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Archive for May, 2017

Custom Printing: Finding Flaws in a Lenticular Book

Tuesday, May 30th, 2017

My fiancee recently bought two copies online of the same lenticular book as gifts from two separate vendors. When she had both in hand, she was surprised to see differences between the two. Naturally enough, when she had bought the books, since they were two copies of the same title, she expected them to be the same. So she brought this to my attention and asked me what had happened.

First of all, I refreshed my memory online regarding the lenticular custom printing process. Many if not most of you have seen the images that change as you tilt them from side to side. These plastic screens are sometimes used in postcards, for instance, to give a sense of movement to an image or to shift from one image to another. I have also seen lenticular movie posters that give the illusion of depth in the photo by using this technology.

The short description of what seems to be a very complicated process is that a number of images (or one image seen from a number of different angles) are combined (interlaced) with a computer, then printed, and then attached under a screen composed of lenses (lenticules) that present a different image as you tilt these plastic screens. Alignment is crucial for this to work successfully.

How the Two Books Differ

What I see most prominently when I look at both books under a good light is that one set of lenticular images is more intensely colored than the other and the contours of the animals in the images (each page spread presents a different image of a wild animal running) are crisper and more defined. I don’t think the average viewer would see the problem unless both books were viewed together under a strong light. Personally I think it is rather intriguing.

In my research I found that ghosting and poor imagery are the result of imprecise alignment of the images that have been transformed from individual photos to interlaced “slices” before being placed under the cover sheet of plastic lenses. This can occur during the printing process, which, for this particular technology, would be either screen printing or offset lithography.

Other Color Flaws in Other Kinds of Commercial Printing

As I compared the two books I was reminded of package printing I had seen in grocery stores, in which the images in two cereal boxes, for instance, might be slightly different in color even if the design clearly should have been the same (both content and coloration). How does this happen?

First of all, it doesn’t happen anywhere near as often as it used to even during my own career in commercial printing. You could say that the two packages with slightly different ink coloration had been from two separate press runs, and this might be correct. However, it would not really answer the question as to what had happened.

On an offset printed package, for instance, one particular ink color might have been run in excess. Another possibility is that the four process color plates for a full-color image might have been out of alignment (out of register). An error in “registration” of the custom printing plates could cause an obvious color shift, particularly in a neutral color or a memory color (like the green of grass or the blue of the sky).

However, this doesn’t happen a lot anymore for two reasons:

  1. A large number of offset presses are equipped with closed loop color monitoring. Optics and electronics on the press closely monitor the registration of all printing plates and the particular colors being printed and then feed this data back to the press console, adjusting the press and ink to maintain good plate register and consistent inkflow at a predetermined level. When the automatic press observations record an error, the press is adjusted to bring everything back into equilibrium, correcting the color problems and problems with image register.
  2. The preset ink levels can be captured as digital data, which can then be fed back into the computer for the second press run. This actually allows the press to “come up to color” or achieve the optimal color balance rather quickly, meaning that usable printed sheets start to come off the press with minimal adjustments and minimal paper waste. Because of this, it is unusual to have errors in color between two different press runs yielding two differently inked product packages in your grocery store.

Back when I was an art director, the way to avoid these problems was to attend a press inspection for every press run of every signature in every critical product. These often went around the clock (every four hours, for instance) for a number of days. The aforementioned automation and the quality of inspection that electric eyes and computers can provide have made this unnecessary in most cases.

Another Possibility

One thing that I have found over the years is that not all commercial printing processes are equally precise. For instance, offset lithography can be surprisingly accurate. Given the size of the presses and the speed at which they run, I still find it amazing that they can produce tight register and incredible detail.

In contrast, the output I have seen from flexographic presses often does not quite match that of offset lithography. Flexography uses rubber relief plates (elements that print are raised on the rubber plates). I have often seen less precise register and in some cases lighter ink films around the perimeter of letterforms in large type. Like other aspects of commercial printing, it is my understanding that technology has been making great strides, and the problems are becoming far more rare in flexography as well. But my point is that some commercial printing technologies are more precise than others, and this can be reflected in the final product. And for packaging, the final product is often produced through flexography.

What You Can Do

Ultimately all of this comes down to one question. If commercial printing processes are imperfect, how can you be sure your job will be beautiful?

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Proof early and often. Make sure that you see “contract quality” proofs that your printer assures you will reflect the final printed product.
  2. In all cases, ask for your printer’s advice as to the most color faithful proofing option. Usually that will be some form of digital proof. Your printer may be able to show you a continuous tone proof or a proof reflecting the actual halftone dot structure. The latter is more rare but also more accurate (for instance, it will show potential moire patterns). This kind of proof is also more expensive.
  3. If you are unsure, consider paying more for a press proof (a proof of the final product produced on a small press). This will be expensive. However, for a job with crucial color requirements, it may be worth the cost.
  4. Consider attending a press inspection. While this is usually unnecessary, for “critical color” (as opposed to “pleasing color”) it may be worth your time.
  5. Expect excellence, not perfection. You will always find flaws in printing. More than anything, it is a question of fixing the major flaws and letting the others go.

Custom Printing: A Movie Standee Production Case Study

Wednesday, May 24th, 2017

After seven years of installing standees at movie theaters, I received contact information for a potential print brokering client who needed standees both printed and installed. This was an intriguing opportunity, since I have experience in buying and selling commercial printing, as well as an understanding of the marketing goals and graphic techniques involved in producing large format print signage.

So I did some preliminary work prior to approaching my potential client. I checked out his website to see what kind of films he had produced, and I contacted one of the designers of the movie standees my fiancee and I had been installing.

Regarding the standee design studio I approached, I chose this particular vendor for a few reasons.

  1. After seeing this company’s corporate logo on labels on the backs of standees for seven movie studios over a seven-year period, I was highly impressed. This company was established and its promotional design work was well regarded by a substantial number of movie studios.
  2. I also relied upon my own eyes and marketing knowledge. I had checked out the design studio’s website, and I thought the graphic design work was both aesthetically superior and persuasive from a marketing standpoint.
  3. It just so happens that my potential printing client’s office is a twenty-minute drive from this design studio. Although I am on the East Coast, both my client and the design studio are almost next to one another on the West Coast. Therefore, I will be able to get my client’s immediate approval (or disapproval) of the firm for his own specific standee-creation needs based on his having met the principals of the firm and having seen their work, not only online on their website but also in person.
  4. I also chose this design studio because of its primary focus on marketing and movie standees. I know a lot of the printers on the East Coast that could do the same job (if I provided them with the specifications), but I wanted a firm for which standee design is a daily venture, a firm that will know how to design the most effective marketing products while containing costs.
  5. I knew the standee design firm would understand the steps following print production and finishing. They would be able to package the standees and ship them to movie theaters. More importantly, they would know how to get movie theaters to accept delivery of the standees, and they would understand the process of merchandising (installing the standees in the theaters). What they couldn’t do they could subcontract. Or at least they could provide advice regarding all aspects of the process. In fact, they happen to work with the company for which my fiancee and I install standees in movie theaters, and they also work with a number of competing installers.

My Assumptions Regarding the Client

I have only had minimal contact with the prospective client to date. However, I have seen his website, and I understand that in comparison to the design studio’s other clients, he may require only a short press run. Granted, this is an assumption. However, I know that the movie standees my fiancee and I install are shipped to hundreds of (or more) movie theaters across the country because we often receive the delivery manifests.

This need not be a problem. After all, standees can be offset printed or digitally printed based on their quantity, and I had learned from the design studio that they worked with a number of large format print providers. Presumably, this design firm had access to digital and offset printing equipment plus laminating equipment (for attaching the press sheets to the fluted cardboard standee substrate and for coating the press sheets) plus die cutting equipment (for cutting out the standees).

My Contact with the Client

Based on my research and assumptions, I had a discussion with my client over the phone. I suggested that he consider a flatcard design for the standee. This is a particular style of movie standee that includes a large (up to 6-foot by 9-foot) flat image with a cardboard easel back that keeps it upright. The edges are die cut and turned inward (and then screwed together) to give about a 2” depth to the overall flat, poster-like, large format print presentation.

What I thought might appeal to my client is that such a large image provides a lot of bang for the buck. It’s almost as large as a banner, so the viewer gets an image that takes up her/his entire field of vision. But from a manufacturing standpoint, it’s relatively inexpensive to make a flatcard. It involves limited die cutting. And when it’s folded (in quarters) in the box, it provides a relatively light package. It’s not only easy to install a flatcard quickly, but it costs less than many other standee designs to ship. And shipping can add up.

Finally, I encouraged my client to consider this format because it is standard. Many standees have unique designs with movie characters die cut and then attached to a large, overall structure. The scoring, folding, pattern gluing, and die cutting are all unique. So the movie studio has to pay for all of the dies required for the die cutting. In contrast (and I have confirmed this with the design studio), using pre-made dies from prior flatcards will save money. My client will not have to pay for all of the preparation from scratch.

However, if my client wants something more ornate, the images on the perimeter of the flat card design can be made to extend out of the rectangular format (as though they are coming off the large format print poster). This will require extra die cutting but not as much as if the overall base format were not a flatcard.

Or my client can choose to add depth. By die cutting slits in the front of the flat card graphic panel, my client can add “lugs.” These are attachments (movie characters, for instance), that seem to come out of the background, adding an element of depth to the overall image. Again, this would cost more, but it would start with the standard base of the flatcard.

So my client has options, and the design studio has approved all of the ones just described. The design studio is also fully capable of participating in (or coordinating) any or all of the steps in the process.

What happens next? My client will send the marketing art to me, and we can discuss whether this initial plan will work, or whether it will need to be adjusted.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. If you don’t know how to do something, consult a pro. I knew a little about standees from installing them but not enough to coordinate the whole job. So I found a studio that excels in this one area.
  2. Find ways to build on the work of others. This is true for pocket folders or any other die cutting job. A standard design will cost less overall than a totally unique one. If you can use a pre-made set of dies, you can still make your printed product look completely different from the competition.
  3. When you’re designing a 3D promotional product, consider the physical requirements of the design (for instance, make sure the design isn’t top heavy, so it won’t fall over), the overall graphic appearance, the marketing strategy, and the costs related to print production and finishing. But don’t forget all the steps that follow production, such as packaging, shipping, and installation.

Custom Printing: Large Banner Stand Case Study Follow Up

Tuesday, May 16th, 2017

I noted in a prior blog article that I had been working on a large banner stand project for a print brokering client. To review, it is a 10’ x 8’ large format print on a frame made up of thin metal poles at right angles to one another, with feet on either side that are perpendicular to the frame. Fortunately, this was exactly what my client had wanted, and I found photos online showing this specific product.

After drafting specifications for the job and sending these to three brick-and-mortar printers for estimates, I also found the product online for a very reasonable price. I told my client about the online vendor. I also told her that I could not vouch for the quality of their product since I had not worked with them before. Therefore, I sent my client an email with the vendor’s contact information, specifications, and price, and assumed she would want the online product.

Surprisingly, I was wrong. My client contacted me and said she wanted me to select one of my preferred vendors. She did not want to buy the banner stand online. I was so pleased that my client shared my belief in the mutual benefit of long-standing client-vendor relationships.

The Bids for the Large Format Print and Banner Stand

Shortly thereafter, I started receiving bids from my vendors. This is what I found:

  1. The online vendor was clearly the lowest bid, a little under $250 plus shipping (for $25). The lowest brick-and-mortar price was about $400 plus shipping (for $50), or about 64 percent more than the online bid. Then again, my client didn’t want an online printer.
  2. The midrange printer had priced the job not on scrim vinyl but on polyester fabric. The principal of the firm was worried that the weight of the vinyl, in such a large format print, would cause the center of the frame to hang down. He priced his fabric banner product at about $700 plus shipping.
  3. The high bid was for about $850 plus shipping. Interestingly enough, this printer offered to hand me directly over to the vendor (i.e., she was brokering the job, which indicated she did not have the large format press capabilities for this particular kind of banner).

New Assumptions for the Banner

Based on this information I made some assumptions:

  1. I had visited the mid-range printer before and had seen his grand-format inkjet printing equipment. So I surmised that this vendor would print the job in-house and then pair the banner with a banner stand bought from another vendor. Moreover, since this particular vendor was worried about the weight of a large vinyl banner, and since his price was higher than that of the first vendor, I wondered whether the cost of the fabric was higher, too, accounting for the price difference compared to the vinyl.
  2. With the assumption that polyester fabric costs more than vinyl scrim, I approached the low-bid brick-and-mortar printer and asked for a second bid based on this material. This printer also confirmed my belief that the polyester fabric reflected less light than the vinyl.
  3. When the additional pricing came back, it was almost identical to the mid-range printer’s price (about $700 plus shipping).
  4. I shared all specs and prices with my client, along with my thoughts and reactions. I encouraged her to buy from the printer that had initially bid on the vinyl banner. I did this specifically because I knew he printed his own banners and because he said he had never had a problem with the weight of the scrim vinyl.
  5. It’s not that I didn’t trust the mid-range vendor. I just liked having a large format print supplier comfortable with both vinyl and polyester fabric. Then I could let my client choose the substrate she preferred.
  6. In general I felt comfortable with whatever choice my client would make, because I already had working relationships with all vendors except the online vendor. I had confidence in their work.
  7. I wasn’t as concerned about the mid-range vendor’s fear that the vinyl would be too heavy because of the other vendor’s direct experience in producing scrim vinyl banners.

We’ll see what happens, but my client now has credit with the printer. She also has all information from the printer regarding PDF creation requirements plus FTP art file transmission procedures. Now all she has to do is choose between two banner materials and complete and upload the art.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. It seems that in the process of buying commercial printing services, if you’re alert and logical, the best option will “reveal” itself. I trusted all three vendors, but one planned to broker the entire job. (In other words, this printer didn’t have the appropriate large format print equipment.) No problem there. Not everyone does. I still had two vendors.
  2. Seeing comparable pricing from your selection of commercial printing vendors is a good sign. When I saw that the vendor with the scrim vinyl provided a revised price almost identical to that of the mid-range vendor when the job was priced on polyester fabric, it increased my faith in both printers.
  3. If a vendor is uncomfortable with a process, don’t make him do it. I trusted the first vendor because he had personal experience with the vinyl substrate. But I don’t think any less of the mid-range vendor for other kinds of work.
  4. Note that materials can be a large portion of the total cost of the job. The fabric was almost twice as expensive as the vinyl. If you’re making a choice like this, be clear as to why you’re choosing one material over another. For example, in my client’s case, the minimized light reflectivity, lighter weight, softness, and overall perceived higher value of the polyester fabric banner might be worth the higher price.
  5. When compiling a budget, don’t forget the cost to ship the banner and banner stand.
  6. More than anything, take time to regularly communicate with current vendors and forge relationships with new printers based on mutual benefit and trust. Nothing will help you buy commercial printing more intelligently and successfully.

Custom Printing: Case Study for a Large Banner Stand

Wednesday, May 10th, 2017

A client came to me today with a request for a large banner stand. I mean large: 10 feet by 8 feet horizontal. Since my fiancee and I assemble and install movie theater standees and hang movie banners and posters, I can fully appreciate the size and heft of a 10 foot by 8 foot banner.

I have produced and brokered the commercial printing for a number of small banners. I understand the physical requirements of a roll-up banner stand, or a free-standing banner with hems and grommets for tying to a wall or other structure. I’ve even hung a 13 foot by 17 foot banner off the side of a building with ropes.

Backstory for My Client

I wanted to make sure the product I sold my client worked both aesthetically and functionally. In her email, my client noted that the banner would be used behind a podium at an event. It needed to be free-standing. It would not be hung on a wall. Conversely, it did not need to be an elaborate, wall-like structure with a dramatic graphic image, like the ones used at a trade show. I wanted my client to be happy with what she got. However, I didn’t want to give her more than she needed.

It happens that my fiancee and I had installed a similar banner at a movie theater using a structure made of thin metal piping. It looked like a giant clothes rack: a rectangle with feet extending toward the front and back, perpendicular to the metal frame to keep it standing and steady.

So I went online and started Googling images of 10 foot by 8 foot banner stands. I found a few photos, with and without banners, and emailed them to my client. She was happy. This was exactly what she wanted.

Buying the Large Format Printing

Not all printers do large format printing. It requires special equipment and special expertise. This particular kind of banner is an inkjet printed product created on either a roll-fed or flatbed inkjet press. After the commercial printing process, the flat sheet of vinyl has to be hemmed for edge protection. Often the printer will punch holes around the perimeter of the banner and then strengthen these holes with metal grommets, so the banner can be suspended from the wall with ropes.

In the case of this banner, though, presumably the top and bottom would need to be folded over and sewn to create a “tunnel” through which the top and bottom metal pipes of the banner stand would go in order to keep the banner flat and vertical, in spite of its weight. (These are called “pole pockets.”) If you can imagine drapes with a curtain rod going through the top under a flap of fabric, you’ll have a good idea of what I’m describing.

A thorough search online came up with an alternative, which involved tying the banner to the stand in numerous places around the perimeter of the image.

I also found very elaborate structures that resembled temporary walls with the inkjet printed fabric stretched over them. I noticed in the ads that these often cost over $1,000, while the simpler banner stands cost about a quarter of this, or a little more.

With this information in hand, plus my client’s description from her email, I sent a request for bid to two vendors.

(Why did I choose brick-and-mortar printers when these banners are also sold online? Because I have worked with these vendors before. They provide support and good ideas, and they back up the quality of their work. Not that online vendors don’t. I just don’t have long-term relationships with any at the moment. If my client balks at the pricing I get, I’ll do more research on the Web and give her some online “web-to-print” alternatives.)

The Considerations

So I already have my client’s approval of the banner and the banner stand options. This is a good start. From both online research and my personal experience installing movie theater graphics, I know for sure that this particular banner stand will hold the weight of a 10 foot by 8 foot banner while being relatively cheap to produce. I also have two hanging options: tying the banner to the stand or hemming the top and bottom to accept the horizontal piping of the banner stand structure. What’s left?

Actually, two considerations: what banner material to choose and what inkjet inks to use. In addition, it will be useful to request PDF file preparation information for my client.

First, the inks: Since my client will be using the banner for a single (presumably night-time) event, I won’t need to worry about lightfastness (how the banner will tolerate sunlight without fading). I also won’t have to worry about weather-tolerance, since the banner will be used inside a building.

Although I know there are a number of different inks available for large format printing, ranging from solvent inks (good for non-porous materials in weather) to latex inks to UV cured inks (also good for non-porous materials), I plan to defer to the large format printing vendor. Basically, anything he can provide with a wide color gamut will work. In fact, since my client sent me the mock-up of the banner, I see that it is only one color (or perhaps a CMYK build to produce one color). It isn’t complicated (not a wide-format fashion shot that has to be absolutely color faithful). So I can be reasonably certain that whatever inks the printer chooses will be successful.

Regarding the substrates, I know that any number of papers, films, vinyls, and even canvas can be run through the large format inkjet presses. For my client’s project, I will assume there will be intense, direct lighting (since the banner will be the backdrop for a speech my client will be giving). It will therefore not benefit her to use a gloss vinyl substrate. Rather a dull vinyl will avoid glare from the lights. From my initial impression, a matte vinyl with edges that won’t curl should be fine. The vinyl will also be durable, which will be good if my client decides to use the banner for more than one event.

It would also be good to get a carrying case for the banner and banner stand (for protection and ease of transport). But on a budget, a ripstop nylon bag should be fine instead of a large and heavy plastic traveling case.

Next Steps

So with all of this information in hand, I plan to see what my two large format print vendors have to suggest. If the pricing is too high for my client’s taste, I’ll look for an online supplier.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

More than anything, I would encourage you to do research. If you know what you want, go online and look for images. This is particularly helpful when your project involves physical requirements. For instance, a banner stand can’t be too light, or it will fall over. If your banner will be outside in the wind, this will be a big problem. You will need a way to anchor the banner to the ground. Send the images you find online to a number of printers, and ask for their advice.

Consider how long the banner and banner stand will be in use. If it’s a banner that will be used outside, consider the durability of the substrate and the weather-fastness and lightfastness of the substrate and inks. If your images are color critical and vibrant (such as images of food, fashion, or automotive subjects), consider the number of colors in the ink set. For example, it might be good to use cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK), and then add an orange, green, and violet, or some other colors, to get the color range and intensity you need.

The best approach is to find vendors you trust (or get referrals). Then tell them what the final product will look like, how long it must last, and what kinds of stress (like weather) it must endure. Then defer to their expertise.

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