ll see some version of amplitude-modulated halftone screening. Laser printers may not use the exact same screening angles as used for offset commercial printing. They may not even produce the same rosette patterns. But they are based on similar mathematical algorithms as those used for offset printing.

TAC, UCR, and GCR

First, here’s the wording referenced by the acronyms above:

TAC=Total Area Coverage
UCR=Undercolor Removal
GCR=Grey Component Replacement

TAC means total area coverage. If you print 100 percent coverage of all four colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) in one place on a press sheet (a high-density neutral area of a photograph), you could conceivably be printing 400 percent (100 percent x 4 colors) total ink coverage. Unfortunately, too much ink makes the offset lithographic process break down, and the paper also can’t handle that much ink (it gets too wet and comes apart). The ideal overall target might be 270 percent to 300 percent for all four colors, depending on your printer, the press, the paper, etc.

UCR means Undercolor Removal. This and GCR or Grey Component Replacement are ways to replace the cyan, magenta, and yellow in a photographic image with black. When you do this successfully, you achieve two things:

  1. You can use less ink. This reduces materials costs and ensures that there’s never too much ink anywhere on a press sheet (see above for the results of printing too much ink).
  2. When you create neutrals, or even gray areas, with cyan, magenta, and yellow, any misregister of the printing plates will cause color shifts and color casts. Replacing some of these hues with a percentage of black will minimize these color shifts significantly.

What You Can Learn From All of This

If your head hurts from all of this information, I apologize. That said, it doesn’t hurt to begin to understand the nuances of prepress and presswork. It will help you understand why you prepare design files for press the way you do. It will also help you make good choices regarding printing paper.

There are a lot of good textbooks out there that describe these technologies and their challenges. However, it’s even easier to find little booklets produced by custom printing suppliers and paper companies that give you this information in a condensed form (only what you need). The more you know, the better able you will be to discuss your commercial printing needs with both your sales rep and the pressmen actually printing your job.

Posted in Photos | Comments »

Commercial Printing: Package Printing for Vegetables

March 16th, 2020

Posted in Packaging | Comments »

Everywhere I look now I see articles about how digital custom printing benefits the package production market. Moreover, this seems to be a two-way street, with the approach of a business to packaging and distribution changing and growing in response to advances in digital commercial printing.

More specifically, I read an article this week about corrugated packaging for vegetable boxes. The title of the article was “Keeping Packaging Fresh for Veg Boxes.” It was written by Cristobal Macedo of HP (Hewlett-Packard) and published online in Packaging News on November 7, 2018. The article focused on a new breed of consumer, the “locavore,” who prefers to buy locally sourced foods. The article refers to them as “ideological consumers who prefer to buy foods farmed in their region” (“Keeping Packaging Fresh for Veg Boxes”). So, as I understand it, the term seems to pertain more to supporting local vendors than to buying fresher produce (although both may be true).

The article goes on to say that online vendors are offering seasonal fruit and vegetable boxes as well as eggs, cheese, meat, and other foods, and that this creates the need for corrugated (and other) packaging. Moreover, it also creates the opportunity for marketers to directly communicate with consumers in bi-directional ways using commercial printing as the initiating medium.

In addition, the success of the online sale of locally sourced food, and the interactive marketing it has spawned, has further increased demand by locavores, and the number of local food vendors has grown. Furthermore, their entry into the locavore market has increased the demand for digitally printed packaging.

The Perfect Storm

What makes this marriage of locally sourced food and digital package printing so successful is the variable nature of digital commercial printing, the ability to economically produce short print runs of corrugated food packages, and the availability of food-safe inks that do not migrate into, and therefore do not contaminate, the food.

Regarding the issue of press run length, for analog printing to be a competitive technology, food vendors would need to produce much longer runs of their packaging jobs. There would be issues of storage, waste, and possible obsolescence of packaging. Printing on corrugated board via offset lithography would not be an option, since the pressure of the press rollers would crush the fluting in the corrugated board. Therefore, low-pressure options such as flexography (a relief custom printing process using rubber plates) would be the technology of choice. This would allow for direct printing on the corrugated board, but it would yield lower quality results than offset printing, so (presumably) the creative packaging design would need to be simpler. Or, if the press run were very long, the printer could offset print the marketing artwork for the corrugated boxes onto liner paper that would be laminated to the fluting, and then the flat box material could be converted into corrugated cartons.

But all this would only be good for long press runs.

In contrast, digital printing allows for the spraying of non-toxic printing inks directly onto the fluted corrugated board of the cartons, with the print heads never directly contacting the substrate. Therefore, nothing can crush the box material. Moreover, the high quality of the technology will allow for much greater detail (both higher resolution and a wider color gamut than the other commercial printing options), all while allowing for economical, short press runs.

In addition, all of this can be done quickly, with an infinite varying of the creative marketing message on each fruit or vegetable box or with short, versioned press runs that allow for seasonal marketing (maybe a special press run for fresh peaches during a limited period) or localized marketing (maybe a special press run of boxes aimed at a small geographical location).

At it’s most granular level, this can even allow farmers to communicate directly (through their package messaging) with individual customers or at least small groups of customers. Such messaging can therefore be more personal and targeted to the customer’s interests, and this can open up a dialog between the food producers and the food consumers.

Such a dialog can then be enhanced through the pairing of online messaging with the printed package. A customer can initiate the purchase online through a web-based store; the fruits and vegetables can be packaged in boxes decorated with digital printing; and when the boxes arrive at the customer’s door, specific messaging on the corrugated cartons can direct the customer back to the Internet to further the conversation with the local food vendors. (This messaging may include nutritional information, cooking recipes, and information about the farm and the farming practices.)

In addition, digital printing offers a functional tracking benefit. Since each corrugated box can be different, identifying codes can be added to track the growing and shipping of all food products.

Macedo’s article in Packaging News, “Keeping Packaging Fresh for Veg Boxes,” refers to the “unboxing experience,” noting that receiving the package, reading all of the printed messaging, and absorbing the overall “look” of the brand allow for an intimate point of connection between the farmer and the customer, particularly since the customer can personalize the boxes when she or he orders the food online. In addition, the farmers can enhance the experience by varying the packaging. Therefore, the customer can be continually intrigued by new and different packaging each time she or he orders.

The Farmers

“Keeping Packaging Fresh for Veg Boxes” goes on to describe some of the food producers who have benefited from digital printing technology.

The first case study involves an egg vendor in the Czech Republic, Golden Egg. Macedo’s article notes that the commercial printing quality available through digital inkjet allows for superior graphics, which can be varied to show the region where each batch of eggs originated. This visual, as well as written, sourcing information can enhance both the knowledge and the confidence of egg buyers.

The second case study involves Vignola, an Italian fruit consortium. Using digital printing paired with QR Codes, the vendor produces individual fruit boxes that can send the customer (via the Internet) to information on the grower, the date of the food production, etc.

A third case study involves Yamo Foods in Germany. This vendor prints corrugated packaging (through Thimm Group) that is food safe (due to the nature of the digital printing inks). Buy beyond this, Yamo can provide “tamper-proof boxes with a printed safety strip” (“Keeping Packaging Fresh for Veg Boxes”). This not only provides secure packaging throughout the process but also enhances the customer’s level of comfort in the reliability and safety of the food product.

What You Can Learn from This Article

There are a number of elements in Macedo’s article that interest me and that might interest you as well, if you design printed products or sell custom printing:

  1. The concept of the “locavore” is supported by the flexibility and personalization capabilities of digital commercial printing. Just as the nature of the locavore creates the demand for digital printing, the capabilities of digital printing also foster the growth and multiplication of small farmers through variable-data printing and online communication. Each fosters the growth of the other.
  2. Printed marketing materials and Internet communication also have a mutually supportive effect. Used together, they are more effective than either used alone.
  3. All of this consumer demand bodes well for growth in digital printing: including the quality, cost, and flexibility of the technology, as well as the growth of post-press finishing operations (and other elements beyond the printing component).
  4. All of this also bodes well for printing in general, digital printing specifically, and both copywriting and package design.

Posted in Packaging | Comments »

Book Printing: Thinking Outside the Box

March 9th, 2020

Posted in Book Printing | Comments Off on Book Printing: Thinking Outside the Box

In my recent print brokering work, I have worked with two clients whose print books have lent themselves to various optional presentations to save money. The thing to keep in mind when designing a book is that book printing is actually a physical manufacturing process. We forget this. We often think of a book as an intellectual or artistic product, something more than an “object.” However, if you approach it as a physical product made from various kinds and thicknesses of paper that has to weigh a certain amount and open and close, and if you take into account the fact that different printers can do different things well and economically, then book printing becomes a puzzle of sorts, a challenge.

The First Book

The first book, from the first client, is a 5.5” x 8.5” perfect bound print book (with a press run of 50 or 100 copies; i.e., short enough to be a digital print job). Unlike most perfect bound books, it has an additional dust jacket. Usually, dust jackets are reserved for case bound books. Like a case-bound book, my client has designed a very simple outer perfect-bound book cover with just the book title in black.

To the unaided eye, it looks like someone has just not yet affixed the cover (i.e., the accompanying dust jacket) over the book block (the text plus the existing book cover with only the title printed on it). How do I know this? Because my client sent me a photo of the perfect-bound book and the accompanying dust jacket. Take this as an object lesson for your own print buying work. Nothing conveys the goals of a print book designer as well as a photo or a physical copy of the book.

Once I understood my client’s desires, I didn’t question them. I assumed this treatment was what he was accustomed to from other countries (other countries often have different approaches; for instance, French flaps seem to be more European in design than American). So I sent out bid requests to four printers, “as is,” with no changes in the specs.

I have now received three of four bids. The printers changed some of the specs (offering what they could produce with their equipment or what they would suggest as an alternative approach to my client’s specs):

  1. Two printers bid the book as is (perfect bound with an additional dust jacket). They may or may not have thought this was an unusual format. (Usually you would produce a perfect bound book with or without French flaps, or you would produce a case bound book.)
  2. One printer could only produce the book digitally (no offset print runs under 1,000 copies). He would have limited options for digital printing. They would include a paper-covered case-bound book (as opposed to a fabric-covered case-bound book), made with limited options for the paper cover. This could then be wrapped with a 4-color dust jacket printed on laminated, enamel text stock. Based on the economics of scale, this printer would probably provide an extremely low price for such a printed product. Keeping options to a minimum insured the printer’s buying a limited number of supplies in bulk, rather than a lot of different supplies for higher prices. The only reason I asked this printer to essentially bid on a different product than my client had specified was the following. My client had mentioned three times that his budget was tight. That is, maybe he would be open to alternate ways of doing things to save money (such as a simple case-bound book).
  3. The fourth printer bid the book as a case-bound book without asking me about changing the requested bindery method. Again, I didn’t mind. Options might yield lower pricing. That said, when I received the price I asked the sales rep about options, and she suggested a perfect-bound option with French flaps. The book would have the look of a case-bound book. It would have three-inch fold-in flaps on which the author could put explanatory and marketing information. But this cover would replace the separate dust jacket, and the 65# cover my client wanted with the book title in black would then become the title page of the print book. The sales rep said this would cost less than the case-bound version (at this point her bid was the low bid, so I was hopeful that once she rebid the project, her bid would be wonderfully low. We’ll see what happens).

To complicate matters, my client had noted that he had solicited pricing from China. The unit cost was great: $8.50 per book. However, the shipping cost had made the total cost prohibitive. Hence, he had come to me.

Now what makes all of this interesting is that the low bid vendor’s price (with the French flaps, which as noted would already cost less than a case-bound volume) was only about $17.00 per book, with money included for both potential overs and estimated freight. And this price would most likely come down as the printer rebid the job as a perfect-bound book with French flaps rather than a case-bound book with an additional dust jacket.

You could say that almost double the initial cost is bad. But we don’t know that yet. (I haven’t received the revised bid yet, or my client’s projected freight cost from China.) All we know is that the manufacturing cost for the book through the Chinese vendor is half that of the US vendors.

The total cost all depends on what my client’s Chinese vendor would charge over and above the $8.50 per unit manufacturing cost to account for shipping. Moreover, this particular low-bid US vendor could potentially omit the French flaps and bring down the price even further, depending on what my client wants to do (and what he wants to pay). And he may like the comfort level of not printing as far away as China.

What We Can Learn from This Case Study

Think about these things for your own commercial printing work:

  1. Don’t necessarily be wedded to a particular print book style or format. Discuss the look and feel you want (early) with your print provider, but listen to his suggestions.
  2. Get multiple bids. Keep in mind that some printers will have all equipment in house (like my low-bid vendor). This drives down the price and often increases the number of options he can provide (again, my low-bid vendor can do remarkable things with low-run work—50 copies–for a great price).
  3. Use physical samples and photographs to communicate your needs and desires, not just lists of specifications.

The Second Book

Think of the second book as an unbound book comprising 68 pages. It is from my “fashionista” client who usually produces small color-swatch books of hues used to help women choose clothing and make-up based on their complexions.

This particular print book is a second product based on the same color samples and color theory. It contains 66 pages (33 cards), each with a different color on each side and a semi-circular cut-out for the user’s chin (plus a two-sided instruction sheet). You hold the color up to your chin and see whether it works with your complexion.

My client had a prototype made on 14 pt stock, laminated both sides, just to see how it would “look and feel.” After all, it had to feel substantial enough because she planned to charge a lot for her set of color chin cards. They would have to be firm and hold up to heavy use (hence the lamination).

She received the prototype this week and loved the colors but thought the 8.5” x 11” cards were a bit flimsy. She asked about printing on paper thicker than 14pt. So I approached the sales rep.

The commercial printing sales rep said the digital press (again the equipment at this particular printer, as opposed to at all possible printers) would accept nothing heavier than 14pt stock.

Moreover, he suggested increasing the thickness of the lamination to solve the problem. He had priced the job with 1.5mil laminate on both sides, but he could provide 3, 5, or 10mil as well.

So I have something to bring back to my client, to see how she wants to proceed.

What We Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Think outside the box. What my client was really saying was that she wanted a thicker product (overall, not necessarily thicker paper). After all, think about how bulky menus can be. That’s not just the paper thickness; it’s the thickness of the lamination.
  2. Be aware that digital presses have more limitations than offset presses. Some can only handle thinner paper. Moving the job (in my client’s case a 50-copy set vs. a 100-copy set of the 68 pages, or 34 cards) to an offset press would have driven up the price significantly. Adding a thicker laminate, on the other hand, solved the problem through creative thinking and an open mind.

So the take-away is as follows: Look to the book printer for his expertise and creative thinking. Be flexible, and you might wind up happier with the printer’s advice than you would have been with your own initial plan. And you might wind up saving money, too.

Posted in Book Printing | Comments Off on Book Printing: Thinking Outside the Box

Custom Printing: Thoughts on Designing with Photos

March 2nd, 2020

Posted in Photos | Comments Off on Custom Printing: Thoughts on Designing with Photos

I was reminded this week while teaching an art therapy class that the principles of design are the same for fine arts and graphic design. We were making clocks by building up paper collages over Nordstrom shoe boxes with clock motors attached to the box tops.

As source material for the collages, my fiancee had collected and silhouetted photos of the autistic members, and had also collected large sepia images from an oversized Italian fashion magazine as well as color photos and drawings from an advertising promotion print book.

What started as a fine arts project began to gradually expand into a graphic design project, as the autistic members and their parents and aides wrapped the images around the boxes, in various sizes, at various angles, and with various photo croppings. Some images were tightly cropped, with parts of models’ faces wrapped around the box corners or cut off entirely. In some cases the members even cut out words from the magazines and pasted them down, or glued Scrabble letters onto the clock shoe-boxes to spell words.

I observed, and I thought, and then I explained the following principles to help them with their artwork:.

Photo Cropping

Images can have a lot of space around the subject matter (such as a person’s face), or they can be “severely” cropped. That is, you can focus intently on one aspect of the face, such as the eyes, by cropping away everything else.

This concept is immediately transferable to publication design as well. (In your own work, whether you’re designing a brochure, logo, or print book cover, try different approaches to photos. Decide what you want the image to “say.” What’s the message you want to convey, and how can you most effectively make this statement by highlighting certain elements of the photo? If you’re doing this on a computer with an image editing application and a page design program, your ability to play with different approaches is enhanced (compared to my fiancee’s and my students’ approach with scissors and glue).

I also encouraged the members to run the photos off the edge of the boxes, and perhaps from one side of the shoe box onto an adjacent side.

This is relevant to publication design as well. In graphic design it’s called bleeding an image off the page, and what it does artistically is give the impression that the magazine, brochure, or print book page is larger and more opulent than if the photo did not bleed off the page (if the image is just surrounded by the white text page). The bleed gives the illusion that the image is much larger and that it actually extends off the page.

Photo Contrast

Much of what creates interest in either a work of fine art or a page in a graphic design project is the contrast between (or among) images. This contrast can be achieved in many ways:

  1. Contrast of size
  2. Contrast of color
  3. Contrast of content (simple vs. busy, for instance)
  4. Contrast in the edge treatment of the images (straight edges, torn edges, or shadows behind the images)

All of these were relevant in the creation of the autistic members’ clock collages on the shoe boxes, but they are also equally relevant in the design of a print book, brochure, poster, etc.

I suggested that the students start by choosing a larger image (perhaps a sepia or black and white one) for the background of the front of the clocks. The clock hands and numbers would eventually be placed over this large, dominant image. I suggested that they then choose smaller images (including their own photos which my fiancee had silhouetted) and other photos to position in various places over the larger photo (i.e., smaller shapes positioned over one unifying, larger shape).

The autistic members saw just how the smaller photos laid over the larger photos created a contrast in size, actually making the larger photos seem larger and the smaller photos seem smaller. A silhouette of a person looked small when superimposed over a sepia toned background. This created a sense of interest, balance, and movement. That’s what contrast does in a piece of fine art, but it’s also what it does in a graphic design piece like a print book cover.

I noted that the sepia toned photos were “desaturated.” They lacked intense color. Therefore, the members could create contrast, interest, and movement with small color photos laid over the larger, less intense images. The intense hues of the smaller color images would catch the viewer’s eye first.

The same is true for designing a poster or any other graphic design piece.

Now for contrast in content. One of the members found a color photo of a hand and placed it over a much larger sepia toned photo that included a number of people. The difference between the busy background photo and the simple elegance of the hand photo made for an interesting contrast.

Finally, I encouraged the members to tear the photos. I noted that this created random, irregular photo edges that might be interesting when laid over straight-edged photos—again, a contrast between the simple and regular and the varied and jagged.

Moreover, I told the members, parents, and aides about line direction: vertical lines imply stability; horizontal lines suggest peace and tranquility; and diagonal lines give a sense of movement and energy to an artistic piece.

Again, the same is true for graphic design.

Now contrast by itself is just a trick. I strongly encouraged the members to use the contrast to set up an intentional direction of eye movement through and across the various sides of their clock collages, using such attributes as strong color or interesting photo cropping to draw the eye to certain elements of the design first, second, third, and so forth.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

The first thing to learn is that successful graphic design and successful fine art are based on similar (or even the same) principles. You can learn a lot by going to the art museum or studying fine art print books along with your design textbooks. In fact, you might want to study the following artists: Piet Mondrian, Toulouse Lautrec, and Andy Warhol, all of whom pursued careers in both graphic design and fine art. If you keep an open mind, you’ll learn a lot.

Another thing to learn is that contrast elicits interest in a piece of fine art or a graphic design. You can contrast size, color, edge treatment, or the amount of activity in photos. But for this not to become a trick of the eye, it’s important to consider the message you’re conveying and how you want the reader’s eye to travel through the fine art piece, poster, brochure, print book page spread, or whatever. Ask yourself the following. How can your treatment of the images reinforce the statement you’re making?

Another thing to learn is that the more you look, the more you will see. If you like a billboard you see while driving, ask yourself why. What is the message it conveys, and how do the various graphic elements reinforce this message? If you like a poster, brochure, or print book page spread, ask yourself the same questions.

Also, since our world is becoming increasingly visual, with YouTube apparently surpassing Google as the primary search engine, consider the use of photos online, in commercial printing, and even in photo collage. (By the way, the collage work our autistic students were doing is called photo compositing in the graphic design world. The main difference is that graphic designers do the compositing in Photoshop on a computer rather than by hand with magazine photos, scissors, and glue.)

Posted in Photos | Comments Off on Custom Printing: Thoughts on Designing with Photos

Custom Printing: Designing with Faces, Eyes, and Hands

February 24th, 2020

Posted in Catalog Printing | Comments Off on Custom Printing: Designing with Faces, Eyes, and Hands

My fiancee collects newspapers from friends and relatives for use in our art therapy work (i.e., to cover the tables and contain the mess). This week in the collection I found an Eileen Fisher catalog. Before returning it to my fiancee, I decided to use it as source material for this blog due to its masterful use of photos. And the reason I found the design masterful was that the graphic artist had used the models’ hands, faces (in general), eyes (more specifically), and postures and gestures to draw the reader into the catalog and to lead the reader’s eye through the page spreads. The models’ expressions, clothes, and demeanor, as well as the color usage, typefaces, and even the paper all contribute to an overall understanding of the Eileen Fisher brand.

So let’s break this down.

The Models

Good photography doesn’t happen by accident. Even if the photo looks like a casual snapshot (or selfie), a huge amount of work has usually gone into everything from make-up to clothing to lighting to the model’s posture. (Having a camera in every cell phone has for the most part made us forget the importance of this skill.) Making a good photo look like a happy accident takes work.

That said, the models in the Eileen Fisher catalog look to the left, to the right, off the page, toward other photos. The reader always has a sense that there is something to look at. It’s a normal human reflex to look where someone else is looking. (Try walking out into a crowd on the street and looking up. Soon everyone else will be looking up, too.) In the case of the catalog, the gaze of the models leads the reader from one photo to another (i.e., from one Eileen Fisher product to another). And it is a major goal of all graphic design to lead the reader’s eye around the double-page spread of a print book, catalog, or magazine. It is the designer’s canvas. There should be no confusion as to what the reader should look at first, second, and third. Eileen Fisher does this masterfully by incorporating the “gaze” of each model into the overall design.

And I’d go one step further. When models in a catalog or print book are looking at each other, you as the reader are an observer of their world. Periodically, in the case of this Eileen Fisher catalog, there is a slight change to this axiom. Instead of looking at each other (even from photo to photo), the models look at you, the reader. Since the models have such different, evocative expressions, this becomes an intimate moment. They’re looking at you. You’re looking at them, wondering what they’re thinking. (This is true in other catalogs, but often the expressions are more generic. These are more varied and emotive.) You will find the exact same distinction (between models looking at each other and models looking at you) in fine arts prints and paintings in galleries.

To add to the effect, the Eileen Fisher catalog designer has used the posture, carriage, gesture, hand position, and movement of the models to good effect, as a method of leading the reader’s eye around the page spread, as a way to break up the “space” of the two-page spread, even as a way to convey the models’ emotions. (That is, the models’ posture works as both a design element and as an emotional hook, presumably inviting the reader into the models’ world, enticing the reader to “associate” herself with the models by buying the same clothes they are wearing.)

More Design Values

Before we move on to commercial printing characteristics and choices, I’d like to mention some design choices that contribute to the (in my opinion) overall excellence of this print book catalog.

The first is white space. The reader’s eyes get tired from seeing too much type and too many images. It’s important to give the reader’s eyes a place to rest. White space (everything that is not type or images) provides this respite. In the Eileen Fisher catalog, such techniques as silhouetting images, desaturating the colors in the background of the images so the photo edges fade away, and surrounding the images with a generous amount of white space, all provide a sense of opulence to the catalog. There is no busy-ness, no sense of chaos or urgency, just a relaxed and sophisticated tone.

To achieve this, one of the tools the graphic artist has employed is the focus on the contours around the models (the negative space,: i.e., anything that is not subject matter). These shapes are intriguing. They grab the reader’s attention and guide the reader’s eye through the double-page spread. That the backgrounds of the photos seem to fade gives the feeling of more white space, making for a more open, simple design.

One other thing I’d like to mention about the design actually straddles the boundary between design and production. That is the paper. The uncoated stock the Eileen Fisher designer selected for the cover and text pages is a brilliant, bright blue-white. There’s no gloss or matte coating, and this provides a calming, natural effect. But beyond this, the brightness of the blue-white sheet makes the type design seem crisper and the colors of the models’ faces and clothes brighter and more intense.

Production Values

Back to the paper, this time from a production perspective. Thick, uncoated text and cover paper (and a thick, slightly different texture for the insert card) just feel good to the hand.

In addition, the catalog is short (32 pages plus cover). The designer could have saddle stitched the print book catalog. But she/he chose to perfect bind the catalog with a hinge press score parallel to the spine. Again, this choice signals opulence, sophistication, glamour. If there were no text or imagery in the print book—if the pages were completely blank—the reader would probably still want to buy something. Because the book just feels good–and natural.

What We Can Learn

The purpose of a catalog is to sell product. That said, people don’t like to be sold. They prefer to be helped to buy something that reflects their likes, dislikes, and values. A designer who can grasp the overall personality of the buyer and then use the tools of design to both consciously and subliminally connect the buyer’s persona with the values inherent in the client company’s “brand” will always be in demand. This catalog reflects such mastery.

The best way to develop such a skill is to observe and dissect (or deconstruct) whatever you see that you like. To give this lifelong task a roadmap, here are some things to look for:

  1. Paper choice: color, brightness, whiteness, caliper or thickness, coating, surface texture—just to start. Ask yourself exactly how each of these characteristics contributes to the overall look and feel of the printed product (any printed product, since any printed product is really an advertisement for something).
  2. Photos: Are the photos formal or informal? Are the models looking at each other or at you, the reader? What emotions are the models trying to convey (after all, they’re actors, in the final analysis)? Do they use their eyes? Do they use their hands? How does their posture help convey their emotions? You would be surprised at how few magazines, print books, brochures, and catalogs take any of this into account. If you bring this skill and awareness into your own design work, you will set yourself apart from other designers.
  3. White space: look for well-balanced page spreads with a place for the reader’s eyes to rest. If the design is busy (the opposite of this catalog), how does the cacaphony contribute to the overall effect? Or is the busy-ness just an accident or flaw?
  4. Type: Why did the designer choose the typeface, and what values and emotions does it suggest? In your own work, try various type combinations and notice the subtle changes in tone these changes in type will suggest. Even changing a headline from roman to bold or demi-bold will make a difference. Learn to articulate that difference and then explain how it contributes to the purpose of the printed piece.

Make it a lifelong task to study, deconstruct, and learn from what you see. Eventually it will become an intuitive feel as you’re designing something. The years of study (if it becomes a passion, this won’t feel like work) will make your design choices flow naturally. Look, study, create—then rinse and repeat.

Posted in Catalog Printing | Comments Off on Custom Printing: Designing with Faces, Eyes, and Hands

Custom Printing: Fish Printing for Art and Commerce

February 9th, 2020

Posted in Fine Art Printing | Comments Off on Custom Printing: Fish Printing for Art and Commerce

I’m always excited when the art therapy work my fiancee and I do with our autistic students overlaps with my work in the commercial printing industry. Recently, at my fiancee’s behest, we bought rubber fish to ink and then print, just as the Japanese fishermen did in the 1800s to record the fish they caught. What’s old is new again, so to speak.

The traditional term for this artform is “gyotaku.” Fishermen in Japan used to ink up their fish with sumi ink and then print them on rice paper. If you’ve seen any of these images online or in museums, you may also have noticed the red marks at the bottom right of the prints. These were the artists’ names and/or information about the prints.

Once the imprint had been made, the fishermen could rinse off the ink and then sell or eat the fish they had caught.

Preparation for Our Classes

Needless to say, we had no rice paper, sumi ink, or knowledge of the Kanji characters for writing names, and our fish were rubber (made from molds that resembled fish). But we had enthusiasm. We had a total of eight fish (which were essentially custom printing plates for relief printing) that ranged from a flounder to a starfish to a piranha.

Before the class we made a handful of test prints, first rolling out the Speedball printing ink on plastic mats with a rubber printing roller or brayer (also not traditional; presumably the fishermen in Japan had used some form of stuffed dauber to collect the ink and blot it onto the fish). Then we laid tissue paper (our version of rice paper) over the inked rubber plates.

We learned two things. First, regular paper didn’t work well because it was flat and could not be nestled into all the inked nooks and crannies of the rubber fish the way the more flexible tissue paper could. Also, it was nice to be able to see the ink through the tissue paper. We could make sure that all of the paper had come into contact with the inked rubber fish. This would yield a complete, intricate print.

We also learned that overinking was not ideal. After all, this is relief custom printing. The goal was to distinguish between the raised areas of the fish that would take the ink and the recessed areas that would not print. With practice, we could print very detailed ridges in the fish and even a number of the scales. Delicate inking worked best.

How the Project Went

We did this custom printing project with three classes. Some of the autistic members were more skilled, some less. However, everyone loved the tactile nature of the project and even the mess. They also liked the surprising, sometimes uncontrollable, outcomes (kind of like watercolor painting). Each student chose the best two prints they had done, which we then mounted. All images received the traditional red signature (called a “chop”) in the right-hand bottom portion of the print. Then we used glue sticks to mount the printed tissue paper on black or white bristol board backing.

While the autistic students worked on their projects, I explained the custom printing process. I distinguished between relief printing and intaglio printing. I told the students about such relief processes as letterpress, linoleum printing, and woodcut printing.

I also explained that intaglio printing allowed the press operator to print using ink in the recesses of the printing plate, while the ink on the raised areas would be wiped off before printing. In contrast, in relief printing I told the students that the raised areas alone carried the image to be printed.

My fiancee and I even contrasted these techniques to offset commercial printing, in which both the image area and non-image area are on the same level of the custom printing plate, with only the inability of oil (the ink) and water to mix allowing the image area to remain separate from the non-image area in the final print.

In short, my fiancee and I discussed the art project within the context of fine art printing and commercial printing throughout history. And since the original purpose of gyotaku or fish printing was as a recording device for commerce (printing the fish as a record of what had been caught), we even presented the context of economics in our background information.

The Inks We Used

We stuck with white and black ink, although the tissue paper ranged from black to white to orange to light blue and green. The backgrounds offered a second color in most cases.

Some of the members and their aides even found ways to print both black and white on a single fish, just by using a brush as well as a roller, adding white paint as a highlight color in certain areas.

Another Traditional Approach: Monoprints

I’ve written before in the PIE Blog about monotypes, in which no printing plate is used. You just paint a design onto a glass sheet and then lay a piece of custom printing paper over it and then rub the back of the sheet with a spoon to transfer the image. This makes only one unique print.

Similar to this is the monoprint, in which a simple (not blank like the glass sheet of monotypes but with some image in the metal “matrix”) plate is used repeatedly, but it is altered by adding ink in different ways (like painting ink onto the plate). When the students first inked up the fish with black ink and then added the white ink with a brush, this was closer to the traditional monoprint (that is, the consistent base of the printing plate with each image altered and doctored up differently).

What the Students Learned; What You Can Learn

  1. First of all, if you’re used to printing your jobs digitally on inkjet or laser equipment, it helps to see how printing has evolved over the centuries. (You may also want to read about Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of movable type in the 1400s, plus the ensuing democratization of printed materials and reading once books became available, supplanting the hand-lettered Bibles copied by the monks.)
  2. The more you know about traditional relief printing, intaglio printing, and offset printing, the more appreciation you will have for the art and craft of commercial printing. You will also understand why you do what you do. For example, the student who painted white highlights on the fish after rolling black ink onto the rubber plate with a brayer, could have done the same thing by making two passes with the same plate (one with black ink and one with white). In this way he would have learned how to print custom printing plates “in register.”
  3. Seeing the nuances of overinked and underinked plates will give you an appreciation for both graphic arts and fine arts. You will grow to both recognize and appreciate delicacy in these disciplines.
  4. You’ll understand right away what flexography is. After all, flexography is just inking up rubber relief plates, which is exactly what this kind of fish printing is. You’ll appreciate the process by which printers decorate everything from the plastic wrapping material used for loaves of bread to holiday wrapping paper to the cardboard packaging your frozen dinner comes in.
  5. You might even decide to cut a potato in half and then carve an image into one side and print it. This is the kind of relief printing I used to do as a kid.
  6. Also, if you go to a Renaissance Faire and watch a printing exhibition of letterpress work, you’ll understand the whole process of relief printing from having made your own fish prints.

Knowledge is power. It also gives you an historical and economic perspective, and it helps you appreciate the intricacies of fine arts and commercial arts.

Posted in Fine Art Printing | Comments Off on Custom Printing: Fish Printing for Art and Commerce

Custom Printing: Laser Branding Organic Fruits and Vegetables

February 6th, 2020

Posted in Digital Printing | Comments Off on Custom Printing: Laser Branding Organic Fruits and Vegetables

Literally branding food. Not in the sense of creating brand associations between a product and the values it reflects, but branding like cowboys did with their cattle. Now you can brand fruits and vegetables with thick skins using lasers. Way cool.

A commercial printing client of mine brought this process to my attention, so I did some research and came up with some questions.

First of all, ever since I grew up watching Star Trek and other science fiction shows in the 1960s, I knew that lasers could burn objects in a focused manner with pinpointed accuracy. Over the past several years I have also seen this technology used to die cut everything from wood to printed paper products. And I have also seen videos of lasers used in other finishing operations at commercial printing shops.

At the same time I have read about recent trends in packaging, which seems to be a hot sector for commercial printing. (In fact, this is especially true for digital printing, given the ability to personalize labeling with this technology, the current focus on shorter runs of manufactured products (not necessarily limited to food products), and the growth of smaller prepared (or almost prepared) meals.

So digital custom printing has been an ally in this arena, particularly as it pertains to the labeling and branding of food items, both in the sense of identifying the items and also in the sense of providing a tone, value, or even atmosphere of relevant attributes you can sense when you pick up a banana or avocado.

In this light I was intrigued by the concept my client brought to my attention of using lasers to brand thick-skinned fruits and vegetables. Mind you, if you look at online photos of this process, you’ll see that the branding seems to have been done without the application of food-safe inks. These brands seem to be just images burned into the fruits and vegetables.

A Description of the Process

One article I found in my research was entitled “Finally, An Alternative to Plastic for Labeling Organics,” written by Anabela Linke and printed in the plastic packaging section of www.dw.com. It’s not a new article (5/6/18), but it gives you a good idea of some of the benefits provided by this approach, and it includes some photos that show exactly what the process provides in terms of readability, contrast with the background, etc.

To begin with, digital laser branding of fruits and vegetables fulfills the requirement that all organic produce be labeled. It also does this while reducing the amount of plastic consumed. After all, no extraneous materials need to be added, such as stickers or plastic wrapping of bulk food, if you can burn information directly into the skin of the produce.

In terms of waste, Linke’s article notes that “in Germany, for example, the amount of packaging that ends up in the bin every year has recently increased 2 percent to 18.2 million tons, according to the German Federal Environmental Agency” (“Finally, An Alternative to Plastic for Labeling Organics”).

The article goes on to note the ever-increasing amount of plastic used to protect produce and to package smaller portions of take-out food.

In response to this challenge, a Netherlands laser tech firm called Eosta developed a packaging technology called “natural branding” (“Finally, An Alternative to Plastic for Labeling Organics”). This is exactly what the name implies, and it does not adversely affect the appearance, taste, longevity, or durability of the fruits and vegetables it adorns. These particular products, however, need to have a “hard shell” (“Finally, An Alternative to Plastic for Labeling Organics”). This would include everything from avocados to kiwis to cucumbers to potatoes to ginger roots (as reflected in the photos accompanying the article). It would not include such produce as grapes (too small) or citrus fruit (the oils in the fruit will bring back the fruit’s original color even after the laser has burned the brand into the orange peel, for instance).

Who Is Interested?

There’s definite interest, since shoppers for the most part want to reduce the waste added to the planet. However, as noted in Linke’s article, many consumers want assurance of the following:

  1. The produce won’t cost more.
  2. The branding mark won’t be a health hazard.

It seems that both of these are true, the first because the cost of the labels initially used (stickers and/or plastic packaging) would be replaced by the cost of the laser branding process, and the second, because the thick skins of appropriate produce will protect the inner fruit from the superficial laser mark (and the skins of the fruits and vegetables can just be peeled away).

Another benefit of this technology that interests potential consumers is that it allows for smaller portions, which is relevant to smaller family units and singles. You don’t have to buy a bag of avocados and worry that some will become too ripe when you can buy one avocado, or two, at a time. This means less food will go in the trash.

My Questions

These are the questions that come up for me as I consider the article and the accompanying photos:

  1. Will the laser mark without accompanying food-grade inks be prominent enough to capture the consumer’s interest? After all, in a grocery store, the product packaging from one company competes with that of all the others. Sometimes there’s so much to see that you miss things. Standing out is a necessity for brand labeling of any kind.
  2. Can the laser branding be accompanied by food-grade inkjetting to bring more color into the overall look of the product, if needed? It seems to me that this would be easy enough, since both the laser branding and the inkjetting are processes driven by digital data.
  3. Are these questions I’ve asked even relevant, given that current labels on avocados, for instance, are often much smaller than the laser branding shown in “Finally, An Alternative to Plastic for Labeling Organics”? Think about the little white labels that say “organic,” or consider the quarter-sized stick-on labels affixed to bananas. If the laser branding image is large enough, even without extra color (they do have some color, presumably from the burning process), the mark may actually catch the eye more immediately than even a printed label.
  4. Will the novelty of the process entice consumers to buy, particularly since it is obviously a more earth-friendly process than plastic wrapping or stick-on labeling? And will this “wow” factor wear off as people become accustomed to seeing laser-branded fruits and vegetables?

More than anything, this shows that OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) are constantly looking to the customer to see what she or he wants and to figure out ways to use new technologies to fill these consumer needs. It also bodes well for digital (as opposed to analog) manufacturing and custom printing processes, and it leaves open a lot of possibilities for personalization, short runs, freshness dating, and so forth.

Posted in Digital Printing | Comments Off on Custom Printing: Laser Branding Organic Fruits and Vegetables

Commercial Printing: Developing a Letterhead Design

January 28th, 2020

Posted in Design | Comments Off on Commercial Printing: Developing a Letterhead Design

A book printing and design client of mine sent me a photo of a flower a few weeks ago when we were discussing her corporate identity. She wants to rebrand her writing business, and she has liked my designs for her poetry print books (and my feedback on her marketing initiatives) enough to ask for my logo-design help.

So this week she asked that I create temporary letterhead (while we work on the rebranding), incorporating the flower image she sent me, as well as her name, address, phone number, and email information. At this pivotal moment, I thought to myself, “How do I proceed?”

Steps in the Process (The Image)

My client had asked for a centered, symmetrical layout, with all of her contact information in the center top of the page under the photo of the flower. So this is what I did—first. I figured I’d give her what she had requested, but then I’d give her some other options as well.

So I placed a small, square image of the cropped photo at the top of the page. Working quickly, I didn’t bother saving the image as a TIFF (or changing it from full color to greyscale). I just wanted to essentially make sketches as the ideas came into my head. (I will say that on the second pass, the next day, I did change the image to greyscale. At that point I also considered the tonal range of the photo (light vs. dark areas). I wanted to make sure that even at such a small size there would be detail in the image. Even (or especially) a small photo had to immediately look like a flower.

I used curves rather than levels in Photoshop. It allowed me to almost posterize the image (i.e., to use a handful of distinct levels, from black to dark grey to medium and light grey, to white). At that size, simple would be best.

I wanted the image to work in black and white first. I didn’t want the saturated red of the original flower photo to distract my client from the overall design. Also, I knew that if my client wanted to print the photo in another color, I could always add one. I also assumed (at this point in a very fluid design process) that it would cost more to print 4-color letterhead than one- or two-color letterhead—which, of course, might not be true for custom printing only a short run of the job digitally).

Looking down into the flower from above (the vantage point of the photo) made for an interesting shape around all of the petals. In addition, all of the interior parts of the flower (the parts the bees like) made for an interesting shape—but it was more abstract, less immediately understandable as a flower. So I cropped to the outer shape of the flower. Immediate recognition, I thought, trumped “cool design.”

I also noted that seeing some of the greenery around the flower petal was desirable (for its immediate recognition as a flower), so I loosened the tight photo crop just slightly. I did keep to a square format, though. I thought this would be more dynamic and solid than any other geometric form (like a rectangle).

So I had my central image, which I had every reason to think my client would like because she had given it to me, and I had presented it in its best light (aesthetically) and its most recognizable form (practically).

A Caveat Before Proceeding

I had fortunately taken the advice I always give others to ask the client what she likes in other people’s logos and letterhead, and what adjectives she considered relevant to the “tone” or ethos of her business. She said she didn’t like anybody’s marketing collateral, but she wanted me to present an upscale, dynamic look, with the elegance of Vogue magazine.

So I had my goal for the next steps.

Type Choices

Even for a letterhead treatment with a photo and a handful of address information there are an infinite number of options. Getting a client to be specific makes this easier. Getting the client to provide physical samples makes this easier still.

So with Vogue as a target I chose a serif typeface at random based entirely on what looked good to me (elegant and dynamic). I figured I could always change it later. I just needed to sketch out (so to speak, on the computer) maybe five different treatments of all of this visual and textual information, using the limited palette of black ink only (which could later be augmented). I think the typeface was Minion. It was the one at the top of the font list on my computer, and I knew that a serif face would seem to be a little more “classy and opulent” in its tone.

To enhance the upscale Vogue look I set my client’s name in caps and small caps (large initial letters in each word of her name and smaller, albeit still capital, letters for the remaining letters in each name). There are three words in her name (it looks like she uses a former married name as well as her own). It would be even more upscale if two of the names were hyphenated, but you can’t always get what you want. I made sure the name was significantly larger than the address, phone number, and email information. And to be safe, I made these one point smaller than I had initially planned. Then I made sure my client’s name was not so large as to be awkward (it still had to be sophisticated).

Page Geometry

When I was starting in design in the 1970s, we used to call this “layout.” Now I think some people call it “page geometry.” Regardless, it’s the placement of design elements on the page.

To start the process, I made exactly the layout my client had requested. (I mentioned this earlier in the blog article.) Then I started to move the elements around on the page. I tried various centered (symmetrical) and asymmetrical options. I put some address information at the bottom of the page with and without a .5 pt horizontal rule. I even realized that with the photo and three chunks of copy, I could set up a layout grid of four columns and put the image and the three chunks of copy on an invisible horizontal line across the top of the page (to anchor them).

When I was done, I went online (Google) and looked under “letterhead samples.” I found a few more ideas and modified them to accommodate my client’s design elements. Then I had five good options. Each was different from the others, in terms of the overall design grid or placement of the name (above or below the flower image, for instance). I wanted to make sure there was enough of a difference to warrant showing my client each of the options. I also remembered the advice another designer had once given me: Show the client only what you like. After all, it’s hard to advocate for a design you’re not pleased with yourself.

Logic and Practicality

When I had printed hard copies of each option (and I strongly encourage you to do this in your own work, because no online image will “feel” like real letterhead and show you the exact size of all design elements), I realized something. I looked at where my client would need to start her typed (or laser printed) letter on the letterhead. Some designs (those with all design elements at the top of the letterhead page) made it essential to start the typed letter farther down the page. Other designs that put the address at the bottom and the flower image and my client’s name at the top left more room, higher up on the page, for the letter my client would write on the letterhead.

This was a practical approach but also a prudent one.

Then I sent off the five options to my client as PDF attachments to an email. The email basically said “Anything can be changed. Let me know what you like and don’t like.” Fortunately, when I awoke this morning, my client’s email registered her overall delight. I was grateful. This doesn’t always happen.

What You Can Learn

  1. Ask your client questions (such as, “What adjectives describe your business?” and “How would you describe the values your business espouses?”). Then listen to the answers.
  2. Ask for printed samples of (or online links to) logos and letterhead treatments your client likes.
  3. Think in terms of the emotional tone of various typefaces, and the tone of all caps, all lowercase, and small-caps treatments.
  4. Think about what colors you will use for the custom printing, but first make sure the design works well in black ink only. Color can detract from your accurately assessing the quality of the underlying design.
  5. Think practically: How much will it cost to do what you want (i.e., the number of printed colors and this effect on the cost of an offset print job vs. a digital print job)? And how much space are you leaving your client to put her/his actual letter on the letterhead?

Posted in Design | Comments Off on Commercial Printing: Developing a Letterhead Design

Custom Printing: A Unique Printer’s Holiday Card

January 19th, 2020

Posted in Cards | 2 Comments »

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

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

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

A Description of the Card

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

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

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

How Was It Done?

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

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

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

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

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

What can I deduce from my observations?

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

So What’s the Answer?

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

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

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

The Take Away

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

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

The Reality

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

Posted in Cards | 2 Comments »

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