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Archive for January, 2020

Commercial Printing: Developing a Letterhead Design

Tuesday, January 28th, 2020

A book printing and design client of mine sent me a photo of a flower a few weeks ago when we were discussing her corporate identity. She wants to rebrand her writing business, and she has liked my designs for her poetry print books (and my feedback on her marketing initiatives) enough to ask for my logo-design help.

So this week she asked that I create temporary letterhead (while we work on the rebranding), incorporating the flower image she sent me, as well as her name, address, phone number, and email information. At this pivotal moment, I thought to myself, “How do I proceed?”

Steps in the Process (The Image)

My client had asked for a centered, symmetrical layout, with all of her contact information in the center top of the page under the photo of the flower. So this is what I did—first. I figured I’d give her what she had requested, but then I’d give her some other options as well.

So I placed a small, square image of the cropped photo at the top of the page. Working quickly, I didn’t bother saving the image as a TIFF (or changing it from full color to greyscale). I just wanted to essentially make sketches as the ideas came into my head. (I will say that on the second pass, the next day, I did change the image to greyscale. At that point I also considered the tonal range of the photo (light vs. dark areas). I wanted to make sure that even at such a small size there would be detail in the image. Even (or especially) a small photo had to immediately look like a flower.

I used curves rather than levels in Photoshop. It allowed me to almost posterize the image (i.e., to use a handful of distinct levels, from black to dark grey to medium and light grey, to white). At that size, simple would be best.

I wanted the image to work in black and white first. I didn’t want the saturated red of the original flower photo to distract my client from the overall design. Also, I knew that if my client wanted to print the photo in another color, I could always add one. I also assumed (at this point in a very fluid design process) that it would cost more to print 4-color letterhead than one- or two-color letterhead—which, of course, might not be true for custom printing only a short run of the job digitally).

Looking down into the flower from above (the vantage point of the photo) made for an interesting shape around all of the petals. In addition, all of the interior parts of the flower (the parts the bees like) made for an interesting shape—but it was more abstract, less immediately understandable as a flower. So I cropped to the outer shape of the flower. Immediate recognition, I thought, trumped “cool design.”

I also noted that seeing some of the greenery around the flower petal was desirable (for its immediate recognition as a flower), so I loosened the tight photo crop just slightly. I did keep to a square format, though. I thought this would be more dynamic and solid than any other geometric form (like a rectangle).

So I had my central image, which I had every reason to think my client would like because she had given it to me, and I had presented it in its best light (aesthetically) and its most recognizable form (practically).

A Caveat Before Proceeding

I had fortunately taken the advice I always give others to ask the client what she likes in other people’s logos and letterhead, and what adjectives she considered relevant to the “tone” or ethos of her business. She said she didn’t like anybody’s marketing collateral, but she wanted me to present an upscale, dynamic look, with the elegance of Vogue magazine.

So I had my goal for the next steps.

Type Choices

Even for a letterhead treatment with a photo and a handful of address information there are an infinite number of options. Getting a client to be specific makes this easier. Getting the client to provide physical samples makes this easier still.

So with Vogue as a target I chose a serif typeface at random based entirely on what looked good to me (elegant and dynamic). I figured I could always change it later. I just needed to sketch out (so to speak, on the computer) maybe five different treatments of all of this visual and textual information, using the limited palette of black ink only (which could later be augmented). I think the typeface was Minion. It was the one at the top of the font list on my computer, and I knew that a serif face would seem to be a little more “classy and opulent” in its tone.

To enhance the upscale Vogue look I set my client’s name in caps and small caps (large initial letters in each word of her name and smaller, albeit still capital, letters for the remaining letters in each name). There are three words in her name (it looks like she uses a former married name as well as her own). It would be even more upscale if two of the names were hyphenated, but you can’t always get what you want. I made sure the name was significantly larger than the address, phone number, and email information. And to be safe, I made these one point smaller than I had initially planned. Then I made sure my client’s name was not so large as to be awkward (it still had to be sophisticated).

Page Geometry

When I was starting in design in the 1970s, we used to call this “layout.” Now I think some people call it “page geometry.” Regardless, it’s the placement of design elements on the page.

To start the process, I made exactly the layout my client had requested. (I mentioned this earlier in the blog article.) Then I started to move the elements around on the page. I tried various centered (symmetrical) and asymmetrical options. I put some address information at the bottom of the page with and without a .5 pt horizontal rule. I even realized that with the photo and three chunks of copy, I could set up a layout grid of four columns and put the image and the three chunks of copy on an invisible horizontal line across the top of the page (to anchor them).

When I was done, I went online (Google) and looked under “letterhead samples.” I found a few more ideas and modified them to accommodate my client’s design elements. Then I had five good options. Each was different from the others, in terms of the overall design grid or placement of the name (above or below the flower image, for instance). I wanted to make sure there was enough of a difference to warrant showing my client each of the options. I also remembered the advice another designer had once given me: Show the client only what you like. After all, it’s hard to advocate for a design you’re not pleased with yourself.

Logic and Practicality

When I had printed hard copies of each option (and I strongly encourage you to do this in your own work, because no online image will “feel” like real letterhead and show you the exact size of all design elements), I realized something. I looked at where my client would need to start her typed (or laser printed) letter on the letterhead. Some designs (those with all design elements at the top of the letterhead page) made it essential to start the typed letter farther down the page. Other designs that put the address at the bottom and the flower image and my client’s name at the top left more room, higher up on the page, for the letter my client would write on the letterhead.

This was a practical approach but also a prudent one.

Then I sent off the five options to my client as PDF attachments to an email. The email basically said “Anything can be changed. Let me know what you like and don’t like.” Fortunately, when I awoke this morning, my client’s email registered her overall delight. I was grateful. This doesn’t always happen.

What You Can Learn

  1. Ask your client questions (such as, “What adjectives describe your business?” and “How would you describe the values your business espouses?”). Then listen to the answers.
  2. Ask for printed samples of (or online links to) logos and letterhead treatments your client likes.
  3. Think in terms of the emotional tone of various typefaces, and the tone of all caps, all lowercase, and small-caps treatments.
  4. Think about what colors you will use for the custom printing, but first make sure the design works well in black ink only. Color can detract from your accurately assessing the quality of the underlying design.
  5. Think practically: How much will it cost to do what you want (i.e., the number of printed colors and this effect on the cost of an offset print job vs. a digital print job)? And how much space are you leaving your client to put her/his actual letter on the letterhead?

Custom Printing: A Unique Printer’s Holiday Card

Sunday, January 19th, 2020

A commercial printing supplier I work with producing jobs for a number of my clients sent me a unique holiday card recently. I was touched by the thought, but even more than that I was intrigued by the card’s production values.

This was a truly unique, striking digital (presumably) product, particularly considering the amount of time I have spent wondering just how this printer must have achieved the effect.

And that is what makes a printed product not only a work of art but also a masterful promotional product, in this particular case showcasing the skills of this commercial printing vendor.

A Description of the Card

First, let me describe for you exactly what makes it special. The card is presented in the horizontal holiday card format. It is printed in white ink on a thick black printing stock. On the front of the card is the contour of a sweater printed with snowflake patterns, a city skyline, a statue of George Washington, and a statue of what looks like a dancing Fred Astaire.

The printer’s logo is on the back of the card, and inside the fold-over holiday card are the words “Merry Christmas” and a handful of snowflake designs falling from the fold-over part of the card down into its main panel. Nothing else. Except for the name of the printer and a few snowflake designs on the words “Merry Christmas.”

Doesn’t sound unusual at all, does it? Not a show-stopper. So why am I gushing? Because the card is a dense black (unusual for winter holidays), the ink is white (and it actually covers the black background with no pinholes, which is very impressive), and the press sheet is a rigid, rubberized stock. If you don’t touch the card, it’s attractive. But once you pick it up, you’re sold. Not only on the quality of the card, but on the abilities of the commercial printing vendor. And that’s good advertising.

How Was It Done?

First of all, covering black custom printing stock with anything and making it appear opaque is hard to do. The process colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) for offset printing are transparent. So you would see the paper through the ink.

In the past, printers have gotten around this problem by foil stamping a black card with, say, a silver metallic foil. This involves making a metal die to stamp out the film, and this costs money and takes time (it’s almost always subcontracted work).

Another work-around has been to print a background of opaque white ink, and then print all CMYK text directly over this opaque background. (Opaque white includes titanium dioxide, and this will significantly reduce the visibility of the black paper behind it.)

So upon receiving the card from this commercial printing supplier and having my interest piqued, I took out my 12-power loupe and checked the card under a bright light. This is what I saw:

  1. The white ink/toner (not sure yet) was very thick.
  2. In spite of this, I could not peel off any of the type (so it doesn’t seem to be a hot-stamping foil).
  3. The white ink had random sparkles of red and blue in the body of the pigment.
  4. In other areas of the card (such as the line drawings of the snowflakes inside the card), the white ink was thinner, and a bit of the background black color showed through.
  5. Some of the type and images had a gloss coating not present on the other design elements.

What can I deduce from my observations?

  1. A card like this could have been done with some sort of custom screen printing process. (Screen printing ink is very thick and opaque.) However, this would have been an expensive job, and the ink would probably have been even thicker than it already is. In addition, the fine detail on the sweater outline (i.e., the fur on the squirrels printed on the sweater) would probably not have been possible to achieve due to the thickness of the ink.
  2. As noted above, the job could have been done with heat-applied white stamping foil. However, this would have been expensive, and I could probably have peeled off at least something from the design.
  3. The speckles are a dead give-away of a digital printing process. Toner-based laser printers scatter toner particles a bit, and the particles are very small. Digital ink jet printing also applies minuscule dots of colored ink side by side to create the impression of additional colors. But on this particular holiday card, the red and blue specs looked accidental, as though the toner particles had landed randomly on the otherwise white imagery.
  4. If financial prudence is taken into account, my educated guess at this point is that the holiday cards were created with a digital technology, not offset printing, custom screen printing, or foil stamping.
  5. With this in mind, I know the following about certain brands of toner-based digital printing equipment. Some of the equipment prints not only cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, but also a thick white toner mixture that can cover a black or transparent background to provide a bright base for any subsequent printing.
  6. I also know that these same digital toner presses can print spot gloss and matte coatings. This could explain the reflectivity/sheen on some but not all of the imagery on the card (the words “Merry Christmas” but not the name of the printer immediately below the holiday greeting, or the gloss coating on some but not all of the snowflakes above the holiday greeting).
  7. Now, for the paper. There are papers based on cotton (such as bond) or wood fibers (most other commercial printing papers), and then there are papers based on synthetic materials or plastic. Yupo is a synthetic paper. It has a rubbery feel.
  8. There are also luxury, soft-touch matte paper surface coatings that give printing stock a rubbery feel that kind of grabs onto your fingertips. My educated guess at this point would be that either the paper is a synthetic product, or it has been covered with a rubberized coating.
  9. I also know that many brands of digital laser printing equipment will also lay down coatings (so not just cyan, magenta, yellow, and black plus opaque white toners, but also usually one or two specialized coatings: either matte or gloss). And these can be used to flood the sheet (to make it feel rubbery or smooth), or they can be used to highlight one or more items on the page (i.e., as a spot gloss or spot matte application).

So What’s the Answer?

I haven’t a clue. I do think, however, that these options noted above are the potential technologies the commercial printing supplier could have employed. And, based on what I know, the most cost effective way to do this for a (presumably) short run that would go only to the printer’s clients, digital commercial printing would be the best option.

Just for fun, I also checked online and read the printer’s equipment list. They do have one digital toner press that could have produced this card. (Another one would have been Kodak’s NexPress.)

I also sent the sales rep an email asking for details. We’ll see what he says.

The Take Away

So how can you use this information in your own work? First of all, if you like something, deconstruct it. Figure out why you like it and how it was created. This includes not only the design but (as in this case) all of the custom printing and finishing operations employed. If you can understand how something was done, you can use this information and these techniques when designing your own jobs. You will also know exactly what to ask the printer, particularly if you have the physical samples. (For instance, you could show the printer this card and say, “Can you do this?”)

Finally, take a lesson from successful marketing professionals. If you can make someone take as much time as I have taken looking at the card and wondering how it was done, you can bet this same client will come back and buy such a product/process when an appropriate job comes up. That’s priceless advertising.

The Reality

Just prior to my submitting this article for publication, I heard back from the printer’s sales rep. The Christmas cards had been printed on Neenah Touché Black Soft Touch Cover, on a 5-color Ricoh 7210X (a digital, toner-based press). The first pass was white ink, and then the second pass was a clear spot overprint.

Custom Printing: Two Cool Samples (and Why They’re Cool)

Monday, January 13th, 2020

Every so often I receive a unique printed sample in the mail or pick one up in a mall. Sometimes it’s the folding technique that grabs my attention. Sometimes it’s a particular paper coating or even a unique custom printing technique or substrate material that piques my interest.

Over the last few weeks I have picked up two such samples. First, I’d like to describe them to you and then I want to explain why I think they are noteworthy. Why? If you design anything that is printed, then it helps to understand the strengths of print vs. online communication. Then you can ensure that your design work stands out from the crowd, because you will be playing to the strengths of this tactile medium.

The Chapbook

One of my clients is a husband-and-wife publishing team. They produce print books of fiction and poetry, and as such they have many other friends and colleagues who also publish books of this kind. Most of their readers are middle aged and above, so they have grown up with physical print books, and they appreciate their physical nature.

The particular print sample of which I speak is a “chapbook,” a small book of literature with a simple design, created to be shared with other poets and writers. This particular book is 4” x 6” in format, 80 pages in length, with almost nothing but text inside (black text only), with a 4-color cover coated with a matte film laminate, and perfect bound.

The cover has as its main visual motif a sculpture of a man with thumbs in his ears, wiggling his open fingers. He looks like a child, double-dog-daring someone to approach. (He also looks a bit like a moose, since the hands with outstretched fingers also look like moose’s horns.) According to the editor of this anthology about reading poetry in front of groups, the image may be of Syrophoenician origin. Apparently the statue recently sold at Sotheby’s. The open-fingered hand motif is reproduced in the text of the book, twice, once at the beginning and once at the end of the print book (sort of like bookends).

The typeface for the text is a simple, light sans serif with ample leading, justified. Because of the ample leading, I don’t mind that the single column of text is justified. It is still easy to read. The title of the book and the titles of the essays in the text are set in some variant of American Typewriter or Courier, with the letterforms slightly filled in, just like type from a typewriter.

The statue on the cover, unabashedly challenging the reader, is printed in full color over splashes of bright yellow, turquoise, and burnt sienna.

Why This Works / Why It’s Noteworthy

Here are some thoughts:

  1. The small format makes the book stand out in a world where most print books are closer to 6” x 9”.
  2. Although the book is small, the statue on the cover faces the reader and challenges him, much like David challenged Golliath. That said, there is an element of humor in the image (the “Na, na, na, na, nah” challenge set against the psychedelic colors and the distressed typewriter type). Humor sells because it puts the reader at ease.
  3. The matte film laminate is easy on the eyes in a world where many, if not the majority of, books have mirror-bright gloss cover coatings. So this one stands out, and it also feels good in the hands—not just because the book is so small but because of the soft-touch coating.
  4. The design is simple, and it reflects the contents. The book is an anthology of short essays about reading one’s poetry in front of groups. So it is fitting to have the typeface for the essay titles in what looks like typewriter type. Even though the grunge factor of the somewhat filled-in letterforms detracts from readability, all use of this typeface is for a few words here and a few words there. So you get the humor and irony, but you can still read the words.
  5. The book is a tactile experience, particularly because of the cover coating. You can’t simulate this on the Internet. You need a physical print book.

The Flexible Vase

As noted above, humor does sell. My fiancee and I received flowers recently in what would normally be called “flexible packaging.” You’ve seen this in the grocery store. When I grew up, tuna came in a can. Now it comes in a flexible pouch with edge-to-edge marketing text and imagery. And apple sauce used to come in a bottle, just like milk. Now apple sauce often comes in single-use servings in little pouches with quick-release nozzles for pouring out the contents. Again, you can print all over them, edge-to-edge.

So the printed sample in question, the plastic flexible vase for flowers, when opened and laid flat on a table, is in the shape of a very wide vase. It curves in and out at the top like the neck of a vase. It is wider than usual because when filled with water and flowers it becomes more of a cylinder. (At the moment, it is unfilled and flat on the table.)

Except for the top, there is heat welding all the way around, attaching the front of the vase to the back.

What makes this adorable is that on the front and back the printer has reproduced Vincent van Gogh’s “Cafe Terrace at Night.” I just looked closely with a 12-power printer’s loupe, and I didn’t see the rosette pattern of offset lithography, but I did see halftone dots of various sizes. Since inkjet printing uses a spray of minuscule dots, I can only assume this was done on some variant of an electrophotographic digital press (maybe something like an HP Indigo). Perhaps the plastic substrate can take the heat. It seems rigid when flat, so this might have been the technology used. I would think that flexographic printing would contain halftone dots that, like offset printing, would produce a prominent rosette pattern, and I could not see any rosette patterns on this printed bag.

Why This Works / Why It’s Noteworthy

Here are some thoughts:

  1. People still expect flowers to come in a glass or solid plastic vase, even if juice and apple sauce now come in bags. So what makes this unique is that it challenges one’s expectations. The viewer doesn’t expect a flexible vase, so she/he looks again and does a double take. (It’s a little like the Pop Art soft sculptures of the early 1960s.)
  2. People especially don’t expect a famous painting printed on a vase. To me, paintings of the masters suggest “old school” values. So it’s humorous (or at least eye-catching) to see new “flexible-package-printing” technology used to print a famous painting exactly where you’d never expect to see it. This entire product calls attention to itself as the offspring of modern technology, perhaps touched by the old-school sensibilities of Vincent van Gogh.
  3. This could not have been done without current commercial printing technology. In a world that sometimes touts the death of print, that’s gratifying to know.
  4. With digital custom printing now capable of printing on physical objects (direct-to-shape or DTS), plus the ability to print on glass, it will not be long before a digital inkjet press will be able to copy a Vincent van Gogh painting onto a glass vase (perhaps with UV inks). Then again, since they can already print directly onto the surface of a football, maybe it’s already possible to print a van Gogh on a rigid glass vase.

Custom Printing: Book and Magazine Signature Work

Monday, January 6th, 2020

If you’ve been in book or magazine printing for any length of time, the term “signature” is familiar to you. You probably think automatically about how your print book or magazine will break down into the most optimal press signatures to keep the printing cost down.

On the other hand, if you’re used to designing and printing flyers, large-format signage, and other products without multiple pages, then the term signature is probably new to you.

A signature is a press sheet with a certain number of pages printed on both sides, folded and trimmed such that the pages are all consecutive. Pages are laid out in this way (called a press imposition) so that four, eight, sixteen, or even thirty-two pages can be printed at the same time (if the press is “perfecting,” or printing both sides). If the press is not a perfecting press, then one side of the sheet is printed at a time. The ink is then allowed to dry. Then the job is “backed up.” (That is, the stack of press sheets is turned over, and then the sheets are fed through the press again–often with new press plates–to print the other side of the press form, which is the name for an unfolded signature.)

You can do the same thing with a smaller job. In this case, you would just print more than one copy of the job on a press sheet. For instance, if you’re printing a four-page, 8.5” x 11” (when folded) brochure, you might lay out two of these such that they will be printed simultaneously on a press sheet. In fact, to avoid changing the plates, you might even place one two-page spread face up and the other face down on the same sheet. In this way, without changing custom printing plates, you can print one side of the sheet, dry the ink, and then flip the stack over and print the other side of the sheet (called work and turn or work and tumble, depending on how the press sheets are turned over—side to side or end over end).

I know all of this may be confusing or maddening. But here is how it is relevant to commercial printing products with multiple pages.

The Case Study

A client of mine is producing a relatively simple print book. It is 5.5” x 8.5”, with 60# white vellum text paper and a 12pt. cover. The cover will be coated with a luxury matte film laminate. The book will be perfect bound. It will also have a 16-page insert printed on 80# gloss coated text paper. All told, the text will be 288 pages, and the insert will be 16 pages, so the total page count will be 304 pages plus cover.

Now, back to signature work. This would be absolutely the same if the product were a magazine. As long as we’re doing multi-page work, like a catalog, magazine, or print book, we talking about press signatures.

A 288-page book can be composed of 72 4-page signatures (highly inefficient), 36 8-page signatures, 18 16-page signatures (more reasonable), or 9 32-page signatures (ideal). Think about it. If your book page size is small enough and your press sheet size is large enough to fit 16 pages on either side of a press sheet, you can produce the entire print book in nine press runs (as opposed to 72 press runs if you can only fit four pages on a press sheet: two on either side of the page). Less time, less money. Also, fewer consumables such as press plates, fewer wash-ups, and therefore less labor.

If you take a sheet of paper, draw a rectangular press sheet, and rule out sixteen pages on this drawing, you can visualize what I’m saying. Now, write 40” on the long side of the rectangle and 28” on the short side. This is the total length and width of the press sheet, so you can further label the drawing by noting 8.5” (length of the individual pages) in each of the smaller book pages within the large rectangle across the 40” dimension and 5.5” (width of the pages) for each book page across the 28” dimension.

Of course, this assumes your press is large enough to accept a 28” x 40” press sheet.

When you have drawn out this miniature press sheet diagram, you will see that the long side will accept four 8.5” page dimensions equaling 34” (close enough to the 40” length to allow for gripper margin, printer’s color marks, and bleeds). The short side of the sheet will accept four 5.5” book pages, totaling 22” of the total 28” width of the press sheet.

So this is an economical use of the press sheet (less waste, and more print book pages per press sheet allowing for fewer press runs).

The Insert

My client’s insert will be 16 pages. It will be printed 8 pages on either side of the press sheet, so presumably it can be produced “two-up” on a 28” x 40” press sheet. This just means that when the press signature is folded and trimmed, you will get two full 16-page signatures from each press sheet. As noted before, the insert paper will be a gloss text sheet, and the book text pages will be uncoated book paper.

So this will be the marrying of two separate paper stocks: one a single, 16-page gloss text signature containing photos (which will look crisper on a gloss coated stock) and nine 32-page text signatures on an uncoated 60# offset paper.

Now the insert can’t go just anywhere. It has to go between press signatures. This may be a problem editorially. For instance, the gloss coated photo pages may pertain to certain pages of the remaining text. But if they all have to go together (all sixteen pages), and they all have to be positioned between text signatures (between any two of the nine comprising the text block), then their placement will be constrained.


Let’s say you had money to burn. You could do things slightly differently. If some of your text signatures were shorter than 32 pages (let’s say two 16-page signatures in one position in the print book), you would have more options for placing the insert. Conversely, you could break the 16-page photo signature into two 8-page signatures and position one in the first half of the book and the other closer to the end of the book.

Either way, you would be decreasing the size of a press signature and thus necessitating more press runs to create the same book (plus new plates and ink wash-ups, so more labor, more materials, and more time on press at the printer’s hourly rate). You may still want to do this, for editorial reasons (pertaining to the content of the print book rather than to its most efficient manner of production).

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

If you are doing signature work, the first thing to do is think in terms of signatures. This will gradually become an automatic approach. Ask your printer about the size of the press and the size of the largest press sheet it will print. (Some presses will even print a 50” sheet.)

Then think about the number of book, magazine, or catalog pages you can get on a sheet and what size they must be. You will need to ask your printer how much space he will need for color bars and other printer’s marks, for the commercial printing press gripper (to pull the press sheets through the press), and for bleeds on the book pages. You’ll need to leave this much space as you determine the page size of your book, catalog, or magazine.

Your printer can teach you how to fold a sheet of paper to create a model of a press signature. You can then number the pages to see how the press form (the unfolded press sheet) can be printed and then folded into a little 8-page, 16-page, or 32-page booklet, after which these little booklets can be stacked and then bound together.

It’s also most useful to see all of this actually happening at a printer’s plant (to see the printing of one side of the sheet and then the other), then to see the folding, signature stacking, binding, and trimming operations that yield multi-signature products.

Once you have seen all of this being done and also have the little folded models and drawings of the press sheets that you have made, you will find it a much more intuitive process to lay out each signature of a print book and to understand where you must position an insert produced on different paper.


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Newsletter, Flyer Printers
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Online Book Price Quotes
Paperback Book Printers
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Post Card Mailing Service
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Postcard Printers & Mailing Services
Post Card Direct Mail Service
Poster, Large Format Projects
Posters (Maps, Events, Conferences)
Print Custom TShirts
Screen Print Cards, Shirts
Shortrun Book Printers
Tabloid, Newsprint, Newspapers
T-shirts: Custom Printed Shirts
Tshirt Screen Printers
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