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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 and Design: Contrast and the Element of Surprise

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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