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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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Book Printing: Knock Outs, Gold Ink, and 4-Color Blacks

I picked up an older paperback at a thrift store recently. I had owned a copy of the same print book in the 1980’s, and the cover had changed, so I looked carefully at the design and custom printing of the new cover. Granted, it was used and dog-eared, and it was still about twenty years old, but I found the cover intriguing.

The Book Cover Design and Overall Printing

The title or even the subject matter is irrelevant. What is relevant is that most of the cover consisted of a photograph of a galaxy rendered as a high contrast positive and printed in a rust-colored match color and gold, with areas left white for highlights. Black type (the title of the print book), was surprinted over the galaxy image, and below this the designer had reversed the subtitle. Then, at the top and bottom of the cover, the designer had included a banner in gold to highlight a little more type. The banner and background image bled off the cover on all sides.

The Composition of the Inks

As I have mentioned in past PIE Blog articles, process colors are transparent. This is why they work so well to create myriad colors when printed as halftone screens overlapping one another.

The commercial printing vendor who had produced this print book obviously had printed the transparent black ink of the surprinted type directly over the gold in the background image of the galaxy, so the gold could be seen (faintly) through the black type.

Was This Intentional?

Was this intentional, and if so was it even a good artistic decision? I think this is a subjective call, actually.

What is interesting about the design is that the subtle hint of gold under the black type of the title actually gives a filmy appearance to the type, like a veil, and this is actually consistent with the tone of the print book. This treatment also allows the title type, which is quite large, to sit back a bit. It seems to be more a part of the background image of the galaxy, and this might just have been the look the designer had wanted. It may not have been a mistake.

Why Did This Happen?

First of all, as mentioned before, the process black ink is transparent. However, if this were the only reason for the show-through, the gold portions of the background image would not have been the only portion of the image visible through the black title type. You would have seen some of the match rust red color as well. Then again, the red is dark, so this might not have been evident. It might have been below the threshold of visibility.

Gold ink is also hard to print. It has flecks of metal in its composition, and drying can be problematic. Usually, a printer would print gold ink over another color, rather than beneath it. Or (and more likely), he would also knock out any type or image below the gold ink, so the gold would sit directly on the substrate.

So perhaps this was intentional. And, if so, the real question to ask would then be whether he was successful in achieving the visual goals of the designer. And this would become a subjective question potentially yielding many answers.

What Could Have Been Done?

If the designer and printer had wanted the black ink to be completely opaque, what could they have done? And what would the effect have been?

The second question is more easily answered. The large title type would have looked heavier, since it would have been totally consistent in its appearance. It may even have looked too heavy, or too big.

Regarding the first question, the designer and book printer could have created a rich black (black ink combined with some cyan, magenta, and yellow). This would have made the overall look of the black ink thicker, heavier, and more opaque.

The designer and printer could have knocked out (or reversed) any type and any portion of the galaxy image that would have printed beneath the rich black of the title type.

And/or the designer and book printer could have made sure that no gold ink would have been printed under any other ink. Instead, the gold would have been printed on top, after the underlying inks had dried, or perhaps (and more likely) any other ink under the gold ink would have been knocked out to allow the gold to sit only on the blank background substrate.

What You Can Learn From This

Think about the opacity of the inks you use, as well as their problems with printing or drying (like the gold ink), and also consider the order in which the custom printing inks are laid down on the press sheet. Your printer can help you with all of these issues and decisions. But keep in mind that the technology of commercial printing is only a tool to achieve a graphic design goal. So decide first what effects you are trying to achieve.

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