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Archive for October, 2016

Commercial Printing: Three Intriguing Printed Samples

Saturday, October 29th, 2016

My fiancee always has her eye out for exceptional printed samples because I’m always talking about custom printing. She has become a printing aficionado, and I always get a steady stream of new ideas from her.

We were at the beach recently, and she gave me three commercial printing samples that caught my eye. Here’s what she gave me, as well as my assessment of either why they work particularly well or what we can learn from them:

The Cosmopolitan Cover Tip-On

To begin with, a tip-on is a separate printed sheet glued to the front or back of a press signature. In many cases I have seen fugitive glue used in this process to allow for the easy removal of the attachment. Fugitive glue is like rubber cement. You can easily peel off a printed sheet (or even an object like a plastic card) that has been fugitive glued to another printed sheet.

This particular issue of Cosmopolitan magazine included a fake cover (or additional cover), with the logotype of the magazine (often referred to as its “flag”) printed at the top of a cover-weight gloss press sheet (above a perfume ad mocked up to look like an actual magazine cover). It had the word “Advertisement” printed at the top, but to me it looked like a real cover (complete with a knock-out box for the inkjetted address, carrier route sorting information, and the Intelligent Mail barcode).

Now I have seen many similar tip-ons added to the front cover of magazines, but for the most part they have been produced on uncoated vellum bristol paper (postcard stock). They have looked like cover wraps, and for the most part they have imparted information (usually that it was time to renew my subscription) adorned with the publication branding and some light marketing copy.

What made the Cosmopolitan tip-on so intriguing was that I was certain—until my fiancee peeled it off the actual magazine cover—that this was in fact the true cover. The logotype made it believable. It was sexy. Now that’s powerful marketing.

The Organic Apple Chip Bag

It takes some serious marketing mojo to get away with charging more than $5.00 for a small bag of chips. And this particular vendor succeeded masterfully.

The next piece, which would be considered “flexible packaging,” is printed in solid black heavy coverage ink. With a loupe I can see black halftone dots under the solid black ink coverage. I learned this technique when I was an art director. Black ink by itself can look washed out. Since I can see some imperfections in the ink when viewed through my loupe (it looks a little uneven and watery in places), my guess would be that the job had been printed with flexographic equipment. This is often used for flexible packaging.

To minimize the slightly washed out look of the ink, the designer had specified black ink over a black halftone screen (as an alternative, he or she could have also opted for a “rich black” ink, a composite of black ink and other process colors). This works beautifully. It makes the entire bag seem lush and indulgent. It also makes the 4-color apple and reversed, hand-lettered type (actually just a simulation of hand lettering) jump right off the page.

The design is cute (the logo is made of sliced apple chips placed to make letters), and the simulated hand lettering gives the product a relaxed, casual feel. The organic specifications (gluten-free, fat free, non-GMO, etc.) provide a healthful and sustainable aura, targeted at customers in the upper financial echelons who want to be healthy and environmentally sensitive. If I had the cash, I’d pay this much for a product of this caliber.

Needless to say, since you can’t test the chips before you buy them, all of this mojo has to be conveyed through the lush ink coverage, the contrast between the images and the background, the playful typefaces, and “crunchy granola” marketing copy. This is a success.

The Sidewalk Chalk Box

The third sample is really less of a marketing success and more of an educational tool, providing in a small format all you need in order to grasp the concepts of die cutting, scoring, and folding (as well as laminating a 4-color printed cover sheet to fluted cardboard stock).

What appeals to me about this simple package (known as “folding carton” work on “corrugated board”) is its educational value. If you disassemble the carton and lay it completely flat with the printed side down, you can see the fluting of the cardboard, all the scores for folding the flat box into a three-dimensional finished piece, all the die cut tabs plus the die cut window for the front of the box, plus the one tab that has been spot glued to allow for joining the four sides of the box (exclusive of the top and bottom) into a cardboard cube.

On the flip side, you have a sheet of enamel litho paper, printed in four colors and laminated to the corrugated board.

When you wrap it all up and stick the tabs where they should go, you have a three-dimensional product. It is no longer a flat, printed sheet. It is an object you can hold in your hands, a cube, even before the manufacturer puts the toy in the box.

What makes this interesting to me, beyond the education it provides in how boxes are constructed, is that in creating every box a designer must take into consideration the physical properties of the finished packaging as well as its design (how at appears) and its marketing message (both the content of the copy and the emotional effect of the graphic design).

But once it’s in the store on the shelf with innumerable other items, all of this goes out the window. Then it’s just you and the box. Will you buy it, or won’t you?

Custom Printing: The Web, a Great Way to Learn About Printing

Monday, October 24th, 2016

I was brought up on paper. I like print books and paper invoices. There’s something permanent and tangible about ink or toner on paper. Ironically enough, however, I have found the Internet to be the best place to learn about the new commercial printing technologies.

For instance, while reading about the most recent drupa printing technology exhibition in Germany, I learned about a lot of new digital equipment, but I found myself unable to fully grasp some of the physical processes described only in words. So I went to YouTube for help.

Highcon Digital Finishing

The first technology I researched through videos rather than written descriptions and fact sheets was the new cutting and creasing equipment produced by Highcon: the Euclid line.

I had been so used to the traditional method of cutting and creasing—the creation and use of metal dies and rubber components attached to flat wood sheets—that I could not quite wrap my brain around how to do this digitally without physical, metal dies.

My trip to YouTube led me to videos of the Highcon Euclid. I could see the equipment jetting polymer ridges onto the press drums such that they would score the paper substrate as it traveled through the machine. Seeing this happen made the process immediately understandable.

Then I got to see how lasers could cut the paper substrate, providing finished cardboard box blanks that could then be assembled. The video showed actual burn patterns of lasers quickly darting around the moving paper substrate as it progressed through the equipment. Who could grasp this process as fully from a written description as from a few seconds of video? Clearly if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video is priceless.

Offset Printing on Bottles

I had been pretty clear that offset commercial printing was not an option for decorating plastic hair product bottles. My understanding of the process was that the heavy pressure of offset printing rollers would crush almost anything other than paper and packaging board. In fact, my understanding was that flexography or custom screen printing were the technologies of choice for any crushable substrate.

So when I read an article mentioning offset bottle printing, I looked to the Internet for video footage of offset printing being done on plastic hair product bottles. It was just like being a fly in the pressroom, witnessing from multiple vantage points exactly how the press blankets could come into contact with the bottles without crushing them.

Only a few seconds of video made the biggest impression on me, as I could see the chain operated conveyor bringing hundreds or thousands of bottles, one by one, to the rotating blanket cylinder of an offset lithographic press. I could see the exact point of contact as the rotating press cylinder deposited the inked graphics (and even the small descriptive type) onto the rotating plastic bottle. What could have been a mess was actually a never-ending line of bottles adorned with small, crisp type and graphics.

And again, I could not have envisioned this quite as well by reading a paragraph of text as by seeing even a few seconds of the video showing the operating press.

What We Can Learn from This Experience

Both of these experiences have taught me a few things about human psychology, the virtues of video as a learning tool, and the way print and digital media can actually complement one another. Here are some thoughts on the matter:

  1. I think people are creatures of habit. They see what they are used to seeing or expect to see, and they often can’t quite envision a new way of doing things. In my case, I was so used to the idea of hammering thin metal rules into wood to create both scoring (or creasing) dies and cutting dies that I couldn’t quite picture a machine that could use digital information to jet a fluid that could harden into a creasing rule—without the use of a metal die. In this case, a video made all the difference. It gave me the proverbial “aha!” moment of intuitively grasping the process.
  2. In understanding a physical process, such as commercial printing or finishing, even an amateur video is helpful. High-end video production values like professional actors, voice-overs, or music would have been unnecessary.
  3. Since I now understand the core manufacturing processes, if I want to expand my knowledge further, then a written document explaining the processes and reviewing the equipment specifications would be extremely helpful. In this case, print media and video would be complementary educational tools, each with its own strengths.
  4. My next insight pertains more to commercial printing than to digital media. I could see how inventive pressman can be. In producing the plastic bottles, the offset press actually printed a vertically oriented image, unlike that of any other press I have seen. The never-ending progression of plastic bottles dropped vertically to a position in front of the rotating blanket, which spun the bottles around at the precise speed to deposit the ink. (In most cases this would have been a horizontal process, and the rollers would have crushed the substrate.) The ingenuity behind this workflow is astounding.
  5. My fifth comment also pertains more to digital custom printing and finishing. Watching the lasers jet around the substrate cutting out blanks of cartons, and seeing the nozzle jetting a polymer material that would harden into creasing ridges on the rotating drums, made it clear to me that digital finishing—and not just digital printing—is coming into its own. Not that long ago, digital printing was more akin to laser copying. Then it improved, and the images were colorful and crisp, but you had to move the press sheets to traditional analog finishing equipment to complete the job. Now the manufacturers are getting serious and addressing all components of the manufacturing process, from laying down ink or toner on paper to cutting, creasing, and folding a job digitally.

Custom Printing: New Orders For Nanography at drupa

Monday, October 17th, 2016

An associate just gave me a link to an article about drupa 2016 and Nanography. This time it seems to actually be a real, ready-for-primetime technology, and the proof is in the actual commitments at drupa by purchasers of the presses.

First of all, the press release from Landa is entitled, “Landa Announces Beta Sites and Major Orders.” You may find it interesting, and I’m sure it can be accessed online. It is dated 5/31/16.

Secondly, drupa is touted as, “the largest printing equipment exhibition in the world, held every three years (4 years in the past) by Messe Düsseldorf in Düsseldorf, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany.” (From Wikipedia).

Thirdly, in the simplest terms, Nanographic Printing involves inkjetting special nanographic ink onto a heated conveyor in a Nanographic press. The drops of ink quickly flatten and lose their water content, forming an ultra-thin polymer ink surface image on the conveyor. From the conveyor, the image is then transferred to the commercial printing paper. (Unlike inkjet, the ink is not jetted directly onto the paper.) By the time it is transferred to the substrate, the ink film is completely dry. This allows for superior ink holdout (the ink sits up on top of the paper fibers). Halftone dots are especially crisp (since there is no dot gain), and the thin film of ink not only cuts ink costs but also provides an especially wide color gamut. And due to the nature of the process (the ability to use off-the shelf printing stock), paper costs can be controlled.

So how do drupa, the Landa press release, the pre-orders for the new commercial printing equipment, and Nanographic Printing all relate to one another?

According to the press release, at drups 2016, the following heavy hitters committed to the Landa Nanography process:

  1. Quad/Graphics, “the largest publication printer in the US” (Landa press release), will bring Landa Nanography to the short-run, versioned publications market (magazines and journals). This will involve “magazine quality” (Landa press release) work on light-weight coated and uncoated press sheets.
  2. Cimpress, “the global leader in mass customization and web-to-print” (Landa press release) will buy and install up to 20 presses “upon completion of successful testing.” Cimpress “aggregate[s], via the Internet, large volumes of individually customized orders for a broad spectrum of print, signage, and other products.” (Landa press release).
  3. Landa will install its presses at beta sites across Europe and the United States in 2017.
  4. These beta sites will include such vendors as colordruck Baiersbronn (“Germany’s leading folding carton specialist,” according to “Landa Announces Beta Sites and Major Orders”). colordruck will install a Landa S10.
  5. Another beta site will be Elanders, “the Sweedish headquartered global print and packaging supplier” (as per the Landa press release). Elanders will install a Landa S10P Nanographic Printing press with perfecting capabilities.
  6. Imagine! (noted in the Landa press release as “North America’s leading provider of large-scale point-of-sale displays and in-store signage”) will beta test the Landa S10 B1 press, which is ideal for point of purchase and point of sale work due to its 41-inch format.

The Implications

Here are my thoughts:

  1. Granted, “Landa Announces Beta Sites and Major Orders” is a press release. You could say it is just promotional literature. However, I think it speaks volumes that such prominent vendors as Quad/Graphics, Cimpress, colordruck, Elanders, and Imagine! have gotten behind the technology. They are putting their reputations on the line, and this says a lot about their belief in Nanography.
  2. The technology will reduce make-ready times, allow for large-format printing, and maintain offset quality, which will establish Nanography as viable competition for offset lithography.
  3. The specific configurations of Landa’s Nanographic presses (the Landa S10 standard; the S10P for double-sided printing; and the W10P, a Nanographic web press that can print 656 feet per minute of publications, catalogs, and direct mail work) address the main growth sectors of commercial printing (general commercial printing; short-run, highly versioned periodicals; large-format point of purchase and point of sale displays; and folding cartons and flexible packaging).
  4. The short-run, variable nature of Nanography allows packaging printers to print smaller runs in response to market trends and economically alter the packaging for promotions or individualized messaging campaigns.
  5. In short, Benny Landa’s presses (Benny Landa is chairman of the Landa Group) will provide offset quality and speed while offering mass customization capabilities, the option of smaller press runs and versioned press runs, and even economical mock-ups and test marketing initiatives.
  6. If all of these beta sites are satisfied with their Landa Nanographic presses, this will establish Nanography as a mainstream, affordable alternative to the more traditional commercial printing technologies such as offset lithography and flexography.
  7. As an added bonus, Landa has developed “Nano-Metallography” for these presses, a replacement for hot foil stamping at half the price.

High quality, quick turn-arounds, and economical costs: You just can’t beat that combination.

Commercial Printing: A Shopping Bag Is Worth a Thousand Words

Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

My fiancee got a Lululemon shopping bag in the mail today. She bought it on eBay. I’m always pleased to see how easy it all is, pushing a button on the computer and then having boxes arrive at the door.

In this case, my fiancee asked me to look closely at the product, which I did. She said it was paper, but on closer examination it seemed to be plastic. It was almost entirely black and white, except for the red Lululemon logo.

Since I am a student of commercial printing and marketing (and since I’ve been intrigued by the almost cult-like approach to athletic apparel recently), I started my research online. First I wanted to know what it was and how it had been made.

The Printed Product

The bag is a little over a foot in either dimension, with gussets that give it a 6” depth. It is surrounded with black “piping,” made of a woven plastic fabric. Online promotional product articles speak of polypropylene bags such as recycled plastic gift totes and grocery totes that all seem to look like this one (structure, not design). So I will assume at this point that the bag my fiancee bought is a polypropylene tote.

It seems light but surprisingly durable, with a pattern of minuscule linked diamonds crossing the entire surface of the plastic fabric, except for the woven handle and the piping. Everything is reinforced with stitching, so apparently this bag can carry some weight.

In a world full of 4-color marketing excess, this bag is sophisticated in its black-and-white simplicity (except for the bright red logo–as mentioned before).

Interestingly enough, the artwork seemed at first to be strands of hair, drawn with charcoal or graphite. The image extends across the front and then continues on the back (but does not cross the side-panel gusset). The art has an almost Asian look, like a sytlized fish print in black ink with the signature “seal” in red at the bottom (the “hanko” on the “Gyotaku”).

The Manufacturing Process

I searched online for printers well-versed in this kind of work (there were many), and the techniques they used ranged from custom screen printing to thermal printing. Due to the thin ink coverage, I would assume the manufacturing process had not been custom screen printing. (If this had been the case, I think the screen printing ink would have been much thicker, like what you would see on sports cap visors and printed messenger bags.)

That left either direct thermal printing or thermal transfer printing. In my recollection of the 1990s, the direct method was achieved with wax sticks of color (like crayons) that were loaded into the thermal printer. These were heated until they liquefied, and the fluid was jetted (like inkjet printing) onto the substrate. The Phaser (invented by Tektronix and then purchased by Xerox) was an example of this technology.

Presumably, thermal transfer printing would be a comparable process but with a transfer-paper intermediate step (similar to dye sublimation, in which heating the transfer paper will turn the dyes into a gas that will then migrate to and bond with the polyester substrate).

Based on my reading, either approach could have been used. Apparently some thermal (direct or transfer) work does not have superior rub resistance (which would be a problem with an item like a shopping bag that needs to be durable). However, my reading suggests that thermal printing works well on polypropylene. (This actually made me think I was on the right track with both the polypropylene substrate assumption and the assumption of the custom printing technique used.)

Under a loupe I could see the halftone dots (a screen of red under the Lululemon match red logo, presumably added in order to intensify the color) and also in the hair-like pattern of the black and white art. If I had not already read about direct thermal printing and thermal transfer printing, the somewhat imperfect nature of the halftone dots would have suggested to me that flexography had been the commercial printing technology used for the bags.

So I’ll go with thermal printing as my educated guess, given my findings on the bag-printing website.

The Marketing Message

Inside the bag was a fabric tag with a URL pointing to several videos about the artist, Heather Hansen.

In these videos you see the artist using her entire body to make the art. Holding in each hand what appears to be a drawing charcoal stick (or graphite stick or conte crayon), she captures on the huge canvas (or paper) in repeated circles and loops the physical movement of her body (in various yoga-like stretches). (It is vaguely reminiscent of making angels in the snow—but using paper or canvas, and graphite or charcoal, as the media.)

Like the action paintings of Jackson Pollock, Heather Hansen’s work is a snapshot of her physical movement within the moment. She captures her athletic motions (almost a meditation with movement) in the circles and loops of graphite, ending up with repeated geometric patterns that remind me of the forms made by the “Spirograph” (a drawing toy popular in the 1960s that created a myriad of mathematically based shapes—like fractals).

From a marketing point of view, this is brilliant. The tag in the plastic tote (essentially a print product, even though it is also functional art) leads you to an online experience. In this feat of multichannel marketing, you get not only the plastic tote bag but also the multi-sensory experience (the video and audio track plus the sometimes ethereal and sometimes tribal soundtrack) describing the artist’s work.

Why This Works So Well on a Marketing Level

  1. The product is inexpensive but durable. This registers as “value,” which adds to Lululemon’s brand image (and the image of those who carry this tote bag).
  2. The overall “feel” of the bag is “fine art” rather than “graphic art.” (The commercial printing technique captures all of the smudges and imperfections of the charcoal drawing.) This along with the minimalism (and visual reference to Japanese fish painting) makes the overall tone of the bag one of high culture. Again, by affiliation, this extends to both Lululemon and the owner of the bag.
  3. The product is recycled. This appeals to environmentally conscious young adults, who are presumably Lululemon’s main clientele.

So my take-away from all of this is an enhanced appreciation for Lululemon’s marketing skills. No wonder it’s doing so well as a brand. Whoever is in charge understands art, digital technology, multi-channel marketing, and psychology.


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