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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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Postcard Printing on Clear Acetate Sheets

I received a 6” x 11” piece of marketing collateral today. I get a lot of marketing collateral, but I’ve never received anything quite like this. Obviously I took note—just as the marketers who had designed the piece had intended for me to do.

The single sheet (double sided) postcard is printed on clear acetate. The design is a mountain with silhouettes of three climbers connected by a rope. Over the brilliant, opaque-white background the designer printed all marketing copy in process color builds. The mountain climber who has reached the mountain top has his arms outstretched, and he slightly overlaps a yellow banner over which the title of the conference and the conference logo have been printed.

Why This Postcard Is So Unique

I have seen this kind of work before, but not in a marketing flyer. Rather, it was a technique used in several large format print movie standees my fiancee and I installed. In all cases, the standee designers had painted the background (under the actual art) with opaque white, and then over the white the designer had printed the imagery.

On its own, opaque white is a brilliant ultra-white color. Light travels through the transparent process color films of toner or inkjet ink printed on top of the white, then bounces off the white background and travels back to the viewer’s eye. The background makes the overprinted process colors and builds really “pop.” Not printing the white background would significantly dull down the colors. The light would travel through the film of process colors and not have anything to bounce off of (the way light bounces off a mirror).

So the bottom line is that inkjet ink or laser printed toner looks dramatic when printed on a ground of opaque white. On this 6” x 11” postcard, all information jumps right off the page.

Furthermore, since the brilliant white (probably based on titanium or zinc) is so bright, the designer’s having used it as a color (rather than just as a background behind the process colors), and his/her covering about 60 percent of the sheet with the white, make the marketing postcard look as bright as a lightbulb.

The postcard also has a simple design, with all text (except for the header) grouped together and printed on the side of the white, silhouetted mountain. Your eye knows exactly how to travel through the design,

And the silhouette of the mountain and mountain climbers is dramatic in its simplicity, as are the simple gestures of the three climbers (their body positions and outstretched arms).

On the back of the postcard is the mirror image of the mountain, climbers, and banner headline. Obviously this was necessary since the acetate card is transparent. Otherwise, you would see the imagery on the front of the postcard through the back of the postcard (and vice versa), creating visual chaos. As is the case on the front of the postcard, the large white area on the back of the card affords ample space for marketing content as well as all postal data and address information.

Its Single, Most Dramatic Quality

Let’s return to the most obviously unique portion of the card: its transparent acetate substrate. Probably nothing else in the mailbox is printed on clear plastic. This is a marketer’s dream. Because of its uniqueness (at least until other marketers start doing it), this piece will stand apart from all other mail in the box.

How The Postcard Was Printed

How did they do this? How was it printed?

I pulled out my loupe and checked a series of photos I found in a textbook on custom printing. These photos show enlarged views of the various halftone image treatments produced via flexography, offset litho, laser printing, inkjet printing, screen printing, and gravure. The samples in the print book also show text that was produced with these technologies. All images are enlarged dramatically, so you can see the dot patterns of the photos (as well as the screen angles) and the body of the letterforms as well as their outlines.

I would encourage you, as designers and print buyers, to search for similar images online using Google Images. For any and all custom printing jobs, it will go a long way to answering questions like, “How did they do that?”

This was my thought process:

  1. You can print on acetate via flexography, screen printing, inkjet printing, and laser printing (and possibly other technologies, such as gravure, as well).
  2. Gravure is made up of little dots (from wells of color on the press cylinder). Under a loupe I did not see any evidence of this pattern of dots (since even the edges of the type would reflect this dot pattern).
  3. The black-only text is crisp, with defined outlines and a little dust surrounding the letterforms. There is no sense of the letterforms’ having been composed of minuscule round dots (indicative of inkjet printing). Therefore, it is more likely that laser printing was used rather than inkjet technology.
  4. The images (and color builds for some text elements) have a recognizable dot pattern (although not the rosette pattern of offset lithography). Images are not made up of an almost continuous-tone spray of minuscule round dots. Therefore, it is more likely that laser printing was used rather than inkjet technology.
  5. The spray of tiny particles around some of the letters suggests laser printing. (The dust is from particles of toner that didn’t land where they should have before being fused to the substrate with heat and pressure.)
  6. The crisp outlines of the letterforms suggest that flexography was not used to print the postcard. (If it had been, there would have been lighter outlines around the perimeter of the letterforms and denser solids within the letterforms).

Therefore, my educated guess at this point would be that acetate specially formulated to tolerate the high heat of laser printing was the substrate, and electrophotography was the technology that printed these oversized postcards.

2 Responses to “Postcard Printing on Clear Acetate Sheets”

  1. Jordan says:

    Great points here! There’s a lot of ways to make variations of a postcard. What you decide to print it on can change a lot about it.

    • admin says:

      Thank you for your blog comment. With all the recent advances in digital printing (and particularly the availability, and runnability, of new substrates), we are at an exciting point in the development of printing technology.

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