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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 March, 2015

Custom Printing: Digital Inkjet Printing on Floorboards

Monday, March 30th, 2015

I had mentioned about nine months ago that my fiancee’s house had burned. Now we are in the rebuilding phase after the house fire, so I am reviewing more samples of flooring than I really want to see. Ironically, many of them have looked like wood but have been a manufactured, inkjet printed flooring product.

The Flooring Samples I’ve Seen

At a flooring warehouse I visited, the flooring samples fell into a limited number of categories. Some were hardwood and contained planks with tongue and groove joints. That is, one side of each board had a recessed grove while the other side had a wood extension that fit into the groove on the next board. Tongues and grooves ran the entire length of each board. These planks, while differing in their length, were solid wood through and through. You could see the patterning from the planks cut from the maple tree, for instance, and they were visible on the front and back of the board.

My assumption was that these floors would outlive the house owner and could never be gouged enough (by accident) to damage the plank. Even with a deep gouge, the floor board would still look like maple, or oak, or whatever other hardwood.

At the other extreme were the vinyl floors. These were still printed to look like wood. They had the swirls and knots of the maple and oak woods. You could see the edges of the 3-inch, or 5-inch, or other width planks, but if you looked more closely, you could see that even the edges of the planks had been printed onto vinyl sheets that when glued to the floor would give the impression of wood planks. These had been printed via inkjet technology and then topcoated for durability.

When I looked closely at their edges, these planks appeared to have a rubber or plastic bottom sheet, then a manufactured layer (chipped or pulverized wood glued into a solid block), and then a thin veneer on which the flooring pattern had been printed. Clearly, if you had a floor like this in your kitchen and dropped a sharp knife, point downward, you would inadvertently cut through the part that looked like wood, revealing the fake under-layer.

Other flooring samples called laminates included thin sheets of real wood attached to a manufactured floorboard base. Manufactured (or engineered) flooring was completely man-made to look like wood. And finally there were the selected cork floors. Although the latter looked somewhat fragile when compared to wood, it still had a sense of being “natural.”

How These Floors Are Printed

An article on the Surface & Panel website (entitled “Digital Inkjet Flooring Perfected: A New Approach” and written by Suzanne VanGilder) explains the NextFloor approach to printed flooring. Although this flooring decorator goes way beyond simulating wood patterns in synthetic floors to include more creative, artistically dramatic products, it seems that the first step to a good flooring inkjet job involves preparing the substrate.

The first step is to coat the boards with a filler that seals and smooths out the surface to provide an even surface for the inkjet custom printing. It also seals the board against moisture. Next the operator applies a base coating to which the inkjet ink will adhere. A proper mixture will allow for ink absorbency into the coating but not for sideways ink migration. This base layer will also fix the ink after custom printing and protect the ink surface from sunlight. To complete the process, the bottom of the plank is also roll coated to keep out moisture.

Once coated, the flooring planks can be inkjet printed. Each printhead sprays one color (of the CMYK inkset) along the length of the board, followed by the other colors. Due to the digital nature of the process, there can be a much larger variance in the decoration inkjetted onto the floor boards than would have been possible with an analog process. (Granted, for NextFloor, the inkjet printing process often does not simulate wood but rather prints a dynamic graphic design on the boards.)

Such inkjet custom printing often employs a water based ink instead of solvent ink, an eco-solvent ink, or a UV cured ink. The goal at this point is to provide a surface that will be lightfast and resistant to water.

The next step is to topcoat the floor boards both to protect them against wear and tear, and to provide a gloss coating that will give depth to the inkjetted design and coloration. According to VanGilder’s article, NextFloor coats the floorboards with “HotCoating PUR topped with acrylic UV lacquer.” The topcoating can even be textured (or embossed).

Why Inkjet Printing of Floorboards Is Noteworthy

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Patterns on the floor can be repeated less often, so with a judicious placement of the floorboards during installation, you can give the impression that the pattern never repeats.
  2. The process is eco-friendly.
  3. You never have to worry about warehousing large supplies of flooring. You can just create them as needed. There is only a minimal cost in getting the equipment up to speed for a print run.
  4. You can print photographs and text on the floorboards, so why stop with simulated wood patterns. If you can imagine it, you can print it on the floor.
  5. All of this expands the definition of commercial printing. Industrial digital inkjet printing is becoming valuable for flooring, tiles, wall-covering, drapes, bedsheets. You name it. And that’s just in the realm of interior design.

Custom Printing: A Map Maker or a Printer, or Both

Monday, March 23rd, 2015

In business, it is a truism that if you can do one thing really, really well, you will be successful as long as that primary service or product you offer is a necessity. Techna-Graphics, Inc., in Washington, DC, seems to fit this business maxim to a “T.”

Is Techna-Graphics, Inc., a mapmaker, a commercial printer, or perhaps both?

In this service provider profile, I would like to showcase a unique custom printing supplier that excels in producing physical, printed maps for pilots, government agencies, and a host of others.

You might ask yourself, in an almost totally digital world, with GPS devices everywhere you look, who would need a physical, printed map? You’d be surprised. If you’re a pilot and you experience an electronic glitch, you need a physical, paper map immediately. And it has to be accurate.

The Techna-Graphics, Inc., Aeronautical Chart Division

Techna-Graphics, Inc., a private corporation owned by Joseph W. Caccamise, includes a DC commercial printing shop and a cartographic division in St. Louis, MO, that produces aeronautical charts for approximately 27 state bureaus of aviation on a bi-annual basis. The company employs 30 staff members in the DC location and 8 staff in St. Louis, MO.

Techna-Graphics, Inc., produces all 37 U.S. Visual Flight Rules Sectionals for the Continental United States, including 11 U.S. Terminal Area Charts. (This leaves 19 Terminal Area Charts for Techna-Graphics, Inc., to create.) The company prints and distributes these charts to pilots in the United States under the trade name DuraCharts.

As Techna-Graphics, Inc., promotional literature notes, “When you are flying at 10,000 ft. and your aircraft’s avionics decides to quit on you, a low-tech printed paper chart is your navigational guide and lifeline to the nearest airport and a landing that you can walk away from.” Think of the charts as a “low cost flight insurance” policy.

More Techna-Graphics, Inc., Charts and Maps

In addition to aeronautical charts, Techna-Graphics, Inc., produces state highway maps. The company just submitted a bid for custom printing all 1.2 million copies of the Alabama State highway map. Techna-Graphics, Inc., will also print 500,000 highway maps for the State of West Virginia as well as 350,000 highway maps for New York State, and 10,000 maps for Wayne County, Ohio.

Techna-Graphics, Inc., has also produced trail maps, park maps, marine charts, and other thematic map products for federal, state, county, and municipal agencies, and for commercial map publishers across the United States.

Since 1984, Techna-Graphics, Inc., has produced more than 300 million maps for the federal government. Its products range from black and white maps to multi-colored maps. Services range from cartographic research to map design; map printing, finishing and folding; and delivery, storage, warehousing, and fulfillment.

Large-Format, Non-Map Commercial Printing

Because of its large-format 44” X 60” offset lithographic sheet-fed presses and folding capabilities, Techna-Graphics, Inc., is ideally suited to large-format, non-map printing as well. One past job involved a 36” x 36” (folded to 12” x 12”) process color and aqueous coated record album jacket insert for Erika Records. Using its unique, large-format folding equipment, Techna-Graphics, Inc., was able to handle the critical folds for this 5,000-copy press run.

Techna-Graphics, Inc., Printing Capabilities

Techna-Graphics also has traditional printing capabilities in Washington, DC, where all press work, finishing, and shipping take place. The plant equipment includes 44” x 60” Harris sheet-fed presses, 87” and 63” Lawson flat cutters, and a selection of large-format Stahl and MBO folders.

Techna-Graphics’ 43” x 60” MBO folder includes four folding sections (6-6-4-2) capable of making up to 12 continuous accordion folds. And the company’s custom aeronautical chart MBO folder (26” x 60”) includes two folding sections (12-4).

Due to its specialized mix of custom printing and finishing equipment, Techna-Graphics, Inc., provides folding capabilities for finishing the work of a number of regional printing companies. Some of these also depend on Techna-Graphics for their commercial printing needs.

New Equipment for Techna-Graphics, Inc.

At the moment, Techna-Graphics is researching options for a large-format, solvent-based, digital plotter that will print 12” per second. This roll-fed plotter would accept standard printing papers in weights and finishes Techna-Graphics already uses for its offset printing work. Jobs could be printed (both perfected and sheet printed) and then folded off-line. This would be an adjunct to the company’s core business to be used for low-quantity press runs. Techna-Graphics, Inc., plans to install this equipment within about six months.

Custom Printing: Printing on Food for Valentines Day

Saturday, March 21st, 2015

Food is the quickest way to my heart. I think I’m not alone. Since Valentine’s Day is just a few weeks away, I thought I’d take a look at the technologies used for custom printing on M&Ms, Sweethearts, and sheetcakes. After all, the only thing more intimate than shared food is personalized food.

How Do They Print on M&Ms?

Have you ever wondered how they print M&Ms? When I went online today I was actually surprised. I had expected that, since M&Ms are easily crushed, they would not be printed with a technology requiring contact with the candies. I was wrong. The article I read described a process whereby the round M&Ms sit in little wells on a moving conveyor. Rubber printing plates on rollers print food dyes on the individual candies. Apparently, the wells keep the individual candies separate and at the same time minimize any crushing by the rollers.

That said, the description of the plates, in the online article, as being made of rubber suggests a flexographic process of some sort. (Keep in mind that flexography is actually a variant of letterpress, or relief printing. The rubber plates have a raised image area that picks up ink and then deposits it on the substrate—the food.)

The article did not use the word “flexography.” However, the reference to rubber plates sounds like the raised surface of a flexographic plate, which is also affixed to rubber rollers. In addition, such a process would involve minimal pressure compared to the metal rollers of offset custom printing.

For short-run, personalized messages, such as might be appropriate for Valentine’s Day, a trip to the Mars website (Mars makes M&Ms) yields information on inkjet printing with food grade inks. Presumably the short-run, variable-data nature of such personalized custom printing lends itself to inkjet technology, which might not be as cost-effective for the longer runs of printed candies.

How Do They Print on Sweethearts?

Another traditional holiday food for Valentine’s Day is the Sweetheart, the heart-shaped candy on which amorous sayings have been printed. How are these made?

I made the erroneous assumption again that the process would involve inkjet because I thought the pressure of any contact-based commercial printing technology would crack or crush the hearts. (Keep in mind that with inkjet printing, the spray nozzle never actually touches the substrate. It just sprays ink on the item—be it paper, ceramic, or whatever else.)

My research yielded the following information. The candies are actually mixed and shaped into hearts, and then printed with custom printing plates. The articles referred to changeable type, which suggests to me a relief process, like letterpress or flexography. The ink used is obviously food-grade pigment. Interestingly enough, the article noted that the candies are not baked but rather are left to sit and harden, along with their printed Valentine’s Day sayings.

I went to the NECCO website to see how custom printing orders are made. Based on NECCO’s reference to the number of lines and characters (“Custom Sweethearts can be printed with two lines of text with 9 characters per line, and each NECCO wafer can be printed with two lines of text with 11 characters per line.”), I would assume that even for short press runs a letterpress option is employed. If the technology were inkjet, I don’t believe there would be such a limitation on the number of lines and characters.

Presumably, this makes for consistent branding in the typeface and point size. Regardless, I would assume that some sort of carrier is used, much as the M&Ms travel through the printing press in plastic wells on a carrier sheet. And as with Mars M&Ms, both generic and personalized Sweethearts are printed with food-grade inks or dyes.

How Do They Print on Sheetcakes?

Another traditional holiday food for Valentine’s Day is cake (as it is for birthdays and Sweetest Day celebrations). Printing on sheetcakes is easy now with the advent of inkjet custom printing and food dyes. Unlike M&Ms and Sweethearts, however, the icing on cakes will be crushed by even the lighter (than offset printing) pressure of flexography or any other relief printing technology.

Therefore, inkjet is ideally suited to printing on frosting. However, in the past it was only possible to print food dyes onto carrier sheets. The images had to then be transferred to the frosted sheetcakes with heat, which sometimes yielded poor results (like a skinning over of the frosting). Now (according to food-printing blogs), inkjet printing can be used to print directly on the frosting with no intermediate transfer step. This is ideal.

Presumably, of course, the inkjet printers used for printing on cakes have the printheads suspended much higher above the substrate than the ink printheads of desktop printers used to image text and photos on paper.

Plastic Card Printing: A Supremely Effective Promo Tool

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

Over the last few years it seems like everyone has been giving me plastic cards as gifts–mostly food cards, since that’s the quickest way to my heart–but other kinds of cards as well. These seem to have become the gift of choice, not only for the recipient but also for the branded businesses for which these have become some of the best advertising opportunities available.

Why Loyalty Cards Work

First of all, whenever you open up your wallet and pull out the stack of cards, there they are, the loyalty and gift cards, along with all the health insurance cards and credit cards. The colors and images, even the typefaces, bring back memories of luxurious dinners, music, clothing. So they do what all good ads do. They touch the senses and evoke good memories, leading to a repeat sale.

In addition, they provide an opportunity to connect with the brand. As vague as this marketing-speak may sound, the concept is clear and powerful. The printed cards tell you that the food establishments and clothiers want your repeat business. They are reaching out and reminding you of past, pleasant experiences. They are also rewarding you with discounts.

To take this a step further, some of the more effective cards will point you toward a website, where you can further “engage with the brand” and see what’s new. Maybe there’s a new promotion, allowing your gift card to extend further and yield a bigger gift of food, coffee, or music to download.

From the point of view of the businesses, these Internet conduits can also elicit useful marketing database information. In exchange for premiums, potential customers and repeat customers alike can upload contact information and demographics that will help the businesses to provide better products or services, or to send out relevant information to selected prospects just when they need it. A smart marketer will coordinate multiple streams of advertising, using both custom printing and Internet media.

Somehow these cards seem more personal than cash as well, perhaps because they are tied to a particular establishment’s selling something you like. Gift cards also show that your friends have been paying attention prior to holiday gift giving. They know what you want.

Finally, they’re easy to use. You don’t have to carry cash. All you need to do is hand over the card. Clean, easy, good record keeping. What more could you ask?

Yes, But How Are They Produced?

Given the breathtaking graphics on my cards, I did some research to see how these cards are produced. After all, they are durable. I’ve never seen the images scratch off. Maybe it’s just me.

My research showed that inkjet is the method of choice (although I’m sure that for longer runs screen printing with solvent inks would work, too). Given the non-porous nature of the plastic cards, my assumption is that either solvent (or eco-solvent) inkjet inks are used, or LED UV technology is applied to cure the inkjet inks instantly. It seems that either technique would yield a durable custom printing product.

In addition, these cards can be further personalized with thermal printing (via heat transfer of inks) to apply barcodes, personalization, and QR codes to the printed plastic cards (usually but not always in black ink).

Another popular technology in use is embossing, which allows the card manufacturer to include raised letters and numbers (as you would find on a credit card). The surface of the raised letters and numbers can even be “tipped” with metallic ink (or other colors). These raised letters can be felt through the mailing envelope, increasing the interest level of the recipient.

Given the electronic technology available, plastic cards can include magnetic strips, QR codes, barcodes, and such, for encoding contact information, demographics, or financial information pertinent to the card (again, just like a credit card).

As an added lift to these promotional pieces, a marketer might also include a carrier wallet or a match mailing letter with the loyalty card or gift card fugitive-glued to the paper. This can provide further information, but it can also serve as a marketing opportunity.

When Would These Be Useful?

Much as the smartphone has become a person’s wallet, date book, cell phone, typewriter, communications device, video display, etc., the plastic card has become an additional conduit for commerce and communication.

Think about the options: These cards can be used as gift cards, key cards for hotels, loyalty cards, insurance cards, credit cards, prescription cards, or practically anything that needs to hold and transfer financial data and personalized information.

In all of these cases, plastic cards allow the retailer to create a miniature billboard with which to intrigue the customer or prospective customer. At the same time the retailer can capture data regarding customer buying patterns and schedules, and then target further advertising initiatives based on customer-stated interests.

Commercial Printing: A Few Identity-Package Paper Tips

Sunday, March 15th, 2015

A print brokering client of mine just landed a new account. The client is global in its reach, which is particularly exciting. Now my client’s client needs an identity package to project its image around the world.

The Specifications for the Identity Package

My client came to me with four items to print initially: letterhead, envelopes, business cards, and a note card with an A-7 envelope. She wanted 500 copies of each item (with 500 copies of four names for the business cards) just to get the identity package moving.

After receiving my client’s email, my initial goal was to flesh out the specifications for the custom printing supplier, so he could provide an estimate. For the business cards, my client specified “heavy matte stock” in her email. She said she thought the note cards could be slightly different, since they would be sent out individually, probably without a business card, letterhead, or #10 envelope. She wanted to consider a textured sheet for the note cards, perhaps one with a linen finish.

My Initial Contact with the Printer

I started the discussion with the commercial printing vendor by focusing on the paper for the four print jobs. It was pretty much a given that for a 500-copy press run, the best custom printing technology would be digital. All jobs were to print in 4-color process inks. Therefore, I had approached a printer with an HP Indigo digital press. I felt this press equipment would do the best job of showcasing my client’s client’s new professional image, at an economical price.

Nevertheless, I wanted to make sure both the paper and the toner would be durable. These were my concerns:

  1. I wanted to make sure that the toner would adhere evenly to the linen sheet. Since a linen texture has an uneven surface (hills and valleys, for the warp and woof of the linen pattern), I wanted to make sure the layer of toner would not have white spots where the toner did not adhere to the paper. The printer assured me that his suggested paper options, Neenah Classic Crest and Classic Linen, were both certified for the HP Indigo.
  2. I also wanted to make sure that my client’s client could run the letterhead or envelopes through a laser printer (for text imprinting, after the 4-color digital printing of the logo and address). Would an additional paper coating be needed, or would there be a risk of the toner particles’ melting in the heat of a laser printer?

The Overall Look of the Identity Package Items

My client was very precise, noting that she wanted a bright white press sheet. She also didn’t want to buy the most expensive paper for the job. She wanted to contain her client’s costs. This is what I found out from the printer:

  1. The Neenah Classic Crest and Classic Linen paper lines are not expensive sheets. Compared to other stationery papers (those provided in weights and finishes appropriate for a coordinated set of business cards, letterhead, and envelopes), they are quite affordable.
  2. I also wanted to confirm that the commercial printing supplier would not need to buy an entire carton of paper for this job (some papers have minimums; you need to buy the minimum order no matter how little paper you use). Since the jobs are small (500 copies of the letterhead, #10 envelopes, and note cards; plus 500 copies of each of four names for the business cards), this might have been an issue. The printer assured me it was not.
  3. For such a short run, I believed that the paper component of the job would be only a minimal amount of the total cost, no matter which paper was chosen. The printer assured me that this was true.

A Coordinated Look for the Identity Package

The reason I wanted to specify all paper from one dedicated stationery vendor was that I wanted to present a unified look for the new company’s identity materials. The Neenah paper lines included the multiple paper weights needed for all of the corporate identity elements (letterhead, business cards, and stationery), but it also provided the linen finish my client wanted for the note cards and A7 envelopes. My client felt the linen paper for the note cards would showcase the “hatched lines” of the logo, and I was confident that the paper’s brightness, whiteness, and surface formation would be consistent enough in both the Neenah Classic Crest and Classic Linen lines to still look like they were created for the same business firm.

Choosing Paper Weights for All Items

All that was left was to determine the weight of the paper. My client wanted a heavier than usual business card. The printer suggested a 120# cover stock (since 80# cover stock has often been the norm for business cards). This would give an appealing stiffness and snap to the card.

My client had specified 28# #10 envelopes. Usually 24# is the norm. Given the heavier than usual paper stock for the envelopes, I suggested a 70# (rather than 60#) text paper for the letterhead, again to give a sense of solidity and opulence to the client’s new business.

Finally, for the note cards the printer suggested a 100# cover stock. He felt this would be adequate. The cards didn’t need to be any thicker. These flat note cards would have no embossed panel around the edges. They would be flat, modern, and simple in design.

The printer felt all of this would provide a unified look for the new business and that the Indigo would present the best possible printed image (for the price) for the short-run jobs. My client agreed. Now, all we need to do is wait for pricing.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

All of the specifications in this sample identity package bear close review and consideration. Paper weight, surface texture, paper color and brightness—even before ink or toner hit the surface of the paper—all either promote or damage an image (yours and your client’s). Make sure your paper choices are congruent. The best way to do this is to choose paper for all elements of an identity package from a paper supplier such as Neenah. Crane and Strathmore are two more lines to investigate. And always involve your custom printing supplier in the decisions regarding paper runnability, availability, and cost.

Custom Printing: A Few More Text-Design Tips

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

Design Basics Index by Jim Krause has always given me food for thought regarding the fundamentals of effective publication design, including anything from posters to brochures. Since I’ve always considered it valuable to constantly practice the fundamentals of any craft, I get a lot of pleasure just dipping into this print book periodically, just to learn “one more thing.”

I found a few choice nuggets this evening, which I’d like to share with you, all of which pertain to text design. Somehow I think it’s easier to make something look good when your central focus is a photograph, but I think these few type-only suggestions will make what is usually a challenging design task just a little bit easier.

Unique Treatments of Paragraphs

Krause suggests the following two approaches to formatting paragraphs in novel ways.

In most cases you might either indent the first line of a paragraph to set it apart from the preceding paragraph, or you might set the paragraph without indents as a block of copy. Then you might separate it from the preceding and following paragraphs with extra space. While this works well, it is purely functional. It is also invisible to the reader since it lacks any design flair.

In contrast, if you’re setting up the opening pages of a magazine article and need to distinguish paragraphs in a large block of copy, Krause suggests using “dingbats.” These miniature images, also known as “printer’s flowers,” would include such marks as stars of various kinds, crosses, bullets, ornate leaf forms, the reversed “P” paragraph symbol, and various other simple glyphs.

These have a long history in the printing trade, and they make a visually interesting variant for separating paragraphs. You might even want to add color so the dingbats will stand out from their surroundings.

Personally, though, I would use these with restraint. I think they are perfect for an introduction (perhaps one you have set in a larger point size), or other important block of copy, but for lengthy text they will reduce readability. For lengthy copy, I favor non-indented paragraphs separated by extra space. This works well to break the copy into smaller, digestible chunks.

Another suggestion Krause poses in his treatment of paragraphs is to separate an important paragraph from its surroundings not with space but with color, or a change in typeface. Going back to the preceding sample of an introduction for a magazine page-spread, setting apart a paragraph in this way may give a contemporary “look” to your design piece.

Of course, moderation is important in this case as well. It would be more appropriate for a very short magazine-spread introduction, for instance, than for anything longer. In addition (in my own opinion), it is wise to consider the accent color carefully. If it is red, for instance, the paragraph will look more important than the surrounding paragraphs. If it is blue or another cool color, it will look different from, rather than more important than, the surrounding paragraphs.

Ways to Emphasize Text and Heads

I think Krause’s most useful suggestion in this section on emphasis involves breaking out of the text grid by starting the headline in the scholar’s margin (the non-text gutter to the outside of the text column). This catches the eye immediately for a few reasons:

  1. The headline is larger than the text.
  2. The headline is in a different color from the text.
  3. And the position of the headline is unexpected, since it breaks out of the column of text.

Let’s focus on the third reason. If you set up your 8.5” x 11” page with a 6”-wide text column, the reader expects all copy to fall within this space. This expectation makes reading easier. It also can make the page visually boring. If you need to draw attention to a design element, like a headline, breaking this pattern will emphasize it.

To illustrate this point, Krause’s Design Basics Index positions a one-word headline flush-left at the outer edge of the page. The headline extends into the column of type, which runs around the word. Five lines of type are indented by about an inch to achieve this “run-around.” This design treatment works well for such a one-word headline.

If your headline is larger, consider setting it in a smaller point size in multiple lines, with the run-around (indent) extending all the way around this type. Another option would be to start the headline in the “scholar’s margin” (near the outside of the page) and have it break into the column of type without running text around it. This might result in a looser, less cramped look.

Krause includes several more design suggestions I’d like to share:

  1. Put a short quote, callout, or pithy sentence in the outer margin. Your reader’s eye will go right to this copy, just as it went right to the headline that broke into the scholar’s margin.
  2. Use a simulated handwriting font for a short piece of copy. The reader’s eye will go right to this design element.
  3. Surround text with a color rule to capture the reader’s eye. Placing copy in a simple, solid shape like a circle will do the same thing.
  4. Color will always grab the reader. However, too much defeats the purpose. An accent color works because of its contrast with its surroundings. Err on the side of using too little.
  5. Larger type will emphasize a design element.

The Take-Away

Design can be learned. It is an art, but it has rules. Learn the rules and then break them—always for a purpose. The best way to learn design is by observing and deconstructing graphic design that you like: large format print signage, business cards, brochures, print books, etc. And having a few design textbooks on hand, like Design Basics Index, can make a huge difference as well.

Commercial Printing: A Few Bulk Mailing Postage Tips

Saturday, March 7th, 2015

If you design marketing materials of any kind, it will benefit you to learn as much as you can about the USPS rules and regulations. (Go online and read the United States Postal Service Business Mail 101 web pages, or visit the Post Office and ask for printed business mailing guides.) As a start, here’s some introductory information culled from the USPS website on ways to pay for postage.

Let’s say you have a 3,000-copy brochure print run ready to mail to clients. How do you pay for postage?

Stamps and Precanceled Stamps

If you are an individual, you put stamps on individual letters or packages. If you’re a business, one of your options is almost the same: the precanceled stamp. These stamps can be used on bulk mailings, but they require a permit, and there are regulations regarding address formatting and return addresses for the items mailed.

In addition, the face value of the precanceled stamp is not your total cost. You will have to pay an additional amount on the entire bulk mail drop.

The main appeal of this option is that precanceled stamps look like stamps, and direct mail marketers have found that people are more likely to open mail with a real stamp. It looks more personal. (Marketers also have found that hand-addressed mail is opened more often, which is why type fonts simulating handwriting are particularly suited to bulk mailings.)

The US Post Office recommends precanceled stamps for the low-volume mailer, presumably since they must be affixed to the letter or package.

Permit Indicia

The permit indicia is a much easier option than the precanceled stamp in that your commercial printing supplier can print the necessary information right on the letter, catalog, or package. You don’t need to affix anything as you do with a stamp.

In addition to the notation for bulk rate postage, the indicia includes the permit number and the city and state of the permit holder. As with the precanceled stamp option, you will need a permit. In addition, you will need to pre-fund an advance deposit account with the postage amount. The US Postal System will then debit the account to pay for postage on your mailing. You can also maintain funds in the account for future mailings.

This option comes with two other requirements. First, the indicia cannot be produced with a typewriter or be hand-written, and all items in the bulk mailing must weigh the same amount.

In addition, you need to bring the sorted bulk mail to the business mail entry unit for the specific indicia. You can’t just go to any Post Office.

You may want to choose this option, for instance, if you print a large number of self-mailer brochures to get a good printing price, but you plan to mail them over an extended period of time. The same indicia can be used for all mailings as long as the advance deposit account contains adequate funds.

Unlike individual letters and packages, though, you can’t use an indicia for a handful of brochures you drop in a mailbox. If you do, they will be returned to you, postage due. Like precanceled stamps, the indicia can only be used for bulk mailings.

Postage Meter Imprint

Postage meters allow you to buy a predetermined amount of postage and then print the exact amount needed right on the individual mail item. The imprint shows the amount of postage used and the date.

You can use a meter to pay for all your postage needs (except for Periodicals), but you will need to pay for a separate permit for bulk mail.

Once you have a permit for meter imprinting, you have various options for software and printing equipment (from very small options based on your computer, printer, and Internet service all the way up to equipment that folds, inserts, weighs, and meters the postage).

Fees for These Options

Do some research into costs and fees before you choose one of these options. Keep in mind that you may need to pay both a mailing permit fee (for one of the the various postage options, such as the start-up fee for an indicia) and an annual mailing fee if you’re doing bulk mailings. And in most cases the permits are tied to a particular commercial Post Office.

Custom Printing and Design: Contrast and the Element of Surprise

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

Have you ever seen a printed photograph of a sunset, perhaps in a wall calendar, and wondered just how the printer got the sun to appear so bright?

If you think about printing such an image from the perspective of a custom printing vendor, the sun cannot be brighter than the white paper on which the calendar was printed. And yet, the sun seems to radiate off the page.

How Does This Work?

What is actually happening is that the much darker hues of the background, as your eye moves away from the central solar image, create contrast with the fiery yellow and red sun. This makes the dark tones appear darker and the light tones of the sun appear lighter.

(In addition, the reds, oranges, and yellows in the image are warm colors in that they appear to jump off the page, while the blues and purples of the darkening surroundings are cool colors, in that they appear to recede from the viewer’s eye.)

A good rule of thumb to take away with you from this example is that nothing in design or commercial printing exists by itself. Everything–whether it is a color, a shape, or a block of type–exists in relationship to something else. And if you can create contrast between colors or shapes, you can catch the viewer’s attention.

Finally, if you’re going to contrast two design elements, make the contrast “big.” That is, be dramatic.

What About Type Treatments?

It is a rule of thumb (albeit one made to be broken) that a serif typeface in the text works well with a sans serif headline. The opposite is also true. Choosing a heavy, serif typeface for a headline and placing it over body copy set in a sans serif typeface creates an interesting contrast.

In either of these cases, the contrast between the headline and the text gives the reader immediate information as to what is more import and what is less important. If she or he has time to only read the headlines in a news story, for instance, it is helpful to know instantly where they are.

Granted, even if you’re a sophisticated designer and you understand how to pair one serif typeface in the body copy with another serif typeface in the headline, you’re probably still conscious of using two typefaces that are different in some way—to increase reader interest. Here again, contrast is a key rule of design.

Contrast Between Type and Surrounding White Space

Those of you who remember the 50s and 60s may remember Helmut Krone’s and Julian Koenig’s “Think Small” VW Beetle campaign in 1959 for the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency. Unlike every other ad in the newspaper (presumably), the “Think Small” Volkswagen ads pictured a tiny image of the VW Beetle surrounded by a huge amount of white space. The ads immediately grabbed the reader’s attention because of the contrast between the copious white space and tiny image. Moreover, it worked because it was unexpected. (One would usually expect a small amount of white space surrounding the more important image of the car.)

Beyond the optical trick, based on unexpected contrast, the concept worked because the goal was to position the VW Beetle in a minimalist way as a small, simple, no-frills car. The concept matched the design treatment.

Contrast in Size of Typefaces

I recently saw a sample print ad in a book by Robin Williams entitled Design Workshop. The vertical ad treatment included a huge whisk and spoon alongside a small block of copy and a small logo of a chef in a white chef’s hat.

First of all (and consistent with my earlier comments about how a strong contrast maximizes differences between two design elements), the huge cooking tools make the chef look even smaller than he would have looked otherwise.

Secondly, the particular choice of contrast contributed the element of surprise to the ad. That is, normally you would think of a chef’s head as being larger than his cooking tools; therefore, a reversal of this expectation is more likely to focus the reader’s attention on the ad.

Robin Williams takes a similar approach to a type-only ad in the same chapter, enlarging an all-type logo (apparently set in the “American Typewriter” typeface to look like type script), screening it back to a mid-tone gray, and then positioning it behind a reversed block of ad copy. The logotype looks like it was produced on an old manual typewriter, so the contours of the letters are interesting (a design element in themselves), and the larger than usual type in the background creates a layered effect. Finally, Robin Williams tilted the ad copy. All of these unexpected design elements work together to interest the reader.

What to Remember

The most important thing to remember is that contrast creates visual interest, and the most effective contrast is a dramatic contrast. Think big—or small.


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