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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: Producing a Client’s Identity Materials

I’m trying to win new commercial printing work from a client I lost about a decade ago. Now she works at a new job, a nonprofit, and she has just sent me specs for five projects, including her employer’s annual report, a conference program, a brochure, a 9” x 12” booklet envelope, and a fundraising letter.

Although my client put together a rather comprehensive specification sheet, here are some of the issues (or questions) that arose as I went through the specs a number of times.

The Annual Report

The annual report specs were straightforward: 24 pages plus cover, 8.5” x 11”, saddle stitched, 4-color plus flood gloss coating on all pages, 1500 copies, 80# gloss cover and 80# gloss text, PDF proofs.

Here are my thoughts (actually only one), which I think you might find useful, too, if you design high profile commercial printing products. That is, my client may want to consider an actual hard-copy proof instead of just a PDF proof. Colors onscreen are often misleading, especially since computer monitors are back-lit. They create color with light rather than ink or toner, and they often make colors look brighter than the final printed product will actually appear. It helps to see a physical representation of what you will actually get.

What You Can Learn

It’s very easy to view the on-screen image at larger than 100 percent size, which will make the text imminently legible and the colors brilliant, but which will bear no resemblance to the final printed product.

You may also want to consider what my client has done with the extra gloss coating on all pages of the annual report. The plus side is that gloss coating makes photos seem to jump off the page. The potential problem is that adding a fifth color might necessitate moving the job to a larger press at a higher overall cost. That said, most presses these days do have four units to print 4-color process inline plus a fifth coating unit. But it may be wise to ask your commercial printing supplier before making this assumption.

The Envelope and Letter That Will Accompany My Client’s Annual Report

This is where I noted problems in my client’s spec sheet.

She planned to print the logo and company address in one color (PMS Process Blue C). This is actually cyan, almost identical to the cyan used in 4-color process work. My client said this looked great on the computer monitor. My response was that she should print out a color mock-up (at 100 percent size) of this logo and address to make sure everything is readable.

Why? Because light, small type can in reality be a lot less legible than the same type printed in black ink. And on an envelope, the return address is functional, not decorative. It has to be readable. To be safe, I asked for her permission to amend the spec sheet. I plan to ask the printers I approach to price both a PMS Process Blue version and a PMS Process Blue plus black (2-color) version of the 9” x 12” envelope.

What You Can Learn

If you’re a designer, you can learn two things from this. An ink color might look great on a computer monitor, and the type may be legible. But when you actually print the job, the color might be too light overall and might therefore diminish readability. A square swatch of color in a PMS book is not the same as type printed in the PMS color. This is because the type characters have a lot of empty space between the strokes of the letters, so the white background will lighten the overall look considerably.

Therefore, it’s usually wise to choose a darker hue for type. This is a smart approach to any design. For instance, if you’re thinking of making heads or subheads in a book orange, it may look great, but will it be readable?

My client’s accompanying letter had the same issue, so I encouraged her to request pricing for two colors as well as one: black for the type and PMS Process Blue for the logo as well as a price for PMS Process Blue for both the type and logo.

But there was one other issue she raised. She said the letter would be “static,” as opposed to variable (all copies would be the same, in contrast to the alternative, in which each letter would be addressed to a different recipient). This ensured an offset lithographic printing of the letter (1,000 copies) as opposed to the digital run that would be necessary if the job had included variable data (a unique name and address for each letter).

This was especially useful information, and it was not on the original specification sheet I received. So I added it.

What You Can Learn

The take-away is that if you’re printing a letter for a marketing package, make sure you tell your printer whether you will print the same letter for all recipients or whether you need a digital job with variable data capabilities. That is, if you will merge names and addresses into the original file and make every copy of the letter a different printed product, your printer needs to know this at the estimating stage of the job.

Another issue that arose concerned a future printing of the letterhead. My client planned to also print a run of blank letterhead in the near future, with only the logo and address, and she wanted to make sure this would work on her laser printer.

What You Can Learn

The reason this is relevant is that laser printer drums get extremely hot when fusing the toner to the paper. Unless you (as a designer) tell your printer you will need laser compatible inks, you may run the risk of the ink’s heating and smearing in the laser printer. This may not be an issue in your case, but it bears confirming with your printer when you’re designing and printing your own letterhead (or letterhead for your organization).

Finally, my client questioned the paper used for the prior run of letterhead, 70# Lynx smooth white text. She asked about using 60# text to save money.

This was my answer, and I would encourage you to keep it in mind if you design letterhead or business cards. Paper thickness gives a job a feel of importance, weight, gravitas. A 70# text paper feels more opulent than a 60# stock. I could understand using 60# as well. (This would be comparable to 24# copier paper.) But I’d never go as low as 50# stock for letterhead. It’s just too flimsy.

My Client’s Conference Program Print Book and Two-Page Brochure

My client’s conference program booklet was just a shorter version of the annual report (in terms of format), so the specs and the issues we discussed were similar. It had a press run of 850 copies, so I will ask the printers to price it as an offset lithographic job. However, my client’s accompanying brochure will only have a press run of 250 copies.

Here were the thoughts I shared with my client:

  1. Due to the short run, the most cost-effective way to print the brochure would be on digital laser equipment using toner rather than ink.
  2. Colors produced via laser or inkjet digital printing are “built” with screens of the four process inks. PMS colors are not used as they are in offset lithography. Therefore, matching colors exactly in a digital print job and an offset print job is often not possible. Fortunately, in my client’s case the specific PMS color is PMS Process Blue, or cyan, which is almost identical to the hue used in 4-color work.

What You Can Learn

In your own work, remember that color builds don’t always match PMS colors. This is doubly true when you’re trying to match commercial printing ink colors (used for offset printing) and colors made from powdered laser toners (used for digital printing work).

The Take Away

I’ve been in the field for 44 years now, and I still pore over the custom printing specs (either a client’s or my own) many, many times. Each time I seem to catch something new (an omission or something to clarify). In your own work, think of the specification sheet as your contract with your commercial printing supplier. Review it multiple times to catch and correct errors.

Always choose colors on paper (use PMS books, some of which even have type samples in the PMS colors) rather than on the computer monitor. Also, print out physical proofs to ensure the legibility of the text. You may be looking at a magnified view on the monitor, and the back-lighting of the monitor may also affect your judgment.

Don’t expect 4-color process builds of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black to match PMS colors exactly. And don’t expect ink on paper to match toner on paper exactly.

If at all possible, design all elements of your corporate identity together, comparing one item to another from both a design perspective and a custom printing perspective. It will be of immeasurable help in ensuring a sense of visual unity among all printed components.

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