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

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Archive for the ‘Design’ Category

Commercial Printing: Thoughts on Designing and Tweaking a Logo

Monday, October 7th, 2019

A custom printing client of mine recently asked me for help with her rebranding efforts. Over the years, I have been a designer and art director, and I have also done marketing writing and design work. In addition, I have focused on marketing as subject matter for the PIE Blog articles and Quick Tips articles, so I spend a lot of time studying this aspect of communications and commercial printing.

Since my client just offered me this new work, it seemed fortuitous that I just found an article on adjusting your logo for reproduction at different sizes and in different media (internet vs. print, for instance). The article is “Designing a Logo for Every Size and Usage.” It was written by Ilene Strizver and published on on 8/13/19.

Strizver notes that logos must be immediately recognizable at different sizes. Although you may first see a logo on a business card, you need to see the same visual image when you find the logo again on a large-format banner on the side of a building.

Or, you may see the logo first on a brochure and then online. The first rendering will be achieved with ink or toner, and the second will be composed of colored pixels on a backlit computer screen, which provides a very different visual experience.

Much of what “Designing a Logo for Every Size and Usage” offers is an approach to the letterforms used in the logo. That is, we must first understand that the size of the logo changes the appearance of the letterforms.

For instance, if you create a logo that is 3” wide (an arbitrary width) and then shrink it down to a useful size for a business card, certain portions of the letterforms will fill in and be unreadable. Granted, if you look through a magnifying glass, these strokes in the letters will still be there, but at a normal reading distance, your eye will fool you. The “counters” (the technical word for the curved, enclosed spaces in the letterforms, such as the enclosed portion of a “P”) will fill in or at least not be visible.

Or the letterforms will appear to run together. They may not be distinct from one another. Or the serifs in the typeface may disappear (they’re still there, just below the threshold of readability).

Or, depending on your substrate, the commercial printing technology might be problematic, according to Strizver’s article. For example, if you’re printing on fabric, the inks may bleed into the fibers, making parts of the letterforms fatten up or become blobs of ink.

Enlarging the logo might also be problematic. If you take the 3” logo and enlarge it for use on a banner, the letters may seem to be too far apart. This can impede readability because the letterforms don’t appear to be as connected to one another as you’re used to (that is, you begin to see the strokes as individual letters instead of seeing them as one word). If you have to think about the word you’re reading, this will hinder your comprehension.

And all of this is just for printing with ink or toner. That’s just half the battle.

Rendering your logo on a smartphone screen or tablet or computer monitor may make the letterforms look different than you’re used to. Colors are not always the same as in print (so they may not match the PMS colors of your printed logo). In addition, the backlighting of computer screens makes it harder to read small type. And even though serif faces have been proven easier to read in print, the opposite is true online, where sans serif typefaces are easier to read.

All of this can slow down your reader. And a major rule of marketing and psychology is that anything that slows down a reader or confuses her/him will dilute your marketing message. At best, your prospective client’s reading speed will be impaired. But at worst, you’ll lose your reader entirely.

What to Do / How to Fix These Problems

“Designing a Logo for Every Size and Usage” doesn’t really tell you what to do. Rather it lets you know what to look for in designing a logo, so you can tweak it for optimal readability. Moreover, it presents a novel concept in this light. That is, you should create different versions of your logo for different uses. Not very different, just optimized for the size and medium in which it will be presented. The goal is to massage the logo in such as way that the reader’s eye (with all its limitations) thinks all of the different sized iterations of the logo are exactly the same.

As an approach to doing this, here are the things Strizver says you should consider:

  1. Adjust the letterspacing as needed. (This is the space between letters, which can be altered with “kerning” controls in InDesign.) It should be more open for smaller versions of your logo and tighter for larger versions.
  2. The same holds true for word spacing (the space between words). You need more word spacing for smaller versions of the logo and less word spacing for larger versions.
  3. If your logo has multiple lines of type (perhaps a logo word mark with a tag line under it), add more space between lines (“leading”) for smaller versions of the logo and less space for larger versions.
  4. Adjust the thickness of thin strokes (like serifs) as needed.
  5. Make the “counters” of the letterforms (like the enclosed space in a “P”) more open if you’re rendering a logo at a small size.
  6. Narrow and condensed fonts can be even harder to read (and therefore may need more adjusting).
  7. Readability can be improved by using a slightly different weight for the font (some fonts come in demi-bold and bold, for instance, or other slight variations from one another).
  8. Changing the strokes of a letterform can be daunting. Remember you’re not doing this to an entire font. You’re just tweaking (presumably) a limited number of letters in a logo. You may choose to do this in Illustrator. (This was not in Strizver’s article. It’s my own commentary.)
  9. Another related suggestion of mine (not in Strizver’s article) is that you be conscious of the reader’s age. As we get older, our eyes become less flexible in changing focus. In this case, paying attention to Strizver’s suggestions becomes even more important to your readership.
  10. Make subtle changes to the letterforms, not dramatic ones.
  11. After all, the goal is for none of your readers to see what you’re doing. You’re not creating a new typeface. You’re just making it easier for customers and prospective customers to see your logo and not stumble over the limits of human eyesight or the liabilities of various media.

An Approach to Your Own Design Work

As noted above, I have a new logo/rebranding client. It would be very easy for me to forget all of this in forging ahead with the rebranding work. Therefore, it’s best to slow down and think. If you’re in a similar position, here are some things to consider, based on my own experience as a designer and art director.

  1. Focus on the logo type treatment and any image you will use first. Think like an artist at this point. Try different type treatments and approaches to the logo.
  2. Then view the logo at different sizes. At this point, just observe and make mental notes of potential problems.
  3. Then check your logo on different media. Try printing it out (both black and white and color). Then see how it looks online in various sizes.
  4. Consider all of the suggestions presented in “Designing a Logo for Every Size and Usage.” Make changes and develop a logo style-and-use document for the client based on presenting the logo at different sizes, in different ways, and on different media. But do this last. First, make sure you have an aesthetically designed, dramatic logo that will be a powerful statement at different sizes. Then focus on Strizver’s article as a way only to “tweak” the designs and present them in their best light.

You may be surprised at how effective this can be. I just did this with my fiancee’s daughter’s logo for her yoga studio. I tightened up the spacing between a few letters in her logo (also knows as “kerning”), and the name of her studio, which had initially appeared as a few small clumps of separate letters, visually (and therefore cognitively) became one word. In the case of my fiancee’s daughter’s logo, all it took was equalizing the space between all of the letters in her logotype.

Custom Printing: Design Approaches for Specific Media

Monday, February 11th, 2019

I attended a freelance group meeting yesterday. Most members were writers and designers, some of whom I had known for two decades. One of the designers, who had been a director of publications at a non-profit before venturing out on her own, showed us several PDFs (on her computer) of the booklet designs she had done in the 1980s, 1990s, and recently.

It was most interesting to see the differences among the samples, both from the point of view of how publication design has changed in twenty years and also in terms of the changes made to facilitate reading on current media.

My Colleague’s Design Samples (and the Basis for Her Design Approaches)

In the 1980s my colleague designed booklets with 4-color covers. But between the covers, my client’s print books were black-ink-only products with designs based on text and photos. Overall, the two-column print book interiors were formal in design. As a flourish, in certain cases she had used “caps and small caps” for the titles, which provided a classic tone. (“Caps and small caps” means there are large capital letters at the beginning of each word, and subsequent letters in each word are typeset in uppercase letters but of a slightly smaller point size than the initial letter.)

My client’s more recent samples (between five and ten years old) still included full-color cover treatments, but they also included generous use of process color in the text of the print books. My colleague explained her design decision in this way. The cost of printing process color had been higher when she had designed the first sample books with only 4-color covers and black-ink-only interior text blocks. To meet budget, then, she put all of her dramatic images and color on the book covers to grab the reader’s attention.

By the time my colleague was designing the books with both 4-color covers and 4-color text blocks, the presses at the printers she used had more color units (six or eight), so she could not only add more color, but she could also add multiple coatings to the book covers or use PMS colors to maintain color consistency from press signature to press signature (for background, full-bleed solid colors and screens that had to match exactly on all pages). By this time (five to ten years ago), all of this technology (plus inline spectrophotometers and closed-loop color correction) was available and affordable through her printers. For this reason, the quality and consistency of color in her samples improved, and she could do far fewer press checks to maintain this quality.

New Design Approaches and New Technology

What I found most interesting was the shift from these samples to the next ones, the most recent books my colleague had designed (again, for the same non-profit foundation, although at this point she was freelancing for the same organization).

These new books were much more sparse in their design. There were a lot of 4-color photos but no bleeds and no heavy-coverage color solids. Interestingly enough, the overall design was simpler and cleaner. There were also no background screens of color. The type, for the most part, was sans serif. Even the headlines were set in a simple, bold, and readable sans serif typeface.

She explained her design choices as follows:

  1. At the present moment, most of her book designs existed only online. There was no print version, so there was no inventory of print books. Clients could either read the books online or print out selected pages on their own desktop printers.
  2. Therefore, the goal was online readability. Even though serif typefaces in print books have been more legible (traditionally) then sans serif typefaces, the opposite is true on the computer screen. The simplicity of the sans serif typefaces my colleague had chosen improved their legibility, but it also gave the books an austere, modern “look.”
  3. Most of the clients who downloaded PDF versions of the books could not print bleeds. There were always white margins surrounding the image area on each page. Therefore, the current book designs had no bleeds. Although this was a functional design choice, it nevertheless made the book design seem simpler, lighter, and more crisp. I liked the simplicity. When I thought further, I realized that by removing the background screens, solid colors, and bleeds, my colleague had not only simplified the book design, but she had also provided much more background white space. And since white space on a back-lit computer screen brightens the entire virtual book design, everything looked light, airy, and bold.

What You Can Learn from This

These few samples spoke volumes about the changes that have taken place in print book design over the past twenty years, based in large part on the way we read and the devices on which we read. Here are some thoughts.

In your own work, design appropriately for the device on which your reader will consume the material. Back-lit screens tire the eyes eventually, and a lot of people still like the feel of a paper print book. Choose your printing paper wisely to enhance the look and the readability (consider the brightening effects of a blue-white press sheet, for instance).

Alternately, if you’re designing for online reading, consider simplifying the design, increasing the space between lines of type (the leading), and increasing contrast between heads and text. If your heads are in color, make sure they are not too light in value.

For my colleague’s clients, a third approach was necessary. The book pages had to look good when printed on desktop printing equipment. This involved making sure a black and white laser print would produce high quality black and white photos from color originals. (The PDF versions were in color, and many readers would print their pages on color inkjet equipment, but other readers who only had laser printers could only produce monochrome versions of the book pages.)

In your own work, the best way to ensure readability is to print out a few pages on an inkjet printer and a black and white laser printer and then confirm their readability. Or, if you’re designing for computer-only reading, you may want to view a PDF of the file on multiple platforms (a large computer screen, a laptop screen, a tablet screen, and a smartphone screen, for instance).

No matter how you present your book, the first goal is legibility. If the reader has to work hard to read your book, or if your reader’s eyes tire due to the back-lighting, she or he will stop reading. Even something as simple as whether to use a single-column or two-column layout can affect readability on a screen-only (or screen-first) book. (Think about it. If you scroll down to read a column of text, and then you must scroll the screen in the opposite direction to come back up to the top of the next column, you might just stop reading.)

Custom Printing: Designing a Logo for an Asphalt Paver

Monday, January 7th, 2019

When the driveway paving person came up to our house a few days ago to retrieve a coroplast sign he had inadvertently left behind, he said he was glad my fiancee and I hadn’t thrown it away. He said the signs had been expensive.

Being a custom printing broker, I said I might be able to get them for less than he had been paying. The words just came out. “One seller to another,” I said. “I’m a commercial printing salesperson.”

So we sat down to discuss what he had, and what he needed. The coroplast lawn sign quickly morphed into magnetic signs for the sides of his trucks, a complete vehicle wrap for one of his vans, coffee mugs, hats, and the jewel in the crown of it all: a new logo. He needed a new logo to put on everything.

How I Approached the Job

During my 40-year history within the field of graphic arts and commercial printing, I have been both a designer and an art director. Therefore, I thought back to what I knew to be the best practices for designing a logo: that is, how I could give my client the most versatile and dynamic logo possible, and also help him understand how best to use it on his varied promotional materials.

To do this, I started with Google Images. I looked at hundreds of his competitors’ logos. I wanted to steep myself in all things related to driveway repaving, so I could make his new logo both fit in (be recognizable by his potential clients) and stand out (be more unique, more inspiring of trust, and more striking than his competitors’ logos).

My client had voiced an interest in putting the state flag inside the type outlines of his company name. I had made a mental note. I had also noticed that he liked my business card. Since my card is crisp, simple, and spare in its design, I also kept this in mind as I approached the next step: brainstorming and creating mock-ups.

Making Multiple Mock-Ups

Because my client liked my business card, I started his design with the same display typeface I had used for mine, Gill Sans. It is a sans serif type that includes dramatic diagonal strokes in the letterforms. You could say that it is simple, dynamic, and even “architectural.” To me it seemed appropriate for a building contractor, a company that builds physical “things.”

I started with the idea my client had voiced, putting the state flag in the outlines of the name of his company. When I tried it, the result seemed to be too complex and perhaps even unrecognizable. You couldn’t readily identify the state flag. (I knew that anything other than instant recognition would slow down the viewer, and that he or she would move on to other things.)

As an alternative, which would still address my client’s stated goals, I created a rectangular cropping of the flag blowing in the wind. This gave the image a sense of movement. On top of this image of the flag I placed the title of my client’s business. The first word I set in all capital letters, flush right (white, reversed out of the flag). The second word (“asphalt”), I set in all lowercase letters, also flush right. I tightened up the leading so both words (both lines of flush-right type) would read as a single unit, and so the visual outline of the two words would be a simple geometric form.

I did all of this first in black-only type over a grayscale image. I wanted the design to work in its simplest form. When it worked, I knew I could always add color. In fact, what I did next was duplicate the logo and replace the black-and-white flag with a slightly ghosted, full-color image, with the flag in the same position, so my client would have two options of this version from which to choose.

I had said I would give my client three options, so I took the type treatment I had created and placed it on a different background. In this case I created a picture box filled with a photo of asphalt. (You might be surprised at the variety and interest you can find in a photo of asphalt. There were changes in tone as well as a number of identifiable rocks in the image.)

At the same time, this made for a simple but very tactile, textural background. I reversed the first word in my client’s company name (all caps, as before, and flush right to be somewhat different from all the other logos). Then I created an asphalt gray color for the second word in his logo (again, also flush right). At this point I had a black-and-white-only logo. I thought this might be striking, since all the other logos included a lot of color. To create visual interest and contrast, I then added an abstract image of a road (a wide, black line with a bright red, dashed line on top of it). This I placed immediately above the first word of my client’s company name, the all-uppercase name of the state in which his business operated.

As a variant, I removed the black solid line but kept the red dashed line, crossing the photo from left to right and ending at the logotype. The photo of the asphalt added texture, and the splash of red added drama. At this point I had two options (with an alternate version for each).

Since my fiancee is an artist, she wanted to provide a third option to round out our offerings. So we took a map of the state, at her suggestion, and scanned it. The outline was readily recognizable. Over this we placed the logotype (both words, with the state name still in all caps and the second name of the company in lowercase letters). For all three versions of the logo, we decided to stick with the same typeface.

Over the image of the map we placed the “A” for Asphalt (the second word in the company name) in bright red. Then we wrapped the two words of the company name around this “A.” The “A” was large enough that the touch of bright red anchored the viewer’s eye on the “A,” which looked curiously just like a red plastic cone used by asphalt pavers to warn oncoming traffic. The bright red “A” also acted as a visual hook, and the remaining text, nestled in tightly against the side of the “A,” all hung together as a single unit.

So we now had a third option for our client, the name of the company over a screened-back shape of the state in which his business operated.

The next step will be to send him PDFs of the logos for his initial feedback.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Make sure the logo you create is relevant. It’s easy to make something look attractive or even striking, but if it does not relate to the client’s business, it will not stick in your client’s (or her or his client’s) mind. Make sure that what the logo means and how it looks are congruent.
  2. The best way to start is to look at the competition. Use Google Images, and you’ll have more ideas than you’ll ever want. The goal will just be to do something completely different that stands out but that also looks like it’s for the same kind of business. This isn’t easy.
  3. Think in terms of simplicity. The logo will need to be recognizable in both small (on business cards) and large (on signage) formats. Simplicity is the key. That’s why it’s also good to see how it will look in black and white only, as well as in color. You never know. Someone might still have a fax machine.
  4. Choose fonts that relate to the tone or “feel” of your client’s company: its vision, purpose, and values. For instance, if it’s a traditional business, like a law firm, consider an Old Style font. Or if it’s a builder, maybe a slab serif typeface would be more appropriate.
  5. Create multiple iterations of the logo. If your ideas are working, you might want to take one element (like the typeface) into the next version just to see how it looks. If not, try other typefaces or other treatments. Try versions with photos, and then try versions with type only. Or create options with type and simple icons.

These are just a few ideas. Creating logos is a subject that could fill a bookcase full of books and take a lifetime to master. But the best way to start is to find logos you like–and particularly those that pertain to your client’s field of expertise—and try to determine why they work. (I call this “deconstructing” the logo: asking myself what it is trying to do and how it is achieving this goal.) Then go and make some of your own.

Custom Printing: Revising a New Asphalt Paver Logo

Monday, October 15th, 2018

A short while ago I wrote a blog posting about a new logo I’ve been designing for a local asphalt paver. I described its genesis as a coroplast sign that morphed into a logo commission and then into cups, hats, and finally a large format print vehicle wrap. With my fiancee’s input, I provided three options a few days ago and then heard nothing back from the client. I started to get nervous. I assumed he had hated them. Then I reviewed the logos again, and I wasn’t so sure anymore either.

So today I shared the PDF of the three options with a friend and client of mine who designs print books. Interestingly enough, she used to be an editor, and I started her down the path of design, and since then I have consulted with her on the design of many of her print books, which are for such high-profile clients as the World Bank.

Turning the tables and having the student educate the teacher was humbling but very instructive. It is a lot easier to tell someone how to improve a design than to come up with a good one yourself.

That said, this is what she suggested, what I learned, and what I created for the revised, new logo. As with the initial batch of logo options, we can only wait and hope the client will be either pleased or at least articulate about what he likes and dislikes. Fortunately he called me this morning, and since then we have been playing phone tag.

What I Had Initially Created

As a recap, this is what the first three logo options looked like:

  1. Option #1 was a background rectangle picture box containing a photo of asphalt. Over this I had placed type in Gill Sans, flush right, with the name of the state in all caps and the word “asphalt” below in lowercase letters. I made the first line white and the second line a darker gray than the background asphalt photo. I also added a black and red stylized road above the state name, with a dashed line in the center.
  2. The second option was the same type treatment over the state map (both color and black and white versions).
  3. The third option was the irregular outline of the state map with the type superimposed over the map image. I made the “A” in the word “asphalt” red to provide drama and immediately grab the viewer’s attention.

What My Friend and Client Said, and What I Did in Response

My fiend/client said the road would be more recognizable with a yellow line down its center rather than a red one. I had initially chosen red because of its impact. My friend was absolutely right. I should choose a color that is relevant to the logo, and the line down the center of the road is not red. It is either white or yellow.

She also suggested putting the asphalt image within the outline of the letterforms. I tried this with both the name of the state and the word “asphalt.” It seemed to be too much, so I made the name of the state red and then reduced its size and increased the size of the word “asphalt.” Because of this, the rocks in the image of asphalt (within the outlines of the letterforms) were more visible. Moreover, the image of asphalt was really only pertinent to the word “asphalt,” so it made sense to only have the image within this one word.

In addition, I used the colors of the state flag, rather than the flag itself or the outline of the map. As noted before, I replaced the red in the stylized road with a yellow dashed line. I also made the all-capitals name of the state red (the other color in the flag). So the color palette now reflected the colors of the state flag without my directly including imagery of the map or flag, and at the same time this simplified the overall look of the logo considerably.

Finally, my friend and client had suggested simplifying the overall design by making the top line and bottom line justified rather than flush right. I had resisted this idea. I felt that flush right would be more unique (less expected) than flush-left type, and that justified type would only create an undifferentiated rectangle (the shape of the exterior boundary of the logo). There would be no drama.

Therefore, as a compromise, I enlarged the word “asphalt” (as noted before), reduced the size of the state name, positioned the type with a flush-right alignment, and then added a stylized road (with the yellow, dashed line in the center) immediately to the left of the state name.

Because of these graphic decisions, I had created a continuation of the rectangle on top (the shape of the state name rendered in all capital letters) with the simulated road extending (to the left) to the same vertical axis as the left edge of the “a” in “asphalt.” On the right, I vertically aligned the final letter in the state name and the final letter in the word “asphalt.”

The gist of what I just said is that I had a rectangle. All visual elements of the logo nestled tightly into one another: the simulated road, the state name, and the word “asphalt.” Everything was tight, simple, and airy (in that the logo was not superimposed over a rectangular image). Moreover, the logo includes the texture of the asphalt within the word “asphalt.” So it has a humorous tone.

This is a viable fourth option for my client. We’ll see what happens.

What You Can Learn From This Case Study

Here are some thoughts:

  1. I hadn’t thought of this until just now, but not having either a map or the image of the flag (or the image of the asphalt) behind the logotype will make the overall logo more flexible. It will be easier to coordinate the design of the business card and the vehicle wrap (at vastly different sizes) without a background image. The shape of the words will also be more evident and therefore more immediately recognizable (since the viewer will more readily see the descender of the “p” and the ascender of the “h” in the word “asphalt”). Plus, the slanted letterform of the letter “t” in “asphalt” will also be more visible. The take-away is that you should check your own logo design in a similar manner. Think about what is all uppercase and what is all lowercase. The eye will immediately identify a lowercase word (or one in uppercase and lowercase letters). It will recognize the shape of the word (without needing to read all the letters). If you put part of the logo in all caps, it’s shape will be just a rectangle. This will slow down the viewer’s reading speed. This doesn’t have to be a problem. You just have to be aware of it.
  2. Think about where the reader’s eye enters the image of the logo. In the case of the logo I just created, the eye enters along the simulated road with the dashed line. The yellow grabs the reader’s attention. Then the horizontal line of the road leads the viewer’s eye to the all-caps name of the state (in red). Since the final word, “asphalt,” is larger than anything else, that’s where the eye goes next. It would go there first if not for the yellow in the simulated road and the red in the state name. In your own work, be able to articulate how the viewer’s eye enters the design, where it goes next, and where it goes after that. Make it easy for the viewer’s eye to travel comfortably through the entire logotype and image.
  3. Finally, see what the logo looks like when you make it very large and very small. After all, it may be reproduced on both large format print signage and a business card. Also see how it looks in black and white as well as color. In the case of my project, a black-and-white-only logo directs the viewer’s eye to the word “asphalt” first, not to the yellow line in the middle of the road.
  4. Then put the mock-ups away, and don’t look at them for a day or so. When you see your work again, you will have more objectivity. You will see both the good points and the flaws.
  5. Finally, show the logos to other people, particularly other designers. You don’t have to take their advice, but it will help to get different points of view on your work. It may even give you new ideas to pursue. Then show your logos to your client.

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.


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