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Archive for February, 2020

Custom Printing: Designing with Faces, Eyes, and Hands

Monday, February 24th, 2020

My fiancee collects newspapers from friends and relatives for use in our art therapy work (i.e., to cover the tables and contain the mess). This week in the collection I found an Eileen Fisher catalog. Before returning it to my fiancee, I decided to use it as source material for this blog due to its masterful use of photos. And the reason I found the design masterful was that the graphic artist had used the models’ hands, faces (in general), eyes (more specifically), and postures and gestures to draw the reader into the catalog and to lead the reader’s eye through the page spreads. The models’ expressions, clothes, and demeanor, as well as the color usage, typefaces, and even the paper all contribute to an overall understanding of the Eileen Fisher brand.

So let’s break this down.

The Models

Good photography doesn’t happen by accident. Even if the photo looks like a casual snapshot (or selfie), a huge amount of work has usually gone into everything from make-up to clothing to lighting to the model’s posture. (Having a camera in every cell phone has for the most part made us forget the importance of this skill.) Making a good photo look like a happy accident takes work.

That said, the models in the Eileen Fisher catalog look to the left, to the right, off the page, toward other photos. The reader always has a sense that there is something to look at. It’s a normal human reflex to look where someone else is looking. (Try walking out into a crowd on the street and looking up. Soon everyone else will be looking up, too.) In the case of the catalog, the gaze of the models leads the reader from one photo to another (i.e., from one Eileen Fisher product to another). And it is a major goal of all graphic design to lead the reader’s eye around the double-page spread of a print book, catalog, or magazine. It is the designer’s canvas. There should be no confusion as to what the reader should look at first, second, and third. Eileen Fisher does this masterfully by incorporating the “gaze” of each model into the overall design.

And I’d go one step further. When models in a catalog or print book are looking at each other, you as the reader are an observer of their world. Periodically, in the case of this Eileen Fisher catalog, there is a slight change to this axiom. Instead of looking at each other (even from photo to photo), the models look at you, the reader. Since the models have such different, evocative expressions, this becomes an intimate moment. They’re looking at you. You’re looking at them, wondering what they’re thinking. (This is true in other catalogs, but often the expressions are more generic. These are more varied and emotive.) You will find the exact same distinction (between models looking at each other and models looking at you) in fine arts prints and paintings in galleries.

To add to the effect, the Eileen Fisher catalog designer has used the posture, carriage, gesture, hand position, and movement of the models to good effect, as a method of leading the reader’s eye around the page spread, as a way to break up the “space” of the two-page spread, even as a way to convey the models’ emotions. (That is, the models’ posture works as both a design element and as an emotional hook, presumably inviting the reader into the models’ world, enticing the reader to “associate” herself with the models by buying the same clothes they are wearing.)

More Design Values

Before we move on to commercial printing characteristics and choices, I’d like to mention some design choices that contribute to the (in my opinion) overall excellence of this print book catalog.

The first is white space. The reader’s eyes get tired from seeing too much type and too many images. It’s important to give the reader’s eyes a place to rest. White space (everything that is not type or images) provides this respite. In the Eileen Fisher catalog, such techniques as silhouetting images, desaturating the colors in the background of the images so the photo edges fade away, and surrounding the images with a generous amount of white space, all provide a sense of opulence to the catalog. There is no busy-ness, no sense of chaos or urgency, just a relaxed and sophisticated tone.

To achieve this, one of the tools the graphic artist has employed is the focus on the contours around the models (the negative space,: i.e., anything that is not subject matter). These shapes are intriguing. They grab the reader’s attention and guide the reader’s eye through the double-page spread. That the backgrounds of the photos seem to fade gives the feeling of more white space, making for a more open, simple design.

One other thing I’d like to mention about the design actually straddles the boundary between design and production. That is the paper. The uncoated stock the Eileen Fisher designer selected for the cover and text pages is a brilliant, bright blue-white. There’s no gloss or matte coating, and this provides a calming, natural effect. But beyond this, the brightness of the blue-white sheet makes the type design seem crisper and the colors of the models’ faces and clothes brighter and more intense.

Production Values

Back to the paper, this time from a production perspective. Thick, uncoated text and cover paper (and a thick, slightly different texture for the insert card) just feel good to the hand.

In addition, the catalog is short (32 pages plus cover). The designer could have saddle stitched the print book catalog. But she/he chose to perfect bind the catalog with a hinge press score parallel to the spine. Again, this choice signals opulence, sophistication, glamour. If there were no text or imagery in the print book—if the pages were completely blank—the reader would probably still want to buy something. Because the book just feels good–and natural.

What We Can Learn

The purpose of a catalog is to sell product. That said, people don’t like to be sold. They prefer to be helped to buy something that reflects their likes, dislikes, and values. A designer who can grasp the overall personality of the buyer and then use the tools of design to both consciously and subliminally connect the buyer’s persona with the values inherent in the client company’s “brand” will always be in demand. This catalog reflects such mastery.

The best way to develop such a skill is to observe and dissect (or deconstruct) whatever you see that you like. To give this lifelong task a roadmap, here are some things to look for:

  1. Paper choice: color, brightness, whiteness, caliper or thickness, coating, surface texture—just to start. Ask yourself exactly how each of these characteristics contributes to the overall look and feel of the printed product (any printed product, since any printed product is really an advertisement for something).
  2. Photos: Are the photos formal or informal? Are the models looking at each other or at you, the reader? What emotions are the models trying to convey (after all, they’re actors, in the final analysis)? Do they use their eyes? Do they use their hands? How does their posture help convey their emotions? You would be surprised at how few magazines, print books, brochures, and catalogs take any of this into account. If you bring this skill and awareness into your own design work, you will set yourself apart from other designers.
  3. White space: look for well-balanced page spreads with a place for the reader’s eyes to rest. If the design is busy (the opposite of this catalog), how does the cacaphony contribute to the overall effect? Or is the busy-ness just an accident or flaw?
  4. Type: Why did the designer choose the typeface, and what values and emotions does it suggest? In your own work, try various type combinations and notice the subtle changes in tone these changes in type will suggest. Even changing a headline from roman to bold or demi-bold will make a difference. Learn to articulate that difference and then explain how it contributes to the purpose of the printed piece.

Make it a lifelong task to study, deconstruct, and learn from what you see. Eventually it will become an intuitive feel as you’re designing something. The years of study (if it becomes a passion, this won’t feel like work) will make your design choices flow naturally. Look, study, create—then rinse and repeat.

Custom Printing: Fish Printing for Art and Commerce

Sunday, February 9th, 2020

I’m always excited when the art therapy work my fiancee and I do with our autistic students overlaps with my work in the commercial printing industry. Recently, at my fiancee’s behest, we bought rubber fish to ink and then print, just as the Japanese fishermen did in the 1800s to record the fish they caught. What’s old is new again, so to speak.

The traditional term for this artform is “gyotaku.” Fishermen in Japan used to ink up their fish with sumi ink and then print them on rice paper. If you’ve seen any of these images online or in museums, you may also have noticed the red marks at the bottom right of the prints. These were the artists’ names and/or information about the prints.

Once the imprint had been made, the fishermen could rinse off the ink and then sell or eat the fish they had caught.

Preparation for Our Classes

Needless to say, we had no rice paper, sumi ink, or knowledge of the Kanji characters for writing names, and our fish were rubber (made from molds that resembled fish). But we had enthusiasm. We had a total of eight fish (which were essentially custom printing plates for relief printing) that ranged from a flounder to a starfish to a piranha.

Before the class we made a handful of test prints, first rolling out the Speedball printing ink on plastic mats with a rubber printing roller or brayer (also not traditional; presumably the fishermen in Japan had used some form of stuffed dauber to collect the ink and blot it onto the fish). Then we laid tissue paper (our version of rice paper) over the inked rubber plates.

We learned two things. First, regular paper didn’t work well because it was flat and could not be nestled into all the inked nooks and crannies of the rubber fish the way the more flexible tissue paper could. Also, it was nice to be able to see the ink through the tissue paper. We could make sure that all of the paper had come into contact with the inked rubber fish. This would yield a complete, intricate print.

We also learned that overinking was not ideal. After all, this is relief custom printing. The goal was to distinguish between the raised areas of the fish that would take the ink and the recessed areas that would not print. With practice, we could print very detailed ridges in the fish and even a number of the scales. Delicate inking worked best.

How the Project Went

We did this custom printing project with three classes. Some of the autistic members were more skilled, some less. However, everyone loved the tactile nature of the project and even the mess. They also liked the surprising, sometimes uncontrollable, outcomes (kind of like watercolor painting). Each student chose the best two prints they had done, which we then mounted. All images received the traditional red signature (called a “chop”) in the right-hand bottom portion of the print. Then we used glue sticks to mount the printed tissue paper on black or white bristol board backing.

While the autistic students worked on their projects, I explained the custom printing process. I distinguished between relief printing and intaglio printing. I told the students about such relief processes as letterpress, linoleum printing, and woodcut printing.

I also explained that intaglio printing allowed the press operator to print using ink in the recesses of the printing plate, while the ink on the raised areas would be wiped off before printing. In contrast, in relief printing I told the students that the raised areas alone carried the image to be printed.

My fiancee and I even contrasted these techniques to offset commercial printing, in which both the image area and non-image area are on the same level of the custom printing plate, with only the inability of oil (the ink) and water to mix allowing the image area to remain separate from the non-image area in the final print.

In short, my fiancee and I discussed the art project within the context of fine art printing and commercial printing throughout history. And since the original purpose of gyotaku or fish printing was as a recording device for commerce (printing the fish as a record of what had been caught), we even presented the context of economics in our background information.

The Inks We Used

We stuck with white and black ink, although the tissue paper ranged from black to white to orange to light blue and green. The backgrounds offered a second color in most cases.

Some of the members and their aides even found ways to print both black and white on a single fish, just by using a brush as well as a roller, adding white paint as a highlight color in certain areas.

Another Traditional Approach: Monoprints

I’ve written before in the PIE Blog about monotypes, in which no printing plate is used. You just paint a design onto a glass sheet and then lay a piece of custom printing paper over it and then rub the back of the sheet with a spoon to transfer the image. This makes only one unique print.

Similar to this is the monoprint, in which a simple (not blank like the glass sheet of monotypes but with some image in the metal “matrix”) plate is used repeatedly, but it is altered by adding ink in different ways (like painting ink onto the plate). When the students first inked up the fish with black ink and then added the white ink with a brush, this was closer to the traditional monoprint (that is, the consistent base of the printing plate with each image altered and doctored up differently).

What the Students Learned; What You Can Learn

  1. First of all, if you’re used to printing your jobs digitally on inkjet or laser equipment, it helps to see how printing has evolved over the centuries. (You may also want to read about Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of movable type in the 1400s, plus the ensuing democratization of printed materials and reading once books became available, supplanting the hand-lettered Bibles copied by the monks.)
  2. The more you know about traditional relief printing, intaglio printing, and offset printing, the more appreciation you will have for the art and craft of commercial printing. You will also understand why you do what you do. For example, the student who painted white highlights on the fish after rolling black ink onto the rubber plate with a brayer, could have done the same thing by making two passes with the same plate (one with black ink and one with white). In this way he would have learned how to print custom printing plates “in register.”
  3. Seeing the nuances of overinked and underinked plates will give you an appreciation for both graphic arts and fine arts. You will grow to both recognize and appreciate delicacy in these disciplines.
  4. You’ll understand right away what flexography is. After all, flexography is just inking up rubber relief plates, which is exactly what this kind of fish printing is. You’ll appreciate the process by which printers decorate everything from the plastic wrapping material used for loaves of bread to holiday wrapping paper to the cardboard packaging your frozen dinner comes in.
  5. You might even decide to cut a potato in half and then carve an image into one side and print it. This is the kind of relief printing I used to do as a kid.
  6. Also, if you go to a Renaissance Faire and watch a printing exhibition of letterpress work, you’ll understand the whole process of relief printing from having made your own fish prints.

Knowledge is power. It also gives you an historical and economic perspective, and it helps you appreciate the intricacies of fine arts and commercial arts.

Custom Printing: Laser Branding Organic Fruits and Vegetables

Thursday, February 6th, 2020

Literally branding food. Not in the sense of creating brand associations between a product and the values it reflects, but branding like cowboys did with their cattle. Now you can brand fruits and vegetables with thick skins using lasers. Way cool.

A commercial printing client of mine brought this process to my attention, so I did some research and came up with some questions.

First of all, ever since I grew up watching Star Trek and other science fiction shows in the 1960s, I knew that lasers could burn objects in a focused manner with pinpointed accuracy. Over the past several years I have also seen this technology used to die cut everything from wood to printed paper products. And I have also seen videos of lasers used in other finishing operations at commercial printing shops.

At the same time I have read about recent trends in packaging, which seems to be a hot sector for commercial printing. (In fact, this is especially true for digital printing, given the ability to personalize labeling with this technology, the current focus on shorter runs of manufactured products (not necessarily limited to food products), and the growth of smaller prepared (or almost prepared) meals.

So digital custom printing has been an ally in this arena, particularly as it pertains to the labeling and branding of food items, both in the sense of identifying the items and also in the sense of providing a tone, value, or even atmosphere of relevant attributes you can sense when you pick up a banana or avocado.

In this light I was intrigued by the concept my client brought to my attention of using lasers to brand thick-skinned fruits and vegetables. Mind you, if you look at online photos of this process, you’ll see that the branding seems to have been done without the application of food-safe inks. These brands seem to be just images burned into the fruits and vegetables.

A Description of the Process

One article I found in my research was entitled “Finally, An Alternative to Plastic for Labeling Organics,” written by Anabela Linke and printed in the plastic packaging section of It’s not a new article (5/6/18), but it gives you a good idea of some of the benefits provided by this approach, and it includes some photos that show exactly what the process provides in terms of readability, contrast with the background, etc.

To begin with, digital laser branding of fruits and vegetables fulfills the requirement that all organic produce be labeled. It also does this while reducing the amount of plastic consumed. After all, no extraneous materials need to be added, such as stickers or plastic wrapping of bulk food, if you can burn information directly into the skin of the produce.

In terms of waste, Linke’s article notes that “in Germany, for example, the amount of packaging that ends up in the bin every year has recently increased 2 percent to 18.2 million tons, according to the German Federal Environmental Agency” (“Finally, An Alternative to Plastic for Labeling Organics”).

The article goes on to note the ever-increasing amount of plastic used to protect produce and to package smaller portions of take-out food.

In response to this challenge, a Netherlands laser tech firm called Eosta developed a packaging technology called “natural branding” (“Finally, An Alternative to Plastic for Labeling Organics”). This is exactly what the name implies, and it does not adversely affect the appearance, taste, longevity, or durability of the fruits and vegetables it adorns. These particular products, however, need to have a “hard shell” (“Finally, An Alternative to Plastic for Labeling Organics”). This would include everything from avocados to kiwis to cucumbers to potatoes to ginger roots (as reflected in the photos accompanying the article). It would not include such produce as grapes (too small) or citrus fruit (the oils in the fruit will bring back the fruit’s original color even after the laser has burned the brand into the orange peel, for instance).

Who Is Interested?

There’s definite interest, since shoppers for the most part want to reduce the waste added to the planet. However, as noted in Linke’s article, many consumers want assurance of the following:

  1. The produce won’t cost more.
  2. The branding mark won’t be a health hazard.

It seems that both of these are true, the first because the cost of the labels initially used (stickers and/or plastic packaging) would be replaced by the cost of the laser branding process, and the second, because the thick skins of appropriate produce will protect the inner fruit from the superficial laser mark (and the skins of the fruits and vegetables can just be peeled away).

Another benefit of this technology that interests potential consumers is that it allows for smaller portions, which is relevant to smaller family units and singles. You don’t have to buy a bag of avocados and worry that some will become too ripe when you can buy one avocado, or two, at a time. This means less food will go in the trash.

My Questions

These are the questions that come up for me as I consider the article and the accompanying photos:

  1. Will the laser mark without accompanying food-grade inks be prominent enough to capture the consumer’s interest? After all, in a grocery store, the product packaging from one company competes with that of all the others. Sometimes there’s so much to see that you miss things. Standing out is a necessity for brand labeling of any kind.
  2. Can the laser branding be accompanied by food-grade inkjetting to bring more color into the overall look of the product, if needed? It seems to me that this would be easy enough, since both the laser branding and the inkjetting are processes driven by digital data.
  3. Are these questions I’ve asked even relevant, given that current labels on avocados, for instance, are often much smaller than the laser branding shown in “Finally, An Alternative to Plastic for Labeling Organics”? Think about the little white labels that say “organic,” or consider the quarter-sized stick-on labels affixed to bananas. If the laser branding image is large enough, even without extra color (they do have some color, presumably from the burning process), the mark may actually catch the eye more immediately than even a printed label.
  4. Will the novelty of the process entice consumers to buy, particularly since it is obviously a more earth-friendly process than plastic wrapping or stick-on labeling? And will this “wow” factor wear off as people become accustomed to seeing laser-branded fruits and vegetables?

More than anything, this shows that OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) are constantly looking to the customer to see what she or he wants and to figure out ways to use new technologies to fill these consumer needs. It also bodes well for digital (as opposed to analog) manufacturing and custom printing processes, and it leaves open a lot of possibilities for personalization, short runs, freshness dating, and so forth.


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