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Printing Industry Exchange ( 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: Functional Printing in the Hospital

November 18th, 2019

Posted in Industrial Printing | Comments »

About five years ago my fiancee and I had a house fire. Being a student of printing, and initially having extra time on my hands, I noticed printing samples in all the hotels we lived in. I found printed maps on the walls, informational brochures on the hotel room tables, and pad-printed or screen printed letters and numbers on the stove and microwave.

All of this is considered “functional printing” in that the goal of the printing is utilitarian. (In contrast, you might say that book printing is informational and brochure printing is promotional in nature.)

Fast forward almost five years, and I found myself in the hospital this last week getting a total hip replacement. Again I was a captive audience with time on my hands. So I began to observe the printed products I found in my environment. And, as with the house fire, much of what I found was functional printing (which I have also heard referred to as “industrial printing”).

Samples From the Hospital

The first thing I noticed was the sign above my hospital bed. It read, “Call, Don’t Fall.” The words and surrounding triangle were printed in black ink on a yellow background, and the sign itself had been attached to the ceiling with some kind of contact adhesive.

So what can we learn from this first printed sample?

To begin with, it’s a sample of functional printing because it conveys functional information: If you need to use the bathroom, call a nurse. Don’t get out of bed yourself. You don’t want a fall to complicate matters.

What about the color, design, and placement? First of all, as a captive audience in a hospital bed, I was primarily looking up at the ceiling. So clearly there was no better place to install signage than within my immediate field of vision.

Let’s move on to the shape of the sign, a triangle. A triangle is a simple geometric shape, and the words “Call, Don’t Fall” fit nicely into the surrounding black rule line. Also, as a culture (i.e., in the USA), we have been trained through experience to associate triangular, black and yellow road signs with caution.

So the shape, color, typeface (a serious sans serif, probably Helvetica) all reinforced the (functional) message.

And the placement, which actually reminded me of the floor signage my fiancee and I had installed in movie theaters, was positioned exactly where it would be immediately visible. In a movie theater, people’s eyes are focused on the floor and walls. In a hospital bed, people’s eyes are fixed on the ceiling.

The Menu

From this week’s experience in the hospital I learned that eating is one of the few great joys of hospitalization.

The menu was typeset in a simple, sans serif font in simple columns with clearly readable food categories (headlines) and then printed in red and black.

So what can we learn? Red stands out. Like the yellow of the ceiling sign advising me not to fall, both are primary colors. They are also associated in our culture with important information. Safety and food. What else do you need?

Pad Printing and Screen Printing

I’ve been paying attention. Now that I’m back home and confined to a chair (and writing this article on a cell phone), I’m watching the word “Power” on my leg pump wear off rather quickly.

The printing on your computer keys is functional printing. So is the word “Power” on my leg pump. More importantly, all of the words printed on my life-support console in the hospital were functional printing. 

In the case of the life-support console in the hospital, I made the assumption that all printed words and letters had been added to the plastic pieces with pad printing (a flexible plastic or rubber bulb transfers the ink to the substrate) or screen printing. Perhaps in the near future digital inkjet (direct-to-shape printing) will be the technology of choice.

To get back to my leg pumps, a $60 appliance made to keep me from getting blood clots in my legs can afford to have its “Power” label rub off. In contrast, a $300,000 (life-or-death) appliance in the hospital has to have writing that stays put and doesn’t rub off with light use. (Mistakes could happen.)

So how did they do it? My educated guess would be that UV inks (which remain stable on non-porous substrates) were used, or that some kind of transparent sealant (a topcoat) covered all of the functional printing on my life-support console to provide “rub resistance.”

What We Can Learn From This Case Study

  1. Stay out of the hospital.
  2. Wherever you go, notice the presence of functional printing. You’ll see it on your car dashboard, you computer, and even your sewing machine.
  3. Notice the colors and shapes used in functional printing. Consider how these relate to the cultural associations with which you have grown up. Some colors suggest certain things. Remember that these colors may suggest different things in other cultures. (Sometimes, these meanings can even be the opposite of one’s own culture. For instance, if I understand correctly, the connotations associated with the colors black and white are the opposite in Japan and the USA.)
  4. Look at your computer keyboard. You may see the letters wearing off. Or, you may see a protective coating. When you look at other samples of functional printing, look for protective coatings the manufacturer has used to coat the printed type and improve rub resistance.
  5. Do some research on pad printing, screen printing, and direct-to-shape inkjet printing to better understand the present (and probable future) technologies of functional printing.

Posted in Industrial Printing | Comments »

Commercial Printing: Creating a Design Grid

November 10th, 2019

Posted in Design | Comments »

If you’re a designer, with a blank page-spread on the computer in front of you, how do you start your design? Perhaps you have photographs, some captions, a pull quote, and several paragraphs of text you want to organize and present to the reader as an advertisement. How do you put all of these elements together in such a way that your reader will “get” your most important point, then move on to your subsequent points?

The same question arises if you are designing a multi-page document, perhaps a print book or a furniture catalog (IKEA, for instance, has to do this very thing, and make it understandable, interesting, and consistent with their brand image).

After all, if you do not give your reader a “road map,” a set of directions regarding how to proceed through the material on the printed page, he or she will get frustrated. And a frustrated reader stops reading.

The Building Blocks of Design and Their Purpose

A few elements of design (for commercial printing or the Internet) that come to mind for me are the following: color, typefaces, treatment of photos, and—in some ways more importantly—the design grid.

Why is the design grid so important, and what exactly is it?

Think of a design grid like a structure of girders on which you build a building, or a wire armature around which you apply clay when making a sculpture, or even just the scaffolding built to paint or repair the interior or exterior of a building.

In all of these cases, the structure gives form and sturdiness to the building or sculpture. It is also like a skeleton, which gives sturdiness and form to a human or (other) animal body, while at the same time providing flexibility. Having a spine also allows you to bend and twist.

Using a design grid shows you where and how to position headlines, photos, color blocks, sidebars, or pull-quotes, on a page spread of the print book or on a single-page advertisement. Moreover, it does this by setting up expectations in a reader. The reader knows, for instance, that there will be one, two, or three columns of type on a print book page (twice as many on a double-page spread). Images will fit in these spaces or bleed off the edge of the paper. Headlines may be placed at the top of the page, and running headers along with filios (page numbers) may be at the top of each page with an underline, a half-point rule that bleeds into the gutter.

Consistency makes design elements on individual print book pages (as well as successive groups of print book pages) feel unified. Unity is a prime principle of both fine art and graphic art because it focuses the reader or viewer on the levels of importance among visual elements and on how they are interrelated.

Creating the Design Grid

When I started in graphic design more than 40 years ago, the initial step in creating a design grid, which I am about to teach you, had to be done on paper. We did not have computers, so I would first draw the outline of a page (let’s say 8.5” x 11”). Then I would add margins (let’s say 1” all the way around—top, bottom and sides). Then I might break the central column that remains (everything but the empty margin space) into two or three columns with gutters between them.

When I laid out two pages side by side (a page spread), I would have double the number of columns.

This is exactly what I would do when laying out a small community newspaper I produced in the early 1980s. Now you can do the same thing on your computer in your design program (such as InDesign) using colored guide lines that you can pull down out of the rulers on the page you’re designing. You can also set the number of columns and the space between columns on the computer.

But one thing I would strongly encourage you to do is to design two pages at a time (a spread). Why? Because the reader of a multi-page print book (this doesn’t apply to a single-page ad) always sees two pages side by side. So it behooves you to design multi-page commercial printing projects this way.

The Newspaper Grid I Used

When I laid out each issue of the community newspaper back in the early 1980s, I already had some fixed parameters. (In fact, I also had a stack of blank grid sheets ruled out with margins, columns, and gutters between columns). The type sizes and typefaces had already been determined for the body copy, headlines, subheads, etc. And the paper choice and color choices had also been determined. So I had fewer variables to concern myself with: mostly related to the use of (rather than the creation of) the design grid.

If I recall correctly, I had five narrow columns on the left-hand page and five on the right-hand page. Since the readers’ eyes went first to the outside edges of each two-page spread when she/he turned the page, I had to position the advertisements toward the outside. They were one, two, or five columns wide, and I built them upward (large to small) from the bottom to the outside edges, leaving a “well” in the center of the two-page spread into which I could place the headlines, pull-quotes, and single columns of editorial copy. Because all pages matched this general rule, the reader always knew where to look for both ads and editorial material. There was no confusion, and this regularity and lack of confusion put the reader at ease. (Here’s a summary of these rules of thumb: minimize variables, maintain consistency, set up reader expectations and keep to them—all to make reading easier.)

On the front of the newspaper I could be more creative. I could add a large photo. Perhaps I might bleed the photo off the page (or even tilt it). I could turn a short headline (only a few words) on its side and use it to take up one whole column (out of the five on the cover page). I could extend a headline over one, two, three, or more columns, depending on where the columns of editorial type associated with the headline were positioned.

With all of this I had a lot of options and could offer a lot of visual variety. However, at the same time everything looked like it had been designed by one person. Things were not jumbled around on the page. Each design element aligned with something else. So what the design grid really did for me was to simplify all of my design options while providing the reader with consistency and ease of reading.

Since my time at the newspaper I have had about 40 years of experience designing everything from large-format graphics to print books, from brochures to advertisements. All of these have been based on some form of this initial grid concept. It has made my life considerably easier because I haven’t needed to make up new design rules for each page spread.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

What I would suggest for you, if you’re a designer, is to use Google Search to find examples of design grids (one-, two-, three-, and five-column grids). Look for both the ruled-out design grids without headlines and photos and the very same grids with the design elements included.

Notice how all of the primary visual elements (photos, headlines, etc.) seem to nestle into a corner of one of the columns or extend across multiple columns or all of the columns. They don’t just float in the columns; they are anchored in some way. And each element is aligned in some way with other elements on the page (the fewer “axis lines” or “lines of alignment,” the stronger the structure).

There is no better way to learn this than by finding visual examples (printed and on the Internet) of multiple-column design grids and their uses in commercial printing. Learn from the masters of graphic design. Also, if you get a promotional piece in the mail and you like it, deconstruct the grid. Draw it out right on the brochure, noting the columns of type, the margins, the gutter between columns. Be able to articulate exactly how the designer has made her/his choices in positioning all elements of the design. This is exactly how I learned. Eventually it became second nature.

Posted in Design | Comments »

Custom Printing: Fooling the Eye with Cover Coatings

November 3rd, 2019

Posted in Paper Coatings | Comments »

A lot of good things in life involve fooling the eye. It’s what magicians do. Once you know the trick, it’s no longer magic. But once you know the secret, perhaps you appreciate something larger, such as the skill of the magician and the limits of human perception.

In this vein, I was recently pleased and surprised by a print book my fiancee found when we were thrift-store shopping, our favorite passtime.

Selp Helf (that’s not a typo) by Miranda Sings, a comedian with a penchant for original spelling rules, has an intriguing book cover dust jacket. The title is printed in what looks like black magic marker. I wouldn’t call the font a typeface; it’s more of a hand-scrawled title.

What makes the print book cover unique is that the hand-printed title appears to be actually written on two strips of masking tape. When you run your finger across the two strips, the texture confirms it. There’s the roughness you’re familiar with. In fact, at a couple of points around the edges, the tape feels like its bunched up. You even automatically try to work a fingernail under the tape.

To complete the mental picture as you visualize this cover, Miranda Sings’ byline is set in Courier (typewriter type), and a photo of this comedian is on the right, bleeding off the cover and looking up and back at the print book title on the masking tape.

What’s the Magic?

The fine arts term that pertains to this book cover is “trompe l’oeil.” It is French for “fool the eye.” Wikipedia defines the term as follows:

“Trompe-l’œil is an art technique that uses realistic imagery to create the optical illusion that the depicted objects exist in three dimensions.”

You may have seen paintings in galleries in which the subject matter (often flat images of postcards and similar small objects attached to a flat surface like a bulletin board) looks absolutely real (unlike, perhaps, a painting of a landscape). The tromp l’oeil painting looks so real that you want to touch it.

Miranda Sings goes one step further. (You could say she takes the leap from painting–analogous to the print book cover–to sculpture, because once you touch the faux masking tape, your brain registers the texture as “real” as well as the appearance. Therein lies the magic.

Moreover, using the tools and techniques of commercial printing to achieve this visual and tactile result showcases one of the benefits of physical printing over the Internet. Images on the Internet (or even images created with computer virtual reality) can be immersive. They can envelop you and transport you to another realm that “feels” real, but this magical achievement does not involve the sense of touch (at least it doesn’t do this yet). A print book is a physical experience. The Internet and any other virtual (computer-generated) experience is not.

How Did They Create the Magic?

Commercial printing uses a set of tools and techniques (building blocks, if you will) to elicit a mental and tactile response. In this particular case, three of the tools are low-relief embossing, the introduction of hand-drawn images (the print book title) into the computer workflow with a scanner, and the art of contrasting different cover coatings against one another.

You could go even further, and you could say that the chemistry of cover coatings (many of them UV coatings; some based on varnish) is another magical tool. This is particularly true these days, since numerous kinds of textured UV coatings have been developed in recent years.

To begin with the embossing, you can see how the technique was done by removing the dust jacket. (Again, remember that the cover I mentioned really is the dust jacket. The book itself is case bound. The actual cover is made of red paper and cloth and only has printing on the spine.)

When you remove the dust jacket and look at the back of the press sheet under a good light, you see (and can feel) an ever so slightly formed embossing that includes the bumps along the edge that my finger had perceived as the edges of absolutely real masking tape. For me, what makes this so intriguing is how slight the embossing is. It feels only as thick as masking tape. Other embossing and debossing I have seen has been much deeper. The artistic term for this is “bas relief.” It means “low relief.” It’s not a new concept, but it has been especially well done (i.e., supremely effective) on this dust jacket.

Let’s move on to the hand lettering. While it is possible that there is a hand-drawn font that looks like magic marker scratchings (with multiple overlapping lines made to look thicker), to me it looks more like someone drew the title on paper and then scanned it and placed it in the InDesign art file.

Interestingly enough, when you look closely with a 12-power printer’s loupe you can see that all four printing inks have been used to create a bold, heavy black ink. (The printer’s term is “rich black,” and it is composed of various percentages of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black.) What you see when you look closely with a loupe is halftone dots of all these colors laid over over one another at slightly different angles.

Finally, the designer knew how to use cover coatings. These are the chemicals applied to the press sheet (usually) after the printing ink. To help you visualize this, the commercial printing paper itself is often porous. Therefore, it is often topcoated with a dull or gloss coating. The printing press deposits ink on this coated surface, and the inks stay put. Because of the coating, the inks are less likely to seep into the porous paper fibers on the base custom printing sheet.

In contrast, the cover coatings I speak relative to the faux masking tape on the book cover dust jacket are applied after the ink has been deposited on the press sheet. These can include UV coatings (gloss and dull), aqueous coatings (dull, gloss, and satin), film and liquid laminates (dull and gloss), and varnish (and, again, they are applied over the printed sheet). That said, they can be “flood” coats, in which case they cover the entire press sheet (or in this case the entire dust jacket). Or they can be “spot” applications placed only in specific locations. What makes this magical is that you can cover one area with a spot gloss coating (in the case of this dust jacket it would be everything but the masking tape) and another area with a dull coating (in this case the masking tape itself). The contrast between the two then creates the perception of the masking tape.

Now to expand upon the various options contemporary designers have at their disposal, print book cover coatings have multiplied significantly in the past seven to ten years. You now have a lot more options than just dull and gloss. (And many of these are related to UV–or Ultraviolet–inks, which are cured or dried with UV light.)

Some of these coatings have a rubbery feel that seems to grab your fingers. In fact, I once received a print book of sample cover coatings from a paper manufacturer that showcased an image of a spider. On the hairy underbelly of the spider the printer had applied just such a rubbery coating. Other parts of the spider were gloss or dull coated. Touching the belly of the spider was unsettling, to say the least.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Printing is a physical medium. Think about what this means (compare physical printing to computer-based, or Internet-based, experiences), and then use the differences to your advantage. Capitalizing on the physical attributes of commercial printing makes holding and reading a print book a unique experience. In fact, in recent years it has become an increasingly tactile experience. If you’re designing books, it behooves you to learn about and then exploit these differences.
  2. Call your printer or paper merchant and ask for a few paper sample books showcasing the effects that can be achieved with different cover coatings. This will help you in two ways. It will open your mind to the multitude of effects, and it will make it easier to communicate your goals to your book printer or commercial printing vendor. You may even find some of these books on sale (or for free) online if you look for paper merchants.
  3. Ask your printer about the following: textured UV coatings and reticulation varnish. I mention this because the most dramatic effects I’ve seen have been crafted with UV coatings. I also mention reticulation varnish because it’s a unique effect (similar to seeing water droplets bead up on the surface of your car after a rainstorm). It’s not for every occasion, but it’s worth exploring. (You may also want to Google reticulation varnish online for an explanation of the chemistry behind this process.)

Posted in Paper Coatings | Comments »

Book Printing: The “Greyness” of a Block of Type

October 28th, 2019

Posted in Design, Typography | 2 Comments »

I know that a term like “greyness” when referring to a block of black text on a print book page sounds somewhat esoteric, but bear with me. This simple concept can affect everything from the look of a book’s design to its readability and even its printability. And all of this can change based on the age of your readership.

In a nutshell, “greyness” of a block of copy refers to the appearance of text on a white page. Even if it is black ink or toner, a chunk of copy appears to be grey when printed on white paper. This will be affected by the thickness or thinness of the letterforms of your chosen typeface, the amount of leading you add (the extra space between lines of copy), and even your choice of ragged right/flush left alignment vs. justified type.

The Backstory

A client of mine whom I’ve mentioned before desiitgns print books for NATO and the World Bank. I confer with her on the design and make suggestions whenever she gets stuck.

A few days ago, she sent me two type samples. They were actually quite simple, with a headline over a paragraph of text copy. Both type samples were set in a sans serif typeface. Both samples had the same sized headline type and text type (let’s say 24 pt. headlines and 10/14 body copy type with a 5-inch column width, for the sake of argument).

The only difference was that the type in one sample was screened back to 80 percent of black, and the other was 100 black.

My consulting client then asked me which sample I thought was easier to read.

So this was a very simple comparison to make, a bit like my eye doctor’s questioning me as to which lens allows me to read the letters on the wall. “Which is better, this one, or this one?”

My Choice, and the Implications for Your Design Work

I chose the lighter type. I thought the 100 black type “felt” heavy.

As simple as this sounds, it is actually wrapped in complexity, so here are a number of things I told my client to consider (and I would ask you to do the same, if your work involves page design for a print book).

  1. People are liable to stop reading if the act of reading tires their eyes. For a brochure, the type choice can be more flexible because there’s less type to read. For a print book, there’s a lot of text to read, and if its initial appearance is daunting, the reader will be less likely to continue.
  2. On a page, it is easier to read serif type. The reader’s eye travels from one serif on one letter to the serifs on the next letter. However, on a computer screen, it is easier to read sans serif type. When I checked my client’s two type samples, I was looking at a PDF on my computer. So I asked my client to make sure she liked the look of the type on a laser printout.
  3. Even within the two categories of serif and sans serif copy, there is a lot of variance in the greyness of a block of type. Some typefaces appear heavy, while others appear light. To me, slightly lighter type seems more inviting because there seems to be less work to do in reading it (i.e., less eye strain over a length of time). I think others may agree.
  4. But if the text appears to be too light, the reader will need to strain to see it, and this will minimize the accessibility of the type.
  5. More than one and a half alphabets (39 characters in English) worth of text (for the width of a column) minimizes readability.
  6. For text type, 9, 9.5, or 10 pt. type is fairly readable. You will probably find that in addition to lightening the perceived greyness of a block of copy, adding leading (space between lines of text) will increase readability. For instance, 10/12 (two points of lead, if 10/10 is considered “set solid” or with no leading) is quite readable (depending on the typeface). However, also depending on the typeface, I personally find 10/13 (one extra point of lead) or even 10/14, to be optimal.
  7. Readability is based in part on the age of your reader’s eyes. At 61, mine are now less flexible than they used to be. (That is, they will change focus from near to far and back again less quickly.) That’s why I like a little more leading in my type. So when you design something, consider the age of your target reader. And be kind. Your text will be more likely to be read.
  8. This should actually be much earlier in this list, but it’s important to remember that readability is more important than design/appearance. If you lose your reader, a superb publication design is wasted. That said, you can usually find a typeface that both looks good and is readable.
  9. As a caveat, print out your type selections. See how they will look on paper, not just on the computer screen. (After all, the final print book will be on paper, and on a computer it’s very easy to view–and design–a publication that is either smaller or larger than the true 100 percent final size. This can lead you to make bad design decisions.)
  10. There are ways to maximize legibility. Flush left/ragged right text is easier to read than justified copy. It also ensures that spaces between words will not vary. Adding leading improves legibility, as noted before. Shortening the width of a column of type improves legibility. In addition, printing text on a contrasting background (ideally black type on white paper) maximizes legibility. Avoiding blocks of reversed type (white type on a black background, for instance) maximizes legibility, as does avoiding typesetting words in all-capital letters.
  11. All of these rules can be broken if you do so in small amounts of copy. For instance, all-capital heads are easier to read than even a short paragraph of all-capital text. This is a major reason that almost any kind of wild type usage is easier to deal with on a poster (for example, the bulbous letterforms used on 1960s psychedelic posters) than on the page of a print book.

“The Rules” As They Apply to Printing

Beyond the rules of design, type legibility, and the mechanics of the eye, there are printing issues to consider:

  1. Understand how your text design will be printed. This is important. For instance, my consulting client chose the 80 percent screening of black type for her print book. In commercial printing, since ink or toner is either present or absent in any given space (black or white but not grey), the printer must simulate levels of grey with halftone dots. In my client’s case (unless she was going to print the heads in black ink and the text in a separate PMS grey ink), all of the letterforms in her text would be made up of little dots, not solid letterforms. This can minimize legibility.
  2. Fortunately for my client, 80 percent of black (toner or ink) is close enough to 100 percent to fool the eye. From arm’s length (reading distance), the text will appear grey. It should not have visible dots from that distance. However, I would not advise my client, or any designer, to print 50 or 60 percent grey type. In fact, it’s always best (if you have the budget) to choose a PMS grey ink rather than a screen of black ink if you want the text to appear grey.
  3. That said, my client’s sans serif type would be more forgiving than a serif face with both thick and thin letterforms. (The halftone dots would be particularly visible in thin letter strokes, or, worse, the letterforms could appear to be broken in certain thin strokes.)
  4. All of this is accentuated if you’re building a color for the text using multiple hues. As a rule of thumb, I’d say that you should never do this. For headline type, it’s ok, but not for text type. This is because even the slightest bit of misregister (of the three or four printing inks used to build your color) would make the text type appear fuzzy and might make it unreadable.

The Take Away

  1. If you must screen a color or build a color, go for simplicity. Screen the text type at a high percentage (closer to 100 percent black), and only build a color for a headline (that is, a mixture of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black). The fewer of these colors you use, the better. If you build a headline color out of magenta and yellow, for instance, the yellow will be light enough to not be distracting if the register of all inks is not perfect. In contrast, if you build a color with cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, even a slight misregister can cause problems.
  2. Don’t make decisions on the computer screen if at all possible. Print out the type samples and see how they look.
  3. Consider the age of the reader. Older eyes change focus more slowly.
  4. Rely on your printer’s expertise and advice.
  5. Readability always trumps design aesthetics. The first goal is to make your printed products legible.

Posted in Design, Typography | 2 Comments »

Custom Printing: 3D Printed Rockets

October 21st, 2019

Posted in 3D Printing | Comments Off on Custom Printing: 3D Printed Rockets

A dear friend and commercial printing colleague recently shared with me some information on a firm that prints rockets. Not plastic, model rockets for science fairs but huge, metal rockets that take satellites into space. They use 3D printing technology (building up layer upon layer of metal rather than plastic), and they can do this faster and less expensively than with more traditional technology. Wow.

First of all, an overview: 3D custom printing, also known as additive manufacturing, has been around for some time now. You can even go to a computer store and buy a 3D printer for relatively little money.

The process is analagous to your inkjet printer, which sprays drops of ink onto a flat substrate. In contrast, a 3D printer you might buy at MicroCenter “oozes” liquefied plastic from a nozzle onto a matrix, building up layer upon layer of plastic into a 3D product: let’s say a plastic chess piece. Digital data drives the process.

In contrast, you have the more traditional subtractive manufacturing technology that grinds away at a block of material (metal, plastic). Maybe you would use subtractive manufacuring to “machine” or grind down metal pieces you would then assemble into an electric motor.

Think of this as the difference between modeling a statue out of clay (additive manufacturing) and carving a statue out of wood (subtractive manufacturing).

I’ve read about people making designer shoes with a 3D printer, along with jewelry and even small pistols. Beyond that, I’ve even read about biochemists working toward printing body parts or even types of food (like hamburgers).

But Rockets?

Here’s the gist of the matter. Relativity Space (backed by Mark Cuban, co-host of Shark Tank) has successfully printed space rockets that will put automobile-sized satellites in a low orbit (close to Earth) in a “constellation” (grouping) that can communicate with each other (and can also communicate more quickly with Earth because they are closer to Earth than other satellites).

Relativity also plans to eventually make rockets in this manner (3D printing) on the surface of Mars using local (“in situ”) materials (Martian rockets 3D printed on Mars using Martian materials).

And Relativity already has clients, such as mu Space in Thailand. mu Space makes satellites, but it has also designed a spacesuit. And Relativity’s 3D custom printing processes will come in handy here as well.

To go back to the business pitch for Relativity’s 3D process, Relativity can produce the rockets considerably faster (six months vs. the usual three to four years) and considerably cheaper (two to three times cheaper) than with traditional technology. And because they can do this more quickly and cheaply, schedules for getting back into space can be shorter. And changes in rocket design can be achieved more easily (on the fly, if you will).

After all, when you’re building a component of a rocket layer upon layer with metal using digital design information to drive the process, you don’t need expensive machinery specifically designed to grind down the parts. (You don’t even need machinery for injection molding–another additive manufacturing process in which you pour liquefied metal into a mold.)

You have flexibility.

But Is It Printing?

So how does all of this relate to commercial printing? And what are the overall business implications of digital (let’s call it) 3D imaging?

First of all, when you print ink on paper, you are presenting the reader with a stimulus. The reader sees the words and photos, and perhaps the qualities of the paper, and this evokes an image in the mind and emotions of the reader. For functional printing and informational printing, the printed product essentially does the same thing.

For 3D printing, additive manufacturing transports the printed product, which had initially been a vision in the mind of the manufacturer, into three dimensional reality. In addition, for functional products like Relativity’s space rockets, the 3D printed item has a utilitarian value (just as a printed computer keyboard layout has utilitarian value).

The next benefit of 3D manufacturing (over subtractive manufacturing) is that you don’t have to spend huge amounts of money to change the manufacturing tools every time you change the design. Just as you can print a flexible packaging prototype via digital inkjet (and then change the design in response to user feedback), if Relativity doesn’t like a prototype rocket made with 3D custom printing, they can remake the digital design files. Then they can 3D print a new prototype without needing to remake the injection molding equipment or the tooling or grinding machines.

Whether it’s a brochure or a rocket, driving the production process with digital data reduces costs and speeds up production.

And if you’re making rockets, you’re applying your efficient and economical manufacuring techniques to an especially lucrative endeavor.

For Further Reading

You may want to check out the following articles about Relativity Space and the Terran rockets, the world’s first entirely 3D produced rockets. These articles discuss Relativity’s ability to produce rockets from “materials to flight-ready” in 60 days with a launch time of between two and four years:

“A 3D-Printed Rocket Will Launch a Thai Satellite Into Space,”, 04/23/19, Elizabeth Howell

“Relativity Space to Launch Satellite ‘Tugs’ on Printed Rocket,”, Dorris Elin Urrutia

“Dreaming of Mars, the Start-Up Relativity Space Gets Its First Launch Site on Earth,”, Jonathan Shieber, 01/17/19

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Custom Printing: Whole Foods Equals Great Branding

October 13th, 2019

Posted in Corporate Branding | Comments Off on Custom Printing: Whole Foods Equals Great Branding

After a medical procedure today and nap during which I slept like the dead, I stumbled downstairs and grabbed the mail on my desk. I could barely see anything. My eyesight wasn’t right yet. But I knew by its colors and its feel that I held in my hand the new Whole Foods Market catalog/brochure—even if the address panel of the folded marketing piece didn’t contain the Whole Foods logo.

Now that’s good branding. So here’s a breakdown of what Whole Foods is doing right (in my opinion).

Branding: The Logo and Signature Colors

First of all, this 8.5” x 11”, 12-page, saddle-stitched print catalog comes to my fiancee’s and my house regularly. (Literally, at the same time each month.) This is important because it sets up an expectation in the reader. I think that the intangibles of a brand (in this case, reliability) are just as much a part of the brand as the shape and color of the logo.

When you open the wafer seals (to keep the folded piece small enough in format to mail economically: 5.5” x 8.5”), the first thing you see is the Whole Foods logo in the top left, bleeding off the top of the page. This is relevant because the eye starts at the top of the page and goes down. Why? Because that’s how we’ve been taught to read.

That said, there’s a large silhouette of an apple tart in the bottom right, also bleeding off the page. (That’s important because bleeds make the printed piece look bigger than it is. This is because your subconscious thinks there’s more of the apple tart—in this case—that exists beyond the edge of the page.)

The green logo at the top of the page and the apple tart capture the reader’s attention and link the Whole Foods brand with the visceral experience of culinary delights. This in itself could be their mission statement.

Branding also involves the paper choice: in this case a less-than-bright-white, uncoated press sheet. The more subdued look and the tactile feel, along with the presumption that fewer chemicals were used to bleach the paper, highlight the Whole Foods brand as being sensitive to the environment. This value draws in the clientele, who presumably feel the same way.

Page Layout

The brochure designer (who is masterful, and from whom I can learn a lot about design) continues the design through the remaining eleven pages within the following structure.

Photos are large and contain groups of delectable food products. In some pages, the photo takes up one and a half pages (bleeds across the gutter), leaving the balance of the two-page spread for a column of type. Alternatively, a photo of multiple products on a light background contains chunks of copy describing the products. (Actually, even the large photos that extend across the page spread have ghosted boxes for product descriptions. There is an air of sophistication in the way you can see the plates of food through the text boxes overlapping them.)

The designer also contrasts large and small images. (Contrast in size of visual elements creates interest—a rule of design. It also makes the large photos look larger and the small photos look smaller.)

Product prices are larger than the text type and therefore easily identifiable. (The reader’s being able to scan the booklet quickly makes product sales more likely.) Red ink highlights the word “SALE” when it appears throughout the booklet (enhancing reader expectation through repetition of similar visual elements).

Also, periodically, the signature green of the Whole Foods logo appears (for example, in a circular burst that says “New”). The circle of the “New” burst reminds the viewer of the circular green Whole Foods logo, and the repetition of the color and shape adds consistency (unity) to the catalog/brochure. (Unity is another principle of design, crafted through repetition of colors, images, typefaces, and such.)

In many cases the food (apples, for instance) appear to have been tossed around at random on the light background. (This is even true in some cases for the bottles of product on a white, randomly-patterned tile wall.) All of this lends an air of casual movement and excitement to the printed piece. (Just as you might toss a salad full of sun-dried tomatoes.)

One page is replete with “Prime” (as in Amazon Prime) member deals, and this icon as well is noted with a blue circle from which the type has been reversed. This hearkens back to the other circular logos, even though it is blue. On this page there’s a three-item by three-item grid of nine products. The structure of this symmetrical arrangement adds contrast to the bottles of sauces in active motion on the opposite page of the design spread.

The Piece de Resistance

I actually remember where I was standing thirty years ago when I was first asked to design a print catalog of government books for a non-profit organization, while including “lifestyle blurbs” periodically that pertained to government but not to the print books. I was behind the times in my confusion.

Within the Whole Foods booklet, there are periodic recipes. This is considered “evergreen” “lifestyle” content. People who read this brochure or print catalog presumably want to affiliate themselves with the brand, in part by expanding the food-shopping experience into a cooking experience. (Granted, even without the branding goal, the recipes are still useful information—which is why they hook the reader. After all, if you like the products and the environment, it makes sense that you’ll want ideas for using the food. I personally read Trader Joe’s marketing materials for the same reasons.)

The Last Page

As a recovering designer, I remember back when I was designing print catalogs like these and was faced with what to put on the back of the booklet (prime selling space).

First of all, you need to follow the postal regulations. I’m sure they’re online now, but we used to get books from the Post Office. These print books covered where to print the address information, where to place the indicia, and most importantly where to print noting at all, since it would disturb the optical character reader (and render the printed piece non-machinable). In your own work, follow these Post Office requirements religiously. If you don’t, at best the Post Office will charge you more per piece to mail the non-machinable brochures. But at worst the Post Office will reject your mailing outright, and you’ll need to reprint the job.

Fortunately, you can ask for a direct market specialist to bless your mock-up (size, placement, tab sealing, everything) before you print. It behooves you to develop a good working relationship with such a USPS professional.

Back to the design of the Whole Foods catalog/brochure. The unfolded back panel has a stack of sliced apple bits on the left, which brings the eye up to some “sale information” at the top and down to more “sale information” at the bottom of the page. When the page is folded for mailing, this stack of apple bits is visible on either side of the page (remember, this is what you see when you get the mail—the mailer and the back panel, not the front of the catalog—so it has to be recognizable and appetizing, so to speak).

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

I can really keep this to one basic concept: Find examples of what you like and then deconstruct them. That’s how you learn. That’s how I learned.

Think about the paper, colors, and typefaces. Think about the overall design grid. Think about the photos. Think about what’s included (like Whole Foods’ recipes) and what’s not.

Use generous white space. It makes the design seem airy, opulent—and it’s easier to read.

Make sure the reader’s eye flows through the printed piece in exactly the way you want it to. (Use color and the contrasting size of the visual elements to achieve this.)

A well-designed brochure, print catalog, or booklet is a better teacher than a “how-to” print book or even a professor droning on in front of the design-principles class. Find designs you like. Look closely. Learn. Then bring into your own design work what you’ve learned from others’ work. If you do this, even a groggy reader collecting the mail will recognize the branding of the piece and associate it with the company you’re promoting.

And that instant of recognition alone is worth lots of money to the company your custom printing product promotes.

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Commercial Printing: Thoughts on Designing and Tweaking a Logo

October 7th, 2019

Posted in Design | Comments Off on Commercial Printing: Thoughts on Designing and Tweaking a Logo

A custom printing client of mine recently asked me for help with her rebranding efforts. Over the years, I have been a designer and art director, and I have also done marketing writing and design work. In addition, I have focused on marketing as subject matter for the PIE Blog articles and Quick Tips articles, so I spend a lot of time studying this aspect of communications and commercial printing.

Since my client just offered me this new work, it seemed fortuitous that I just found an article on adjusting your logo for reproduction at different sizes and in different media (internet vs. print, for instance). The article is “Designing a Logo for Every Size and Usage.” It was written by Ilene Strizver and published on on 8/13/19.

Strizver notes that logos must be immediately recognizable at different sizes. Although you may first see a logo on a business card, you need to see the same visual image when you find the logo again on a large-format banner on the side of a building.

Or, you may see the logo first on a brochure and then online. The first rendering will be achieved with ink or toner, and the second will be composed of colored pixels on a backlit computer screen, which provides a very different visual experience.

Much of what “Designing a Logo for Every Size and Usage” offers is an approach to the letterforms used in the logo. That is, we must first understand that the size of the logo changes the appearance of the letterforms.

For instance, if you create a logo that is 3” wide (an arbitrary width) and then shrink it down to a useful size for a business card, certain portions of the letterforms will fill in and be unreadable. Granted, if you look through a magnifying glass, these strokes in the letters will still be there, but at a normal reading distance, your eye will fool you. The “counters” (the technical word for the curved, enclosed spaces in the letterforms, such as the enclosed portion of a “P”) will fill in or at least not be visible.

Or the letterforms will appear to run together. They may not be distinct from one another. Or the serifs in the typeface may disappear (they’re still there, just below the threshold of readability).

Or, depending on your substrate, the commercial printing technology might be problematic, according to Strizver’s article. For example, if you’re printing on fabric, the inks may bleed into the fibers, making parts of the letterforms fatten up or become blobs of ink.

Enlarging the logo might also be problematic. If you take the 3” logo and enlarge it for use on a banner, the letters may seem to be too far apart. This can impede readability because the letterforms don’t appear to be as connected to one another as you’re used to (that is, you begin to see the strokes as individual letters instead of seeing them as one word). If you have to think about the word you’re reading, this will hinder your comprehension.

And all of this is just for printing with ink or toner. That’s just half the battle.

Rendering your logo on a smartphone screen or tablet or computer monitor may make the letterforms look different than you’re used to. Colors are not always the same as in print (so they may not match the PMS colors of your printed logo). In addition, the backlighting of computer screens makes it harder to read small type. And even though serif faces have been proven easier to read in print, the opposite is true online, where sans serif typefaces are easier to read.

All of this can slow down your reader. And a major rule of marketing and psychology is that anything that slows down a reader or confuses her/him will dilute your marketing message. At best, your prospective client’s reading speed will be impaired. But at worst, you’ll lose your reader entirely.

What to Do / How to Fix These Problems

“Designing a Logo for Every Size and Usage” doesn’t really tell you what to do. Rather it lets you know what to look for in designing a logo, so you can tweak it for optimal readability. Moreover, it presents a novel concept in this light. That is, you should create different versions of your logo for different uses. Not very different, just optimized for the size and medium in which it will be presented. The goal is to massage the logo in such as way that the reader’s eye (with all its limitations) thinks all of the different sized iterations of the logo are exactly the same.

As an approach to doing this, here are the things Strizver says you should consider:

  1. Adjust the letterspacing as needed. (This is the space between letters, which can be altered with “kerning” controls in InDesign.) It should be more open for smaller versions of your logo and tighter for larger versions.
  2. The same holds true for word spacing (the space between words). You need more word spacing for smaller versions of the logo and less word spacing for larger versions.
  3. If your logo has multiple lines of type (perhaps a logo word mark with a tag line under it), add more space between lines (“leading”) for smaller versions of the logo and less space for larger versions.
  4. Adjust the thickness of thin strokes (like serifs) as needed.
  5. Make the “counters” of the letterforms (like the enclosed space in a “P”) more open if you’re rendering a logo at a small size.
  6. Narrow and condensed fonts can be even harder to read (and therefore may need more adjusting).
  7. Readability can be improved by using a slightly different weight for the font (some fonts come in demi-bold and bold, for instance, or other slight variations from one another).
  8. Changing the strokes of a letterform can be daunting. Remember you’re not doing this to an entire font. You’re just tweaking (presumably) a limited number of letters in a logo. You may choose to do this in Illustrator. (This was not in Strizver’s article. It’s my own commentary.)
  9. Another related suggestion of mine (not in Strizver’s article) is that you be conscious of the reader’s age. As we get older, our eyes become less flexible in changing focus. In this case, paying attention to Strizver’s suggestions becomes even more important to your readership.
  10. Make subtle changes to the letterforms, not dramatic ones.
  11. After all, the goal is for none of your readers to see what you’re doing. You’re not creating a new typeface. You’re just making it easier for customers and prospective customers to see your logo and not stumble over the limits of human eyesight or the liabilities of various media.

An Approach to Your Own Design Work

As noted above, I have a new logo/rebranding client. It would be very easy for me to forget all of this in forging ahead with the rebranding work. Therefore, it’s best to slow down and think. If you’re in a similar position, here are some things to consider, based on my own experience as a designer and art director.

  1. Focus on the logo type treatment and any image you will use first. Think like an artist at this point. Try different type treatments and approaches to the logo.
  2. Then view the logo at different sizes. At this point, just observe and make mental notes of potential problems.
  3. Then check your logo on different media. Try printing it out (both black and white and color). Then see how it looks online in various sizes.
  4. Consider all of the suggestions presented in “Designing a Logo for Every Size and Usage.” Make changes and develop a logo style-and-use document for the client based on presenting the logo at different sizes, in different ways, and on different media. But do this last. First, make sure you have an aesthetically designed, dramatic logo that will be a powerful statement at different sizes. Then focus on Strizver’s article as a way only to “tweak” the designs and present them in their best light.

You may be surprised at how effective this can be. I just did this with my fiancee’s daughter’s logo for her yoga studio. I tightened up the spacing between a few letters in her logo (also knows as “kerning”), and the name of her studio, which had initially appeared as a few small clumps of separate letters, visually (and therefore cognitively) became one word. In the case of my fiancee’s daughter’s logo, all it took was equalizing the space between all of the letters in her logotype.

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Custom Printing: Three Fine Art Printing Techniques

September 28th, 2019

Posted in Fine Art Printing | Comments Off on Custom Printing: Three Fine Art Printing Techniques

In addition to my work in the commercial printing field, I do art therapy work with my fiancee. We teach autistic students to make art. We do everything from drawing to painting to sculpture to custom printing.

In past issues of the PIE Blog I have written about a number of the techniques of custom printing that we have brought to our students, and in the last week I have been studying one that we have not yet used: collography. I’d like to briefly describe this technique along with another one I just discovered in researching Andy Warhol for a recent painting class. His technique was called “the blotting line,” and this along with his tracing work developed into the Pop Art custom screen printing for which he was famous. Finally, I want to describe “monotyping,” a third technique I plan to share with my fiancee’s and my autistic students.

What makes all of these interesting to me is that all can be done with simple materials and no commercial printing press. These printing plates can be inked and printed by hand. What this means is that anyone with the interest can do any of these techniques with a fair amount of success. Moreover, there’s nothing that makes you understand the artistry in current, automated, commercial printing like a personal experience with one of the hand-printing techniques. After all, custom printing is both an art and a craft.


The word “collagraphy” (also spelled “collography”) is derived from the Greek words for “glue” and “writing.” The process was developed in 1955 by Glen Alps. Collagraphy starts with a printing plate made of wood or paperboard (bristol or perhaps chipboard, for instance). You add materials to build up texture (and/or subject matter). Then you paint ink or roll ink onto the raised areas of the plate (to produce a “relief” or raised print), or you use a roller or paint brush to flood the plate with printing ink, and then you wipe the ink off the raised areas. (This yields an “intaglio” print in which the recessed areas of the plate transfer the ink to the paper substrate.)

What makes this interesting is all the materials you can use. In addition to gluing down pieces of cardboard, you can build up texture with gesso or other acrylic media, or you can glue leaves or even banana peels, textiles, string, or sandpaper to the plate. In this way you can create patterns or textures.

Overall, this process will allow you to create dramatic tonal variations due to the depth (i.e., thickness) of the relief plate and the textures you can create.

(If you think about it, this is not that different from the raised areas that are built up for creasing and scoring paper using the Highcon Euclud digital machine. With this equipment, you can use digital data to produce raised areas on a plate that will then crease and score press sheets.)

One thing I have read about collagraphy in some art books is that once you make the plate, you can shellac it. This will seal the plate and provide an impermeable surface that you can more easily wipe clean as you change or add ink colors.

Once you have created the plate, you can print it. Since most of you (myself included, actually) won’t have access to an art printing press, you can just lay the printing paper on top of the inked plate and then burnish it with the back of a wooden spoon. When you peel off the printing paper, the image will transfer from the collagraph plate to your printing sheet.

(To refer back to the art therapy work my fiancee and I do, we once made tribal masks using the fluting of corrugated board for texture. Our students glued pieces of this fluting to flat corrugated liner board, creating relief sculptures of the masks. Although we didn’t have time to do any printing, we could easily have used these relief mask sculptures as collagraph plates and printed the masks onto press sheets. In fact I hope to do this same project again sometime and have the students not only make the masks but use them as custom printing plates as well.)

Andy Warhol’s Blotting Techniques

I studied Andy Warhol’s work for a recent art class with our autistic students so I could provide background information as the students drew and then painted shoes. Early in his career, Andy Warhol, who was actually born Andy Warhola, did illustrations for Glamour magazine. If you look him up online, you will find many of his drawings of high-fashion shoes. My fiancee and I used these shoe illustrations as a starting point for this week’s art therapy painting project.

While Warhol was drawing and painting shoes, he came up with a technique called the “blotting line” technique which involved drawing a line in ink and then blotting it while it was still wet. This changed the texture of the line and was in a very basic way a printing technique (transferring an image from one flat surface to another by blotting). As simple as this sounds, it developed over time into not only Warhol’s signature style of advertising art but also the photo-silkscreen printing for which he is so well known. In both cases (and in his use of photocopy machines and tracing), Warhol explored the artistic effects of repeated images. (You may have seen Warhol’s multiple images of Campbell’s Soup Cans or multiple images of Marilyn Monroe’s iconic face.) All of this, plus the initial “printing” quality of the “blotting line” technique, was incorporated into Warhol’s artistic style.

Monotype Printing

Here’s another technique you can do at home without a commercial printing press. It’s called monotyping, and you can do it in a number of ways. You can paint an image onto a non-porous plate (such as a plexiglass, glass, or—as was done historically—copper plate). Then you place the printing paper over the inked plate, and you burnish it with even pressure all across the back of the sheet using the back of a wooden spoon to press the paper into the ink. You can do this with a printing press as well, but in this case, you can’t use a glass plate, or it will shatter from the pressure.

Another way to make a monotype (in this case called a transfer monotype) is to first ink the plate completely in a single color. Then you lay the printing sheet over the ink and carefully draw an image on the back of the sheet with a pencil or stylus. (If your fingers touch the paper, even slight pressure will transfer ink from the plate to the printing paper.) When you peel the press sheet off the plate, the areas you have drawn will be in color (the pressure of the pencil picks up ink from the printing plate), and everything else will be the unprinted paper.

A third way to approach monotypes is to ink the plate completely and then use paintbrushes, rags, and/or a stylus to remove ink selectively from the solid background prior to printing.

Monotyping yields one good print. However, the transfer from the plate to the substrate changes the nature of the lines and solids in subtle ways (the pressure does this to the ink film). Therefore, you wind up with a single, somewhat uncontrolled but nevertheless unique image. If you try to print the plate again, you will usually get only a faint image.

(If you do some research, you’ll find that the British Romantic poet William Blake made monotypes to illustrate his poetry.)

Choosing the ink is an important step. I have read about printing with watercolors, but I have had more success with actual oil-based printing inks. If you choose oil-based inks you can print the substrate either wet or dry. If the printing stock is dry, there will be more contrast in the print. If the paper is wet, you’ll get a greater range of tones.

Once you have printed the plate, you can go back into the image with watercolor, ink, or any other medium to embellish the work.

What you get out of this is the serendipitous accidents akin to watercolor painting. Since you can’t control every element of monotyping, you incorporate the elements of chance and irregularity into your work, and this often makes the art print more unique.

How Does This Pertain to Commercial Printing?

Even though some artists consider fine arts to be superior to commercial art, if you do the research you’ll find that such famous artists as Toulouse Lautrec (posters), Piet Mondrain (Mondrain layout grids for graphic design), Andy Warhol (screen printing and illustration), and N.C. Wyeth (magazine illustrations) all worked in both the fine arts and graphic (or commercial) arts. After all, the principles of good design cross over from one discipline to the other.

If you are a graphic designer or a printer, it can only enhance your appreciation of your craft to see how famous artists have approached custom printing. Understanding the history of the arts broadens and deepens your own knowledge and skill in your craft.

As noted before, learning to hand-print images will help you understand the art and craft that underlie the automation of contemporary commercial printing. You will understand, for instance, what it means for images to be “in register.” This concept comes into play whether you’re using a million dollar press or printing colors from a glass printing plate, using a wooden spoon to rub the image from the plate onto the paper.

So the short answer is that nothing empowers us like knowledge and personal experience. Moreover, knowledge and experience can enhance our love for our craft.

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Book Printing: Thoughts on Designing with Photographs

September 23rd, 2019

Posted in Book Printing | Comments Off on Book Printing: Thoughts on Designing with Photographs

A long-standing consulting client of mine designs print books for the World Bank, the United Nations, and other governmental and non-governmental agencies. She pays me to review her designs over the phone with her, page by page. She started as an editor, and over the years I have helped her learn to also be a print book designer. She’s very good. Sometimes I look at her work and say to myself, “I wish I had designed that.”

Needless to say, in your own design work, it’s always good to have another print professional check your work. As I have learned from working with my consulting client, sometimes the reader does not immediately “get” why we have made design decisions, photo selections, or type choices, and being able to bounce these design decisions off another designer always improves the final product.

A Few Issues with My Client’s Photo Treatment

I thought it might be useful to discuss some of the overall choices my client made regarding photos. You may learn something applicable to your own print book design work from my client’s photo choices and my responses.

Last night’s two-hour design analysis session focused on a book about Bangladesh. All of the design issues (type, design grid, infographics) had been addressed, and my client’s client was happy. The only variables to address were photo selection and photo treatment.

First of all, in this book my client either presented the photos as duotones (brown and black, like old sepia-toned photos) or as full-color images. This choice depended on the placement of the photos (within text or within sidebars and such).

My client told me that she had screened back (ghosted) the 4-color images by 25 percent because they were not of professional quality (i.e., they were snapshots). She thought this reduction in image color saturation (I believe she had used the “Luminosity” control in InDesign) would make the flaws in the photos less evident.

I actually voiced some concern about this choice. I told my client that when I was an art director I used to do the same thing (ghost photos), but that I would only do this if I planned to position type over the ghosted image. The ghosting of the image made the reader see it as less important than the surprinted type. (The fainter-than-usual image appeared to be in the background, which made the type stand out more.)

In my client’s design, I thought that readers would view the ghosted (less saturated) images as less important, or as too lightly inked (i.e., as a flaw). So I suggested that she only “dial back” the intensity of the colors (their saturation) by about 10 percent instead of 25 percent. I said I thought her readers would be less critical of non-professional photography than of what appeared to be an error in printing (the overly light photos).

On a more positive note, I did tell my client that her duotones were outstanding. I think she achieved her goal (giving the images less of a journalistic feel and more of an artistic feel). Many of these photos were of stellar quality, and she made them quite large (a focal point of the design). I told her I thought this was also effective, just as I thought making the less professional images smaller might make their flaws less visible to the reader.

Design Motifs (and Considerations)

One of the design motifs my client used in her print book on Bangladesh was to stack horizontal strips of photos (duotones) one over the other on the divider pages. She then repeated these strips as running headers at the tops of all following pages (repeating the image on the left and right at the top of the page until the next section, when she would change to the next photo in the stack).

I said I thought this was a good way to set up a rhythm in the design. I also said that it provided a visual anchor at the top of the pages from which to “hang” the columns of type and photos. I said I also liked how she had reversed the folios (page numbers) out of these thin (maybe 1” deep by the width of the page) photos.

That said, I did note one potential problem. The top of the head of a girl alone on a roof in one photo came very close to the trim (head trim, or top of the page). I noted that printers’ trimming capabilities are not perfect. If the trimming knife came too close to the girl’s head (or cut into it), the reader would see this and consider it a flaw. So I suggested that my client re-crop the photo to give the girl’s image more head room.

The tight cropping of images in the running headers, particularly those images that contained a number of faces, posed challenges. I loved the motif, but I suggested to my client that she change the crop of one photo in particular. Everyone else’s head was either fully in the horizontal frame or cropped (somewhat severely) below the nose. However, one woman’s face extended off the top of the page, eliminating her eyes and forehead.

I told my client that severe photo cropping did add drama to her images. I liked the motif. I thought the reader would accept tight photo cropping as long as one or both of the subject’s eyes were visible. Cropping through the mouth was more acceptable, but having the woman’s face extend off the page and omitting her eyes would be seen as a flaw. Granted, I did note that tight cropping of such photos (to fit in the 1” tall strip at the top of the pages)–when they included numerous people’s heads at different levels–would be a major challenge.

Technical Difficulties

My client noted that she had been given the photos (as JPEGs) by her client and that she had to use them. Two of these were initially 72dpi photos. My client’s client had changed them to 300dpi images (also known as interpolation), inadvertently adding noise and other flaws to the images. I told my client that this had happened because interpolation “makes up” picture information that is not really there in the first place. The better way to address photos is to always request 300dpi images and then never enlarge them (i.e., reduce but never enlarge). In addition, my client’s client had overly sharpened one image in Photoshop before sending it to my client for use in the print book.

Since it was very late at night, and since the print book had to go to press the next morning, this is what I said. I told my client to use Gaussian Blur (under the Filters menu, under Blur) in Photoshop to “slightly blur” the dots all over the photo subject’s face (the result of oversharpening). Then I had her use Unsharp Masking (also under the Filters menu, under Sharpen) to make the photo appear crisper. (Photoshop does this by increasing the contrast between adjacent pixels.) I then told my client to only do this in an absolute emergency. I reminded her that starting with a 300dpi image is the “best practice.” She agreed.

I did however note that if you can reduce the size of an image or turn it into a duotone or even interpolate an image and then print it very small, as long as you are below the threshold of visibility, your reader won’t see the flaw.

I would even add to this caveat that producing a print book on highly textured paper will also minimize flaws in photos, because the paper will scatter the reflected light rather than direct it straight back to the viewer’s eyes (as will a gloss coated paper stock).

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Be objective in judging your photos. Consider their technical quality as well as their content and aesthetics.
  2. Often you can minimize flaws in photos. Make them smaller than the better photos. Turn them into duotones (or use another approach that highlights the aesthetics of the photo and minimizes its technical flaws).
  3. Don’t come too close to the trim. Either bleed an image off the page or give it at least a 3/8” or more (ask your printer) margin of error. The trimming knife in the printer’s bindery is not always precise.
  4. Always use photos that are 300dpi at the final size (100 percent size). Then crop them close to the final dimensions (in Photoshop). If you don’t have this option, as my client did not, research Gaussian Blur and Unsharp Masking on the Internet. These image tools, in combination, might save your photo. But then remember to make the photo as small as you can, because interpolation is never a good thing.

Posted in Book Printing | Comments Off on Book Printing: Thoughts on Designing with Photographs

Custom Printing: What Is Collagraphy?

September 16th, 2019

Posted in Fine Art Printing | Comments Off on Custom Printing: What Is Collagraphy?

I’ve been looking for new art projects my fiancee and I can share with our autistic students. Having been in the field of custom printing for over 40 years, I’m particularly drawn to hand-crafted approaches to what have become the super-automated technologies of commercial printing.

At the moment I’m still considering monoprinting (painting a design on a flat glass, metal, or plastic surface, and then burnishing damp printing paper against the plate to pull a single impression), but just recently I came upon another approach to custom printing that may also have promise for our art therapy work. That is collagraphy.

Collagraphy, also spelled collography, is relatively new, having been invented in 1955 by Glen Alps (according to Wikipedia). In fact, the description I read in Wikipedia makes it sound very much like a fine arts version of an offset “paper plate” or “polyester plate.” Granted, offset plates are flat. They have the image area and the non-image area on the same surface, and the ability of the image area to attract the greasy custom printing ink and the ability of the water-covered non-image area to repel the oily printing ink are what make offset printing “work.” That is, you can effectively (and definitively) separate the image areas from the non-image areas.

Not so with collagraphy. Collagraphy is either a relief process or an intaglio process (unlike offset printing). These are different from one another, but you can use a single collagraphic plate to produce either a relief print or intaglio print or both on the same substrate.

First of all, a relief printing process (which would include such techniques as woodcut printing and linoleum cut printing) involves creating a printing plate with a raised image area. The plate is inked and then brought into contact with printing paper, transferring the image from the plate to the substrate.

This image transfer is achieved with pressure (between the paper and the printing plate), but the pressure can be applied either with a printing press or with a burnisher of some type (such as the back of a spoon) rubbed across the back of the printing paper when it is in contact with the inked plate surface.

This pressure transfers the image. That is what makes this a custom printing process. And that is also what makes this process—at its most rudimentary level—akin to a more developed printing technology called letterpress (and another one called flexography). If you find a commercial printing vendor with a letterpress or flexographic press, this is exactly what he is doing with his equipment.

In contrast to relief printing, intaglio printing involves wiping the thick commercial printing ink across the surface of the printing plate (which has recessed image areas cut into the base substrate of the plate). When you then wipe the surface of the printing plate clean, the only ink left on the plate is in the recesses cut into the substrate. When you place printing paper (damp but not actually wet) onto the inked plate and then run it through a press, the damp paper (combined with the pressure of the process) pulls the ink out of the recessed image areas on the plate and deposits it on the paper.

What makes collagraphy unique is that you create a paper plate with multiple textures in the image areas, and then you either apply printer’s ink onto the relief areas of the plate (anything that sticks up above the flat printing surface), or you ink the entire plate and then remove (wipe off) any ink on the plate’s surface, leaving ink only in the recessed areas of the paper plate. (All of this is prior to the printing step.)

Or you can do both relief and intaglio printing with the same plate. In this case you would just print one version intaglio (recessed image areas) and one version relief (anything that rises above the surface). Presumably you would print both images in register (alignment).

What Makes Collagraphy Different?

So far, anything I have just described can refer to any relief or intaglio process. If, however, you are doing collagraphy, you start with a paper (or actually sometimes wood) substrate, and then you build up its surface in a number of different ways.

Wikipedia notes that you can use “acrylic texture mediums, sandpapers, textiles, bubble wrap, string or other fibers, cut card, leaves, and grass” (Wikipedia, Collagraphy). You affix these to the printing plate surface with glue. Other articles I have read suggest using wallpaper (since it has depth and texture). These articles also mention carborundum (since it is a powder that you can sprinkle over glue to create a rough texture that holds a lot of printing ink). Even thick glue-drenched threads can be used to create depth on the printing plate.

Interestingly enough, the Greek word “koll” or “kolla” means glue, and “graph” means drawing, so you are effectively drawing with glue. Or, more specifically, in making the collagraphic plate, you are creating a custom printing plate on a paper board (or sometimes wood) using glue and all manner of other items to create raised image areas that will accept ink from a “brayer” (a roller made for applying ink) or brush. And even the glue itself can be used to build up raised areas such as lines and curves that will accept ink and print it on the substrate.

Once you have created the plate, you coat it with shellac to seal everything so it does not degrade as you add the ink, print the plate, and then wipe off the ink to clean the plate. The shellac acts as a sealant and protective coating while also strengthening the plate.

But it doesn’t stop here. You can actually build up areas of the plate with wall filler. You can then shape the wall filler with tools or press textured items into the wall filler before it dries to transfer the texture from the items (such as the fabric) onto the printing plate.

Printing the Plate

Once you have crafted the plate to your satisfaction, and the wall fill and shellac coating have dried, you can wet the printing paper in a tray of water. The paper has to be of sufficient thickness to not come apart with the pressure applied by the raised areas of the plate (which actually embosses the paper).

Articles I read suggested using brushes (such as toothbrushes) to work the thick ink into all recesses of the printing plate. You can also use scrim material to work the ink into the plate or to clean off excess ink. (Scrim is a gauzy textile with a dominant weave pattern that will help in either applying or removing ink.) Paper or fabric can be used to “polish” the plate, ensuring that those areas you want to be white (highlights) will retain no ink.

When the plate is ready, you place it in the bed of the press, check its alignment with a registration sheet, ink the plate, take a piece of printing paper out of the tray in which it has been soaking in water, place it between sheets of blotter paper to remove some of the water (to make it damp but not actually wet), put the paper in the press, and pull a proof.

If the ink is muddy, dark, and/or sticky, you need to back off on the ink. If your print is too light, you may need to increase the pressure of the press.

If you want to use more than one color, you can wipe the plate clean with the tissue and scrim, and then apply different colors of ink to different areas of the plate before pulling your next proof.

How Does This Relate to Commercial Printing?

If you actually go through the process of hand printing anything, you will better understand the computerized and mechanized technology currently in use. The huge, multi-unit presses in commercial printing establishments still apply ink to paper substrates, even if they are run by computers and even if they use closed-loop electric eye mechanisms to control the color. The better you understand the core custom printing process (intaglio and relief printing in the case of collagraphy), the better able you will be to create the printing nuances you need in order to achieve the precise effects you desire.

Posted in Fine Art Printing | Comments Off on Custom Printing: What Is Collagraphy?

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