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Archive for October, 2021

Custom Printing: Printing Photos and Type on Cakes

Sunday, October 31st, 2021

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About twenty years ago when I was consulting with a congressional publisher I attended a birthday gathering at which I saw my first printed cake. I had a hard time wrapping my brain around the concept. I couldn’t picture how it had been done. Inkjet, I assumed, but I couldn’t envision the print heads elevated over a three-inch-deep sheet cake. Also, I thought about the health issues. How could you print on a cake and not compromise the health of those who ate it?

Fast-Forward to the Present

Here we are twenty years later and this is the going rage. In fact, it’s no big deal. You just inkjet print the cake using equipment that accommodates the depth of the cake (high-end printers), or you print on frosting sheets or edible paper that you just apply to the top of the sheet cake. And, of course, you use food dyes instead of commercial printing inks. Moreover, you can print on some equipment that will also cut out edible letters or any other design elements.

To understand this technology, in my imagination I picture a food-safe (FDA compliant) version of a Mimaki printer and knife plotter. If you look online, you’ll see one of these non-food printers. They are large-format inkjet printers that also have knife-trimming capabilities (a knife held vertically like a pen in a plotter) to cut out (for instance) a circle around a printed label. In contrast, in the case of the food printers I’m describing, you’re just printing on, and cutting, food.

When to Do This and When Not To

First of all, you need a dedicated printer. Start your research with Canon and Epson. If you buy one of these printers, you can’t use it for anything else. On the one hand, you don’t want to contaminate with traditional commercial printing inks the hardware you will use for food. Also, based on my reading, you can gunk up non-food inkjet equipment if you try to repurpose it for custom printing on food.

For this reason, the articles, blogs, and online conversations I’ve read on the subject suggest that you only buy a food-safe inkjet printer if you plan to use it at least once a week. If not, you will wind up fighting with the hardware rather than using it. (Think about a traditional inkjet printer that you use only occasionally. In my experience, at least, the print heads clog up or the ink dries, so you can wind up paying for all new ink cartridges each time you use it, if the time in between uses is long enough.)

Also, you don’t want the food-safe ink (or food coloring) to go bad.

So with these caveats in mind, you may actually want to have someone else print on your cake. If so, Morrisons, Dairy Queen, and Costco are three vendors you might want to contact. They have the volume to buy more complex inkjet machinery for custom printing on food. You create the art files on your computer (to their specifications), and they do the rest.

Cricut Cutting Machine

When I saw this name, I was initially confused, thinking it was a typo. But in fact it is a food-safe “cutter” that is quite ingenious. I’d start here if you’re doing research. A friend of my fiancee’s has one and loves it. She uses it for her catering business.

According to its literature, the Cricut “is ideal for cutting icing sheets, wafer paper, fabric sheets, and fondant” (Cricut promotional information from Cricut website). These are all cutting functions, so I’m not absolutely certain whether Cricut also prints images. If not, you have the Canon and Epson options noted above.

One thing I like about Cricut is that you can use online software to design images for your cake and then just print to the small (like a desktop printer) Cricut cutting machine. Or you can use the software offline. And you can even do this with your phone (no computer needed).

To go back to the substrates noted above (“icing sheets, wafer paper, fabric sheets, and fondant”: Cricut website), all of these are food products laid on top of the flat cake (and blended into the cake or not blended into the cake depending on the specific material). In short, you can eat them, they won’t make you sick, and they either taste sweet (some with a hint of vanilla) or they are tasteless. However, some are easier to cut than others, so if you’re interested, you may want to do some in-depth research.

Substrates to Print On

A further note on the substrates (not necessarily just for Cricut) is that icing sheets usually have backing plastic. You print on the icing using the food-coloring inkjet printer and then carefully pull the plastic backing sheet away from the icing (some of the blogs reference freezing or applying heat to the back of the plastic sheet to facilitate its removal). Then you lay the icing sheet on the cake. If you proceed correctly at the right temperature, the icing will blend into the cake. Then you can put the cake in the refrigerator. The literature suggests using it within two weeks (even though the printed cake will still be edible for several months). This is not about freshness; rather it is about keeping the printed photo image sharp.

The other option for custom printing is wafer paper, paper based on potato starch, water, and oil. I also read that it has been called rice paper. This has no backing, unlike the icing sheets.

Other Substrate Options

If you start custom printing a lot of images on cakes, you may want to explore other substrates as well, such as cookies, cupcakes, and scones. Many of the food printers you can buy have layout sheets on which you position the edibles before printing them. You can even, apparently, print on the marshmallow foam on top of a cup of coffee. You can print on marzipan, powdered sugar, sugar paste. The list goes on.

One of the spec sheets I read notes 10 to 30 seconds as the printing time per food item on the food mat (layout sheet), and further notes that food items can be up to 2.5” in diameter (or wider if you’re printing fewer food items).

Granted, if you have this kind of volume, you’ve either decided to go into business for yourself making cakes in your basement, or you are paying a dedicated cake vendor to use the high-end equipment in this way.

(I realize this is totally off subject, but this specific commercial printing technology can also be used to print on flower buds. So if you’re a romantic, or a bit kitschy, you may want to give your beloved a printed sheetcake, printed flowers, and Cricut-cut images applied to cupcakes. You might even want to include a latte with her/his image inkjetted onto the marshmallow foam.)

Imaging Requirements

As with any other commercial printing project, it is important to start with good imagery. This means high quality, crisp focus, good tonal range in the photo, and proper resolution. As with any other printing technology, low-quality images will not get better when you print them. So if you’re printing on icing, you’ll want to start with the best photos.

What We Can Learn from This Technology

The definition of printing is expanding. Now we print on ceramic tiles, bedsheets, drapes, and in this case even food. Presumably all substrates have their limitations, so it’s prudent to do the research and use high-quality art files.

You get what you pay for. Personally, I’m a great believer in using other people’s equipment. Often a dedicated cake maker can afford a much higher quality printer than you can. Also, you don’t have to worry about maintenance. (Keep in mind that even offset print shops often farm out their bindery work.)

Finally, I think this is just a step toward more 3D custom printing. Now you can print direct-to-object (you can print on a football). You can produce in-mold labels (no labels to affix to the plastic bottles). And you can even 3D print hamburger meat (or so I’ve read) via inkjet technology.

We now live in a world where digital commercial printing (both 2D and 3D) is expanding and inkjet is becoming a dominant and flexible technology. Personally, I’d encourage you to read everything you can on the subject. It seems to be rife with possibility.

Custom Printing: “Unboxing” the Subscription Box

Monday, October 25th, 2021

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Marketers are geniuses. They have tapped into our innate desire to open pretty boxes. What subscription box (in fact, what opportunity to open any box) doesn’t bring back memories of Christmas morning, Chanukah, birthdays, and weddings? Something deep in the human brain just flips. Marketers understand. Now they own this experience.

Let’s unpack this, so to speak.

“Inside the Box: Unpacking the Subscription Box Phenomenon” (Chris McReady, 08/12/21,, notes the different kinds of boxes that arrive at subscribers’ doors on a regular basis (physical deliveries; anything online doesn’t apply). These include themed grooming, dog toy, hobby, arts and crafts, and plants boxes (all of which involve commercial printing). “The average US consumer purchases two or three subscription services currently,” according to McReady’s article.

Wikipedia notes the same phenomenon, mentioning “400 to 600 different kinds of subscription boxes in the United States alone, and more overseas.” “Subscription boxes tend to range from $10 to $100” [per delivery] (Wikipedia).

But What Is a Subscription Box?

A subscription box is a recurring delivery (in a company branded box produced by a commercial printing vendor) of products (usually based on a theme) requested and paid for by the consumer. Based on my reading, it’s not quite shopping at home. After all, you don’t pick a few items and send the rest back. Rather it is an opportunity to try out related products you might not have known about. That is, the products (let’s say grooming products) come in smaller than regular-sized containers. If you like something (and are pleased to have found something you didn’t know about), you might choose to order a full-size bottle.

There’s a lot to consider here, in terms of benefits for both the consumer and the brand (the originating company). You might want to read “What Is a Subscription Box,” by James, 11/07/16. He describes the benefits:

  1. The client receives products she/he may not know about, chosen by people who presumably understand the available products better than they do (i.e., experts in the field). So there’s a sense of discovery and surprise (James, 11/07/16) when the box arrives.
  2. Presumably, if you add up the retail cost of the products in a subscription box, the total is more than the client is paying as a subscription price. So the customer wins. Morris’s article calls this “savings” (James, 11/07/16).
  3. Morris also talks about “thoughtful presentation” with regards to subscription boxes. This pertains to how a company packages the products. An unbranded box won’t work. The goal is brand recognition coupled with a positive experience after the sale. Thoughtful presentation might involve the custom printing on the box, how the products are packed in the box, whether print brochures are included, and whether cardboard dividers (or other special packing material like shredded paper or tissue paper) are used to organize the products.
  4. Morris’ article also mentions convenience. Once the client sets up the service, it proceeds uninterrupted at a regular interval. Granted, this is not specifically a way to order products on a recurring basis. From my research I think it is more of a marketing tool to introduce clients to new products related to their stated interests. But it seems to me (as a buyer of Chewy products for my fiancee’s and my cat) that subscription boxes and recurring deliveries are related and share some similar benefits. In this case, you don’t have to do more than pay by credit card and have the product box show up at your door.
  5. Finally, Morris’ article notes the “curation” value of subscription boxes. Experts collect the products for you. So presumably this adds value by educating you and introducing you to products you would otherwise not know about.

What About the Marketer’s Benefits?

  1. When you’re a subscriber, you’re a consistent audience. The brand can show you what it values (as reflected in the box contents and the product and graphic design of all components). Branding broadcasts core company values with which you will hopefully resonate.
  2. As a consistent audience, subscribers can give a company feedback, which will be reflected in future product selections. This, along with other specific market research, benefits the brand.
  3. By the time you receive the subscriber box, you have already paid for the product. So the company (or companies, since some boxes include products from numerous companies) has the opportunity to make a great final impression. Companies can provide a positive experience (good products, good presentation), and hopefully you will remember this and buy again (perhaps a larger bottle of the beauty products you like). This is based on the fact that it’s much easier for a company to keep you happy by giving you exactly what you want than it is to find new customers (i.e., customer retention).
  4. If you do a really spectacular job of preparing subscriber boxes that wow customers, chances are that influencers (the current term for “word-of-mouth” advertisers, or just plain regular people) will speak highly about your brand in online blogs, and perhaps even make and upload “unboxing” videos that might go viral. (This works in the printing realm as well. Every so often I check out the videos showing creative folds in marketing materials.) YouTube is a great advertising medium, and people tend to trust regular consumers more than marketers when they speak highly of a product. The gold standard for a subscription box is when people take the experience online and share it.

Here are some statistics:

  1. “According to Dotcom Distribution, 35.3% of consumers had seen an unboxing video in 2015. In 2017 this had risen to 36.8%” (as quoted in “The Unboxing Experience Goes from Differentiator to Must-Have: What Ecommerce Brands Need to Know,” Beth Owens,, no date given).
  2. From the same article by Beth Owens, “according to a study by Bain & Company, between 60% and 80% of customers don’t return to the same company [for] a product or service, even if they were previously satisfied” (“The Unboxing Experience Goes from Differentiator to Must-Have: What Ecommerce Brands Need to Know,” Beth Owens,, no date given). So the takeaway from this is that if you provide an unforgettable experience after the sale, showing that you have listened to the needs of the customer and care about her/his satisfaction, you will be more likely to be remembered when it comes time for the customer to buy again. Subscription boxes make this just a little bit easier.

The Takeaway

To understand the real reason the subscription box works so well, let’s revisit “What Is a Subscription Box” by

Morris notes that the ecommerce experience can be somewhat impersonal. The internet is not a tactile medium. But you can touch the products in a subscription box. This makes the experience more tangible and more personal. It’s a personal connection with a brand. What this means is that marketers have started hearing people say things like, “Finally, checking the mail is fun again” (“What Is a Subscription Box” by

Since a lot of the fun has gone out of everyday life with Covid-19 and such, fun is a good selling proposition, a win-win for both the customer and the brand.

Custom Printing: Protect Your Money and Documents with Security-Printing

Monday, October 18th, 2021

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When I read the news, sometimes it seems that identity theft and other forms of white collar crime constitute the fastest growing profession.

With that thought in mind I recently did some research on security printing, the branch of commercial printing focused on preventing fraud. I was pleased to see all the techniques and options this fast-growing arena of custom printing includes. The following paragraphs describe what I found.

But first of all, I want to note that I have not addressed a similar custom printing venue involving the protection of pharmaceuticals from tampering. Instead, I will focus on the printing of banknotes, passports, checks, stamps, ID cards, and other similar products that either carry monetary value or verify the identity of the holder.

However, in the case of both identification materials and currency on the one hand, and pharmaceuticals on the other, the idea is the same. When we get a credit card, a $50 bill, or a bottle of Lipitor, we want the assurance that they are the original, intended product, that nothing has been tampered with, that our identity is safe, and that our currency holds its value.

In all of these cases, digital, offset, and flexographic printing can help. Here are some of the options.

The Paper or Plastic Substrate

Look at the cash in your wallet. You’ll see that it is probably cotton-based (or at least a high percentage of cotton content) rather than wood-based. In some cases linen has been included, along with special fibers that are added to distinguish the paper substrate from other papers. You may even have seen a shop vendor mark a high-value paper banknote with a special marker to make absolutely certain the currency is authentic.

All of this is done because the bad guys probably don’t have access to this special paper. And they probably also don’t have access to the engraving processes used to print currency. So if a bill is on questionable paper, that’s a “red flag,” as they say. The individuality, or specific characteristics, of the paper stock help provide protection against fraud.

And so do the portions of some currency bills that include holograms. This is true for a vast number of countries and not just here in the United States. Holograms are extremely difficult if not impossible to forge or even remove.

Another option for the base substrate used for currency (in Canada, Hong Kong, and Nigeria, for instance) is polymer rather than paper. Plastic is more durable than paper, and it can include raised printing and diffraction gratings. (Like a hologram, any item that changes color based on the viewing angle makes forgery exceptionally difficult.)

True Watermarks and Fake Watermarks

If you have fine bond stationery in your office or home, hold it up to the light. You will see a difference in tone between the watermark and the surrounding paper. The watermark is either lighter or darker. This is actually due to a difference in the density of the paper at that location.

This cannot be faked. The mark is included in the paper during the papermaking process. A dandy roller or stamp presses this mark into the still-wet paper mixture during its manufacture.

Fake watermarks are also used to distinguish an original from a copy. These are “white-on-white” printing, done with commercial printing ink. A criminal who photocopies a document with a fake watermark won’t be able to capture the tone difference between the fake watermark and the surrounding paper (just like an attempt to copy a true watermark). The difference in reflectance between the fake watermark ink and the paper (when seen at a particular angle) disappears when the document is photocopied.

Other technologies, such as the Diffractive Optical Element, work in similar ways but require a laser for operation. And some varnishes (such as iriodin varnish) will create a reflection only under certain viewing angles.

Void Pantograph and Verification Grid (Two Copy-Evident Marks)

These are similar to the concept of the watermark. The idea in all three cases is that you can make forgery more difficult if you can include a graphic element on the original that shows up on a phtotocopy or scan (but is invisible on the genuine document) or a graphic element that is visible on the original but that disappears on the photocopy.

More specifically, a “void pantograph” includes dots, dashes, and lines that are invisible in the original but show up on the copy. These marks may actually combine to form a word such as “Void” in large letters.

A “verification grid” is the exact opposite. The additional marks are meant to be seen. But photocopying the document makes these security marks disappear. Some checks have marks or symbols of this type. I’ve also seen doctors’ prescriptions that use this technology (or the preceding one).


A black and white document is easier to duplicate, so you can make it more difficult for a forger by adding color. If the forger tries to make a copy using a scanner and color copy machine, the color will be slightly off, and there may be banding, blotching, or other flaws on the duplicate image.

Another option based on color involves the use of optically variable ink (OVI), which presents different colors depending on the viewing angle. This ink includes mica-based glitter, which creates the effect. Pearlescent inks can also be used, since the colors also appear to change based on the viewing angle.

Some inks will even change color based on temperature (thermochromatic inks). Heat from one’s hands can change the ink color because the temperature of the printed ink rises when it is rubbed.

Images printed with other special inks will only be visible when viewed through a polarizing lens.

Still other forgery-resistant inks include fluorescent and phosphorescent dyes, which can be used to create words, images, or patterns. Fluorescent dyes will be visible under UV light, and phosphorescent dyes will actually glow after the UV light has been turned off.

Precise Printing Registration

In all two-sided printing jobs (such as a brochure), a good commercial printing vendor has to ensure accurate back-to-front register. The printed images on both sides need to be positioned precisely. So this is an ideal way to distinguish an original from a forgery. On a banknote, for instance, if specific images or portions of images on the front do not align exactly and properly with those on the back, you’ve got a forgery. And such exact alignment is very difficult for a forger to duplicate. On currency from various countries you might find numerals (or portions of numerals) that align, or symbols that align (like two equal-armed crosses in back-to-front alignment on some denominations of the Swiss franc).

Serial Numbers and Microprinting

If a printer adds type small enough to be invisible to the naked eye, this can still be read under magnification. It is also extremely difficult for a forger to duplicate.

Serial numbers can do the same thing, particularly if they have certain ranges of numbers programmed to be invalid. If the bad guys don’t know this, they can’t sidestep this protection.

(On another note, serial-number protection is increasingly in demand, since digital commercial printing can vary every copy printed, changing the serial number for each item. Serial numbers are also used to authenticate pharmaceuticals, ensuring that you get the right dose of a genuine drug that has not been tampered with.)


Mentioned earlier in this article, these can be added with hot foil stamping. They are almost impossible to duplicate or remove.

RFID Options

Printers can now even add ultra-small radio frequency identification (RFID) chips to documents. One might find these in passports, since some of these RFID chips can be used with facial-recognition or fingerprint-verification software.

The Takeaway

New technologies for preventing white collar crime appear every day. You might find it useful in your profession (design and printing) to learn about them, and you may even rest easier knowing that the bad guys have to work harder. Personally, I’m most grateful for all of these new commercial printing technologies. Do some research. I’m sure you’ll even find other options out there.

Commercial Printing: Character and Mood in Typefaces

Wednesday, October 13th, 2021

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In addition to providing content (the thoughts that words convey), typefaces provide a sense of character, tone, and value to the process of understanding these words. They tell you, often subconsciously, exactly how to feel about the words you’re reading.

Here’s a simple example. If you were to design a cover for Tolstoy’s print book War and Peace, for instance, and you only had type to work with (no images), you might typeset “War” in an aggressive, sans-serif font, and you might set “Peace” in a floral, perhaps serif, font. (I realize this is somewhat cliché, but I think it makes my point.)

To expand upon this a bit, the typefaces “tell” you how to feel about the subject matter. Not just pro or con, like or dislike, but in a more nuanced way in terms of character and feel. For me, the adjectives that come to mind when I think of war are “loud,” “violent,” and “chaotic”: hence the bold or even extra-bold, sans-serif typeface with abrupt, hard edges. I think of peace as “quiet,” “artistic,” and “uplifting.” These adjectives I associate with the curves and varied weights of a serif typeface.

Granted, the key word here is “I,” and if you’re designing something for an audience, it helps to also predict the emotions, values, and characteristics the reader might associate with a particular typeface. In my own design work, I always like to show my client a few design options using different fonts. And to come up with these design options, I often review samples of what other designers have created to see how they have associated typefaces with a mood, tone, or value.

It absolutely always helps to become a lifetime student of design, noticing everything from billboard designs to brochure designs. In fact, immersing oneself in design samples seems to rub off on one’s own design work. Ideas and approaches seem to come to mind more readily after repeated exposure to visual media.

Examples: The Type at the Top of This Article

The “IJKLM” type at the top of this article was rendered in splashes of brilliant color in a simple sans-serif typeface with rounded ends on all letterforms (no angles, just symmetrical, rounded forms). The drips and bubbles of what appears to be thrown commercial printing ink (a little like Jackson Pollock’s action painting) provide a sense of movement, while the intensity of the colors evokes a feeling of joy, energy, and fun (in me, at least). This is no accident. The artist chose the letters, the typeface, and the colors intentionally to convey a certain tone. In my view, she or he was successful.

Examples: A Dishcloth from a Thrift Store

My fiancee and I are both visual artists. She is a sculptor. I am a painter. I also draw. In addition to bringing these skills into our art therapy work with the autistic, we like collecting art, sometimes in the strangest of places: the thrift store.

This week my fiancee brought home a used dishcloth (still in very good shape). I’m sure it only cost a couple of dollars, but it had been printed (in black commercial printing ink only on white fabric) in an interesting typeface. There were just a few sentences. However, the typeface (which may have been hand drawn) spoke volumes to both my fiancee and me. (Keep in mind that she, in particular, appreciates lettering on everything from curtains to t-shirts to mugs to dishcloths.)

The dishcloth was designed by Primitives by Kathy, LOL, Made You Smile. It included the following lines of type:

“I WILL NOT YELL IN CLASS.” (in a hand-written, sans-serif typeface)
“I WILL NOT THROW THINGS.” (in a hand-written, sans-serif typeface)
“I WILL NOT TEASE OTHER KIDS.” (in a hand-written, sans-serif typeface)
“I am the Teacher.” (set in two lines in a floral, hand-lettered script with a hand-drawn flourish between the two lines and a hand-drawn quill pen under the word “Teacher”)
(Primitives by Kathy)

Here are some things I noted. (I realize you don’t actually see the type treatment, so I will describe it.) Keep in mind that the final two lines, “I am the Teacher,” are almost triple the size of the all-capital-letter treatment of the first three lines.

The first three lines remind me of the sentences children (in the 1960s and probably before) had to write on the blackboard when they had been naughty. In this case the designer made the word “Yell” larger than the rest (this makes sense; yelling is louder than normal speech, and making it larger reflects this tone).

The second line includes what looks like little stones coming from the word “throw.” They arch over the word “things” and travel upwards through and beyond the first line of type. (There are little streaks indicating movement.) This makes sense. It looks like the word “throw” is throwing little rocks.

The third line includes a hand-drawn extension of the letter “E” that extends into the letter “O” of “Other Kids.” It looks a bit like a child’s hand tickling the ear of another kid from behind. The “O” of “Other” has four or five little stress lines radiating outward from the letter that make the “O” look irritated or aggravated.

Finally “I am the Teacher” is large, graceful, and floral. Still, it appears that the teacher in this case was naughty (after all, she or he is writing all of this) and had to stay after school to write these “lessons” repeatedly on the blackboard in chalk.

There’s no other art, just black type on a white background, but it still gives you the feel of a list of sentences on a chalkboard. Moreover, you even get a sense of both the childlike/childish demeanor of the teacher and her/his somewhat inflated self-image.

All of this is done almost entirely with type choices (and contrast of type size, use of all capital letters in the first three lines, and the casual and even personal nature of what appears to be hand lettering).

Example: Roy Lichtenstein’s “POP”

This is an example of Pop Art, created in the 1960s by artist Roy Lichtenstein. You can find it using Google Images. It is the word “POP!” The important characteristics are that it was painted in all caps with an exclamation point over a stylized explosion painted in various bright colors, with every pictorial element outlined in black.

It looks exactly like a snippet from a 1960s comic book. Of course this is intentional because Lichtenstein is commenting on popular iconography (perhaps even parodying it). Lichtenstein’s paintings, many of which include stylized comic book images of people with pithy comments in “word bubbles,” gently poke fun at the commoditization and commercialization of American society. To put him in context, one of Lichtenstein’s contemporaries was Andy Warhol.

The “POP!” portion of the painting is rendered in all capital letters in a fat, simple sans-serif typeface. It has a drop shadow to make it feel even more dynamic. In fact the typeface, colors, simplicity, and outlining of everything would also make it a good example of onomatopoeia. Onomatopoeia, which you may remember from grade school, is a word that sounds like what it means. (This is quite a bit like the subject of this blog article, how to make type look like what it means.)

In the case of Lichtenstein’s painting, which is huge (and which therefore causes the viewer to look at a cartoon strip out of context and with a fresh eye), the typeface, colors, and meaning are all congruent. All the elements of the design point toward the same meaning.

If you watch 1960s Batman television shows, the same kind of icon is used whenever the Dynamic Duo fight the bad guys. Their punches are interspersed with Lichtenstein-like bursts with words such as “Boof,” “Bam,” and “KaPow,” which would also be considered onomatopoetic.

The Takeaway

It’s a little like the “Form Follows Function” imperative of 19th and 20th century architecture (as referenced in Wikipedia) and is attributed to Louis Sullivan, an architect (also according to Wikipedia). Even though we’re jumping from dishcloths to Pop Art to architecture, we’re talking about the same thing: the benefit of congruence between the meaning or message of words or an image and the way it is presented.

It’s a bit like an army marching across a bridge. All soldiers break stride at the bridge because if they were in step, they would generate such resonance in their perfect synchronization of marching steps (called mechanical resonance, according to “Why Do Soldiers Break Stride On A Bridge?” Elizabeth Howell, May 22, 2013) that the frequency of vibration would cause the bridge to collapse. In graphic design, when you pair the tone and meaning of the words and ideas (the content) with type, color, and layout that reinforce this meaning, you create an unstoppable force.

Custom Printing: Save Photos in RGB (Not CMYK) Format

Sunday, October 10th, 2021

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I learned something today. A colleague of mine emailed me saying her book designer planned to save all photos in RGB rather than CMYK format. My colleague asked my opinion. So I did some homework.

I have been using Photoshop since the late ‘80s or early ‘90s. Back then any automatic translation by the commercial print provider from RGB to CMYK was rather problematic, yielding unpredictable and sometimes muddy results. So I, and all the designers I knew or managed, always changed photos from RGB to CMYK when preparing files for commercial printing.


First of all, let’s define some terms. RGB (red/green/blue) is the color gamut used for online presentation of art, photos, and text (i.e., anything related to the combining of light rather than ink). Red, green, and blue phosphors create all visible hues on the screen. These are called the additive primaries. In contrast, when you prepare files for offset commercial printing (or printing with any other kind of ink), you use cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink. These are the subtractive primaries (actually only cyan, magenta, and yellow are the primaries; black is added by printers to darken and give definition to the resulting CMY ink mixture).

When you combine the additive primaries on a computer screen, you get white light. When you add the subtractive primaries using ink, you get black ink (closer to muddy black, but that’s why printers add a separate black ink, as noted above).

Look inside a color laser printer. You’ll see cyan, magenta, yellow, and black toner cartridges. Look at an inkjet printer, and you’ll see cyan, magenta, yellow, and black liquid ink cartridges. Truth be told, if you look at a high-end inkjet printer (like a grand-format flatbed printer), you’ll probably see other colors as well, such as red, green, and blue; or orange and green or purple; or light magenta and light cyan; and maybe even a few different black ink mixtures.

In all of these cases, we’re talking about augmenting the CMYK “color space” when putting toner or ink or any other physical rendering of color on paper or any other substrate. This is in contrast to any colors made with light (even theater lights with gelatin color screens over the bulbs would fit into the RGB model rather than the CMYK model).

So why is this important? How does it relate to your daily design work in Photoshop and InDesign?

Most importantly, the RGB color space has a much wider color gamut than the CMYK color space. You can produce significantly more individual hues. Even though you might want to print in RGB format (but you can’t), you do want to keep photos in RGB format for as long as possible before the final conversion to CMYK prior to commercial printing.

A Wider Color Gamut

At this final transition, by the way, colors in the RGB color gamut that can’t be reproduced via CMYK custom printing will be converted to the nearest printable color. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, this transition was less than perfect. Now it is actually more skillfully done by your offset/digital printer’s software than by you.

If you make the change yourself, you can do it in Photoshop, or you can make the change in InDesign when you distill final press-ready PDFs for your commercial printing provider. But if you let him make the change, he can optimize the photos for his own press and for the specific paper (gloss coated, uncoated, etc.) that you’ll be using. This is a lot more precise than just going to the mode command in Photoshop and changing the image from RGB to CMYK.

Custom printing presses also make a difference. If you’re still in an RGB workflow at the last possible moment, it will be easier to optimize output for either web-offset printing or sheetfed-offset printing. If you leave this transition to your commercial printing supplier, you never have to change the photos themselves.

So while it’s understandable that I (and my colleague, who is the same age) and probably a lot of other designers who started working with PageMaker, Illustrator, and Photoshop (30 years ago) would (entirely out of habit) automatically want to convert all photos from RGB to CMYK, even though that might not be the best course of action.

The safest thing to do, in my opinion, is to ask your commercial printing supplier. Different printers may/will probably approach this question differently based on their equipment and expertise. Most, however, will probably ask you to leave the photos in RGB format within an InDesign file. Of course, to be safe you can always provide both a press-ready PDF file and a native InDesign file when you upload your final art. This way, your printer can always go back to the native file to make any changes he needs to make that might not be possible in a PDF file (which is essentially locked down and not as easily modified).

Another Benefit of an RGB Workflow

If you keep your images in RGB format in Photoshop and even in InDesign, you will have the added benefit of being able to easily use the documents online. And, in addition, you may have more success (i.e., rich coloration) when you print to a digital press (let’s say an HP Indigo electrophotographic—laser—press or a large-format inkjet press). Just another reason to consider an RGB image workflow.

When Not to Submit RGB Art to Your Printer

If you’re creating vector art (line art) in Illustrator, use CMYK. InDesign can convert RGB to CMYK in this case, too, but the results are not as predictable for vector images as for pixel-based images. This is especially important to note if your design includes specific logo colors (perhaps CMYK builds to match PMS colors in your logo). In this case you’ll want to have total control over the percentages of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink your print provider will use.

The same is true if you are applying color to selected images within an InDesign art file. Use CMYK percentages, not RGB percentages, for the reason noted above.

But don’t forget that if you’re doing anything for computer-screen reproduction, you actually want the final output to be in RGB format, and as an added benefit you get the much wider color gamut noted above.

Final Notes

If you decide to change the images yourself from RGB to CMYK prior to handing off art files to your print provider, ask your vendor for the specific color profile that will take into account the paper you’ve chosen as well as the specific custom printing device he’ll be using to produce the job. Then, in Photoshop, choose Edit/Convert to Profile (instead of just “convert from RGB to CMYK”). In this way you’ll be choosing the most precise and most accurate target specifications for your particular job, and you’ll be less likely to inadvertently omit any colors as “out of color gamut” that might have otherwise printed just fine.

Custom Printing: Selecting the Best Photos for Publication

Wednesday, October 6th, 2021

Photo purchased from …

If you look at the photo above, you’ll see a catastrophe in the making, a tornado just about to strike. It’s a powerful image. It also captures the emotions you might experience if you choose a bad photo for an important promotional piece. Believe me. I have made the mistakes noted below.

More often than not, it’s the photos in a design piece (everything from a print book cover to a multi-floor building wrap) that grab the view’s attention first, before the typescript, the content. Photos grip the viewer, often encouraging her/him to feel or think about a subject in a particular way.

So if you’re a marketer, or even a print book designer, it is crucial that you select the best images for publication. And since these images usually go through some sort of digital or offset commercial printing process, it’s important to remember that printing technology reduces image quality. It does not enhance it.

What Does This Mean?

This can mean a number of things. Most of these pertain to either technical qualities or design qualities. Both subjects could fill several books. So for now I’ll say only a little about the design aspects and then shift to the technical requirements.

  1. As a designer, I choose images that focus on a single subject (a person, group, place, or thing) in a dramatic and unique way, a way that makes a statement.
  2. If the subject is a person, I choose an image that captures the character of the person, and then I crop away all extraneous image material and focus on the person’s face, posture, etc.

Usually, if you review a number of images (JPEGs on a computer, transparencies on a light box, or paper photo prints scattered on a table), only a handful of images will be “right” intuitively in your eyes and those of your colleagues or clients.

The Technical Aspects

Selecting images from a perspective of design is often very subjective. However, once you’ve found your preferred photos, you will want to ensure that they reproduce in the most dramatic and effective way. You don’t want any technical flaws to lessen their impact.

(Back when I started in the business of design and art production, we had no digital images. Therefore, we could only choose photos in either print form on glossy paper or as transparencies, or slides.)

Crisp Focus

Images have to start out in crystal clear focus. An out of focus image draws attention to itself, not to its subject matter. So only choose crisp photos. Granted, a photo will often have a visible depth of field, that is, a range in which everything is in focus and outside of which everything is somewhat blurred. This can be very effective in a photo of flowers, for instance. The restricted depth of field can direct the viewer’s attention exclusively toward the subject.

However, the actual subject matter in the photo must be crystal clear. Settle for nothing less than pristine quality. And don’t rely on sharpening technology (“unsharp masking”) in Photoshop.

In the 1990s I had an associate who would ask me to “Crispy up” an image or say, “Just Photoshop it,” to improve the snapshots she gave me for a newsletter. My belief is, “GIGO” is the rule: “garbage in, garbage out.” Adhering to this maxim gives you the best results.

Dynamic Range

Before digital photography, the rule of thumb was that images from slides were better than images from paper prints. This was because they captured the greatest tonal range from the darkest dark to the lightest light. Paper prints were ok, but the highlights and shadows did not match the depth/intensity of shadows and highlights in transparencies. And the interim steps or gradations from shadows to midtones to highlights available in transparencies were also better than in paper prints.

The general idea is that true black and true white will be the most intense and accurate in the actual scene you photograph (i.e., in real life). This dynamic range will lessen somewhat as you photograph the image. And then it will become an even narrower transition from black to white, or from one dark color to a lighter one, once you offset print or digitally print the image.


Depending on the lighting when you take a photo, sometimes you will get a color cast. This is a color imbalance that shows up in neutral colors (a white sheet of paper in a photo, for example, might have a pinkish cast).

A color cast can also add yellow to a face and make the subject look jaundiced. Be aware of this. Fortunately, you can adjust the image in applications like Photoshop (using an on-screen densitometer) to correct color casts. Moreover, you can do this by reading the numbers (rather than by just relying on the computer monitor). That is, by checking density readings within an image and correcting them, you can successfully remove a color cast whether you can see it on screen or not.


For the most part, I’m talking about scratches, which are really only a problem if you’re using paper photo prints or transparencies. In some cases it is possible to remove these blemishes in Photoshop, but it takes a lot of work, and in my experience the results don’t usually warrant the effort.

Flaws can also include patterns in the photo (a checkerboard pattern, for instance, or the pattern in a metal link fence). Sometimes these patterns conflict with halftone screens and cause moires (additional, yet undesirable, patterns). Watch out for these.

Flaws can also include overly large grain (from the silver halide deposits that comprise the images in paper prints and transparencies). I once used a 35mm image for a poster. When I enlarged it from 35mm to 2 feet by 3 feet, the film grain was huge. Fortunately, I still kept my job. But I learned why photographers love 2-1/4”-format handheld cameras and 8” x 10” tripod-mounted cameras. These cameras can maintain crisp detail, a wide range of tones, and rich shadows and clear highlights even when the images are enlarged. And less enlargement is usually required when you start with a large negative (compared to between 700 percent and 1,000 percent enlargement when you start with a 35mm negative).

But flaws can also include extraneous elements in a photo, like a tree that appears to grow out of the subject’s head (which you didn’t see when shooting the photo). For instance, a few days ago I took two photos of an exterior sculpture. In one of them, a car was going by. In the next one, the car was gone. I deleted the one with the car.

Digital Options

In spite of what I said above, Photoshop really is a wonderful application, especially when you start with (technically) good images.

Here are some things to consider:

  1. Make the “histogram” your best friend. This is a graph showing the number of pixels for each level of gray (levels 0 to 255). Ideally, when you open up a histogram in Photoshop you will see a smooth graph from the left to the right, starting with relatively few pixels on the shadow side, a lot in the middle tones, and relatively few on the highlight side. What you don’t want to see in the chart is gaps. These look like missing teeth on a comb. Gaps indicate a total absence of pixels for a specific level of gray. What this means visually is that you will see a stair-stepping of tones (i.e., posterization) in the photo.
  2. Histograms can also come in sets of three or four for full-color work (RGB–red, green, and blue for use on a computer monitor–or CMYK—cyan, magenta, yellow, and black for use in commercial printing). Do some research online, and you’ll find the proper balance for these colors (the relative numbers for each channel using the on-screen densitometer) to minimize or eliminate color casts.
  3. That said, your goal is to have the widest possible dynamic range (dark to light): the most pixel data from the darkest dark to the lightest light with the most picture information in between. A transparency (slide) will give you this result (compared to a paper print), but so will a good image from a high-megapixel digital camera, if you have good quality exterior lighting or highly controlled interior lighting.
  4. If your image is slightly out of focus, you can improve it a bit with unsharp masking, which increases the contrast between adjacent light and dark pixels and thus fools your eye into believing the image has been (to quote my associate above) made more “crispy” in Photoshop.
  5. Proper resolution is vital. I use my cell phone to take photos of my fiancee’s and my autistic art therapy students, but we use the photos almost exclusively for 72dpi online images. They are snapshots, not high-quality images for print production.
  6. That said, when I receive photos for these PIE Blog articles, such as the one above, they come to me in large dimensions at an ultra-high resolution. If I crop in on a small area and enlarge it significantly, I can see the eyelashes on the model’s face or the stitching in her clothes. If I were to save the image as a JPEG at this size and resolution, and uploaded it to the PIE website, it would take forever to load a PIE Blog page. The size of the image (let’s say 10 MB) would choke the software and hardware. However, when I reduce the image from about 36 inches to 10 inches in width at 72dpi, I have adequate resolution for blog readers to see the important parts of the photo–and nothing else. Plus, at this point the photo is about 250 KB rather than 10 MB.
  7. If I wanted to use the same image for a print ad, I would save the image with a resolution of about 266dpi (or double a 133lpi halftone screen) at the final size (reduced from the larger format of approximately 30” x 30”). In this case the size reduction would actually improve the sharpness of the image.

So the gist of this is, use the digital enhancement tools to your advantage. But start out with the highest technical quality and then just tweak the images. Don’t try to save bad photos.

Book Printing: a Handful of Ways to Save Money Buying Print Services

Monday, October 4th, 2021

Photo purchased from …

If your job involves either buying commercial printing services or designing print products, your experience over the years will teach you that some custom printing processes cost a lot. It’s easy to spend money quickly on a print job. However, you can also be mindful when designing or specifying a print project and make choices that actually save you money.

The Best Book Size

In this light, a colleague recently contacted me regarding the best size for a particular print book. The question was posed from a marketing perspective. Which format would sell better: 5.5” x 8.5”, 6” x 9”, 8” x 10”, 8.5” x 11”, etc.?

I told my colleague that I didn’t have the experience to speak to the marketing aspect of the question but that I could address the commercial printing aspect.

I said that the goal would be to lay out as many pages on the front and back of a press sheet as possible, side by side in a standard press-signature format. Of course, this would necessitate knowing the size of the press and press sheet, as well as the space needed for bleeds, printers’ marks, and the press gripper (which grabs the press sheet and feeds it into the press).

The overall approach would be as follows: for instance, a 40” press will accept a standard 25” x 38” press sheet. If you draw out on a piece of paper a sketch of a press sheet with a width of 38” and a depth of 25”, and then draw four pages across and then another four pages immediately below them, you have a diagram of a press sheet containing a sixteen-page signature (four pages across on top, four across immediately below, and the same on the back of the sheet for a total of sixteen pages). Without bleeds, printer’s marks, and room for the press gripper, you will have just used 22” x 34” of the total 25” x 38” sheet (11” x 2 pages down and 8.5” x 4 pages across). So you will have a little wiggle room for the bleeds and other printers’ requirements.

My Colleague’s Question

So, to return to my colleague’s question, you can do the same kind of math for any of the other page sizes, based on the size of the press sheet. Your goal is to group pages in multiples of four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two, or sixty-four. Remember, you’re dividing by the two sides of the press sheet. Moreover, since some presses are as large as 50” (rather than 40”), you can get more pages on a press sheet if you’re designing smaller pages. That said, I wouldn’t necessarily do the math without involving the printer. Just ask about the ideal page size and the number of pages in the “most efficient” press signature based on this approach.

And remember, if your page size yields a print book that feels good in the reader’s hands but that wastes a lot of paper (i.e., maybe you’ve chosen an unusual page size, and you can’t quite fit as many pages on both sides of a press signature without a lot of unused space around the pages), you’re still paying for the unused paper that lands on the trimming room floor.

Marketing Thoughts

Now here’s one marketing perspective. The size and weight of the print book make a difference on several counts:

  1. If it’s too heavy (maybe an 8.5” x 11” format), the book may be uncomfortable to hold when reading.
  2. If the book is too large in its length and width, both the envelopes used to mail copies to clients and the postage may cost more than you expect.
  3. If the booklets need to fit in a display rack for marketing purposes, their size will matter. Find out where and how the print books will be displayed.
  4. If the print book has a small format (let’s say 5.5” x 8.5”) and therefore has grown to 600 pages in length, it may be very difficult to trim. (More on this later.)

Oblong Books

My colleague’s colleague (a writer and publisher) recently printed another book, which had an oblong format (wide and squat rather than narrow and tall). Sometimes this is called a “landscape” rather than “portrait” orientation. The publisher was amazed by the high printing cost and vowed never to design an oblong print book again. He had assumed that the same book dimensions would cost the same to produce in either an upright or oblong format. Ouch.

Why is this not true?

To go back to the pages laid out on a press sheet (from the prior example), since facing pages touch at the short dimension in an oblong book, and since the double-page spreads are significantly wider than for standard upright pages, you might not be able to lay out as many pages on one press sheet in one press signature.

(A wild guess might be that four pages will fit on one side of the sheet and four on the other, rather than eight per side, or that eight pages will fit on each side of a press sheet rather than sixteen. In this case, you would need twice as many press runs, significantly increasing the overall commercial printing cost.)

So why not turn everything on its side on the press sheet? Good idea. But maybe that will change the orientation of the paper relative to the paper grain. After all, you want the paper fibers to be parallel to the spine in a print book, or you may have trouble turning the pages easily. Or, as another option, maybe your printer can use paper with the grain going in the perpendicular direction.

As you can see, things get complicated, and complication drives prices up. The best solution is to ask the book printer about such things early in the design process. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t design an oblong book. You should just understand the potential cost ramifications.

Ways to Save–or Spend–Money

As with most things in life, buying commercial printing often requires trade-offs. Often this also involves paying a higher cost for higher quality. But not always.


For instance, it costs less to saddle stitch a book than to perfect bind it. But perfect binding gives you a printable spine and (presumably) feels more professional to the reader. Maybe you still want the perfect binding, and you’re willing to pay more for it and then pass the cost on to the customer.

Or let’s say you’re printing an ultra-short press run of 50 books. (A client of mine prints 50 galley copies of a book for reader reviews, and then prints 1,500 to 2,000 more copies—with a more elaborate book design–incorporating the readers’ suggestions.) Preparing a large perfect binder for 50 copies will be expensive. Possibly the 50 copies would cost the same (considering makeready and spoilage) as 200 copies for the binding component of the job. In this case it helps to know a printer with a tabletop perfect binder, which is made especially to bind short runs of books economically. (So in this case in particular, it helps to know what equipment your vendor has and to also have a good network of potential printers for your jobs.)


Here’s another actual case study from my colleague’s colleague. He produced a 600-page book (noted earlier in this blog article). It was too large to be comfortably trimmed by the printer. So the printer’s automated trimming equipment had to be slowed down significantly. This caused workflow bottlenecks and raised the overall price. Maybe my colleague’s colleague had actually been lucky. The next step would have been to hand trim each print book. For a long press run, this would have been extraordinarily expensive.

Mechanical Binding

For short-run books (let’s say a book for 50 people attending a convention session in a hotel), GBC binding (also referred to as plastic comb binding) is ideal. You don’t need to pay makeready and spoilage costs for an automated perfect binder (or bind 1,500 copies to reap reasonable per-unit bindery costs).

However, GBC binding is done by hand on a little machine (hooking the pages onto the plastic combs). Handwork is expensive and takes time. So for 50 copies, your unit cost will be high. And if your press run goes up (let’s say to 500 copies) and you still choose GBC binding, your overall cost (as well as your unit cost) will be high.

Cover Coatings

Maybe you asked your printer to film laminate the covers of your books. Let’s say he doesn’t have in-house laminating capabilities but he can aqueous coat your print book covers in his shop. Consider this seriously. (Substitutions are often a smart option, for cover coatings, paper choices, etc.) Making your printer subcontract out the lamination might well cost you a lot more than accepting the printer’s in-house aqueous coating capabilities. It might take less time, too.

(A good rule of thumb is to ask for specific results, such as a gloss or matte cover coating, rather than to ask for a specific technology, like laminating, UV coating, or aqueous coating. It’s also a good idea to ask for samples. Always make decisions based on what you can see and feel, whether it’s a choice of press papers or cover coatings.)

The Takeaway?

What can we learn from my colleague and her colleague? Here are some thoughts:

  1. Ask your printer about the most efficient page sizes and press signature configurations based on his presses and the press sheets they accommodate. You want the largest press signatures produced with the fewest press runs.
  2. Develop relationships with a handful of printers. Learn what equipment they have and learn how this determines ideal page size, press signature size, cover coating capabilities, etc. Be able to choose a particular printer for a particular job based on your knowledge of the equipment he has in his pressroom and bindery.
  3. Study all of these subjects in depth. The more you know, the more effective you will be at economical print design and print buying.

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