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Archive for December, 2015

Custom Printing: Mass Customization of Bud Light Cans and Diet Coke Bottles

Sunday, December 27th, 2015

Although I myself don’t drink beer, if I did I’d probably want to check out Bud Light due to their cool, variable-data advertising campaign.

A close friend and associate just sent me an HP press release describing a press run of 200,000 unique cans of beer. Each one is totally different from all the others.

When I started reading the press release, I assumed that each beer can just had a different person’s name on it. That was the level of customization I had expected (the same art and different type). So I was overjoyed to learn that HP’s technology had advanced to the point where the underlying artwork itself could be varied to this extent.

According to the HP press release, HP digital print has been used to produce “200,000 unique, limited-edition Festival cans available at 2015 Mad Decent Block Party music festival events.” The HP press release goes on to say that Bud Light is the “first brand in the U.S. to use HP Smart Stream Mosaic for mass customization.”

The Implications of the Technology

First of all, all of the cans are unique. The press release notes that “31 designs were transformed into more than 31 million possible graphics, ultimately creating 200,000 unique can designs, with no two cans exactly alike.” Therefore, an offset press could not have produced this marketing press run. Instead, the Bud Light marketing team had to produce the job on a digital press, an HP Indigo. Mind you this is not just any Indigo. It is a WS6800, which is a roll-fed digital press specifically developed for package printing.

To prepare the art files that became the backgrounds for the cans, Bud Light designers created vector art in PDF format (PostScript curves that would be of the highest resoluton at any printed size, unlike bitmapped graphics produced in a photo editing program). For the most part, as was evidenced by the photo accompanying the press release, these vector graphic images were repeated geometric forms in an abundance of wild colors (squiggles, waves, lines, and so forth). The Bud Light logo was then surprinted over the colorful pattern.

Using this vector artwork as a base, the designers then used a software package for the HP Indigo called HP SmartStream Mosaic. According to Vivian Cohen-Leisorek in her March 4, 2015 article, “Taking Designs to Infinity, and Beyond” (on, this is a personalization application included in HP SmartStream Designer that “generates a large number of variations by randomly transforming the file, using scaling, transposition, and rotation. The results can then be used as the variable image assets in the graphic design of VDP jobs.”

So this particular application lends itself to an infinity of graphic renditions of small portions of a large drawing—ideal for the Bud Light cans. In fact, a photo included within Vivian Cohen-Leisorek’s article shows another marketing campaign by Diet Coke using similar varied patterns, apparently printed on shrink sleeves with the beverage logo surprinted over the vari-colored images.

The Implications for Marketing Campaigns

When taken together, the two articles about HP SmartStream Mosaic and the HP Indigo WS6800 say a lot about mass customization and digital printing:

  1. Digital printing is coming of age. With equipment such as the HP Indigo WS6800 (directly aimed at package printing) and the HP Indigo 10000 (with its much larger than usual image area—for a digital press–of 29.1” x 20.1” allowing custom printing of such large-format jobs as customized pocket folders), digital commercial printing is growing into an unstoppable force.
  2. All of this wouldn’t be happening without intense consumer demand for press runs made up of totally unique, individually personalized items—instead of multiples of the same product.
  3. Cool visuals on the marketing projects produced by Diet Coke and Bud Light attract attention, get people to want to collect the cans and bottles, and presumably create the kind of “buzz” that can drive up product sales in a major way.
  4. Software packages like HP SmartStream Mosaic can automate what would have taken a huge number of designers almost forever to produce not that long ago. So production costs can remain stable for unique marketing campaigns such as these two–as can the art production schedules. This also implies that when you pair intelligent computer applications with intelligent equipment, ultimately there are no bounds to the kinds of custom printing you can do.

What This Means for You, Personally and Professionally

Stay current. Study all of this new technology. At least know something about variable-data printing, electrophotography (and specifically the laser printing the HP Indigo does with its nanoparticles of ink in a liquid vehicle), inkjet printing, and the new design and prepress applications. A lot of the new stuff is happening right now in package printing (folding cartons, flexible packaging, shrink sleeves, and labeling). You don’t have to leave printing and become a web-page designer to stay relevant. There is life in packaging and large format printing, so the more you learn, the more in demand your skills will be.

Book Printing: Signatures Don’t Always Have to Be Four or Eight Pages

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015

I just learned something revolutionary today. You don’t always have to make your signatures four or eight pages when you’re producing a print book.

Maybe most other people know this, but it had always been drummed into me that my clients could increase or reduce the page count of a print book only in increments of four or eight pages. The goal was to make as many 32-page signatures as possible, then go down to 16-pagers, and then 8-pagers. I had learned that 4-pagers were not ideal, since they would require handwork. They could be produced, but they would often cost as much as an additional 8-page signature.

Enter Digital Printing

I’m working on a book of poetry with a client. The first run will be produced digitally on the HP Indigo (a smaller-format machine, with an image area of approximately 13” x 19”). This is because it will be an edition of 30 review copies (to be followed, after corrections, by a 1,500-copy offset print run).

The designer came up with a book length of 82 pages. My initial reaction was to say the book needed to be 84 pages (five 16-page signatures plus a 4-page signature).

I was wrong—and only because the print book is digital and a perfect-bound product. Here’s the reasoning.

A saddle-stitched book must have 4-page signatures (at least). Two of every four pages are on the low-folio side of the saddle stitches and two are on the high folio side (“low folio” just means the front of the book; “high folio” means the pages are after the center of the book). A 2-page signature (one leaf, front and back) would fall out of the print book. There would be nothing for the staples to hold onto.

In contrast (and this is what’s new to me), once stacked signatures have been gathered, and the spine has been ground off prior to perfect binding, the signatures really are irrelevant to the strength of the book binding process. The glue will grip and hold onto even two pages or one single leaf of paper. Granted, according to the printers with whom I discussed this matter, you wouldn’t want to put a 2-page signature in the first or last position in a perfect-bound book. In this particular case, the glue could weaken and the pages could fall out.

In case you’re wondering, this is how this relates to digital printing.

The sheet size of an Indigo press is very small (about a 13” x 19” image area for the smaller Indigo presses). Therefore, you would normally print only 2- or 4-page signatures. You would then fold them (if appropriate), and then perfect bind them into your print book.

Another way of saying this is that designing a book to accommodate the largest signatures possible (32’s, 16’s) is necessary only for offset printing, in which large press sheets can accommodate large multi-page book signatures. Digital printing on equipment like the HP Indigo (electrophotographic presses), only requires 4-page signatures for saddle-stitched work. And for perfect bound books, either 2- or 4-page signatures are fine.

This is rather liberating. The press—not the perfect binder—determines the press signature length.

How You Can Use This Information

This is not as arcane as it sounds. It really will be useful to you. Here are some thoughts:

  1. Based on the length of your book press run, determine with your print provider which technology is best: offset or digital.
  2. If you are producing an offset print book on a heatset offset press, ask your book printer what page count is most efficient (least expensive, with the least amount of handwork required). Give him a target page count and see what he suggests (adding or removing a few pages). As an example, the same poetry book I’m working on with my client as a digital job will be reprinted on a heatset web press at a run length of 1,500 copies after all editors’ corrections have been made. I just requested pricing from the printer, and he can only produce an 88-page book (not an 82- or even 84-page perfect bound book). This is based on the kind of press equipment he has, not the perfect binding equipment.
  3. If you want to add a 2-page signature, put it in between larger signatures to make sure the glue and binding pressure keep the page from falling out.
  4. Consider this useful information if you want to bind a single sheet of thicker paper into a print book. For instance, in many graphic design magazines, you’ll find a single sheet of sample paper from a paper mill. This sample is often a cover stock, heavier than the surrounding magazine text pages.
  5. Remember that this only pertains to digital printing. Offset presses usually wouldn’t print just two pages (one leaf, front and back) unless the job were a single-page flyer.
  6. This information also only pertains to perfect binding, not saddle stitching.

But you’ve got to admit. It’s rather liberating news. It gives you more options for the length of your print books.

Brochure Printing: Pairing Good Page-Design with Soft Paper

Monday, December 14th, 2015

I’ve always been interested in the stock market. It seems that when you identify a successful company, not only the financials and stock price but even the building design and marketing collateral scream quality. I include both Chipotle and Whole Foods Market in this category, probably because they’re local and I eat there. To me they are real, not just numbers on a computer screen.

The Sample Brochure

My fiancee and I stopped by Whole Foods for ice cream and bagels the other day. Whenever we enter Whole Foods, I always take note of the environmental design (colors, lighting, signage), the package design, and the print collateral. I always learn something, because this company clearly understands branding.

In this particular case both my fiancee and I were immediately attracted to a beauty-care product brochure. Here are some of the things I think Whole Foods marketing got absolutely right:


The four-page, 8.5” x 11” brochure was printed on bright-white uncoated stock. My fiancee thought the paper was coated, and it is in fact very smooth, but under a loupe I only see a sheen where the ink has been laid down.

Whole Foods positions itself as both health conscious and environmentally aware. Commercial printing paper choice works a subtle magic on the reader. A bright white sheet reflects back a lot of light and brightens up the colors. At the same time, an uncoated paper both softens the colors printed on its surface and also gives a more approachable “feel” to a design piece. It also suggests lower costs (whether or not this is true) and environmental sensitivity. And it feels less corporate. All of this supports Whole Foods’ stated mission.

Exterior Page Design

Greens and browns, as well as the yellow of sunlight, continue this environmental feel. On the cover of the four-page brochure you see the back of a woman’s head. She has long, curly hair, and she is holding a puff ball, presumably preparing to blow its seeds across the grass so new dandelions will grow in abundance. Behind her head in the top left corner, the sun brightens not only the sky, but also the trees in the background and her abundant curls.

What is exciting about the sunlight and its golden colors is that it seems brighter than anything else on the page. However, if you fold over the interior page to compare the bright white shade of the commercial printing paper to the printed sunlight, you will see that it only appears to be brighter due to its contrast with the surrounding elements on the page.

(That is, nothing can be brighter than the paper white of the press sheet; however, a savvy designer can make the reader see a hot, blinding sun on the cover of this brochure. In fact, if you look at the smaller type in the right-hand corner, as well as the even smaller Whole Foods logo—both reversed to pure white—you’ll see that the sun in the sky and the highlights on the woman’s curly hair are actually darker than the type and therefore only a well-crafted illusion of blinding light.)

Interior Brochure Design

Inside the four-page brochure, the headlines seem to be hand drawn. This makes for an approachable design when paired with products strewn around the two-page spread, some bleeding off the page. Most colors are earth tones, reinforcing the color scheme on the cover, although there are bright greens, oranges, reds, and yellows as well.

The designer has set all body copy in a simple, sans serif typeface, in contiguous columns grouped toward the center of the spread. The products lay casually toward the outside margins, interspersed with sprigs of rosemary, leaves, and botanical flowers to add contrast and continue the natural tone of the piece.

The back page continues the casual design and color scheme, adding a coupon to the mix (a “response vehicle” to facilitate “conversion”). That is, Whole Foods shows the products to be healthy, beauty enhancing, natural, and environmentally friendly through the designer’s choice of color, typefaces, and the design grid, and then makes the initial purchase easy and affordable with the discount.

One thing that puts this particular brochure over the top is its utility. On two of the four panels it educates the reader as well as selling the product. One article provides pointers on how to color your hair, while another gives you a recipe for a hydrating hair mask, including silhouetted photos of each ingredient.

The Verdict

Whole Foods knocks it out of the park with this brochure. Then again, I’m not surprised, since it fits in beautifully with the large format print signage in the store, the lighting and paint color palettes of the interior design, and the product packaging. Clearly the marketing department understands design, sales, psychology, and finance. It’s gratifying just to see this.

Custom Pocket Folders: Options for an Interior Brochure

Monday, December 7th, 2015

I have never been one to take “no” for an answer. Regarding a recent print brokering job of a custom pocket folder containing a brochure insert, I thought it would be economical to print a long run of the pocket folder and short, digital runs of the interior brochure to allow for easy content updates.

Specs for the Pocket Folder/Brochure Job

I’ve written a few blog postings about my client’s job recently. To step back a bit, this is an oblong, 12” x 9” pocket folder with either a horizontal or vertical pocket on the back cover to be used for laser printed inserts. Inside, my client wants to saddle stitch a four- or eight-page brochure with a short fold (for a step-down, or tabbed, appearance). The major problem that has arisen is the press run for the job. It is extremely short: 100 to 250 copies.

I received initial estimates from about five printers, and even a 1,000-copy option of both the pocket folder and inserts would cost only about $1,000 more than either a 100-copy or 250-copy press run. The greater percentage of the cost will apply to the diecutting (and the cutting die), embossing (and the embossing die), and offset printing make-ready.

Sometimes You Just Don’t Need That Many Copies

Sometimes you just don’t need 1,000 copies of a job. So for both a press run more in line with my client’s client’s needs (my client is a designer; her client is the end-user), I suggested the following: Print 1,000 copies of the outer pocket folder via offset lithography, and print 100 or 250 interior brochures via digital printing (HP Indigo high-quality laser printing).

The idea appealed to all five vendors, but we hit a wall: the Indigo 7000 digital press only accepts a maximum sheet size of 13” x 19”. Nevertheless, we may have a plan.

First of All, Why Hybrid Printing Would Be Ideal

In marketing, there is a concept of “evergreen” copy. This is information that will always be relevant. For my client, it might be a description of her client’s business goals and history. This could go on the outer custom pocket folder, which could be economically printed in bulk via offset lithography.

The opposite of evergreen material is dated material, such as information about current projects. My client would ideally change this every 100 or 250 copies. For this portion of the job, digital printing would be ideal.

Moreover, there could be a further benefit of optional selective binding. The end-user client (for which my client is designing this piece) could actually do some market research and then tailor the interior brochure to the specific customer (or to a group of customers). This is the beauty of variable data marketing, for which digital printing is perfectly suited.

Back to the Problem of the Maximum Indigo Press Sheet Size

So size is a problem. If I could find someone with an HP Indigo 10000 (which accepts slightly larger than a 20” x 29” sheet), I’d have to trust a completely new printer with a critical job. That would be risky. If my client were to design an interior brochure that extended all the way out to the trim size of the surrounding pocket folder (24” x 9” flat or 12” x 9” folded), the 24” wide press sheet would not fit in the HP Indigo 7000 (due to its 13” x 19” maximum sheet capability).

Now the step-down nature of the stitched-in brochure would shave off a half inch or an inch (for the short fold), but this would still require a 23”, not a 19”, page. But it’s closer.

Unwilling to give up entirely and produce the whole job via offset lithography (i.e., in the less economical manner), I considered options for including a slightly smaller brochure in a slightly larger pocket folder. Perhaps, if the outer custom pocket folder were printed on the inside (that is, on both the pocket and the interior front and back covers of the folder), then a smaller stitched-in brochure might not look too small. Just a thought.

Now if we were to fold a 13” x 19” press sheet (with an 18.26” x 12.48” image area), it would have approximately a 2.5” to 3” space between the end of the interior brochure press sheet and the trim of the oblong pocket folder. With more stepped down pages in the stitched-in brochure (eight rather than four), the distance could be reduced to about a 1.5” space between the end of the interior brochure press sheet and the trim of the oblong pocket folder.

Normally, I’d suggest making the custom pocket folder smaller. However, the inserts will be 8.5” x 11”, so a 9” x 12” size for the front and back of the pocket folder is essential. Producing a smaller, stitched-in brochure (jogging to the top or bottom of the pocket folder or floating in the center), might just be a viable option. It will all depend on my client’s approach to the design.

Or, she might choose to make the pocket folder vertical rather than oblong (horizontal). Or, she might choose the fall-back position of offset lithography (economical or not).

What You Can Learn From This Case Study

This design and custom printing process is ever-changing. Fortunately my client approached me for options before even starting the design of the pocket folder/brochure. And I approached five printers for feedback. So I would encourage you to do the same. Here are some rules of thumb:

  1. Rule #1 is to start early and involve the printer, the client, and the designer, when there’s time to explore options and costs. At this point you can recover from dead-ends.
  2. Ask for paper dummies. In my case, printers are already offering them. If my client, the designer, wants even more control, she can visit an arts and crafts shop, buy some poster board, and make several mock-ups of the pocket folder on her own, just to try out multiple options. To these she can add stitched-in brochure pages made from laser printer paper.
  3. Consider using more than one printing technology. If part of the job will be needed for a long, long time, but part of the job will quickly go out of date, consider using both offset lithography and some form of digital printing (inkjet or laser). Just make sure you’re not trying to match output from the two technologies exactly. Alter the design a little to minimize any differences in appearance between the offset and digital components.
  4. If the technology limits you (like the maximum sheet size of the HP Indigo limits my client), consider adjusting the design to make it work. Maybe my client will like the option I’ve suggested; maybe she won’t. At least she has options.
  5. Ask for cost estimates for the various options. In my client’s case, adjusting the design to fit the technology may look a lot more appealing if it saves $500 or $1,000. We won’t know until the estimates come back, but at least it’s worth considering.

Custom Printing: “One-Sheet” Movie Posters

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015

I was overjoyed to receive a phone call from a reader yesterday. My fiancee and I were driving to our art therapy class with our autistic students when my cell phone rang.

The reader asked me about movie one-sheets. She needed to have some printed, and she wanted to know what percentage of ink her commercial printing vendor needed to use to print the back of the one-sheet. I was clueless, so I suggested that she have her offset printer check the back of her sample one-sheet with a densitometer or spectrophotometer (the former checks the density of an ink film on a press sheet, and the latter determines the specific color based on its wavelength).

When we got home I went to school on one-sheets, researching the topic on the Internet. I found some interesting information, which I want to share with you—and particularly with the reader who called my cell phone.

First of All, What Is a One-Sheet?

I have mentioned in prior blogs that, among other things we do, my fiancee and I install movie signage (standees, banners, one-sheets, and the like). One-sheets are posters that are produced specifically for installation in light boxes (also called marquees).

The first time you install one of these, you will see that it is usually printed on both the front and the back. On the back is a lighter image printed backwards. On the front is the original, right-reading image.

To install a one-sheet, you open the light-box door and then pry up four spring-loaded clamps, one on each side of the rectangular light box. You slip the one-sheet into the lightbox, over the frosted glass covering the lights, lower the clamps, and then close and lock the marquee box. Done.

Uses of One-Sheet Posters

Not all one-sheets–even for the same movie—are the same. One might be for a premiere, another might note a particular movie opening date. You might even find a lenticular copy of one of these posters. In this case, in addition to displaying the promotional information for the film in stunning back-lit color, the one-sheet will display the image with the three-dimensional illusion provided by lenticular custom printing.

But even though the content of the one-sheet may vary from poster to poster, in all cases their purpose is the same: to advertise an upcoming or current movie and generate “buzz.” Given their relatively modest cost to produce, this is a good use of advertising funds (and delivery and installation funds as well).

History of the One-Sheets

Apparently the one-sheet has been around since the early 1900s, produced via traditional lithography (stone lithography) on thinner paper and later, in the 1930s, by offset lithography on clay-coated glossy stock. Originally, the larger, 27” x 41” size was the norm, but now the smaller 27” x 40” size is common, with the poster image bleeding on all four sides of the sheet.

Go to for more information. This was my first stop in my research.

Double-Sided Printing

Starting in the 1950s, movie theaters were printing on both sides of the sheet. On the front, the image and text were right-reading; on the back of the sheet the image and text were wrong-reading (backwards). What this meant is that when the back-lighting from the fluorescent tubes shone through the movie poster, the front and back images on the sheet would align perfectly.

The result was a more intense color (a sheet printed on one side might appear washed out when back-lit—although the white background did help maintain the color saturation on the front to an extent). And there was an added sense of depth and realism in the image, even without lenticular printing.

Obviously, these are much more expensive to produce than single-sided posters, but they are also far more effective.

The Percentage Screen of the Back-Printed Image

The PIE Blog reader who called me asked specifically what percentage the back-printed image should be. She was producing a one-sheet of her own, and her custom printing supplier had asked this question.

Based on my reading, the answer is that the back-printed image is 30 to 40 percent of the density of the inks on the front of the poster.

What You Can Learn from This Anecdote

  1. Sometimes it’s just fun to learn new facts about commercial printing history.
  2. Beyond this, it is interesting to note that posters of this sort are very effective marketing tools. After all, in one local theater we service there are no more than seven standees on each of the theater’s two floors. However, there are far more one-sheets both in the theater and out in the adjacent mall. Posters are like postcards. They’re cheap to make and they’re effective advertising.
  3. The fact that a commercial printing press can align the two images perfectly on the front and back of a one-sheet shows the precision that can be achieved on press.
  4. What you print on the back of something makes a difference. Think about it. If you print on acetate without first laying down a white background, the colors you print on the clear sheet will be washed out. (Non-one-sheet posters have white on the back of the poster for this reason.) Also think about this when you design a perfect-bound print book. (If the paper is not opaque enough, or if the ink on one side of the sheet is too dense, the image on the back of the page can be seen through the front.)

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