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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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Archive for April, 2013

Large Format Printing: A Confluence of Developing Technologies

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

I’ve been reading a number of articles and promotional pieces on large format printing presses. The technology is improving in leaps and bounds, providing options for large format signage, point of purchase displays, fleet and vehicle graphics, window graphics, backlit displays, and packaging.

Here are some of the new, game-changing developments.

UV Inks Provide Speed and Flexibility

A number of large format inkjet printers, such as the NURStar 305D, use UV inks, which cure upon exposure to UV light rather than drying through oxidation or being absorbed into the substrate.

What This Means to You

You can produce large format prints and use them almost immediately, since the inks polymerize rather than drying. In addition, you can print on a much larger variety of substrates (including glass, wood, and metal, for instance) since UV inks will sit up on the surface of these materials. Due to this superior “ink hold-out,” non-porous substrates need not be a problem.

Flatbed Printing Eliminates the Need to Mount Signs

Flatbed printers such as the Inca Onset include a printing bed that will support rigid media, like Coroplast, Sintra, wood, metal, and glass. Many of these flatbed presses will also print roll-to-roll jobs (for later finishing) or roll-to-cut-sheet jobs, if you choose to print on a flexible substrate.

What This Means to You

You don’t have to print your signage on vinyl and then affix it to a backing material with an adhesive. You can produce signage in one step, lowering the overall production cost while increasing speed.

Automation Makes Large Format Printing Faster

Large format printing press manufacturers are including a number of enhancements to speed up the process. For instance, unlike the print heads in a desktop inkjet printer, a large format printer such as the Inca Onset includes an ink head matrix that spans the entire length of the print area. This improves speed and accuracy compared to print heads that shuttle back and forth across the media. According to Inca’s marketing literature, this means the Inca Onset can print 62 full print-beds worth of substrate per hour.

In many cases these large format printing presses can be run in unattended mode, with automated notification of low ink conditions and email alerts that the job has been completed.

In addition, automated cleaning procedures and substrate thickness sensors, as well as improved vacuum table capabilities (the print bed includes vacuums to hold the substrate to the table) all increase throughput.

What This Means to You

Increased automation translates into faster job production at more reasonable prices.

Improved Ink Sets Provide Increased Color Fidelity

Eco-solvent inks produce rich, intense colors on numerous substrates with less impact than traditional solvent-based inks. Combined with more accurate RIP software, such inkjet presses as Roland’s SOLJET XF-640, for instance, can more accurately convert Pantone spot colors to CMYK equivalents. This is particularly true for inkjet presses using extended color sets, which include supplemental inks to widen the color gamut.

In addition to the traditional CMYK ink set, many large format inkjet presses also include white ink capabilities.

What This Means to You

Your colors will be brilliant and true, and there will be little or no banding in gradients. If you are printing on a flexible or rigid substrate and you need a white base (for backlit graphics, double-sided static clings, or custom printing on colored substrates), the white ink capabilities of many of these inkjet presses will be invaluable for laying down an opaque base.

Digital Cutters Complete the Process

A digital contour cutter can be a useful adjunct to a large format printing press. This equipment will use digital information, such as an Illustrator file or a vector Photoshop path, to cut either thin roll-fed inkjet media or even rigid media such as cardboard, chipboard, foam board, plastic, or aluminum.

What This Means to You

Digital cutting eliminates the need for metal dies or hand-cutting, so your final product can be produced faster and more economically as well as with greater precision.

Custom Printing: A Sample of the Art of Letterpress

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

I picked up a booklet of poetry and illustrations in a thrift store yesterday for fifty cents. It was really more of a pamphlet, like a program for the theater, 6” x 9”. It caught my eye for several reasons.

What I Saw When I Paged Through the Booklet

  1. It had French flaps (cover flaps that folded back toward the inside of the book).
  2. It was bound with thin black string just slightly thicker than thread (it reminded me of a Smyth sewn book).
  3. The pages had rough, deckled edges (with each one slightly different). This was clearly hand-made paper, not like the faux-deckled-edge of a “rough-front” print book trimming performed on bindery equipment.
  4. The thick paper had a rough and uneven texture as well as a pleasing cream tone.
  5. When I ran my fingers across the printed type, I could feel indentations in the paper. Looking at the paper in bright light, I could see that every letterform had been ground slightly into the paper fibers, an indication that the booklet had been printed via letterpress rather than offset lithography.
  6. Upon closer examination, I could see ligatures within the text (pairs of letterforms that had been tied together with small extra strokes, such as the “ct” in “select” or the “st” in “illustration.” Back in 1987, when my office bought a Macintosh II and Adobe PageMaker, a lot of the artistry of prior years’ typesetting disappeared. Before learning PageMaker, I had set type on a dedicated Mergenthaler computer-typesetting machine, which included the finer details of typesetting. (Fortunately, some of these have since returned in select digital typefaces.)
  7. The print booklet was hand-signed by both the author and the artist responsible for the woodcut images within the text.
  8. Artwork within the text consisted of three types of images: multiple rust-brown gesture drawings that looked like they had been sketched with a brown pencil, line drawings depicting a clamshell platen printing press, and small ornaments (like flowers) used to separate sections of type.

How The Custom Printing Artisan Produced This Booklet

I went to the website of the printer noted on the back of the booklet, and I researched their capabilities. I also read the “colophon” of the poetry book (a statement at the end of the text noting the specifications of the type and paper as well as the length of the press run—250 copies).

The printer had produced the booklet on a clamshell platen press. I watched a YouTube video that showed such a press in action. The press operator first smeared printing ink on a round plate at the top of the press. Hot metal type (raised lettering rather than the flat typesetting plate of an offset press) was locked up in a “chase” and supported vertically within the press. Opposite the hot metal type, a flat surface held a sheet of hand-made custom printing paper.

When the clamshell press operated, the type section and the paper section of the press opened away from one another on a hinge. Ink rollers rolled up and across the round plate at the top of the press to collect ink and then rolled the ink down and across the custom printing plate containing raised type, line art, and illustrations. Then the press operator inserted a sheet of printing paper in the press, and the “clamshell” closed again. The intense pressure of the inked type block pressed against the paper (and its metal support backing) created the printing impression. Then the press opened, and the operator removed the printed sheet and replaced it with a new, blank sheet. Then the rollers inked the type for the next impression, and the process repeated itself.

What Makes This Interesting

Reviewing the YouTube video as I paged through the letterpress-printed booklet gave me an appreciation for the artistry involved. The signed print booklet was more than a communication vehicle. It was a piece of art. The tactile quality of the paper, the indentations in the paper left by the hot metal type and illustration blocks, and the design flourishes of the letterforms made the poetry print book reminiscent of a bound series of lithographs, or a book of woodcuts, linoleum cuts, or engravings in a museum.

Over the years, I’ve done research and have spoken with some small commercial printing vendors that have purchased and refurbished these old presses. These vendors provide letterpress custom printing as a service for such jobs as invitations, letterhead, and small booklets. There’s still a market for this kind of custom printing, even within a culture that has become increasingly digital. Or perhaps this tactile printing is a needed respite from that digital, virtual world.

Envelope Printing: Window Options for Envelopes

Monday, April 22nd, 2013

I’ve been receiving a lot of direct mail custom envelopes with large windows recently, and I’m intrigued. The windows run almost from one side of the envelope to the other. Compared to the small address windows I’m used to, these look like plate-glass windows.

From a marketing perspective, I think that’s the purpose of the custom envelopes: to provide an expansive view of the contents of the direct mail package, to entice the recipient to open and read the mail.

To familiarize myself with the options (for both large and standard window envelopes), I did some research. I started with Google Images and then perused some envelope printing vendors’ websites. This is what I learned.

The Purpose of the Window

One main purpose of a window envelope is to avoid needing to print the address twice (once on the bill or statement, for instance, and once on the envelope). If only the recipient’s address changes, you might need only one window. If, on the other hand, different divisions of your business send out statements or other formal business correspondence, you may want two windows (one for the recipient’s address and one for the return address).

In either case, the benefit is that the addresses on the letter (or other insert within the envelope) show through the window. This makes the (essentially) blank envelope cheaper to buy and easier to use. And the envelope never becomes obsolete, regardless of where your business moves.

Another advantage is that for mass mailings, there’s no chance of mismatching the name/address inkjetted onto the envelope and the name/address included on the direct mail pieces within the envelope.

Window Standardization

Within certain limits, windows on envelopes have been standardized. Nevertheless, there are a number of categories, involving single and double windows on a variety of envelope sizes, with a variety of window placements. Windows are measured (from top to bottom and side to side), and the placement of the windows is noted (the distance from the window to the bottom of the envelope, and the distance from the left edge of the window to the edge of the envelope). You can find this information for the various sized envelope options on the websites of envelope printing suppliers.

Standardization lowers the overall price of these envelopes. After all, since diecutting the windows adds money to the cost of the envelopes, using standard (rather than custom-made) dies for the diecutting limits this extra cost.

Another benefit of standardized window placement is that the addresses can fall precisely where the US Postal Service’s automated address reading (OCR) equipment can easily capture the information.

Window Placement Options

If you check out Google Images, you’ll see more varieties of window envelopes than you can imagine. On regular business envelopes (such as the #10 envelope), the window placement seems to fall into the following categories: bottom right of the envelope (for the main address), bottom left of the envelope (for the main address), and upper left quadrant (for the main address). Corresponding return address windows fit where they can, usually above and to the left of the main window. Obviously, no windows come close to the postage (stamp, meter, or indicia) at the top right.

Booklet and catalog envelopes (larger envelopes that open on either the longer or shorter envelope dimension: i.e., their sides or on their ends) can include windows that are parallel to either the longer dimension or the shorter dimension of the custom envelopes. The position of the address windows will make the orientation of these larger direct mail packages appear to be either upright (vertical or portrait orientation) or horizontal (landscape orientation). (You might use one of these styles to either send a catalog or booklet to a client, or to send an important document without folding it down to fit in a #10 envelope.)

Window Patches

Envelope windows can be holes diecut into the custom envelopes without a covering, or they can be covered by plastic. When I first saw these envelopes in the 1960s and 1970s, the windows were covered with glassine, poly (plastic), or cellophane. Now they are almost all plastic. If you look on the inside of a window envelope with a patch, you will see that the covering material is slightly larger than the diecut window, and you will see that the edges extending beyond the opening have been glued onto the interior of the envelope.

Full-View Window Envelopes

To get back to the custom envelopes that initially caught my interest, the larger window envelopes (called full-view envelopes) showcase their contents. For example, a circular cut window covered in plastic can both display and protect a vividly screen-printed, or inkjet-printed, music CD. Or a large rectangular window can frame an irresistible photo of a Carribean beach scene sent out to prospects by a cruise ship line seeking business.

In short, you have a lot of options. Do some research online and through dedicated envelope printing suppliers, and find the perfect custom envelope for your direct mail package. It’s the first element of a promotional piece that your prospects will touch.

Custom Printing: Polybagging Case-Study Redux

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

In an earlier blog posting, I noted that a client of mine who had produced a directory of non-profit educational organizations was having problems with the polybagging material in which the print books sent to subscribers had been wrapped.

Analysis (The Back Story)

My client had included his name and the names of a few other office staff members in the initial run mailed to clients. (This is known in marketing parlance as “seeding.”) The print book was mailed with a cover letter in a polybag. The copies my client and his office mates received suffered nicks and tears in the polybagging material but fortunately no damage to the books themselves.

As I mentioned before, I asked my client to send me photographs of the damage, which I passed on to the book printer. His mailshop acquired thicker polywrap material and sent new copies of the print books to my client and to me. The polywrap was thicker, but both copies arrived with slits in the polybags, from top to bottom, on the face margin of the directory. The books themselves received no damage.

The Process, and How You Can Adapt It to Your Print Buying

  1. I started the process of remediation immediately. I made it clear to the custom printing supplier exactly what had gone wrong. However, I did not lay blame. I merely asked his help in remedying the situation.
  2. The remediation process is happening now, not in the middle of next year’s print book production schedule. Therefore, we have the leisure of time to explore alternatives and their possible ramifications and extra costs.
  3. I documented the process with photos as well as in writing. Nothing communicates this sort of thing as well as a photo. I took photos at a number of different angles showing different kinds of damage, and I used a high-resolution digital camera. I lit the damaged polywrap with high intensity lighting to make the damage stand out clearly.
  4. The book printer had his mailshop send out books in the new polywrap material. It would have been way too easy to just send a swatch of the new polywrap material to my client and me. Everyone would have felt the difference in the plastic with their fingers and probably concluded that it would work. Next year the problem would have occurred again. By actually sending books in the plastic, we could test the product in actual use (a particular weight of book in a particular thickness of polywrap traveling through the US mail under normal conditions).
  5. The printer and I discussed the potential causes of the problem. Perhaps the weight of the book had made the wrap tear in transit (not necessarily the cause, since I have received thicker books sent in polywrap material). Perhaps the US Postal Service had handled the books roughly (not necessarily the cause, since both my client’s and my copies arrived with damaged polywrap).
  6. The printer and I discussed possible alternatives to polybagging. One would be to insert the printed directory and mailing letter in a padded jiffy bag. The additional cost for the padded bag would be just under $.50 each. In addition, a label would need to be printed and affixed to the bag. If we chose not to use a padded jiffy bag, we could insert the book in a Tyvek envelope. Spun olefin is nearly un-tearable. But, again, there would be the additional cost of the envelopes and the labels.
  7. The commercial printing vendor will now confer with the owner of the mailshop. They will come up with suggestions for the best and cheapest plan for next year’s mailing. For now my client and I are putting this on hold.

The Overall Approach to the Problem

The key to all of this is to proceed meticulously, and to document everything in writing and with photos. In your own print buying work, I would encourage you to approach the printer as a partner and approach the problem like a challenge. Blame does nothing to help. An objective attitude of working together to find resolution brings about the best result and actually strengthens your relationship with your printer. And if you have the luxury of time, this helps too.

Book Printing: Web Presses Offer Economical Option

Monday, April 15th, 2013

In most cases, you have two options for printing multi-signature publications and books. The first is sheetfed offset custom printing. In this case, sheets of printing paper are fed one at a time into a small to mid-sized press. In most cases, you print one side of the sheet (sending it through four or more ink units) and then air dry the sheets. Once the ink has dried, you re-feed the press sheets into the press to print the opposite side of the paper. (In some cases, on “perfecting” presses, you can print both sides of the sheet in one pass, but this is not always an option.)

Your other choice is the web press (cold-set and heatset). If you’re custom printing a high-quality job on coated paper, you would use a heatset web (without the “heatset” component of the press, the amount of ink on a page would slow ink drying and promote ink smudging). On a heatset web press, paper from a large roll travels quickly through a huge, multi-unit press, printing both sides of the web at once (“perfecting,” just like the perfecting sheetfed press).

The press throughput is much faster on a web press than on a sheetfed press (perhaps 20,000 cut sheets per hour rather than the approximately 12,000 or more flat sheets per hour you might get with a sheetfed press). On a heatset web press, as the paper travels through the equipment, the inked printing plates deposit ink first onto the press blankets and from there onto the printing paper. After leaving the printing units, the paper web then travels through high-heat dryers, which flash the solvent out of the ink (i.e., drying the ink by the evaporation process rather than by absorption), leaving the ink sitting on top of the coated sheet. Chill rollers then cool the ink and paper, curing and setting the ink.

At this point, the printing paper enters the finishing end of the press, where it can be folded into complete signatures. This in-line folding capability eliminates the need for folding in the bindery unit of the commercial printing plant. Press signatures can then be gathered, bound, and trimmed.

If, on the other hand, your job is printed with black ink and no photos or tint screens on uncoated book paper, it may go through a cold-set web press instead of a heatset press. This is a much simpler process. Essentially, the job is the same up to the point of drying the web of paper. Paper travels through the four (or more) ink units, but since the paper absorbs the ink (i.e., drying the ink by absorption rather than by the evaporation process), the dryer assembly and chill rollers are unnecessary. The web of paper, having been printed, can enter the folder directly.

A third option, which is closer to heatset web offset, is UV web printing, whereby special inks are not dried with heat but cured with UV light, allowing the ink to sit up on the press sheet (called hold-out) in much the same way as ink printed on a heatset web press.

Why You Need to Know This

  1. Custom printing longer jobs (i.e., longer press runs and/or multi-signature jobs like print books and magazines) will usually be cheaper on a web press than on a sheetfed press. It is wise, therefore, to get estimates from both sheetfed commercial printers and web printers and compare them. I have seen a 15 percent savings (or more) in choosing the right technology. For a long job I once designed and printed, this amounted to a $10,000 savings.
  2. Not needing to fold the job offline (but instead folding it right on press) also saves you money.

More Things You Need to Know

  1. On a press check, a sheetfed printer stops the press to have you check the color and registration on a press sheet. When the pressman has made your requested changes, the press starts up again. In contrast, a web press never stops. You just see periodic sheets cut off at the delivery end of the press. Since the press is traveling at a much faster speed than a sheetfed press, it is imperative that you make changes quickly and then move on. This is not just about wasting paper; it is more about using up the amount of paper allotted for the job. Price estimates are drafted and paper ordered assuming a quick make-ready and minimal changes. If you make too many changes, you could conceivably use up your paper allotment before the end of your press run.

    Therefore, in most cases, it would be wise to leave the press check to the printer. This is particularly true for a publication. Publication printers (magazine and newspaper printers) schedule all jobs tightly to have the presses running at all times. If you miss your place in line, your job could get bumped by several weeks.

    In contrast, if you go to a commercial web printer, your schedule will be less tight. You will also have more access to a variety of printing papers and book, magazine, or catalog sizes, and there will be more flexibility with press checks. That said, web presses eat up paper quickly, so it behooves you to make all press check decisions quickly and decisively to contain costs.

  2. Another thing to remember when custom printing a job on a web press is that the press has a fixed printing size. Rolls for a full-web press that might be 36” wide may have a cut-off (one complete trip around a press cylinder) of 22 3/4”. So your cut press sheet would effectively be 36” x 22 3/4”. An 8.5” x 11” book page within a 16-page signature (8 pages on either side of the sheet) will not fit in this space with room for press bars and bleeds. Therefore, the page size needs to be reduced to 8 3/8” x 10 7/8”. In fact, if you have a book with these dimensions, you can assume it has been printed on a full-web press.
  3. A final rule of thumb is to keep an open mind when considering heatset web offset printing. The conventional wisdom had been that web offset does not provide as high quality a product as sheetfed offset. But this has been changing, particularly with closed loop color management and automated registration control on press. Color level information can travel electronically from the prepress department to the presses and be consistently and automatically maintained using equipment currently in place at heatset web printers.

If your job requires enough press impressions, keep web offset custom printing in mind as a viable alternative. Your printer can help you determine the cutoff point where sheetfed becomes pricey and web printing becomes an attractive option.

Custom Packaging Printing: Blister Packs and Clamshell Packaging

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

I learned a new phrase yesterday: “clamshell packaging.” So I did some research, and I checked out the online photos. I saw a vast expanse of commercial printing opportunities within the arena of packaging, including medical supplies like gauze pads in blister packs with printed peel-off lids, and pharmaceutical samples in fold-over blister packs that allow you to push a pill out of the packaging through the printed foil cover. I saw hardware supplies (screws, for instance) in plastic clamshell packages with fold-over lids. I even saw hamburgers in printed cardboard or cellulose clamshell packages.

And everything had some sort of custom printing on it.

Some Key Words, Phrases, and Concepts You Should Know

Blister Pack

A “blister pack,” also known as a “push-through pack,” has a perforated foil base attached to a matrix of plastic domes (thermoformed or injection molded polystyrene, polyester, or PVC). These usually encase pills or capsules and protect them from moisture and tampering. This is what you get when your doctor gives you prescription samples. On the bottom of the aluminum foil you will usually see custom printing related to the enclosed pharmaceutical. Of course, the carton also needs to be printed.

Blister packs come in a variety of options. Among these are the “fold-over blister,” which has a number of panels and folds up like a little wallet to protect the pills in the plastic bubbles. “Face-seal blister packs” include the cards you find at the grocery store containing razors, cosmetics, or small toys under plastic bubbles that have been heat welded to the cardboard cards. Again, the cards need to be printed. “Trapped blister packaging” refers to plastic bubbles that extend out beyond both the front and back of the cardboard card. The enclosed “product” seems to float.

Clamshell Containers

These can be one-piece plastic containers (thermoformed or injection molded polystyrene, polyester, or PVC), or they can be containers made of paper board. Either way, each is a single piece of material containing a base well, a hinge, and a cover.

Clamshell containers are not only used for food (styrofoam containers at hot-food bars in grocery stores, and cardboard clamshell boxes for McDonalds’ Chicken Classic sandwiches). More and more often, they are being used for small electronic devices. The inaccessibility of the packaging deters theft. In fact, the design works so well that 6,000 Americans visit the emergency room each year with self-inflicted injuries received while trying to open clamshell packaging. They have even coined a term for the ensuing anger: “wrap rage.”

Thermoforming vs. Injection Molding

The plastic part of the blister packs and clamshell packs has to be made into a bubble to cover the enclosed products. Either the transparent plastic can be heated until it is pliable and then formed into a specific shape over a mold, or molten plastic can be injected into a mold cavity, where it will cool and harden into the final shape.

Custom Printing Blister Packs and Clamshell Packs

Look closely at the blister packs and clamshell containers in the stores you frequent. You may have missed them before. After all, you’ve probably been focusing on the product rather than the packaging. You’ll notice the printed cards in the blister packs and the printed foils covering the pharmaceuticals.

According to the commercial printing vendors I have researched, these printed packages are produced via gravure printing or flexography in 4-color process inks and/or spot colors, often with a varnish.

On some of the clamshell packs you might even see crack-n-peel labels that have been printed via offset, gravure, or flexography. These can be wrapped around the clamshell packs to identify the product while holding the packaging together.

If you look closely, you might also see printing on the foils included in the blister packs of drug samples. This foil is printed in web reels, and then slit down into the final size and labeled with batch numbers.

Issues Regarding Custom Printing Inks and Food

According to the Food and Drug Administration, any inks or coatings that may come into contact with food must be separated by a “functional barrier” that keeps the printed surface away from the food product. One option would be an overprint varnish made from FDA-compliant materials and applied (with FDA-approved operations) as a uniform coating with no pinholes.

Why You Should Care

As long as blister packs and clamshell packaging encase everything from microcassette recorders to food to drugs, no print designer need fear obsolescence.

Brochure Printing: Scrutinize Specs for Recurring Jobs

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

“The specs will be the same as last year’s job.”

As a printing broker, I love recurring publications, anything from book printing to brochure printing jobs. However, I don’t like to make assumptions. So when I read these words recently in an email from a client, I carefully reviewed the specs from last year’s job.

What to Look For (Don’t Forget to Review Any New Post Office Requirements)


My client’s job is a 3-panel (6-page) brochure. Last year’s version was a Z-fold piece (like an accordion, with the panels folding back and forth in a “zigzag” manner). Since then, my client has sent a similar brochure to a commercial printing supplier I represent, but it had a barrel fold (also known as a wrap fold), with all panels folding in the same direction, end over end, without zigzagging. This is an important distinction–and a departure from last year’s job specifications–so I corrected the specification sheet.

Press Run

Last year the brochure printing run was 1,000 copies with two separate mailing lists of 500 each. This year the lists are shorter: 300 addresses each. I learned this from the email, so I again updated last year’s specification sheet.

Finished Size

The specifications note a finished size of 10.2” x 4.5”. This will stay the same as last year’s job. That said, I recently received a list of US Postal Services design requirements for self-mailers. Effective January 5, 2013, there were some changes in USPS requirements. The new maximum size for a self-mailer is 6” x 10.5”. Fortunately, my client’s job will meet this requirement. Nevertheless, it’s still important to stay abreast of USPS mail design requirements. A mistake in size could either trigger a postal surcharge or get the job rejected outright. (The lesson: Don’t assume that last year’s specification sheet meets this year’s postal regulations.)

Paper Weight

Like last year’s brochure, this year’s version will be a 4-color job printed on 80# white gloss cover stock. According to the update from the Post Office, self-mailers weighing up to 1 ounce must be printed on at least 70# text weight paper, and self-mailers weighing more than 1 ounce must be printed on at least 80# text weight paper. My client’s paper stock exceeds these regulations significantly, but again, it’s important to know that 20# and 24# bond (i.e., laser printing/photocopy paper) will not meet the USPS specifications.

Other Specifications

The Post Office has made changes in its requirements for self-mailers pertaining to tabbing, glue dots, finished size, paper weight, address-panel placement, placement of remittance envelopes, and placement of folds. Getting these specifications right will save money and prevent aggravation.

What You Can Learn from This

  1. If your client says the custom printing job will be the same as last year, make that a starting point for a completely new specification sheet. Then determine what actually will change and update the specification sheet accordingly.
  2. Stay current with postal regulations (size, formatting, tabbing, etc.). You can get this information online or from the bulk mailing specialist at the Post Office. If you have any doubt whatsoever as to the accuracy of your design, go to the Post Office and show a physical mock-up of the job to a bulk mail specialist.
  3. Keep in mind that the specification sheet is a contract with your commercial printing supplier (and probably the best reminder of what actually will change from year to year in a recurring print job).
  4. Consider all aspects of the project, from prepress (the format in which the job goes to press), to custom printing, to finishing (folding, binding), to mailshop, fulfillment, and distribution. Make and update checklists as needed to help yourself review all aspects of the job.
  5. Once you have updated last year’s specification sheet, check everything again. It’s easy to miss something. Then save a copy of the completed form for reference next year (by which time you may have forgotten the detailed changes from this year’s version).
  6. Make sure the printer and your client (or boss) agree with all information in the specification sheet. The document may remind them of things they have forgotten to address as well.
  7. Finally, maintaining a specification sheet of recurring publications will help you see whether prices from commercial printing vendors are competitive and accurate from year to year. If something looks odd (such as a dramatic price increase year over year), ask your custom printing supplier to explain why.

Postcard Printing: Analysis of a Sample Postcard

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

I just received a postcard today from a local printer. I happen to know that this commercial printing vendor specializes in multichannel marketing: i.e., helping clients increase their ROI (return on investment) by coordinating multiple channels of information, from offset and digital printing to email blasts and PURLs. They provide solutions. They don’t just put ink on paper.

I have a lot of respect for this custom printing supplier. I’ve worked with the firm for almost two decades. But I was both curious about, and frustrated by, their marketing postcard. When I thought about it, I made a list. Here are the pros and cons.

What I Liked About the Postcard

I liked the large format: 6” x 9”. Just the right size to stand apart from all the other letters, brochures, and magazines in my mail box. It had been printed on an uncoated stock, which felt good to my fingers, one point thicker than the USPS-required 9 pt. So it didn’t feel flimsy.

I liked the brown and turquoise color scheme, and the fact that the postcard had been personalized. The card included a link to a personal website: a PURL. I thought the postcard did a good job of blending digital custom printing (laser printing, or xerography) with the Internet and social media.

Most of all, I liked the content. The postcard referenced a seminar that piqued my interest, and the fact that I knew the printer’s work made me read every word. In marketing parlance, the “brand” was “relevant” to me.

What I Disliked About the Postcard

That said, it was only because of the brand that I took the time to struggle through reading the message panel, a 6” x 6” turquoise square covered with minuscule reverse type. Granted, my eyes are not what they used to be. I’m 55. I had to struggle, and here’s why:

  1. Under a loupe the turquoise appeared to be a screen of cyan. Because of the halftone dots, the edges of all letterforms reversed out of the screen were jagged. Jagged edges composed of laser printer dots make for a slightly fuzzy appearance. On the plus side, at least the screen was not a build of two or more colors, which would have made the edges of the letterforms even less crisp.
  2. The type appeared to be set in 7 pt. Helvetica Light (really—I used my type guide to check). This is small even when printed in black ink on white paper. The thinness of the letterforms contributed to the lack of legibility. The thin letterforms also filled in occasionally due to dot gain on the uncoated paper stock. (Although there’s only minimal dot gain in digital laser printing–compared to offset printing–even a little can make thin letterforms unreadable.) On the plus side, at least the designer had not set the type in a small-sized serif face. Had this been the case, the serifs might have filled in.
  3. The Post Office had contributed to the problem. Granted, the designer could not foresee this, but the automation equipment at the Post Office had scuffed the cyan toner. There were horizontal scratch marks right through the type in the bottom half of the text panel. I know laser printing is durable, but I’m wondering whether the softness of the uncoated stock had contributed to the ink’s scuffing.

What You Can Learn from this Case Study


  1. Light type on a light background is hard to read. A lot of light type is even harder to read. So the best thing to do is use reverse type for smaller amounts of copy (for an accent, or for contrast, not for important editorial information) and reverse it out of a solid background. This will eliminate the jagged edges of the letterforms as well. If you can reverse the type out of a darker background, that’s even better (i.e., contrast between the reverse type and the background improves legibility).
  2. Use a readable point size for type in larger blocks of text. I’d start with 9 pt. and go up from there.
  3. Consider using a press sheet with a harder surface coating (gloss, dull, matte, or even a hard-surfaced uncoated sheet) to minimize scratching by the Post Office.

Larger Issues

  1. Readability is paramount. If you can’t read the text in a promotional postcard, you’ve missed an opportunity to interest a potential client. Most people have short attention spans and only skim promotional materials. You don’t want a prospect to throw the postcard away without having read it.
  2. The “brand” contains unbelievable power. (I realize this sounds overly dramatic.) Had another custom printing supplier sent me this postcard, I would not have taken the time to read the small type. I would have just thrown the postcard away. In my mind, the “equity” of this particular commercial printing “brand” is strong enough that I took the time and effort to read the postcard.
  3. This is exactly what you want your clients and prospective clients to feel about your brand: a sense of interest, loyalty, and forgiveness of design faux pas. So make it easy for new clients and prospects to read your materials. Legibility comes first. Keep in mind that your clients (and their eyes) may range in age from very young to very old.
  4. And, by the way, nothing beats a postcard for getting your message out. It’s cheap to produce, cheap to mail, and your prospect doesn’t have to open an envelope. So go for it.

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