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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: Three Sculpted Finishing Operations

March 26th, 2023

Posted in Post-Press Finishing | Comments »

Photo purchased from …

It’s easy to forget that commercial printing is more than just a process of putting ink or toner on paper, and miss out on all the other operations that contribute to the overall success of a custom printing job.

A lot of these processes follow the printing step and are therefore referred to as post-press operations or finishing operations. Strictly speaking, even folding and trimming the stack of press sheets after the ink has dried would fit into this category, but today we will focus on three post-printing techniques that give dimension to a printed product: die cutting, embossing/debossing, and foil stamping.

Above all else, commercial printing is a tactile medium. You become especially aware of this when you compare a 256-page perfect-bound print book with French flaps to the same book presented as a file on an e-reader. The print book has heft. The text and cover papers have a rough or smooth feel. And there’s usually a scent associated with a printed paper product.

The three post-press operations I have mentioned add to this tactile nature and accentuate the dimensionality of the printed piece (which is, above all else, a three-dimensional object).

Die Cutting

Die cutting is done on a letterpress. That is, it is a physical stamping process, unlike offset printing, which depends on a chemical property: the immiscibility of oil and water. (Oily ink and water do not mix.)

A letterpress performs a physical, relief-printing process (the image areas are raised above the non-image areas). In the case of die cutting, flexible metal rules are bent into the shape required (let’s say a square to be cut out of the front cover of a presentation folder). These rules are set into a wood base with the edge of the cutting rules raised above everything else. When the letterpress is operated with the presentation cover paper in place, the die rules will chop through the paper. Then the scrap (the portion to be removed) can be discarded by the press operator.

(A similar process can be done for scoring, which is the creasing of thick custom printing paper to allow for smooth, even folding. It can also be done for perforating, which uses a metal rule to punch a row of tiny holes in commercial printing paper so it can be torn smoothly by the end user. While these are also done on a letterpress, they can in some cases be done on an offset press, with the metal scoring or perforating rules attached to the impression cylinder of the offset press. Unfortunately, this eventually destroys the rubber blanket on that particular unit of the offset press.)

Die cutting is used extensively in product packaging. If, for example, you take apart a carton of tea bags from the grocery store (to the point at which all glued portions have been separated and laid flat), you will see that it is composed of an irregular form with a number of flaps. (The same is true if you take apart a presentation pocket folder.) The metal die cutting rules punch out this intricate shape, which when folded and glued yields a rectangular product box.

Dies are always an extra cost. In my experience they often cost between $250 and $500. That said, every time you reprint a job using the same die, you already have it on hand and don’t need to pay for a new die. You just have to pay for the die-cutting process. In addition, for standard dies that many customers might use, your printer may already have these on hand, so you may not need to pay for and wait for a new one.


Also using a metal die (in this case a two-part die), you can use a letterpress to raise or lower an image above or below the rest of the printing sheet (up to about 1/8”). You would do this after the custom printing component of the job. Otherwise, the pressure of the offset printing press would crush the sculpted image.

In embossing and debossing, one part of the two-part die pushes the design into the paper fibers, while the other part of the die receives this impression, allowing the paper to move forward or backward in accord with the image. This is done with heat as well as pressure to allow the paper to be sculpted more easily, and this adds a smooth surface to the embossed or debossed area as well.

Embossing and debossing dies (embossing raises the image above the rest of the paper, while debossing lowers the image) can be quite intricate, and the edges of various parts of the die can even be at different levels of depth. However, if the lines are too fine, they may cut through the paper (that is, the goal is to form the paper without cutting it).

In addition, if the dies are especially deep, they may need to be beveled (staggered in multiple layers) to avoid cutting into the paper, and this can make the image area of the embossing/debossing look smaller than it actually is.

So involve your printer early in the design process to ensure that your design will work on a physical as well as aesthetic level.

In some cases, you may choose registered embossing, in which the raising or lowering of the paper surface is in register with a previously inked image. This may also be the case if you’re foil stamping a job. For instance, you may want to register a foil seal and an embossing stamp for an award symbol on a certificate or book jacket cover, or even the words in the title of a print book on the book’s dust jacket.

If you just want to emboss or deboss a design on paper without registering it to previously printed ink or previously foil-stamped images, this is called blind embossing. In this case the three-dimensional raised or lowered effect is the complete design, without any printing.

Such soft “text papers” (i.e., high-end textured papers) as felt stock are good for embossing/debossing because they are thick, durable, and soft. This helps them take the impression of the metal dies better than a harder press sheet.

As with die cutting, embossing/debossing will require extra time (dies are subcontracted out by your printer) and will add to the cost of the custom printing process.

Foil Stamping

Another strike-on process used to embellish your print book dust jacket or even the cloth of the case binding itself is foil stamping. This is also good for the starburst seals on certificates of appreciation. In either case a metal die is created with the image area of the artwork slightly raised.

This die is then heated and pressed against a roll of thin foil, and the heat and pressure attach the foil to the substrate. The fabric of book covers actually accepts this process quite readily. In the case of certificates with raised foil seals, the foil-stamped certificates can then be embossed as described above.

Interestingly enough, this process can also be used for physical products such as pencils, pens, frames, and such.

In addition, you have a much wider range of choices of foil than you might think, including metallics, pastels, patterns, and even clear foils and foils that match the background (such as gloss or dull black to be attached to black paper). So in this way you can create contrast between the text and background.

Foil stamping is great for rendering text on dark paper, for instance an invitation with white lettering on a black background. Since offset inks are transparent, it would take two or three passes with ink to create a completely opaque image, whereas the foil is already opaque, so all you need is one pass through the press.

The best paper to foil stamp is either a textured stock (a premium “text” sheet) or even a high quality bond paper.

Granted, as with die cutting and embossing/debossing, foil stamping requires the cost and time involved in cutting (chemically or by hand) a metal die.

Getting It Printed, a text on commercial printing technology by Mark Beach and Eric Kenly, notes that foil can blister if applied over inks containing silicone or wax, or even over coated paper. In addition, applying foil over too large an area (more than eight square inches) may also cause blistering.

On the plus side, Getting It Printed mentions that these plastic foils can stretch, which makes for a successful pairing of embossing and foil stamping.

Posted in Post-Press Finishing | Comments »

A Case Study on Replacing a Commercial Printing Supplier

March 19th, 2023

Posted in PrintBuying | Comments »

Photo purchased from …

A long-term, mutually beneficial business relationship with a printer sometimes ends. Perhaps the printer goes out of business or starts to not be as responsive as in prior years. Maybe their prices even rise dramatically, making the company no longer an option. What can you do?

In this light I have a case study to share. One of my commercial printing clients produces a color swatch book on a regular basis. These tiny, screw-and-post books are like PMS swatch books for those looking for make-up and clothing colors that will complement their complexion and hair color.

Along with this set of color swatch books, my client prints larger chin cards with a die cut for the person’s neck. These 8.5” x 11” chin cards allow the user to hold a large color swatch under her chin to see how a particular hue will look with her skin tone and hair color.

The cards are 8.5” x 11”, 14 pt. in thickness, with a semi-circle die cut for the chin, and with lamination on both sides. One side of each card is a big swatch of color bleeding on all four sides. The other side is text in black ink only. The total set comprises 72 pages (35 colors with information on the back of each, plus one single-page (front and back) set of instructions.

Losing a Printer

My color-swatch-book and chin-card client recently lost her printer based on issues with management. This particular printer had produced 50 sets of her chin cards every other year or so. The colors had been faithful to her expectations, and there had been no banding or artifacts in the solid, digitally printed colors, so it had become an easy reprint on a periodic basis. A boon to the printer (it was regular, straightforward work) and to my client (the end result was predictable).

So losing the commercial printing vendor was unfortunate. I had actually gone through a similar loss of a printer for my client’s color swatch books for a different reason several years prior. This vendor had upgraded the software on their HP Indigo digital laser press, and for whatever reason a number of the colors of the (smaller than 2” x 3”) swatch books were no longer accurate. This was a harder problem to solve, and it also came down to finding a new printer.

Digital vs. Offset

One of the challenges with replacing the custom printing supplier for the color swatch books (and this will also be true for the color chin cards) was to ensure color accuracy and smooth, even color laydown (compared to offset printed solids). All colors are percentage builds made from the four process colors. There are no PMS colors (since there may be a total of over 100 distinct hues that show up in some of, or in each of, the 28 master copies of the color swatch books).

This would be prohibitively expensive to produce via offset lithography, since it would require multiple passes on an offset press for what would in many cases be only a few copies at a time of the individual swatch books (so many copies of each of the 28 master versions).

For the color chin cards, the same would be true since my client only prints about 50 copies of the 72-page set at a time.

In both cases the limited press run for the individual sets, plus the use of so many colors, requires an accurate and consistent digital press. In my mind that includes the HP Indigo plus perhaps a Konica Minolta plus a Kodak NexPress, although I’m sure in the last several years other vendors have stepped in with equally accurate color digital printers.

With the loss of the color swatch book vendor, and in the most recent case the loss of the color chin card vendor, selecting a replacement has been and will be dependent on a physical proof of all pages.

So I have requested pricing for (in the case of the chin cards, since it’s the current job needing custom printing vendor replacement) a full hard-copy proof from the digital press in question, whether it is a digital laser press or a digital inkjet press (depending on the new vendor).

The color proof will ensure that the color builds (percentages of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) that my client had specified in her art file (she had kept a digital copy of her chin cards from the prior print run) match her expectations.

This is not always the case for all colors for all commercial printing vendors using a variety of digital presses. And soft proofs (PDFs on screen) of the color swatches (2” x 3” color swatches or 8.5” x 11” color chin cards) would not necessarily present the colors as they will eventually look when actually printed. After all, in the case of a computer monitor proof, the colors are created with red, green, and blue phosphors, whereas on a proof made on the actual press, the colors will have been created from the actual cyan, magenta, yellow, and black toners or inkjet inks.

In my client’s case the die cut and the lamination will be irrelevant, and not including these elements on the printer’s proof will keep the price down ($75.00, approximately, from two of the vendors I’ve approached). I think the cost of such a proof (rolled into the total manufacturing cost by some printers) is an investment, not an expense.

Banding and Artifacts

In my experience, some digital presses also produce solids (in this case up to 8.5” x 11” for the chin cards) that may not be as even a laydown of pigment as with oil-based, thick, offset-printed ink.

Sometimes there are artifacts (stray marks or lines) or banding (usually but not always in gradations from a light tint to a darker shade of a color). I’m not sure whether the banding is a reflection on the number of steps in the gradation (not an issue in the case of my client’s chin cards) or the PostScript (page description language) code of my client’s art file, or even in the nature of the process (spraying ink through nozzles—which sometimes clog) for the inkjet option or using toner particles suspended in fuser oil for the digital laser option.

Regardless, heavy ink coverage can cause problems. And nothing will be as effective in allaying my client’s concerns (and mine) as a hard-copy proof. It will ensure color fidelity (some colors seem to be more problematic than others) and the absence of banding. And once the new printer has proved it can provide an acceptable printed product, my client will have a home for this repeat job for many years going forward.

The Die Issue

Unfortunately, my client will need to have the die for the semi-circular cut out (for the user’s chin) remade. Granted, she paid for it once (approximately $275.00) and it was then used for successive runs of her job. And strictly speaking it is hers (according to commercial printing trade customs). But you could argue that it is only a component of the overall manufacturing process and therefore it belongs to the original printer. Struggling over this for $275.00 may not be worth it.

Availability of Materials

One of the things I’m finding is that not every printer can get the same lamination film for some reason. The job was originally produced on 14 pt. cover stock with 3 mil laminate on both sides of the chin cards. In the cases in which printers have only been able to get 1.2 mil laminate, I have asked for thicker cover stock for the chin card boards.

There is usually a work-around. This is mine.

Other printers may have different approaches. In my case, I think my client will be happy with the printed product as long as the total thickness of the base stock and the laminate on both sides of the cards feels about the same as samples from the prior press runs.

The Takeaway

So there are ways to get around losing a commercial printing supplier, even for a printed product that is a repeat job with colors that may not be easy to match (several of the printers “no-bid” this job outright, concerned that my client would not accept potential color banding or less than perfect colors).

If you have a job like this, it’s worth collecting bids from a number of prospective vendors. The PIE website (I have found) is always a good way to get new printers. Referrals from other clients or other printers that can’t for whatever reason do the job for you would be another option.

But in all cases I feel very strongly that checking an actual, physical proof will put your mind at ease, proving whether the vendor can or cannot provide your required level of quality. Granted, in some cases like these (multiple color builds produced on a digital press), you may need to have some flexibility. Not everything will be 100 percent perfect. Fortunately, my client understands this as long as the hues are reasonably close to the intended color.

But again, all of this will be visible in a good hard-copy proof, and this can help you develop a new long-standing, mutually supportive business relationship with a new printer. It’s a little bit like a marriage. It takes work, but the benefits make it worth it.

Posted in PrintBuying | Comments »

Custom Printing: Choosing Engraving or Thermography

March 12th, 2023

Posted in Printing | Comments Off on Custom Printing: Choosing Engraving or Thermography

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I’m a great believer in marriage. Weddings give you an opportunity to use one of the most artistic printing techniques (as well as one of the oldest) in existence: engraving. In fact, since my fiancee and I teach art to autistic students, I could very well share this same information with our students, because there is a long history of engraving in the fine arts as well as the graphic arts.

Engraving is an art form that lends itself to special occasions, such as weddings. However, it is also quite appropriate for corporate materials such as invitations to special gala events, letterhead, and business cards.

The Engraving Technique

Engraving is the opposite of letterpress. In letterpress, raised image areas and text print content onto commercial printing paper. In engraving, lines of images and text are incised into either steel or copper printing plates. Thick ink is wiped onto the plate and then wiped off, leaving ink only in the incised image areas.

Keep in mind that the dimensions of the engraving work tend to be very small (such as the size of a business card or invitation). When the intense pressure of the engraving press is applied, it forces the custom printing paper into the incised type and image areas of the inked plate, and the paper absorbs the ink. At the same time, the image areas are raised slightly by the intense pressure. So when the final piece comes off the press, the back of the sheet is slightly indented behind the typescript letters, and on the front of the sheet these very same printed elements are raised.

To compare this to the most common current form of commercial printing other than digital printing (i.e., offset lithography), offset printing plates are flat (neither raised like letterpress nor lowered, or incised, like engraving). In offset printing, what keeps the ink confined to the image areas is a chemical property of oil and water (or oily ink and water). That is, oil and water do not mix, so it is possible to separate them on a flat commercial printing plate.

To compare all three custom printing techniques in this light, engraving is an “intaglio” (recessed-image) printing process, offset lithography is a “planographic” (flat-image) printing process, and letterpress is a “relief” (raised-image) printing process.

Beyond the aesthetics of a special business card or invitation, engraving provides the sharpest printed impressions of any custom printing technique. Therefore, it is used to print currency and stock certificates as well.

Engraving plates are either steel or copper. According to my go-to book on printing, Mark Beach and Eric Kenly’s Getting It Printed, steel plates will allow for much longer press runs than copper plates. (Copper plates are usually good for press runs up to 5,000 copies, and then they deteriorate.) However, engravers usually only offer a few typefaces on steel plates.

Engraving plates can be imaged in the following ways:

  1. The lines can be incised by hand using tools. (This is used for steel plates.)
  2. The type and imagery (very simple line drawings, for instance) can be chemically burned into the metal if you’re starting with a “mechanical” (hard copy, actual type and imagery pasted up on paper), which is pretty much an extinct option now. (This is used for copper plates.)
  3. The type and imagery can be burned into the commercial printing plate with a laser from digital art files (more common). (This is used for copper plates.)

When you’re designing for engraving, keep in mind that the inks are thick and opaque, which can make them a great choice for a darker paper stock. (They are more striking than transparent offset inks printed on darker commercial printing paper.) Also they come in gloss and dull formulations, which will give you options. For instance, the gloss inks may even appear a bit metallic.

One of the most important things to remember if you are buying engraving services is to choose an appropriate, high-quality paper that will showcase the aesthetics of engraving. Let your printer help you choose the paper stock.

Another thing to remember is to ask the printer to confirm the heat tolerance of your final printed product if you intend to print names and addresses on a laser printer. In some cases the high heat of a laser printer could damage the engraved product.

Engraving requires intense pressure, as noted earlier, so it lends itself to small presses printing small images. Getting It Printed notes that anything larger than a 4” x 8” area would require an additional pass through the press. (For instance, your printer may do one pass for the top of your letterhead and another pass for the bottom of your letterhead.)

An Option to Engraving

But what if you can’t afford the expense of engraving? Or maybe you want something for larger-format printed pieces. What are your options?

Thermography is a hybrid printing technique that actually starts with offset lithography. You may in fact have seen thermographically printed business cards and thought they were engraved, because the type and imagery are raised as in engraving. (One key give-away, however, is that the underside of the printing paper is not indented behind the type letterforms.)

Thermography starts with slow-drying offset printing inks that are dusted with thermographic resin powder after the offset printing step. This powder sticks to the offset ink and “takes on the color of the underlying ink, but may not match perfectly” (Getting It Printed, p. 138). Excess thermography powder (powder not covering type or other image areas) is then vacuumed away, and the printed piece is heated. Heat melts the thermography powder into the offset ink, but it also causes the powder to bubble up (hence the raised effect that simulates engraving).

In my experience, two things are important to remember with thermography. The first is to keep things simple. You can create an attractive, raised effect, but if you try to reproduce anything but the coarsest halftone screens, the screens may plug up and look uneven. (I personally did this once about thirty years ago, so I encourage you to learn from my mistake.)

Also, there is a chance of your receiving a printed piece in which the ink looks stippled (a pattern of tiny indentations, like the skin of an orange peel). So ask your printer for samples, and make sure he is skilled in thermography and can avoid this stippled effect. You want the powder to rise as it is heated, and you want a uniformly glossy appearance, so your printer must be able to control the offset ink application, heat, and thermography powder application.

That said, you don’t have to use thermography only for business cards or letterhead. Getting It Printed suggests applying thermographic printing to perfect-bound print book covers, for instance, perhaps highlighting the title of the book by making it colorful, raised, and textured.

If you choose thermography for a printed item, you have a choice of fine, medium, or coarse thermography powders, so you can use fine resign powder for fine lines and thicker granules for larger areas of type or color solids. However, too large an area of color thermography might result in a blistered appearance. Also, printing across a fold will result in cracking of the dried thermographic powder.

And finally, thermography does not have the highest rub resistance and can therefore be scratched. Also, thermographically printed ink does not tolerate the heat of a laser printer and can lose its “rise and luster” (Getting It Printed, p. 139) if heated.

Posted in Printing | Comments Off on Custom Printing: Choosing Engraving or Thermography

Custom Printing: A Paper-Availability Status Report

March 5th, 2023

Posted in Paper and finishing | 2 Comments »

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About a year ago I got a phone call from a large commercial printing consolidator (a company that buys and then operates print shops across the nation and sometimes in other countries as well). My contact said the consolidator couldn’t get paper for one of its clients. This would be a huge, recurring job involving custom printing, perforating, and die cutting labels.

It was a sweet job, and I had good contacts, one who could print the job in China and another in the US in the Midwest. But when all was said and done, I didn’t get the job and I’m grateful for that. Between the client’s demands for specific paper and that paper’s unavailability even among my contacts, I learned a lot about the current paper shortages, supply chain issues, lines of ships waiting to dock at US ports, and economics in general. I couldn’t have received a better education back in college.

That said, now it’s a year later. For those of you who produce recurring print jobs (as designers, print buyers, art directors), what is the current status of commercial printing paper?

The Current State of Paper Sourcing

With this question in mind, I went online and found several good articles, which I draw from (and quote) in the following blog posting. If you want to do your own research, you might check out “2023: Will the Paper Chase Persist?” by Toni McQuilken,, 02/15/2023, and “US Printing Paper Demand Slows Down in a ‘More Normal’ December as Panic Buying Ends,” by Renata Mercante, Fastmarkets, 12/21/2022. Both articles, and others, can be found online.

That said, here is the gist of what I have found.

In the past several years we have had shutdowns due to Covid, labor shortages, weather issues, higher costs for shipping, and general disturbances in the supply chain (both for US-based and imported paper). Also, many paper manufacturers in the US changed from producing commercial printing paper to producing packaging board. This reduced printing paper availability (some grades and weights more than others).

When combined with a healthy (and in some cases increased) demand for commercial printing paper (by customers and therefore custom printing suppliers), the reduced paper supply drove up prices (for the paper component of printing).

This year, 2023, according to John Crumbaugh, product manager of ColorPRO Technology, Media Operations, at HP: “The supply chain for producing printing paper is still tight, but there are signs that it’s beginning to loosen up and should be much improved in 2023.” “In North America, the paper mills are operating at or near capacity, but the analog market appears to be slowing, and imports are beginning to increase, so paper is more available than earlier [last] year” (John Crumbach, as quoted in “2023: Will the Paper Chase Persist”).

One reason the market is beginning to slow, according to this article and others, is that printers have slowed down their panic buying and are now using the inventory they had amassed. Since paper availability has increased and the end users (apparently) are a bit less demanding, printers have recently been able to both use what they have in inventory and also selectively buy paper to add to their in-house supply.

That said, paper imports have arrived a bit faster (with easier access to US ports). However, this is somewhat mitigated by the lower number of domestic mills producing paper (as noted before, a lot of them had been converted to paperboard making). So paper is more available, but its price isn’t coming down anytime soon.

Plus, the concept of “just-in-time delivery,” at least in paper sourcing, is not viable now and will not be for the foreseeable future.

According to Crumbaugh, as quoted in “2023: Will the Paper Chase Persist,” “Pricing for printing grades of paper have increased up to 40% over the past five years.” “Supply chain issues, transportation, and increased cost of production have driven pricing up very quickly. Pricing is likely to stabilize as opposed to dropping quickly, as many of the increased cost factors are still in effect.”

In short, paper is available, but the cost of the paper for a commercial printing job (and this can be a large portion of the total cost of the job—especially for print books) will keep overall custom printing prices high.

According to “2023: Will the Paper Chase Persist,” these are the paper grades affected (Toni McQuilken includes comments by a number of printers in this light as well). According to Crumbach (as noted earlier), these papers include “uncoated text and cover,” “some packaging grades, especially premium grades,” and wood-free paper grades. Plus, “Coated, as well, is difficult for both popular mid-range weights, as well as heavyweight point stocks” (John Crumbach, as quoted in “2023: Will the Paper Chase Persist”).

Importing paper has made things easier, but this has not completely mitigated the effect of many domestic paper suppliers’ having gone offline in the past several years.

At the same time, according to “2023: Will the Paper Chase Persist,” some papers that weren’t available a year ago are now more accessible, such as 70#, 80#, and 100# coated book papers (“mid-range weights, in general”) (“2023: Will the Paper Chase Persist”), and these are accessible in various sheet sizes for different-sized printing presses.

What to Do (for Printers)?

“2023: Will the Paper Chase Persist” suggests the following approach to the current state of paper sourcing, at least through this year:

  1. Think ahead. “2023: Will the Paper Chase Persist” encourages printers to plan for the workflow rather than stockpiling paper. This means keeping good relations (and open communication) with paper suppliers. McQuilken’s article especially notes that mills do not treat spot-buyers of paper as well as those who have developed mutually beneficial, repeat working relationships with the mills. McQuilken suggests that printers evaluate their projected paper needs for upcoming jobs on a monthly basis (rather than a quarterly basis).
  2. Don’t buy in a panic, but also don’t assume “just in time” sourcing will work.
  3. Be flexible. It is smart at this point to be open to alternative papers suggested by mills.
  4. If you are a printer, McQuilken suggests diversifying. That means perhaps even buying new equipment to be able to handle different commercial printing jobs in different ways on different presses, should paper for one press be more difficult to source. This will at least keep printers, and pressmen, from being idle in difficult times.

The Takeaway for Designers

Many of you who read these PIE Blog articles are not commercial printing suppliers, but rather individual print buyers in for-profit and non-profit organizations. Most of McQuilken’s suggestions will pertain to you as well.

In short, you will benefit from planning jobs earlier than in prior years. You can’t bring printers into the equation too early. Talk to your suppliers. Keep them in the loop.

And depend on their expertise. When they suggest alternative stocks that might work as well as your preferred custom printing paper, keep an open mind.

Posted in Paper and finishing | 2 Comments »

Custom Printing: A Primer on Dot Gain in Printing

February 27th, 2023

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Thirty years ago I was promoted from designing print books to serving as the art director and production manager of a government education nonprofit organization. When our best designer got a new job, I took over all of her promotional design work and learned to use Quark XPress (page composition software). It was one of the more intensely educational periods of my professional life.

One of the promo items I produced was a 16-page catalog on 70# gloss text with a 100# gloss text cover. The tall and narrow format was approximately 6 1/8” x 10 7/8”. It was a saddle stitched, four-color product with a press run of between 40,000 and 60,000 copies. The nonprofit was flush at the time, and marketing was viewed as an investment. Also, it was before the wide use of the internet for marketing.

To get back to the size, we chose an odd format because it just fit the US Post Office’s definition of a letter. Anything larger (even 1/8”) would have been a “flat” and would have cost more to mail. But in addition, we chose the size because it fit exactly within the roll width and cut off of the heatset web press owned by one of our best commercial printing suppliers. (More specifically, eight pages of the catalog fit exactly on each side of a sheet cut from the web roll, allowing room for bleeds and printer’s marks.)

And for such a long run (the number of pages multiplied by the press run), producing the job on a heatset web was faster and cheaper than printing the job on a sheetfed press. Moreover, since it was produced on gloss stock, we needed a heatset web rather than a non-heatset web (because we needed the ovens to cure the ink through oxidation). So this was exactly the right custom printing press for the job.

Proofing and Dot Gain

When I started regularly checking proofs for this catalog (a repeat job produced every six months), the first thing that struck me was that the proofs were too light. The b/w halftones, the 4-color images, the area screens, everything. At first I was upset, and then the printer explained to me that heatset web presses have higher than usual dot gain, so the separations need to be “opened up” or burned to negatives, proofs, and plates with lower density, so the final printed product would look as I had intended it to look. (We still used negatives back then.)

So I went to school on the subject.

“Separations” were the four sets of negatives and plates, one set for each of the process colors: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. “Opened up” meant that the halftone dots of any of the process colors would be reduced slightly in size. And “dot gain” meant that certain types of presses, certain printing processes, and certain types of paper will result to a greater or lesser extent in the enlarging of halftone dots on press. (This is also known as “tone value increase.”)

And the heatset web printer’s solution (opening the separations) was the correct approach to eliminate the dot gain problem.

How Does Dot Gain Present Itself?

In the case of my employer’s catalog of government education print books, the overall darkening of all colors that would have occurred had the printer not opened up the separations would have been the result of the dot gain.

But this is not all that can happen.

According to my go-to book on printing, Getting It Printed by Eric Kenly and Mark Beach, “Halftones and separations lose detail, colors shift in separations, screen tints print too dark, color builds don’t match swatches, chokes and spreads [trapping] don’t function properly, and fine lines drop out when printed as reverses” (Getting It Printed, page 65).

How Is Dot Gain Measured?

According to Getting It Printed, if you start with a 50 percent dot and you have 10 percent dot gain, the halftone dot would now be a 60 percent dot (50 plus 10, not 50 plus 10 percent, as I understand it). Unfortunately, dot gain can be different in different screen percentages of a printed product, since different sized halftone dots grow in different amounts (smaller dots grow more than larger ones, for instance).

Plus, if you think about it, the art file for a double-page spread of one of your commercial printing projects, let’s say a print book, may include multiple items that you have generated in different programs (such as InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator, etc.) prior to placing them in the art file. This can result in different amounts of dot gain in different portions of a page spread.

What Increases or Decreases Dot Gain?

First of all, according to my research, dot gain will be reflected in the series of printer’s marks on your press sheet outside the live matter art. This notation, showing the growth of the dots, may be further broken down into highlights, quarter tones, halftones, etc. So your printer is already actively looking for this problem and seeking to remedy it.

That said, there are certain elements of commercial printing that will make this problem better or worse. According to Getting It Printed:

  1. Uncoated paper results in more dot gain than coated paper. This is because the ink seeps into the paper fibers and causes the dots to grow. In a similar vein, calendered paper (run between metal rollers during the paper-making process) experiences less dot gain than uncalendered paper. This is because the metal calender rollers create a harder paper surface, and a harder surface allows for less ink absorption into the paper fibers.
  2. Different printing technologies, such as offset, flexography, gravure, and screen printing, have different amounts of dot gain.
  3. Different screening algorithms yield different amounts of dot gain. For instance, FM or stochastic screening uses very tiny halftone dots, with more dots in a dark area and fewer dots in a light area. In contrast, AM or traditional screening uses a specified number of dots per square inch, and they are either larger or smaller depending on the percentage of the screen. So these different sized dots will have different amounts of dot gain.
  4. Higher halftone screen rulings (maybe up to 200 lines-per-inch for coated paper but only 85 lines-per-inch for newsprint) will produce more dot gain since smaller dots grow more than larger dots.
  5. Different kinds of offset presses cause different amounts of dot gain. For instance, a web offset press is likely to have more dot gain than a sheetfed offset press.
  6. Inks make a difference. For instance, soy inks produce less dot gain than petroleum-based inks.
  7. Chemistry makes a difference. Waterless offset printing, which uses silicone-coated plates and no water solution, minimizes dot gain when compared to traditional offset commercial printing.

What Does This Mean to You?

There are prepress applications that deal with dot gain, but since you may have problems in one area of a page and not in another, and since you are probably inserting other kinds of files into your page layout files, my personal recommendation is the following:

  1. Assume the printer is checking the dot gain charts on the press sheets (printers marks outside of the live-matter page) and adjusting for the dot gain (even if that means burning new printing plates).
  2. If the quality needs to be above “basic” or “good” (i.e., “showcase” or “premium”), consider attending a press inspection at your printer’s plant, where you can see the press sheets during the press run and make comments and request changes. Let your commercial printing supplier know your plans at the time of the request for quote, however, since a press inspection slows down the overall process (and ostensibly gets factored into a higher price).
  3. Make your concerns known to your custom printing vendor and ask for feedback if your job needs to be a premium or showcase printed product.

Personally, I’d avoid trying to compensate for dot gain yourself. There are too many variables, and this is the expertise you’re paying your pressmen to bring to your work.

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Custom Printing: Comparing Sheetfed and Web Presses

February 19th, 2023

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About two decades ago I was a custom printing consultant helping a client produce periodicals analyzing the actions of Congress in Washington, DC. It was a Friday night, and their flagship publication was on press at a local printer on a heatset web press. A tornado came in at that very moment and tore the roof off the commercial printing plant. When I called the sales rep, he said my client’s company was “on its own.” The job would not be printed and sent off to its paying customers that night.

So I contacted a local sheetfed printer I knew wanted the contract for this weekly magazine very, very badly. When I called the plant manager, who was at a bachelor party at the time, he agreed to be my client’s white knight. I sweetened the pot by noting that his successful completion of this job would probably create a vacuum that would suck all of my client’s jobs out of the web-press plant into his sheetfed custom printing plant.

He coordinated a new transfer of all digital data from my client’s office to his shop and produced the magazine via sheetfed lithography. Paying customers received a magazine that looked far better than prior issues. It came out on time as though nothing had happened. Within a year or so, the new printer was producing all of my client’s magazines.

Sheetfed vs. Web

The prior example might read like a fairy tale, but it’s actually true. That said, it was more expensive to print the magazine via sheetfed offset lithography than heatset-web offset lithography. Here are the differences and the reasons to choose one kind of press or the other for your own commercial printing work.

Both kinds of presses print via offset lithography, in which image areas on a flat custom printing plate are treated to receive ink, while non-image areas are treated to repel ink. When the press is running, ink is transferred from a printing plate to a rubber blanket and from the blanket to the paper (hence the term “offset”). So in this particular way, web presses and sheetfed presses are similar.

That said, paper is fed into a sheetfed press as individual sheets stacked in a pile at the front end of the press (even if they had initially come from a roll and had been cut into sheets). The sheets are pulled through all inking units, where they receive ink from the plates and blankets. Stacks of printed press sheets (printed on one side) exit the press and are stored for the ink to dry (via absorption into the paper and/or oxidation into the air, depending on the paper in use). Then the piles of press sheets are turned over and run through the press again to print the opposite side of the sheet (called “backing up the sheet”). Final printed sheets (printed both sides) are then brought into the finishing department for folding, trimming, and other post-press work.

In contrast, on a web offset press, paper comes from a roll. As the press runs, the ribbon of paper coming off the roll is held in tension as it enters the press. Like a sheetfed press, the web press uses plates and blankets on each inking unit to print the job.

If the paper is uncoated and the quality requirement is low (such as a newspaper or newspaper circular), the web press can be an open web (or non-heatset web). The ink dries through absorption only (ink seeps into the uncoated paper).

If, however, the paper is a coated press sheet (or roll, more accurately), the applied ink (usually four colors for this kind of work) has to be dried differently. So once the ribbon of printing paper from the web roll exits the printing units, it must enter the drying ovens, which flash off the solvent from the printed ink with intense heat (i.e., drying by oxidation rather than absorption), hardening the custom printing ink on the surface of the paper rather than letting it sink into the paper fibers. Then the ribbon of paper (the web) travels between the chill rollers, which bring the paper back to room temperature.

At this print, the web press can actually do some of the finishing work in line, getting the press signatures (in the case of my client’s magazines, for instance) ready for binding (some web presses do some kinds of binding in line as well).

Sheetfed presses can’t do this. (Finishing in this case is done in another department.)

Web presses are lightning fast. My random query on the internet notes that a sheetfed press can print 15,000 impressions per hour, while a web press can print 50,000 impressions per hour. (I don’t know how precise these numbers are, but the gist is that web presses are significantly faster than sheetfed presses.)

Moreover, a web press prints both sides of the roll of paper at one pass, unlike a sheetfed press. Either the ribbon of paper is turned over within the printing process using “turning bars” (with four of the inking units printing one side of the paper and then the other four inking units printing the opposite side), or press rollers, plates, and blankets above and below the web of printing paper print both sides simultaneously. This also speeds up the process dramatically.

But speed has its drawbacks. Even a heatset web press (as opposed to a non-heatset web press, which some people call a coldset web) cannot in most cases match the level of quality produced by highly skilled operators on a sheetfed offset press. (This is why my client’s customers who received the tornado edition of their magazine were knocked off their seats by its quality.)

In contrast, speed does yield cost savings. Sheetfed printing involves separate finishing operations in a different department, and overall it progresses more slowly, so the final bill is usually higher, depending on the total press run.

To illustrate, when I was an art director, my employer printed 60,000 copies of a 384-page (approximately) 6” x 9” perfect-bound print book (twelve 32-page signatures). The text was printed on a web press. I believe the 60,000 covers, since they were small, they could be ganged up on a single press plate, and they had to be of very high quality, were printed on a sheetfed press. I’m not good with math, but it seems to me that at 15,000 impressions per hour vs 50,000 impressions per hour, it would take much, much longer to print twelve 32-page press signatures (twelve separate press runs) on a sheetfed press than on a web offset press.

Why Choose One Press Over Another

If you’re buying printing and deciding what kind of printer to approach for a bid, here are some thoughts:

  1. If you’re producing a textbook, for instance, as was part of my job as an art director, consider the number of pages multiplied by the number of copies. In my case of 60,000 copies multiplied by 384 pages, that would be 23,040,000 book pages. In my experience, that’s definitely a web-offset commercial printing job.
  2. If you’re printing 60,000 copies of a 8.5” x 11” flyer that will be laid out (imposed) eight-up on a press sheet (eight final copies per 25” x 38” press sheet), then your final print run is actually only a fraction of the total or 7,500 copies, because out of every press sheet you get eight copies. That would most probably be a sheetfed job.
  3. Quality. Maybe you wouldn’t print an annual report on even a heatset web press. I wouldn’t. Even if it can run coated paper and four-color process ink work, it probably won’t look quite as dynamic as a sheetfed-printed annual report. However, if you’re producing flyers, forms, brochures, newspapers, newspaper circulars–either a heatset web press (for coated printing paper) or a non-heatset web press (for uncoated printing paper) might be a good bet. The key here is the length of the press run.
  4. So back to press runs. If you’re unsure, ask your printer. But my random check on the internet suggests 10,000 to 15,000 copies as a starting point for web offset, for magazines and brochures. While I would definitely agree with their assessment as it pertains to magazines (multiple custom printing press signatures multiplied by 10,000 or 15,000 copies), I think for brochures or any other work that can be ganged up on a press sheet, your target totals for choosing web offset lithography over sheetfed lithography would be much higher.

But it never hurts to ask your printer.

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Custom Printing: Packing, the Final and Perhaps Most Important Step

February 13th, 2023

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The picture above says it all. Let’s say you have spent months working on a perfect-bound print book, writing and editing it, maybe taking photos, designing the pages lovingly to showcase the content. Once the job has been printed and then delivered, without incident we always assume, it arrives at your office and everyone tells you how good it looks. But maybe this doesn’t happen. Maybe the job has been packed incorrectly by a new employee, or it falls off the skid and gets dinged rather hard, cutting through the cardboard packaging and smashing one or more print books. Or maybe the carton is dropped in a puddle by accident during a rain storm.

You get my drift. The job isn’t complete until you get all of the copies in pristine condition delivered to the exact location you specified. Packing and shipping are vital parts of the process, even though they are completely invisible to most people—until something goes wrong.

What to Do?

I did some research on packing print jobs in Getting It Printed a few days ago. This book by Mark Beach and Eric Kenly is my go-to text on all things about commercial printing, as it has been for the last thirty years.

Beach and Kenly note that making sure the products (print books, brochures, etc.) are not only in the boxes but rigidly secured is of utmost importance. And they need to be horizontally stacked, not vertically stacked. This avoids bowing, I would think, although I’ve always seen envelopes (particularly large 9” x 12” booklet or catalog envelopes) packed vertically.

Regardless (and your commercial printing supplier will know for sure), I think the goal is to work within the laws of physics. If a packaged product will want to move in a certain way in a box or carton and is allowed to do so, its weight coupled with the movement of the carton will cause problems. Make sure it behaves as you want it to, so when you get to the last box of pocket folders, for instance, they are standing upright and are flat and rigid.

Protective Coatings

Scuffing is another issue to avoid. When I was a designer and then an art director, I always used to coat print book covers, pocket folders, and anything else with a heavy coverage of ink. Whether it was aqueous coating, UV coating, or film or liquid laminate, this coating would protect the printed products in transit in the carton.

Shrink wrapping is another good option that Getting It Printed mentions. You can either shrink wrap the items individually (if your job is a long perfect-bound print book, for instance), or you can group items in specific numbers (or “conveniently,” which means your commercial printing supplier can decide how many to group together).

In lieu of shrink wrapping (and you can always ask for the cost of these different approaches when you’re bidding out your job), you can put slip sheets between individual items or groups. A slip sheet is just a piece of paper that keeps two adjacent printed items from rubbing against each other. Or you can paper band stacks of printed products together or even rubber band items together.

The Cartons

Durability of the cartons themselves is also an issue to consider. They need to be able to take a beating. I’ve never done this, but I know you can specify double-wall cartons, which, as their name implies, add another layer of protection.

A related choice I did make when specifying case bound books for one of my clients was to have the printer shrink wrap the individual books and then insert them into “bumper-end mailers.” These had cardboard extensions made specifically to absorb impact, much like the bumper on a car. Before the print book could sustain damage (not only in transit from the printer but in mailing to the customer as well), the bumper-end mailer would absorb the concussion. Again, it helps to consider the laws of physics.

Skid Packing

Handling the packed cartons as a unit (instead of as 50 individual cartons, each containing 20 books) is important as well, according the Getting It Printed. Laying the cartons on top of each other, overlapping like bricks, strengthens the stacks and keeps everything together and stabilized. Also, remember to pack the heaviest cartons on the bottom. Strapping the cartons and shrink wrapping the cartons to the skid also help.

For about five years when my fiancee and I were installing banners and standees at movie theaters, we also had a side gig working for Chanel. We installed exhibits for make-up application, and this included assembling banner stands and other graphics as well as furniture. Needless to say, the contents of the two skids (also known as pallets) we received for each Chanel installation weighed 1,000 pounds or more (comparable to a skid of print books in cartons).

It actually added to my education in commercial printing to learn how to pack a skid, wrap a skid with clear plastic, operate a motorized pallet mover, and operate a freight elevator. All of this experience and information was directly pertinent to the packing and transport of cartons of print books or any other printed product.

Among other things I learned was that everything had to stay dry. This is also true for a skid of cartons of books, perhaps doubly so, since print books and the paper they are made of behave like sponges. The plastic skid wrap sheeting we used (imagine wrapping a skid with saran wrap) is particularly helpful if your books will be in a fulfillment house for a long period of time, since this wrap does keep moisture from getting to the cartons of printed products.


Particularly if your print run is long and perhaps destined to be parceled out over an extended period, you may need a fulfillment house. If so, you will want to note on each carton (and on each skid, using a “pallet flag,” which is essentially just a notation on paper) exactly how many cartons the skid contains, and how many books, pocket folders, etc., each carton contains.

Therefore, all of the cartons, except for one, presumably, need to contain exactly the same number of products. The remaining carton, labeled as such, will contain the smaller number of items that rounds out the total.

Then you will want to note all of this on each carton and on the skid in general, so an accurate inventory can be taken at the fulfillment house, and so the pick-and-pack fulfillment people can collect and repack groups of items to send to paying customers.

All of this information can be as simple or as complex as you want, depending on your needs. Getting It Printed notes that in many cases, simply taping a copy of the printed item (perhaps a brochure) to the box is enough. In other cases, for a book publisher, for instance, there may be specific language plus a bar code and even in some cases a QR code to reflect the title, publisher, and perhaps the cost. In this case, information stenciled on the cartons or even printed labels would be needed.

The goal is to decide all of this early and to provide art files the commercial printing supplier can use to add labels, stencils, or even just handwritten notes on the cartons, so everything will be in order once the job has been packed and delivered.

This is one reason, for instance, that I have never been able to get a printer to just finish up maybe two or ten cartons of print books and then deliver or mail them early, while the rest of the print job is finished and packed for transit. Things (including packaging a handful of books) done piecemeal are often done wrong. Or they slow down the job instead of buying time. Actually, one printer was willing to send out an early, partial shipment, but the process would have cost an exorbitant amount and would have wrecked the schedule.

Weight of Cartons

UPS and the US Post Office, as well as other carriers, presumably, have weight restrictions. Your printer probably will know these, but it’s smart to check. If the goal is to treat a carton of printed products as a unit, it defeats your goal to need to have a carton opened, have some items removed, and then have it resealed, just to meet delivery requirements. So plan ahead.

It’s also very important to know how wrapped skids will be delivered. Does the receiving destination have a loading dock? That is, will someone with a forklift or pallet mover be able to drive or walk directly from the loading dock into the back of the delivery truck (at the same level) to retrieve the skids? Or will the delivery truck need to have a lift gate (a little elevator on the back of the delivery truck to lower the skids to the ground). If the latter is the case, will the skid-packed job need to be disassembled and delivered as individual cartons by hand, on a hand-truck, through a building and up the elevator? Obviously this will cost you more because it will involve a lot of extra hand work and heavy lifting.

The Takeaway

The takeaway is that you should consider all of these variables before you hand off a request for quote to your commercial printing vendor. Specify them in detail. Discuss everything with your supplier. The details will dramatically affect your final delivery cost.

Moreover, the details will make the packaging portion of your job, which is the most important part in many ways, ensure that each individual printed item looks as pristine and wonderful the day it is received by the end user as it looked coming off the press and out of the bindery.

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Commercial Printing: Creating Photos, Recording Light

February 4th, 2023

Posted in Photos | Comments Off on Commercial Printing: Creating Photos, Recording Light

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Photographs in your custom printing work are essentially a record of the light you witnessed. You are creating with light, making a specific artistic and/or editorial statement. Photos are never added to a publication just for their appearance.

In this light (so to speak), it is helpful to understand some terms and definitions. These will help you either take photos or select photos for the projects you design, whether brochures, banners, or print books.

Depth of Field

For the first ten years of my forty-six years (to date) in graphic design and other aspects of publications management, I shot the photos I used in my graphic design work. I used a film camera, not a digital camera, so you will need to do some online research to apply this information to digital photography.

“Depth of field” identifies the part of a photo that is in perfect, crisp focus and the part of the photo that is a little bit fuzzy. It notes the range (or depth into the picture plane) of crystal clarity, assuming all photos have a foreground, middle ground, and background.

If you are working in bright light (outdoors, for instance, photographing a group of flowers), you can set the lens aperture at a higher number (say f/ 16, or “f-stop” 16), which closes down the adjustable “screen” covering the camera lens in just the same way as the pupil in your eye closes to protect your vision in bright light.

This not only allows less light into the light sensor of the digital camera (or onto the film), but it also allows certain parts of the photo (depths into the picture plane, as noted above) to be in sharp focus or out of focus.

Why would you want to do this? Because it allows you to select the part of the photo you want the viewer to focus on, the subject of the photo, while ignoring or giving less attention to other parts of the photo.

If you’re photographing a bed of flowers (to reference the example noted above), you can highlight one flower and make those flowers closer to the viewer and those farther away less prominent, since they will be out of focus. You can also do this when photographing a person, a model.

From a mathematical point of view, the more closed down the lens can be (to allow less light to enter), the more inclusive the sharp focus will be (the larger the area from crisp focus in the foreground to crisp focus deeper into the background). For example, in this case the camera lens setting might be f/ 16 or greater (maybe even f/ 32). This, of course, requires more light, either natural ambient light or light from an electronic flash.

Going in the opposite direction and lessening the depth of field would require you to “open” the lens more (as the pupil of your eye opens more in lower lighting). An open lens (perhaps f/ 1.2) would make the area of crisp focus (which you could change the position of, within the picture plane, using the focusing control of the camera) be less deep.

High-Key and Low-Key Photos, and Contrast in Photos

Photos make a statement of some kind. Depth of field allows you as the photographer to choose what your viewer will look at. Other tools will do the same or similar things, even leading your viewer to feel a certain way about a photo in a print book or other publication.

In this light here are some terms to consider.

A “high-key” photo is one with predominantly light areas (or white or lighter toned pixels when viewed as a “histogram” graph in an image editing program like Photoshop). To the eye, such a photo just looks very white or bright, if it is either in black and white or color. This can suggest the bright, pristine white of early morning sunlight, for instance. The opposite is a “low-key” photo (in which the Photoshop histogram leans toward the darker tones). This might suggest the more subdued feel associated with sunset.

Closely related to this is the range from high contrast to low contrast within a photo. At noon, the sun casts intense shadows. A photo of a rock outcropping in the mountains, for instance, will have deep shadows and almost completely white highlights. It will be of high contrast. You can do the same thing indoors with an electronic flash (or multiple electronic flashes), with the deep shadows making a man’s face seem more masculine and chiseled.

The alternative would be an image with less contrast. Ambient light (natural light outdoors not augmented by electronic flash) in the afternoon can make a model look softer and more approachable.

As with depth of field, creating images with greater or lesser contrast, or photos that are high or low key will allow you to make a statement about the subject matter. That is, you can lead the viewer to perceive the subject in a certain way and/or have certain feelings and make certain judgments about the subject, all by changing its presentation based on the effects of light.

Electronic Flash and Studio Lighting

A book could be written about this subject. This is just to get you started. Also, you can employ studio lighting techniques away from the studio, using an electronic flash attached to the camera. This will increase the number of ways in which to present your subject (perhaps highlighted and therefore more dramatic or with more subdued light and therefore more approachable).

When I started at the non-profit government education foundation at which I eventually became the art director/production manager, part of my day was spent on Capitol Hill taking photos of students in seminars with senators and congressmen. I had a bounce flash, which I attached to a bracket on the camera. I could tilt it up and bounce the light off the ceiling, which would soften the light that fell upon the people I was photographing. Or I could point the flash directly at the students and legislators. I could also vary the intensity of the light the flash produced, and I could adjust both the camera shutter speed and aperture (see above description of depth of field).

Overall, I could make the lighting more dramatic or more subdued, depending on the tone in which I wanted to cast the subject matter. I even attached a white index card to the bounce flash with a rubber band so I could bounce the flash (the card would deflect the light) if the ceiling were too high.

If I were to replicate these lighting options in a photo studio with large, floor-standing studio lights, I might make the following decisions:

  1. I might use one flash on the camera and then a fill flash or fill light in the room, separate from the camera. The light on the camera might illuminate the front of the model’s face, while a light on the side of the model might cast other shadows and highlight additional portions of the model’s face (like the cheekbones). It might also make the overall face look more dimensional and less flat than what one light would create.
  2. I might avoid positioning lights below the model, since this could make the model look ghoulish and scary.
  3. I might avoid shooting the flash near a window or mirror, so as to avoid a reflected glare.
  4. I might choose to photograph the model with light coming only from one side (at a 90 degree angle) to subtly accentuate the shadows of the face.
  5. I might illuminate the model only from behind to create a silhouette effect.
  6. I might use a “softbox,” a lamp covered with a diffusion screen, to scatter the light and soften the look of the model.

Studio lights would make this easier, since I could see the lighting effect before tripping the flash (less easy to see, since it’s there only for an instant). To the best of my knowledge, studio lights today can be turned on, illuminating the subject, and can then be flashed for an instant for the photograph, to increase their intensity for a good exposure.

The goal of all of this is to brighten the subject and increase the detail created by precisely positioned illumination, without creating harsh shadows. Depending on the equipment, you can either do this in a photographic studio or out in the field (with a flash), without needing to artificially doctor up the image in Photoshop. And in all cases, the goal is to use light creatively and precisely to add a mood or tone or in some other way make a statement about the subject of the photo. And this artistic statement can reinforce the tone or message of the print book, large format print banner, or anything else you’re designing.

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Business Card Printing: Designing a Corporate Identity Package

January 29th, 2023

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I know the words may sound overly business-like: “corporate identity package.” Another term for this is your “collection” of print business cards, letterhead, custom envelopes, and anything else related to your “brand.” This might even include a pocket folder or a coffee mug. All of the items need to look like they go together, but the design of the individual items can’t be so similar as to be predictable or boring.


Way back when, cowboys with herds of cows branded them to ensure their immediate recognition as “their cows.” A burned-in mark on the cows couldn’t be rubbed off, and a unique mark conveyed more than indisputable ownership. It reflected quality.

Today a brand does the same thing. It reflects quality. It also identifies the owner of the brand. Think about Starbucks. I don’t even drink coffee, and yet I recognize the specific green color, the twin-tailed mermaid (called Gorgona in modern Greek), and every instance of this mark on Starbucks store signage, Starbucks cups and mugs in the thrift store, gift cards my fiancee receives, and even on the Starbucks products and signage at the grocery store, where there’s a lot competing with this signage for my attention.

So how do you create a brand look that can be reflected in all of the printed material a company sends out?

Build (or Grow) Outward from the Logo

When I was an art director/production manager for a government-education non-profit foundation back in the 1990’s, we freshened up our logo. It was still an eagle, to represent the US government, but the style was very different from its predecessor: simpler, more stylized, and more contemporary.

The logo had been designed by an outside design firm, which specialized in corporate re-branding. When their logo design had been approved, it was up to us to implement it. We had to grow, organically (even more so than build out), a recognizable look. It had to be reflected in all print business cards and letterhead materials, but it also had to be reflected in all of the brochures, signs, and print books we produced during the year. Plus, all of these printed items had to retain their own individual look as well.

I was new to this aspect of publications design at this time, and we didn’t have as widespread access to imagery on the internet as we do now, so the in-house graphic designer and I worked together with printed samples that exemplified superior brand design, along with the designer’s own drawings and mock-ups, to implement the logo and create an overall branded look for the non-profit foundation. This was one of the most challenging jobs (at least to do well), and at the same time one of the most important jobs, I participated in during my time as an art director. And I started with the logo and the best in-house designer we had.

Elements of Brand Design

If I were approaching the same job today, the first thing I would do is Google “corporate identity packages.” I would encourage you to do the same, if you need to grow a logo into a complete identity package. When I do this now (using Google Images) and peruse the myriad photos that come up, I see the following general elements of design to consider for such a design task.

The Logo

As noted before, this is the central element of the brand package. This particular discussion presumes that you already have one. (Otherwise, approaching the design of a logo would probably constitute a book-length explanation in itself. This is probably why the bosses of the organization at which I was an art director farmed out this part of the job.)

The logo has to be recognizable and attractive at many different sizes, from very small to very large. Think about the twin-tailed mermaid of Starbucks fame. Throughout its history and its various iterations, it has been simple. Usually just green and white, or maybe green and black and white, with or without the name Starbucks Coffee, and with a logomark (the mermaid) crafted from only a few lines and no gradations. Because of this it is recognizable at a postage-stamp size or on the side of a building as a banner.

A more complex design might be more nuanced, but the few details of the actual logo (flowing mermaid hair, crown, twin tails) make the image more immediately recognizable and understandable. And as with anything else in marketing (particularly in a grocery store where thousands of visual impressions are competing for your attention), immediate recognition is essential. If you can’t get my attention in an instant, you’ve already lost me. Don’t waste my time.

The Typefaces

For a moment I’d like to shift back to the internet, Googling corporate identity again. It’s a lot more general than the Starbucks example, but when you see photo after photo of “laydowns” (like clothes laid down in a clothing catalog photo) of multiple corporate branding elements all together, the design concepts start to sink in. Many of these are probably fictitious. I don’t recognize any of them. It doesn’t matter. I see patterns.

This is what you can learn. In some way or another the logo is on everything. It is prominent, but it is often larger or smaller from item to item, although the treatment of colors is consistent. If the exact same logo colors are not used, it seems (from all the online samples of corporate identities) that solid black versions or logos reversed to white out of a solid color are optional presentations. When business cards, letterhead, custom envelopes, pocket folders, shopping bags, notepads, coffee mugs, caps, etc., are laid down together in these Google Images photos, the same logo, in different sizes, presented in either identity colors or black or white, all look like part of the same family. That, of course, is the goal.

Working organically, a logo is composed of a mark (drawing) of some kind, the name of the company, and sometimes a tag line. These words are rendered in a typeface relevant to the tone, feelings, values, and images one might associate with the company. This specific typeface (or these typefaces) should be repeated elsewhere, brought into the design of the paper coffee cup, calendar, custom label, or anything else the company prints. For instance, there might be additional copy on the pocket folder and surely on a brochure. This typeface, or these typefaces, if they are consistent with the typeface(s) in the logo, will create a cohesive look. Unity: a principle of design. Variety is another principle of design. You can create interest by varying the size and placement of the words set in this typeface.

Color Usage

Many of the samples I see in Google Images incorporate only one, two, or three corporate colors into the overall design. Some of these “paint the press sheet.” That is, they are used in heavy coverage, and they bleed off the edges of the printed item. This provides an “ample” look, a feeling of abundance.

In many cases, from corporate item to corporate item, the colors are used in different (but complementary) ways. For instance, the color of a brown logo printed on one item (in a small-sized space) may be repeated on another item as the background color bleeding off all edges (i.e., what was the accent color on the first item is now used more abundantly on this other item). This creates a “rhythm,” which is another element of art (both the fine arts and graphic design) along with unity and variety.

The Takeaway

The best way to start thinking along these lines (where unity, variety, rhythm, color usage, typography, and such become second nature) is to view collection after collection of corporate identity materials online (which is easier than collecting them all in physical form).

Then, once you have an intuitive grasp of the concepts, once you kind of know on a pre-verbal level what you want to do next, start making thumbnail sketches. Make them simple. That’s why it’s not good to skip this step and move directly to designing on the computer. You’re not committing more than a few seconds to each drawing. The idea is to sketch out as many ideas as you can, free form. Then you can go back, edit them, choose a few you like, and start making more developed mock-ups using your computer. I always try for at least three different approaches (not just alternate iterations of the same concept).

Then you can start applying the logo and surrounding bits of text to the business card, letterhead, custom envelopes, etc. Lay everything out on a table. In fact it doesn’t hurt to print laser proofs and then cut them to size, and tape the laser proofs to a pocket folder or mug (or whatever other physical item you’re working with). See how everything looks together as a family of promotional items.

Then be ruthless in your editing. Decide what works well individually and what works well together. Make changes. Print out new laser proofs and cut and paste them to make your revised collection. If you have a color printer (inkjet is fine), all the better.

Then show people you trust and respect. Consider their suggestions. Make changes. Rinse and repeat. It’s a lengthy process (perhaps even a journey), but each revision will get better and better, and the group of items will look more and more cohesive.

Posted in Design | Comments Off on Business Card Printing: Designing a Corporate Identity Package

Commercial Printing: Thoughts on Quality in Inkjet and Offset Printing

January 22nd, 2023

Posted in Digital Printing | 2 Comments »

Photo purchased from …

I would like to begin by saying that there is no right answer to the question I’m about to pose. Rather there is, perhaps, just an approach to answering it in your own print buying and design work. The question is, “How do you determine quality when choosing offset commercial printing vs. production inkjet?”

First a definition. What is production inkjet? It is the blending of inkjet technology with the traditional durability of offset printing presses along with increased custom printing speed. It is a good choice for short- and medium-run print books and magazines and particularly for variable-data work. Production inkjet is not your traditional large-format inkjet press made for wall banners, car- and bus-wraps, and such. It is a hard-core, real commercial printing press in a durable frame.

A Little Background on My Client

In this context I recently bid out a 256-page, 1,000-copy or 1,500-copy, perfect-bound print book for a husband-and-wife-owned publishing house client of mine. In an environment in which perfect-bound books with French flaps, hinge scores, and other elements of superb print production are expensive when compared to the cost of digital electronic books, my clients choose to give their readers the tactile experience of reading. The feel and smell of the paper. The joy of reading a print book.

Pricing for this print book came back to me from three vendors, and one, which was the low bid, had a notation on the bid about J Press printing of the cover. The J Press, which I researched in detail, assuming initially that it was a digital inkjet (production inkjet) press, is made by Fujifilm. Its main selling points, in addition to its variable custom printing capabilities, are its color gamut (even with only four process inks), its flexibility in acceptable printing paper choices, and the minimal set up time (especially when compared to offset commercial printing). Within certain run lengths, all of this translates into high quality and lower costs.

Needless to say, since my clients, with whom I have worked for more than a decade and therefore whose goals for visual and tactile quality I understand and appreciate, had to be comfortable with the technology. The lower price point would not be a good enough reason to choose this vendor.

Moving Toward a Decision

The first thing I did was ask the book printer to send a comparable printed sample to my clients. I knew that nothing would help them make a decision regarding offset printing vs. digital inkjet printing as well as a physical sample. The reader’s eyes and fingers don’t lie.

I also asked the printer to send a sample because I had seen numerous inkjet printed products, and while their color gamut was extraordinary, with vibrant hues and subtle transitions between colors, I had seen in some inkjet samples a lack of crispness in detail. This concerned me. They were not as sharp (the contrast between adjacent edges of color or value) as the offset printed products I had been used to. Without knowing more, I had wondered if this was due to the differences in ink composition and printing paper. After all, inkjet ink is thinner than offset ink. Inkjet ink in this case is also water based unlike oil-based offset inks. (Granted, this had nothing to do with the color range or color fidelity, which I had come to believe usually was equal to that of offset printing.)

I had assumed that the thinner ink would have been more likely to seep into the paper fibers (in contrast to the thicker, oil-based offset ink, which sits up on the surface of the paper). This is called ink “holdout.” It makes for a crisper image and more detail, as well as more vibrant colors.

But when I researched the Fujifilm J Press, I learned that it would also accept more paper substrates than other inkjet printers (including coated paper), that even with only a 4-color inkset it had a remarkable color gamut, and that it incorporated improved ink coagulation technology and heat-based ink drying technology (presumably to allow even an aqueous-based, thinner-than-offset ink to dry or cure on the surface of the paper without bleeding into the paper fibers).

So I decided to keep an open mind and see what my client thought of the printer’s J Press-printed sample (which turned out to be a glamor-based magazine, a perfect-bound book just like my client’s art books of poetry and fiction). The reason the subject matter is relevant is that glamor, food, and automotive are the three best subjects with which to judge both photography and commercial printing. These are subjects that require consummate precision in everything from the photographic lighting to the custom printing technology, and these particular clients (and their marketing agencies) usually spare no expense to ensure quality.

Now we will see what my clients think.

Keeping All Options Open

I have no vested interest in selecting this printer over one of the other two, other than the fact that I have worked with them for many years and trust their quality and integrity (actually good reasons, beyond price, to choose this vendor).

This vendor also has offset printing capabilities. Plus one of the other two printers is very costly, and the other is less expensive but not as willing to absolutely commit to a schedule (in these times of paper shortages, when printers are often taking much longer than in the past to produce custom printing jobs).

So these are the next steps, as I envision them.

My clients have seen the initial sample glamor catalog. They like the brilliance of the color, but they are a little concerned about the images, which seem to be of a slightly softer focus than they would like. They are not sure that this is not intentional, since soft focus is sometimes intentionally used in glamor photography.

Because of this concern, I have asked the printer to provide pricing for a single proof of my client’s actual print book cover on the Fujifilm J Press. If my client likes the sample, we have our printer.

Plan B would be to ask this printer for prices for offset printing the book. This will be more expensive, according to the sales representative. That said, my next questions are more nuanced:

  1. Since the press run will be 1,000 or 1,500 copies of a 256-page book, I believe we may be at the crossover point at which an inkjet-printed book becomes more expensive than the same book printed via offset lithography (after all, at 1,000 x 256 pages or 1,500 x 256 pages this is a sizable run, and inkjet printing is economically beneficial primarily for shorter-run printed products). Plus, we’re comparing one vendor’s inkjet-printed product to two other vendors’ offset-printed products. We actually don’t know yet that the vendor with the J Press won’t still provide lower offset-printing prices than the other two printers when we shift the pricing model from digital to offset.
  2. Or, we even may have the option of doing a hybrid job: an offset-printed cover (a short run of 1,000 or 1,500 covers) bound to a digitally-printed book text block. This might cost less than a fully-offset-printed book while still retaining the consummate quality of offset printing for the four-color cover. After all, the interior of the book is, presumably, just black text on a page with no screens or photos. This would be ideal for inkjet printing.

The Takeaway

You may say that this is putting the cart before the horse, adjusting everything to work with a specific commercial printing supplier. But from my vantage point it takes into account that not all printers are as committed to quality and schedule as this one has shown itself to be in past jobs.

Fortunately I also have the luxury of time. I can make sure that my clients see samples until they are either satisfied or ready to move on to an alternate printer. Also, regarding schedules, this particular printer will produce the book in less time than the vendor with the mid-level price but more slowly than the most expensive printer. A longer schedule may compromise my client’s ability to prepare the manuscript and have the book designed and final art files prepared in time. This is because my client’s book distributor has provided an inflexible, hard deadline.

So there are a number of considerations beyond money, including the technology to be used, the schedule, and the quality of the printed product. In your own design and print buying work, I would encourage you to give thorough consideration to all of these factors.

Posted in Digital Printing | 2 Comments »

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