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

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Blog Articles for PrintIndustry.com

Archive for June, 2017

Custom Printing: Where the Art Meets the Craft

Monday, June 26th, 2017

I love it when my work as a commercial printing broker and designer overlaps with the art therapy work my fiancee and I do with the autistic. Granted there’s always room in our class to discuss principles of design, which I am increasingly aware pertain to both the fine arts and the graphic arts. But most recently my fiancee came up with an art project that involved incising and then printing styrofoam plates made from the packages used to wrap food in the grocery store.

The Styrofoam Printing Project

Relief printing has been around for a long time. Probably at some time in your life, most of you have cut designs into half a potato and then inked up the raised portions and then pressed this printing block onto paper. In art class some of you have done the same with linoleum blocks or wood blocks.

Everything raised above the surface of the plate accepts ink and then transfers it to the paper. Everything you have gouged out of the potato, linoleum block, or wood block sits below the surface and therefore takes no ink and therefore does not print.

To apply this to our project for the autistic, we had the students plan a drawing (conceived with the help of numerous samples printed out from Google Images) and then transfer it to the front of the styrofoam sheet (an approximately 4” x 6” area once the edges of the food trays had been cut off).

The autistic members first drew the images on the styrofoam with pencils or markers, and then used styli of various kinds to deepen and widen the lines of the drawings. For this purpose we used pencils (for their points, not their colors), skewers intended for making chicken sate and shish kebab (for their pointed end), and other implements for leather working, cooking (including forks), and working with clay (metal scoops with sawlike edges to create texture, for instance).

I repeated a number of times throughout the project that anything cut into the plate would not accept a film of ink when we spread custom printing ink over the styrofoam using a brayer (a rubber roller that lays down an even film of ink on wood printing blocks, linoleum blocks, or in our case styrofoam printing plates).

The autistic members and their aides (parents or professional caregivers) developed their drawings and then incised their plates. Some made light cuts in the styrofoam (which when printed provided a subtle or ghostlike image). Others cut deeply into the styrofoam, and their final prints were coarser, more blocky, and in many ways similar to wood block prints.

I noted that the ink (whether blue or orange or black) would either print or not print, but that the members and aides could not make a dark blue print as a light blue. I taught the members and aides how to do hatching (patterns of parallel lines) and cross-hatching to create lighter areas of ink. I noted that the human eye would read hatching and cross-hatching as a light screen, much as a halftone screen in commercial printing can make areas printed only in black ink look like various shades of gray.

When the autistic members and their aides had finished inscribing the designs into their styrofoam plates, my fiancee and I came around with ink and a brayer, and inked up the member’s printing plates. We showed them how to cover only the raised parts of the design with ink while avoiding letting the ink seep into the lines they had cut into the plates. (For the most part this was easy, since the ink is thick and tacky, so the brayer will deposit it evenly on the topmost raised portions of the styrofoam plates without its seeping into the incised designs.)

The next step was to have each autistic member choose custom printing paper and then place the plate ink-side down on the sheet. Then we flipped the plate and paper over, and taught the members how to use a spoon to provide even pressure across the plate by rubbing back and forth on the back of the sheet. In this way each member could transfer the image from the styrofoam plate onto the printing paper.

When we peeled back the paper to release it from the styrofoam printing plates, so many of the people in the room fell in love with the process. Many wanted to go home and do more of this work immediately. There was something almost primal about gouging an image into a plate, inking it up, and then transferring the image onto paper.

To complete the project we provided large shoebox tops (we had collected multiple boxes donated for the purpose by a shoestore) to the members. Autistic members then glued both the custom printing plate and the printed sheet side by side into the boxtop “frames.”

Seeing the prints and the plates from which they had been produced side by side reminded me (and I mentioned this to the students) that custom printing is an art as well as a craft, and that seeing the inked-up plates along with their prints put the focus on printing as a process, not just a final art piece. The process of cutting the design into the styrofoam, inking up the plate, and making a print was at least as important as the final print itself.

How This Relates to Printing (What You Can Learn from This Case Study)

If you are a graphic designer or print buyer, it doesn’t hurt to know a little about the history of custom printing. It can help you to understand the ways technology has improved upon (or made easier) the original printing processes and also shed light on the art behind the craft of commercial printing.

The earliest printing presses (as well as the ones you often see in use at Renaissance Festivals) are based on the relief printing process. Printing plates with raised images (type and later halftone images) are inked up, paper is placed over the type and image, and intense weight is brought down upon the custom printing plate and paper. This yields a single printed sheet. Then the process is repeated.

Such a “relief” printing process is exactly the paradigm for “letterpress,” the printing process that preceded offset printing. In fact, due to the beauty of the process, many designers are going back to letterpress for specialty work such as invitations and printed envelopes because both the process and the product of letterpress relief printing hold such artistic merit.

So in your own work (much of which is divided between offset printing and digital printing), be mindful of the alternatives. For some of your projects, the texture letterpress can provide (the raised letters and shapes of the printing plate will actually sink into the custom printing paper and leave indentations) will make your printed pieces unique and special, in a way that gives pleasure to the touch and that also hearkens back to an earlier and perhaps simpler time.

Custom Printing: Rack Card Redesign Case Study

Monday, June 19th, 2017

A friend and colleague of mine has a small business. She is a Reiki practitioner and hypnotherapist. A few days ago she asked my opinion regarding her promotional materials (a business card, a rack card, and a website). Since I still do a little graphic design on the side, I offered to help her.

The Promotional Materials

First of all, what is a rack card? It is like a brochure in format (tall and narrow, in my friend/client’s case 3.75” x 8.25”). Unlike a brochure, it only has two panels (front and back). It also is printed on a much heavier commercial printing stock than most brochures. Based on the custom printing specs for my client’s prior press run, this reprint will be produced on 80# cover stock.

The purpose of a rack card is to sit vertically on a metal rack along with other rack cards, promoting some event or service. You have probably seen racks like these in hotels. Perhaps the rack cards were promoting places to visit on your vacation or sports you could pursue on your holiday, such as water skiing.

Rack cards compete with other rack cards for the viewer’s attention. Moreover, if a particular hotel desk doesn’t have a metal rack, the cards might just lie on a table in a stack. So the cards must be dramatic to grab the prospective customer’s attention immediately.

The second element in my client’s promotional package is an additional rack card. She wants to promote the Reiki and hypnotherapy separately. A shrewd move, since people who want to stop smoking might understand and value hypnotherapy but question or not understand the art of Reiki. My client understands her clients’ (and potential clients’) needs.

The third element in my client’s promotional package is her business card.

The fourth element is her website.

Revisions: What My Client Has Now, and What Changes I Suggested

The Paper Choice

I told my client I liked the thickness of the paper stock. It makes the rack card heavy and substantial. When you hold it in your hand, it feels strong and important, not flimsy.

However, one side of the sheet seems to be minimally coated (perhaps a matte coating), and one side has a high-gloss coating (like a laminate or a flood UV coating). Since the background color is a soothing green, and since the imagery is a stack of rocks (called a “cairn” and used throughout history as a trail marker) in a pool of still water, I personally would specify a textured, uncoated press sheet. This is a natural, “crunchy granola” piece aimed at earthy people who might avoid the corporate look and embrace a more natural feel. So I encouraged my client to choose a thick, uncoated stock for all rack cards and for her business card as well. (I wanted all elements of her promotional package to not only go together in terms of their design but also their physical “feel.”)

The Design (Type, Color, Design Grid)

I told my client that she only had a few seconds to interest her prospective clients once they saw her rack cards and business cards. People are busy. They are multitasking, and these days they have only a limited attention span.

Her current rack card design included the name of her business, a relaxing image of stacked rocks in a pool of water, a little copy about Reiki (what it is, and how clients might benefit from a treatment), and contact information. All type was reversed out of a green background.

Unfortunately, there was only a minimal difference in size between all groupings of type on this side of her rack card. So the reader had to think about what to read first, second, etc. I told my client that anything that slows down the reader risks losing her/his attention entirely.

Therefore, in redesigning this side of her rack card, I kept the green background, but I shifted back and forth between reverse type (for headlines) and surprinted (or black) type for text. I changed the centered type to flush left (so the reader’s eye would always come back to the left margin). I also put the photo of the rocks at the top, just under the name of the business (so the reader would associate the business name with the sense of peace—even if she/he stopped reading here and got nothing else out of the rack card). I then surprinted one of the quotes (about inner peace) over the photo to reinforce the message.

I told my client that readers who skim text go through the page in an “F” formation. They read from left to right through the headlines as they move down the page (left/right/down, then left/right/down). To increase the likelihood of their grasping the most important information instantly, I made the headlines white on the green background. I also reversed the contact information. So if potential clients got nothing else from their two seconds with the rack card, they would see the following:

1. The name of my client’s business.
2. What is Reiki?
3. What are the benefits of Reiki?
4. How do you contact my client’s business if you want Reiki?

The other side of the rack card repeated the green background, a screened silhouette of the calming pile of rocks (cairn) in the pool of water, a large reversed quote about Reiki, and, most importantly, all of the contact information again. No matter what side of the card the reader started with, she/he would see the name of the business, the benefits (either in list form or as a pithy quote), and the contact information.

Finally, I noted that I had chosen my preferred typeface for her job. I asked my client to consider the typeface carefully (along with the green background color). I asked her to consider whether the type, color, imagery, and overall design grid supported her message and whether they would attract the potential buyer for her service as she envisioned her/him.

The Imagery (Photo Treatment)

I encouraged my client to buy rights to use an appropriate photo purchased through a stock image bank (to be found online) and in this way to avoid copyright infringement. I described the difference between “rights managed” and “royalty free” imagery (you can Google these online to get a detailed explanation). I also said that an image of the rocks in the “public domain” would sidestep both copyright infringement issues and potential costs (i.e., the image would be free to use and would avoid a lawsuit).

Since the image will show up on all rack cards and on the business card as well—plus the website—I asked my client to read the image reproduction rights license carefully to make sure the image could be used “promotionally” for “however many copies my client wanted to distribute” both “in print and online.”

I also wanted her to make sure the image was of sufficient resolution (300 dpi at 100 percent size, or at the size it will actually be used). I wanted to avoid any image pixellation.

Final Words—and the Website

I also asked my client to consider all elements of the promotional package together: the rack cards, business card, and website. I asked her to consider how she wanted to move the reader from the rack card, or business card, to the website to get more information and then to the telephone to set up an appointment for a Reiki session. (This encouragement of the reader toward what marketers term “conversion”–i.e., getting the prospect to step forward and commit to the product or service—would be enhanced by the specific wording of the text on the rack card.)

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Everything is an ad: a business card, a rack card, and a website. Keep this in mind when you choose paper, select typefaces, choose images, and craft the design structure. Keep it in mind particularly when you write the copy.
  2. Paper is power. It is a subconscious influence on your prospective buyer. Choose one that supports your message and your image.
  3. Pay for your images. In addition to supporting the photographers, it protects you against litigation.
  4. Make sure all design elements across all channels (printed pieces and electronic media) are coordinated. Don’t confuse the reader by making things look different. The more times your reader sees the same images, type, and design structure, the more immediately recognizable your branding will be.
  5. All of this drives increased sales.

Custom Printing: Design vs. Production of a Rack Card

Wednesday, June 14th, 2017

In addition to brokering commercial printing and writing about printing, I also do a little graphic design on the side. I used to be an art director, and I like keeping my hand in computer aided publishing because it keeps me aware of what full-time designers go through in designing their projects and preparing them for print.

The Design Project

At the moment, I’m designing a rack card for a Reiki practitioner (a bartering job, actually). Over the course of the past few weeks we have been going back and forth with various proofs, changing fonts, photos, and overall design treatments.

A few days ago my client approved the art. “Can we send it to press today?” she said. They’re having a sale. (She had chosen an online web-to-print service to keep costs down by ganging up her rack card with numerous other rack cards, presumably on a large offset press.)

“Whoa,” I said. “We have to slow down.” “Design is not production. We have things to do.”

Now this is just how I work. And I’ll assume that many other graphic designers will also do what are essentially upscale mock-ups on the computer to communicate with the client. Once the designer and client have agreed on the “look” of the piece, there are numerous technical issues that designers address, check, and fix before the job can go to press. These take time and careful attention.

In my client’s case, here are the issues we will need to address:

The Paper

My client’s Reiki practice is a form of healing work. It appeals to earthy and artistic people, so I suggested either an uncoated printing stock or a matte coated stock. It would have a softer, “crunchy granola” feel, unlike a gloss coated rack card that would have more of a corporate feel. My client agreed. She said the online commercial printing vendor she had chosen offered a matte coated press sheet.

The Press Run

I asked for the press run for two reasons. The more immediate was that I needed to know how many copies she wanted the printer to produce. But more than that, I wanted to get a sense of what technology the printer would use. My assumption was that for an ultra-short press run (say 100+ rack cards), the job would be digital. For 500+ rack cards, I assumed the technology would be offset lithography.

The Custom Printing Technology

If the length of the press run would require offset lithography, I knew an uncoated paper would be more likely than a coated paper to absorb the ink. In addition, for a press run probably ganged up with numerous other jobs, I did not expect the web-to-print vendor to adjust the ink flow for my client alone (as would be the case if only her job were on press). Therefore, I encouraged my client to choose the matte coated press sheet instead of the uncoated sheet, because the ink would sit up on the surface of the paper better and would be less likely to seep into the paper fibers. This would keep the images crisp and bright, and avoid a muddy appearance.

I also told her that, in my experience, if the job will be short and therefore digital, the toner particles will also be more likely than the offset ink to sit up on the surface of the paper. However, to be safe, I still thought a matte coated stock would be best.

The Images

My client chose to take the photos herself. She had a good camera and a good eye, so I decided to teach her the technical issues she needed to address in order to provide print-ready images.

For instance, she had been giving me 72 dpi images for the mock-up, which I had then changed to 300 dpi and enlarged (a bad habit called interpolation, which creates image information out of nothing—fine for a mock-up but not for press-ready images). Therefore, my client is now reshooting the two photos (with minor changes) at much higher resolution. As per my request, she will provide RGB JPEGs, which I will adjust and then save for the printer as CMYK TIFF images.

The Silhouettes

Two of the photos are silhouettes. They are also screened back or ghosted (not 100 percent in intensity). Therefore, I did some research, and then practiced with the pen tools, paths, clipping paths, edge refinement, feathering, and other Photoshop tools to make sure the transition from the contours of my client’s silhouetted wooden bridge photo to the background green color will be subtle and smooth. I also chose to produce the green background in Photoshop rather than InDesign. (I could have done either.)

The Color Space

I will need to make sure the job is specified for CMYK and not RGB, and that all images are also 8-bit or 16-bit CMYK TIFFs. I will change them from RGB JPEGs to TIFFs at the very end of the process, once I am satisfied with the color, since I’ll see any potential color shifts right on my monitor.

The Printer’s PDF Requirements

I asked my client to send me the specs from the commercial printing vendor for creating press-ready PDF files. This includes information such as the trim size, bleed size, font-embedding, and a host of other specifics I have discussed in previous PIE Blog articles. This document will tell me exactly how this particular printer prefers to receive his art files (based on the needs of his prepress system).

For instance, when I started the job, I measured the prior version of my client’s rack card with a ruler. The online listing of rack card sizes is much more precise, so I will need to change the document size slightly in my art file and add the appropriate bleeds of the background colors and images that will extend off the page. (All of this has to be exact, whereas for the design mock-up I just had to make the screen version look good.)

Preflighting the Job Prior to Submission

Even before I distill the PDF files, I’ll check the InDesign color separations on-screen (you can look this up online). I find this useful, to make sure nothing will show up on a different printing plate than I intend or expect. I’ll also make sure I have removed any extra unused colors from the colors palette in InDesign.

I’ll look for any typefaces that have been altered (made “bold” or “italic” in InDesign rather than by using the proper bold or italic font). I’ll probably also print a laser copy of the job to look for errors, and I’ll run any preflight diagnostics available in InDesign (the little red or green light that shows up at the bottom left of the screen to let you know whether the file has problems or is ok to print).

Finally, I’ll review the printer’s PDF sheet once again to be doubly sure. I’ll distill the PDF file as requested, and then I’ll “compress” the file before sending it to the online printer’s website (compression makes files safer in transit over the Internet and avoids PDF file corruption).

Just to be safe, I’ll probably look at the images one final time to confirm their resolution and color space, and particularly to check the edges between the silhouettes and their backgrounds. After all, I will only see an online proof (unlike most brick-and-mortar printers, the online printers usually keep prices down by sending only virtual proofs to their clients).

When I explained this to my client, she understood completely that there was more work to do, and she set off to reshoot the photos at a higher resolution.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

The best thing you can learn is that design is not the same as art production (preparing final, press-ready art files for the commercial printing supplier). For me, trying to do both at the beginning of a design job is like editing my work while I am writing. It completely shuts down my creative process.

In contrast, the production step of the process is more logical and precise. It’s all about measurements, color spaces, and all of the other technical specifications that will ensure an accurate printed representation of your beautifully designed art file. It’s equally important.

Book Printing: A Sample of Outstanding Design and Production

Monday, June 5th, 2017

At a thrift store this week, my fiancee found a print book that is one of the best examples I have seen of effective book design and custom printing. It is exceptional on so many levels. A close examination of the book shows exactly what happens when book design is well executed, when the design reflects the content of the print book, and when the production qualities of the book support both the design and the content of the book.

A Description of the Book

The title of the book is Real Simple: 869 New Uses for Old Things, edited by Rachel Hardage and Sharon Tanenbaum. It is an 8.25” x 9”, almost-square-format, case-bound book. Instead of adding a dust jacket to a cloth binding, the designer has laminated the 4-color printed press sheet directly to the binder’s boards and then coated the book cover with a dull film laminate (or dull UV coating).

The color of the cover is bright and intensely saturated. The design grid on the cover comprises sixteen color squares (four rows of four squares), with each square containing a 4-color silhouette of a different household item. Three of the colors in the grid of squares are primary colors (red, yellow, and blue) or close relatives on the color wheel (for instance, the yellow changes to orange within the series of squares, and red cycles through magenta to pink). The back cover just extends this motif of squares to wrap the image completely around the book with a full bleed.

Type on the front cover is reversed out of the background colors, with the actual lines of text aligned with the borders between colors in a tight, geometric treatment.

Without even opening the print book, I think this approach stands out and makes the book unique for a few reasons:

  1. We are accustomed to books that are “portrait” format (taller than they are wide). Therefore, oblong books (also known as “landscape” format) and square books draw attention to themselves. They make us look again. I would even argue that square books are a bit more unusual than oblong books, outside the category of children’s books.
  2. The combination of the bright colors and the square format are reminiscent of a child’s book, but the content (lint roller, light bulb, rubber band, and so forth) make it clear that this print book is in fact for adults. However, the overall effect is still playful and perhaps even magical, specifically because of the saturated colors and the visual reference to books for children.
  3. The decision to laminate the printed press sheet to the cover boards rather than to add a dust jacket reinforces the casual and creative approach to the subject matter.
  4. The dull finish of the cover coating (whether laminate or UV coating) is just different enough from the usual gloss cover coating on the majority of books that it draws attention to itself. This is not just a visual acknowledgement of the subdued (not glossy) appearance. It is also—and perhaps more importantly–tactile. It feels softer than a gloss coated cover. To me that makes the book a bit more approachable in both a conscious and subconscious way.

Inside the Book

The print book designer has carried the intensity of the color into the interior of the book, starting with solid-colored endsheets and flyleaves. Divider pages and photos within the text of the book are all full pages of full color that repeat the saturated hues of the front and back covers. All photos and all color solids bleed off the page, giving a sense that the content of the pages is larger than the 8.25” x 9” format can contain.

Again, this reinforces the playful nature of the print book, as does the treatment of the photos. That is, all images are shot close up, which makes otherwise mundane household items seem new and captivating. Moreover, the images were illuminated with intense photo lights during the photo shoot, so they have a wide range of tones, from intense highlights to deep shadows. This gives them both depth and visual interest.

The overall approach to the book is, as the title states, “new uses for old things.” This is fully consistent with the visual treatment of the images, which could be summed up as seeing mundane household items in a new light. So the visual treatment echoes and reinforces the theme of the book.

Paper Choices

Paper is a subjective and particularly powerful component of design. This is easy to forget. In fact, that’s part of what makes it so powerful. The reader often doesn’t think about the paper. In this case the designer has chosen a bright, blue-white press sheet with a dull finish. This makes the text easier to read. Interestingly enough, the photos are all glossy (and crisp). Through a careful inspection, what I see is that the photos have been gloss varnished (to make them more dramatic). This creates an interesting contrast when the photos are seen next to the dull white text pages.

The Design Grid

Introductory pages of the book have one column of text extending from side to side. The designer has included small line drawings in places that would normally be paragraph breaks. That is, the text runs on without additional spacing between paragraphs, but the reader can identify the paragraph break from the position of the line drawing. In addition, the text shifts back and forth between a dark, bold sans serif face and a much lighter serif face. Since the intro pages have relatively little copy, this treatment is intriguing and playful rather than confusing. In addition, there is ample white space around the single column of text.

In contrast, the pages that actually tell you all kinds of new uses for mundane household items are set in smaller type in a five-column grid, with the column closest to the gutter left blank. The bottoms of the columns vary in depth, creating a nice visual zig-zag rhythm. This also allows for ample white space, so the reader is not faced with an overwhelming sea of type. In addition, a darker sans serif typeface is used for the headlines (only a few words each). For instance, you can look up “Avocado,” and the text will tell you “use to” and then offer suggestions for creative uses of an avocado.

What I like about this treatment is threefold:

  1. The typefaces are the same ones used in the intro pages, so the book has a rhythm and predictability based on common design elements.
  2. Shifting back and forth between the text (for the “how to” or “do it yourself” content) and the full page photos gives both predictability and variety to the look of the text. It’s creative but extremely readable.
  3. The contrast in typeface (and particularly the weight, or lightness/darkness, of the heads and text) make the content of the book easily understandable. If it were in another language, even one I couldn’t understand, I’d still be able to decipher the levels of importance (as well as relatedness) of one block of copy to another.

Divider Pages

Finally, the divider pages use two-page, full-bleed color solids to distinguish the break between subjects within the book. Minimal text is either reversed out of the color or surprinted over the color, and a large capital letter (the successive letters of the alphabet, since this book is formatted as a dictionary of sorts) is reversed out of the solid color. The letter bleeds off the page and is so large that it draws attention to its shape (the strokes of the letterform) as a piece of art in and of itself.

Overall Impressions and What You Can Learn from This Book

All of these design techniques create an easily navigable print book with bright colors, intriguing images, and an overall playfulness. This is fully consistent with the concept of playing with household items to discover new uses for them. If you are a designer, there is nothing that will lift your work above your competition than using these, or similar, artistic principles to marry the content and tone of your book with its overall appearance.

Keep in mind that design goes beyond the typefaces and design grid and includes paper choices, cover coatings, and bindery choices. If all of these support one another and also reinforce the purpose of the book, that’s true success in design.

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