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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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Getting Creative in Commercial Printing Design

One of the major attributes of good commercial printing design is that it surprises the viewer in some way. It tricks your eye or gives you something you didn’t expect.

The Mother’s Day Card

This concept came to mind as I was looking through the Mother’s Day cards at the grocery store, searching for something new for my fiancee’s mother. What I found was a card that broke the traditional mold of greeting cards. I’ll have to admit that the format is what did it. I don’t recall the content of the card, but I do remember the format.

Specifically, I have always seen and expected to see approximately 5” x 7” cards, give or take. Occasionally I have found huge cards (measured in feet rather than inches), but how do you mail something like this?

What I found in the grocery store was a traditionally sized card with a cute comment on the front cover and inside back cover, and then an arrow pointing to the bottom of the card along with a drawing of fingers, indicating that I should lift up the bottom of the page. The interior of the card, glued to the interior left and right pages, was a French-folded sheet that opened up into a mini poster. It got me. I had never seen anything like this. The design of the poster I had just opened grabbed my attention.

Unlike the huge greeting cards I had seen many years ago, and perhaps the three dimensional cards that contained objects (a miniature leather jacket attached to one such card), this mini poster had been one of the more original format designs. I thought it could be used for practically any holiday. It provided ample space for a powerful message. What made this original was the unexpected. Even when I lifted the flap I didn’t expect a poster twice the size of the original card.

Oblong Pocket Folder, Another Surprise

This concept also applies to the oblong pocket folder/brochure I have discussed in a few recent blog postings. My custom printing client chose a landscape (or oblong) format instead of the usual upright (or portrait) format. She did this because most of the collateral she had designed for her client had been horizontal, but when she asked my opinion of the design, I noted that for the pocket folder in particular, this would catch the reader’s attention because it is unusual. Most pocket folders are vertical. This horizontal format will stand out and attract attention.

Vertical Business Cards

The same holds true for business cards that are vertical rather than horizontal. We have been trained through the years to expect to see horizontal business cards. While this is fine (and we can easily process the information), the unexpected surprise of a vertical business card will make it memorable (if the design is striking as well). Fortunately, since we no longer use Rolodexes, this format will most likely not cause problems in saving the card for future use. (After all, how do you insert a vertical card in a Rolodex–i.e., on its side–and still read it easily thereafter?)

An Accordion Fold Greeting Card

About thirty years ago with the help and encouragement of my boss, a designer, I produced a card that was about 27” long and 4” high. It had six panels, three on either side. When you opened up the accordion fold, you saw the Washington Monument on its side, extending the entire length of the card. The card was an invitation to a business party, and right at the tip of the horizontal Washington Monument I printed the RSVP information for the party. People liked the card and a sizable number of participants RSVP’ed. I like to think it was due to the uniqueness of the card. Who would lay a traditionally vertical icon on its side? Clearly it surprised the reader and grabbed his or her attention.

What You Can Learn from These Examples

    1. Design for commercial printing can be a form of play. Try different things when you’re working on a greeting card, a business card, or anything else. Look at the process as a series of experiments. Discard those that don’t work, and keep a few that do. You can make a final decision later.


    1. Make a physical mock-up. Don’t just create your design on a computer. Print is a tactile medium, and particularly when you are playing with expectations regarding the format or shape of a design piece, it helps to be able to hold a paper dummy or printed mock-up in your hand.


    1. Hand off your mock up to a number of people. Get feedback. Some will like the change in format; some will not. Try to get people to be specific about what they do and don’t like and why.


  1. Involve the Post Office. If the final finished size is out of the ordinary (such as a square card in an envelope), the Post Office may have specific formatting rules, and (with square cards, for instance) the Post Office may charge a postage premium. Business analysts at the Post Office will review your design (online or in person) and give you technical feedback.

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