Printing and Design Tips: December 2014, Issue #161

Postcard Printing: Deconstructing a Postcard

I received a postcard in the mail yesterday. It was simple, but I liked it. So I asked myself why.

A Description of the Postcard

The postcard is a 4” x 6” promotional piece from a financial services firm. One side is deep navy blue, and the other is white. The card is thicker than most. I just checked it with my micrometer, and it's 16 pt. For a postcard this size, the US Postal Service only requires a 7 pt. thickness, so this card provides a sense of solidity and opulence, two good attributes of a financial services firm.

The blue side of the card has a prominent texture: a series of vertical columns. The paper seems to be uncoated, and the surface of the sheet is a little mottled, presumably from its trip through the mail.

Printed on the blue paper is a single promotional offer in a typeface approximating hand lettering with a felt tip pen. All lettering is printed in bright, shiny silver. The card looks casual and inviting. The front of the card also includes a QR code, which provides a jumping off point to the recipient, so he or she can visit the company's website for further information.

On the mailing side of the postcard, all type is printed in silver. Interestingly enough, even the small type (approximately an 8 pt. sans serif font) is readable. The designer reversed the logo of the financial services company out of a silver solid, as well, and included a small tag line in a handwriting script typeface, which is also readable. Even the control letters and numbers on the front (the blue side) and the mailer side (small numbers reversed out of silver) are readable. Only the inkjetted address and USPS Intelligent Mail barcode are printed in black ink.

Deconstructing the Postcard

Since I liked the card, I put some attention toward discovering exactly what appealed to me.

Here are some thoughts. I have also included the process I used to confirm any technical information of which I was unsure.

The Paper

I had seen the paper before. The word “columns” came to mind, and I remembered Neenah produced a printing paper called “Classic Columns.” So I looked up this name online and immediately came to a description of the paper as “embossed” because of the alternating raised and recessed columns.

Since the paper of the postcard had a blue coating of ink on one side but was white on the other side, I envisioned two possibilities. Either the printer had “painted the sheet” with a solid blue (perhaps PMS 286) ink, or the paper was duplex (two thinner sheets pasted together: one blue and one white). Since the white side had a smooth (but uncoated) texture and the blue side had columns embossed across its surface, I assumed the latter was true. Therefore, I typed “Classic Columns Duplex Navy Blue and White” into the Google search engine.

The Neenah website to which I was directed by Google described this paper exactly, and noted that it came in a double weight 130# option. I checked an online paper weight conversion chart and saw that 130# cover is approximately 16 pt. (.016”). This matched my caliper reading exactly. Also, double thick paper is made by pasting two sheets together. So the combination of white on one side and blue on the other was most probably intrinsic to the paper and not a thick coverage of blue ink on the front of the postcard.

The Printing Process

I automatically assumed that printing silver on a dark blue sheet would not be possible. After all, many offset inks are transparent, so I assumed that the ink would not be as thick and consistent as it looked. (I was wrong.)

My thought was that the printer either had created a die to foil stamp the silver lettering on the blue, or had used screen printing with thick, opaque inks as the technique for printing the front and back of the card.

I looked at the type with a loupe, and the ink coverage was smooth and consistent but not raised or shiny. I could see the paper fibers under the ink, but I saw no pinholes through which any blue background was visible. So it seemed that the printer had used ink of some kind and not a silver foil.

I looked up Neenah Classic Columns on the Internet and specifically focused on printing metallic inks on this uncoated sheet. Fortunately I found a Neenah “FAQ” sheet that specifically addressed this issue, saying that metallic ink printability on this uncoated sheet was excellent. In fact, it suggested adding silver (or white) ink to process inks (or PMS match colors) to make them opaque when printed on Classic Columns.

So I guess I had my answer. The silver had been actual offset printing ink laid down on the uncoated sheet. The Neenah website noted that the paper had good ink “holdout” due to its hard surface. That is, the ink would sit up on the surface of the paper, and not seep into the paper fibers, because the surface of the paper was hard, smooth, and uniform. Neenah suggested a double “hit” of the ink (a second impression) just to be sure.

Why I Liked the Postcard

Actually, it was due to its simplicity. The casual script face in thick silver ink (probably two hits of the silver ink) looked approachable and inviting. It contrasted the columns in the paper ( a horizontal line of type over vertical columns), and the blue and silver looked opulent.

Why You Should Care

This exercise demonstrates one way to analyze a piece you like. If something comes in the mail and you like the way it looks, ask yourself why. Look at the paper, the type, the design, the color, the dimensions, and paper weight. If you're unsure of anything, go online and do some research. If you're still unsure, ask your paper merchant or printer.

Understanding what works and being able to identify all of the design and printing steps that made something effective will dramatically improve your own work. After all, the more tools you have at your disposal, and the more skilled you are in using them, the better your design projects will be.

[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.]