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Archive for August, 2016

Digital Custom Printing: With Indigo, Seeing Is Believing

Wednesday, August 31st, 2016

I read a lot about commercial printing. I mean, a lot. But nothing ever helps me understand a new technology quite like seeing it in action.

A while ago I described three new digital acquisitions by a local custom printing firm I’ve been working with for about a year as a broker. I have known the principals of the firm for over a decade, and I have a high level of trust in them. So when they invited me to an event to showcase their new HP Indigo 10000, Horizon Crossfolder AFC, and Horizon Stitchliner-SPF, I signed up immediately. I even talked my fiancee into coming—to meet people, eat good food, and see some terrific technology.

The HP Indigo 10000

I have written about this digital press a number of times in the PIE Blog, but a few things really impressed me when I actually saw the press sheets coming from this new commercial printing equipment:

I could no longer tell whether the output was offset or digital.

In fact, when I pointed this out to the owner of the company, instead of telling me how to distinguish one from the other, he just said, “That’s right. You can’t tell.” Then he explained to me why I was beginning to see the rosette patterns I had heretofore considered the hallmark of offset printing. He had been able to adjust the screening angles to match the “irrational tangent screening” of traditional analog halftones (that is, the angles at which the four plates—cyan, magenta, yellow, and black–are set relative to one another).

The colors were breathtaking.

The printer obviously knew which kinds of photos constituted “critical color.” That is, he had created a 12-page, self-cover showpiece that included images of food, fashion, a black-and-white photo with clearly more depth of tones than you could normally achieve on an offset press, and some landscapes and glamor shots with heightened color. To start with the color, the reds, purples, blues, and model skin tones were almost surreal, they were so intense.

Technically, all of this was due to the extended color set. That is, instead of the press using four colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) like most offset presses, the HP Indigo uses an up-to-seven-color inkset that can include green, orange, and violet along with the usual CMYK inks. Technically, what this means is a much wider color gamut than traditional offset printing will provide (unless, of course, you add offset “touch plates” to increase the offset printing color gamut—along with the price). But on a more visceral level, what this means is breathtaking color.

The images looked like they were continuous tone.

Most printing is done with halftone screens (I believe all but inkjet and some dye sublimation). Halftoning allows you to simulate varied color intensity, since the inks themselves cannot be lightened or darkened on a printing press. The size of the halftone dots will make the colors appear lighter or darker. However, on the HP Indigo the halftone line screens for the images I saw were 200 lines per inch (lpi). This is a very fine halftone screen ruling, and what it means is that the halftone dots are smaller than your eye can perceive without a printer’s loupe (i.e., without the dots being enlarged). On the glamor model shots and the images of food, this halftone line screen made the gradations of the skin tones creamy smooth and the food delectable. I had no awareness that these were images printed with halftone patterns.

The size of the press sheets was impressive.

I had grown used to viewing approximately 13” x 19” press sheets from digital presses, but these press sheets were closer to 20” x 29”. What that meant was that I was looking at stacks of large posters on the display tables this printer had set out for this gala event. They were no longer small but beautiful. The posters were so much bigger than I had grown used to, that I was really stunned, even though I was already familiar with the technical specifications of the HP Indigo 10000 digital press.

The Bottom Line

So the bottom line was that this printer’s evening event to showcase his new digital press made a huge impression on me, since I could no longer see a difference between offset and digital commercial printing output.

The Horizon Crossfolder AFC and Horizon Stitchliner-SPF

Recent advances in digital finishing show just how committed the industry is to doing “real” commercial printing work on digital presses. These are no longer glorified photocopiers. They are real presses.

I had read a lot about these two finishing machines before going to the event. But what struck me was twofold. Their “build quality” seemed more like the traditional analog machines I was used to and less like office equipment. And yet both machines had digital consoles that reduced make-ready to almost nothing. They had touch screens for all manner of pre-programmed folds (for the Horizon Crossfolder) and saddle-stitching configurations (for the Horizon Stitchliner).

In addition, I was pleased to see that the Stitchliner could take stacks of untrimmed press sheets, collate them, fold them, run them through a small saddle-stitching unit, and then trim the job to deliver a completely finished 12-page booklet. And all elements of the equipment fit together seamlessly into one small footprint, with all the quality I had come to expect from a handful of much larger analog machines.

I was very impressed—and anxious to see what the future will hold for digital printing and finishing.

Custom Printing: Old, Old Time Printing

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016

In the spirit of spring, with all the flowers and trees in bloom, I thought it fitting to discuss some primitive custom printing techniques that have been around (in some cases) probably since the Stone Age. They’re ideal for children’s art parties, and you may even want to do these projects if you have an artistic bent.


The first technique is actually a photographic printing technique. It uses the juices of plants and the sun to make images. This is how to do it:

  1. You prepare the substrate with an emulsion made from the juice of plants, flower petals, or berries. You can grind these into a pulp by hand, using a mortar and pestle, or you can use a mixer. The mortar and pestle is easier to clean and more efficient for small batches, but the mixer is easier on your hands, and it’s more suited to larger batches. In addition, if you use a mortar and pestle, the skins of the berries will be strained away (you won’t be able to sufficiently pulverize them by hand). You can use any number of plants. Research the plants online, and take time to experiment and play.
  2. When you have crushed or mixed the flowers, berries, or plants into a pulp, strain out the liquid using cheesecloth or a coffee filter. (You can also dilute the liquid with denatured alcohol, olive oil, or distilled water, depending on the result you’re after.)
  3. Choose a substrate, like thick watercolor paper, and paint the liquid emulsion onto the material. Keep in mind that the paper will be outside for days or weeks, so it should be durable (not fragile, lightweight paper).
  4. Choose an object, such as a flower or plant. Place the object on the emulsion coated (dry) sheet of paper and cover the paper and object with a glass frame (a sheet of plexiglass will do). As the rays of the sun destroy the coloration in the emulsion, the object covering the emulsion will resist fading (since the paper underneath will get less light). In the course of hours, days, or weeks (depending on your choice of emulsion), you will get a positive image of the object. Remember to choose a positive rather than negative image (think photography) since the sun will lighten the emulsion rather than darken it (as would happen with traditional darkroom-based photographic printing).
  5. If you frame and hang your print, keep it out of the sun, because the fading process will continue in direct sunlight.
  6. For those of you with little patience (like myself) two good plants to start with are corn poppy and dahlia. I found these online. They produce very sensitive emulsions that react quickly to the sun.
  7. Totally unrelated to this process, but directly relevant to contemporary commercial printing, is the fact that even a commercial print book left in the sun will do the exact same thing. I have a number of books with dust jacket spines that are much lighter than the front and back covers. I had these in a bookcase for many years in an office that received intense afternoon sunlight. The sun lightened the ink on the dust covers just as it will lighten the anthotype plant emulsions.


You can produce a similar result to anthotypes with treated light-sensitive fabric (treated with ammonium iron (III) citrate and potassium ferricyanide). This process was initially invented to produce photographic reproductions of plants, seed pods, etc., laid on treated paper.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Buy the sunprint fabric (i.e., specially treated fabric made to be light sensitive).
  2. Pin plant specimens–leaves, seed pods, etc.–to the fabric in an artistic design.
  3. Unlike the aforementioned anthotypes, this process goes fast. Once you have covered the fabric with leaves and petals, expose it to direct sunlight. It may help to use a light frame (such as a piece of plexiglass laid over the project). This will keep everything stationary.
  4. In about 15 or 20 minutes for cotton (less for silk), you’ll be ready to bring the fabric indoors. Rinse the material under running water until the water runs clear. The colors should set in 12 to 24 hours.

Hammering the Juice Out of Plants

A third way to do custom printing with plants and flowers is to lay the leaves on thick, absorbent watercolor paper, cover them with paper towels, and beat them with hammers. This releases the natural juices and creates a “contact print.” Here’s how to do it:

  1. Choose a durable surface, like a cutting board, that will tolerate the abuse. Cover it with a paper bag.
  2. Place flowers on the watercolor paper. You can tape them down to make sure they don’t move.
  3. Cover the flowers and watercolor paper substrate with paper towels or some other form of blotter paper.
  4. You can mark on the paper towels with a pen to identify where you will need to strike the hammer to pulverize the flowers or plants to release their juices.
  5. Try different hammers (ball peen and cross peen hammers, for instance). Hammer across in rows, and then up and down in columns. You will need to hit every part of the underlying plant to release the juices that will print on the watercolor paper.
  6. You can check your work by lifting the paper towel. If you have a complete image of the flower or leaf on the paper towel, you are probably ready to remove the leaves.
  7. Peel, scratch, or rub the pulverized leaves or flower petals off the watercolor paper to reveal the printed images below, made from the juices of the plants.
  8. You will have more or less success with this technique based on the amount of water in the plant as well as the coloration of the flower and the stiffness of its fibers. The paper substrate and your technique with the hammer will also make a difference in the final product.

How Is This Relevant to Printing?

All three are traditional custom printing techniques. This is what people did before they could digitally inkjet images onto fabric substrates for their industrial design projects (presumably decorating their grass-thatched huts, tipis, and yurts).

Digital Custom Printing: Form Follows Function

Tuesday, August 16th, 2016

I was actually starting to write an article about a little book my fiancee bought for her grandson, a book about fish. I had planned to start with praise for the sophisticated use of white ink on clear divider pages to allow for opaque overlays with different art on either side.

This still holds true. And I plan to do it shortly. However, when I checked the printed page with my loupe, I was even more impressed with the color fidelity, the crispness of the images, and the overall color gamut when I realized it was a digital custom printing job.

Now I’ve seen quality inkjet. I’m used to that. But this is an electrophotographic print book—laser printing. It has all of the qualities of an outstanding offset print job, none of the “artifacts” of either inkjet or laser, and none of the waxy appearance of laser printing toner. Wow.

Granted, I am a firm believer in the link between appearance and utility. “Form follows function,” as they say. The press sheet is a dull coated paper, and the ink does have a sheen. My first thought was that the images had been varnished so they would “pop” off the page. But they absolutely do not look like waxy laser printed toner on paper.

How Do I Know This Was a Laser Printed Job?

The first thing I looked for under the loupe was the halftone dot structure and placement. I usually work by process of elimination. I didn’t see the minuscule droplets indicative of inkjet, so I first ruled out this particular technology.

Then I looked for rosette patterns in the color images. Halftone dots indicate either offset or laser printing, but an actual rosette pattern to me is a dead giveaway of an offset printed job. It reflects the “irrational angles” at which the four printing plates have been set (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black).

I saw no rosettes. Moreover, the black halftone dots were pretty much on top of each other in some places.

High quality laser printing would be my educated guess as to the method of reproduction: dot patterns but not at the exact angles that would create the signature “halftone rosettes” of offset; no minuscule (almost continuous tone) ink drops. So I’d say it’s probably electrophotography (xerography, laser printing). Perhaps it is even from an HP Indigo press, or even a Kodak NexPress (although I just compared it to a job I absolutely know just came off an HP Indigo 10000, and I saw a lot of similarities).

So what?

The technology is certainly light years ahead of the typical office color laser printer, with its waxy ink laydown, and it is moving forward with drama and determination. All of this bodes well for digital commercial printing in general.

Back to Form Following Function

Form should follow function. Even the ancient Greeks believed this. That’s why putting a Greek Revival column in front of a window is questionable architecture even now (in some government buildings). Windows are made to offer an exposed view of one’s surroundings, not a view of a supporting column.

In a similar vein, this print book actually uses the technology in smart ways, functional ways.

  1. The book is for young children. It happens to be bound using a combination of “Wire-O” mechanical binding and case binding. This is called “concealed Wire-O binding,” and you’ll find it on a large number of cookbooks. The binding is durable. The pages lie flat. The loops of the binding wire are less likely to come unhooked. And the overall product is attractive. It’s even harder to crush the wire loops because of the covering of the case-bound spine. For a children’s book, like a cookbook, this is perfect.
  2. Since this is a children’s book about fish, it’s helpful to have the transparent overlay pages in the center of the two-page spreads. These conceal a portion of what’s on the right-hand page, but they can be flopped over to the left to reveal something underneath. Kids love surprises. On one spread you see a school of fish swimming over a colorful sea formation, perhaps coral. When you flip the page over, you see a scary eel under the coral (or rock). I was even scared. What makes this effective (other than the ingenious use of the transparent sheet in the center of a two-page spread) is the opaque white printed on the acetate sheet under the colorful coral (or rock). The opaque white completely conceals the eel. The technology supports the editorial goal. Form follows function. Cool.
  3. On another page, the same technique is used to almost completely obscure a flounder lying on the seabed. (The flounder looks almost exactly like the sea floor. When the kids turn the page, they can see how mother nature hides fish in plain sight by making them look like their surroundings.) A hit of opaque white behind the image makes the difference here, too.
  4. On another page you can flip over the transparent acetate sheet to see a “before” and “after” shot of fish being hooked by a fisherman (or woman). On another spread you see the “before” and “after” images of a little bear pulling fish out of a stream for a meal. So in these cases the use of the overlay sheet, and the use of opaque white toner, can provide a time sequence, a sense of one thing happening followed by another. Again, the technology and custom printing techniques support the editorial intent of the author. Form follows function.

It almost makes me want to have kids.

Custom Printing: Update on Dye-Sublimation Technology

Thursday, August 11th, 2016

I came upon an outstanding article about dye-sub fabric printing yesterday. It’s called “A Closer Look at Digital Dye-Sublimation Printing,” written by Richard Romano and published on 03/14/16 on I encourage you to Google it. It’s a great primer on this commercial printing technology.

Ever since my last trip to the beach, when I saw some of the new bikinis, I’ve been intrigued by the bright colors and intricate details printed on these bathing suits. Since they were for the most part polyester blends, it was clear to me that I was looking at the new generation of dye-sublimation fabric printing.

Romano’s Primer on Dye-Sublimation

In his article, Romano explains that sublimation is a process whereby a solid changes directly into a gas without first going through the intermediate liquid state. Dry ice would fit into this category, since a block of this substance turns into a cloud of gas rather than a puddle of liquid. Dye-sub commercial printing would be another example.

In dye-sub printing, solid particles of dye in a liquid suspension are jetted onto a receiver paper that has been specially treated to accept the solid dye particles and then to release them onto a substrate (in this case fabric). Since there is an intermediate step, the image printed on the paper transfer sheet is reversed, so it will print “right-reading” onto the fabric.

The next step is to “fix” or “outgas” the dyes onto the fabric. According to Romano, either a rotary or flatbed heat press is used for this step. Due to the heat (375 to 410 degrees Fahrenheit) and the pressure, the dye particles change from a solid state (on the transfer paper) to a gas. The gas then permeates the fibers of the fabric.

When they solidify, the dye particles bond with the fibers in the fabric. In fact, the heat actually melts the fabric slightly, “just enough to open up tiny gaps in the polyester fibers,” according to Romano’s article. When the fabric cools, the dye particles are strongly enmeshed in the fabric. This makes the resulting printed images durable, lightfast, and wash-resistant.

Why Use Dye-Sub for Polyester Fabrics?

Prior to reading “A Closer Look at Digital Dye-Sublimation Printing,” I had always wondered why this technology was best suited to either 100 percent polyester fabrics or fabrics with a high polyester content. Apparently, the high heat of the rotary and flatbed heat presses would burn cotton fabrics, but they only slightly melt polyester fabrics, allowing the dye to deeply penetrate the fibers.

Another question I had (which Romano answered) was how printers keep the transfer sheet in adequate contact with some of the new polyester fabrics, which are particularly stretchy. Apparently the transfer sheets can be fabricated with a slight tackiness, so they will hold firmly to the polyester substrate, keeping the material from shifting and preventing blurry images or ghosting.

Also a Good Choice for Rigid Substrates

In “A Closer Look at Digital Dye-Sublimation Printing,” Romano notes that dye-sublimation transfer sheets need not be confined to transferring images onto fabric. An additional use with wide appeal is to transfer images onto ceramic tile, wood, plastic, glass, or metal. This can be done as long as the material can first be treated with a polyester coating. This option opens up numerous industrial printing and interior design applications, from printing on wall coverings and drapes to printing on glass and flooring (albeit in some cases with an additional coating for protection).

In addition, dye-sub printing can be a useful technology for transferring images to mugs and other small novelty products (although for mugs, a special dye-sub press is necessary, which grips the cylindrical mug and applies both heat and pressure to transfer the image). Fortunately, these cost less than $300.

The Future of Dye-Sublimation Fabric Printing

Richard Romano describes the future direction of dye-sublimation fabric printing, noting that the trend is away from transfer paper and toward direct-to-fabric printing. However, in this case the dyes would still need to be sublimated in order to adequately bond with the fibers of the fabric.

What We Can Learn from Romano’s Article

  1. The first thing I see is explosive growth in the decoration of everything from garments to wall coverings, sheets, linens, and other useful and aesthetic fabric items. Furthermore, I see this spurring interior designers to create personalized environments for their clients, with no end to the vibrant coloration and intricate detail, as well as the unique, fully customizable presentation of the graphics.
  2. Client interest in fabric printing has spurred increased sophistication within the technology, which is creating a virtuous circle with manufacturers developing new dye-sub capabilities and thus further increasing consumer interest.
  3. Using a transfer-sheet-based workflow allows vendors to stock fewer items (for instance a stack of transfer sheets that can be applied to individual t-shirts as the client chooses a particular size and cut) instead of needing to stock multiple shirt colors in multiple sizes with the same printed images. This approach can reduce the need for both inventory and storage space.
  4. Any such growth in custom printing is exciting to see, particularly when it touches so many world economies.

Custom Printing: Using Bags to Sell Fast Casual Food

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2016

With our hectic schedules, my fiancee and I eat more fast food than I’d like to say. We have found that you can sleep, eat, and run a business from the privacy of your own car.

That said, a few of the bags in which the fast food has been served have piqued my interest due to both the simplicity of their presentation and the power of their marketing message.

The McDonald’s Bag

My fiancee is addicted to Egg McMuffins. I love the Filet-O-Fish sandwiches. What has struck me, though, is the power of simple, bold colors on unbleached kraft paper (i.e., paper bags). On its main bag, McDonald’s has printed its name, the golden arches, and its signature tag line (“I’m lovin’ it”) in bold primary colors. Moreover the golden arches are positioned slightly off center on the back of the bag, and they extend onto the bag’s side.

A small red vertical bar out of which the tag line is reversed balances the larger (but lighter) golden arches, creating an asymmetrical weight distribution. This actually evokes more drama, movement, and excitement than would a centered, symmetrical approach to the same information. In particular, the golden arches’ extending off the back and onto the side of the bag gives a more expansive feeling to the design.

What really intrigues me, though, is the treatment of the iconic “McDonald’s” moniker.

“McDonald’s” has been set in an extra-bold, sans serif typeface, broken down into three lines of type. It is printed in a light blue ink, so the heaviness of the typeface is somewhat subdued in an elegant and sophisticated way.

Keeping true to the current fashion of breaking words arbitrarily (not hyphenating them at syllabic points), the McDonald’s logo has been broken down into these three groups of letters: “McD/on/alds.” I understand and appreciate the first line. It offers the traditional nickname for the company: “McD’s.” The letters “o” and “n” fill the next line, which is set under the first line with just a smidgen of space, providing an almost sculptural look reminiscent of the “I(heart)/NY” image from 1977, created by Milton Glaser. The shape of the letters is striking, and the lack of leading makes this even more evident. It also ties the first line closely to the second.

As noted before, there are no hyphens. This is rather avant garde, placing the design (and the patron holding the bag) in the position of the intellectual or artist (i.e., stylish and contemporary). The third line contains the letters “alds” set in a much smaller point size but again placed under the preceding line with almost no leading.

Even though the word has not been broken into identifiable syllables, it nevertheless reads like the expected “McDonald’s” with the added benefit of looking avant garde, artistic, and cool.

As a final note, all three lines have been placed immediately against the left vertical fold of this panel of the bag with no surrounding space. That is, the type abuts to the fold. This creates even more drama. In addition, the structure of the three-line word, “McDonald’s,” is perfectly left and right justified. This accounts for the differences in type size of the letters on the three lines (so they will be precisely justified), but it also allows the bag-holder’s eye to travel down the contour of the letterforms on the right-hand margin.

So What Does This Get You?

Some people just eat the food. I like to read between the lines. This is what I learn from this McDonald’s bag:

  1. McDonalds is rebranding itself to look environmentally aware and sensitive. The bag is made of unbleached kraft paper (no caustic chemicals were used that might harm the environment). The lightness (thin ink film) of the red, yellow, and blue custom printing gives prominence to the absorbent kraft paper.
  2. McDonald’s has an artistic eye. The bag reflects an aesthetic sensibility.
  3. Artistic implies “intellectual.” Therefore, the branding invites the viewer to join the exclusive realm of the intellectual while eating his/her burger and fries. People have a need for affiliation, and a good marketer will draw the viewer into the small and exclusive “club.” And McDonalds is an ace at marketing.
  4. The homage to the big, blocky sculptures of the 50s and 60s (as reflected in the large, heavy type) reinforces this artistic, upscale look.

Pretty soon you’re stopping at McDonalds several times a week, as my fiancee and I do, absorbing both the food and the marketing message relayed through this custom printing job.

The Chipotle Bag

I’ve written in earlier PIE Blogs of my love for the simplicity of Chipotle’s commercial printing materials. A hand-drawn illustration, a little type in brown ink. The minimalist look can go a long way.

Chipotle has been producing “Cultivating Thought—Author’s Series” bags that wax philosophical. The one in front of me has about a thousand words, in stream-of-consciousness style (like William Faulkner or Gabriel Garcia Marquez), addressing our tendency as a species to not watch where we’re going or be present where we are. It’s called “Two Minute Driving Lesson” (by Jonathan Franzen). The article weaves in and out of driving skills, politics, the ecology, and philosophy, basically asking the question: “If you’re taking such an extremely short view, how are you even supposed to see a pedestrian who’s starting to cross the street?”

Actually, it literally asks this question. Franzen’s query takes up most of one side of the bag, printed in brown ink in a simple sans serif face (not unlike the McDonald’s bag but in a less bold type) with generous leading between the short lines of text. There’s also a Chipotle logo bleeding off the right bottom side of the bag, and the “Cultivating Thought—Author Series” tagline mentioned above reversed out of a solid brown that bleeds off the right, left, and bottom of the bag.

As a culture, we seem to be moving away from images in our marketing materials to embrace type, both for its message and for the sheer visual beauty of the letterforms.

So What Does This Get You?

Here are some thoughts:

  1. People still read. In fact, in the morning while eating cereal, a lot of people read the cereal box. Chipotle marketing execs are smart, and they realize they have a captive audience. Presumably people will read their fast casual food bags while eating (unless they are on their smartphones).
  2. Brown type on light brown kraft paper just feels ecologically sensitive. Perhaps it even makes you want to stop at Starbucks for a latte. Hand-drawn illustrations incorporating witty, provocative signs above a frazzled driver in a car (just like my fiancee and me, driving to and fro’ with our McDonald’s and Chipotle bags) add humor. However, they also evoke a sense of recognition in the reader. He or she is “hard-wired,” as the bag says, to be short-sighted. Like the McDonald’s bag, the Chipotle bag draws the reader into the experience and provides a sense of affiliation. “We are all part of this group,” the reader can say. And, as we know, affiliation sells product.

The Overall Outlook

First of all, I’m pleased to see any marketing collateral that requires people to read. We don’t do enough of that as a culture. More than that, I like marketing collateral that is edgy and that makes people think. Both the McDonald’s and Chipotle bags do this.

Finally, I think it’s masterful marketing to use a platform (or substrate in this case) that will be right before the eyes of the person eating the hamburger, fish sandwich, or burrito, to not only sell the product but to also challenge the user to think.

Andy Warhol would be proud.


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