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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 May, 2015

Book Printing: Producing a Boxed Set of Books

Friday, May 29th, 2015

A print brokering client of mine is preparing art for a boxed set of textbooks. The set comprises four original print books with three copies of each placed within a corrugated box sleeve. What makes this particularly interesting is that neither my client nor I produce boxes every day. So it’s a bit of a novelty and a challenge.

To ensure success, there are some things to consider, some specifications to confirm, and some physical characteristics of which to be mindful. In case you also produce boxed sets of print books, you may find this information useful.

First of All, the Books

The books are 6” x 9” translations of government education articles aimed at a high school audience. They will be 48 or 52 pages (two books of each length). The covers will be printed on 12pt. C1S (coated one side) stock, and the text pages of the books will be printed on 80# Finch white opaque text stock. Once printed, the books will be saddle stitched and inserted into the boxes, and the boxes will be shrink wrapped.

First of all, the text and cover pages will be rather thick, which will give a sense of substance to the short books. For longer books, I would have suggested a 70# text stock. Fortunately, the thickness of the paper will make the pages completely opaque, and there will be no show-through from one side of a printed book page to its reverse side.

Now, the Box

Understanding the composition of the books will help in understanding the necessary specifications for the box sleeve. Basically, each box will contain three copies of each of four books, or a total of twelve short, saddle-stitched print books.

Based on the thickness of the cover and text stock, as well as the number of books per boxed set, the book printer has advised my client to create art for a 2.5”-wide slip case. This will allow a little room for the books to be loose (and therefore easily removed from the box).

To make it easy for students and teachers to both remove and replace the books in the box, the front of the box will be only 5” high, and the back will be the full 9” height of the books. This will protect the books but also allow for their easy removal from the box, and the width will allow all twelve books to sit comfortably in the box sleeve.

That said, the book printer also plans to make a paper dummy of both the box and the books to make absolutely certain that everything will fit as planned.

Once the structure of the box has been confirmed, it will be necessary to determine its decoration. The book printer will print 4-color process ink plus one PMS on a 70# gloss litho text sheet, which will be laminated to the white/brown “e-flute” structure of the box (front, back, and sides). The e-flute construction is essentially corrugated board covered with a printed press sheet, so it will be light, durable, and flexible. The printer will also add an aqueous coating to the boxes to protect them, and once the printing and lamination are complete, the printer’s subcontractor (the box converter) will fabricate them into finished boxes. Into these boxes, the printer will then insert the twelve books before shrink wrapping each boxed set and then carton packing it for delivery.


A box is more than a marketing statement. It is a physical product, in and of itself. It has a function that must be taken into consideration. It must contain and protect the books and allow for their easy removal and replacement—numerous times. Therefore, I was pleased to learn that the printer planned to make a dummy of the entire set before having the dies made to cut the boxes out of the laminated e-flute prior to their assembly. To not do this would risk error. Making cutting dies costs a lot of money and takes time. Needing to make a replacement set if something is wrong with the dimensions would compromise both the schedule and the budget.

Another thing to consider is the time needed for the box production and conversion. I’m not absolutely certain which portions of the box manufacturing the printer will need to subcontract (other than the die making, and the diecutting and assembly of the box forms), but this will take extra time. Subcontracting always does, and the printer relinquishes some measure of control over the production process due to the need for subcontracting. But in some cases it’s necessary. Very few commercial printing suppliers can do this kind of work in-house on a profitable basis.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. For complex jobs that might require specialized work, ask your printing supplier about the need for subcontracted labor. Ask how it will affect the price, schedule, and quality of the job.
  2. For a job as precise as a box for a set of print books, have your printer provide you with the exact dimensions (and a drawing) of the art you will need to prepare. (This is called a die-line.) Then, once you have submitted the art, ask for confirmation that it is accurate.
  3. Make sure your printer creates a paper dummy for a job like this. It’s a red flag if he doesn’t (for his sake and yours). Ask to see the dummy of the box and books to make sure it will meet your needs and expectations.
  4. Proof early and often. I’d suggest that you request physical proofs for a job like this rather than just a virtual, or PDF, proof.

Large Format Printing: HP and KBA Inkjet Box-Printing

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

Corrugated board sounds about as sexy as wet tissue, but as I recently read a press release from HP and KBA, I started to develop more of an interest in the subject.

More specifically, any aspect of commercial printing that is growing and incorporating new technology into the process piques my interest.

The New Equipment

According to their March 4, 2015, press release, “HP and KBA … announced plans to develop a high speed, high volume, 110-inch-wide (2.8 meter) simplex inkjet web press for pre-printing of corrugated top liner.”

The equipment noted in the promotional release is a 4-color inkjet press that runs at a speed of 600 feet per minute and can print up to 300,000 square feet per hour. And, as the press release notes, “every box can be different.”

What This Means

In the simplest terms, this is what these technical specifications mean. In contrast to the smaller inkjet printers we have come to depend on for business use, this digital press (incorporating the IT experience of Hewlett Packard and the structural integrity of KBA presses) will digitally print a roll of paper that is more than 9 feet wide in full color with the ability to change anything from box to box. (Printers can even gang-up jobs on this large format press.)

Once printed, this “liner,” as it is called, can be processed through “corrugators,” which combine flat top and bottom sheets with the fluted inside section to create corrugated box material. Preprinting the liners and then converting them into corrugated material is more efficient than printing the corrugated board after it has been converted. Overall, the ability to produce short press runs of packaging material in this manner saves time, money, and shipping costs.

The Alternatives

I went to the Green Bay Packaging, Inc., website to learn more about the alternatives.

  1. One option is to offset print the decoration for a corrugated box onto litho paper that can be laminated to the corrugated board. This is a bit like a decal you would affix to a cardboard box.
  2. Another option is to use rubber relief plates (i.e., flexography) to decorate the corrugated board. Unlike offset printing, which would crush the fluting of the corrugated board with its extreme pressure, a flexographic press can print directly on the corrugated board. However, this process does not have the precision of offset lithography. It is therefore often used to print simple, large areas of flat colors on boxes.
  3. The third option is to screen print the art and text directly onto the corrugated boxes. Like flexography, this will not destroy the fluting within the corrugated board. However, set-up for custom screen printing is labor intensive. It therefore is not cost-effective for shorter press runs.
  4. Another option is to digitally print the decoration directly onto the corrugated board.
  5. But apparently the most cost-effective and efficient approach is to digitally print (or offset print, since both can be processed and turned into corrugated boxes) the liner paper, which is then attached to the paper fluting and converted into corrugated box material. (Of course, offset printing does not offer the variable-data or short-run benefits of digital inkjet.)

The Implications

I find this interesting for the following reasons:

  1. Joint ventures by leaders in both digital and offset printing point to a growing industry niche. HP (Hewlett Packard), a global information technology company and producer of digital printing equipment, has been in business since 1939. And KBA has established itself as an industry leader in sheetfed, newspaper, flexographic, and digital printing (and has been in business for 197 years). When these companies speak, it’s wise to listen.
  2. This development confirms my belief that packaging will be one of the main drivers of the commercial printing industry for years to come.
  3. It also confirms my belief that the ability to produce short press runs efficiently, with variable data capabilities, supports the “just in time” approach to manufacturing, as well as the marketing model of personalizing the sales message for each recipient.
  4. Finally, it supports my belief that inkjet technology is becoming a mainstay of digital custom printing, an effective adjunct to digital laser technology (electrophotography).

Custom Printing: An Envelope Printing-Error Update

Thursday, May 21st, 2015

A few PIE Blog posts ago I mentioned some corporate identity materials I had brokered for a commercial printing client. Or, rather, for her client, since she is a designer.

There had been problems with registration of toner colors that had caused both a fuzziness in the type and logo mark and also a shift in color. The items in question were a business card, a notecard with an A7 envelope, and a #10 envelope. All jobs had press runs too short for offset, so I had asked the printer to produce the jobs on his HP Indigo press.

What I Thought Had Happened

My initial response when I saw the samples was to assume the HP Indigo had been out of alignment. Under a loupe I had seen the yellow image extending out in one direction, and the cyan and magenta images extending out in two other directions. Moreover, the problems seemed most acute on the A7 envelope, and the misregistration seemed to vary from item to item (business card, A7 envelope, notecard, and #10 envelope). Because of this misalignment, the logo colors had changed a bit as well. And this was more evident and more problematic than the slightly fuzzy image.

What Really Happened

I called up the commercial printing supplier to discuss my findings and concerns. He said he would be willing to adjust the color on the digital press to get a more consistent look from item to item.

However, when I noted that I had never before seen such problems on his HP Indigo, the printer explained something I had not known. The envelopes had been printed on his color laser printer, not the Indigo. The printer explained that only cut sheet work (anything trimmed out of a 12” x 18” flat press sheet) could be printed on the HP Indigo. Envelopes could not be fed through the Indigo; therefore, they had to be produced on the color laser printer.

From prior experience I knew that color laser printers such as the Konica Minolta and Canon were good, but not quite as good as the HP Indigo. But I learned something more from the printer that concerned me. Envelopes always moved slightly in the color laser printer.

The movement of the envelopes was magnified in part because of the various layers of overlapping paper in a converted envelope (i.e., they are thicker or thinner in different places) as well as the overall looser paper feed of a digital press (in contrast to the tight paper movement in an offset press).

So the movement had caused the misregister. The envelopes had shifted when traveling from one color unit of the color laser printer to the next. And the misregister of certain colors had caused color shifts. In addition, the misregistration problem appeared to be inconsistent, but in reality the paper envelopes were just moving through the color laser printer in different ways due to the different paper thicknesses of the folded, converted envelopes.

What Makes It Worse

My client, the designer, had chosen color builds that matched two PMS colors:

Blue C=100 M=73 Y=10 K=48
Orange C=0 M=64 Y=95 K=0

to match:

PMS Blue 654
PMS Orange 158

My sense, which was confirmed by the printer, is that a color build using a large percentage of each of the four process color toners increases the risk of misregistration. This is because the color laser printer has to keep three or four images in perfect alignment to create a crisp image.

The Solution

One of the suggestions the printer made for future digital printing was to remove the yellow toner in the blue logo color mix (Blue C=100 M=73 Y=10 K=48). There would be fewer colors to keep in register, yet the viewer’s eye would probably see very little difference in the overall color build. My client plans to make this change and print a few test samples to see if there will be a noticeable difference in appearance.

A Better Solution

The commercial printing supplier also suggested a better solution. Even though a short run of envelopes (500 copies, in this case) would normally cost less if produced digitally, we could print the envelopes (as a ganged run comprising several original envelopes) on a small offset press using PMS colors. This would avoid any chance of color shifts inherent in any 4-color process work, and the overall cost would still be competitive.

This is counterintuitive. You would think that an offset press-run would cost more, but the cost of prep work and wash-ups could be spread among the multiple jobs making each one more economical.

More importantly, the PMS colors would not vary, whether or not the envelopes moved (which they wouldn’t, since the feeding mechanism of an offset press is more precise than that of a digital press). All envelope jobs would have the same color on all printed pieces.

We’ll see what happens, but this is the job’s status at the moment.

What You Can Learn

  1. If your first impulse is to blame the printer, resist it. If you approach the printer as an ally, he will most likely step up and provide a detailed explanation of what happened. He will probably explain the limits of the digital and offset printing processes, and make suggestions to remedy the problem.
  2. Ideally, you can do this before your live job goes on press. It doesn’t hurt to send a PDF of your file to the printer for feedback prior to final submission of the job. Then, if he identifies any problems, you can adjust the design to avoid any pitfalls of the technology.
  3. The printer won’t always use the equipment you think he will use. I thought the envelopes would be printed on the HP Indigo. But since the Indigo cannot print envelopes, this portion of the job went on the color laser printer. It helps to discuss this sort of thing with the printer before the job goes to press.

Commercial Printing: A Useful Tool for Identifying Fonts

Monday, May 18th, 2015

A custom printing client sent me a photo of her business card recently. She wanted to know if I could reproduce it.

This Is How I Approached the Job

  1. First I opened the photo in Photoshop and cropped down tightly on the printed words on the business card. Then I saved the image as a JPEG.
  2. I uploaded the photo of the type to “What the Font” (which can easily be found online). It is to typography what a fingerprint database is to the TV show CSI. This type database matches portions of each letterform in the sample and then lists a number of possible typefaces the sample could be. Unfortunately, the photo of the business card, presumably taken with a smartphone camera, was not sufficiently crisp for the type identifier to work. It listed too many fonts, when all I really wanted was one. So I asked my client to mail me a hard-copy sample of the business card.
  3. The logo on the card was initially problematic. Tracing the logo over the JPEG photo would not provide a crisp and usable file, and even scanning the hard-copy sample when I received the physical business card in the mail would only provide a bitmapped image. Fortunately, my client found a high-resolution JPEG of the logo. I could use this to determine the color.
  4. The high-res logo came to me as an RGB file. Since the business cards would probably be produced digitally (since my client would most likely only need about 500 cards), I changed the color space to CMYK, and I assumed the two PMS colors in the logo would be process color builds on the HP Indigo digital press.
  5. At the same time, I chose a typeface that appeared to be close to the original in the photo of the business card. I wanted to create a mock-up of the business card. I planned to change the typeface later. For now I would just place the high-res logo (after changing it to a CMYK TIFF in Photoshop) and type in the contact information on the card. This would give me an opportunity to estimate what type point size would fit in the space and see how much letterspacing would be needed to match the original type. I could also match the use of upper and lowercase letters, italics, and such used in the design of the business card.
  6. When I received the identity package in the mail (business card, letterhead, #10 envelope, and Monarch letterhead and envelope), I scanned the card and uploaded it to What the Font again.
  7. This time the automatic font matching software did not find even one match.
  8. Therefore, I went through a 25-question (approximately) interview process analyzing all aspects of the typeface, and the What the Font database gave me the following answer: The type sample was Times Europa Office.

What You Can Learn from this Case Study

Type is one of the most useful tools in the designer’s arsenal because it can convey a tone or mood that supports the message of the text. It can be playful, sedate, sophisticated. It does this through all the myriad details in the letterforms. A font identifier such as What the Font can really get you to think more critically about these type characteristics. You can go beyond the distinctions between serif and sans serif, between roman and demi-bold or medium or heavy or black, or the distinction between narrow and wide, or condensed or expanded.

When the typeface database could not identify the font by trying to match the individual letters of my sample to the font alphabets in its database, it started asking me questions.

Here are some examples:

  1. The software asked about the serifs: were they horizontal and vertical, or were they slanted?
  2. Did the curve of the uppercase “J” drop below the baseline, or did it sit flush with the baseline?
  3. Did the lowercase “g” have one closed, curved element above the baseline and another closed, curved element below the baseline?
  4. It asked about the “tail” of the uppercase “Q.”
  5. It asked whether the sides of the “M” were completely vertical or slightly slanted.

This questioning went on for some time, and each time I answered a question, the font database matched my answer to its repository of fonts, narrowing down the list bit by bit.

What this shows is that the artists who initially drew each letterform of each font added intricate details to every letter. In your own design work such an exercise can get you to look more closely at the letters that tend to differ from font to font, such as the “a,” “g,” “f,” and “j,” in lowercase letters, and the “Q,” “J,” “W,” and “M,” in uppercase letters.

This exercise can lead you to a useful font-matching tool (such as What the Font). It can get you to look closely at the shape of the letterforms. It can also give you a starting point for identifying a font needed to prepare your client’s corporate identity materials for custom printing. And it may even make you fall in love with the intricacies of type.

Commercial Printing: How to Approach Printing Errors

Saturday, May 16th, 2015

I just received an unsettling email from a print brokering client today. She is a designer, and two small problems had occurred with a set of identity materials for her client.

The designer (we’ll call her Cheryl) had printed a business card (500 cards each for four principals of the business), 500 5” x 7” flat notecards, 500 A7 envelopes for the notecards, and 500 #10 envelopes (28# white wove). All of these jobs were 4-color process, and due to the short run size, I had asked the custom printing supplier to produce the jobs on his HP Indigo press.

The Problems That Occurred

First of all there had been some discussion as to whether the jobs would be printed on Classic Crest or Classic Linen stock. When the completed job arrived, the business cards had been printed on Classic Linen and all other components of the identity package had been printed on Classic Crest.

So the printing stock was inconsistent, and the requested specs had not been followed. (I rechecked the email noting the final specifications.)

Secondly, the art looked a little fuzzy compared to the proof, with a yellow halo around the logo printed on the A7 envelope. (When I received copies of the three pieces in the mail, I noted that the type was out of register.)

Why This Worried Me

First of all, having any job arrive at a client’s office with any flaws whatsoever is problematic. I always want clients to receive exactly what they expect: the highest quality custom printing.

Secondly, my client’s client is new: to her as a designer and to me as a commercial printing broker. My client and I have even more than the usual desire to ensure absolute perfection in any job for this firm because we both want to nurture this new client relationship. Starting off on the wrong foot is a big deal.

Thirdly, the materials in question comprise an identity package, so my client’s new client needs the job to be exemplary in order to present itself in its best light.

But problems do happen from time to time. It’s the nature of custom printing. How they are resolved is crucial and can be the determining factor in successful customer relations. Stated more simply, fixing a problem can cement a client relationship.

How I Plan to Proceed

My first instinct was to call the client, which I did. I apologized and asked for details. I also planned to approach the printer immediately, but my client raised a few interesting points:

  1. She actually liked the business cards printed on Classic Linen (due to the cross-hatching texture of the linen stock). Her client planned to print many more jobs, and she intended to shift all future identity materials to the new Classic Linen rather than the originally specified Classic Crest (smoother, with no cross-hatched texture).
  2. She wanted to look at other samples to make sure the registration problems were reflected in all copies and not just a few.
  3. She wanted to hear her client’s feedback before she and I discussed the job and determined what to request from the printer.

So my client and I agreed to check all email correspondence to ensure that the printer had in fact made the erroneous paper substitution (the emails confirmed this). We also agreed that she would send me a sample of the fuzzy A7 envelope art, and that I would give her feedback on what might have happened. Then, after she heard back from her client, I would approach the printer, noting what problems had occurred and how the client wanted to proceed.

At this point I want to note that my client has been unbelievably reasonable. Not all clients are. Some will respond with anger and blame rather than a desire to identify the cause of the problem and determine what it would take to resolve it.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

Even though this isn’t settled yet, it’s already a good point to learn from this error. Here are some thoughts:

  1. Problems occur, period. It’s a fact of life. If you buy commercial printing, you are buying a process, not just a product. All jobs involve multiple rounds of communications and specifications, and things invariably go wrong, even with the best printers.
  2. Always put everything on paper (or in an electronic document). List all specifications needed for your job; from press run to paper brand, weight, and finish; to color usage to delivery. Make up your own specification sheet, and then spend the rest of your career as a print buyer tweaking and improving it. Note any changes to the initial specs in emails, and keep the emails. You may need to send them back to the printer as you determine the chain of events.
  3. Go slowly, even if your first impulse is to call up the printer and scream. After all, you may have created the problem yourself, inadvertently, and even if the fault lies with the printer, you don’t yet know its extent or how it happened.
  4. When you do speak with your printer, have a paper trail of the specs, and make sure the flaw didn’t show up in the proofs (hard-copy and/or virtual proofs). In essence, if at all possible determine where the error originated using your spec sheets, emails, and proofs.
  5. Determine just how bad the problem is. This includes its extent (spot check multiple boxes of printed materials to see how many copies were involved—some or all). It also includes the level of importance of the error. (Does it render the job unusable, or is it merely an annoyance?)
  6. Then, and only then, can you approach the custom printing supplier from a position of strength, able to describe the problem and its extent, to note its importance, and to request either a discount or a reprint.
  7. Your printer will want you to be happy. Take my word for it. He wants your repeat business. If you approach a custom printing error rationally, with specifics and a plan, in most cases your printer will step up to the challenge and make things right.

Book Printing: Black-only, Web-Fed Inkjet for Books

Monday, May 11th, 2015

When I first read Kodak’s literature about the new PROSPER 1000 Plus Press, my first question was, “What about color work?” But then I reflected for a moment and thought about all the print books I’d designed or brokered that had black-only text blocks. I paused.

I also thought back to a comment a commercial printing supplier had made when asked to bid a black-only print book on his digital press. He declined to bid, saying that running the job black only while letting the cyan, magenta, and yellow toner units sit idle (it was a laser-printed job) would be bad for the equipment.

So I was open to the idea of black-only, web-fed inkjet printing for books, and I read further about the KODAK PROSPER 1000 Plus Press.

When I learned that it could print at up to 1,000 feet per minute, I went online and compared “feet” to “miles.” The PROSPER 1000 Plus Press can print at speeds up to 11.36 miles per hour, which is almost three times the speed at which I run on the treadmill. That’s fast. From a business perspective, it’s incredibly efficient.

Here’s what I learned from further research:

KODAK PROSPER 1000 Plus Press Specifications

  1. This black-only press uses proprietary KODAK Stream Inkjet Technology.
  2. It allows for two-sided (black over black) simultaneous printing (known as perfecting in traditional offset or duplexing in digital printing).
  3. The press can print on up to 24.5 inch paper rolls (i.e., it is a web press, not a sheetfed press).
  4. Its speed limit of up to 1,000 feet per minute translates to 4,364 A4 pages per minute.
  5. The press includes the KODAK 700 Print Manager Digital Front End, which improves connectivity within both the printing and finishing workflow and also facilitates operator control of the process.
  6. In its literature, Kodak also highlights the PROSPER 1000 Plus Press’ ink-reduction function, enhancement for small type (improving type readability), and estimating and reporting functions.

Benefits of Web-fed, Black-Only Inkjet Printing

Current print-market conditions demand increasingly tight job turn-arounds. Customers also order shorter runs, but they order more often. And, they may require extensive personalization (or at least customization and versioning). Obviously, offset commercial printing cannot meet this need. But digital inkjet can, and for black-only press runs the KODAK PROSPER 1000 Plus Press may be ideal.

On a more macro level, with the cost of both delivery and warehousing on the rise, web-fed inkjet presses can be located closer to the point of delivery (i.e., at multiple locations across the country). With shorter press runs, print suppliers can save money on freight costs, warehousing, inventory, and fulfillment by decentralizing the printing process in this way.

Good Words from Kodak

Will Mansfield, Worldwide Director of Sales and Marketing for Inkjet Presses, Eastman Kodak Company, captures the core benefits of such a press in his promotional literature, highlighting “…print quality and productivity akin to offset, but with the immediacy and versatility of an all-digital workflow.”

Implications for Design and Production

I gave some thought to what this might mean for graphic arts and commercial printing, and what kinds of jobs might fit the specifications of the KODAK PROSPER 1000 Plus Press.

  1. Many case-bound books and trade paperbacks have black-only text blocks. In fact, I would venture to say that a huge percentage of trade paperback work is black only. Xerographic presses now do a lot of this printing (even on a small scale, on tiny presses owned by booksellers, and on roll-fed laser toner presses), but web-fed inkjet printing could probably do the same kind of work much faster and therefore for much less.
  2. A whole industry is based on “transpromo” work, which is essentially imprinting personalized ads on customer’s phone bills and other invoices. Although this can be done on laser toner equipment (even on fast laser equipment such as Xeikon’s web-fed laser presses), I wonder if web-fed inkjet presses might not do this work even faster.
  3. With recent articles coming out about how even younger-generation students prefer physical textbooks over e-textbooks, I think the slack will be taken up by either digital laser or web-fed inkjet. And since web-fed, black-only inkjet printing seems to be incredibly fast, for those textbooks with simpler, black-only text design, this kind of equipment might drive down print book prices, increase vendor margins, and allow for just-in-time delivery (with no warehousing).
  4. Variable-data commercial printing in black ink could potentially be added to preprinted, static 4-color press work. This is called “imprinting on pre-printed shells.” I know it is possible to print roll to roll (to feed the press from a web roll and then wind up the paper into a roll at the delivery end of the press). Therefore, I would think it possible to first pre-print static, process color “shells” onto web rolls of printing paper, and then re-run these rolls of preprinted “shells” through black-only, web-fed inkjet presses. This would add the final imprint of the personalized information, and printers could then cut and finish the paper at the end of the black-only inkjet run.

Just a thought.

Why Students Prefer Print Textbooks

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

I was overjoyed to find an article on entitled, “Why Digital Natives Prefer Reading in Print. Yes, You Read That Right,” by Michael S. Rosenwald. I was even happier to find the same article on my list from the Goggle Alerts aggregator. And when I Googled the first few words of the story, I found (what turned out to be an Associated Press story) in about six Google pages of listings.

This AP article had made a significant impression. Obviously. After all, this entire list of publications across the country had run the same AP story.

Even those who have grown up with an iPhone, iPad, or whatever other electronic device in their hands still find reading a textbook printed on paper to be a more efficient way to learn than reading the same material online on on an ebook reader.

Here are some of the reasons:

The Physical, Tactile Experience of a Print Book

According to Rosenwald’s article, students gain value from the low-tech nature of the textbooks. “I like holding it. It’s not going off. It’s not making sounds.” (a response from Frank Schembari, a 20-year-old American University student quoted in the article). Apparently in a world where almost every minute is spent switching from one electronic device to another, consuming bits and bytes of information, learning from a silent, simple device (a print book) provides a wholly different experience than the norm.

Apparently, Shembari is not alone. Rosenwald’s article notes that “a University of Washington pilot study of digital textbooks found that a quarter of students still bought print versions of e-textbooks that they were given for free.”

Print Textbooks Support Mental Focus

Rosenwald includes in his article a quote from Naomi S. Baron’s “Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World.” Baron is an American University linguist who studies digital communication. According to Rosenwald, Baron had found that “readers tend to skim on screens, distraction is inevitable and comprehension suffers.”

Studies note that the ability to multitask is a fallacy. Apparently, people can switch from one task to another quickly, but they can’t do two things at the same time. And when they shift from one to another, there is a time lag. The brain has to refocus. In studying, this retards comprehension. So watching cable TV while studying and talking and texting on the smartphone is not the best use of study time, and students are beginning to understand this. They are often paying a premium for a textbook to supplement their free ebooks.

Again, this is not an isolated experience. Rosewald’s article notes that “Pew studies show the highest print readership rates are among those ages 18 to 29, and the same age group is still using public libraries in large numbers.”

Awareness of the Physical Location of Information in a Print Book Aids Retention

Apparently there is something to be said about physical location in a print book. As Rosewald’s article notes:

“Researchers say readers remember the location of information simply by page and text layout — that, say, the key piece of dialogue was on that page early in the book with that one long paragraph and a smudge on the corner. Researchers think this plays a key role in comprehension.”

Since readers jump from one Web page to another, they don’t read word for word. They skim, and the awareness of a particular concept on a particular physical page of a book is lost. Readers are more scattered in their approach, even when they read long-form documents on their electronic devices.

This distracts students and diminishes comprehension.

Interestingly enough, Rosewald’s article includes Baron’s findings that “students were more likely to multitask in hard copy (1 percent) vs. reading on-screen (90 percent).” Students jump from an article they’re reading to their email to Facebook and then back to the article.

Benefits of Used Textbooks and Writing in the Margins

Rosewald’s article points out that many students had bought used textbooks pre-underlined and marked with the handwritten notes of prior owners. There’s just no immediate, easy way to do this on an e-reader. There is definitely something to be said for reviewing not only the text but also other people’s responses to the text scribbled in the margins.

The Benefits of Digital Textbooks

“Why Digital Natives Prefer Reading in Print. Yes, You Read That Right” lists several situations in which students do prefer digital texts:

  1. For technical information in which an electronic link to supplemental material can make understanding a concept easier, a digital text is ideal.
  2. For subject matter in which locating information is key, digital texts are ideal. Print books don’t have a “search” function (like Google). Nor do they have a “find” key to immediately lead the student to all instances of a particular term.
  3. Compared to a free or almost-free ebook, a physical textbook is expensive. Rosewald’s article notes Baron’s findings that the price of textbooks had risen 82 percent in the decade from 2002 to 2012. Rosewald states that “if price weren’t a factor, Baron’s research shows that students overwhelmingly prefer print.”

From the School Administrator’s Point of View

School administrators love that e-textbooks are cheap and can be updated, according to Baron. They are also interactive, and they weigh less, leading to less back strain for the students. However, since students are having a harder time accepting long-form reading, Baron believes that administrators’ pushing laptops, e-readers, and tablets for study may have far-reaching negative effects on American education. Administrators are rushing into electronic media “with little thought for educational consequences.”

How This Relates to You and Me

If you’re designing print books, it looks like you’ll have a continued market for your product (and design skills) for years to come. After all, these are today’s students the article is describing.

If you’re reading books, you’ve got some serious thinking to do about the benefits and liabilities of digital texts.

From my point of view, it’s not an either/or question. Choosing the right tool for learning new material–whether it is a digital book or print book or both–reflects wisdom.


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