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Archive for November, 2015

Commercial Printing: A Debossing and Embossing Primer

Sunday, November 29th, 2015

Both debossing and embossing bring an added dimension to offset commercial printing—literally—because they add depth to what otherwise is a flat piece of paper. This alone can give your design piece a most tactile quality, as well as a visual boost.

So What’s the Difference?

Embossing is the more common version of this finishing technique. In this case a set of metal dies (one on either side of the paper) presses the substrate into a raised pattern or form that extends outward toward the viewer (even if only by an eighth of an inch). Debossing, on the other hand involves forcing the paper in the other direction, away from the viewer. In this case the image is lowered beneath the surface of the paper.

In both embossing and debossing, there are always two dies, one on either side of the paper. The only difference is the direction in which the surface of the paper is pushed.

How Is This Done?

Embossing and debossing are not done on an offset press. They are an entirely different process done on a letterpress. Unlike offset printing, a chemical process that depends on the inability of ink and water to mix, letterpress is a “strike-on” process in which a raised image is smashed against the commercial printing paper to create a printing impression.

(A similar approach is used in both manual and electric typewriters. When you type a key, a raised letter on a metal arm swings out and contacts both the inked typewriter ribbon and the paper to make the actual printed impression.)

The letterpress–or rather a converted letterpress retrofitted to hold the dies in place for the embossing or debossing process, or a dedicated embossing press similar to a letterpress–shapes the paper stock as it is fed into the equipment.

Choosing Blind or Registered Embossing

When you emboss or deboss something, such as a logo, you have two options. The first is to blind emboss the image, which just means there is no custom printing work, but just the raised or lowered paper surface. The embossed or debossed logo rises above or descends below the paper surface and can be felt (the tactile appeal of the process) as well as seen.

If you want more visibility, you can register the embossing to an already printed image. You may have seen print book titles that seem to jump off the dust jacket paper because they have been both printed and embossed. In this case the printing comes first (done on an offset press more than likely), and the embossing step follows. Why? Because if you emboss the paper first and then run the sheet through the high pressure of the offset press, the rollers will crush the embossed or debossed image.

Selecting the Best Paper for Embossing

Your printer can help you choose a good stock, but a soft, thick paper like linen or felt can be ideal for embossing and debossing. The paper fibers can be bent easily by the heat and pressure of the process, as well as by the raised and lowered male and female die set. In fact, due to the heat and pressure you will often see an added smoothness where the paper has been embossed or debossed. Many people find the contrast between the surrounding paper and the smoother embossed/debossed image to be aesthetically appealing.

Things to Consider

  1. Blind embossing costs less than registered embossing. First of all, you’re only paying for one process. Secondly, the custom printing vendor does not need to ensure precise positioning (i.e., tight register) with blind embossing.
  2. Thin type and serifs, as well as thin rules, don’t do as well when embossed. Make sure the image area (drawing, type letterform, or rule) is wide enough for the paper to be forced into the die set. Discuss this with your printer to ensure success.
  3. Deep embossing dies have beveled edges (and are often called “sculpted” dies). These beveled edges will reduce the apparent width or thickness of rules and letterforms. Therefore, make your art just slightly wider/thicker than normal to account for this effect. To be safe, discuss this with your printer as well.
  4. Dies are not made by the printer. They are made by specialists. In addition to being expensive, this subcontracted work takes time. Make sure your printer has accounted for this extra time in constructing your overall custom printing schedule.
  5. Consider embossing and debossing for print book covers, custom pocket folders, and even stationery.
  6. As an alternative, consider such 3-D modeling techniques as the Scodix enhancement process. Not all printers have access to outside vendors for this relatively new process, but it is intriguing. You don’t need to make a metal embossing die. Rather, digital information drives the Scodix machine, causing it to build up a faux-embossed (raised) surface that simulates embossing.

Book Printing: A Page-Design Case Study

Tuesday, November 24th, 2015

A dear friend of mine from college designs print books. She used to be an editor. Now she both edits and designs textbooks and annual reports for government organizations and NGOs (non-government organizations). She’s a great designer, self-taught, so sometimes she will run a book design past me asking for advice.

The Sample Annual Report

My friend sent me cover samples of an annual report last week. To give you an idea of the design issues she and I discussed, picture an 8.5” x 11” format print book with a vertical, teal bar running down the left half of the cover (or slightly less than one-half). Out of this vertical color bar, at the bottom left side of the book, she reversed the title, set in four lines in a simple sans serif typeface. Immediately to the right of the title, on the white bar that comprised the remainder of the cover (excluding the image), she printed the year of the annual report, vertically, in teal type.

Starting immediately above the title, my friend the designer devised a picture box containing an image of roads and other infrastructure (the focus of the organization addressed in the annual report). The picture box started out very wide and then swooshed around like a ribbon of road on a map, crossing from the vertical, teal bar onto the white remainder of the cover. Near the endpoint of the swoosh, within the white vertical space, my friend the designer set the government organization’s logo, which also contained a teal, white, and black color scheme.

An Analysis of the Design

What concerned me at first about the overall design (since I had been asked to comment) was that the photo seemed to have been an after-thought. The page seemed to be a geometric treatment into which almost any photo could have been inserted.

The designer told me she had been reviewing annual report covers on the Internet to get ideas. She noted that this was the current vogue. While we were on the phone I Googled “annual report covers” and found that all sample images were almost exactly alike (and my friend’s version fit right in with the trend). Although I would have preferred a focus on the content of the image, with text positioned as supplemental information, the designer had considered the graphic context, and had created her design in a similar vein.

One thing I neglected to mention was the dark blue shadow my friend had included along the bottom of the picture box (the swoosh that gave the feel of a hilly road winding off into the distance). The blue shadow, crossing from the teal background on the left into the white background on the right, visually linked both sides of the cover design while drawing the reader’s eye directly up toward the government organization’s logo.

Elements That Worked in the Design

I liked the balance of the design. The small logo in the upper right corner, in an otherwise empty field of white, drew attention to itself. It also balanced the text block in the lower left corner, the title of the annual report. I liked the way the reversed lines that comprised the title of the annual report contrasted the vertical treatment of the year. In addition, all text in this area hung together in a simple rectangular space, as did the logo in the upper right. This is one reason they balanced each other.

There was almost a feel of a Yin/Yang symbol in the design, with white text reversed out of teal on the left and teal surprinted over the white background on the right side of the print book. The flowing swoosh that was the picture box further echoed this Yin/Yang feel (in addition to alluding to the flowing nature of a hilly road).

All of this was effective because the designer had simplified the overall shapes of the design into a few simple rectangles that balanced one another, plus the contrasting shape of the swoosh. All of this resembles an approach one would take to creating an abstract painting, as well as a design for an annual report cover. A few text boxes aligned on only a few horizontal and vertical axes created a bold, simple cover treatment.

The Designer’s Question About the Interior Pages

My friend the designer asked a question about the ragged bottoms of the interior-page columns. She had designed a page grid with flush left/ragged right columns.

I suggested that she not align the bottoms of the columns exactly. In fact, having them almost align would look worse than having a rhythm of columns ending in an up/down, staggered fashion. I said the ragged right, informal nature of the columns of type would lend itself to this treatment, and the approach would give the outside margins of the double-page spread a more relaxed sensibility with more white space. It would also relieve my friend of the need to make everything align exactly (which could be problematic).

For the final pages of chapters or sections, however, I suggested that she position the two short columns side by side (not necessarily aligning, but reasonably even). I also suggested that my friend the designer print out the cover and a few text pages, lay them on the table and look at them, just to see whether they seemed to flow, one into the other—that is, to see whether the overall design carried from the cover through the first few pages of the print book.

What You Can Learn from this Case Study

  1. Think in terms of margins and alignment when you’re creating a cover for a print book. Create a simple pattern, then simplify it further.
  2. When you have a pattern, a visual rhythm, add a little contrast.
  3. Try to have the design reflect the content (like the shape of the road on the cover reflected the fact that the government organization in question provided roads and other infrastructure to developing countries).
  4. Make sure the design of the cover flows into the design of the interior. Print out pages, look for recurring design elements, and add more if necessary to provide cohesion between the cover and interior, and among the interior sections.
  5. Look at what other designers have created (Google is useful for this analysis). Find ways to make your design fit in, but also find ways to make it unique—often a daunting task.

Custom Printing: Handling Bad News in a Print Job

Saturday, November 21st, 2015

A client relationship is a precious and fragile thing. It deserves care and nurtutring. Then again, so is a vendor relationship.

I recently had a problem with a client’s job. The perfect-bound textbooks she had sent to press were proceeding smoothly, but the box the book printer had contracted out was hitting a wall. More specifically, the art for the boxes, which would be printed in black-only ink via flexography, had gone to press on a Friday, and the proof had not come back to my client until the following Friday.

Normally this would not have been a problem, but the ship date for the print books was firm. Therefore, the boxes had to be at the printer on time for cartoning.

My client had asked about the proof mid-week, and I had learned from the printer’s customer service rep that it had not yet arrived. Once it did (after a week’s time, in the afternoon), my client had to get approval on the box proof from her boss. This necessitated holding the proof until the following Monday.

The long and short of the story is that there was no time to print and convert the boxes after the proof had been returned to the box printer/converter. To meet the deadline, the printer (and my client) had to stop the outsourced production of the boxes, and produce them in-house at the book printer’s shop. This meant affixing a crack’n peel litho label to the box instead of having my client’s logo and the book title printed on the side of the boxes.

My client was upset. She had had no choice. She had been forced, by time and schedules, into accepting her second choice. And she had done nothing wrong.

Enough Responsibility to Go Around

Here are some thoughts on what happened and who’s responsible:

  1. The book printer initially said my client had held onto the proof for too long. She should have known that getting a proof on a Friday and approving it on a Monday would compromise the schedule.
  2. My view was that a proof received late on a Friday afternoon was essentially delivered on the following Monday (on their regular schedule, printers usually start early and end early in the day).
  3. My client’s view was that she had called to ask the status of the proof mid-week. She had been proactive, yet she had to settle for labels.

What to Do Next

The first thing I did was track the actual dates and times of steps in the production of the box:

1. Art submitted Friday.
2. Proof requested Wednesday.
3. Proof actually received on following Friday.

I brought this to the attention of the book printer and noted that my client had requested the proof after four days but had only received it in the afternoon of the seventh day. He agreed that his subcontractor had missed the mark. The proof should have been available on Tuesday or Wednesday (three to four days out). This would have provided time for a reasonable proof-approval turn-around schedule and for the days needed to print and convert the boxes in time to ship the print books when they were needed.

I also noted that when my client said she needed to hold the proof until Monday to get her boss’ approval, I had called the customer service rep to alert her. I had received to response, so I had assumed that Friday at 4:00 p.m. was pretty much the same as Monday morning.

Fortunately, the book printer has been very responsive. We have a long history. He softened his stance and noted that the subcontracted box fabricator had compromised the schedule. He also said he understood my client’s irritation at not being able to choose the “look” of the boxes (flexography vs. litho labels) due to the lateness of the box fabricator’s proof submission.

On the other hand, my client was happy to have been heard. She didn’t want to change the plan. She just wanted the printer to understand her frustration.

I’m not sure exactly what will happen at this point, other than that the book printer will take over preparing the boxes (small, custom boxes that will each hold 20 copies of the print book).

What We Can Learn from This

I’m still learning. Next time, when the schedule is tight and I can’t reach the customer service rep I won’t make any assumptions (or leave any phone messages). I’ll contact the sales rep directly and immediately.

Here are some things you can learn.

  1. It’s not whether problems will arise during a print job. They will from time to time. Guaranteed. Commercial printing is a process, and things will go wrong. What’s important is how the book printer (or any printer) resolves the problems to the satisfaction of the client.
  2. Don’t be afraid to change course mid-stream. My client had to shut down the subcontracted box production (flexographic printing on the sides of the boxes) and switch mid-stream to litho labels. The final deadline was more important than the boxes. Know your priorities, and work with the printer to meet them, even if that means changing the game plan.
  3. Anything subcontracted out cannot be as closely controlled as any operation your printer does in-house. The printer is responsible for the subcontractor’s work, but he’s not perfect, so it helps to know when subcontractors are involved.
  4. Some processes do need to be subcontracted. Most printers cannot do case binding in-house, for instance. Nor can they do flexography in house. Vendors who specialize in these crafts must be called upon in these cases.
  5. Sometimes all you need is to be heard. My client needed the printer to understand her frustration. However, she could live with the compromise.
  6. Conveying bad news is most unpleasant, but it must be done from time to time. Acknowledge the feelings involved and even voice them, but then move on to solutions you can live with (or ask your printer for suggestions).

Large Format Printing: A Change in the Malls and Shops

Monday, November 16th, 2015

I’m seeing a change in the malls and retail shops. Mind you, I seldom buy things in malls, so I have—perhaps—a more objective view than many other people. What I’m seeing is the more creative use of large format print signage.

It seems that not that long ago, when a shop in a mall went out of business and had to be rebuilt and rebranded, a large, ugly sheetrock wall went up to block off the construction. Not only was it ugly, but it didn’t fit in with the rest of the décor in the mall, nor did it use the potential display space for anything productive.

But over the last few years I have seen a change for the better. As large format print signage has become more prevalent, showing up on the sides of buildings as well as on buses and cars, the wall space blocking off construction sites in malls has taken on the function of a huge advertisement.

In most cases the signage has maintained the “look” of the mall, in terms of color palettes, imagery, and fonts. In some cases the space has been used as a press release, advertising the upcoming opening of a new store, perhaps even a new brand. Graphic designers have spread huge, glamorous models across the walls to entice onlookers to buy once the store has opened, or reopened in the case of remodeling.

Benefits of This New Approach

  1. For a mall, a vacancy can be the kiss of death. Vacancies often breed more vacancies, and the point comes when the mall dies. Obviously it is in the vested interest of the mall owner to avoid the appearance of a vacancy. Fortunately, the splash of color and imagery that has become the norm for build-outs of new mall stores avoids this look of dereliction completely, and even suggests that something new and exciting is about to happen.
  2. Safety is another issue. People tend to feel less safe around construction sites, and this concern could slow down mall traffic. Large format print signage used in this way can mask the appearance of construction, while showing that the mall management is both aware of and sensitive to the concerns of its clients.
  3. Promotional opportunities are a third benefit. A savvy marketer can see a construction wall in a mall not as an eye sore but as a potential billboard to inform passersby of the kind of store coming to the new location, what it will be selling, and when it will open. Advertising: now that’s a good use of space.
  4. A sense of cohesiveness. A large format print display covering the construction site gives a feeling of unity within the mall, a sense that all of the diverse shops are part of a unified shopping experience. Even the currently unused space is important because it is on the way to becoming a new and important destination.
  5. Privacy. This really applies more to street corner drug stores and the like than to retail clothing establishments found in a mall. Sometimes people in a store want to avoid being in a fish bowl. They want privacy. In such cases a large format print display covering the windows of such a store can give passersby a good idea of what to expect inside while shielding those doing business within the building.
  6. New branding opportunities abound, and high-flying brands like Starbucks and Chipotle can establish a presence even before the opening day. I recently saw a Chipotle on a local street corner, not in a mall but within a shopping district. The signage for the upcoming burritos, bowls, tacos, and salads prepared the neighborhood for the opening while reinforcing the brand. It was as though the store was already there satisfying hungry customers. The large format print signage—clearly more so than any blank, vacant windows on the street—gave the sense that Chipotle was robust and expanding into all the neighborhoods.

What You Can Learn from This

Don’t waste any opportunity to advertise, to keep the public informed.

In an age where even the shopping carts in the local grocery stores have advertising emblazoned on them, it is prudent to not let empty space go to waste. This awareness can inform your own graphic design and print buying, in terms of the marketing opportunities you suggest to those higher up in your organization. If you come up with new ways for them to make money–such as creative uses for large format print signage–they’ll love you for it.

Large Format Printing: Display Marketing Options

Friday, November 13th, 2015

I just received a catalog from a trade show and marketing display printer, and it has given me a number of new ideas for large format print jobs. Here are some options you might want to consider:

Roll-Up Banner Stands

You’ve probably seen a number of these, anywhere from apartment lobbies to trade shows. First you extend a vertical, telescoping pole. Then then you grab a loop at the center of the horizontal case on the floor. When you pull up on the loop, a spring-loaded banner rolls out of the aluminum case. The bottom of the banner stays fixed in the case while the banner extends. When you reach the top of the vertical pole, you hook the loop onto the hook at the top of the extended pole. A horizontal bar parallel to the aluminum case on the floor keeps the banner dimensionally stable. Once you hook the top cross bar onto the hook, the banner is open and flat, and you’re done.

According to this particular catalog, you can buy stands that will contain banners from 24” x 80” to 62” x 96”. Some are even double sided. When you line up two or three side by side, you can create one giant image out of a number of smaller ones. Prices in this particular catalog range from just over $240 to $405, so this is an economical choice for a trade show.

One thing to note is that some makers of banner stands will let you pay a fraction of the cost to upgrade the banner stand by swapping out the original large format print banner for a new one. This is a useful feature if you update the content year to year.

X-Frame Displays

This is a bargain-priced alternative to a retractable banner stand. You have to hook grommets at the four corners of your large format print banner into hooks on the “X” support stand, but the background frame folds easily, and it keeps the banner dimensionally stable when it’s up and open. It’s not spring loaded like the retractable banner stands, but there are no moving parts to damage. It’s simple and elegant as well as inexpensive. (The grommets keep the hooks from damaging the large format print when it’s open.)

Table Top Displays

These are adorable when compared to the retractable banner stands on the floor. They’re miniatures in every way. Consider buying a big one for your trade show booth (usually a 10′ x 10′ space) and then a few of the miniatures for your display table. Keep in mind that they won’t be seen well enough to stand alone. You will need to get passersby into your booth with larger signage, but once your prospects have arrived, a table-top unit can show them useful branding imagery and information.

Table Throws

Under the table top displays noted above, you might want to spread out a table covering (perhaps a single color cloth) with a smaller printed runner on top. A runner might take up a third of the horizontal space and display an image and text on the top and also on the front of your fold-up table.

Or, you can produce a full-color table throw with a much larger image that extends across the top, front, and sides of the entire table.

A third option is the fitted table throw, which provides space for images and text on the top, sides, and front but hugs the legs of the display table as it slopes inward and down from the table top. This option looks more like a futuristic podium and less like a table covered with a table cloth.

Trade Show Displays

These printed walls can cost upwards of $980, according to the catalog I received, but they are large and dramatic. That is, they can attract customers. Picture a straight or curved wall of support struts covered with a fabric sleeve. The image on the sleeve can end before the curved “end caps,” or the full-color printed fabric can wrap around the entire large panel. You would use such a device for the background wall of your booth, then add lights on top, then either use the display case as a podium or perhaps add a table with a table throw in front of this large format print display.

Other variants have the fabric printed artwork attached to the fold-up background stand. In this case the image is on the front, and the geometric background struts are visible. Since the banner is already attached to the stand, you can open and install the entire display in seconds. Not only are such display walls lighter than those mentioned above, but they are also much less expensive, ranging from $225 to $1,100 in this particular catalog.

Other Large Displays

Some of the displays in the catalog include banners printed on the back and front of a pillow-case-like slip-on bag. This fits snugly on the aluminum display structure, which can be curved around your podium for larger banners. For smaller banners, the fabric sleeve can just be slipped onto a narrow vertical support structure. Some of the banner stands are even “S” shaped for a unique twist.

Feather Flag and Tear-Drop Stands

If you take an aluminum pole and curve it around like a shepherd’s crook (and then add a banner in the curve and down the straight part of the pipe), you have a feather flag or teardrop flag (depending on the shape). You can set these up with outdoor water bags (as ballast, to ensure stability of the base) or with stakes that can be jammed into the dirt if you’re outside on grass. For indoor use, there are bases with support arms.

Event Tents

You can even buy an entire printed tent. The structure comprises a matrix of interlocking, adjustable aluminum poles around which you can attach a printed roof and walls. Maybe you’ll attach just a back wall, or maybe three walls to create a more intimate, enclosed space. These are pricey but dramatic.

General Information

In most cases you’ll get the structure, a hard or soft case (a hard case for the larger format displays, and some cases that even come with wheels due to the overall weight of the display), and the graphic panels. As noted before, some of the panels can be pre-attached to the geometric display structures while others will be slipped on like a pillowcase or sock. Most of the large format displays I’ve mentioned are produced on polyester fabric for their stretch. Therefore, the printing technology used is dye sublimation, which provides astounding color brilliance.

Custom Printing: Packaging and Presentation Sell Products

Monday, November 9th, 2015

Presentation sells. It’s as simple as that. If you went to a thrift store, and a sales clerk dumped out a box of miscellaneous used goods and a selection of diamonds, you’d probably assume the diamonds were costume jewelry.

Conversely, if you were to go to a diamond store—particularly one that made you set up an appointment first—you’d probably assume the store sold the highest quality diamonds. In both cases, you could be right or wrong. Regardless, you’d probably agree that presentation mattered a lot.

A Sample Cosmetics Box

My fiancee brought home three tins of eye shadow the other day. They came in a laminated stack of corrugated board formed into a slab (for want of a better word). Picture a chunk of cardboard (eight layers deep) with three holes drilled in it. At the bottom of each is a finger hole. You push up and the eye shadow pops out.

On the front of the packaging (i.e., the topmost 4” x 6” piece of fluted board) is the name of the cosmetics company, along with the name of the product, the product weight for each tin, and one- or two-word descriptions of the colors. Around each of the 2” holes for the tins of eyeshadow, there is a black circle.

On the back of the corrugated packaging the company logo and product name have been repeated, along with lists of directions, ingredients, manufacturing information, and disclaimers (no animal testing, etc.). Each finger push-hole (for releasing the tins of eye shadow) is surrounded by another small black circle, and the color of each eyeshadow is printed beside each of these holes.

When you consider that all of the type is printed in black ink on the brown, sulfate corrugated board (except for white lettering on the front displaying the color names), the type/art is rather minimal. It looks like it was produced via flexography using rubber plates.

In contrast, the thick white ink displaying the names of the colors jumps off the brown page. I looked at this type under a loupe and tried to scratch off a little bit with the edge of a knife. My educated guess would be that the white ink was an example of custom screen printing due to its thickness and the slight pattern in the ink. In fact, it’s so thick that it even looks like press-on vinyl lettering.

Why Does This Matter to a Graphic Designer or Printer?

First of all, I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s like a box, yet unlike a box. It’s kind of gritty and casual, with the patterns of the fluting showing through the brown covering sheet of the corrugated board. The edges aren’t perfect where they have been glued together (laminated) and then cut and drilled into the final shape. In fact, it’s almost like a block of wood that has been shaped into a display case.

That’s what makes this work for me. It’s completely unique. Regarding the banged-up nature of the packaging, this goes with the earthiness and environmental look of the piece. The custom screen printing white ink labels jump right off the page, since their simple, sans serif, all-caps design in thick white ink are in such contrast to the background. And the eyeshadow tins sitting in the three little wells look pristine in contrast to the surrounding packaging.

If you found the three tins of eyeshadow on a shelf in a store, would you buy them? Maybe. But maybe not as quickly as if they were in this cool little display case. And everything that catches the eye of a potential buyer draws her, or him, one step closer to the final purchase.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Flexography is a particularly good alternative if you’re printing on corrugated board, particularly if you’re seeking a distressed, or gritty, look. After all, flexography doesn’t crush the fluted center of corrugated board. It also lends itself to a less than perfect ink application. For some products, this works better than perfect ink placement.
  2. Consider contrast in your packaging. Black type on brown cardboard will look subdued. Adding white, however, will draw stark contrast with the background. Consider where you want your viewer’s eye to go first, second, third.
  3. Do something dramatic. This designer did not put this packaging in a second box, so all of the rough edges are still visible. You know immediately that eight pieces of cardboard were laminated together. If you’re aiming for a hard-edged, high-fashion look, perhaps this won’t work. If you want a gritty look, it’s perfect—and unique.
  4. Choose the right technology for your design goals. In this case the designer knew the white ink would be more dramatic if it were thicker. It looks like she/he chose custom screen printing as the best way to do this. Another option would have been white foil stamping. (However, this would have required a die, and that would have added cost and time to the process.)
  5. For good or ill, it’s all about selling. So make a physical mock-up, and think about whether you’d buy a product in that particular packaging. This mindset makes you even more valuable to the marketing department and all other business development departments in your firm. After all, you’re making them money with your graphic design and custom printing.

Custom Printing: Printing Type Over an Image

Friday, November 6th, 2015

Readability is essential in design for commercial printing. If your reader cannot make out the words, or even if the design slows down the reader’s comprehension, you have lost your audience. Particularly now. Reader’s attention spans are getting shorter, not longer.

That said, sometimes you want to overprint text on an image or background of some kind.

I recently installed a movie standee for The Martian. Three words stood out, “Bring Him Home,” set on three lines with generous leading, reversed out of Matt Damon’s astronaut’s visor. The words are in all capital letters set in a bold sans serif typeface.

The large format print standee for this movie is just a large flat card with an easel back, but it’s powerful because of the design: layering, as they call it. You’ve got the type and the image. The viewer’s eye goes back and forth between the layer of the photo and the layer of the words, processing, absorbing both.

What Works Here?

Readability. This can be a nightmare. In this case, what makes the large format print design work is the shortness of the message, the extra space between lines of type, and the fact that the circle of the astronaut’s visor contains and focuses the viewer’s attention on the face and the words. Simplicity works. In this case, so does the expression on Matt Damon’s face and the fact that his eyes fall midway between two of the three lines of type. Balance.

What Can You Do When the Type Is Harder to Read?

Design Basics Index by Jim Krause addresses the same design problem in more difficult circumstances. Let’s say you have a lot of copy to print over an image. What can you do? Krause gives you some options in his section “Text Block Over Backdrop.”

Screen Back Part of the Image

You can print the image in the background using 100 percent, full-strength colors for the image. Then, you can place a copy of a portion of the background image in the center of the original, “ghosting” it back to 10 or 20 percent intensity. In this case, you’re using the full-strength image as a frame, and you’re making the lighter version of the image the reader’s focus.

On this somewhat transparent background you can now print quite a lot of type using black ink. Because the background has been “screened back,” your type will be legible. Your reader’s eye will not be confused, because there will be sufficient contrast between the background and the type. At the same time, there will be a visual connection (or similarity) between the full-intensity background image and the lighter, screened-back image overlapping it in the center of the photo.

Screen Back a Part of the Image, Option #2

You can also screen back only the top or bottom half of the background image, and then print the text in black over this light background. Again, the contrast between the dark copy and light background will make the text legible. Moreover, your eye will naturally follow from the end of the text into the remainder of the photo if the photo is below the text.

Screen Back the Entire Image

Or, you can screen back the entire image (instead of just the portion under the text box). This will maximize the contrast between the light background and darker, black text.

Stylize the Background with a Photoshop Filter

In Design Basics Index, Jim Krause turns a four-color image of a brick wall into a stylized orange and yellow background pattern. It’s still recognizable as bricks, but the intensity is diminished, as is the contrast between the light and dark areas of the brick blocks, so the overprinted text is legible. In this case, Krause has also set the type in a bold typeface with generous leading to improve legibility.

Set the Black Text Over a Vignette-Edged, White Text Background Box

Instead of creating a hard-edged mortise where the lighter, smaller image in front touches the full-intensity background image, you can fade the edges of a white block placed over the background image. The white panel will be cloud-like and will appear to float over the background. You can then print your black text on this white background. The text will be completely legible.

Reverse the Type out of the Image

This works better if there’s very little type. Consider the large format print movie standee noted above. But keep in mind that if the background image has both light and dark areas, portions of the type may become unreadable (readability depends on contrast between the words and the background).

If the type is minimal and there’s a readability problem, you can always add a drop shadow behind the letters or an outline stroke around the reversed letters. Or you can reverse the type out of a solid black box. Or you can even turn the full-color photo into a black and white image and then surprint the text in a light color (like yellow). In this case, remember that the yellow text must be short (only a couple of words), bold (perhaps a fat, bold sans serif face), and simple. Otherwise it won’t be legible.

Krause shows examples of all of these options in “Type Over a Backdrop.” What makes this useful is that it provides options. And sometimes as a designer your brain just draws a blank. Then you really appreciate new ideas.

Custom Printing: Small Posters Can Still Be Awesome

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015

I installed a box office cling yesterday for the movie standee installation company for which my fiancee and I work. It couldn’t have been larger than 8.5” x 11”, but I’ll bet that everyone who buys a ticket for any movie at these three theaters will see this particular poster.

A Description of the Poster

First of all, this small poster is a bold, colorful ad for American Ultra. The movie seems to be fun and flashy, about a stoner teen who is unaware that he has been trained by the CIA to be a killing machine. If you look at the hairstyles in the small poster; the clothing; even the red, white, blue, and yellow color scheme; you’re likely to get flashbacks from the ’60s. It has that kind of a vibe.

From a purely technical point of view, the poster comprises a layer of adhesive, then a four-color image, then what appears to be a white layer, then a clear plastic substrate. So it’s not technically speaking a static cling. Rather the adhesive (on the face as opposed to the back of the cling) makes the poster stick to the box office window interior, facing outward. It also appears to be repositionable, since I had to adjust the poster a bit. What this means is that the glue is adequate for adhesion but forgiving as well.

Why the Poster Works

In the real estate business, they say that the three most important aspects of a property are “location, location, and location.” I would extend this concept to advertising (or more specifically a poster). This particular poster (as per the requirements of the movie standee installation company) had to be affixed to the box office window. What that means is that everyone who buys a ticket for any movie in that particular theater will see the poster for American Ultra.

The Power of the “Field of Vision”

If you hold your tablet computer up close and watch a movie, it will totally absorb you, even though the screen is rather small. That’s because the color and motion capture your entire field of vision. The movie screen doesn’t have to be very large to do this. It just has to be close enough that your eyes don’t really see anything else in the room.

If the screen is farther away, it has to be larger to capture your attention. When I was growing up, the movie theaters were much larger than they are today (same size building, but usually only one or two screening rooms). Since the rooms were larger and we were farther from the screen, the screen had to be huge to capture our field of vision.

In the case of the American Ultra box office cling, since the poster is affixed to the ticket booth window at roughly eye level, and since you’re up close when you buy a ticket to the show, it can be this small and still grab you.

Compare this to a larger standee, perhaps even a flat card easel with a stand (essentially a large format print poster seen from a distance of ten feet or more). Such a poster has to be large, maybe 8 feet by 10 feet, to get the necessary “Wow” effect.

The Benefits of a Small Poster

Keep in mind that once a movie poster, banner, or standee has been designed, printed, and diecut, it must be packed up, sent to the movie theaters, and installed. Everyone gets a slice of the payment, so the total cost can add up quickly. An 80-pound unassembled standee can cost a lot just to mail, let alone assemble once it’s in the theater.

In contrast, the American Ultra box office cling fits in an envelope. Maybe it costs a dollar or two to mail. The installation cost is minimal: on the lowest end of the scale relative to banners or standees. So the cost to create, distribute, and install such an item is negligible compared to that of the huge standee for Walking with Dinosaurs (comprising a graphic panel and an animatronic dinosaur eye that moves back and forth).

Yet the American Ultra cling packs a punch because of its location, at eye level, up close, and because of its brilliant primary colors and stoner imagery. Hal Rudnick of ScreenJunkies even has a quote on the poster: “It’s as if Jason Bourne and Pineapple Express had a baby.” This quote seals the deal.

What We Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. When you design any kind of marketing piece, keep in mind the cost to produce and distribute what you create. That is, compare its potential selling power to the cost of making it and getting it in front of people. You may be surprised at how it is possible to create something powerful for very little money. You may also be surprised to see that some high-end design pieces may not be as powerful as some of the less flashy ones. Keep your eyes open. Notice what works and what doesn’t.
  2. Think about the colors, composition, and size of any poster you create. This is actually true whether you’re designing a small window cling, a large format print poster, or a building wrap—or any other marketing piece for that matter. Be mindful of how you can capture the viewer’s entire field of vision. How can you engage her or him? Color is an excellent way. Size is another. But be aware of the physical workings of the human eye (and its limitations) as well as the aesthetics of graphic design.
  3. Be mindful of where the piece you design will be “experienced.” This is easy to determine if you’re designing a point of purchase display. Maybe it’s a bit harder for a large format print poster, or a brochure. However, this does bear consideration.
  4. Your prime goal is to get a meaningful message in front of an open-minded prospect. You have a lot of tools at your disposal. Use them wisely.

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