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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: Printing Type Over an Image

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.

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