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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: An Example of Functional Printing

I’ve been brokering a functional printing job for one of my clients. It’s a color swatch book, much like a PMS swatch book but for the arena of fashion design rather than graphic design.

What makes this interesting to me is how different its purpose is from most of the material for which I either provide design or print brokering services.

It is a product, an object. The goal is not to inform or persuade, as might be the case with a print book or brochure. It is a functional piece. In essence, the graphic designer and I are doing product design.

Description of the Color Swatch Book

As I have mentioned in prior blog articles, this color swatch book is a series of rectangular cards digitally printed on a Kodak NexPress, drilled for a screw-and-post assembly, round cornered (diecut), and assembled. There are almost twenty versions of this product, each containing different colors.

The Approach: Very Different from Commercial Printing

As I help the designer and client conceptualize the job, create a template and mock-up, and coordinate the final production of the multiple color swatch books, I’m noticing how the difference in the goal (functional rather than commercial printing) affects many of the design and production choices. Here are a few examples:

    1. In a commercial printing job, the paper is important. It has to make the colors look their best. In this functional printing job, the paper substrate must be a bright enough white sheet to showcase the colors in their most vivid nature. However, the whiteness of the sheet is more important. It must be neutral. It cannot alter the colors of the swatches. Their CMYK values must be maintained for the product to be useful.


    1. In a commercial printing job, the coating used on a cover of a book or a brochure is often added for its decorative qualities. It may also be applied for the durability it provides (if a print book cover will sustain heavy use). But in this functional printing job, the color swatch book will need to last a long time and not be damaged by fingerprints or fingernails. Durability is essential to the usability of this functional design job.


    1. A binding method for a book often depends on its length. For instance, an 80-page book might be saddle stitched, and a 160-page book would most probably be perfect bound (for aesthetic reasons and to keep the pages from falling out). However, in the case of the color swatch book, the drilled pages and metal screw-and-post binding serve a more practical purpose. They allow the book to be disassembled, so pages can be added or removed depending on the color needs of the end user. This capability will make the book more functional.


  1. The final and most complex of the characteristics of functionality in this particular job is its variable data nature. The multiple versions of the book will involve database work, or at least a focus on creating multiple products with certain common colors and certain unique colors. Having the right colors in the right order is essential. So accurate assembly is a huge part of the job. This is what makes the printed product a useful fashion design tool to those who pay a premium to own it.

In all of these cases, the common element is functionality, not aesthetics. In addition, the product does not need to persuade or educate.

What Are Other Examples of Functional Printing?

Inkjet printing in particular has opened many avenues for functional or industrial printing. For example, an inkjet printer can use a conductive material in lieu of aqueous ink to print circuit boards for electronic products.

In addition, three-dimensional printing of everything from jewelry and shoes to bodily organs and food (depending on the substance used in the digital inkjet equipment) would also qualify as functional printing.

How You Can Apply this to Your Own Work

Staying relevant as a designer or a commercial printing vendor involves being aware of trends in the industry. In the wake of the “death of printing” meme, I’m seeing a very different future materializing. From my reading, I’m seeing the growth of labels; folding cartons and flexible packaging; large format printing; and functional or industrial printing, to name a few. All of these provide opportunities for savvy designers and printers. None of these products will migrate to the Web.

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