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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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Digital Custom Printing: Form Follows Function

I was actually starting to write an article about a little book my fiancee bought for her grandson, a book about fish. I had planned to start with praise for the sophisticated use of white ink on clear divider pages to allow for opaque overlays with different art on either side.

This still holds true. And I plan to do it shortly. However, when I checked the printed page with my loupe, I was even more impressed with the color fidelity, the crispness of the images, and the overall color gamut when I realized it was a digital custom printing job.

Now I’ve seen quality inkjet. I’m used to that. But this is an electrophotographic print book—laser printing. It has all of the qualities of an outstanding offset print job, none of the “artifacts” of either inkjet or laser, and none of the waxy appearance of laser printing toner. Wow.

Granted, I am a firm believer in the link between appearance and utility. “Form follows function,” as they say. The press sheet is a dull coated paper, and the ink does have a sheen. My first thought was that the images had been varnished so they would “pop” off the page. But they absolutely do not look like waxy laser printed toner on paper.

How Do I Know This Was a Laser Printed Job?

The first thing I looked for under the loupe was the halftone dot structure and placement. I usually work by process of elimination. I didn’t see the minuscule droplets indicative of inkjet, so I first ruled out this particular technology.

Then I looked for rosette patterns in the color images. Halftone dots indicate either offset or laser printing, but an actual rosette pattern to me is a dead giveaway of an offset printed job. It reflects the “irrational angles” at which the four printing plates have been set (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black).

I saw no rosettes. Moreover, the black halftone dots were pretty much on top of each other in some places.

High quality laser printing would be my educated guess as to the method of reproduction: dot patterns but not at the exact angles that would create the signature “halftone rosettes” of offset; no minuscule (almost continuous tone) ink drops. So I’d say it’s probably electrophotography (xerography, laser printing). Perhaps it is even from an HP Indigo press, or even a Kodak NexPress (although I just compared it to a job I absolutely know just came off an HP Indigo 10000, and I saw a lot of similarities).

So what?

The technology is certainly light years ahead of the typical office color laser printer, with its waxy ink laydown, and it is moving forward with drama and determination. All of this bodes well for digital commercial printing in general.

Back to Form Following Function

Form should follow function. Even the ancient Greeks believed this. That’s why putting a Greek Revival column in front of a window is questionable architecture even now (in some government buildings). Windows are made to offer an exposed view of one’s surroundings, not a view of a supporting column.

In a similar vein, this print book actually uses the technology in smart ways, functional ways.

  1. The book is for young children. It happens to be bound using a combination of “Wire-O” mechanical binding and case binding. This is called “concealed Wire-O binding,” and you’ll find it on a large number of cookbooks. The binding is durable. The pages lie flat. The loops of the binding wire are less likely to come unhooked. And the overall product is attractive. It’s even harder to crush the wire loops because of the covering of the case-bound spine. For a children’s book, like a cookbook, this is perfect.
  2. Since this is a children’s book about fish, it’s helpful to have the transparent overlay pages in the center of the two-page spreads. These conceal a portion of what’s on the right-hand page, but they can be flopped over to the left to reveal something underneath. Kids love surprises. On one spread you see a school of fish swimming over a colorful sea formation, perhaps coral. When you flip the page over, you see a scary eel under the coral (or rock). I was even scared. What makes this effective (other than the ingenious use of the transparent sheet in the center of a two-page spread) is the opaque white printed on the acetate sheet under the colorful coral (or rock). The opaque white completely conceals the eel. The technology supports the editorial goal. Form follows function. Cool.
  3. On another page, the same technique is used to almost completely obscure a flounder lying on the seabed. (The flounder looks almost exactly like the sea floor. When the kids turn the page, they can see how mother nature hides fish in plain sight by making them look like their surroundings.) A hit of opaque white behind the image makes the difference here, too.
  4. On another page you can flip over the transparent acetate sheet to see a “before” and “after” shot of fish being hooked by a fisherman (or woman). On another spread you see the “before” and “after” images of a little bear pulling fish out of a stream for a meal. So in these cases the use of the overlay sheet, and the use of opaque white toner, can provide a time sequence, a sense of one thing happening followed by another. Again, the technology and custom printing techniques support the editorial intent of the author. Form follows function.

It almost makes me want to have kids.

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