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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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Custom Printing: Two Cool Samples (and Why They’re Cool)

Every so often I receive a unique printed sample in the mail or pick one up in a mall. Sometimes it’s the folding technique that grabs my attention. Sometimes it’s a particular paper coating or even a unique custom printing technique or substrate material that piques my interest.

Over the last few weeks I have picked up two such samples. First, I’d like to describe them to you and then I want to explain why I think they are noteworthy. Why? If you design anything that is printed, then it helps to understand the strengths of print vs. online communication. Then you can ensure that your design work stands out from the crowd, because you will be playing to the strengths of this tactile medium.

The Chapbook

One of my clients is a husband-and-wife publishing team. They produce print books of fiction and poetry, and as such they have many other friends and colleagues who also publish books of this kind. Most of their readers are middle aged and above, so they have grown up with physical print books, and they appreciate their physical nature.

The particular print sample of which I speak is a “chapbook,” a small book of literature with a simple design, created to be shared with other poets and writers. This particular book is 4” x 6” in format, 80 pages in length, with almost nothing but text inside (black text only), with a 4-color cover coated with a matte film laminate, and perfect bound.

The cover has as its main visual motif a sculpture of a man with thumbs in his ears, wiggling his open fingers. He looks like a child, double-dog-daring someone to approach. (He also looks a bit like a moose, since the hands with outstretched fingers also look like moose’s horns.) According to the editor of this anthology about reading poetry in front of groups, the image may be of Syrophoenician origin. Apparently the statue recently sold at Sotheby’s. The open-fingered hand motif is reproduced in the text of the book, twice, once at the beginning and once at the end of the print book (sort of like bookends).

The typeface for the text is a simple, light sans serif with ample leading, justified. Because of the ample leading, I don’t mind that the single column of text is justified. It is still easy to read. The title of the book and the titles of the essays in the text are set in some variant of American Typewriter or Courier, with the letterforms slightly filled in, just like type from a typewriter.

The statue on the cover, unabashedly challenging the reader, is printed in full color over splashes of bright yellow, turquoise, and burnt sienna.

Why This Works / Why It’s Noteworthy

Here are some thoughts:

  1. The small format makes the book stand out in a world where most print books are closer to 6” x 9”.
  2. Although the book is small, the statue on the cover faces the reader and challenges him, much like David challenged Golliath. That said, there is an element of humor in the image (the “Na, na, na, na, nah” challenge set against the psychedelic colors and the distressed typewriter type). Humor sells because it puts the reader at ease.
  3. The matte film laminate is easy on the eyes in a world where many, if not the majority of, books have mirror-bright gloss cover coatings. So this one stands out, and it also feels good in the hands—not just because the book is so small but because of the soft-touch coating.
  4. The design is simple, and it reflects the contents. The book is an anthology of short essays about reading one’s poetry in front of groups. So it is fitting to have the typeface for the essay titles in what looks like typewriter type. Even though the grunge factor of the somewhat filled-in letterforms detracts from readability, all use of this typeface is for a few words here and a few words there. So you get the humor and irony, but you can still read the words.
  5. The book is a tactile experience, particularly because of the cover coating. You can’t simulate this on the Internet. You need a physical print book.

The Flexible Vase

As noted above, humor does sell. My fiancee and I received flowers recently in what would normally be called “flexible packaging.” You’ve seen this in the grocery store. When I grew up, tuna came in a can. Now it comes in a flexible pouch with edge-to-edge marketing text and imagery. And apple sauce used to come in a bottle, just like milk. Now apple sauce often comes in single-use servings in little pouches with quick-release nozzles for pouring out the contents. Again, you can print all over them, edge-to-edge.

So the printed sample in question, the plastic flexible vase for flowers, when opened and laid flat on a table, is in the shape of a very wide vase. It curves in and out at the top like the neck of a vase. It is wider than usual because when filled with water and flowers it becomes more of a cylinder. (At the moment, it is unfilled and flat on the table.)

Except for the top, there is heat welding all the way around, attaching the front of the vase to the back.

What makes this adorable is that on the front and back the printer has reproduced Vincent van Gogh’s “Cafe Terrace at Night.” I just looked closely with a 12-power printer’s loupe, and I didn’t see the rosette pattern of offset lithography, but I did see halftone dots of various sizes. Since inkjet printing uses a spray of minuscule dots, I can only assume this was done on some variant of an electrophotographic digital press (maybe something like an HP Indigo). Perhaps the plastic substrate can take the heat. It seems rigid when flat, so this might have been the technology used. I would think that flexographic printing would contain halftone dots that, like offset printing, would produce a prominent rosette pattern, and I could not see any rosette patterns on this printed bag.

Why This Works / Why It’s Noteworthy

Here are some thoughts:

  1. People still expect flowers to come in a glass or solid plastic vase, even if juice and apple sauce now come in bags. So what makes this unique is that it challenges one’s expectations. The viewer doesn’t expect a flexible vase, so she/he looks again and does a double take. (It’s a little like the Pop Art soft sculptures of the early 1960s.)
  2. People especially don’t expect a famous painting printed on a vase. To me, paintings of the masters suggest “old school” values. So it’s humorous (or at least eye-catching) to see new “flexible-package-printing” technology used to print a famous painting exactly where you’d never expect to see it. This entire product calls attention to itself as the offspring of modern technology, perhaps touched by the old-school sensibilities of Vincent van Gogh.
  3. This could not have been done without current commercial printing technology. In a world that sometimes touts the death of print, that’s gratifying to know.
  4. With digital custom printing now capable of printing on physical objects (direct-to-shape or DTS), plus the ability to print on glass, it will not be long before a digital inkjet press will be able to copy a Vincent van Gogh painting onto a glass vase (perhaps with UV inks). Then again, since they can already print directly onto the surface of a football, maybe it’s already possible to print a van Gogh on a rigid glass vase.

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