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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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Commercial Printing: A Shopping Bag Is Worth a Thousand Words

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).


    1. 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.


  1. 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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