Printing and Design Tips: August 2011, Issue #121

Promotional Items

Also known as specialty printing, this category includes such items as caps and hats, canvas bags, buttons, magnets, t-shirts, and CD's. In most cases, the goal of the designer is to emblazon these items with company logos so that whoever receives one will remember the sponsoring vendor.

Think about it. You have probably received pads of paper in the mail from real estate vendors. Perhaps they have found their way to your desk as a place to scribble notes from phone calls. Later on, when you need a real estate agent, the pad is on your desk with a name and phone number.

The same goes for pens, bags, whatever. Drug companies pay huge amounts for these items (also known as novelties, promotional products, and premiums). Let's face it. In addition to being useful, each one is an ad for a company.

So who prints these items? And how do they do it?

You can start with the phone book or the Internet, but I think a better approach is to contact a printer you trust and ask for a referral. After all, there's no better way to gauge the quality and responsiveness of a promotional printer than the good word of an offset or digital printer.

Before you start your search for a vendor, keep in mind that specialty items span multiple printing technologies, and no one printer will have all of these capabilities.

CD Replication

CD replication, for instance, involves duplication of the data on the CD, printing an image and text on the disc itself, printing the cardboard sleeve, and assembling the job.

Printing on the disc may involve inkjet printing (for short-run jobs), screen printing (for longer runs using spot colors), or even offset printing on special presses that hold the CD's in trays as they pass through the press (for long-run 4-color printing on the discs).

Then you have to print the CD cardboard sleeves (either offset printing for longer runs or digital printing for short runs). Since these little CD jackets are basically cardboard envelopes (at their simplest) or complex boxes (at their most intricate), the offset or digital printing must be followed by diecutting and pattern gluing to construct the finished cases.

For plastic jewel cases, the job is simpler. The printer just needs to produce small, flat inserts with graphics and text and then assemble the product.

Wow. That's a lot of different technologies to produce one 5 x 5 case and a CD. All the more reason to find a promotional item printer through an existing vendor relationship with a printer you trust. Of course, it's wise to request samples and references as well.

Bags, T-shirts, Caps, and Hats

The kind of printer you will need depends on the kind of bags you want to print.

  • Plastic bags, made of plastic film, are usually printed on a flexographic press.
  • Paper bags can be printed via offset or flexography (as flat sheets or web rolls) and then converted (diecut and glued) into the finished bags.
  • Canvas bags are usually screen printed (thick ink pressed through a synthetic wire mesh using a squeegie, with non-printing areas masked off and image areas open to allow ink through).

Screen printing has the benefit of allowing you to print on almost anything. This includes canvas bags, hats, caps, even t-shirts. In addition, you can lay down a thick film of ink. However, since set-up costs are high, this technology is best reserved for longer runs. Also, you would most likely use screen printing for solid match colors (rather than 4-color process work). That said, there are printers out there who have mastered 4-color screen printing, even producing respectable full-color images as well as text and solids.

Alternatives to screen printing for shorter press runs and/or process color work involve inkjet printing. Inkjet printing on fabric has come a long way. In addition to novelty printing of 4-color images on bags and t-shirts, the fashion industry imprints fabric with dies using inkjet printing equipment and dye sublimation printing equipment as well.

Pens and Mugs

Pens and mugs are three-dimensional objects with bumps and curves. Only printing processes such as screen printing (and inkjet, depending on the thickness of the item) can accommodate such multi-dimensional printing substrates. Images can be printed directly onto the promotional items or printed as flat appliques that are later affixed to the product.

So basically, these are your printing technology options, depending on the items you're printing: screen printing, offset printing, flexographic printing, and inkjet printing.

Your best bet is to research the technologies on the Internet, perhaps get a few names through the Internet, contact your trusted offset print vendors for suggestions, and then get samples and references. Decide what you need and then, if possible, show the vendor a sample you like. Consider making a mock-up or prototype (print out the text and graphics and glue them to a pen or hat as a visual indicator of your final goal).

Also remember that the length of your print run is important information in choosing the technology. Short runs often involve inkjet printing, while longer runs make the high set-up costs of screen printing affordable.

[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He 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.]