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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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Commercial Printing: Developing a Letterhead Design

A book printing and design client of mine sent me a photo of a flower a few weeks ago when we were discussing her corporate identity. She wants to rebrand her writing business, and she has liked my designs for her poetry print books (and my feedback on her marketing initiatives) enough to ask for my logo-design help.

So this week she asked that I create temporary letterhead (while we work on the rebranding), incorporating the flower image she sent me, as well as her name, address, phone number, and email information. At this pivotal moment, I thought to myself, “How do I proceed?”

Steps in the Process (The Image)

My client had asked for a centered, symmetrical layout, with all of her contact information in the center top of the page under the photo of the flower. So this is what I did—first. I figured I’d give her what she had requested, but then I’d give her some other options as well.

So I placed a small, square image of the cropped photo at the top of the page. Working quickly, I didn’t bother saving the image as a TIFF (or changing it from full color to greyscale). I just wanted to essentially make sketches as the ideas came into my head. (I will say that on the second pass, the next day, I did change the image to greyscale. At that point I also considered the tonal range of the photo (light vs. dark areas). I wanted to make sure that even at such a small size there would be detail in the image. Even (or especially) a small photo had to immediately look like a flower.

I used curves rather than levels in Photoshop. It allowed me to almost posterize the image (i.e., to use a handful of distinct levels, from black to dark grey to medium and light grey, to white). At that size, simple would be best.

I wanted the image to work in black and white first. I didn’t want the saturated red of the original flower photo to distract my client from the overall design. Also, I knew that if my client wanted to print the photo in another color, I could always add one. I also assumed (at this point in a very fluid design process) that it would cost more to print 4-color letterhead than one- or two-color letterhead—which, of course, might not be true for custom printing only a short run of the job digitally).

Looking down into the flower from above (the vantage point of the photo) made for an interesting shape around all of the petals. In addition, all of the interior parts of the flower (the parts the bees like) made for an interesting shape—but it was more abstract, less immediately understandable as a flower. So I cropped to the outer shape of the flower. Immediate recognition, I thought, trumped “cool design.”

I also noted that seeing some of the greenery around the flower petal was desirable (for its immediate recognition as a flower), so I loosened the tight photo crop just slightly. I did keep to a square format, though. I thought this would be more dynamic and solid than any other geometric form (like a rectangle).

So I had my central image, which I had every reason to think my client would like because she had given it to me, and I had presented it in its best light (aesthetically) and its most recognizable form (practically).

A Caveat Before Proceeding

I had fortunately taken the advice I always give others to ask the client what she likes in other people’s logos and letterhead, and what adjectives she considered relevant to the “tone” or ethos of her business. She said she didn’t like anybody’s marketing collateral, but she wanted me to present an upscale, dynamic look, with the elegance of Vogue magazine.

So I had my goal for the next steps.

Type Choices

Even for a letterhead treatment with a photo and a handful of address information there are an infinite number of options. Getting a client to be specific makes this easier. Getting the client to provide physical samples makes this easier still.

So with Vogue as a target I chose a serif typeface at random based entirely on what looked good to me (elegant and dynamic). I figured I could always change it later. I just needed to sketch out (so to speak, on the computer) maybe five different treatments of all of this visual and textual information, using the limited palette of black ink only (which could later be augmented). I think the typeface was Minion. It was the one at the top of the font list on my computer, and I knew that a serif face would seem to be a little more “classy and opulent” in its tone.

To enhance the upscale Vogue look I set my client’s name in caps and small caps (large initial letters in each word of her name and smaller, albeit still capital, letters for the remaining letters in each name). There are three words in her name (it looks like she uses a former married name as well as her own). It would be even more upscale if two of the names were hyphenated, but you can’t always get what you want. I made sure the name was significantly larger than the address, phone number, and email information. And to be safe, I made these one point smaller than I had initially planned. Then I made sure my client’s name was not so large as to be awkward (it still had to be sophisticated).

Page Geometry

When I was starting in design in the 1970s, we used to call this “layout.” Now I think some people call it “page geometry.” Regardless, it’s the placement of design elements on the page.

To start the process, I made exactly the layout my client had requested. (I mentioned this earlier in the blog article.) Then I started to move the elements around on the page. I tried various centered (symmetrical) and asymmetrical options. I put some address information at the bottom of the page with and without a .5 pt horizontal rule. I even realized that with the photo and three chunks of copy, I could set up a layout grid of four columns and put the image and the three chunks of copy on an invisible horizontal line across the top of the page (to anchor them).

When I was done, I went online (Google) and looked under “letterhead samples.” I found a few more ideas and modified them to accommodate my client’s design elements. Then I had five good options. Each was different from the others, in terms of the overall design grid or placement of the name (above or below the flower image, for instance). I wanted to make sure there was enough of a difference to warrant showing my client each of the options. I also remembered the advice another designer had once given me: Show the client only what you like. After all, it’s hard to advocate for a design you’re not pleased with yourself.

Logic and Practicality

When I had printed hard copies of each option (and I strongly encourage you to do this in your own work, because no online image will “feel” like real letterhead and show you the exact size of all design elements), I realized something. I looked at where my client would need to start her typed (or laser printed) letter on the letterhead. Some designs (those with all design elements at the top of the letterhead page) made it essential to start the typed letter farther down the page. Other designs that put the address at the bottom and the flower image and my client’s name at the top left more room, higher up on the page, for the letter my client would write on the letterhead.

This was a practical approach but also a prudent one.

Then I sent off the five options to my client as PDF attachments to an email. The email basically said “Anything can be changed. Let me know what you like and don’t like.” Fortunately, when I awoke this morning, my client’s email registered her overall delight. I was grateful. This doesn’t always happen.

What You Can Learn

  1. Ask your client questions (such as, “What adjectives describe your business?” and “How would you describe the values your business espouses?”). Then listen to the answers.
  2. Ask for printed samples of (or online links to) logos and letterhead treatments your client likes.
  3. Think in terms of the emotional tone of various typefaces, and the tone of all caps, all lowercase, and small-caps treatments.
  4. Think about what colors you will use for the custom printing, but first make sure the design works well in black ink only. Color can detract from your accurately assessing the quality of the underlying design.
  5. Think practically: How much will it cost to do what you want (i.e., the number of printed colors and this effect on the cost of an offset print job vs. a digital print job)? And how much space are you leaving your client to put her/his actual letter on the letterhead?

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