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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: Fooling the Eye with Cover Coatings

A lot of good things in life involve fooling the eye. It’s what magicians do. Once you know the trick, it’s no longer magic. But once you know the secret, perhaps you appreciate something larger, such as the skill of the magician and the limits of human perception.

In this vein, I was recently pleased and surprised by a print book my fiancee found when we were thrift-store shopping, our favorite passtime.

Selp Helf (that’s not a typo) by Miranda Sings, a comedian with a penchant for original spelling rules, has an intriguing book cover dust jacket. The title is printed in what looks like black magic marker. I wouldn’t call the font a typeface; it’s more of a hand-scrawled title.

What makes the print book cover unique is that the hand-printed title appears to be actually written on two strips of masking tape. When you run your finger across the two strips, the texture confirms it. There’s the roughness you’re familiar with. In fact, at a couple of points around the edges, the tape feels like its bunched up. You even automatically try to work a fingernail under the tape.

To complete the mental picture as you visualize this cover, Miranda Sings’ byline is set in Courier (typewriter type), and a photo of this comedian is on the right, bleeding off the cover and looking up and back at the print book title on the masking tape.

What’s the Magic?

The fine arts term that pertains to this book cover is “trompe l’oeil.” It is French for “fool the eye.” Wikipedia defines the term as follows:

“Trompe-l’œil is an art technique that uses realistic imagery to create the optical illusion that the depicted objects exist in three dimensions.”

You may have seen paintings in galleries in which the subject matter (often flat images of postcards and similar small objects attached to a flat surface like a bulletin board) looks absolutely real (unlike, perhaps, a painting of a landscape). The tromp l’oeil painting looks so real that you want to touch it.

Miranda Sings goes one step further. (You could say she takes the leap from painting–analogous to the print book cover–to sculpture, because once you touch the faux masking tape, your brain registers the texture as “real” as well as the appearance. Therein lies the magic.

Moreover, using the tools and techniques of commercial printing to achieve this visual and tactile result showcases one of the benefits of physical printing over the Internet. Images on the Internet (or even images created with computer virtual reality) can be immersive. They can envelop you and transport you to another realm that “feels” real, but this magical achievement does not involve the sense of touch (at least it doesn’t do this yet). A print book is a physical experience. The Internet and any other virtual (computer-generated) experience is not.

How Did They Create the Magic?

Commercial printing uses a set of tools and techniques (building blocks, if you will) to elicit a mental and tactile response. In this particular case, three of the tools are low-relief embossing, the introduction of hand-drawn images (the print book title) into the computer workflow with a scanner, and the art of contrasting different cover coatings against one another.

You could go even further, and you could say that the chemistry of cover coatings (many of them UV coatings; some based on varnish) is another magical tool. This is particularly true these days, since numerous kinds of textured UV coatings have been developed in recent years.

To begin with the embossing, you can see how the technique was done by removing the dust jacket. (Again, remember that the cover I mentioned really is the dust jacket. The book itself is case bound. The actual cover is made of red paper and cloth and only has printing on the spine.)

When you remove the dust jacket and look at the back of the press sheet under a good light, you see (and can feel) an ever so slightly formed embossing that includes the bumps along the edge that my finger had perceived as the edges of absolutely real masking tape. For me, what makes this so intriguing is how slight the embossing is. It feels only as thick as masking tape. Other embossing and debossing I have seen has been much deeper. The artistic term for this is “bas relief.” It means “low relief.” It’s not a new concept, but it has been especially well done (i.e., supremely effective) on this dust jacket.

Let’s move on to the hand lettering. While it is possible that there is a hand-drawn font that looks like magic marker scratchings (with multiple overlapping lines made to look thicker), to me it looks more like someone drew the title on paper and then scanned it and placed it in the InDesign art file.

Interestingly enough, when you look closely with a 12-power printer’s loupe you can see that all four printing inks have been used to create a bold, heavy black ink. (The printer’s term is “rich black,” and it is composed of various percentages of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black.) What you see when you look closely with a loupe is halftone dots of all these colors laid over over one another at slightly different angles.

Finally, the designer knew how to use cover coatings. These are the chemicals applied to the press sheet (usually) after the printing ink. To help you visualize this, the commercial printing paper itself is often porous. Therefore, it is often topcoated with a dull or gloss coating. The printing press deposits ink on this coated surface, and the inks stay put. Because of the coating, the inks are less likely to seep into the porous paper fibers on the base custom printing sheet.

In contrast, the cover coatings I speak relative to the faux masking tape on the book cover dust jacket are applied after the ink has been deposited on the press sheet. These can include UV coatings (gloss and dull), aqueous coatings (dull, gloss, and satin), film and liquid laminates (dull and gloss), and varnish (and, again, they are applied over the printed sheet). That said, they can be “flood” coats, in which case they cover the entire press sheet (or in this case the entire dust jacket). Or they can be “spot” applications placed only in specific locations. What makes this magical is that you can cover one area with a spot gloss coating (in the case of this dust jacket it would be everything but the masking tape) and another area with a dull coating (in this case the masking tape itself). The contrast between the two then creates the perception of the masking tape.

Now to expand upon the various options contemporary designers have at their disposal, print book cover coatings have multiplied significantly in the past seven to ten years. You now have a lot more options than just dull and gloss. (And many of these are related to UV–or Ultraviolet–inks, which are cured or dried with UV light.)

Some of these coatings have a rubbery feel that seems to grab your fingers. In fact, I once received a print book of sample cover coatings from a paper manufacturer that showcased an image of a spider. On the hairy underbelly of the spider the printer had applied just such a rubbery coating. Other parts of the spider were gloss or dull coated. Touching the belly of the spider was unsettling, to say the least.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

    1. Printing is a physical medium. Think about what this means (compare physical printing to computer-based, or Internet-based, experiences), and then use the differences to your advantage. Capitalizing on the physical attributes of commercial printing makes holding and reading a print book a unique experience. In fact, in recent years it has become an increasingly tactile experience. If you’re designing books, it behooves you to learn about and then exploit these differences.


    1. Call your printer or paper merchant and ask for a few paper sample books showcasing the effects that can be achieved with different cover coatings. This will help you in two ways. It will open your mind to the multitude of effects, and it will make it easier to communicate your goals to your book printer or commercial printing vendor. You may even find some of these books on sale (or for free) online if you look for paper merchants.


  1. Ask your printer about the following: textured UV coatings and reticulation varnish. I mention this because the most dramatic effects I’ve seen have been crafted with UV coatings. I also mention reticulation varnish because it’s a unique effect (similar to seeing water droplets bead up on the surface of your car after a rainstorm). It’s not for every occasion, but it’s worth exploring. (You may also want to Google reticulation varnish online for an explanation of the chemistry behind this process.)

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