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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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Book Printing: Play to the Strengths of the Print Book

Photo purchased from … www.depositphotos.com

On one of our almost daily trips to our favorite thrift store, my fiancee found a print book she liked about “chalk paint.” It is called Annie Sloan’s Chalk Paint Workbook. I didn’t look at the book closely at first, but over the next few days at her suggestion I delved deeply into its content and production values. The book designer and publisher had included multiple design and production qualities and techniques that set this do-it-yourself text far beyond any presentation a digital book could offer.

Overview of Annie Sloan’s Chalk Paint Workbook

First of all, what is Chalk Paint? Chalk Paint is a brand of ultra-matte paint created by Annie Sloan. It is ideal for giving a chalky appearance and feel to furniture, and it can be easily distressed (intentionally beaten up to provide an aged, bohemian look to the furniture).

The print book itself is presented in an 8” x 10” hard-cover format. Moreover, it is Wire-O bound within the case binding. That is, the endsheets are punched, inside the book at the spine, to accept the rungs of the wire hoops. The book is “quarter-bound” (the brown, uncoated stock extends beyond the spine about an inch onto the front and back covers, and the remainder of the front and back covers consists of multi-level, somewhat Victorian-looking photos reminiscent of scrapbook pages).

The cover photo includes bits of handwriting (the author’s name), distressed type (a chalky appearance to the title in a bold, sans serif typeface), hand drawings, painted areas, and scraps of fabric. The background of the photo is a textured and mottled press sheet, which appears to be a photo of watercolor paper, with all of these drawn, painted, and photographed images on top. Across the bottom of the print book is a banner, with faux torn edges and a description of the book printed in red across the banner. All of this provides a unified collage with a very shallow depth.

(The artistic term for this collage treatment is “trompe l’oeil,” which means “to fool the eye.” You can find a lot of paintings like this online. They look incredibly real. Often they include stamps or postcards pinned to a background that appears to be right below the surface of the painting.)

So this is how the covers are laid out. They are also coated with a soft-touch, matte film laminate, and they are slightly padded under the printed litho paper that is glued to the heavier than usual binder boards.

Here is why all of this is relevant:

The matte coating and distressed sans serif book title, along with the cream (as opposed to bright white) background paper provide a textured, natural, “crunchy-granola” feel to the print book from the onset, beginning with the front cover. This is congruent with both the matte “feel” of Chalk Paint and the bohemian ethos of do-it-yourself furniture embellishment. Another way to say this is that the design (the visuals and the print production values) is congruent with the book’s subject matter.

Let’s Go Inside

An overall print book design, unlike a painting or any other flat work of art, implies the passage of time. You see and respond to the front cover. Then you turn the pages to absorb a progression of ideas, over time, from the images and the text.

In this particular book, when you open the cover to read the text, you immediately see a continuation of the front cover’s paper color and finish. The text sheet is an uncoated matte stock. Handwriting is used throughout the book for headlines and for fill-in-the-blank journal pages. (This is an artist’s sketchbook of sorts, for practicing images you plan to later paint directly on the furniture.) The handwriting is also balanced against small drawings (appearing as pen and watercolor art) that enhance the overall do-it-yourself tone of the book.

In addition to the descriptive text (a simple serif typeface for introductions paired with a simple sans serif typeface for accompanying lists) and handwritten sections inviting the reader to add her/his own notes and drawings, the text includes sketches, color swatches that look like brush strokes, and 4-color photos.

One of the things that I appreciate, in particular, is that in spite of being printed on an absorbent, uncoated yellow-white (natural) press sheet, the photos are crisp and unmuddied. The printer held the detail in the highlights, midtones, and shadows. This reflects his skill, and it also contributes to the artistic quality of the print book. Its purpose may be to teach people to use Chalk Paint, but it treats the whole process (both the learning and the practice) with an eye towards beauty and nuance.

I had mentioned earlier that the book is a case-bound, Wire-O product. Wire-O binding, unlike spiral binding (both metal and plastic), allows facing pages to lie exactly side by side. (Given the nature of a spiral, facing pages of a spiral-bound book are slightly mismatched.) In addition to allowing the book to lie completely flat when open (a boon for crafters who need both hands to do their work), the slightly off-white metal spiral goes nicely with the natural paper tone. This balance is enhanced by the full-bleed images scattered throughout the text.

More specifically, these full-bleed photos are most often used for the divider pages, which are printed on a heavy uncoated cover stock and are folded over into pockets. The reader can slip photos, notes, or anything else into these pockets. Furthermore, a portion of each divider is diecut out of the paper, creating somewhat of an “L” shape in the pocket and exposing its contents. Finally, a thumb tab is diecut and then folded out of each divider page.

Book Structure

All six of these divider pages (breaking the book into multiple sections and thereby giving the print book a formal structure) are printed on “faux-duplex” paper. In addition to being thicker than the text paper (because of the base cover stock and folded-over nature of the pockets), they are also quite intriguing, with one side of the sheet printed in one color and the reverse side printed in another. Throughout the book all of these colors change (two each for six dividers or twelve colors total). All of the tones of the background screens are somewhat muted, given the uncoated, absorbent nature of the paper. And this enhances the understated, artistic tone of the print book.

At the end of the book Annie Sloan included a series of note pages with copious space for reader drawings and notes.

Finally, around the back cover of the case-bound Wire-O book is a belly band (vertical, though, as opposed to the customarily horizontal orientation of most belly bands). It is about three inches wide, and it wraps vertically around the back cover (increasing the already thick feel of the binder’s board). The band is printed to look like uncoated kraft paper, although closer examination with a 12x printer’s loupe shows this to be white paper tinted brown with ink. The simple drawings and text on the belly band (with extra leading to make the text appear light and airy) echo the natural feel of the cover paper (which, interestingly enough, upon closer inspection with a printer’s loupe, is also augmented with a light 4-color process screen to add visual texture).

Finally, the piece de resistance. There is a vertical elastic band, dyed a rich, deep purple, which goes vertically around the back cover (through two drill holes). This elastic band can be pulled up and across the front cover, binding both covers together and (presumably) keeping any reader-added inserts from falling out of the divider-page pockets. So this is a functional addition, and functionality is consistent with a do-it-yourself book.

What Can We Learn from This Book?

So what can we learn from Annie Sloan’s Chalk Paint Workbook? What makes it so appealing? Here are some thoughts:

  1. All of the physical characteristics of the print book–the paper tints, weights, and textures, as well as the cover coating (and even the thickness and texture of the strategically placed divider pages)–appeal to the sense of touch as well as the eye. None of this could have been achieved with a digital book. The designer has played to the strengths of a physical, as opposed to virtual, book.
  2. The book has structure: everything from the diecut divider pages/pockets to the informational, vertical belly band and elastic closure. These physical book manufacturing elements break down the book into a manageable series of chunks for the reader to absorb.
  3. The book invites reader participation in response to the notes pages, pocket divider pages, and even the pen and ink drawings with the faux watercolor washes (simulated with printer’s ink). Again, form follows function.

When all design elements, from the paper stock to the binding choices (the lay-flat nature of a case-bound Wire-O book) reflect and enhance its intended use, and when these manufacturing choices extend into the visuals and even the text treatments (typeface choices, handwriting, drawings), then the overall design of a print book is supremely successful. Annie Sloan’s Chalk Paint Workbook definitely meets all of these criteria.

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