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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: Shoe Boxes as Promotional Art

My fiancee and I stopped at a local upscale outlet store this week, a number of times, to collect designer shoe boxes for our autistic students. In art therapy we have been creating small shadow boxes (also known as dioramas), or miniature rooms decorated for Halloween. We’ve had our autistic members combine miniature skeletons (some wrapped as mummies), gauze, paint, Halloween stickers, and any other sculptural elements we could find.

All of that aside, my fiancee kept about four of the shoe boxes for herself—just because she liked them. And as a commercial printing broker and student of custom printing, I found her behavior intriguing. I surmised that:

    1. Product packaging sells product (and is a powerful and persuasive sales force).


    1. Product packaging sells itself. I think people buy in part because they like the feel of the packaging as well as its look, and as well as the look and feel of the product in the box (in this case, shoes).


  1. Based on comments my fiancee made, this is especially true for shoe boxes, since a lot of people store their shoes in the boxes after buying them and bringing them home. So unlike a blister pack that you cut or tear away from a product and then discard, shoe boxes can be an ongoing extension of the “brand.”

Sample Box #1

I just went into the art studio in our home and chose four sample boxes that had not yet been used by our students (the art project was so well received that we’ve offered it in four of our classes over the last few weeks).

Under a good light and with access to a printer’s loupe, I see that the first box has been printed on a thick, glossy cover stock prior to being folded and glued into a three-dimensional shoe box. The exterior walls of the box are covered with purple, red, and dark blue squares and other geometric forms. In contrast, the inside has been printed solid orange. It provides simplicity and stark contrast to the exterior.

If you look closely, you can see that the sides of the box are composed of double walls made from the flat, cover-stock press sheet. The box converter assembled the folded press sheets and hot melt glued sections to produce four vertical sides and a bottom. In the same way, the converter created a smaller box cover.

What We Can Learn from This Sample

I’ve said it in earlier blogs, but closely observing how product packaging goes together, how it is “converted” from a flat press sheet into a three-dimensional product (with its own value) is fascinating, and it casts light on a skilled and often overlooked aspect of “finishing,” the activities that occur after the ink has been laid down on the flat press sheet.

In terms of design, this product packaging shows that bright colors and active geometric imagery will appeal to a certain clientele when selling a certain product. The packaging is not sedate. Then again, it shouldn’t be sedate if the shoes in the box are flashy and upscale.

Sample Box #2

The first thing I notice about the second shoe box is that it is composed of thick gloss text paper laminated to fluted cardboard.

In contrast, the first box is composed of just two layers of thick cover stock with a dull coating (perhaps a dull UV coating). The walls of the second box are much thicker than those of the first box, but the two boxes weigh just about the same. This shows one benefit of corrugated board for product packaging: It is light but durable.

However, there is a marked vertical pattern of the fluted ribs visible on all sides of the box (even through the litho printing paper that has been laminated to the fluting). The ribbing is visible through the solid yellow exterior of the box and the yellow, green, and black interior ink.

Like the first box, you can see that the second box started as a flat sheet, was die cut, and then was folded up into a three-dimensional physical product, held together with glue or with folded tabs inserted into slots.

What We Can Learn from This Sample

Like the first box, the second has a simple design. All images are line art, but they didn’t have to be. Since the press sheets that had been converted into both boxes were either laminated to fluted board (in the case of the second box) or converted into a box without fluted board (as in the first box), offset lithography could have been used for either box.

Why? Because no fluted board would have been in direct contact with the heavy pressure of the offset press rollers.

In contrast, printing directly on fluted board must be done with flexography. This process avoids the heavy pressure of the offset press rollers. However, it also requires simpler custom printing designs.

In terms of design, this particular box shows that kinetic artwork combined with intense primary colors (the yellow of the box exterior) will capture the interest of presumably young, fashion-conscious clientele.

Sample Boxes #3 and #4

These are really two variants on the same theme: minimalist boxes produced on brown fluted board. They are simple, but they are actually quite elegant, and they present less of an “in-your-face” style and more of an “earth-friendly” vibe.

Both boxes (in slightly different ways) have been die cut from single printed sheets of fluted cardboard. Then, using folds, tabs, slots, and hot-melt glue, both have been converted into product packaging.

The first has been printed with both white ink and black ink. You can see with a loupe that the ink film is thin (i.e., not custom screen printing but flexography, the other option for adorning fluted cardboard without squashing the ribs of paper). But this doesn’t make the box look any less attractive, just more functional (i.e., “functional chic”). The short side panel of the box is actually a halftone (lightly inked) of a mountain climber (or camper) holding up a sign with the brand name in large letters. For climbing shoes, this is a much more appropriate approach than the heavy ink coverage and glossy look of the first box, produced on cover weight press stock. Overall, the box design underscores the functional nature of the shoes it contains.

Sample #4, the second box produced on unbleached corrugated board, works in exactly the same way. It has even less adornment than Sample #3: just the logo printed on the four vertical exterior walls of the box (in black and a light, transparent yellow over the uncoated, fluted cardboard), plus the impression in black ink—inside the box—of two shoe soles. It looks like the designer had dipped the shoes in black ink and then pressed them against the interior floor of the box.

What We Can Learn from These Two Samples

Humor sells. The interior of the box, which is most of the custom printing, looks like ink has been tracked in on the wearer’s shoes—or mud has been tracked into the house, if you will.

Simplicity also sells in this age of environmentally friendly, sustainable packaging. For practical shoes, this approach works.

Appropriate treatment (in terms of design, as well as the physical substrate used to build the box) makes the biggest difference. Selling shoes for an evening dance in unbleached corrugated board would miss the opportunity for the box to reflect the tone of its contents. Conversely, putting athletic shoes in a frilly box would dilute the brand, confuse the buyer, and miss the opportunity to align the product packaging with the product it contains.

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