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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: A Box of Chocolate-Covered Strawberries

One of the few benefits of having been in the hospital, aside from supportive comments like, “You’re still alive,” is the occasional gift of food. I am a creature who runs on its stomach, so I was pleased to receive a box of chocolate-covered strawberries, a sinfully delicious treat I had not heretofore sampled.

However, as a student of commercial printing I was not oblivious to both the design and the construction of the gift box. As noted in prior blog articles, I was well aware that it had to do the following:

  1. It had to hold and protect the strawberries.
  2. It had to tolerate a cold, somewhat damp refrigerator.
  3. It had to not taint the food it contained.
  4. It had to look great.

Description of the Gift Box

First of all, let me describe the box, and then I will address these goals one by one. The box seems to be made of a thick, coated-one-side cover stock, maybe 10pt in thickness. Inside it has been printed in bright red. Outside, on the coated side, it has been printed in bright red and then covered in an additional gloss coating. The cover of this (approximately 8” x 10”) presentation box opens to one side (i.e., it is not separate from the bottom of the box).

This gift box has an ingenious gusset device to allow for expansion when it is folded open and for contraction when it is folded closed. The front of the box includes the company logo on the left and a cascade of stylized white flowers on the right. These flowers even have a slight embossing effect and gloss coating, so they seem to rise off the page.

Inside, the flower motif is repeated, albeit without the gloss coating or the embossing. The edges of the box have been turned and folded over. This makes the sides of the box much thicker, lending an air of stability and substance to the chocolate strawberry packaging.

Assorted advertisements and interior packaging, plus a cover to protect the strawberries, plus the strawberries themselves (not to be forgotten) and their little paper containers (like paper cupcake holders) round out the contents of the package.

It’s impressive.

Back to the Design and Production Goals

A box is a three-dimensional item (more so than a brochure, for example). It is also a functional item. Therefore, it has physical requirements.

If it is flimsy, when you take the package out of the refrigerator a number of times (there are 12 chocolate strawberries), at some point it might collapse and dump the strawberries on the floor. This would not reflect well on the company. (After all, every printed product is an advertisement for the brand.) Therefore, the presentation box has been made for strength/durability as well as beauty. Hence, the turned edges.

Similar boxes might be made of chipboard covered with printed litho paper or even corrugated board with printed litho paper laminated to it. But in this case to save space, reduce weight, and because the strawberries are comparatively light, what looks like printed cover stock with lamination and turned edges seems to be the perfect choice for the substrate.

Now all of this has to live for a while in the refrigerator. Since they are large, I have been eating one chocolate strawberry each night. So far so good for the strength of the box. If you are a wine maker, you have the same issues with bottle labeling. The labels (and their printed ink and foil decoration) have to stay functional on cold, wet bottles presumably for an even longer time without degrading. In the case of the strawberries, keep in mind that the fruit is juicy and the chocolate is fluid enough—even straight out of the refrigerator—to cover the eater’s fingers and face. So chemical and moisture resistance is a plus.

Even more important than durability is the non-toxic nature of all of the custom printing (anywhere near the food). Everything that comes into contact with food has to be printed with food-safe inks that are acceptable to the Food and Drug Administration (and probably other legal organizations as well). The ink cannot “migrate,” or move from the packaging to the food. Hence, the little paper wells for each strawberry, and the unprinted cover sheet that keeps the strawberries secure in their little paper holders.

Finally, the whole package has to look good—upscale, sinfully delicious, awesome, like a sensuous delight. Not just the contents but the packaging as well. After all, it’s what you see first.

In the case of this package, let’s start with the color. Red, particularly the fire-engine red of this particular box, is a color of passion. Given that such a delicacy is often a shared token of love (as opposed to an “I’m glad you’re out of the hospital” gift), it is most appropriately decorated. The white (the only other color, or actually the absence of color, since all of the white is reversed out of the press sheet comprising the box) creates a dramatic contrast against the bright red. This is further enhanced by the embossing.

Why is this important? First, rule number one, as noted above. Everything is an advertisement. The beauty of the box sells it to the buyer. In my case, it also made me feel appreciated when I received the gift. It’s simple, well designed, and functional. Moreover, it contains a sensory delight—food.

What Can We Learn from This Case Study

As before, stay out of the hospital. It’s not worth it, even for chocolate-covered strawberries.

Next, start looking at packaging. Closely and carefully, as a printer and designer. I took a moment when analyzing this gift box to also check out some of my fiancee’s shoeboxes and designer shopping bags. (She collects both for our artwork with the autistic.) In all cases there was artistry, clearly applied to not only the decoration but also the structure of the bags and boxes. Some included foiling effects, embossing, different gloss and dull coatings. Some were made with corrugated board, some with chipboard, some with thick printed cover stock used in commercial printing. Many of the bags and boxes had turned edges. Some had interior linings pasted down over these turned edges (like endsheets pasted down in the front and back of a casebound print book).

An amazing amount of work has gone into these few boxes and bags in my fiancee’s and my house. You may well benefit from finding and analyzing similar packaging (and even taking it apart to see what kind of die cutting and laminating went into the final product).

We can also surmise, from the complexity of these packaging products, that it’s essential in your own print buying work to involve your commercial printing supplier early. Not every printer can do this kind of work. Do research and get referrals. Specific printers specialize in this kind of work. Make sure you like their samples and references.

When you have a handful of custom printing vendors in mind, communicate your design goals with physical samples: what you’ve collected or what your printer can show you. Don’t just send photos. After all, you have to be able to open and close a presentation box comfortably. It has to feel good in your hands. This is a physical experience. So ask for a paper dummy (an unprinted prototype of your final design) before any ink hits the paper.

Assume this will take a lot of time and cost a fair amount of money. This kind of work involves multiple finishing operations (die cutting, foiling, embossing, folding, gluing, and many more). Find out if your printer does these in house or subcontracts them. Also you may want to ask about using an existing box die (i.e., embellishing a standard box design rather than creating one from scratch). This will save you money.

Finally, as you work through the entire process, from design to manufacturing, keep your attention on what marketers call “the unboxing process.” In short, this refers to what a person feels when she/he opens the box and sees the strawberries, or anything else, nestled inside. (Think back to what it felt like as a child to receive and open a special, wrapped gift.)

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