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Archive for November, 2017

Commercial Printing: Print in the Fashion Industry

Monday, November 27th, 2017

I have had an eye out for news about the fashion industry recently, since I have been helping a print brokering client find fabric printing sources for her new clothing line. I have mentioned her before in this blog. She started with a print book color system for choosing hues complementary to one’s complexion, and now she is expanding her color system into garment production.

This is what I have read recently.

3D Printing of Athletic Footwear

The first article I read was “Adidas’ latest 3D-printed shoe puts mass production within sight,” written by Fitz Tepper and published on techcrunch.com.

The article references a new 3D printing process used for Adidas athletic shoes, in which the 3D printed midsole can be varied in thickness and flexibility depending on the computer data. “Different patterns result in different density and feel” (according to the article), and presumably this will be variable at some point based on each individual buyer’s needs. The article notes that after the 3D printer has produced the midsole, it is attached to a fabric top of the shoe constructed in a more traditional manner.

What makes this 3D custom printing approach to shoemaking intriguing to me is that Adidas’ 3D printing company, Carbon (located in Silicon Valley) has developed a new form of additive manufacturing that works more quickly than prior technology (while also printing the shoe with a more flexible 3D filament material). The process is called Digital Light Synthesis, and it uses a special light in the printer to solidify the resin up to ten times faster than more traditional 3D printing.

Israeli Tech Firms in the Fashion Industry

The second article I read was “Five Israeli Companies Changing The Face Of International Fashion Tech,” by Kathryn Dura, published in NoCamels on October 15, 2017.

To quote from the article, “Ranging from e-commerce and 3D online shopping to 3D printed clothing, wearable technologies and eco-fashion, digital fashion is incredibly broad but making a strong and swift imprint.”

Dura’s article highlights a number of Israeli firms that have brought technology into the fashion industry, partially in response to declining sales at brick-and-mortar stores.

One of the start-ups noted in the article is Donde Fashion, which uses image recognition technology to allow consumers to identify and search for garments using images rather than the traditional words and phrases used in most Internet searches. Dura notes that “the Israeli startup has users narrow their search with images of clothing items, colors, clothing specifications (for example, sleeve lengths, necklines, etc.), materials, and patterns. Traditional filters of size, price, and brand are also available.”

Another Israeli start-up, Syte.AI, also uses an artificial intelligence and machine learning process to allow users to hover the computer cursor over an online image and find out where to buy a specific garment.

Still another Israeli start-up, Invertex, focuses on the actual fit of each garment, to make sure that whether a consumer is buying in a store or online, the product is a comfortable fit. According to “Five Israeli Companies Changing The Face Of International Fashion Tech,” “The company’s unique combination of accurate 3D-body-mapping technology and its cognitive AI fit engine allows consumers to enjoy a guided shopping experience on e-commerce and in physical stores, with the confidence that each product they select will always fit them perfectly.”

Finally, Dura’s article describes the fashion-based offerings of Kornit, which is what initially caught my interest, given my print brokering client’s (the “fashionista’s”) move from color swatch print books into garment manufacturing.

Dura notes that Kornit Digital has developed direct-to-garment printing equipment that is much faster than prior generations of garment printing machinery. While my client’s specific needs are for roll-to-roll custom printing (which will then be fabricated into finished clothing) rather than direct-to-garment printing, the article’s description of Kornit’s new technology makes it clear that Kornit is a company to watch. More specifically, if you’re doing fabric custom printing, a good way to start choosing vendors is to look for printers with any of Kornit’s many types of fabric printing equipment.

Printing Dress Shoes, Fabric, and Jewelry

Finally, I have been reading numerous articles on the 3D printing of jewelry, fabric (not the garments themselves but the actual material used in unique high-fashion garments), and even shoes.

We have already discussed Adidas footwear, but 3D printers go far beyond athletic shoes. I have seen many images of 3D-printed high-fashion women’s dress shoes based on intricate latticework patterns. The same goes for the complex 3D printed weaves of fabric used to construct women’s clothing. And you can see similar detailed patterns in the rings, bracelets, and earrings that appear on fashion runways. All of this is the product of advances in 3D commercial printing, also known as additive manufacturing.

What You Can Learn from These Articles

  1. Printing is expanding to include 3D manufacturing as well as the jetting of ink onto flat substrates. Just as you can create a virtual experience that is flat and decorative (a world in a book, a brochure, or a large-format graphic), you can produce a physical object with a 3D printer and plastic resin. In both cases you engage the emotions and aspirations of the consumer.
  2. Printing is expanding to embrace more and more functional or industrial venues. That is, in addition to producing educational and promotional materials, the commercial printing industry is employing digital and analog custom printing methods to create usable products (from signs to computer cases to keyboards).
  3. Digital creation and adornment of 3D products is expanding to printed tiles for walls, floors, and ceilings; wallpaper; and fabrics for clothing, interior design, and linens.
  4. The procurement of these products extends from brick-and-mortar stores to e-commerce websites.
  5. Technology facilitates all of this growth. This includes the technology of printing on rolls of fabric and garments themselves. It also includes 3D printing technology used to manufacture three-dimensional jewelry, footwear, and clothing. And it even includes the combination of artificial intelligence, tags embedded in garments, and big data manipulation to track how people use the fashion products they buy.
  6. In the long run this means that the definition of commercial printing is growing and changing, and the opportunities for the design and production of fashion items are also expanding. For those in commercial printing and the graphic arts, this is a most encouraging sign.

Custom Printing: “Going to School” on Fabric Printing

Monday, November 20th, 2017

As with any other commercial printing technology, there’s more to fabric printing than the online promotional and technical material would suggest. This is not a bad thing. It just requires study.

I’ve been working with a “fashionista” recently, who is expanding her color offerings from a color print book to clothing. (Her initial product is a book of color chips bound with a screw-and-post assembly that resembles a PMS color swatch book. However, instead of choosing colors for graphic design projects, it helps you choose appropriate fashion colors based on your complexion.)

So my client and I have been researching online and brick-and-mortar fabric printers, and in the process I’ve learned a lot:

  1. Printing on fabric is not the same as making a garment. The first thing I learned is that many vendors will print your design on fabric, but once this is done, you still have to find another vendor to cut the garment pattern and sew it into a usable product. That is, the end product for many printers is just a roll of printed fabric.
  2. That said, some fabric printers do fabricate the garments as well as print the roll of fabric. This is very helpful, and I’m a strong believer in having fewer rather than more vendors in the mix. This is one reason I’m not at all averse to having the printer also provide the fabric (rather than having my client provide the fabric). Suppliers that take a job from computer art file through the inkjet or dye-sublimation printing stage to the fabrication stage are responsible for the entire product, but they also often understand the “transitions” between one stage and the others more thoroughly than those who just specialize in the custom printing process.
  3. Of course, there’s also direct-to-garment printing. This seems to be more appropriate (from my research) for smaller-format graphics that will be positioned on the front of a shirt (for instance) rather than across the entire swath of fabric comprising the shirt.
  4. In the case of the vendors I’ve approached, printed samples are more than likely based on the art the vendor has chosen (rather than your art file). Actually, this seems reasonable, since loading and processing the digital art file for your pattern takes time, which should be billable. In spite of this, it seems to be perfectly appropriate to request a “solid” and a “print” to see how both will look. Of course, depending on the vendor, you will still be paying for the sample ($25 each in the case of the printer I found), but you can learn a lot about the vendor from the quality of the graphic, the quality of the color, and the quality of the sewing (in my case, my client and I will be paying for two sample scarves, completely fabricated, not just fabric).
  5. Printers seem to print on white fabric, not dyed or textured fabric. I’m not sure why, nor am I certain that this pertains to all or even most custom printing vendors. For a shirt, this is not a problem. However, for a garment like some sweaters, portions of the opposite side of the fabric are visible. Perhaps a flap or lapel of a cardigan folds over, exposing what would otherwise be the inside of the garment. If this is white, it might look odd against a darker fabric. This is why my client and I asked about printing both sides or working with pre-dyed fabric. Apparently this is not an option (or is very difficult) with dye-sublimation commercial printing.
  6. Furthermore, printers seem to print on only one side of the fabric. This may be due to “print through,” which seems to be the migration of inks through the fabric, providing a lighter version of the print design on the opposite side of the fabric (like “show-through” in offset printing on paper).
  7. My client found a low-cost printer (a machine rather than a vendor) that will print on dyed or textured fabric. This particular piece of equipment is called “FabricZoom.” If you’re starting in fabric printing yourself, I’d encourage you to check it out online. The website is http://www.fabriczoom.com/. What makes this unique is that you print using spot colors (mixed colors, such as the match colors you would use for logos when printing conventionally on paper) instead of process colors (those inks that allow you to create multiple colors by spraying jets of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black onto a substrate–like a conventional inkjet printer). Fabric Zoom’s approach makes it impossible to create misaligned CMYK builds. It is also quite affordable at about $2,000+. Personally I’m impressed with the build quality as well. It seems to be substantial and sturdy.
  8. Having your own fabric printer doesn’t mean you will produce all your own garments. Think of a $2,000 fabric printer as analogous to your home or office inkjet printer for paper. If you’re designing prototypes of garments, you can try out your designs using the small bolts of fabric you acquire and then hand off a single, completed item to be mass produced by a larger shop. In fact, not having one of these machines is like being a print designer and not having a color inkjet and a laser printer. You’re not as able to visualize your final design of a project when you can’t hold a mock-up in your hand and see how it feels.
  9. Follow the equipment. I’ve been personally taken with the Kornit Allegro. I’ve been reading about its dye-sublimation capabilities, and I’ve seen photos of various configurations in which the interim heat press section with calender rollers seems to be missing. Personally, I assume this means the equipment can do both dye-sublimation (on polyester) and inkjet (on cotton). That said, when I see various online fabric printing sites that show this specific Kornit Allegro printer on their pressroom floor, I become a little more interested in that particular fabric printing vendor. It’s like learning an offset printer has an all-Heidelberg shop (one of my favorite offset press manufacturers based on their quality and precision).

What You Can Learn from This Ongoing Case Study

  1. Learning something new is a process. My client and I have hit some dead ends. But I don’t think they were failures. I think they were learning experiences, because in each case we collected a little more information about what kinds of products my client wants to offer, and what some potential vendors can do and what they can’t do.
  2. Buying a lot of equipment so you can start your own fabric designing business is not necessarily wise. After all, you have to pay for the building, your staff, and the equipment. But having no equipment may not be wise either. In many cases you can buy a small version of the chosen technology to do your own prototypes in-house and then subcontract the final production run. Keep in mind that this still takes money. For fabric printing, the FabricZoom may be a good answer.
  3. Always find people who know more about the field you’re entering than you do. If they have no potential for financial gain, all the better.
  4. Enjoy the excitement and the novelty. But do read, study, and see everything you can before you put down money. Along this vein, a large-format commercial printing show like SGIA (the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association) might be a good investment of time and funds.

Large Format Printing: Printing Fabric and Garments

Monday, November 13th, 2017

I have a client who for the past three or four years has been producing and reprinting small color print books for fashion. I have written about her before in this blog. She is a “fashionista.”

Her books are like small PMS books, but they tell you what colors are appropriate for your clothing and make-up based on your complexion. These little print books are an example of industrial (or functional) custom printing: that is, printing that decorates items with a practical use rather than just a promotional or educational goal. A street sign or a computer keyboard would be two more examples of functional printing.

My client has been producing these color books on a local printer’s HP Indigo digital press, but now she plans to expand her product offerings to include clothing based on the same color theory. So this week we discussed fabrics, ink sets, and press runs, and I began to study in depth those digital technologies that allow designers to print on fabric.

How I’m Approaching My Client’s Job

Fortunately, I already had a cursory understanding of fabric printing. I knew that polyester required dye-sublimation printing, and cotton fabrics required inkjet. Since my client was starting to articulate the specific clothing items she wanted to decorate, I started to study the materials from which they were fabricated. Then I went to the online fabric printing websites she mentioned. My client said she preferred the autonomy and control that came from finding her own financial backers rather than buying fabric printing online. (Apparently, in some cases you can provide art files to vendors who will produce your clothing for a cut of the profits, returning to you only a percentage of what they sell. My client didn’t want this.)

Therefore, I approached the commercial printing vendors I work with who have large format printing capabilities. However, I quickly learned that for the most part these vendors focused on vinyl banners, not clothing.

So I called up a vendor I knew dealt in exotic packaging, marketing promotions, and large format signage. I think this will be a good starting point. My client’s first priority is to produce 100 units each of five items of clothing. These range from scarves to t-shirts in solid, unique colors.

From my research, I first learned that the composition of the substrate matters a lot in how you image fabric. Therefore, as the next step I found a list of fabrics my client had already researched through her online fabric printing vendors. They included everything from lycra to rayon to cotton, gauze, chiffon—words I had only heard before on TV fashion shows my fiancee watches. Fortunately, my client could pare this list down to a few specific fabrics, noting precise percentages of materials in the blends.

Colors, Fabrics, and Longevity

Based on my client’s desire to offer solid-color t-shirts, it seemed that direct to fabric might be the best option (this I learned from one vendor). Direct to garment, the other option, seemed more appropriate for designs printed on the front of a shirt, for instance. The t-shirt would be held firmly in place in some sort of “jig,” and the design would be directly inkjetted or sublimated (for polyester t-shirts). This means the ink would be turned from a solid directly into a gas (bypassing the liquid phase, hence sublimation) using a heat press. This gas would migrate into the garment, solidify, and bond with the polyester fibers, providing superior durability and brilliant color.

Unlike the banners and even the table throws printed with UV ink or latex ink, the dye-based inks used in garment printing would actually go deeply into the fabric. They would not sit on top of the fabric. For clothing, this would be ideal.

I also learned that the dye-based inks could be either printed first on a transfer sheet (or “liner”) and then the images could be transferred through heat and pressure onto the polyester material, or they could be jetted directly onto the fabric and then bonded to the fibers of the fabric with heat and pressure.

Since the direct disperse method (the name for the direct printing option) would send the dye-based ink deeper into the fabric, this might be a plus, since my client’s t-shirts (which would start out as white shirts) could potentially be dyed all the way through the fabric (so the part facing the wearer’s body would also be in color). Apparently, the printing of an image or even a solid color via a transfer sheet would not go as deeply into the fabric.

Inks

From my reading I then learned about the various kinds of water-soluble, dye-based inks and their pre- and post-treatment requirements. These include:

  1. Disperse and sublimation dyes. These are used to print on polyester, rayon, lycra, acrylics, and similar materials. After printing, they must be treated with heat to ensure the dye’s bonding with the substrate.
  2. Reactive dyes. These are used to print on cotton, linen, rayon, and other celulose-based substrates. They require both pre- and post-treatment.
  3. Acid dyes. These are used to print on wool, silk, cashmere, nylon, and similar fabrics. They require post-treatment.
  4. Pigments. These are used to print on natural fibers such as cotton. They require post-treatment.

(Based on my research it looks like the pre- and post-treatments include some or any of the following: washing, chemicals, and/or heat, to fix the dye-based inks permanently.)

From my reading I learned that my client’s specific custom printing inks would depend on her choice of fabrics, and her choice of fabrics would depend upon the specific garments she wanted to produce. (For instance, the sheer scarves might be treated very differently from the t-shirts.)

The Digital Advantage

To put this in historical perspective, prior to the advent of digital custom printing, my client would have dyed the fabric from which her t-shirts would be made (or the shirts themselves) in hot water baths of dye. Probably she would have been required by the manufacturer to produce a large minimum number of t-shirts to make the job cost effective. She might also have had access to only a limited color palette.

If my client wanted an image or pattern on her garments, she would have needed to print the job via custom screen printing. This too would have required a large minimum order based on the extensive work required to prepare the screens and ink, as well as to clean up after the production run. Presumably there also would have been a limited number of color choices for printing the art or patterns.

Given that my client wants to offer a plethora of colors and print limited production runs, digital custom printing via either inkjet or dye-sublimation (directly or with a transfer sheet) will allow her to keep the press runs low, the color saturation high, and the color and pattern options varied.

Printing to Garment or to Fabric

At this point, the vendors I spoke with seemed to prefer printing to fabric bolts (flat rolls of fabric priced by the printed yard) rather than to garment (directly on the t-shirts, for example). My client may be ok with that. We’ll see. Of course printing to fabric will require skilled labor after the printing phase in order to sew the finished products.

What to Research

My main concern at this point is the colorfastness of the printed products. I want to make sure the dye-based ink will stay in the fibers. So I plan to get lots of printed samples (much as I would do with ink or toner on paper). I will probably encourage my client to test these samples in sunlight, rain, and the washing machine and clothes dryer. This is still the realm of commercial printing, and as with all commercial printing, understanding the intended product use is essential. After all, even a vinyl banner must be printed (if it is for exterior use) to withstand sunlight, wind, rain, and snow.

Nevertheless, even with all the questions, this is very exciting. It’s also a growing area of commercial printing, along with packaging, labels, and even inkjet printing on wood paneling and floor tiles. Industrial printing is very hot at the moment.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

No matter what you’re printing, sooner or later you will find something completely new, and you’ll need to learn about new techniques, new materials, and new processes. The best advice I can give you is to read voraciously, find and work with those who know more than you do, and acquire samples that you can test under the harsh environment of actual usage.

With my client, this will be an ongoing process, albeit a very exciting one. If you’re a designer, you may want to learn about this area, too. It might just ensure your relevance in the commercial printing industry.

Custom Printing: Benefits of Being Alert and Nimble

Monday, November 6th, 2017

Two things happened this week with two separate print-brokering clients’ jobs, and yet I saw a connection between them regarding being aware and being flexible. I thought you might find these insights helpful in your own print buying work.

The Missing Specifications in a Print Book Estimate

The first incident pertains to the cheese cookbook I’m working on. To give you some background, I have been working with my client for over a year to develop and print a wealth of information on cheese-making. The book is now two volumes, Plasticoil bound, 350 to 400 pages per volume, 8.5” x 11” in format, with a press run of between 500 and 2,000 copies. It has a coated cover, but there will be additional plastic sheets covering the front and back of the book. The goal is to protect the books from moisture and food.

In this round of pricing I had received estimates from five of the seven vendors I had initially approached with more preliminary specs. My client is almost done now and ready to print. So we’re tightening up the pricing and making sure all specifications have been addressed.

This week I received prices from the fourth vendor. Initially they looked great. They were right in line with the pricing of the current low bidder, giving me some flexibility in choice. However, upon further examination of both my specification sheet and the book printer’s estimate, I noticed that three key items were missing. The printer had neglected to include the hard-copy proof (not a great expense), the shrink wrapping, and the outer plastic sheets to protect the covers. It was only after the second pass through the spec sheet and the bid that I saw what was not there. So I asked the printer if they had been included. A day later he said they had not, and he provided additional pricing for these items.

To make a long story short, the extra cost for the shrink wrapping ranged from $500 to $1,600 for 500 to 2000 books, and the extra cost for the plastic sheets for the front and back of the book ranged from $900 to $3400 for 500 to 2000 books. Depending on the press run, this was a huge amount of money, and it could have been easily missed and then only caught after the book printer had completed the job and submitted the bill.

What You Can Learn From This Case Study

The moral of the story is: Look at what’s not in the estimate as well as what is in the estimate. This is why I’m obsessive about checking and rechecking bids. Moreover, I know that each book printer’s estimate will be presented in a slightly different manner (format, wording, etc.) and that most printers will include certain items but not specify them on the bid. So having such a moving target, such variety in the presentation and meaning of estimates, necessitates careful checking and rechecking. Better to discover the hidden costs now, early in the process—or before the job has gone to press—than to find them after the job has already been awarded.

A Proofing Dilemma with a Small Poetry Book

Being alert and nimble is essential to the successful print buyer. Here’s another example.

This week another client of mine, who is printing a book of poems in memory of her deceased husband, needed to receive and review a proof. I had designed and uploaded the press-ready PDF of her print book, and it was time to confirm that all was right with the printer’s version before proceeding.

To give this some context, this is a 28-page-plus-cover print book. It is very small in format: 4.5” x 6”, printed on 70# cream text stock with a 100# natural cover stock for the saddle-stitched cover. There will only be 20 copies printed. But what makes this unique and important is that it is an individual client’s print book, not a job for a business. It is a labor of love for her, so it has to be right.

This week my client called me to let me know that her email was down (it was a problem with her computer, not the Internet provider’s service). Therefore, we potentially would not be able to review the online PDF proof once the printer had made it available. (In this particular case, due to the simplicity of the book, I had encouraged my client to forgo a hard-copy proof and just review the book online. For a more complex job, I would have advised her otherwise.)

Thinking quickly, she and I worked out a plan: She would pay for a physical proof of the print book (plus the cost of shipping). The printer would make an extra copy of the proof (at his cost), so my client would not need to return her copy. I discussed this with the printer, and he agreed.

Changing the workflow for a print job is an occasional necessary evil in print buying, but in this case there were benefits as well.

First of all, custom printing produces a very tactile product, and this turn of events meant that my client would actually see a copy of her print book on her chosen paper stock prior to its being printed. I had sent her a paper swatch to show her the thickness of the paper and the cream colored tone, but it was really just a square of paper. I also did not have a corresponding swatch of cover stock paper to show her.

But the way things were happening–even if not according to plan–my client could feel the texture of the paper and see her own printed poems on the chosen stock in the correct 4.5” x 6” format. She could also see the brown color of the cover, and see whether she liked the tone when printed on an off-white press sheet. If she wanted to make changes to any of the physical attributes of her poetry book, she could. Had she only seen a screen proof, all of these physical production qualities would have been absent.

Granted, this poetry book has one quality that sets it apart from a lot of other print jobs. It will be printed on an HP Indigo digital press due to its ultra-short press run (20 copies). (Printing such a book via offset lithography would be prohibitively expensive for 20 books.) But, fortunately, a digitally printed book can easily be proofed on the specific paper stock you have chosen for the final press run. It will then look exactly like the final printed product.

(As a final note, after I had written this blog article, my client’s physical proof arrived. It was delivered to the wrong house, and the printer had used an earlier—and therefore erroneous–version of the text. Nevertheless, my client could see most of her poems on the correct paper—both cover and text. Shortly after I had brought this to the printer’s attention, he sent me a revised PDF proof for my client. So my client can now take the weekend to read the book cover to cover to ensure its absolute accuracy. Best of all, the printer will only charge $10 to $15 per new proof cycle.)

What You Can Learn From This Case Study

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Changing your process on the fly is not always ideal or comfortable, but if you’re alert, you can sometimes find benefits not otherwise available. For example, in your own digital print buying work, ask about proofing the job on the specific paper stock you have chosen. You will both see and feel exactly how the finished product will look. You will be able to see whether a cream coated stock will change the printed toner colors in adverse ways (for example, yellow-white paper can make people’s faces look jaundiced). It’s better to see this on the proof than in the final print books.
  2. Proofing on the actual stock (for a digital print job) can also be helpful if you have heavy coverage solids. You’ll be able to see immediately if the toner lays down evenly (or if there are holes or uneven colors). In this way you can see whether a coated or uncoated press sheet would be better for your particular artwork. You can even scratch the dry toner with your fingernail to see whether there will potentially be problems with scuffing and whether you should therefore laminate the print book covers.

Envelope Printing: A Few Thoughts to Get You Started

Wednesday, November 1st, 2017

If you’re a marketing executive or designer of marketing materials, you know that almost nothing of importance gets to your prospective clients without an OGE (outgoing envelope). In many cases, nothing gets back to you without a business reply envelope (BRE). The only exception I can think of, other than marketing collateral passed out at conventions, is the postcard, since this workhorse of modern marketing travels unencumbered (without an envelope).

So it helps to know something about envelopes.

In my experience there’s a lot to know, and this can sometimes seem quite overwhelming. There are all the different sizes (from small coin envelopes up to 9” x 12” mailing envelopes, or larger for medical x-rays), aspect ratios (ranging from rectangular to square), paper weights, flap shapes, paper surface textures, and methods of closure, not to mention colors and whether or not there is a window.

The most useful suggestion I can make is to ask your commercial printing supplier for an envelope printing template booklet (or poster). I have seen several that address all of these issues in one place. Such a publication is immensely useful.

Custom Printing Methods

There are a number of ways to print an envelope. Direct offset printing right on the envelope is usually an economical choice for a large number of envelopes (let’s say 1,000 to 5,000 or more). If you are printing a small amount of text or simple graphics on the envelope, you can use a small offset press or even a jet press that can print 30,000 to 60,000 envelopes per hour (depending on the color configuration). That’s fast.

Based on my experience, this is the best option for simple graphics. However, based on my recent reading, a jet press even works well for ink that bleeds off the edge of the envelope. To be certain, I would always ask your printer if the complexity of your envelope artwork warrants direct printing on the envelope or offset printing on a flat litho press sheet and then conversion into an envelope.

The conversion option is ideal for heavy ink coverage. Let’s say your envelopes have full ink coverage on both sides. Such a product will be of a higher quality if the job is first printed on a flat sheet and then die cut, folded, and glued into the recognizable envelope form. (Again, this is in contrast to printing on what is called a “blank,” which is a standard size–such as a #10 envelope, which is 4 1/8” x 9 1/2”.) It costs a lot to print and convert envelopes (obviously the exact cost depends on the quantity) because it requires both steel-ruled cutting dies and the conversion steps of cutting the paper and then folding and gluing it into an envelope. So there has to be a good reason to “print and convert,” and this is usually due to the complexity of the printing, the amount of ink coverage, and/or a non-standard envelope size.

The third option is flexography, which is great for huge quantities of printed envelopes (let’s say 100,000 or more). For this technology, a rubber relief plate wrapped around a cylinder prints the envelopes as they pass through the press (in contrast to the offset lithography option in which the plates are flat, with both the image area and non-image area on the same level).

The fourth option, for much smaller press runs, is digital, usually laser printing. What makes this an attractive option is that there is no set up, so even for a short run of 300 envelopes the total cost is reasonable. If you were to do this short a press run on an offset press, your press make-ready would be expensive enough that your cost for 300 copies or 3,000 copies would be surprisingly close. For digital printing, there is essentially no make-ready, so for short runs your overall price will be low.

That said, there’s another reason to like digital printing for envelopes. Every envelope can be different, so either you can change the address information for each envelope (you wouldn’t even add the addressing information on an offset press run of envelopes), or you can vary the teaser copy on the envelope (the marketing blurb that grabs the recipient).

Paper Weights for Envelopes

If you’re specifying an envelope, you will most likely choose a text weight paper. Let’s say you’re inserting three pages that are 50# text, which is also 20# bond (each kind of paper is weighed at a different basic size, so these two paper stocks actually feel the same). You would probably specify 24# envelopes (a little heavier than the letterhead). Two other good choices would be 24# envelopes for 60# text letterhead paper or 28# envelopes for 70# text letterhead paper. Increasing the paper weight a little, like this, provides a sense of gravitas (philosophical weightiness) to the marketing piece. It seems just that much more important.

I have also received much heavier weights of envelopes in the mail. However, you should remember that the heavier the product, the higher the postage. When I was a graphic designer, as a rule of thumb I would specify 28# envelopes for the larger sizes, such as the 9” x 12” catalog and booklet envelopes. I found these a little more durable, since they were thicker than the usual 24#, and this was a benefit if the envelope contained a heavier product than a letter. For letter-sized envelopes, I would specify 24# stock.

Options for Envelope Closures

Here are just a few:

  1. Remoistenable glue. When you insert a folded letter into a #10 envelope and lick it to seal the envelope, you have just used remoistenable glue. This name distinguishes this glue from the glue that attaches the permanently sealed flaps of the envelope.
  2. Button and string. If you have a brown kraft envelope that will travel around your office, you may want to close it with a string that wraps around two paper buttons.
  3. Peel-and-stick envelopes. You peel off a sheet of paper attached to the glue, and the flap sticks to the opposite side of the envelope. This makes it unnecessary to lick a flap before sealing it.
  4. Clasp envelopes. These have a little metal brad that fits through a hole on the flap and then is spread apart to seal the envelope.

Window Envelopes

Plastic patches (that used to be glassine, poly, or celophane) cover windows on envelopes through which you can see the address information. The window patches come in standard sizes (and placements), although there are a few options for each. This is a useful product because you only have to address the letter, not the envelope.

Consider Postage

Keep in mind that the standard cost to mail a #10 envelope is not the same as the standard cost to mail a 9” x 12” envelope. Do some checking with your Post Office before you create a budget. Size matters, and weight matters. To be safe, give your Post Office a sample with all enclosures already inserted.

The same goes for square envelopes. There is a postage premium for such an envelope. Discuss this with your Post Office.

Consider BRE Markings

If your envelope will be designed to come back to you, you must follow the design requirements of the Post Office. These include size and placement of certain preprinted type (in addition to the address) and various scannable barcodes. Placement of these is crucial if you want to avoid heartache and surcharges. The Post Office can provide booklets on preparing business mail.

Find a Good Direct Mail Printer

It doesn’t hurt to develop a good working relationship with a dedicated envelope printer. Not that most commercial printers aren’t a good source for this kind of printing, but printers that focus on envelopes and other aspects of direct mail printing will be fluent in all of the postal regulations. They will be able to give you templates to help you design business reply mail, and they will have all of the printing and inserting equipment to complete the various steps of a direct mail job efficiently and economically. In my experience, such a printer that also does commercial printing is a real gem.

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