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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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Blog Articles for PrintIndustry.com

Custom Printing: How to Approach a New Magazine

August 18th, 2014

Posted in Magazine Printing | Comments »

I have a new print brokering client who wants to produce a magazine. The product will be 9” x 12” in format with a press run of 5,000 copies and a page count of 150 pages. She came to me for suggestions and assistance.

Preliminary Specs for the Job

A number of years ago, I had coordinated all printing activities for a magazine detailing the workings of Congress, so I felt qualified to make suggestions on paper stock in my initial phone meeting with my client. The magazine had been produced on a web-offset press on 60# text stock for the interior pages and 100# text stock for the exterior eight pages. So this is where I started with my client.

My client seemed open to the paper specs, although she requested an off-white stock to make the magazine look dated. She wanted it to have an older “feel.” The first custom printing vendor, a sheetfed printer, suggested 60# Utopia off-white coated stock for the text, so that is what I will have him price. Since these are only initial specifications, we will have time to change direction if need be.

A Web-Offset Option for the Magazine

I thought further, and since my client wanted a more “pulpy” look, in which the color was less important than the imagery, I thought about making the paper thinner and of a lower quality, perhaps a 45# commodity grade. So I sent the same specs to a web-offset printer, noting my client’s goals, and asked for his suggestions.

I knew the 45# paper would provide the “feel” of a lower-quality publication, but I also knew that a sheetfed press could not handle a 45# text sheet. Hence I brought the web-offset printer into the discussion. (For such a thin press sheet, you need the high tension of the printing stock running through a heatset press as a single ribbon of paper.)

Granted, the web-offset printer will need to use less ink than the sheetfed printer (open up the image separations) since the magazine will be image-heavy, and since too much ink (particularly on a lower grade press sheet in 4-color process ink, considering the higher pressure of a web press) would just create a thick, soupy mess. But I’ll let the printer address this himself when he responds to my specifications.

Where to Put the Inserts

My client wants several inserts included in the magazine. She had asked about saddle stitching the product, but I steered her away from this option. Although I have seen saddle stitched magazines that exceed 100 pages in length, they really don’t lie flat, and sometimes the center pages fall out. (And this will be a 150-page printed product.)

Also, a problem called “shingling” occurs in commercial printing in which pages closer to the center of the magazine are trimmed closer and closer to the live image area. Sometimes the trimming can cut into images or folios.

So I specified perfect binding, and my client agreed.

To go back to the inserts, this choice to perfect bind the magazine gave my client multiple positions in which to bind the inserts (a gatefold and two single-page products). In a perfect-bound magazine, she will be able to insert them between any of the signatures.

Now since 150 pages will not be divisible by 16 or 8 pages, I will suggest that she make the magazine 152 pages (nine 16-page signatures plus an 8-page signature) or ideally even 160 pages (five 32-page signatures). The bigger the signatures, the fewer the press runs and the more cost effective the job.

That said, she’ll be able to add the three inserts between these signatures.

Finally, she wants gold ink in addition to the four-color process inks on one page spread. I know this will add to the cost. Maybe there is a way to get the gold on one side of a press sheet (cheaper than two). I’ll discuss this with my client.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

Here are some things to ponder:

  1. Start early. Design your magazine using a page production application like InDesign, but also design it as a physical product using a specification sheet, considering the physical necessities of offset custom printing.
  2. Think about whether you will want a web-offset product or a sheetfed offset product. The web is for longer runs (your commercial printing vendor will help you determine optimal page counts, page sizes, and press runs for this equipment). In contrast, sheetfed offset usually costs more, and provides a slightly better product (color fidelity and such, although web-offset now comes very close).
  3. Think about placement of any supplied items, such as gatefolds and perfume inserts. Small cards can be “blown in,” or placed randomly, but they may fall out, particularly if they weigh much at all. Other items will usually need to be placed between signatures. Or you can sometimes “tip” them onto another sheet with “fugitive glue.” However, this would still be between signatures.
  4. When in doubt, ask your commercial printing supplier. He is there to make your life easier. Also, always ask for a blank paper dummy to see how the final printed product will feel in your hands.

Posted in Magazine Printing | Comments »

Business Card Printing: Ganging Up Jobs to Save Money

August 13th, 2014

Posted in Business Cards | Comments »

A client of mine is buying some business cards, a brochure, a table runner, and a retractable banner stand for an upcoming convention.

I gave her prices for the items, suggesting an alternate paper stock to bring down the cost, and I think we were both pleased with the results. In fact, a simple paper substitution brought the price of 1,000 business cards two dollars below the prior cost of 500 business cards.

In addition, I provided pricing for 250 and 500 brochures. My client had thought these prices were a bit high.

Background on the Jobs

To give a little background on the two jobs, the brochure is a two-color, 8.5” x 11” piece wrap folded to 3.66” x 8.5” on 100# Finch Fine text, and the business cards are the standard size, printed on both sides on 130# Finch cover, with a bleed on the back of the card.

Both jobs had started out with short runs (50 copies of the brochure and 500 copies of one business card). Therefore, they were initially bid as digitally printed jobs to be produced on the commercial printing vendor’s HP Indigo. Although the viewer would perceive them to be two-color jobs, the business cards and brochures would really be printed in 4-color process liquid toner. In prepress, the printer would convert the PMS colors to their nearest process color builds, and then the jobs would be run as process color work. (If I understand correctly, the color conversion may even be made on the fly in the HP Indigo press.)

A New Wrinkle in the Jobs

My client wanted options and good prices. Who could blame her? She also didn’t want to buy more than she needed. Therefore, my client asked if instead of 1,000 business cards (with one name), she could have two sets of 500 cards (with two names). Presumably for the same price.

I said this was not possible. On a digital press, the jobs could not be ganged. I was wrong (and partially right, regarding price).

When I asked the custom printing supplier about this option, he said that he could in fact gang up the jobs, which would save money. However, the two jobs together would still cost more than one 1,000-copy press run because of the extra prepress work involved. (This last part is what I was expecting, but I was pleased that there would be a discount for printing both 500-copy sets of business cards simultaneously.) I knew ganging was possible on offset equipment, but I assumed the smaller format of digital printing would not allow this. I was pleased to be wrong. So was my print brokering client.

Still Another Wrinkle in the Jobs

The best price I could get on the brochures was about a dollar a piece for digital custom printing. The press run at both 250 copies and 500 copies was too small to move the job to an offset press. It would have not yet reached the point at which the unit cost would have been cheaper for offset than for digital.

My client asked about printing 250 or 500 copies of the brochure in English and 50 copies in Spanish. I said this would be two press runs, and the 50-copy press run would be expensive on a unit-cost basis.

Based on the printer’s stated ability to gang up digital jobs (business cards), I do wonder about ganging up the English and Spanish versions of the brochures. However, for 50 recipients of the Spanish version, my client opted to move this portion of the job to the Internet.

Since she still wanted to pay less than a dollar a brochure, I suggested that I request pricing for 250, 500, and 750 copies. This would allow my client to compare total costs and unit costs. At the 750-copy level, the job might even be more economically printed via offset lithography. I will leave that to the custom printing vendor to determine.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

Here are some things to consider:

  1. If you have received a printer’s price for 1,000 copies of one version of a job, changing the job and providing art for two separate versions will not cost the same total amount as the cost for one. This is because there is more prepress work involved, even if there’s space to gang up both jobs on one press sheet.
  2. Nevertheless, it’s worth asking about ganging up multiple elements of a job. This may still save you money.
  3. Printing 500 copies of a brochure in one language and then 50 in another yields two jobs, not one, even if the art (photos, design, etc.) is the same in both. This will be reflected in the price, but, again, there may still be a savings for ganging up the jobs. However, if your jobs will print digitally, remember that the maximum press sheet size is often much smaller on a digital press than on an offset press (approximately 13” x 19” vs. 25” x 38” depending on the digital and offset equipment). Particularly if your job will bleed, there may not be room on the press sheet to gang up the jobs.
  4. Always ask your printer about options. You might even suggest moving from digital equipment to offset equipment (or vice versa) to ensure the most economical custom printing process.
  5. If you’re splitting the components of your job between digital and offset equipment, remember that the former operates in a 4-color environment and the latter in a 4-color and/or PMS match color environment. If you produce a portion of your work using one process and the balance in the other, the two components may not match.

Posted in Business Cards | Comments »

Book Printing: Knock Outs, Gold Ink, and 4-Color Blacks

August 9th, 2014

Posted in Book Printing | Comments »

I picked up an older paperback at a thrift store recently. I had owned a copy of the same print book in the 1980′s, and the cover had changed, so I looked carefully at the design and custom printing of the new cover. Granted, it was used and dog-eared, and it was still about twenty years old, but I found the cover intriguing.

The Book Cover Design and Overall Printing

The title or even the subject matter is irrelevant. What is relevant is that most of the cover consisted of a photograph of a galaxy rendered as a high contrast positive and printed in a rust-colored match color and gold, with areas left white for highlights. Black type (the title of the print book), was surprinted over the galaxy image, and below this the designer had reversed the subtitle. Then, at the top and bottom of the cover, the designer had included a banner in gold to highlight a little more type. The banner and background image bled off the cover on all sides.

The Composition of the Inks

As I have mentioned in past PIE Blog articles, process colors are transparent. This is why they work so well to create myriad colors when printed as halftone screens overlapping one another.

The commercial printing vendor who had produced this print book obviously had printed the transparent black ink of the surprinted type directly over the gold in the background image of the galaxy, so the gold could be seen (faintly) through the black type.

Was This Intentional?

Was this intentional, and if so was it even a good artistic decision? I think this is a subjective call, actually.

What is interesting about the design is that the subtle hint of gold under the black type of the title actually gives a filmy appearance to the type, like a veil, and this is actually consistent with the tone of the print book. This treatment also allows the title type, which is quite large, to sit back a bit. It seems to be more a part of the background image of the galaxy, and this might just have been the look the designer had wanted. It may not have been a mistake.

Why Did This Happen?

First of all, as mentioned before, the process black ink is transparent. However, if this were the only reason for the show-through, the gold portions of the background image would not have been the only portion of the image visible through the black title type. You would have seen some of the match rust red color as well. Then again, the red is dark, so this might not have been evident. It might have been below the threshold of visibility.

Gold ink is also hard to print. It has flecks of metal in its composition, and drying can be problematic. Usually, a printer would print gold ink over another color, rather than beneath it. Or (and more likely), he would also knock out any type or image below the gold ink, so the gold would sit directly on the substrate.

So perhaps this was intentional. And, if so, the real question to ask would then be whether he was successful in achieving the visual goals of the designer. And this would become a subjective question potentially yielding many answers.

What Could Have Been Done?

If the designer and printer had wanted the black ink to be completely opaque, what could they have done? And what would the effect have been?

The second question is more easily answered. The large title type would have looked heavier, since it would have been totally consistent in its appearance. It may even have looked too heavy, or too big.

Regarding the first question, the designer and book printer could have created a rich black (black ink combined with some cyan, magenta, and yellow). This would have made the overall look of the black ink thicker, heavier, and more opaque.

The designer and printer could have knocked out (or reversed) any type and any portion of the galaxy image that would have printed beneath the rich black of the title type.

And/or the designer and book printer could have made sure that no gold ink would have been printed under any other ink. Instead, the gold would have been printed on top, after the underlying inks had dried, or perhaps (and more likely) any other ink under the gold ink would have been knocked out to allow the gold to sit only on the blank background substrate.

What You Can Learn From This

Think about the opacity of the inks you use, as well as their problems with printing or drying (like the gold ink), and also consider the order in which the custom printing inks are laid down on the press sheet. Your printer can help you with all of these issues and decisions. But keep in mind that the technology of commercial printing is only a tool to achieve a graphic design goal. So decide first what effects you are trying to achieve.

Posted in Book Printing | Comments »

Large Format Printing: Making Final Banner Art Files

August 7th, 2014

Posted in Large-Format Printing | Comments »

I’ve been working with a print brokering client recently to produce a large format print banner stand. When she asked me about specifications for producing the final artwork, I brought her question to the printer who will produce the job. However, I also did some outside reading on the subject.

Specifications for the Banner Stand Art

Choosing the Appropriate Design Application

For a single page product like a banner stand, you can use InDesign, Illustrator, or Photoshop. Different designers will swear by any one of these for a large format print. Keep in mind that the individual programs have limits on the size of the final document (216 inches in InDesign, for instance).

Choosing the Final Trim Size for the Art File

I designed a banner stand last year. Since it was smaller than 216 inches (i.e., it was approximately 32 inches x 84 inches), I created it at the exact size in InDesign (because I’m most comfortable with this application).

I will say that the file size was very large, even considering the small size of the banner stand I was designing. This slowed down InDesign functions such as as saving the file, opening it, and closing it, particularly when I added a graduated screen behind the images.

An even larger image, such as a billboard, would exceed the maximum size limitation of the design software and therefore could not be created fulle size.

In such a case, you would need to create the art at a smaller size and ask the commercial printing supplier to print the file at a larger size. (What this means, for instance, is that you would create the banner stand art at 25 percent or 50 percent of the final size, and the printer would scale it up by a multiple of four or two. In this case you would need to multiply the resolution of the images by four, or two, respectively, in the smaller art file. That way they will be the proper resolution once the art has been enlarged. (Remember that enlarging a TIFF image file reduces its resolution commensurately.)

Choosing the Proper Resolution for Any Placed Images

In my client’s case, the printer said she should produce art for the retractable banner stand with 300 dpi images. This is because this particular kind of large format print will be seen from up close as convention goers mill around the exhibit table.

In most cases, viewers would be farther away. Consider a billboard, for instance. If you were to get really close to one, you would see that its photos are only 9 or 10 dpi. Seen from a distance, though, the billboard images will appear quite crisp. The limitations of your eyes will make everything appear right.

Some online resources say the resolution of the images can be closer to 200 dpi. Therefore, discuss image resolution with your print provider rather than making assumptions.

What all of these sources seem to be saying is that for a large format print retractable banner stand, you should keep the images at approximately the same resolution as, or at a just slightly lower resolution than, you would for a job like a print book, brochure, etc. For a poster, vehicle wrap, exterior building wrap, etc., you can afford to lower the resolution of the images since the art will be seen from far away.

Handling Type to Ensure Crisp Letterforms

Most of what I have read and heard from custom printing suppliers encourages designers to convert the type into outlines, since these can then be enlarged without degradation. A good rule of thumb is that bitmapped art becomes fuzzy as it is enlarged, while PostScript curves (vector art) can be enlarged without any degradation.

If you read the documentation on Illustrator and Photoshop (regarding vector layers in particular), you can learn how to process type for large format print graphics. Always remember to involve your printer, however. He may prefer to receive art at a certain size or resolution.

Choosing the Proper File Format

Save your files as InDesign native files, AI or EPS (Adobe Illustrator Files) or TIFF files (Photoshop). Presumably you can also hand off a high resolution PDF to your printer. That said, the safest thing to do is give your commercial printing vendor an editable art file with associated images and fonts (even if you also include a high-res, printable PDF) and also a low-res PDF to show him how you want the final job to look. The benefit of doing this is that your printer can make any changes needed to output the file to your satisfaction.

Regardless, remember to save all images as CMYK rather than RGB files. (RGB is for screen imaging: computer monitors, digital signage, etc. CMYK is for offset and digital printing.)

What to Always Do Whenever You Design Large Format Print Signage

The first rule of thumb is to always consult your printer. Always, always, always. Particularly if you need to create art for large format print signage.

It will ease your mind, and you won’t have to wonder whether to create the art at 25 percent of the final size with image resolution at four times the normal 300 dpi resolution. It’s enough to give you a headache.

Posted in Large-Format Printing | Comments »

Large Format Printing: Banner Stands and Table Throws

August 4th, 2014

Posted in Large-Format Printing | 4 Comments »

My print brokering client has branched out. She started with business cards and then a brochure. From there she has extended her order to retractable banner stands and table throws, and she may even need custom screen printing for t-shirts.

To prepare myself for discussions with both my client and various commercial printing vendors, I went to school on the subject. Here is some of what I learned.

Retractable Banner Stands

Consider whether you want fabric or vinyl as a banner substrate for this large format print graphic. The base is a metal container that holds a spring loaded, rolled up vertical banner. The graphic effect is dramatic, and it draws the viewer into the convention booth. These banner stands come in various sizes and work as follows.

You extend the telescoping pole vertically, then pull the graphic out of the base and hang the metal pull tab from the extended pole. Just under the pull tab, a horizontal brace attached to the banner holds the graphic open and taut, while the base gives the graphic dimensional stability from below. This way, the extended banner presents as a tall and narrow rectangle. If you want a larger image, you can set two or more of these side by side with large format print graphics that appear to cross from one banner stand to the other.

These retractable banner stands come with either vinyl banners or polyester banners. From my research online and from speaking to printers, it seems that the polyester banners may have less likelihood of curling at the edges. Curling may be a problem for vinyl banners, so you may wish to do your own research.

The custom printing technique of choice for vinyl banners is inkjet, and for a polyester banner you would use dye sublimation digital printing. Ask your suppliers which would be better for indoor vs. outdoor displays, which will last longer, and which will be less affected by sunlight, fingerprints, etc.

Keep in mind that these are not inexpensive (i.e., several hundred dollars or more), so you will want to protect the banners from degradation and the retractable banner stands from wear and tear in transit. Make sure the banner stand comes with a hard or soft case that can withstand air travel and baggage handlers.

Fortunately, the banners can be removed from the metal display and replaced with new large format print graphics.

One thing to keep in mind as you design such a presentation is that convention goers will be close to the banner stand. Therefore, the resolution of the images needs to be be higher than you might expect. For a poster seen from across the room, slightly lower resolution images are fine, but retractable banner stand images will look fuzzy if seen up close. So keep to the usual 300 dpi rule of thumb (or twice the halftone line screen).

Table Throws

The most interesting thing I learned from a printer with whom I discussed these products was that a customer logo printed on the front might not be seen in a crowded convention. With hoards of people standing in front of the table, the most visible spot for the logo, according to this printer, is the top of the table. He suggests printing the logo on the back of 1/16” plastic sheeting and laying it on top of the table. Of course, branded signage would also need to be set up behind the table for passersby to see as they approach the table.

Another thing to consider is the length of the table. Usually they are either six or eight feet long. Some table throws are even convertible, folding up to fit either table length. This would be useful if you do multiple conventions with different sized tables. However, in most cases the tables will be eight feet long in order to fit in a standard ten-foot convention booth.

Finally, look into inkjet, dye sublimation, and screen printing for your table throw graphic. Screen printing is not cost effective if you’re only printing one table throw, but the inks are vibrant and durable if you can share the cost among three or four table throws.

The other two options, inkjet and dye sublimation, are used for cotton and polyester substrates respectively, although table throws seem more often than not to be made of synthetics.

Also ask for stain-resistant, fire-resistant material, and make sure you can wash the throws without reducing their lifespan.

In short, think of both of these products as investments, and make sure they will last a long time if treated well. Your printer can answer these questions for you, or you can find a large format printer online or through referrals.

Beyond their design and logistical qualities, consider these products to be advertisements for your brand. Just like a business card or a refrigerator magnet, the purpose of table throws and retractable banner stands is to reinforce your company image in the minds of prospective customers.

Posted in Large-Format Printing | 4 Comments »

Business Card Printing: Digital vs. Offset Case Study

July 31st, 2014

Posted in Business Cards | 4 Comments »

I received a business card to price a few days ago. My print brokering client wanted 500 copies of one version of a two sided card.

I had printed a business card for my client a few years prior, so I asked about the paper stock. I asked whether she had liked the last version of her card, and also whether the inks on this digitally printed card had been sufficiently rub resistant.

I had wondered about the durability of the business card since it had been printed on an Indigo digital press using liquid toner on an uncoated paper stock. I knew this would have been slightly less durable than a comparably designed business card offset printed on an uncoated paper stock. After all, digital toner particles sit up on the surface of the paper, while offset printed inks seep into the paper fibers. From a user’s perspective, the digitally printed business cards would therefore be more likely to lose toner particles to rough use and fingerprints than would the offset printed business cards.

Reviewing the Specs and Art, and Choosing the Appropriate Printing Technology

My client wanted 500 business cards printed on both sides. The front of her business card art included type and a logo printed in blue and type printed in black, but there was no abutting of colors (therefore no trapping). This would make printing easier.

I looked closely at the business card sample she had given me using my printer’s loupe. I could not see any halftone dots in the blue type; therefore, I knew the job had been offset printed. Had the sample been printed on digital custom printing equipment, the blue color would have been a process color build. There would have been overlapping screens of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black creating the illusion of blue type.

I wanted to make sure the commercial printing vendor could hold register on the Indigo digital press and produce a crisp version of the blue type and logo, so I emailed him a copy of the art file. I also wanted to make sure he could determine the correct percentages of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black comprising the blue type by preflighting the PDF I sent him. Would the color build match the blue PMS color on the offset printed cards? He suggested that I send him a printed business card to use as a target to ensure color fidelity.

More Business Card Printing on the Way

My client seemed to be happy with the pricing I sent her the next day, because she then sent me three business card fronts (three names) and one business card back as high-res PDFs.

Having three business cards to work with might change things. I still consider offset printing to be superior to digital, even if by a small margin. Digital print pricing for my client’s prior business card printing job seemed to be about a third of the cost of offset for a run of 500 copies printed on one side.

So I asked the printer to bid the three business cards digitally and also as a ganged offset job, with all three versions on one press sheet. I knew this would effectively spread the cost of custom printing (set up, printing, finishing) over three jobs, making each business card effectively less expensive than one business card printed alone.

Now a Brochure As Well

I was even happier when my client added a brochure to the mix. The first iteration was a press run of 50 copies, so it would need to be a digitally printed job to be cost effective.

The brochure, an 11” x 8.5” six panel job wrap folded to fit in a No. 10 envelope, also had a two-color motif (blue and black). Of course, as a digital job the blue color would need to be a build of process toners. Therefore, I was concerned about registration. Would the colors used to build the blue be in register, or would they not be precisely aligned and therefore look a little fuzzy?

When I looked at the PDF, I noticed that the type in blue was set in a sans serif typeface, and it was not overly small. I felt better. There were no small, finely drawn serifs in the letterforms to break up or to show any misregistration. I also felt that the blue was probably only built with two of the four colors, probably only cyan and black. After all, it’s easier to get two colors in perfect alignment than four.

Increasing the Number of Brochures

Within 24 hours the press run for the brochures had increased from 50 copies to 250 to 500. I’m not sure where the break-even point will be for shifting from digital custom printing to offset, so I have asked the commercial printing supplier to provide pricing for both.

I even suggested ganging up the business cards and brochures on a larger press sheet (for offset printing). Again, this would distribute the make-ready cost among three business cards and one brochure.

It is true that the business cards will be on 130# stock and the brochures will be on a much lighter press sheet. However, given the short press run it seems that even throwing away some brochures and some business cards (extras printed on the wrong paper) would be cheaper than changing plates on the press. One press run, lots of waste, but overall only a minimal amount of paper. We’ll see what he says and how the pricing looks.

What You Can Learn

This case study reflects one particular print job. However, it also suggests ways to approach many other custom printing jobs. Here are a few things to consider for your own work:

  1. Will your press run be short enough for a digital press? Your printer can answer this based on the trim size, number of pages, and press run.
  2. If so, consider how the colors will be produced: i.e., four-color builds rather than the PMS colors used in offset printing.
  3. Will the type be too small or too intricate if produced with screens of the process colors?
  4. How will the liquid toners behave on an uncoated sheet or a coated sheet? Will they be rub resistant? Ask your printer.
  5. If you produce part of the overall job on digital equipment and part on offset equipment, will the two printed pieces (let’s say a brochure printed digitally and a set of business cards produced via offset lithography) look alike?

Posted in Business Cards | 4 Comments »

Commercial Printing: Open Source Graphic Design Apps

July 29th, 2014

Posted in Design | Comments Off

Throughout most of my 36-year career in graphic design, Apple Macintosh has been the gold standard for publication design. I have always been pleased with the software, from PageMaker to Quark to InDesign. But recent changes in pricing structure for Adobe applications such as Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign have potentially put these applications out of reach financially for a lot of people. They have gone from a one-time charge per application purchase (or for multiple applications in Creative Suite) to a subscription basis (per month/per year) of approximately $20 per month for one application or $50 per month for the entire design suite.

Subscription-Based Design Applications

I don’t want to disparage this shift, since it actually provides designers with a constant stream of up-to-the-minute software improvements. You can access any and all new software instantly (and download these software packages to your computer) within this subscription-based pricing model. For many designers, this is ideal.

Nevertheless, some designers don’t need all this functionality. Some produce an occasional newsletter or print book, and that’s it.

Also consider that a reasonable valuation for a software package is the prorated cost of the application over two years. That’s about average for many designers, who pay to upgrade their software on a two-year schedule due to improvements in application features.

Within this framework, you might want to multiply $50 for the suite or $20 for one application by 24 months (for a total of $1,200 and $480 respectively). If you’re doing a lot of design work and billing a lot of hours, this might be just a cost of doing business. After all, you get superb, ever-improving software for this price.

Alternatives to Creative Cloud

I have written about this new pricing model in prior blogs, including such options as purchasing used, older versions of the software that meet one’s needs but are not necessarily cutting edge (i.e., older versions bought on eBay). I have even suggested the option of buying only one Creative Cloud application (Adobe’s name for the new software distribution approach). After all, $480 a year for InDesign is cheaper than $1,200 a year for all Adobe design products. But which design application do you choose, and what do you do about the others you need?

What About Open Source?

My iMac recently died. Before my next big design project, a print book directory for a non-profit foundation, I must choose a replacement (or use my fiancee’s Mac Mini). Regardless, this has spurred my thinking about alternatives.

At the same time, I just bought a used Lenovo laptop running Ubuntu Linux, an open source operating system. Open source software is always being improved by software designers around the world. Not only is it always improving; it is also free. Based on my research, a used laptop running Linux is about $100 cheaper than a comparable Windows machine. Nonetheless, it’s not for everybody. I have been pleased by how speedy Ubuntu Linux is, how immediately accessible the functions I use have been (I don’t need to struggle to find things), and I think it’s cool to learn a new operating system. However, it does occasionally involve using some computer code (in its Terminal mode). Since I initially learned about computers in the 1980s with command-intensive operating systems such as CP/M and MS DOS running WordStar and Superalc, and since I started setting type on dedicated Compugraphic and Mergenthaler typesetting equipment, I kind of like entering computer code—now and then–when it speeds things up.

Granted—others, brought up using a GUI (graphic users interface)–may well feel very different.

That said, I thought I’d investigate open source options as I gradually decide which platform, operating system, and applications to use for future graphic design work.

Two Options for Images and Text: GIMP and Scribus

This is based on cursory research. Nevertheless, I think it’s a good starting point. It gives you some directions and options, but you need to match the capabilities to your needs. Free isn’t always free if the stress takes years off your life, or if you work for a graphic design studio that’s flush with cash.

Based on my reading, the best alternative to Photoshop is GIMP, and the best alternative to InDesign (or Quark, PageMaker, etc.) is Scribus. In both cases (particularly the latter), the best thing is that these programs are being continuously tweaked and improved based on feedback by actual users. Actual users. You can’t beat this. No profit motive. As the reseller who sold me the Lenovo laptop running Ubuntu Linux said, these IT professionals writing open source code do this for fun, for free, on weekends, while we’re out watching movies. God bless them.

A brief rundown on GIMP and Scribus would include the following: Both run on Linux and on other operating systems. GIMP is the most similar to Photoshop in terms of its comprehensive functions, everything from its brushes to its color management capabilities, selection options, and image enhancement capabilities. You can also process the same file format types as you can with Photoshop. Since GIMP is similar to, but not the same as, Photoshop, you might want to research GimPhoto, which is a version of GIMP that more closely resembles Photoshop.

I have not used this software. I have just started my research. However, it looks promising. It seems to be a real option for serious image manipulation in a professional design environment (as opposed to for doctoring a few images for uploading to Facebook).

Scribus seems to be a little less ready for prime time. It does not yet seem to match InDesign’s capabilities. The key word is “yet.” I think it may well get there. For now it seems better suited for smaller jobs like newsletters than for long print books. From reading the user forums, I have gleaned that font management (changing fonts within a design file) within Scribus seems to be less intuitive and harder to do than in InDesign.

Open Source developers traditionally listen to users. Therefore, I expect to see good things from Scribus in the not-too-distant future.

If I had to make a decision right now, I’d buy either a used (or older) version of InDesign on eBay and run it on my fiancee’s MacMini. Then I’d download GIMP and run it on Ubuntu Linux on my recently purchased, off-lease, reconditioned Lenovo laptop. In a year I might make a different decision.

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Custom Printing: Two Ways to Emphasize Design Elements

July 26th, 2014

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I’ve written a number of PIE Blog articles referencing Design Basics Index, an easy to use print book written for designers by Jim Krause. I find it a useful guide in my own creative work.

One topic that I noticed recently is how to emphasize various design elements on a page, or how to lead the reader’s eye through the design, clarifying which items are more important and which are less. Although this sounds controlling, it actually eases the reader’s anxiety, since he or she will know exactly what to read, in what order, to grasp the meaning of the piece, without needing to think.

Using Initial Caps to Emphasize Body Copy

Krause describes and illustrates a number of ways to emphasize type using large capital letters. In this case, larger than usual capital letters can lead the reader’s eye to the beginning of a section, showing where the text begins and distinguishing editorial copy from headlines, subheads, pull quotes, etc.

You can indent initial caps three or four (or more) lines deep into the paragraph. That is, they can be as tall as three or four lines of type (resting on the baseline of the third or fourth line of body copy), while pushing the text to the right far enough to accommodate their width.

In such a case, you can use a contrasting typeface (perhaps a bold sans serif typeface to contrast a serif typeface in the body copy). Or you can use the same typeface for both the initial cap and the text (perhaps making the initial cap bold for further emphasis).

As an alternative, instead of having the initial cap sit flush with the left-hand margin (i.e., in vertical alignment with the margin), you may choose to extend it into the margin a little, or a lot.

Or, you may choose to set the initial cap on the same baseline as the first line of type in the paragraph. This way, instead of being nestled into the first three or four lines of the text, the initial cap can sit up high above the body copy.

If you screen back the initial cap, you can even set it very large and place it behind the initial paragraph of body copy. This will give a layered look to your design while still drawing the reader’s eye immediately to the first paragraph.

In all of these examples cited by Jim Krause in Design Basics Index, the goal is the same. Whether the initial caps are in color, gray, or black, they pinpoint the exact spot where the reader can enter the text of a design. This is the key, whether the design is a brochure, the first page of a print book chapter, or a large format print poster or wall graphic.

Emphasizing Headlines by Varying Type Characteristics

Design Basics Index goes on to show a number of ways to treat headlines in publication design. Most of these look like the initial pages of a magazine article or newsletter, but a savvy designer could easily adjust them to work on a large format print poster, print book cover, or any other graphic design product.

Krause’s first four sample mock-ups show a headline centered over two justified columns of text. In the four samples, the headline is set in the same typeface as the body copy. The heads differ in their type size, but, in addition, one is set in roman type, one in italics, one in all-caps, and one in small-caps.

Furthermore, one sample mock-up distinguishes the first word of the title from the following words by reversing it out of a black banner. The large text seems to shout at the reader, while a headline set in small, italic text seems quieter, particularly when surrounded by generous white space. (Perhaps this is because it is not as cramped as a larger text treatment of the headline.)

What we can learn from these four mock-ups in Design Basics Index is that each option can be adjusted to make it an effective design approach that emphasizes the headline. At the same time, each treatment of the headline, whether italic, bold, roman, large or small, will give a slightly different emphasis and tone to the headline. The design will reinforce (or could presumably even change) the meaning of the words.

Krause’s print book includes four more options, showing that headlines need not always be set above the body copy in a symmetrical manner. Two of these samples position the words of the headline in a stack of several lines with a flush right (ragged left) margin.

One example places the body copy in a full-length (top to bottom of the page) column on the right side of the page and places the headline (and a logo, but nothing else) in the column on the left. Here, an intuitive, asymmetrical balance makes the design work while emphasizing the words in the headline.

A slightly different version enlarges the flush right headline a little and sets it within a mortise cut into the column of text on the right. The text of the body copy is slightly indented, and the words run around the headline (this is called a cut and run-around). For added interest, the large headline has been placed about a third of the way down the column of body copy rather than at the exact top of the column.

Another design option in Krause’s print book article positions the large, centered, all-caps headline above a single, narrow column of body type. The logo is at the bottom of the page. For interest and emphasis, Krause tilts the three-line headline while keeping all other elements of the page in a classical, symmetric balance. The contrast between the slanted type and the symmetrically balanced remainder of the ad creates interest. The design also works because it is so unexpected. The tilted type is unusual and therefore grabs the reader’s attention.

What You Can Learn

Controlling the path your reader’s eye takes across the printed page helps him or her understand the order of importance and the relationship among the various text and graphic elements of a design. This makes a print book page, brochure, or large format print poster much easier to navigate. By grouping important elements in a simple way and adding emphasis using differences in type size, alignment, design, or color, the graphic artist can help make the reader’s experience both productive and enjoyable.

And the best way to learn to do this is to identify sample publications you particularly like, and then study them closely to determine exactly why they work so well.

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Large Format Printing: See-Through Window Graphics

July 24th, 2014

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How do they do that? Have you ever seen a large format print graphic covering an entire bus, including the windows? How do the passengers see out of the bus?

Large format, perforated window media is the answer. This inkjet printing substrate, made of vinyl with small holes across its entire surface, is imaged on one side with inkjet equipment and left blank on the other. When applied across the surface of a bus, including the metal walls of the vehicle and the windows, this provides an awe inspiring view of the graphic image while only lowering visibility a little. It is also a significantly larger image than was previously possible to manufacture or apply to a vehicle.

How Is It Done?

If you look closely, this window film is covered with a grid of small, regularly spaced holes. The surface reduces visibility to about the same extent as a tint applied to a window. The holes, which are spaced in a 60/40 distribution (60 percent printable, 40 percent open) or another percentage ratio, afford visibility through the unprinted side of the graphic, while the eye “connects the holes” and registers a complete image of whatever is on the other side. Seen from the side that has been imaged on inkjet equipment, the view is of a full-color, large format print. If you think about it, this is similar to the way the eye connects the halftone dots of a printed photo, turning them into a coherent image.

Printable window mesh film can be inkjet printed on a grand-format printer in sections and then applied to the surface of the windows with adhesive. The strips of the printed image can be laid over one another slightly at the edges to form a huge, continuous photo. (In some cases, the film has the adhesive on the imaged side, which allows users to apply the film to the inside of the windows, affording more protection. This film has a low tack adhesive on the printable side, which makes it repositionable. It also will leave little or no residue when removed.)

The printed window film should last for a number of years, depending on its use and exposure, and any portions of the graphic that are damaged can be replaced (in small sections rather than in its entirety). Commercial printing vendors who produce such large format graphics will laminate them after producing the graphics in order to improve their tolerance for rain and sunlight and so extend their life.

Indeed, finding a skilled professional to prepare the surface of the glass, apply the film to the windows of the vehicle, and then remove it at a later date is as important as the design and the quality of the inkjet custom printing.

Why Is It So Effective?

Anything this large grabs your attention. Think about the large screens in the iMax theater. Images that cover one’s entire field of vision have far more impact than smaller graphics. If you’re close up, you really can’t see anything but the image. You become immersed in the experience.

In addition, whatever is unexpected will immediately grab the viewer’s attention in a world full of competing images. When I was growing up, bus graphics were confined to the logos of the bus company on the metal sides of the bus and a large format poster frame on the back of the bus. Even the art printed on rock band tour buses covered the exterior metal of the bus but stopped at the windows. Seeing an image dramatically larger than expected makes such a large format print truly memorable.

Where Else Can It Be Used?

I recently saw this perforated window mesh used on the front of a local sporting goods store. Tightly cropped images of basketball players in action covered the glass doors. From outside the store, you could see the image, while the view of the street from the inside was no less clear than through a tinted window.

So installing such perforated window film on glass doors, cars, vans, buses, and even plate glass windows on buildings can provide a powerful opportunity to hook the attention of passersby.

How to Design for Window Mesh Film

When you create artwork for inkjet custom printing on such a substrate, you might want to consider the following:

  1. The images will be of a lower resolution than in a book or brochure. This is true for most grand-format graphics. They are designed to be seen from a distance.
  2. Therefore, design your graphic image with large, dramatically cropped photos. Include saturated colors and a sense of movement in the large format print.
  3. Working within these limitations will allow you to produce an arresting design that benefits from this newer large-format printing technology.

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Large Format Printing: Fine Art Printing Techniques

July 22nd, 2014

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In the rush to produce posters, building wraps, brochures, and print books for either promotional or educational purposes, we may forget that one of the main uses for custom printing for centuries has been to reproduce copies of fine art.

Some Techniques and Technologies

For the most part, custom printing techniques for fine art prints fall into three complementary categories: relief, intaglio, and planographic.

Relief Printing

Relief printing includes such techniques as linoleum block or wood block printing, in which a raised area of the printing plate (in this case a block of linoleum or wood) will transfer ink to a substrate (such as paper).

The artist uses gouges and other tools to remove all portions of the linoleum or wood block’s surface that are not the actual artistic rendering. Then he or she uses an ink roller to distribute ink across the linoleum or wood block’s surface. The next step is to lay the paper substrate on the block and apply pressure (by hand or with a press). All inked areas of the block will then transfer the image to the substrate.

Intaglio Printing

Intaglio is the term for the second technique, in which the custom printing surface is below the flat surface of the plate. This category includes the process of engraving, which is used for fine art prints and for such commercial items as engraved invitations.

In the engraving process, the artist uses a sharp instrument called a burin to dig grooves in the printing plate (which is made of copper or another metal). Areas that will print as part of the fine art design will be recessed into the metal, while all non-printing areas will be untouched. This is the opposite of the relief process described above.

Once the artist has completed the design on the plate, he or she dabs thick ink across its surface, being careful to get ink into all the grooves that comprise the artwork. Then, all ink on the surface of the printing plate is wiped off, leaving ink only in the recessed grooves. The artist mounts the plate on the press, inserts a piece of moistened paper into the press, and then uses the press to transfer the inked image from the plate to the paper. The intense pressure forces the fibers of the printing paper into the inked grooves cut into the custom printing plate with the burin and transfers the image. At this point, the plate can be reinked and another impression can be made on a new sheet of paper.

The intaglio process also includes such techniques as etching, in which a waxy resin resistant to the effects of acid is applied to the surface of the coper or zinc plate. The artist uses an etching needle to cut through portions of the waxy resin to create the design. When the plate is then immersed in an acid bath, the acid eats into the plate in all areas not covered with the acid resist substance. Once the plate has been etched, the artist can apply ink, wipe off all ink on the surface (but not in the grooves cut by the acid), and then proceed with the custom printing process as with an engraving.

Etching (as opposed to engraving, which involves direct cutting into the plate with a tool rather than an acid bath) includes such techniques as aquatint and mezzotint, while the more direct process of scraping into the plate includes such techniques as drypoint and wood engraving.

Planographic Printing

The planographic process employs a completely flat plate. Image areas are not raised (as in relief printing) or recessed (as in intaglio printing). They are on the same level as non-image areas. This is the same process used for offset lithography.

Planographic plates are based on the incompatibility of oil and water. Oil repels water; water repels oil. Treating the image areas of a custom printing plate in such a way that they attract the oily ink while water covers all non-printing areas of the plate allows the plate to deposit the ink precisely.

In offset lithography, the plate first prints the image onto a fabric or rubber blanket and from there onto the paper substrate.

In more traditional lithography, in which the artist draws the image on a limestone plate with a special greasy crayon, the greasy markings attract the printing ink. At the same time, water applied to the surface of the plate is repelled by the greasy image area. When the artist lays moist paper onto the printing plate and runs it through the press, the intense pressure transfers the inked image to the paper substrate.

Silkscreen Printing

The final technique fits into none of the prior three categories. In silkscreen printing, the artist creates an image on a silk (or metal) screen that has been stretched over a wood or metal frame. Areas that will not print are blocked out (using a resist substance like shellac), while image areas are left open. The artist deposits ink at one end of the screen frame, lays the frame down over the paper substrate, and using a rubber squeegie, drags the ink across the screen. This forces the ink through the portions of the screen that have not been blocked out with shellac and onto the paper substrate.

For each successive color, the artist cleans the screen, uses shellac to cover all areas that will not print, and repeats the inking and squeegeeing process.

While this description implies that the artist has created the image by hand on the successive screens, he or she can also use photomechanical methods to create halftones that can be printed in the same way.

The Take-Away

Printing is an art and a craft. The books, posters, and business cards you design are printed with many of the same, or similar, techniques as have been used through the centuries to produce fine art prints.

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