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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) 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: Some Functional Elements of Packaging

Readability. Utility. Precision. Some commercial printing work is not meant to persuade or educate, but rather to convey information clearly. It’s called functional printing. The printed keys on your keyboard fit into this category. So does the package of eyedrops my fiancee just received from her eye surgeon. She will undergo cataract surgery in a few weeks, and the pre-operative information she just received has to be unquestionably clear.

The Custom Eyedrop Kit Packaging

Here’s a description of the packaging for my fiancee’s eyedrops with a focus on utility:

  1. The interior packaging is a cross between “clamshell” packaging and “blister” packaging. Two parts of a fold-over case are joined with a scored, central hinge, just like a muscle in an ocean clam. This allows the user to lift the top cover of the clear plastic box and then lower it again to close the box. The bottom half has four thermoformed wells (presumably created by placing the sheet of clear plastic over a super-heated mold). In this way, the bottom half is more like blister packaging (with bubbles or wells or chambers). The top portion locks down tightly over a ridge on the bottom half, ensuring the safety of the plastic bottles of eyedrops my fiancee will need prior to her cataract surgery.
  2. A Crack ‘N Peel label printed in black, green, and red has been hand-marked in pen with the dates of the eye surgery and the required numbers of eye drops for each date. The most important information is printed in red, but due to the simplicity of the sans serif typeface, plus the limited number of colors and the contrast between the handwriting and the printed type, it is very easy to instantly grasp all pertinent information. (The increased type leading and the type size also facilitate readability.) The bottom line: there’s just enough information, and the design and coloration of the type enhance readability by anyone of any age.
  3. The screw-on tops of the eyedrop bottles are color coded. Two (coded in green) are larger than the third, which has a red top. Each bottle label has clear, sans-serif type, and the most important type has been reversed to white out of a solid green printed bar. All of the custom printing is on Crack ‘N Peel labeling affixed to the bottles. Clearly the goal was to use the proper type (sans serif) at the most readable size for the elderly, who have compromised sight, to avoid a dangerous misunderstanding of the instructions for the use of these drugs.
  4. In all cases, there is contact information for reaching the pharmacy. This is not only useful for my fiancee, but it also reinforces her confidence in the whole eye surgery procedure. Hence it supports the branding of the pharmacy.
  5. Much of the information on the labels is very specific, such as expiration dates for the medications. Hence, we can assume that digital commercial printing technology was used rather than offset printing technology.
  6. On the top of the closed plastic packaging shell are laser printed (I checked with my 12-power loupe) Crack ‘N Peel labels printed in black toner noting everything from the pharmacy contact information to my fiancee’s contact information to the kind of medication, lot number, and expiration dates for the medications. In addition, there are three strips of color (magenta, yellow, and cyan, with black surprinted type noting when the medications expire, how to store them, and that they were made according to the doctor’s prescription). So your eye is attracted immediately to the colored, printed strips (and the information contained therein), and then to the information on the other two labels. All necessary information is contained (in its entirety) on the front panel, and is repeated in bits and pieces inside the packaging.
  7. Therefore, the interior packaging protects the medications and tells my fiancee how to use them. None of this is unattractive. It’s just that functionality is paramount. (And the package design is based on the marketer’s knowledge of how people best consume and process written information.)
  8. Now for the exterior wrap. This portion of the package focuses on two things: the user’s confidence in the reliability of the product and the pharmacy’s branding. And of course these are intimately connected.
  9. The wrap feels like 14pt or thicker cover stock, printed and then scored to wrap all the way around the interior plastic insert. (That is, it’s a sleeve with open ends.) The wrap front panel includes a large eye printed in 4-colors but desaturated overall to look like a black halftone or quadtone. However, the iris of this eye retains its intensity of blue coloration, making it look like a black and white eye with a hand-colored blue iris. Above this is a solid green bar out of which the name of the drops (plus a brief description thereof) has been reversed.
  10. On the back of the cardboard sleeve is the name, logo, address, website, fax, and email for the pharmacy. The logo and name are very large and prominent. In an emergency, or even if you have a question, you’ll know just how to contact someone who knows what to do.
  11. To the entire outer package sleeve, the commercial printing supplier has applied a flood UV coating in high gloss. The whole thing feels very competent, clinical, locked down and ready for the surgery. Even without the printed content, the paper weight and the coating would convey an air of gravitas and competence. Hence, the packaging elicits confidence and therefore supports the pharmacy brand.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Ensuring readability depends on understanding how people process information. This involves understanding which fonts and colors are the most readable and what people of various ages can read, depending on the health and flexibility of their eyes.
  2. It also depends on understanding how to gather and group information so that it will be read (i.e., in small, understandable chunks). This is especially true for scientific information, especially when making a mistake can threaten one’s health.
  3. Functional printing opens the field of commercial printing way beyond promotional products, labels, print books, and large format signage. There’s informational, functional printing on almost everything. That means, as a graphic designer, you can always be relevant.
  4. That said, all functional custom printing still either enhances or tarnishes the company brand. If your functional type is unreadable, that’s a problem. Think about cheap computer keyboards with printed letters that are flaking or rubbing off. Personally, that makes me feel less comfortable about both the durability of the keyboard and perhaps even its accuracy (I’ve noticed that some cheap keyboards skip letters when you’re typing quickly).
  5. So the bottom line is that functional printing embraces everything from graphic design to branding and marketing, to ways to facilitate communication, to the operation of the human eye. The more you understand all of these, the more skilled and useful you will be as a designer.

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