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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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Archive for September, 2017

Custom Printing: Reproducing Fine Art Prints

Friday, September 29th, 2017

Purely by chance today, while waiting while my fiancee had her teeth cleaned and scaled, I found two new potential commercial printing clients.

Both are fine artists. I had commented on a painting on the dentist’s wall, which depicted the very block on which I had lived as a child, and I was told the artist was in the waiting room. I couldn’t help myself. I gushed. The conversation turned from art to custom printing, and to her need for multiple copies of her work. It turns out that she is well known around the world, and that she had received multiple commissions to do murals and paintings over the years.

What this meant in terms of commercial printing, as she and I discussed, was that she needed copies of her art in vibrant color on archival art paper. Based on the press run, she would probably need offset printing rather than digital printing.

So we exchanged contact information and agreed to meet at her studio to discuss the job further after the holidays.

Interestingly enough, not two minutes later I learned that the dentist’s office manager also needed commercial printing and potentially photographic reproductions of her art. She was a close friend of the first woman. She showed me her business card, which she had bought online. She was not happy with the results.

How I Plan to Proceed with Both Clients

In short, I am overjoyed with the serendipity of the moment, and even more so with the opportunity, given my background in the fine arts as well as commercial printing.

Here are my initial thoughts, starting with the second prospective client’s work:

  1. The business card my prospective client showed me will never look as good as the image on her phone. A back-lit cellphone screen will make the colors look much brighter (as a transmissive technology) than will a printed piece that depends on reflected light to be seen (as a reflective technology). That said, there are ways to improve the printed card.
  2. Her current business card from an online vendor has probably been gang-printed with a large number of other cards. In such a case, overall ink density will be chosen to benefit the overall multiple print run, not the individual business cards. I explained this to my potential client, and she understood. For her business card to receive superior treatment, it would need to be printed on a small press by itself. Then the ink density could be tailored to her specific image, her painting as reproduced on the back of her card.
  3. Although we did not discuss this, she could choose a brilliant, blue-white press sheet, and she could add fluorescent inks to the traditional CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) inkset to make the colors “pop.”
  4. Along these lines, when this particuler client is ready to reproduce her artwork as full-size art prints rather than as the back of her business card, my assumption is that she will produce a shorter run than the first potential client. This is because she is a relative newcomer to fine arts compared to her friend. After my fiancee and I had left the dentist’s office, I called one of the commercial printers to which I broker custom printing work and discussed their capabilities. This particular printer has an HP Indigo digital press with a B2 format (20” x 29”). This would be large enough for art prints. It would accept textured, archival paper and even canvas substrates (although these would need to be certified for this particular press, so there would be a limited number of available papers). Finally, the HP Indigo has an extended inkset. In addition to cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, you can add orange, violet, and green (among other colors) to significantly expand the available color range (and produce jaw-dropping color images).

So I’m keeping all of this information for my fiancee’s next teeth cleaning in six months. This will give the dental office manager time to develop her artwork and decide what to print (without putting pressure on her). Since she has my card, she can contact me if she needs to print business cards. After all, she now has an idea of the cost (relative to the online printer).

Back to the First Client

The first client has an immediate need. We will meet in her studio in about a month. I will look closely at the reproductions she has produced to date (with a particular eye to color reproduction and paper), and we can decide how to proceed. Today I also discussed this client with the printer who has the HP Indigo. These were the issues that arose:

  1. Apparently, this printer can produce up to 5,000 copies on the HP Indigo and still be cost-effective. To be sure, I’ll have them price out the job once I know the client’s requested quantity.
  2. The HP Indigo has an extended color set, as noted above. However, it will depend on the specific colors in my client’s painting as to whether this extra capacity (expanded color gamut) will be visible (i.e., necessary). It will depend on the colors in the original art.
  3. If my client’s press run will be longer than the cost-effective digital press run on the HP Indigo, this same printer can do the same job on a six-color offset press. With the two extra press units, the printer could add two of the following: an orange, a green, and a violet. This would also expand the color gamut, but only if the artwork would benefit from the extra colors.
  4. Both the offset press and the digital press can accept textured, archival papers. These papers would have two benefits: they would last a very long time due to their alkaline (as opposed to acidic) nature; and they would have a “tooth,” a texture that usually sets art papers above the comparatively smooth offset and digital press sheets.
  5. If my client wanted a number of different formats (some smaller than the approximately 20” x 29” image I saw in the dentist’s office), these could actually be printed on a canvas substrate (on the digital press but not the offset press). According to the printer, the ideal size for such a canvas print would be about 10” x 13” (largest), which could then be matted and framed to produce a larger piece.
  6. Scanning (or, rather, digitizing) the image would be an important issue to consider. If the canvas will fit the format of the flatbed scanner, this would produce the best digitized image (the sharpest and most color faithful). If not, the painted canvas would need to be shot with a digital camera. This would require specialized camera equipment, specialized lighting, and skill. The goal would be to add nothing to the art, while capturing all the colors.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

A skilled printer can create a beautiful photographic rendition of an art print (as opposed to an individual painting or a short-run, hand-made lithographic run of an art print). While it does not have the same value as an original, it has beauty, and it is affordable by most people.

What enhances the beauty of an art print is the extent of the color gamut (how many colors can be reproduced and with what intensity and brilliance). In addition, the brightness, whiteness, and longevity of the paper (its light-fastness, for instance) enhances its beauty. It should be archival to last a long time. It can also have texture (referred to by artists as a paper’s “tooth”).

A good starting point for such a reproduction is the run-length and trim size of the final press run. This will determine if the press run is short enough for digital or long enough for offset lithography.

Of all possible jobs, if you’re printing copies of fine art, this is the time to pay for good proofs and to do a press check to make sure you get exactly what you want and expect.

After all, printing is an art as well as a craft, and the marriage of fine art prints with the art and craft of custom printing can yield remarkable results.

Commercial Printing: Mixing Printing Paper Coatings

Monday, September 25th, 2017

Anytime you use the words “paper coatings” and “mixing,” you are in the realm of not just commercial printing but chemistry as well. Mixing can cause problems. Chemicals can be incompatible. But a good printer can usually come up with a work-around.

To give this point some context, I’ve been brokering a book printing job recently for a small literary publisher. It’s a husband and wife team, and they use their own money, so the price has to be competitive and the printed product has to be outstanding. Before attending a meeting with them to choose a paper stock for the text of their most recent print book, I collected paper samples from the printer they had chosen in the Midwest.

Along with the folder of paper swatches the printer had sent me (many book printers only offer a limited number of paper stocks, presumably to avoid surcharges for special-order paper), they included sample cards showing foil stamping and matte and gloss cover coatings they could offer on their printed books. I can’t tell you how valuable these are as teaching tools and a tangible focus for selling commercial printing. Nothing shows how cover treatments will look better than a physical sample.

In this light, you might note that all of these gloss and dull effects can also be applied to other products than books. For instance, you might want to mix foil stamping with a dull and gloss coating on a brochure, or any other printed product your clients will touch and hold. These are very tactile products. Another area in which these coatings are used a lot is the packaging industry, which has been one of the fastest growing arenas of commercial printing in recent years.

Foil Stamping Over Gloss and Matte Lamination

The first two samples in the collection I received show how foil stamping will look over a glossy and a dull surface. What makes these interesting to me is that according to my representative at this printer, you can add foil stamping over a dull or gloss surface but only if the surface is a film laminate (an actual sheet of plastic lamination adhered to the surface of the paper).

To grasp this concept, keep in mind that foil stamping is applied with heat and pressure using a metal die stamp. The stamp cuts the foil out of a roll and attaches it to the substrate. For whatever reason (heat, chemical incompatibility), if you did not choose a film laminate as the base (lets say you first laid down a UV coating), the foil would not adhere to it. It will adhere to the gloss film laminate (a slick surface) but it will not adhere to a liquid layer of UV varnish (another slick surface). To work around this, the printer would need to knock out the UV (i.e., not print) wherever the foil stamp will adhere.

Now I realize this is an esoteric concept, and I don’t even really understand why this is the case. However, there are two things I learned from this information that are far more relevant:

  1. If gloss UV and gloss film laminate look approximately the same, and if the foil will adhere to the film laminate but not to the UV coating, it is a smart business practice to defer to the printer’s advice. In addition, you’re apparently going to get a better product with the film lamination because there will be no chance of printing the coating out of register. (That is, if you knock out whatever is behind the foil stamp, and there’s the least bit of misalignment in the placement, the gaps around the letters (or other artwork) will be visible. If the foil can be stamped right onto the gloss film laminate with no knock outs, that’s the better choice.
  2. The other thing I learned was that issues with heat, chemistry, and adhesion should be researched and respected, and the printer’s knowledge and experience are invaluable in a case like this.

On the second sample, the fact that the silver foil can adhere to a matte background makes more sense to me. After all, a matte coating is less slick than a gloss coating (which really means more surface area and a rougher surface; kind of like gluing something to wood rather than to glass or metal).

From an artistic point of view, both effects are intriguing. Unlike a single surface (dull or gloss), you have in one case the gloss of the foil contrasting the smoothness and light absorbing (rather than reflecting) power of the matte background. The dullness of the background makes the foil seem to jump up off the page. In contrast, the foil applied to the gloss film laminate provides a more consistent look (gloss on gloss), but it also presents a nice contrast between the metallic gold of the foil and the crispness of the glossy background photo.

Foil Stamp Over Luxury Matte Lamination

From the feel of the background on this particular sample, I would say that it resembles other products I’ve seen that go by names such as Soft Touch UV. The background feels like rubber, and it has almost no sheen. It is hyper-dull, which works well in contrast to the reflective foil stamping. Since the background is a film laminate, and since it is rough in texture, based on what my contact at the printer said, I would assume the foil adheres directly to the matte lamination without any knock-outs behind the foil stamping.

Matte Etch Over Gloss Film Lamination

This sample particularly intrigued me because of how it was produced. At first glance, I would say that the glossy type had been coated with a spot UV coating or a gloss varnish and that the background was the original matte surface. (I would have been wrong.) On the contrary, based on the explanation I received from the print representative, a gloss film lamination had first been adhered to the entire surface of the paper substrate, giving an overall highly reflective sheen to everything.

Unlike liquid laminate, the gloss film laminate had been applied as a thin sheet rather than as a liquid. Then on top of most of this base substrate, the matte coating dulled down everything except the type. That is, the matte coating did not print on any of the type; the type was knocked out of the matte coating. Unless you knew how the printer had done this and why, I think you would have made the same assumption that I did: that the type had been treated to be glossy; not that everything else had been treated to be matte.

And based on my discussion with the printer, in this case a dull coating can still adhere to a gloss background as long as the background is a gloss film laminate and not a gloss liquid UV coating.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Remember that your printer works with papers and coatings every day. If he suggests a better way to produce a contrast between a foil stamp and a dull or gloss background, listen to him. You’ll avoid the potential cracking of the paper coating or the inability of one coating to stick to another coating.
  2. Consider subtle ways to distinguish one part of a design from another, using foil stamping and dull or gloss coatings. You can use these to focus the reader’s eye on one element of the design first, then another and another. But remember that foil stamping is done with metal dies. These are expensive and take time for the printer’s subcontractor to create.
  3. Always request samples of design effects like these. If all of the samples are of the same design (i.e., the samples I received were from a set that showed the same base art with multiple cover coating options), all the better. This will help you visualize different ways to present your own printed product.
  4. Don’t just use effects like these on book covers. Consider them for brochures and other projects such as product packaging. Or, if you’ve been producing print book covers that only use printer’s ink in their designs, consider contrasting a gloss coating with a dull coating or metallic foil treatment. This will give a book cover more depth visually. It will appear to have multiple layers (foreground, middle-ground, and background).

Great designs come about when you’re willing to experiment.

Book Printing: Making a Final Decision on a Book Printer

Tuesday, September 19th, 2017

For about five years, I have been working with a husband and wife publishing team. They produce high-end literary books (usually 5.5” x 8.5” perfect bound), both fiction and poetry. We are on the same page regarding quality. This publishing team wants to sell books to customers who appreciate the tactile nature of a print book, customers who like the feel of the book in their hands.

The Backstory on My Clients’ Books

To achieve this goal in a consistent way, my two clients include French Flaps on all their books. These are the extended flaps on the front and back covers of a trade book that fold inward toward the spine. They make paperback books resemble hard-cover books with dust jackets. The 3.5” extra width on the front and back of the book also lets the front-cover image extend into the interior of the book or provides extra space for author biographical material, photos, etc.

In addition to the ornate covers, which seem to be more common in Europe than in the United States, my clients have faux deckled edges on the text pages. While the irregular edges are not achieved in the traditional way (with a spray of water during the paper-making process), they still add another tactile element to the book production.

The term I have heard regarding this effect is “rough-front trimming.” Basically it means the pages are not all trimmed exactly the same on the front margin (the vertical dimension of the printed page parallel to the spine, or the front, facing out). The reader’s finger touches these irregularly trimmed pages as he or she turns every page.

Finally, my clients have been printing all their books on Sebago Antique 55# text, the thickness of which is 360 ppi (pages per inch). A 55# text paper would usually be much thinner than 360 pages per inch. In fact, this particular text stock feels like a 70# text sheet because, during the papermaking process, it was not compressed as much as many other paper stocks by the rollers in the papermaking machine. (Think of a dry sponge going between heavy rollers. On the other side of the rollers, a thick sponge will end up being much flatter than it was initially—but it will still be the same sponge and it will weigh the same as it did before the compression.)

In my clients’ case, this means that their text paper is thick, rough, and surprisingly inexpensive. For black-only text (which all of their books have been), this has been great. It allows for crisp type, but it feels thick and opulent. Based on the print book being published, my client chooses either a warm white paper stock (a slight yellow-white tinge) or a bright white sheet (with a blue-white shade). Each creates a slightly different look.

The Current Printer

For a consistent look, year after year, my clients have included these specifications in all books published by their firm. They want their print books to look and feel luxurious and to reflect a unified brand. To achieve this goal, my clients have been going back to the same book printer for many years, and this has caused them to pay more in some cases.

Furthermore, in this challenging economy, and in an age when many people read their books on electronic readers, some of my clients’ colleagues have encouraged them to choose online printers for their books. To date this has not been an option because my clients have specifically wanted the particular textured paper for their print book interior pages and the extended French Flaps for their covers. My clients have chosen a luxury appearance over economy based on their commitment to “the art of the book.” By going back to the same printer, my clients have also ensured consistency (over many titles and reprintings) of the overall look of their products.

The New Printer: How to Make the Decision to Switch

This year, due to the challenging economy, my clients need to tighten spending. This is quite understandable. They still want the special covers and text paper, but they need to pay less. Fortunately, during the last several months I have been working with a new book printer who can provide significantly lower pricing. So the big question is whether to switch vendors, and how to make that decision without risking the quality my client has come to expect.

This is a surprisingly hard decision to make. After all, my clients sell their print books, and repeat customers have come to expect a certain level of quality for the price they pay. Therefore, this has to be a prudent decision based on more than the lowest commercial printing price. With this in mind, this is how I proceeded:

  1. I bid the book out to four printers, all of whom specialized in short-run print books. I did my homework to ensure that these printers focused specifically on books.
  2. To my surprise, two of the four “no-bid” the job outright. One said he specialized in case-bound 4-color books (not black-ink-only texts). (That is, perfect-binding would probably not be done in-house, and this would be reflected in the price. Also, a multi-color press would be used, and time on this equipment would be billed out at a higher rate per hour than a black-ink-only press would be.) The other printer who “no-bid” the job said he would have to outsource the cover due to the French Flaps. I actually was grateful for the honesty of the two printers. On the surface they looked ideal for the project (and prior bids on other print book work were surprisingly low), but for this specific job, these two printers were not the right fit.
  3. The remaining printers were the vendor who had been producing the books for my client over the past several years and the new printer. The new printer had two plants, and one of these specialized in black-text-only books. In addition, this printer’s focus on books meant he had all the necessary binding equipment in-house.
  4. Unfortunately, the new printer would need about a week longer than the current printer to do the job. That said, when he heard he was in the running, he agreed to a shorter schedule.
  5. I had requested samples from the new printer a number of months earlier for another client, and I had been very pleased with their quality. However (and this is the bottom line, since at this point my clients were ready to switch to the new printer to save money), I had not yet seen a book produced by this printer that had French Flaps and a faux deckled edge on the text paper.
  6. So I called the new printer. I made it clear that my clients loved the prices and schedule, but that they would need “relevant” samples to reinforce their decision to change printers. They would need to know that the printer understood, and could replicate, the exact look to which they had become accustomed.

So for now we’re in a holding pattern. Once I have the samples, I will meet with my clients and ask whether they want to change book printers or stay with the current vendor. Having a relevant sample will make the decision a lot easier.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

Perhaps the most important thing to learn is that a printer can be good at one thing and not as good at another. Stellar hard-bound book samples are a good sign of a printer’s worth, but if you need French Flaps on a perfect-bound book, it behooves you to see samples of exactly this product. The page count and even the interior ink color of the book are irrelevant, but the structure (paper and binding) are very important.

And requesting samples does more than just ensure the quality of this particular binding technique. My clients’ French Flaps extend over the face trim (in contrast to a lot of print books, in which the covers fall just slightly short of the face trim). What my clients want requires a second trim in most binderies. More than anything, your printer has to know what you want—exactly. Make sure he sends you a sample (and ideally you should send him a sample of what you want as well) to make sure you are on the same page. Nothing communicates your intent better than a physical sample.

At the end of the process, you still do need to take a leap of faith. In my case, I have references for the book printer as well as the bids, schedule, and samples. One of the references is from a close friend, whom I trust completely. In your own work, it’s prudent to take your time and cover all bases, particularly if it’s a big or complex job, or an especially important job.

Large Format Printing: Creating “One-Off” Standees

Thursday, September 14th, 2017

My fiancee and I assembled a huge standee this week for the new Murder on the Orient Express movie. Essentially, it’s an exposed view of the interior of a passenger train car containing numerous movie characters. While we were engaged in the six-hour installation, a moviegoer came up to ask about this standee in particular and standees in general. She had an ice cream parlor, and she needed one copy of a standee for her shop.

Background Information

To provide a bit of background information, standees are the cardboard flat cards or the large and dramatic full environments in movie theaters that promote upcoming films. They are usually composed of printed litho paper laminated to corrugated board. Their manufacturers use everything from offset custom printing to flexography to decorate the boards, which are then die cut into appropriate shapes and packed in cartons for USPS delivery to a huge number of theaters. Installers then come out to the theaters to assemble the standees using complex sets of instructions (much like an IKEA project but made of printed paper rather than wood).

Speaking as a commercial printing broker, I personally think you can learn a lot about custom printing and finishing just by paying close attention as you assemble standees. You can even learn about scoring and folding, as well as hot-melt gluing.

In spite of my personal focus on movie theater standees, there are other standees as well, many of which appear in retail stores such as drug stores and grocery stores. A “point of purchase” display really is no different from a movie standee, which in some ways really is just an incredibly ornate box. After all, you fold the flaps and corrugated walls together to turn a flat piece of cardboard (with an attached, printed graphic) into a three-dimensional promotional product.

Back to the Potential Client

So this particular moviegoer wanted a standee for her ice cream parlor. Being a commercial printing broker as well as a standee installer, I walked her through the theater lobby and explained the various kinds of standees and their relative costs.

I noted that a “flat card” was essentially a big poster on an easel backing. At approximately 6-feet by 9-feet (with an approximately 2” depth for the flat card itself), this product could capture the viewer’s complete field of vision when he or she is in close proximity to it. I told the moviegoer that a flat card is the cheapest kind of standee to purchase but that it provides a lot of bang for the buck, given its large size.

I went on to say that such a standee would be cheaper than the others in part because the structural design was generic. Even though the graphic front of every flat card is different, most physical constructions are exactly the same (or one of a few variants). The bottom line was that my potential client could let someone else pay for the metal dies used to cut the tabs and flaps and other intricacies of such a promotional standee. This would lower the overall price (much as printing a generic pocket folder saves you money).

I then walked my potential client further down the movie lobby hallway and showed her two more standees. I showed her a larger flat card that had “lugs” attached to the front of the flat graphic. Lugs are any die cut attachments that give a sense of depth to the overall image. (The first option, the flat card, was entirely flat, other than the folded easel back.)

I told my potential client that a custom die could be made to extend an image off the rectangular frame of either the smaller or larger flat card, that this would be more interesting and involving for the viewer because the three dimensional images would appear to extend off the flat picture plane and be “real.” But I noted that this came at a price. Custom dies would need to be made, and this would drive up the overall cost. It would no longer be a generic large format print product.

Finally, I walked my potential client back to the original standee my fiancee and I were installing, and I showed her the intricacy of the simulated rail car. I showed her how all of the figures had been die cut and assembled. The physicality of half a railway car made for an immersive experience for passersby, but it cost lots of money to print, die cut, and box up. Even the installation (our fee) was expensive.

Back to the Sales Pitch

When we were finished with our walk through the standees (much like a used car salesman’s walk with a customer through a car lot), I asked her how many standees she would need. She said one, just for her ice cream parlor.

So I noted that offset custom printing would be out of the question (exorbitant for one copy) but that digital printing would be an option. Nevertheless, I did tell her that one copy of any promotional design would be rather pricey.

My fiancee, who is an artist and art therapist, reminded me that even a single digitally produced standee would be astronomically expensive. She asked why I hadn’t suggested that my client have a graphic artist mock-up one copy—kind of like a single paper sculpture.

Actually I had been thinking along the same lines, I said. I had envisioned my supplier (a standee designer and printer all the way across the United States) just using an already produced backing (cardboard flat card) and one of the already-produced, generic, folded backing easels and just digitally printing the 6-foot by 9-foot graphic front panel image and gluing it to the board, and then breaking it down, creating assembly instructions, and cartoning and shipping the product.

I thought further and realized this was exactly the nature of a “one-off” prototype, the very stage that each standee probably went through before a marketing director gave the go-ahead to print, score, die cut, hot-melt glue, and box up for delivery the thousands of copies destined for movie theaters across the country.

So we’ll see what happens with my prospective client.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Movie standees, point of purchase displays, and even folding cartons are physical, three-dimensional products. They exist in space, and this quality can make them much more powerful sales tools than flat promotional booklets or even posters.
  2. If you’re designing one of these, keep in mind that the more ornate and original your design, the more the job will cost to die cut. Sometimes a flat card will do just fine.
  3. Failing that, if you want more punch, add dimensionality to a flat card with “lugs.” The base structure will be generic (and therefore cheaper to produce), but the flat-panel graphic will be original and powerful, and the die cut lugs will add further depth to the design.
  4. Consider how many you will need. Then determine whether you will need a digital product (a large format inkjet image printed and laminated to corrugated board) or an offset lithographic product (for long runs).
  5. Don’t forget the cost of packing the component pieces (cartoning) and the cost of shipping, plus the cost for installation.
  6. Remember that advertising is an investment, not an expense. If your design and production values capture your audience and make them convert (i.e., spend money on your product or service), then your promotional cost will have been money well spent.

Custom Printing: Anatomy of a Product Packaging Box

Wednesday, September 6th, 2017

When going through some piles of paper in the house, I came upon an unfolded tea box my fiancee had disassembled. Flat and all misshapen, with tabs jutting out in all directions, it looked like a curiosity to me. After all, I had seen it months before as a three-dimensional solid and as a product, in some ways more real as a box than as a collection of tea bags (since I buy the groceries but don’t drink tea very often).

This got me to thinking about the nature of boxes and product packaging in general.

First of all, the very best news: Print packaging is a huge growth industry in the realm of commercial printing. Therefore, the more you and I know about it, the more marketable we will be. In addition, it is a growth industry for digital custom printing as well as for offset printing, due to the print market’s penchant for short runs and quick turn-arounds.

The Anatomy of the Box

Take apart a carton. It doesn’t have to be a tea carton, as long as it starts as a rectangular solid with top and bottom flaps. The first thing you see (once it is completely flat) is that it is printed (usually) only on one side. It also has a number of die cut flaps of various lengths going in various directions. If you look even more closely, you’ll see that the flaps are either very long (these comprise the top and bottom of the box) or shorter than the others but of equal length to one another (these are the flaps that fold over, on the top and bottom opening of the box, but underneath the much longer flaps just noted).

If you flip the flat box over, you’ll see all of the custom printing work (some of it positioned at right angles for the top and bottom of the box), plus flaps printed only with printer’s color bars (you’ll never see these once the box is closed). Other flaps have no printing (these are either interior flaps or the side glue flap). The side glue flap has a strip without printing. This is where the hot-melt glue goes to attach the side of the box once it has been wrapped around into a 3D rectangular solid.

As confusing as this sounds, you can easily wrap the flat box around, insert the flaps, tape or glue the side flap, and you’ll have the complete package again. This is called box conversion. A flat sheet is “converted” into a 3D container, a product in and of itself.

Needless to say, type, art, and fold placement are all very important in the production of the box. If the scores for the folds are in the wrong place, if the die cut edges of the flaps are mis-positioned, or if the text and solid bars of color printed on the box are not in the right place (including the bleeds), the converted box won’t look right. Instead of promoting the sale of the product, it will detract from it.

And that is really what it’s all about. The sale. The box is a container, granted. It’s much easier to protect a handful of tea bags in another bag within a box than all scattered in a pile of teabags. But if there were no packaging, the brand producer would have missed an opportunity to promote the qualities of the tea and the lifestyle it reflects. That’s really what the marketing copy and visuals are about: positioning the tea as a vital part of an active lifestyle, or a crunchy-granola alternative to coffee for the bluejean intellectual. The box with its printed adornment does all of this. Otherwise, it would be acceptable for all such boxes to just be labeled “tea” or “food.”

Printing Options

Packaging is often printed via flexography, which is a relief printing process in which raised portions of rubber commercial printing plates imprint the image on the chipboard (or other, usually lower-quality, grade of paper board) as it runs through the press.

Offset printing can also be used to decorate the box. So can digital printing, but we’ll get back to that. Since the paperboard is flat (and uncrushable, unlike fluted corrugated board), this kind of packaging can be produced in many different ways. I’d also assume that gravure is another option, perhaps for very long runs.

Short Runs

But what about short commercial printing press runs? Marketers like to do short runs these days. Some may be personalized. Others may just be versioned (let’s say for a particular holiday or event) to make the packaging stand out on the shelves. (Product packaging must vie with competitors’ product packaging to catch your attention and sell you the product with its text and graphics.)

Printing these boxes is not necessarily the hardest part of the job. Converting the job (die cutting and assembling the box) also involves a lot of work. Usually metal dies inset into wood flats need to be created to make the boxes (in all but some digital finishing operations). This costs a lot and takes a lot of subcontractors’ time, so it’s really only cost effective for long press runs. (When you spread the cost of die cutting and assembly over a very long press run, the unit cost for finishing drops precipitously.)

But if you’re trying to make a single prototype or a short run of boxes, what can you do? Well now you have options. There are digital machines made by Highcon and Scodix that can (in the case of Highcon) digitally crease, or score, the box flats and then cut them with a laser instead of a metal die cutting rule. And prior to these finishing operations, there is (in the case of Scodix) a way to digitally foil stamp or digitally emboss the paper board used for the box.

For a prototype, this is a dream come true. Think about it. You don’t need to make a metal stamping die for the foil or the embossing. And you don’t need a metal die to cut the box flats from the paper substrate. You can even make one box as a prototype, and if the marketing team has corrections even after that point, you can economically and quickly (days, not weeks) prepare a revised prototype. If that design is approved, you can roll out a short run quickly (again must faster than the traditional way).

Granted, the time comes when the press run is too long for digital (or, rather, there is a cut-off point where it becomes cheaper again to amortize the cost of embossing, foil stamping, and die cutting over a long run using more durable metal dies). Only your printer’s estimating department can figure out the exact cut-off point. Also, it depends on who has the Highcon and Scodix equipment and who has to subcontract the work out. This is new technology. Most printers (I’ll venture to say) do not have this equipment, but it’s worth it to inquire and do research, and perhaps even start a working relationship with a long-distance vendor who does have the equipment.

This is the future of packaging, and packaging (along with labels and large-format printing) will be a major player in the future of commercial printing.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Read everything you can lay your hands on about new trends in custom printing. It will help your professional life immeasurably.
  2. Package printing is hot. It may be your future.
  3. Package printing is a 3D process. You are producing a physical object as well as laying ink on paper. It helps to understand the physics as well as the design aspect of the process.
  4. Digital printing and digital finishing will both figure prominently in this area of commercial printing. Digital finishing was a little slow at first, but now it’s catching up in exciting ways.
  5. A trip to a high-end department store to carefully study the boxes in the “beauty” departments, such as the cosmetics counters, will be an educational and productive use of your time. Vendors like Chanel have lots of money and pour it into this kind of product packaging. Close observation will give you design ideas, but it will also teach you about foils, embossing, box construction, etc.

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