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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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Commercial Printing: Views on the Future of Printing

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None of us in commercial printing can read the tea leaves or a crystal ball and know exactly where custom printing is headed, but it’s pretty clear that the field has been changing. Fortunately, it’s just changing but not going away.

In this light I was pleased to find on the Ironmark website an article entitled “The Future of Print,” by Lynne Kingsley. (The article was previously printed in Image Nation Magazine, Spring 2019 edition.

“The Future of Print” is based on a discussion with five custom printing experts: Michael Cooper, VP, General Manager, Lindenmeyr Munroe; Jay K. Goldscher, President and CEO, PGAMA (Printing and Graphics Association of the Mid-Atlantic); Kenny Grady, Manager of Global Print Production, Gartner; Stephanie Hill, Senior Business Development Manager, HP Graphic Solutions Business, Americas; and Ryan T. Sauers, President, Sauers Consulting.

If the names don’t ring a bell, you can take my word for it or Google them. As a group they represent multiple decades of experience in the commercial printing field. Therefore, I was pleased to see a compendium of their views, which is the next best thing to having a crystal ball.

General Trends in Printing

In distilling the article into a series of trends, Lynne Kingsley’s article includes the following sections:

  1. “Embracing Innovation”
  2. “Integrating with Digital Technology”
  3. “Getting More Customized”
  4. “Inkjet Technology”
  5. “Wide Format”
  6. “Packaging”
  7. “Subscription Boxes”
  8. “Online Integration”
  9. “Personalization for Print”
  10. “Web-to-Print Portals”
  11. “The Amount and Speed of Change”

Here’s my own summary of the trends noted by Lynne Kingsley and the five print professionals listed above.

Embracing Innovation

As things change rapidly (and this in many cases means the consolidation of print vendors and the closing of many commercial printing plants), the vendors who survive will be those who embrace new technologies and reposition themselves as “communications companies, offering solutions well above and beyond a traditional print facility” (Michael Cooper, VP, General Manager, Lindenmeyr Munroe, from “The Future of Print,” by Lynne Kingsley).

This is what this means. When I first started in the commercial printing industry, back in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, all of the print production tasks were separate. A typesetter (who only set type) prepared galleys for the graphic artist, who pasted them up into artwork for the printer to photograph so he could make printing plates. The entire industry was like this. Everything was broken into separate professions. The people did separate tasks, usually manually.

In the late 1980s, graphic design and printing in general were becoming increasingly automated and computerized, and the distinctions among the various tasks started to break down. (For example, at that point, a graphic designer could set type on a Macintosh computer and also do page composition and other graphic design tasks.)

Now, in 2020 it is not enough for printers to put ink on paper (or even ink and toner on paper). They need to get involved in the process earlier, focusing with clients on the marketing, instruction, persuasion, and other communications goals eventually reflected in a printed product.

Those who don’t, won’t prosper.

Integration with Digital Technology

People like printed products. There is something about the feel of the paper. There is also a sense that print products have a permanence digital media does not.

Print media is also efficient in driving customers online. You read something in a brochure and you want to know more. Or you want to buy something, so you check the catalog for the company website information. The extent to which the analog process of printing and the digital online experience can be seamlessly connected is the extent to which both will prosper. Together the whole is stronger than either part individually. (You may want to research multi-channel marketing, or omni-channel marketing, which address what Lynne Kingsley’s article “The Future of Print” calls “the symbiotic integration” of print products and the online experience.)

“The Future of Print” also mentions 3D printing at this point, noting that it combines printing (you use equipment similar to an inkjet printer to extrude layers of plastic instead of liquid ink) and digital technology.

Personally, I would go further and include 3D printing as a category by itself, since it brings together 3D physical reality (you actually create a physical object you can use) and digital information. I’d also include digital video, augmented reality, and virtual reality, since I can foresee the integration of all of these with print products.


Back in the day, when I was an art director of a nonprofit educational foundation, we mailed out a huge number of sales brochures many times each year. Needless to say, the overall printing costs were much higher then than now. Also, at that time we considered a 3-percent to 7-percent response rate to be very good.

Now, since the infinite variability of digital printing can change each item during the printing process, it is possible to target individual prospects with an exceptionally high degree of accuracy.

So we don’t print as many copies of a brochure, for instance, and each brochure may have (slightly or vastly) different content. Plus, it might include the prospective client’s name and address. All of this makes for a more personal reader experience. It also increases marketing success, since the right information is more likely to get into the right hands, without the waste of extra printed brochures not pertinent to the reader’s interests.

Lynne Kingsley also adds that well-executed demographic research (data aggregation and data mining) can help make the print experience more personal. It can help the prospective client feel that a company understands her/his needs and wants to initiate a dialogue.

In both of these cases I myself would add another distinction. While personalization and customization are closely related, I think of customization as a changing of the content of a printed piece to provide the information a client needs (versioning, if you will). And I think of personalization as including such variable data as a potential client’s name, address, etc. Both are crucial. They imply that you know your audience and that you care about helping them.

Inkjet Technology and Wide Format Printing

According to the five experts quoted in “The Future of Print,” inkjet technology is taking off, and it is doing so in two ways. First, it can be used as an alternative to offset lithography for books and other page-based commercial printing. Production-level inkjet presses come in roll-fed and sheetfed configurations that are fast and cost-efficient. Moreover, there is now a wider range of inks available for inkjet printing (which support using a wider variety of substrates). The article even references advances in conductive ink, and Jay K. Goldscher, President and CEO, PGAMA (Printing and Graphics Association of the Mid-Atlantic), notes that “putting nano particles in the ink…[is]…probably one of the biggest innovations that’s coming down the line.”

The other venue in which inkjet excels is large-format printing. And this has been especially effective for marketing materials on walls, floors, and windows. These inkjet prints can also be replaced quickly and easily, keeping the overall cost contained.

And the same technology can be used to decorate ceramic tiles, fabric, and wallpaper: all of which are staples of creative interior design.


Lynne Kingsley’s article goes on to address the huge growth engine of product packaging and labels, not only for retail products but also for “subscription boxes,” which allow buyers to receive (at home) periodic deliveries of items of interest. (So, essentially, this is a shop-at-home option.)

In both cases, it is clear to marketers that buyers want the product packaging to be attractive, engaging, and pertinent to their interests. The box is no longer just a container. (Marketers refer to the “unboxing” experience.) It is a way to showcase the products and to evoke those thoughts and feelings related to the product.

Interestingly enough, Kingsley’s article, “The Future of Print,” also ties this focus on packaging into the online buying experience, noting that Amazon itself has created the largest market for customized, high-end packaging. And they do this so well that their clients won’t go anywhere else to buy.

Web-to-Print Portals

If you’re a marketing manager for a large company with a number of subsidiaries or just different departments, it’s hard to ensure visual brand consistency over a range of print publications. What a web portal does is allow those who need multiple copies of your brochures, sell sheets, or whatever, for a trade show or seminar, to access a template, add personalized or versioned information, and print copies, all without altering the company brand “look.” This is achieved by only allowing them access to certain design parameters (while locking down others, such as the logo design, size, position, and coloration).

The Amount and Speed of Change

Lynne Kingsley’s article basically distinguishes between the death of print (which isn’t happening) and the dramatic changes in print technology (which are happening). And all of this is happening really, really quickly. Those who are knowledgeable, savvy, and nimble will prosper. Others will not. So the take-away is that if you are a print supplier or designer, everything you learn about the future of commercial printing is an investment in your own professional future.

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