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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 December, 2019

Book Printing: An Approach to Multiple-Signature Press Work

Monday, December 30th, 2019

A print brokering client of mine will soon produce a set of print books that provide a good object lesson in both the differences between digital and offset printing and also in ways to save money by creating larger press signatures.

Background Specs for the Two Books

To provide some context, the first job is a run of 20 copies of an 80-page, 5.5” x 8.5” perfect-bound book, on 60# white offset text with a 10pt cover. It is a reader’s “galley,” a proof for reviewers to check for errors prior to the final press run of the print book. In many prior printings of books for this particular client, I have contracted for the commercial printing of 50 or 75 copies, but to save money and meet the reviewers’ requests, my client only needs 20 this time. Other copies will be printed out from a PDF file as needed. This is not a problem, since only the content will be relevant for corrections. (That is, this doesn’t need to be a perfect rendering of the final print book.)

The second book is a higher-end version of the first. It has French flaps, luxury matte film laminate on the cover, a press score, and deckled edges on the face trim of the book. It also will be produced on a 60# natural eggshell text stock. It will be 5.75” x 8.5” (slightly larger in format than the first book) because the French flaps on the covers will extend slightly beyond the deckled edges of the text stock (thus requiring a wider horizontal measure). In contrast, the galley books will only be 5.5” wide (with no cover flaps). After all, they are only a proofing device; therefore they don’t need the expensive, high-end production values. My client will print either 1,500 or 2,000 copies of the final print book.

Considerations for the Books

My client had asked to produce a 78-page book (in both cases). For the sake of consistency, I made both books 80 pages, since the 1,500- or 2,000-copy run will need to be produced via offset lithography (too long a press run to be a cost-effective digital job), and this print book will therefore need to be a multiple of 4, 8, 16, or 32 pages. This is because it will be composed of press signatures (large flat press sheets folded down and trimmed into little 5.75” x 8.5” booklets). In contrast, since the 20-copy print book will be produced digitally, it will not need to be printed in press signatures. In fact, as long as the total length of the book is a multiple of two pages, the 20-copy “galley” book can even be a 78-page printed product (divisible by 2 pages but not by 4, 8, 16, or 32). (This is a benefit of digital printing, which is not really signature press work.)

When I received pricing from the book printer, the first thing I noticed was that he had given me the option for printing in 48-page signatures or 24-page signatures. This told me that in contrast to my original assumption about 4-, 8-, 16-, and 32-page signature options, this printer’s (larger than expected) press actually allowed for larger press signatures at this particular page size (5.75” x 8.5”). That is, the size of the press sheet the printer’s large book press could accommodate would allow 12 pages, or 24 pages) to be produced on each side of the press sheet before it is folded down to the 5.75” x 8.5” stacked press signatures that would comprise the 80-page book. The printer would offer an approximately $100-$200 discount for larger, 48-page signatures. Why? Presumably because they would necessitate fewer press runs.

(To provide an example, a 96-page book would comprise two 48-page press signatures. Or it could contain four 24-page signatures. If you can produce the book with two press signatures, you only have to run the press half as many times—two rather than four. This saves time and materials, and hence money.)

Going back to my client’s actual print book, 80 pages is not divisible by 24 or 48 pages. When I noted this to the printer, he said this was a general statement about ways to save money on his press, but that he would still give me the lower price because the 24-page vs. 48-page signature stipulation didn’t really apply to my client’s work. (It did, however, remind me why it is good to design books with the largest possible press signatures.)

What we finally settled on for the final print book with the French flaps was a signature composition of one 48-page signature, one 24-page signature, and one 8-page signature for a total book length of 80 pages. (My client did not plan to bind anything within the larger press signatures–a reply card or small press signature of photos on different paper stock, like gloss coated paper. Otherwise, this would have necessitated breaking the larger press signatures into smaller signatures–maybe three 24-page signatures with an 8-page photo signature on gloss stock between two of them–requiring more press runs for more money.)

Finally, I compared the estimated prices to those of another print book this client had produced in the same format but with a 128-page book length rather than an 80-page book length. The prices for the 80-page book almost exactly matched the prices for the earlier-produced 128-page book. Needless to say, I queried the printer. He said the 60# natural eggshell paper had driven up the cost by several hundred dollars (compared to the price of the 60# white vellum of the first book), despite the fact that the job was a short book with a 1,500- or 2,000-copy press run.

What We Can Learn from This Case Study

Even though the specifics of this case study are rather convoluted, there are a number of object lessons the job illustrates:

  1. If the normal assumptions for offset printing press signature lengths are 4-pages, 8-pages, 16-pages, and 32-pages, don’t make this a hard-and-fast rule, as I did. Ask the printer. Larger presses at some book printers can accept other signature page counts such as 24-page and 48-page signatures. The longer the press signatures, the fewer the press runs. Unless you need to break a press signature into smaller signatures to insert a card or alternate paper stock, go for the longer signatures to save money. But always ask your printer about this first.
  2. Understand that digital printing does not require (or for the most part even accept) traditional press signatures. Therefore, if you need to add or remove book pages, you can do this in multiples of two pages. Ask your printer if your combined page count and press run will benefit from either offset lithographic printing or digital printing.
  3. Nice paper costs extra money. The total cost can be surprising. Ask your printer about options, if you want a natural color—cream–rather than a standard blue-white press sheet. Sometimes your printer can get you a deal on paper if you list the required specifications—weight, thickness, color, brightness, etc.–instead of asking for a particular brand of paper. Get printed samples, particularly if you plan to print color images on natural paper. (The yellowish tinge of a cream stock can affect people’s flesh tones in bad ways.)
  4. If you don’t need a galley proof version and a final version of your print book, you still may benefit from a lower-production-value and higher-production-value version. This might be a case-bound version vs. a perfect-bound version. Or it may be a low-end version on white offset with flush-cut covers and a cover varnish for one version, and French flaps, luxury matte film laminate, press score, and natural eggshell paper for the other. You may want to sell these for different prices, as a normal version and a premium version.
  5. Regardless of what you do, remember two things: 1. Involve your printer early in the process in terms of available book printing techniques, pricing, and schedules; and 2. always ask for samples of the printing (or binding, or coating, or foil embellishing) effects you want for your print books.

Custom Printing: The Romance of Printed Tip-Ons

Monday, December 16th, 2019

My fiancee recently found a print book at the thrift store replete with “tip-ons.” It was an art book with avant garde photos and such, but it also included maps, fold-out posters, and even envelopes with inserts attached to various pages. I found it rather intriguing.

What it also did was to bring me back to the 1990s, when I first received copies of several Griffin and Sabine books (by Nick Bantock), which traced a romance (perhaps either real or a fantasy of the characters in the books) based on epistles between two characters in hand-written notes and postcards attached to the print book pages.

It was very intimate and romantic, in part because you had to open the envelopes and unfold the letters before reading them. (That is, the reader’s subconscious presumably registers these letters as “real”: perhaps as though they had been sent to the reader rather than to the characters.) These envelopes and cards were interspersed with pages of printed collages of all sorts, mostly with a romantic and classical ambiance. It was one of the first times I had seen that many items affixed to pages in a print book, and I knew that it had involved both creativity and a large budget to achieve such a compelling narrative.

So what does all of this mean to a print book designer or marketer in the present decade? Here are some thoughts:

Why They Work

I have heard the term “reader involvement device” in marketing venues. Basically, readers of promotional material (and I would extend this to fiction in the case of the Griffin and Sabine books) want to participate in what they are reading. It makes reading a print book more of a tactile experience and a more immersive experience as well. In a marketing piece, this may involve tearing out a business reply card to request further information on a product. When I was growing up, it involved putting a dime in a slot and sending back the mailer to request “something further.” All of this creates a relationship between either the marketer or the print book’s author and the reader.

In fact, I would argue that (within reason) if the reader involvement device is a little more challenging, the reader likes it even more. For instance, I’ve seen similar print books that have treasure maps affixed to the interior pages, or even puzzles or other intellectual challenges you have to successfully complete before moving onward in the book. This concept of reader involvement has also been big online in the past two decades, with interactive fiction, which changes the progress of the narrative as you make different decisions during the “game.”

But in this case, what has become a staple of the online gaming world is equally effective in involving the reader in either a fictional work (a story) or an interactive marketing piece (still a story).

Options to Consider

Here are some thoughts as to how you can include extra printed items in your print books or even your marketing materials:

  1. You can “tip on” (add to the outside of a printed press signature, usually with something like fugitive glue) a transparent pouch for a CD or DVD. Given the advances in music recording (i.e., digital music files), this might be more appropriate for a computer software premium for your print book (maybe the entire book on CD, allowing readers to search content automatically by subject matter). You could also include video files or supplemental computer programs. The key is, you produce the CDs or DVDs separately and have the book printer glue the little vinyl pouches to the interior back covers of the books. Or you can include what’s called a “hanger,” a separate piece of card stock bound between book press signatures and onto which the plastic CD holder can be glued.
  2. You can fold up printed material, such as a map produced on a thicker commercial printing stock, and then glue it to a book page with a removable fugitive glue dot. What’s good about this is that the glue holds the map in place, but it can be easily removed without damaging the print book page or the additional printed map. Keep in mind that when you add something like this within the text block of a book, it makes the text block fatter (sometimes in an uneven way). As I recall from my experience back in the 1990s with the Griffin and Sabine books, the inserts were single-page letters folded and inserted into the envelopes that had been tipped onto pages in such a way that they were reasonably flat. The postcard tip-ons in the books were even flatter.
  3. If you are including a full-page addition on a different commercial printing stock, you can bind this between two press signatures (printers usually call this an insert rather than a tip-on). For instance, I used to receive promotional graphic arts magazines in the mail that included ads for various custom printing papers. The publisher of the magazine just bound these full-page inserts into the perfect-bound magazines, albeit between signatures.

Custom Printing Considerations

Tip-ons and inserts can be a powerful tool because they involve the reader. Even a single-page advertisement on a stock that differs from the main paper in a magazine will affect the reader’s subconscious. After all, her or his fingers can tell the difference even before the intellect registers this change. That said, this can be an expensive addition to your magazine, print book, or marketing piece.

To keep costs down, here are some suggestions:

  1. If you add a tip-on within a printed press signature, the addition has to be done manually. (The printer has to pay workers to add the tip-ons one at a time by hand.) Hand-work takes time, slows down production, and costs money. However, in some cases you can include an addition (like a separate sheet of paper on a different printing stock) by placing it in a different unit of the binder (just as a separate press signature occupies a separate pocket in the bindery equipment). As the binding process progresses, the press signature–or the additional, separate sheet of paper–is fed into the stack of signatures that eventually comprise the print book’s text block.
  2. If you need to position an additional insert, or tip-on, or hanger, in a particular place and it doesn’t fall conveniently between press signatures, consider breaking a larger signature into smaller ones. For example, you could break a 32-page press signature into two 16-page signatures and include the insert between the two. Keep in mind that if you break a press signature in two like this, you will have two signatures to print, and extra press runs drive up the cost of a job.
  3. Finally, ask your print provider about automated work vs. hand-work. Make a mock-up or prototype of the kind of insert you want to include. For instance, make a little plastic envelope, insert a CD, and hot-melt glue this to the inside back cover of a sample (prototype) book. (You may even want to request a printer’s paper dummy that you can modify to show him what you’re looking for.) If you can stay away from hand-work and instead modify your design to involve more automated production work, you will save money.

End Thoughts

Adding tip-ons and inserts (whether you use fugitive glue–which is like rubber cement–or regular, hot-melt spot glue), or even using hangers to add these little extras to your catalogs, magazines, and promotional pieces, can be very exciting to the reader, and it can especially add value to a graphic novel or gaming product. In fact, one of the tip-ons I found in a booklet I received about five years ago was a small video player. A short video explained a cross between an interactive computer game and a graphic novel. By pairing the sound and visual impact of the video with the printed images on the page, this particular marketing premium set itself apart from other sales tools. Such a promotional piece may be expensive, but it can also be worth the price (i.e., an investment in future product sales).

Regardless, make sure you involve your book printer early with any of these products. Ask about budgets and ways to minimize costs, but also ask for samples of what has been successful in the past. (That is, always use physical samples to communicate your goals.)

Book Printing: Always Submit Accurate Art Files

Monday, December 9th, 2019

Over time, small errors often grow in their scope and effects, and in book printing this can mean that a problematic file you submit today can delay the ship date for your project (or incur extra fees). If your project is time sensitive, this can be a serious source of stress.

The Case Study: A Case-Bound Textbook

A client of mine has come back to me this year with a book printing project I used to broker for her company. Her boss had chosen a different printer for a few years, but I was fortunate enough to win back the work once my client had regained control of the print book.

My client is very detail oriented and schedule oriented. Therefore, I padded the schedule a bit before I presented it. I wanted to make sure there was room to address author’s alterations. After all, in the five years I had worked with her prior to our hiatus, her print book designers had often requested corrections on multiple pages at proof time.

That said, I was actually surprised this time that as early as the book printer’s preflight stage there were problems with the margins of the book, the placement and accuracy of running headers and folios, and, in the case of the dust jacket, missing artwork.

To put this in context, this particular job is a 305-page, case-bound textbook. Interestingly enough, the press run is only 350 copies, and the specs for the case-bound cover materials are quite unique, firm, and precise. Since most vendors with whom I work will not print anything less than a 1,000-copy run via offset lithography, and since these same vendors have only limited options for case-binding digitally printed books (in order to keep costs down), I returned to a vendor in the Midwest for this job, a vendor with precisely the equipment to use the exact materials my client needed to match a previously offset printed case-bound volume of this textbook.

So the art files didn’t pass preflight. Live matter art on the pages fell too close to the trim, and page numbers were inconsistent (and in some cases not even correct relative to odd-page and even-page placement). In addition, running headers (text at the top of the page close to the trim margin including the title of the book) were inconsistently placed.

In response, my client’s print book designer made changes in some cases, agreed to live with the limitations in other cases, and uploaded a complete new file for the entire book.

To make a long story short, this happened two more times. Additionally, on the third attempt (approximately three weeks from the start of prepress work on this title), he submitted individual corrected pages rather than a complete, single file for the print book.

Making Sense of All of This: The Implications

So at the end of the three-week period we were still at the beginning of the process. Keep in mind that this printer, like most, will not commit to a delivery date prior to receipt of a signed proof approval. If the original file submission date is eight weeks out from the requested delivery date, this is an irrelevant target if the files are wrong. Only after the proof approval form has been signed (and in this case only after a revised contract reflecting a different page count from the initial bid had been signed), does the printer schedule the printing, binding, packing, and shipping steps of the book manufacturing process.

And this is all quite reasonable since the printer did nothing wrong, and since the printer has many other clients who have carefully followed (to the letter) all protocols for preparing art files.

My guesstimate, at this point, is that the ship date will slip about three weeks. My client (the one coordinating the buying process, not the book designer) understands the problems completely and is very accommodating. She plans to change the delivery date on her marketing materials. No harm/no foul. Not every client would be this accommodating. Some would even blame the printer.

What We Can Learn From This Case Study

Learn from my client’s mistakes so you don’t make them yourself. Consider these suggestions:

  1. Determine when you will need finished print books (when you absolutely need them). You may be lucky. You may have wiggle room in your schedule.
  2. Tell your printer what this “drop-dead” date will be, and see how his schedule looks. Printers are often busier in certain months than in others. For case-bound print books, some will offer you six weeks, others will offer eight. (This is often prior to shipping. Be sure to ask.) Some printers, the pricier ones, will even do the work faster, particularly if they know far in advance and have been working with you for many years. But you often pay a premium for this kind of “Cadillac” treatment. Often it’s worth it.
  3. If your book printer says six weeks overall, plus shipping, make your schedule seven-weeks in length. Be safe. Assume there will be corrections at the proof stage.
  4. Consider all elements of the schedule: preflight, proofing, corrections, printing, binding, packing, shipping, and delivery.
  5. The particular printer with whom I’m working on this job has a current 20-day schedule for production. That’s four weeks. If there is a holiday in this period, that’s longer than four weeks. Weekends don’t count. This production schedule only begins after final proof approval. Keep this in mind for your own work.
  6. Assume the physical proof will ship about five to seven days after you upload book files. Confirm this with your printer. If you get a hard-copy proof, you have to add proof shipping time to this schedule (both ways, from the printer to you and back to the printer when you’re done). You may want to consider a PDF proof instead, particularly if your book has black-ink-only text. Maybe a hard-copy cover proof and a PDF of the text will suffice.
  7. If you need revised proofs, ask for PDF proofs. Don’t add additional time to ship proofs for successive revisions.
  8. The printer’s proof is not the place to edit your manuscript. Things happen. Granted. But make sure the margins are accurate, that you’re not too close to the trim margin, that your running headers or footers are consistently placed, and that everything else is as close to perfect as you can possibly make it.
  9. Ask how close you can come to the trim margin: Usually live matter can come no closer than 3/8” from any trim. Your printer can be more specific for his equipment. (My printer for the job I mentioned says it’s 1/2”.) If anything on the page (text, photos) comes closer, it might get trimmed off and land on the bindery room floor.
  10. Ask whether your printer wants a completely new file with your corrections or just individual corrected pages saved as PDFs. Ask about extra charges. The printer I’m working with at the moment charges an extra $19.00 per page for individual pages that need to be swapped out. He prefers to receive an entirely new file from my client (and will accept three sets of files, plus preflight time, prior to adding extra charges).
  11. Throughout the entire process of creating PDF files and uploading them via FTP to your printer, use the printer’s “file creation and transmission” cheat-sheet, and adhere to all of its requirements. Not doing this opens you to extra charges and longer production schedules. If you don’t understand something, ask your sales rep or customer service rep.
  12. Not all printers have the same sense of urgency that you do. Sometimes this depends on the culture of the particular part of the USA (or other country) in which you’re printing (no offense to anyone). Pushing the vendor seldom helps. They have other clients. Particularly if the errors are yours. Some of the printers I work with will give me their cell phone numbers and take calls after hours. Others won’t even return calls or text messages as fast as I want them to during the work day, but their work comes out looking perfect. You choose your battles based on the quality of the printed samples, the overall price, and your history with the printer. As with all relationships, some things go smoothly, while other things drive you nuts.

The best single piece of advice I can leave you with is to pad your schedule–amply. Leave time for errors. They happen. Better to factor this into the schedule than to let it take years off your life.

Book Printing: Design Unity and Variety Aid the Reader’s Eye

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2019

I found myself back in the hospital recently with an infection following a total hip replacement. After fasting for the better part of the day at the surgeon’s request, I was pleased when a change of doctor’s plans enabled me to finally eat.

In the surgery ward’s family room I sat down to the best hospital food one could imagine (hunger is the best seasoning), a plate of Beef Burgundy. Needless to say, I wanted reading material to go along with my dinner, and I found a copy of the hospital’s current print book/magazine for company.

As a student of commercial printing I found several things to recommend this print book, particularly in terms of design. And all of these design techniques centered around grouping a vast amount of disparate information and presenting it in digestible chunks.

As an object lesson for print book designers, magazine designers, or practically any other kind of designers, here’s how they did it.


To put this in perspective, this little print book is 16 pages, self-cover, saddle stitched, with an 8.5” x 11” format. (Self-cover, by the way, just means the entire print book is on the same paper stock—100# white gloss text—rather than having an additional, thicker cover.) The magazine is 4-color throughout. It is called Adventist Healthcare & You.

Interestingly enough, at 16 pages in length, it really is a good tool for understanding book design and magazine design. You can see specifically how the cover was designed to grab the reader’s attention and convey information. You can see how the first page is used for a table of contents and short news briefs. Then you can see how a two-column grid has been used to present three separate feature stories (articles on a medical center, stroke treatment, and heart surgery).

A three-page (presumably) pull-out section follows, using three-column layout and subject headlines reversed out of solid color bars to separate by topic all the educational seminars the hospital offers this particular month. The change in format alerts the reader to the change in content. It also groups related material for easy reading, topic by topic.

Now that we’re past the center pull-out spread, the print book goes back to feature articles in the original two-column format (showing the reader in a visual manner that we’re back into feature stories). One is about anti-inflammatory diets, the next discusses head injuries and concussions, and the third is about breast cancer.

All of these may initially appear very different, but if you look closely you will see similar running heads, reversed out of solid color bars, describing the content of the articles. You will also see similar fonts (at least some). Even if the large headlines and the highlight colors differ from article to article, there’s still enough similarity to create a unified “look.”

Moreover, this structure of the print book (cover, front matter, feature stories, calendar of events, more feature stories, infographic as an action device to involve readers, and final mailing back panel and two final short articles) makes it easy for the reader to skim the entire print book or jump from article of interest to article of interest. It’s the similarity of design that makes this possible.

Variety: Color Usage, Photos, Typefaces

There are a number of tips and tricks the designer has used to unify the design while also allowing for variety.

I had mentioned the consistent use of column width and text and subhead typefaces to reflect similar kinds of information, but for variety, the designer has used sidebars. These look alike because they are the same width (they break these sidebar pages into one wide column and one narrow sidebar column), but they are the same width and they employ the same typefaces. For variety, one is green and another is blue, and since the green one is dark enough, the type has been reversed rather than surprinted (as is the type in the blue sidebar).

Photo treatment is another design factor. The feature articles are replete with photos. Interestingly enough, the photos in each particular section have similar colors. For instance, one has a lot of earth tones. To unify the design of this particular two-page spread, the designer has used an orange hue for subheads, part of the main title, and an infographic.

For contrast, the next article, on heart care, includes a photo with a light purple hospital wall. Therefore, the designer has used purple as an accent color for a portion of the title of the article, the initial capital letters in the text column, and the sidebar. Finally, a third feature article does the same thing with dark blue and light blue.

So the take-away is that the structure is the same (based on column width and typeface—for the most part), but the font treatment of part of each feature story title and the color “key” of each two-page feature article shift for variety. Things look alike enough to feel unified and different enough to stand out and appear as unique.

I had also mentioned the slight difference in the typefaces used for part of each feature story title (to highlight certain words). Upon a further pass through the print book, I see that for the most part the different type is a script font. If you look closely, even though the type size differs from page spread to page spread, using the same script font makes for a further sense of unity. The same goes for a minimal use of a condensed sans serif font for contact information, registration for hospital seminars, and such.

Finally, if you page through the print book quickly, you will see that the running headers include two- or three-word all-caps descriptions of the contents of each page spread. They appear in the same place on each page, but their color differs (again allowing for both unity and variety).

The Book Cover

I often look at a book or magazine cover last when I’m deconstructing the design of a publication because I myself usually design the cover based on the contents of the book. In this case, the magazine title (also known as the “flag”) is at the top of the page in an all-caps condensed sans serif typeface (a heavier version of the type used in the book itself, again for unity).

The designer nestled the much smaller name of the hospital above the main title type and a description of the periodical (along with the date) below the magazine title. Everything is flush left for simplicity of design. For variety, the ampersand in Adventist Healthcare & You is reversed out of a blue circle. In two other positions on the book cover the same dark blue appears as well. How did the designer choose the color? The woman on the cover (the focal point of the photo) is wearing a dark blue dress, and there is blue in the flowers behind her. So again we have unity.

The piece de resistance is the fact that the subject of the cover photo (the woman) looks directly at the reader, and she’s smiling. This is an age-old technique (even used by the master fine arts painters) for involving the viewer in the photo. The fact that she’s smiling makes the overall tone of the magazine cover warm and approachable.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

Start to make it a habit to collect books, magazines, and brochures you like. Make a “swipe file.” Periodically go through these printed items and articulate for yourself exactly why each works as a design piece. Consider such issues as type choice, column width and placement, overall design grid, running headers, sidebars, and color placement. Moreover, consider how the cover, contents page, feature articles, and back matter have been designed for ease of readability and immediate recognition of their purpose.

Ask yourself how the designer has taken all the content and presented it in understandable chunks, how the designer can lead the viewer’s eyes through the page spread, and how the designer can introduce variety into the design (to keep it from becoming monotonous).


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