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Archive for the ‘Design’ Category

Custom Printing: Choose the Right Font for Readability

Monday, July 24th, 2017

I was at the house of a small literary publisher recently. We were discussing paper choices and binding options for an upcoming book. Apropos to nothing, both the husband and the wife (the publishers) asked my opinion of the typeface for the text and the titles of the new book. They knew I had been an art director and that I still did a little graphic design on the side.

I looked at the type on the copyright page (since it was smaller than the book text), I also looked at the text and subheads in the body of the print book. My clients had printed out the pages on white stock, yet the final printed book would be manufactured on a cream press sheet.

The type is too small, I said. And too light. In addition, the subheads are in a Modern font (sharp contrast between the thin and thick strokes in the letterforms), and the subheads are too small. Plus the type will be printed on a cream offset sheet (which will reduce contrast between the words and the paper). Uncoated offset paper also absorbs ink, so there will be a less-than-crisp edge to the type letterforms. All of this will impede legibility.

They both agreed. They had been concerned, but they had not been able to articulate precisely why they had been concerned. Now they knew.

What I Suggested

One of the publishers (the wife of the husband and wife team) said she would choose a few fonts for the print book designer to consider. She asked for my opinion. Here are the thoughts I shared with her and her husband:

  1. Choose another sans serif typeface for the body copy. Choose one that is standard, without artistic flourishes in the letterforms. Readability is more important than style for text-heavy printed products.
  2. Make sure the sans serif body typeface is darker than the current choice (compare a new page of type to an old page).
  3. Add a point of leading between the lines of copy and increase the point size of the body copy slightly until it is readable.
  4. Consider the audience. If readers will be middle aged or older, their eyes will not shift focus as quickly as they used to, so these readers will appreciate the slightly darker type and the slightly larger point size, plus the extra leading.
  5. For the headlines and subheads, choose an Old Style typeface instead of a Modern typeface. I told my clients to Google each of these general categories. They would see the differences and probably also see a list of fonts within each category. I suggested New Century Schoolbook and Garamond. I told my clients that legibility trumped aesthetics. The Old Style fonts would have less of a dramatic contrast between thick and thin strokes in the letterforms, and this would improve legibility on an uncoated, rough, cream printing paper.
  6. I also suggested that my clients bump up the point size on the copyright page.

Now For Something Completely Different: A Poster

But what if my clients had also needed a poster or other large format print for their trade show booth at a print book seller’s convention? I probably would have told them something completely different.

Posters, large format print signage, and even some brochures have a particular trait that sets them apart from print books or even short booklets. They have very little type. In their case, while the goal is still legibility first, the reader’s eye can tolerate more ornate letterforms and even more contrast between lighter and darker chunks of copy precisely because they will be reading the printed piece for much less time than a print book.

For instance, my clients could choose a Modern font for the headlines of a poster, and since there would be fewer words, the contrast between thick and thin strokes in the letterforms would be an artistic element of the overall design, not an impediment to legibility. Granted, setting the headlines in all capital letters might detract from legibility when using a Modern typeface, but even then, if the headlines are very short, even this might work.

The key words are “might work.” It is an artistic decision based on experience and close observation. The two kinds of design work (books and short-form promotional items) are different enough that you really need a skilled designer with a good eye and experience to make the best visual choices.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

Here are some thoughts:

  1. If it looks and feels wrong, try something else. My clients are not designers. However, they do read, and they had trouble with the lightness of the type. It bothered them. That’s a good enough reason to change it. When in doubt, show someone else, or a number of other people, and ask for their opinions.
  2. Consider your audience. You may be 22, but your audience may be older. (When I was 22, it didn’t even occur to me that one’s eyesight could be so different, simply because I had not yet been middle aged. It’s easy to think that everyone can see to read equally well.)
  3. Consider the size of the type and the “threshold of readability,” which will also depend on the lightness of the type and whether it is an artsy font or a “workhorse” made primarily for reading and only secondarily for its appearance.
  4. Keep in mind that you can improve legibility (even of a problematic typeface) by increasing the point size, increasing the leading, or decreasing the length of a line of type. There are no rules that can’t be broken; rather there are ways to work around the challenges. And if you set type in all capital letters, make sure your lines are short. (Your reader depends on recognition of the overall shape of each word to facilitate reading. Each word has a distinctive outline, and a reader can skim a line of text and recognize a word’s shape with only a glance. But the shape of every word set in all capital letters is the same: a rectangle. And this means your reader will need to scan all letters in the word to grasp its meaning.)
  5. Remember that these rules differ based on the kind of work you’re doing. A poster or other large format print is different from a print book. However, in most cases it’s different because there is less type, and your eye can tolerate more diversity and flourishes in the letterforms when there’s less type to read. Think of a billboard. Then think of a novel. For these, you need two totally different approaches when selecting type.

Custom Printing: Printing Type Over an Image

Friday, November 6th, 2015

Readability is essential in design for commercial printing. If your reader cannot make out the words, or even if the design slows down the reader’s comprehension, you have lost your audience. Particularly now. Reader’s attention spans are getting shorter, not longer.

That said, sometimes you want to overprint text on an image or background of some kind.

I recently installed a movie standee for The Martian. Three words stood out, “Bring Him Home,” set on three lines with generous leading, reversed out of Matt Damon’s astronaut’s visor. The words are in all capital letters set in a bold sans serif typeface.

The large format print standee for this movie is just a large flat card with an easel back, but it’s powerful because of the design: layering, as they call it. You’ve got the type and the image. The viewer’s eye goes back and forth between the layer of the photo and the layer of the words, processing, absorbing both.

What Works Here?

Readability. This can be a nightmare. In this case, what makes the large format print design work is the shortness of the message, the extra space between lines of type, and the fact that the circle of the astronaut’s visor contains and focuses the viewer’s attention on the face and the words. Simplicity works. In this case, so does the expression on Matt Damon’s face and the fact that his eyes fall midway between two of the three lines of type. Balance.

What Can You Do When the Type Is Harder to Read?

Design Basics Index by Jim Krause addresses the same design problem in more difficult circumstances. Let’s say you have a lot of copy to print over an image. What can you do? Krause gives you some options in his section “Text Block Over Backdrop.”

Screen Back Part of the Image

You can print the image in the background using 100 percent, full-strength colors for the image. Then, you can place a copy of a portion of the background image in the center of the original, “ghosting” it back to 10 or 20 percent intensity. In this case, you’re using the full-strength image as a frame, and you’re making the lighter version of the image the reader’s focus.

On this somewhat transparent background you can now print quite a lot of type using black ink. Because the background has been “screened back,” your type will be legible. Your reader’s eye will not be confused, because there will be sufficient contrast between the background and the type. At the same time, there will be a visual connection (or similarity) between the full-intensity background image and the lighter, screened-back image overlapping it in the center of the photo.

Screen Back a Part of the Image, Option #2

You can also screen back only the top or bottom half of the background image, and then print the text in black over this light background. Again, the contrast between the dark copy and light background will make the text legible. Moreover, your eye will naturally follow from the end of the text into the remainder of the photo if the photo is below the text.

Screen Back the Entire Image

Or, you can screen back the entire image (instead of just the portion under the text box). This will maximize the contrast between the light background and darker, black text.

Stylize the Background with a Photoshop Filter

In Design Basics Index, Jim Krause turns a four-color image of a brick wall into a stylized orange and yellow background pattern. It’s still recognizable as bricks, but the intensity is diminished, as is the contrast between the light and dark areas of the brick blocks, so the overprinted text is legible. In this case, Krause has also set the type in a bold typeface with generous leading to improve legibility.

Set the Black Text Over a Vignette-Edged, White Text Background Box

Instead of creating a hard-edged mortise where the lighter, smaller image in front touches the full-intensity background image, you can fade the edges of a white block placed over the background image. The white panel will be cloud-like and will appear to float over the background. You can then print your black text on this white background. The text will be completely legible.

Reverse the Type out of the Image

This works better if there’s very little type. Consider the large format print movie standee noted above. But keep in mind that if the background image has both light and dark areas, portions of the type may become unreadable (readability depends on contrast between the words and the background).

If the type is minimal and there’s a readability problem, you can always add a drop shadow behind the letters or an outline stroke around the reversed letters. Or you can reverse the type out of a solid black box. Or you can even turn the full-color photo into a black and white image and then surprint the text in a light color (like yellow). In this case, remember that the yellow text must be short (only a couple of words), bold (perhaps a fat, bold sans serif face), and simple. Otherwise it won’t be legible.

Krause shows examples of all of these options in “Type Over a Backdrop.” What makes this useful is that it provides options. And sometimes as a designer your brain just draws a blank. Then you really appreciate new ideas.

Custom Printing: Enhancing Logo Design

Monday, June 22nd, 2015

I discussed logo design in a PIE Blog posting last week. Jim Krause makes a number of suggestions on this topic in Design Basics Index. He suggests starting with an image, transforming it into an icon, and then presenting it along with the business name in a dramatic way that reflects the essence of the company.

Tonight, I turned to another design text: Design Workshop by Robin Williams. She includes a number of logo creation suggestions in her print book as well.

“Tweak a Letterform”

One section, called “Tweak a Letterform,” illustrates ways to make a logo stand out by altering the type a bit. For instance, an italic treatment of the Goldfeather logo draws out the base of the “f” letterform into a swash (like a flourish with an ink pen) and then adds a feather to the top of the “f.” All of this is printed in gold, while the rest of the logo prints in black. What makes this logo treatment effective is the addition of an image that reinforces the company name.

Another sample Robin Williams includes is the Lightning Studios logo. In this case she replaces the second “i” in “lightning” with a lightning bolt. The lightning bolt prints in yellow, while the rest of the logo is black and beige. As a bright, dynamic color in contrast to the balance of the logo, the lightning bolt jumps off the page.

In another logo for Hamlin Garden Townhomes, Williams does much the same thing by swapping the letter “i” in Hamlin for a large tree with ample foliage.

The Take-Away

In all three examples, Williams’ logos work because they contain an element of surprise (the letter replaced with an image) and they use an image directly relevant to the company. The replaced letterform brings an associated image directly into the name of the company, a simple and elegant way to associate the name of a company with its actual business focus.

“Add Elements”

The next section of Williams’ Design Workshop expands the options for logo design by marrying a graphic to the name of the company (in ways other than replacing a letterform with an image). This might include adding clip art, illustration, and various stylized icons. (This is similar to Kline’s discussion of icons in Design Basics Index.)

A number of Williams’ sample logos appear to be for technology firms. Williams has added various swooshes and multiples of dots in bright colors, perhaps to indicate flashing lights on a console. The simplicity of the type choice in the five iterations of the ChromaTech logo, for instance, highlights the contemporary, bold nature of such a company.

Another interesting logo treatment for a company called Riverside Mall uses repeated, interlocked swooshes in various shades of blue to suggest waves. The five overlapping marks placed under the words of the logo provide a visual base while at the same time referencing the river (presumably) in front of the mall. Williams chose a modern sans serif typeface for the logo. Several of the letterforms have unique and unexpected strokes, and the thinness and grace of the letterforms impart a sense of elegance to the presentation.

The Take-Away

All of Williams’ logos include a visual element in addition to the type treatment. In all cases the visual elements suggest something relevant to the company but only in a stylized manner. For instance, the image suggests elegance or movement or a futuristic bent. Unlike the logo marks Williams includes in “Tweak a Letterform,” these logomarks seem more abstract. They suggest rather than state outright. However, in all of these cases the logomarks are simple and dynamic presentations of some actual item (computer indicator lights, waves, the rays of a sun).

“Add Clip Art” and “Add Illustrations”

Robin Williams includes two more sections on logo design, giving designers the option of adding some form of illustration beyond a simple icon.

The logo for the Soup Kitchen, for instance, benefits from an actual illustration in a way no icon could accomplish. The artistic style of the soup, the steam coming off the soup, and the glass of wine suggests a relaxed mood. The illustration is effective specifically because of its more complex rendering. In addition, the typeface Williams chose for the company is informal and playful, complementing the tone of the image.

Another example in this section of Williams’ print book is the Idea Swarm logo. Williams added a handful of lightbulbs (clip art) above the playful typeface to suggest a swarm of ideas, and then adjusted each of the letterforms so they would not be on the same baseline and so they would be tilted in some cases. This gives the logo a sense of movement—like a buzzing swarm of ideas. Finally, she moved one of the lightbulbs slightly away from the others to give it more prominence.

The Take-Away

Humor goes a long way to make a logo memorable. And an unusual treatment of the type in a logo (like the bouncing letterforms in Williams’ design) can complement the humor in the illustration. Also, don’t assume that clip art has to be boring or commonplace. It all depends on how you use it (multiple images in this case).

How to Design a Company Logo

Thursday, June 11th, 2015

One of my favorite and most useful design books is Design Basics Index by Jim Kruse. I’ve discussed various suggestions from Krause’s book in prior PIE Blog articles, but I am always surprised and pleased at how helpful this print book can be.

I was paging through the text this evening, and I came upon a step-by-step presentation of a logo for a company (possibly fictitious) called Rototech. This section becomes even more useful when paired with another section that explains how to create icons from physical objects.

To explain the thought process behind the logo creation exercise, let’s start with the icon creation exercise. In both cases, the photos and drawings Krause includes are as helpful as the written explanations.

Abstracting the Essence of Images for the Logo

Krause includes four hand tools in his section on icons: a saw, a screw, a C-clamp, and pliers. To demonstrate the process of extracting the most important elements (functional as well as visual) of these tools, he has circled the teeth of the saw, the head and threads of the screw, the entire shape of the C-clamp, and the jaws of the pliers. On the opposite page he shows icons of the four photographs, or images “created from the stylistically rendered details taken from only a tiny portion of the object’s entirety.” (page 159, Krause)

All four icons are set within blue circles. Each has an outline in white of the simple shape of the tool (in most cases just a portion of the tool), and the tool itself is rendered in light blue. The key is simplicity and immediacy.

In another section of the print book, Krause shows four more renderings of a wrench, ranging from a lifelike silhouette showing the jaws, gear, and handle of the adjustable wrench, to a dot-matrix image of the tool, to a “sketch” of the wrench made up of simple red lines drawn over a blue background shape.

Krause explains the goal of reducing the image down to its most essential elements in creating an icon. It must “directly and vividly convey its meaning to the viewer.” (page 159, Krause) In Design Basics Index, Krause notes that the goal is to “simplify and stylize” the image (page 159, Krause), and states that this is a difficult and time consuming task which is an art in itself.

Krause’s Design Process for the Rototech Logo

In the logo creation section of the print book, Krause simplifies the blades of a fan in a handful of different ways to explore options for creating movement. Most of the fan shapes include three blades in slightly different but analogous colors. He also tries these three-blade, simple shapes as a reversal (to white) out of a solid green circle.

In this exercise, Krause discusses such graphic tools as style and volume (showing the fan blades in both flat and dimensional renderings, and in both sketchy and more hard-edged representations). Clearly Krause’s goal is to get the reader to experiment as he or she explores options for a logo mark.

The final section of this lesson involves the “presentation” of the logo image. That is, Krause displays the fan image within a type treatment of the firm’s name. At this point he has selected the three-part fan image in dark, medium, and light orange. The fan blades are simple and stylized. The repetition of the simple shape along with the shift in colors creates apparent motion.

All of the type treatments Krause includes for this logo are tightly kerned, all-caps versions of the word “Rototech” in a geometric, sans serif typeface. The first shows the fan repeated five times above the name of the company. The name is reversed out of a blue rectangle, and all fan images except one (the one in the three shades of orange) are represented in lighter or darker shades of blue. The repetition of the form of the fan increases the sense of movement, while the warm colors of the central fan image draw the eye to the center of the presentation and then down into the reversed word Rototech. The simplicity of the all-caps letterforms give a futuristic and “techy” feel to the presentation.

Krause shows a different approach in the next image by filling the second “O” in Rototech with blue and then superimposing the orange, three-part fan over the letter. This places the emphasis on the word Rototech instead of the fan logo mark.

Another treatment positions the three-part orange fan in a blue square above the word Rototech, and a fourth treatment reduces the size of the fan blades and blue square box to the height of the company name, and places the logo mark to the left of the word itself. Again, this gives predominance to the name of the company over the orange fan icon.

What You Can Learn From Krause’s Design Exercise

This is what I learned from the samples in the book as an approach to logo design:

  1. Start with the icon. Choose an image relevant to the company and then simplify it.
  2. Create multiple, different approaches to the presentation of both the logo mark and the associated words (name of the company, tag line, etc.).
  3. Make sure the logo mark and the associated words complement one another (in tone and style) and reflect the essence of the company.
  4. Create versions that highlight the name of the company, and also create versions that focus more on the logo mark or icon.
  5. Don’t become wedded to one version. Experiment. Approach the design challenge as play rather than work.

Commercial Printing: A Useful Tool for Identifying Fonts

Monday, May 18th, 2015

A custom printing client sent me a photo of her business card recently. She wanted to know if I could reproduce it.

This Is How I Approached the Job

  1. First I opened the photo in Photoshop and cropped down tightly on the printed words on the business card. Then I saved the image as a JPEG.
  2. I uploaded the photo of the type to “What the Font” (which can easily be found online). It is to typography what a fingerprint database is to the TV show CSI. This type database matches portions of each letterform in the sample and then lists a number of possible typefaces the sample could be. Unfortunately, the photo of the business card, presumably taken with a smartphone camera, was not sufficiently crisp for the type identifier to work. It listed too many fonts, when all I really wanted was one. So I asked my client to mail me a hard-copy sample of the business card.
  3. The logo on the card was initially problematic. Tracing the logo over the JPEG photo would not provide a crisp and usable file, and even scanning the hard-copy sample when I received the physical business card in the mail would only provide a bitmapped image. Fortunately, my client found a high-resolution JPEG of the logo. I could use this to determine the color.
  4. The high-res logo came to me as an RGB file. Since the business cards would probably be produced digitally (since my client would most likely only need about 500 cards), I changed the color space to CMYK, and I assumed the two PMS colors in the logo would be process color builds on the HP Indigo digital press.
  5. At the same time, I chose a typeface that appeared to be close to the original in the photo of the business card. I wanted to create a mock-up of the business card. I planned to change the typeface later. For now I would just place the high-res logo (after changing it to a CMYK TIFF in Photoshop) and type in the contact information on the card. This would give me an opportunity to estimate what type point size would fit in the space and see how much letterspacing would be needed to match the original type. I could also match the use of upper and lowercase letters, italics, and such used in the design of the business card.
  6. When I received the identity package in the mail (business card, letterhead, #10 envelope, and Monarch letterhead and envelope), I scanned the card and uploaded it to What the Font again.
  7. This time the automatic font matching software did not find even one match.
  8. Therefore, I went through a 25-question (approximately) interview process analyzing all aspects of the typeface, and the What the Font database gave me the following answer: The type sample was Times Europa Office.

What You Can Learn from this Case Study

Type is one of the most useful tools in the designer’s arsenal because it can convey a tone or mood that supports the message of the text. It can be playful, sedate, sophisticated. It does this through all the myriad details in the letterforms. A font identifier such as What the Font can really get you to think more critically about these type characteristics. You can go beyond the distinctions between serif and sans serif, between roman and demi-bold or medium or heavy or black, or the distinction between narrow and wide, or condensed or expanded.

When the typeface database could not identify the font by trying to match the individual letters of my sample to the font alphabets in its database, it started asking me questions.

Here are some examples:

  1. The software asked about the serifs: were they horizontal and vertical, or were they slanted?
  2. Did the curve of the uppercase “J” drop below the baseline, or did it sit flush with the baseline?
  3. Did the lowercase “g” have one closed, curved element above the baseline and another closed, curved element below the baseline?
  4. It asked about the “tail” of the uppercase “Q.”
  5. It asked whether the sides of the “M” were completely vertical or slightly slanted.

This questioning went on for some time, and each time I answered a question, the font database matched my answer to its repository of fonts, narrowing down the list bit by bit.

What this shows is that the artists who initially drew each letterform of each font added intricate details to every letter. In your own design work such an exercise can get you to look more closely at the letters that tend to differ from font to font, such as the “a,” “g,” “f,” and “j,” in lowercase letters, and the “Q,” “J,” “W,” and “M,” in uppercase letters.

This exercise can lead you to a useful font-matching tool (such as What the Font). It can get you to look closely at the shape of the letterforms. It can also give you a starting point for identifying a font needed to prepare your client’s corporate identity materials for custom printing. And it may even make you fall in love with the intricacies of type.

Custom Printing: A Few More Text-Design Tips

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

Design Basics Index by Jim Krause has always given me food for thought regarding the fundamentals of effective publication design, including anything from posters to brochures. Since I’ve always considered it valuable to constantly practice the fundamentals of any craft, I get a lot of pleasure just dipping into this print book periodically, just to learn “one more thing.”

I found a few choice nuggets this evening, which I’d like to share with you, all of which pertain to text design. Somehow I think it’s easier to make something look good when your central focus is a photograph, but I think these few type-only suggestions will make what is usually a challenging design task just a little bit easier.

Unique Treatments of Paragraphs

Krause suggests the following two approaches to formatting paragraphs in novel ways.

In most cases you might either indent the first line of a paragraph to set it apart from the preceding paragraph, or you might set the paragraph without indents as a block of copy. Then you might separate it from the preceding and following paragraphs with extra space. While this works well, it is purely functional. It is also invisible to the reader since it lacks any design flair.

In contrast, if you’re setting up the opening pages of a magazine article and need to distinguish paragraphs in a large block of copy, Krause suggests using “dingbats.” These miniature images, also known as “printer’s flowers,” would include such marks as stars of various kinds, crosses, bullets, ornate leaf forms, the reversed “P” paragraph symbol, and various other simple glyphs.

These have a long history in the printing trade, and they make a visually interesting variant for separating paragraphs. You might even want to add color so the dingbats will stand out from their surroundings.

Personally, though, I would use these with restraint. I think they are perfect for an introduction (perhaps one you have set in a larger point size), or other important block of copy, but for lengthy text they will reduce readability. For lengthy copy, I favor non-indented paragraphs separated by extra space. This works well to break the copy into smaller, digestible chunks.

Another suggestion Krause poses in his treatment of paragraphs is to separate an important paragraph from its surroundings not with space but with color, or a change in typeface. Going back to the preceding sample of an introduction for a magazine page-spread, setting apart a paragraph in this way may give a contemporary “look” to your design piece.

Of course, moderation is important in this case as well. It would be more appropriate for a very short magazine-spread introduction, for instance, than for anything longer. In addition (in my own opinion), it is wise to consider the accent color carefully. If it is red, for instance, the paragraph will look more important than the surrounding paragraphs. If it is blue or another cool color, it will look different from, rather than more important than, the surrounding paragraphs.

Ways to Emphasize Text and Heads

I think Krause’s most useful suggestion in this section on emphasis involves breaking out of the text grid by starting the headline in the scholar’s margin (the non-text gutter to the outside of the text column). This catches the eye immediately for a few reasons:

  1. The headline is larger than the text.
  2. The headline is in a different color from the text.
  3. And the position of the headline is unexpected, since it breaks out of the column of text.

Let’s focus on the third reason. If you set up your 8.5” x 11” page with a 6”-wide text column, the reader expects all copy to fall within this space. This expectation makes reading easier. It also can make the page visually boring. If you need to draw attention to a design element, like a headline, breaking this pattern will emphasize it.

To illustrate this point, Krause’s Design Basics Index positions a one-word headline flush-left at the outer edge of the page. The headline extends into the column of type, which runs around the word. Five lines of type are indented by about an inch to achieve this “run-around.” This design treatment works well for such a one-word headline.

If your headline is larger, consider setting it in a smaller point size in multiple lines, with the run-around (indent) extending all the way around this type. Another option would be to start the headline in the “scholar’s margin” (near the outside of the page) and have it break into the column of type without running text around it. This might result in a looser, less cramped look.

Krause includes several more design suggestions I’d like to share:

  1. Put a short quote, callout, or pithy sentence in the outer margin. Your reader’s eye will go right to this copy, just as it went right to the headline that broke into the scholar’s margin.
  2. Use a simulated handwriting font for a short piece of copy. The reader’s eye will go right to this design element.
  3. Surround text with a color rule to capture the reader’s eye. Placing copy in a simple, solid shape like a circle will do the same thing.
  4. Color will always grab the reader. However, too much defeats the purpose. An accent color works because of its contrast with its surroundings. Err on the side of using too little.
  5. Larger type will emphasize a design element.

The Take-Away

Design can be learned. It is an art, but it has rules. Learn the rules and then break them—always for a purpose. The best way to learn design is by observing and deconstructing graphic design that you like: large format print signage, business cards, brochures, print books, etc. And having a few design textbooks on hand, like Design Basics Index, can make a huge difference as well.

Custom Printing and Design: Contrast and the Element of Surprise

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

Have you ever seen a printed photograph of a sunset, perhaps in a wall calendar, and wondered just how the printer got the sun to appear so bright?

If you think about printing such an image from the perspective of a custom printing vendor, the sun cannot be brighter than the white paper on which the calendar was printed. And yet, the sun seems to radiate off the page.

How Does This Work?

What is actually happening is that the much darker hues of the background, as your eye moves away from the central solar image, create contrast with the fiery yellow and red sun. This makes the dark tones appear darker and the light tones of the sun appear lighter.

(In addition, the reds, oranges, and yellows in the image are warm colors in that they appear to jump off the page, while the blues and purples of the darkening surroundings are cool colors, in that they appear to recede from the viewer’s eye.)

A good rule of thumb to take away with you from this example is that nothing in design or commercial printing exists by itself. Everything–whether it is a color, a shape, or a block of type–exists in relationship to something else. And if you can create contrast between colors or shapes, you can catch the viewer’s attention.

Finally, if you’re going to contrast two design elements, make the contrast “big.” That is, be dramatic.

What About Type Treatments?

It is a rule of thumb (albeit one made to be broken) that a serif typeface in the text works well with a sans serif headline. The opposite is also true. Choosing a heavy, serif typeface for a headline and placing it over body copy set in a sans serif typeface creates an interesting contrast.

In either of these cases, the contrast between the headline and the text gives the reader immediate information as to what is more import and what is less important. If she or he has time to only read the headlines in a news story, for instance, it is helpful to know instantly where they are.

Granted, even if you’re a sophisticated designer and you understand how to pair one serif typeface in the body copy with another serif typeface in the headline, you’re probably still conscious of using two typefaces that are different in some way—to increase reader interest. Here again, contrast is a key rule of design.

Contrast Between Type and Surrounding White Space

Those of you who remember the 50s and 60s may remember Helmut Krone’s and Julian Koenig’s “Think Small” VW Beetle campaign in 1959 for the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency. Unlike every other ad in the newspaper (presumably), the “Think Small” Volkswagen ads pictured a tiny image of the VW Beetle surrounded by a huge amount of white space. The ads immediately grabbed the reader’s attention because of the contrast between the copious white space and tiny image. Moreover, it worked because it was unexpected. (One would usually expect a small amount of white space surrounding the more important image of the car.)

Beyond the optical trick, based on unexpected contrast, the concept worked because the goal was to position the VW Beetle in a minimalist way as a small, simple, no-frills car. The concept matched the design treatment.

Contrast in Size of Typefaces

I recently saw a sample print ad in a book by Robin Williams entitled Design Workshop. The vertical ad treatment included a huge whisk and spoon alongside a small block of copy and a small logo of a chef in a white chef’s hat.

First of all (and consistent with my earlier comments about how a strong contrast maximizes differences between two design elements), the huge cooking tools make the chef look even smaller than he would have looked otherwise.

Secondly, the particular choice of contrast contributed the element of surprise to the ad. That is, normally you would think of a chef’s head as being larger than his cooking tools; therefore, a reversal of this expectation is more likely to focus the reader’s attention on the ad.

Robin Williams takes a similar approach to a type-only ad in the same chapter, enlarging an all-type logo (apparently set in the “American Typewriter” typeface to look like type script), screening it back to a mid-tone gray, and then positioning it behind a reversed block of ad copy. The logotype looks like it was produced on an old manual typewriter, so the contours of the letters are interesting (a design element in themselves), and the larger than usual type in the background creates a layered effect. Finally, Robin Williams tilted the ad copy. All of these unexpected design elements work together to interest the reader.

What to Remember

The most important thing to remember is that contrast creates visual interest, and the most effective contrast is a dramatic contrast. Think big—or small.

Commercial Printing: Open Source Graphic Design Apps

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

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.

Custom Printing: Two Ways to Emphasize Design Elements

Saturday, July 26th, 2014

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.

Commercial Printing: Selecting Ink Colors for Design

Sunday, June 22nd, 2014

Color choice is a major tool in design for any printed or virtual image. Colors elicit emotion and give subtle clues as to the meaning of an ad, print book cover, poster, or website.

A particular color can suggest a formal approach to a subject or a more playful air. It can intimate that an ad is targeted to children rather than to adults, or vice versa, even before you have read a word of the copy.

But How Do You Choose Colors for a Custom Printing Product?

Jim Krause’s book Design Basics Index suggests a number of approaches, three of which particularly stood out as I was paging through his book last night.

  1. Choose a dominant color based on associations that have become traditional “hooks.” For instance, gold and burgundy can suggest opulence. Yellows and oranges bring to mind summer sun and surf. Starting with this dominant color, you can then add one or two colors from the color wheel that are analagous (next to your color on the color wheel), complementary (opposite your color on the color wheel), or split complementary (one color to the left or right of the complement on the color wheel).
  2. If you are placing an image in an ad, or an initial page spread of a magazine article, use Photoshop’s eyedropper tool to sample one or more colors within the image, and then use these colors in your color scheme. Design Basics Index includes a photo of a candy dish full of lemon drops in this section of the book. Krause suggests sampling the blue of the dish and the yellow of the candies, and then he creates several sample designs with the blues and yellows (the hues of the candy dish photo plus their tints).
  3. Walk away from the computer and look at the world. See what colors in nature go well together, what colors are appropriate for autumn, for instance, or spring, for the beach or the mountains. Learn to look closely. Make it a part of your daily activities. This awareness will enliven your design.
  4. Paint with watercolors or acrylics, draw with pastels, and see how colors behave when you’re mixing them. This will enhance your color awareness when you’re doing graphic design as well.

How Do You Apply This to an Actual Design Project?

A little later in Krause’s chapter on color, he shows four iterations of a logo for Star Fine Candies, encouraging designers to experiment in their own work by keeping certain design elements constant (like the logo mark and the type treatment) while varying other elements (like the choice of colors).

  1. The Star Fine Candies logo comprises a star made of striped candies, the business name “STAR” (in a bold sans serif type) and “Fine Candies” in a script face. All four iterations of the logo include these same graphic elements.
  2. The first sample logo depicts the candies in the shape of a star in two colors: orange and yellow. “STAR” is printed in black, and “Fine Candies” is printed in orange. The overall treatment is colorful and dramatic. Since “STAR” is printed in black in a bold sans serif typeface, it is the dominant element. One thing to consider, however, is that the delicate lines of “Fine Candies” make the dark orange seem lighter than would a solid block of this color. It’s good to remember that the thinner the type, or the smaller the logo (such as the logo on a business card), the harder it will be to read. Additionally, the cost of the commercial printing job will reflect three-color custom printing (three PMS colors in the sample logo). This may be more expensive than four-color process (since the press will need to be cleaned and the process colors will need to be replaced with PMS colors). Also, three-color custom printing costs more than two-color printing.
  3. Iteration #2 of the logo changes the “Fine Candies” text in the script font from orange to black, which makes it more dominant and more legible. In addition, the two-color images of candies that comprise the star have changed from orange and yellow to orange and a lighter screen of orange. It’s a subtle difference. Perhaps it’s not quite as colorful, but only marginally so. In addition, it only requires a two-color commercial printing run, so it will cost less than the first option to print.
  4. Option #3 is also a two-color print job. Krause has placed the “star” logomark image of the candies, the word “STAR,” and “Fine Candies” over a yellow rectangle, knocking out portions of the logo (the stripes in the candies and the word “STAR”). This gives the illusion of a third color (white) without needing to pay for one. However, the overall look is more delicate than either of the two prior iterations.
  5. Option #4 uses only one color plus screens of the color (simulating three levels of value within the candies that comprise the star). The words are all one solid color. This is the cheapest iteration of the logo to print (one color costs less than two or three).

You really can’t say that one or another of these iterations of the logo is “correct.” Each has its merits and implications: for readability, associations with certain colors, and commercial printing costs.

As a designer, you can increase your value to your clients by approaching their work in these ways, and by developing and presenting a number of closely related solutions.

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