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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: A Few Color and Type Design Tips

Here are some things to think about when designing commercial printing products in black and white and color:

Designing with Black and White Type on a Gray Screen

Picture two lines of type on a gray screen. Let’s say you’re designing a promotional flyer for an art museum. The first line of type is the name of the artist printed in a sans serif typeface. Let’s say you want to reverse it out of a 20 percent gray screen. The second line of type is the same size. Perhaps it is the title of the art exhibit. Let’s say you want to surprint it (print it in black) in a light serif face, for contrast, on the 20 percent gray screen. Above the name of the artist, you set some type in a much smaller type size (in black ink), and below the name, in white type (i.e., reverse type), you set a subtitle referring to the title of the art exhibit.

For the sake of argument, let’s say this is only one panel of a six panel, 8.5” x 11” brochure that folds in thirds for insertion into a #10 custom envelope.

From a design point of view, you can watch an interesting phenomenon if you change the percentage screen of black (the background of this particular panel) within InDesign (or any other page composition software).

If the background screen is 20 percent black, the second line of large type printed in black is dominant, and the first line, the artist’s name, reversed out of the screen (i.e., white type) is secondary in visual importance. Why? Because there is more contrast between the type printed in black and the background screen than between the white type and the background screen. And contrast draws attention to a design element.

If you raise the percentage screen from 20 percent to 50 percent black, both the white type (name of the artist) and the black type (title of the exhibit) hold equal visual importance. Your eye will come to rest on either (or move back and forth between them) as though neither were predominant.

Finally, if you darken the background screen further to 60 or 70 percent black, the white type (name of the artist) jumps off the page. However, the black type on the dark gray background sits back visually and commands less attention. It becomes secondary in visual importance due to diminished contrast between this type and the background screen.

You can do the same experiment by changing the background from a screen of black to a screen of brown (or even a light beige tint, or any other color). You will see that the “value” (lightness or darkness) of the background screen apart from its “hue” or color wavelength will determine whether the white type or black type (again, of equal size) will appear to be predominant.

What You Can Learn from This

Small changes in type and color can change the visual importance of design elements. If you’re producing an ad, large format print poster, print book cover, or any other print product, it is vital to show the reader what to look at first, second, and third. You have the responsibility as a designer to lead the viewer through the printed page, emphasizing or de-emphasizing the elements of design. One powerful way to do this is to vary the tone, or value, of the background.

Emphasizing Words and Ideas with Your Type Choices

Imagine a print advertisement with one word—the word “apple”–printed on a field of light beige. Let’s assume the word is typeset in a light sans serif typeface (one with thin letterforms) at a large point size, such as 72 pt. This will give the viewer a certain feeling, or provoke a certain thought or reaction. (Of course, it will probably be different for everyone.)

Then without changing the size of the type, change the weight of the type from a light sans serif face to a medium sans serif face. This will turn up the volume a bit. The word “apple” will have more emphasis.

If you change the typeface from medium to heavy, the viewer’s reaction may change even further. He or she may perceive the “weight,” or importance, of the apple to increase as well. In short, by increasing the visual emphasis of the word “apple” using light, medium, or heavy weights of the same typeface at the same point size, the designer can influence the viewer’s perception of the word.

What You Can Learn from This

Type has personality. Consider how changes in even one type variable—such as the weight of the letterforms—can affect the perceived tone or meaning of a commercial printing job.

Contrasting Words and Ideas with Your Type Choices

Let’s change the “apple” example noted above to “War” and “Peace.” How would you distinguish one from the other visually, using black type only, with both words set in the same point size?

One way might be to choose contrasting typefaces. For instance, since “war” is a heavy, onerous topic, you might use a heavy sans serif type (a no-nonsense type), and you might set all three letters in uppercase: WAR. You would be shouting, using only a visual treatment to make your point.

In contrast, for the word “peace,” which might bring up more lilting images with a more optimistic tone, you might choose a serif typeface, and you might set the word in upper and lowercase letters. You might even choose to set the word in italics. All of these choices would work together to provoke in the viewer a light and happy feeling in response to the word.

If you put the two words–“War” and “Peace”–side by side on the page in your InDesign file, you will see the dramatic contrast in tone and meaning they create, both in terms of the connotations of the words themselves and the visual interpretation of the words.

What You Can Learn from This

Type has character. Based on your choice of a typeface (or the contrast between typefaces), you as a designer can evoke emotions in your viewer that will reinforce the meaning you are trying to convey. An effective custom printing designer will use his or her awareness of these nuances and connotations to make the design of a print piece echo its meaning.

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