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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: Web Design That Translates Into Print

Creating a visual identity for a business is a formidable undertaking, rife with visual implications, functional issues, and connotations and nuances in tone. Therefore, it’s important to approach it with a sense of humor and play: an experimental approach that allows you to try many things, fail at some, and succeed at others. Being too serious about this will cripple your efforts.

My Associate’s Email Signature

To give you some background information, an associate asked me to comment on her email signature today. She is a writer, editor, and writing instructor, and she wanted some feedback.

First of all, a definition: An email signature is the contact information at the end of an email. It includes your name, physical address, phone number, email address, and, if you have a business, perhaps a tag line promoting your business. It is a great marketing opportunity.

My associate included all of this information for her writing-education business, but she set the type in a sans serif face in lowercase letters. She thought this added a fresh tone to her business. Her coach disagreed, saying it diminished her “stature and expertise.”

Here’s why I disagree, and how I think my associate’s novel approach can not only benefit her brand image but also be translated into effective print collateral.

  1. Her business name includes the numeral “7,” as in “7 Steps to Superior Writing Skills.” (I’ve made up all of these names and descriptions to focus less on my associate and more on the typographical, design, and marketing issues her choices reflect.) For the most part, people reading anything on the Internet (blogs, for instance) like to see numerals. It gives them an immediate idea of how to solve their problem in the shortest amount of time (7 steps are better than 10, for instance). And people have a much shorter attention span now than in the past, since there’s so much more information out there to digest.
  2. The lower case version of my associate’s email signature gives prominence to the numeral “7.” This would not be the case with an upper and lower case treatment of the business name. (In this case, the upper case letters would have the same alignment as the top of the “7,” and this would diminish its prominence.)
  3. The “shape” of the words (based on the ascenders and descenders) is bold and definitive due to its simplicity and casual look.
  4. The implication that good writing can be relaxed, sexy, and fun (implied by the lower case letters) challenges the readers’ assumptions, piquing their interest. The tone of the business is reflected in the typographic choices.
  5. The short lines of copy (about 20 characters each), shifts in color (red, blue, and black), and vertical dividing line used within my associate’s business name, break the information into small, digestible chunks. This fosters easy reading on a computer screen.
  6. This approach will be just as effective when the electronic media image is brought across into her commercial printing work. This is important because my associate’s clients will need to make an immediate mental link between her business card and her Web image. To be effective, all print collateral and Internet content must share a coherent look.

So I would respectfully disagree with my associate’s client and business coach. Particularly in this age when writing has been democratized, when citizen blogs compete with professional reportage for the reader’s attention, it’s important to project a tone in one’s corporate identity materials that invites readers to approach a business. “Professional” doesn’t need to be synonymous with “stodgy.”

Moreover, pairing sans serif typography with short, digestible chunks of information facilitates reading on a back-lit computer screen (which tires the eyes more than reading ink on paper). My associate even omitted all punctuation in her email signature and instead distinguished between chunks of copy by adding extra space.

A Comparison to a Much Higher-Profile Business

Another associate sent me an email link to a fashion website today. The company is a major player in this field, yet the typography in its online advertising actually impedes readability.

The type is set in various sizes of a Modern typeface. Although I’m not precisely certain of the typeface (it could be Bodoni), I know it is a Modern (as opposed to Old Style or Transitional) typeface because of the sharp contrast between the thick and thin strokes of the letterforms.

On paper (within the print magazine produced by this fashion juggernaut), the typeface works beautifully. However, on the screen, the contrast within each letterform makes reading difficult and tires the eyes. The thinnest strokes disappear on a small screen, and the thicker strokes of the letterforms appear blocky.

On this particular Web page, the designer also set some advertising copy in all capital letters. As I have mentioned in prior blog articles, this renders the shape of all words the same (a rectangle). With upper and lower case letters or even all lower case letters (as in my associate’s email signature design), you have the ascenders and descenders of the letterforms to help you identify the words (you identify them by shape, not by reading each word letter by letter).

What This Means to You As a Designer

Increasingly, designers are creating both printed materials and Web pages. Therefore, it is prudent to understand how reading on a backlit computer screen differs from reading ink on paper. It is also important to understand how to coordinate the appearance of both online and print collateral messages while making reading easy and pleasurable in both media. This involves an awareness of how the eye and brain work as well as a grasp of aesthetics, in order to effectively create a unified print and online experience.

This is hard stuff to master. It always helps to share your work, to get feedback (from older as well as younger readers), and to constantly observe typography and other design elements on the Web and in print.

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