Printing Companies
  1. About Printing Industry
  2. Printing Services
  3. Print Buyers
  4. Printing Resources
  5. Classified Ads
  6. Printing Glossary
  7. Printing Newsletters
  8. Contact Print Industry
Who We Are

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.

Need a Printing Quote from multiple printers? click here.

Are you a Printing Company interested in joining our service? click here.

The Printing Industry Exchange (PIE) staff are experienced individuals within the printing industry that are dedicated to helping and maintaining a high standard of ethics in this business. We are a privately owned company with principals in the business having a combined total of 103 years experience in the printing industry.

PIE's staff is here to help the print buyer find competitive pricing and the right printer to do their job, and also to help the printing companies increase their revenues by providing numerous leads they can quote on and potentially get new business.

This is a free service to the print buyer. All you do is find the appropriate bid request form, fill it out, and it is emailed out to the printing companies who do that type of printing work. The printers best qualified to do your job, will email you pricing and if you decide to print your job through one of these print vendors, you contact them directly.

We have kept the PIE system simple -- we get a monthly fee from the commercial printers who belong to our service. Once the bid request is submitted, all interactions are between the print buyers and the printers.

We are here to help, you can contact us by email at

Blog Articles for

Archive for April, 2023

Custom Printing: The Power of the Outgoing Envelope

Sunday, April 30th, 2023

Photo purchased from …

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed that with urgent emails, promotional emails, and spam, I get between 150 and 300 emails a day. Even checking and discarding most of them takes time. In contrast, I get only a handful of physical mail (mostly bills and a few direct-mail pieces). Overall, the direct mail marketers have a lot more of my undivided attention than the email marketers.

In my opinion, direct mail has become a far more personal “conversation” between marketers and prospective clients. And I don’t think I’m alone in believing this. I also don’t think this reflects any great changes in physical mail design.

In this light, I want to discuss a few thoughts on how to ensure that your target audience reads your direct mail materials if your job involves writing, designing, or custom printing such mail.

Clean the Address List

First of all, send your marketing materials to those who will appreciate them. Granted, you won’t always know, but it doesn’t hurt to envision the prospective customer’s “persona,” comprising all of her or his likes and dislikes, hobbies, political preferences, etc., to ensure that the list of addresses to which you send your direct mail reflects this demographic information.

This also means that you should make sure the addresses are complete, accurate, spelled correctly, and current. Your Post Office can help you do this.

Mail list hygiene isn’t really a design decision, but it will at least get your direct mail package or self-mailer in front of those people more likely to be interested. That benefits both them and you.

The Outgoing Envelope

In marketing and publications, this is called the OGE (outgoing envelope). Unless your mail piece is a self-mailer (folded, sealed, and addressed, along with a mail indicia for postage payment), your first job is to get the prospective client to open the envelope. Personally, I usually throw out mail addressed to “Occupant” or “Homeowner.”

But the outgoing envelope is far more than its addressing. When you’re designing direct mail envelopes, consider their size, paper, color, material, texture, and weight.

Here are some thoughts:

Envelope Size and Shape

Custom envelopes that are of an unusual size will attract reader attention. For instance, I’ve received large envelopes, tiny envelopes, square envelopes, and even custom envelopes in the shape of something else (like a truck or a key). Keep in mind that the Post Office will charge more to deliver large envelopes (ask the business mail advisor at your Post Office about the difference in size between letter mail and flat mail, or research this online). Also research surcharges for square custom envelopes. I believe most of the surcharges reflect such things as the difficulty (vs. ease) of automation in processing your mail. If you comply with the rules, you get the discounted rate.

Odd sizes will cost more, but if they increase reader interest (in a material way–and a measurable way), this may be worth the cost. Think of it as an investment.

Color, Texture, and Weight of the Custom Envelope

I recently received a very dark envelope with very serious looking and minimal print in black ink. Needless to say I opened it immediately thinking it was something official and bad. It turned out to be for a funeral parlor. Granted I did throw it out, but the outgoing envelope certainly succeeded. It got me to open the letter.

Other textures or colors (maybe a felt finish, maybe a bright color) can be relevant to what you’re selling and also both a tactile and a visually satisfying experience.

In this light, by increasing the weight of the envelope paper, you can make the entire mail piece seem more official. (People associate heavier paper with a sense of gravitas.) You might want to talk with your printer about 24# vs. 28# envelopes. The former is the regular weight of 60# text paper, while the latter is comparable to 70# text paper. Using 28# paper is also smart for larger envelopes that may contain more marketing materials, since the paper is both thicker and more durable than 24# stock.

Alternatives to the Paper Envelope

An alternative totally different from a colored and textured paper outgoing envelope is a transparent plastic envelope. I’ve received envelopes that have big windows showing what’s inside the envelope, but I have also received totally clear envelopes.

One that comes to mind was for a grand-format inkjet printer. It was made entirely of transparent plastic sheets heat welded into envelopes. I was intrigued. The marketer had done her/his homework and knew I was interested in offset and digital commercial printing. So I not only opened and read the marketing materials, but I also kept the package and wrote a PIE Blog article about it.

You may even choose to forego the envelope entirely and send a self-mailer. Make sure your Post Office approves the paper, design, placement of barcodes and addresses, size and format, etc., before you print, since there are a lot of regulations (which as noted earlier actually allow your mail to proceed smoothly through automation, thus reducing the postage you pay). It’s better to get Post Office approval than to print the job and be sorry when it can’t be mailed or when it incurs a surcharge.

If you send a self-mailer, you can incorporate unique folds (check out Trish Witkowski’s Foldfactory videos online) and seal the proper panels with fugitive glue.

Unique print products pique the reader’s interest. And this sells.

Envelope Personalization

Generic mail gets tossed. Personal mail gets read.

I’ve received direct mail stamped with indicias and meter stamps, but I’ve also received mail with precanceled stamps that are for direct mail use but that look a bit like the “Forever” stamps you buy at the Post Office. These make the envelope look like a friend sent it to you (unless you know what you’re looking at).

Some marketers even choose a typeface for addressing the letter that looks like handwriting, also making the direct mail package look more personal (certainly more personal than a Crack ’N Peel custom label affixed to an outgoing envelope).

When you combine this with clear, accurate, well-chosen addresses vetted for their appropriateness for your message, you’re on the right track to a sale.

These little tricks can get your direct mail package opened, and that’s the first step in interesting your reader in your message and potentially making a sale.

The Power of Cross Media Marketing

All the better if you can key this direct-mail product into a website (home page or personalized landing page). Everything I’ve seen and read suggests that combining physical direct mail and online marketing can drive sales exponentially, because this marriage of technologies allows for a two-way conversation between the marketer and the prospective client. You can receive a direct mail piece, become interested in the content, and then contact the company and request more printed and virtual information through an online portal.

A Reflection on the Quality Product or Service You Offer

Ultimately, your direct mail package is not only a description of the product or service you offer but also a physical product in and of itself, reflecting the quality you promise and your attention to detail. You can convey all of this through your design, paper choices, and every other element of your direct mail piece.

The Takeaway

Each day we go to our mailbox and make an often instant decision as to what to throw away and what to open, read, and even keep. This is based on such visual cues as the custom envelope’s color, shape, texture, paper weight, level of transparency—or, if it’s a self-mailer, based on the intricacy of folds, the typeface, whether there is an indicia or a precanceled stamp that looks like a real stamp. Details matter.

Plus, a direct mail piece (comprising the overall design of all elements) is a physical sample of someone’s (sometimes even a commercial printing vendor’s) design and printing work as well as proof of their attention to detail. So the piece “sells” on many levels.

If it directs the reader to a website or a personal landing page, it even takes advantage of the synergy of cross-media marketing, giving you more sales oomph than either a website by itself or a direct mail piece by itself.

Custom Printing: Problems with Digital Halftones

Sunday, April 23rd, 2023

Photo purchased from …

A reader of the PIE Blog posted a comment recently describing problems that have occurred in his transition of some titles from offset printing to digital printing, mostly insofar as his digitally printed halftones (and presumably any area screens) printed lighter than expected.

For my response to this reader, I assumed (from the wording of his question) that he was referring to print books produced on uncoated paper using laser printing technology (also referred to as xerography or electrophotography).

Here’s the reader’s question as well as my answer:


We have run into problems when moving titles from offset to digital. All grayscale images. Contrary to my expectations, digital print images look washed out, losing in my estimation 10% or more (so a 20% screen looks like 10%). Is this your experience? What is the best strategy for converting existing pdf file to digital print (do we have to go back into InDesign and reprocess all the images?).


Thank you for your comment. I can usually tell the difference between digitally printed text, screens, and halftones, and offset printed text, screens, and halftones. To me digital screens and halftones just don’t seem as crisp. Also, the transitions in digital screens and halftones don’t seem as consistent (or even) as those printed via offset lithography.

That said, I have seen a lot of really good inkjet work on coated stock (usually posters). So it is probable that the uncoated vs. coated substrate (print books vs. posters) makes a difference, as does the specific digital technology (laser printing vs. inkjet).

In your case it sounds like you are digitally producing print books (which as I note may be of a lesser quality than offset printed books). With this in mind I would suggest that you request samples from your printer (to help you evaluate the technology), check into the HP Indigo electrophotographic press (a laser-based printer of very high quality that uses toner particles suspended in fuser oil), and ask the printer to gang up a number of photos you have darkened a bit in Photoshop to mitigate the problem.

Ask for suggestions as to whether to darken highlights, midtones, and shadows or just the shadows (there may be a less than even transition, and you don’t want to go from overly light to overly dark images). Making some test sheets (and even trying this test with different commercial printing shops) may help you.

I wish I could say this was simple. For print books you are already producing, your printer may be able to make simple changes to the PDF files directly in PitStop (a preflight program) without your needing to go all the way back to the Photoshop files and then reimport them into InDesign before creating the press-ready PDF files.

So the short answer is to set up a test with the print provider to measure just how much lighter the halftones and screens are than expected (i.e., as created) and then to adjust halftones globally (going forward) using Photoshop. Plus, it may be possible to adjust current halftones slightly at the printer using preflight software.

More Thoughts / More Research

After I sent my reply to the reader and posted it online, I did some more research, which I’d like to share with him and with you.

First of all, a lot of the problems reflect the difference between laser printing and inkjet, and between uncoated paper and gloss coated paper.

But first I’ll start with the reader’s probable motivation for choosing digital printing over offset printing, and his resulting need to control the density of halftones, area screens, and gradations. Most probably it was a print book with a limited press run. Such a book is more economical to print digitally because of the absence of extensive make-ready work needed for offset printing.

As another example, I have a client who needs 50 copies of a 184-page book at present. This is ideal for digital laser printing. While the unit cost of the copies will be high, the overall cost of the entire 50-copy print run will be far less than a comparable print job produced via offset lithography.

(Of course the other reason to choose digital technology is for variable-data printing, which is ideal if there must be a level of personalization from copy to copy.)

The Technology

The technology makes a difference as well. Laser printing, particularly dry laser printing (in which flecks of dry toner are attracted to the printer drum with an electrostatic charge, and then transferred to paper, and then bonded to the paper with heat and pressure) can (in my experience) become problematic because the toner flecks may not be as precisely placed with this digital technology as are halftone dots of printing ink in offset lithography. This can cause a fuzzy or ragged look to laser-printed type and images.

Plus, occasionally there are artifacts in digital printing. These are unintended specs or marks that mar an otherwise pristine halftone, area screen, or gradation. Some digital presses seem to be more prone to this than others. And some values (darker or lighter) in black and white images, or some colors in color images, seem more prone to this.

On the positive side, many high-end digital toner presses are available now. I personally like the HP Indigo, which uses toner particles suspended in fuser oil rather than dry toner particles. I have seen excellent results from this digital press, and I believe a number of other vendors have manufactured similar presses as well.

In addition, there’s always inkjet digital printing. When you look at laser printed samples, you’ll see halftone dots on a regular grid (very similar to the halftone dots of offset lithography). In both offset and laser digital halftones, the halftone dots are larger or smaller depending on the amount of a particular color needed (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black).

In contrast, inkjet-printed halftones are dithered. The halftone dots are not larger or smaller. They are all the same size (minuscule). There are just more of them in areas of denser color. So the overall gradations between colors and between values look almost like a continuous tone image (i.e., they are smoother than laser-printed images).

In short, the choice between digital laser technology and digital inkjet technology could help mitigate this PIE Blog reader’s problem with his print books.

The Paper

Paper makes a difference, too. I’ve seen inkjet printing on gloss coated stock that looks as good as offset commercial printing (just as I have seen toner-based digital printing on uncoated offset paper that is lighter than desired, with uneven gradations and occasional artifacts). The PIE Blog reader might want to experiment with paper substrates (depending on his client’s needs).

Photoshop Controls

I had encouraged the reader to select test images and print them digitally after discussing his concerns with his printer. While a simple solution may involve just darkening the images a certain amount on a consistent basis, this may not be enough. The reader may need a more nuanced solution.

For instance, it is possible to selectively increase or decrease the tones of an image in Photoshop using the “Curves” tool. This tool displays a grid with a diagonal line running from the bottom left to the top right (showing initial tones and the new tones to which you will lighten or darken them). This pertains to both black and white images and color images.

By adding control points (or points) to this diagonal line (you can find out how to do this online) and then pulling them up or down (to change the diagonal line on the grid into an “S” curve), you can selectively lighten or darken the quarter tones, halftones, and three-quarter tones of a photo. That is, you can individually tweak the various levels in a halftone image from the lightest lights through the middle tones up to the darkest darks.

The key here is to run tests (physical printouts) with your commercial printing supplier and then apply what you have learned to all subsequent halftone (or area screen and gradation) work.

One of the articles I found also showed a gray scale that transitioned in equal steps from white through grey to black in 10 percent increments. The PIE Blog reader could create a scale like this and then have his custom printing vendor print the scale on both uncoated paper and coated paper, using both laser digital technology and inkjet digital technology. Then the PIE Blog reader could make decisions for future work based on an analysis of the resulting test sheets.

The Takeaway

Here are my suggestions for those of you with a similar problem to that of the PIE Blog reader:

  1. Involve your commercial printing vendor early. You may even want to find an ally in the printer’s prepress department. No one will be more knowledgeable (both in general and in terms of that printer’s specific equipment).
  2. Create tests (inkjet and/or digital laser on various paper substrates). Based on these tests, develop a standard operating procedure to lighten or darken images in Photoshop.
  3. Don’t assume that such problems (with lightness or darkness of images) will be evident across all values of a halftone. You may want to selectively change highlights, midtones, and shadows using such Photoshop tools as Curves.

Custom Printing Case Study: Making a Business Recognizable

Sunday, April 16th, 2023

Photo purchased from …

This is a blog post about making sure your customers can find your business. More specifically, it involves branding, logos, large format print signage, and customer awareness in general.

In this light, I want to tell you about a local thrift shop that my fiancee and I adore–and frequent almost daily. It comprises two storage units and (on clear days) the pavement of the parking lot in front of the storage units. And nothing else.

There are no signs except for the large format print logos on the trucks, which the proprietor uses to collect donations.

The only promotion I know of is by word of mouth and on Instagram, in contrast to most print catalogs I have either seen or designed myself, which usually include the name of the company, the phone number, and the website address on every catalog page.

Furthermore, the name of the establishment, which includes the word “donation,” does not reflect the unique nature of the furniture, paintings, statues, and glassware available on an ever-changing basis. Therefore the prices, which are higher than those of a thrift store, can be off-putting. This is really more akin to a consignment store or an antiques store. If it were positioned that way in the promotion (overall branding) of the shop, I think that people would be more amenable to the prices but would still value the quality of the furniture and curios.

Breaking This Down: The Business Model

This particular establishment has high-level expenses. They pay their employees well. They need to pay for two huge storage units, and they need to pay all associated costs for at least two large moving trucks. After all, they use the trucks for one of their main sources of revenue, which is clearing out all—or any part—of a client’s personal or business goods and then selling them at this establishment.

Think of this part of the business as a cross between a moving company and a charity donation venue. If, for instance, you have a business and have just upgraded all of your furniture or computers, you would give this business a call to donate all the old items you’re replacing. Or if someone in your family had just died, you might have this business clear out and then sell all of the relative’s worldly possessions.

(Granted, in all cases the business keeps the revenue from the sales, but the clearing out portion of the job is still especially valuable.)

Because of its expenses, this business need to make money when selling the furniture, statuary, paintings, etc., many of which are significantly more intriguing than yard sale or thrift store goods. My fiancee and I, for instance, have already purchased a number of original paintings, complete with stories about the artists who painted them. And the prices, while not cheap, were still very reasonable—particularly on 75-percent-off sale days.

The Business Environment

So the overall environment consists of two storage rooms at the back of a parking lot in a warehouse district. The goods spill out onto the parking lot, especially the best items of furniture. At night everything goes back into the storage locker. The second storage unit contains everything from small paintings to clothes to statuary to cooking implements to hardware items and tools. Some of these goods are of marginal value (and cost). Other items include primitive wood masks from around the world as well as items carved from stone. Compared to the other shop a few storage units away on the asphalt of the parking lot, these are smaller items.

Then there is a “free” area with bins of print books and an array of lesser quality furniture. All of this changes—sometimes hourly—as the trucks come in and unload practically every item imaginable from every corner of the world.

Unfortunately, if you don’t know where to find this unique store, chances are that you will not stumble upon it. You have to be going there. It has to be a destination, and you need directions.

A Few Words on Traditional Branding

If you Google “How many exposures does it take to ensure brand recognition,” the first few snippets of information listed will say “five to seven.” I realize this is arbitrary and possibly based on nothing, but it does illustrate the point that brand awareness is “grown” gradually and intentionally. It is not accidental or random.

Almost always this involves a recognizable logo, something that may have an image related to the company (even if it is abstract and only suggestive of the tone, purpose, or values of the company). Computer companies, for instance, may have logo marks that look futuristic and that suggest speed, communication, and control.

These logo marks, or pictorial renderings, are accompanied by the name of the company, in a typeface and in colors that reflect the tone of the company, whether it be futuristic or classic (like an antique dealer’s logo). Sometimes the logo includes only the title of the company, and in these cases the typeface, the shape of the various letterforms, and the placement of color must do all the work in conveying the overall image (and the emotions, thoughts, and values the company wants the viewer to associate with the company).

Fortunately, this particular donation company’s trucks all have large exterior panels, which act as large format print signage to do exactly what I have described.

That said, what if the trucks are out collecting all of someone’s worldly possessions? The two storage units don’t really have any signs or other connection to this logo. If they weren’t wide open with their goods spilling out onto the parking lot, they would be indistinguishable from the other storage units in this business park.

Think about three letters, “BMW,” and the immediately identifiable blue, white, and black of the logo. Think about Home Depot’s orange. If you saw only the colors and no logo, you would probably be able to pair the colors with their associated names and logo marks. This is not an accident. It has come about through the association of words, simple images, and colors, again and again, over time. Even in a grocery store, with all of the competing labels, I’ll bet you could find the Starbucks kiosk for a cup of branded coffee. You would immediately recognize the two-tailed siren, classic green, etc. I do, and I don’t even drink coffee.

Back to the donation company (with all other words in the title omitted to protect the innocent). The trucks move from day to day, depending on the available parking spaces. And moving the only visible large format print signage (the sides of the trucks) might therefore be counterproductive in the owner’s establishing consumer brand recognition.


Then there’s the positioning. How might the owner of the company describe the target customer? In marketing language, this might be called “the persona” of the target client, what she or he likes, dislikes, what motivates them, and so forth.

That is, what kind of person would the company like to attract to the two storage units? What kinds of items do they want to buy? I think the company has for the most part articulated this vision (since my fiancee and I know the proprietor and have spoken to many of the other customers).

However, because there is no signage, none of the visual cues that might help position the business in the minds of potential customers have found visual expression. Or even expression in the business name chosen to represent the company.

More specifically, the word “donation” suggests thrift store values, lower prices than those charged at this location. Then again, “donation” also suggests lower value than perhaps the words “choice goods” or “unique items” or “works of art.” Perhaps the revenue of the company, or even the perception of some customers that the prices are high, might change if these words found visual expression in the large format print signage.

After all, in many cases people consider higher priced items to be of a higher value if they cost more (as counterintuitive as this might seem).

Of course this would require a coordinated marketing effort. The name of the company, its logo, the color used for the trucks, and all printed collateral would have to be consistent in promoting the company and in positioning it as an upscale place to find furniture and works of art that might not be available elsewhere.

The Takeaway

This is the beauty of coordinated branding. A skilled marketer can consciously grow potential customers’ awareness of a company as a unique source of value. And this visual positioning can pay off in spades.

If the proprietor of this donations business wants to collect items people no longer use and offer them to those who will love and cherish them (an admirable goal benefitting both the people and the planet), perhaps some enhanced, coordinated branding might be in order.

Custom Printing: 3D Printing Update and Implications

Sunday, April 9th, 2023

Photo purchased from …

Every day in my Google aggregator email feed, I get a list of digital printing articles and a list of offset printing articles. I find it incredibly useful. In addition to updating me on the technologies and techniques of various aspects of commercial printing, the Google aggregator shows me what’s trending. And recently 3D custom printing has been trending, showing up in a large percentage of the links to commercial printing articles.

In this light, about six months ago I wrote a PIE Blog post about 3D printing. Being a student of offset and digital printing, which in many ways symbolize in two-dimensional form our surrounding 3D world, I’m still finding it challenging to wrap my brain around the concept of making physical “things” with a process analogous to inkjet printing.

You may want to check out Wikipedia when doing your own research, as well as an article I found entitled “What Is 3D Printing?–Simply Explained,” by Lucas Carolo, 02/11/2023, Much of what I have written here has been in response to items discussed in these articles.

The 3D Manufacturing Process

Since I don’t have a twelve-year old handy, here’s my 65-year old take, from my cursory research, on what 3D printing is (in non-technical terms) and what implications it has for such issues as copyright protection, reasonable control over firearms, and printing such things as food and medical products (including internal organs).

Plus I will touch briefly on the benefits of 3D printing for the environment, the realignment of manufacturing processes in a world where we can “print our own,” plus challenges for the labor market brought about by the projected growth of 3D printing (or additive manufacturing).

Based on my cursory research, it seems that there are only a handful of steps in 3D printing. First there has to be a computer model, a diagram, if you will, to drive the fabrication of a 3D product. These models can be created with CAD (computer aided design) software packages, or they can even be found online in “repositories.” So you could conceivably just go online, find a computer model for a product, download it, and print it.

The next step is preparing the model for production on your 3D printer. I have seen these in computer stores. They are now very affordable. The ones you or I could buy work with spools of (basically) plastic filament, which are melted and extruded (squeezed out in a stream through a nozzle or print head). This is not unlike an inkjet printer, which does the same thing with liquid ink.

The plastic filament (which looks like a thick plastic wire) builds the physical model layer by layer as the print head travels back and forth over the bed of the 3D printer, which rises or falls as necessary to allow for the growth of the product layer by layer.

Then, the heated plastic solidifies. Or, in some approaches to 3D printing, UV light or even a laser cures the plastic (causes it to harden). For this to work, the computer model must first be “sliced.” Slicing breaks down the 3D computer image into flat layers, which can then be printed one upon the other and thus built up into the final form. This is a mathematical process, as I understand it.

The next step is to print the product. In the case of a desktop 3D printer this process works with different kinds of plastic, but in other additive manufacturing processes 3D products can be made in a similar way with other materials, including metal, ceramic, food, and even biological matter.

To help you visualize this, here’s an analogy. In a nutshell, additive manufacturing is akin to collecting clay and modeling it into a sculpture, while subtractive manufacturing (its opposite) is analogous to chipping away at a block of marble with a chisel to create a sculpture. In the manufacturing arena, subtractive manufacturing would include such processes as “machining” or grinding away metal from an item.

The third option is molding (such as injection molding), which involves pouring a molten material, like plastic or even metal, into a hollow form (the inverse of the final 3D component part) and then removing the mold. This actually can be tied in to 3D printing, because it is possible to either print a mold or print a (plastic) part around which you can then make a mold (for pouring more durable materials than molten plastic).

Most of these processes take time and cost a lot. Among other things, for instance, you would have to create the molds from which you’re making injection molded products (such as plastic toy soldiers).

But with 3D modeling, you just create the computer model yourself, scan a physical object and turn it into a computer model, or acquire the computer model from a repository and then print it.

One benefit of this process is that plastic products made layer by layer from a computer file can be infinitely more detailed than machined component parts. That said, once printed they are usually a bit ragged in areas (or they have supplemental plastic support pieces that hold up the 3D model but that must be removed before use).

So the next step is post processing. (It’s a little like the clean up or finishing work you need to do if you’ve just poured a bronze sculpture into a mold and then opened the mold to find portions that need to be ground away. In 3D printing, you may need to clean up, cure, or paint the pieces, or even assemble them into a larger, more complex final product.

Again, as a reminder, we’re talking about 3D custom printing on desktop machinery using plastic filament, but the concept still holds true for industry-level additive manufacturing.

What’s Is 3D Printing Good For?

The first thing I learned in my research was that companies or individuals could make prototypes easily, quickly, and cheaply.

This is a bit like the prototype a package designer can make before committing to a long run of a particular carton design. If you’re producing a 3D item using subtractive manufacturing or injection molding, you have to build manufacturing equipment specific to producing that particular item.

In contrast, if you’re 3D printing a plastic model head (see the photo at the opening of this article), you can print one copy or ten copies for a small amount of money, quickly. If you’re producing a printed model head as a toy to be sold to children, you can print one, make design changes, and then print a revised version.

This is not true with more mechanical, laborious manufacturing processes (such as injection molding or machining). So your time from idea to prototype to market can be faster with 3D printing, and you have the ability to improve, simplify, or even personalize the 3D plastic head toy each time you print it.

Granted, you can’t print a huge run of these plastic heads quickly or cheaply. This is a more time consuming process for the actual production run (at this point in the development of 3D printing) than the final stage of traditional manufacturing.

Here are some other items that are in vogue for 3D commercial printing at the moment:

  1. Home décor items such as furniture
  2. Fashion items such as shoes and jewelry (these can be very intricate, as noted before)
  3. Firearms
  4. Food (such as crackers, hamburgers, and even such products as food for astronauts)
  5. Actual body parts and especially prosthetic limbs. (This doesn’t surprise me, since the medical field has been growing human ears on mice for a long time–on their backs, not their heads.)
  6. Spare parts that allow people to make their own product repairs at home

3D Printing Is Similar to Inkjet Commercial Printing

As you’re reading this, you may be seeing (as I do) a similarity between inkjet printing in the commercial printing arena and 3D printing with plastic filament in the manufacturing world. You can prototype quickly, personalize your items, print a limited number of copies for a reasonable investment, and easily modify the printout by changing the computer file.

All of this has profound implications, and many of these implications bring to mind the workflow of digital commercial printing.

For instance, since the 3D desktop printers are already affordable, and since they will presumably improve in the near future and use other raw materials such as metals, then 3D printing will presumably democratize manufacturing (make it available to most people, or at least give them more options).

For example, just as you can now write, design, and digitally print publications with equipment that will fit in your home, in the near future you may not need to go to a store to buy something (like a replacement part for a product you own). Instead, you may just download a computer-designed template and print your own replacement part.

Or, manufacturing may move closer to the final destination (think of people who send art files to another state, print their books there, and have a lower freight bill since the printed products are already close to their destination).

Like digital printing, 3D manufacturing will also allow for reduced inventory. Companies won’t need to store inventory since they can 3D print items at the time they are ordered (just like web-to-print for publications). This will save warehousing space and the costs associated with inventorying products, reduce energy for heating and cooling storage facilities, and reduce carbon emissions by minimizing product delivery by truck.

Plus, there will be less material to dump in landfills, since products can be made only when needed (you won’t need to make a huge number of products just because that’s the only way to make the unit costs reasonable). Sounds like digital commercial printing again, doesn’t it?

Social and Ethical Concerns to Address

These are a few of the issues I’ve read about recently:

  1. Gun control issues. When you can download a template and 3D print your own gun, this can be challenging for the control and licensing of firearms.
  2. Copyright issues will need to be addressed.
  3. Ethics issues and religious concerns related to the 3D printing of biological items may need to be addressed.
  4. Labor issues. The new 3D print workflow will have an impact on labor. Presumably there will be more machines and fewer people getting paid to manufacture items. How will these displaced workers be reintroduced into the labor force?

Welcome to our brand new world.

Commercial Printing: Thoughts on Photo and Art Reproduction Licenses

Sunday, April 2nd, 2023

Photo purchased from …

In life, nothing is free. In commercial printing, if you reproduce an image (a photograph or an illustration) that someone else created, you have to pay for the limited rights to do so.

In this light one of my print brokering clients came to me this week noting that she had purchased a subscription to a service that allows her to create pretty much whatever image she wants using an online artificial intelligence application.

My print brokering client regularly prints multiple copies of a small (approximately 2” x 3”) color swatch print book (there are 28 individual master versions) that help fashionistas choose make-up and clothing colors based on their hair and complexion. She also prints copies of a 72-page set of cards (much larger, 8.5” x 11”) with a die cut for the user’s chin, to be held under the user’s face and used in conjunction with the color swatch books. The goal is to help clients look good.

My client also produces print books and ebooks to support this proprietary color scheme (keyed to the seasons), and, for the decade I’ve been working with her, she has been incorporating her own illustrations (of women of various complexions) into these commercial printing products to illustrate her color selection process.

Rights for Reproduction

So, back to the artificial intelligence images. My client called me asking the legal ramifications of reprinting these illustrations in her printed products, for which she will charge money.

I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, but I do have 46 years of experience in publications and custom printing. So I had some suggestions.

First of all, when I was a print book designer back in the 1980s, the government education non-profit for which I worked would publish a yearly edition of a print book addressing 10 domestic and 10 foreign policy issues. The cover of the book included four large images, reflecting the edition’s highlighted issues. In addition, an overrun of the book cover became a marketing postcard distributed across the United States to sell copies of the textbook.

This was before photo CDs and before image downloads from the internet. At the time, we made an annual trek to a “picture agency” (a physical location) and provided a list of the kinds of photos (subject matter and format) we wanted to include in these two print products.

The proprietor of the picture agency would bring us sleeves of transparencies (slides), which we would review on light boxes. These were highly intriguing, unique images. We would choose maybe 20 and return to our office, promising to send back the unused, original slides (not even copies of original slides) immediately once we had made our final four selections. The original slides they gave us were so valuable as original art that one year when I sent back multiple sleeves of original slides, I had to insure the package for an exorbitant amount, something over $200,000 as I recall, since our organization could otherwise have been liable for potential loss of the package in the UPS delivery process. Needless to say, buying images now (or the rights to reprint such images) over the internet sidesteps this problem.

Rights-Managed Imagery

Each year we had a specific license called a “rights-managed” license telling us what we could and could not do with these images (the artwork, or in this case photos: the intellectual property rather than its rendering on acetate slides).

For the photo reproduction license, we paid a different amount based on the size, placement, number of reproductions (the press runs of the print products), and physical distribution of the reprinted photos (in print books distributed throughout the United States, for instance).

Some years we bought rights to additional photos we would use within the text. (These cost less.) Cover shots (we eventually decided on four each year) cost more. The number of copies of the book (and the fact that they were for educational rather than promotional use, distributed for free with our government education experience in Washington, DC) also made a difference. I’m sure the cost would have risen had we made a profit on the print books (if they had not been supplemental to the government education seminars we provided).

Our promotional use (in addition to the educational use in the print books) also made a difference. The 60,000 copies of the cover overrun printed on a marketing postcard along with sales language cost more as well.

What we got for all this money was the following. We had explicit rights to reproduce photos from around the world that were truly unique and amazing, reportage shots from war-torn countries as well as more commonplace images for our domestic issues chapters in this print book. All of the images were of the highest quality, and they were one of a kind. That is, few if any other organizations’ print books would include images like these (and certainly not the same ones).

Royalty-Free Images

I’m sure this option was around as well, but I didn’t know about it because we already had a process. Royalty-free images, which I started to see available online in the ‘90s or on CDs including huge assortments of digital art and photos, were a lot cheaper than our rights-managed images. Unfortunately, they were also were more generic.

That said, the lower cost for the reproduction license (in some cases a subscription price to use a large number of images each month with far more latitude than with rights-managed contracts) made this ideal for certain kinds of publications. In fact, when I started my own business in 1998, I used a lot of royalty-free images in the freelance design work I was doing at the time. Everything was affordable, and, as I recall, as long as I credited the company (on the printed product) from which I had bought the rights, I could alter the image if I chose to (posterize or colorize it, for instance, but presumably alter it in other ways as well).

Back to My Client

So when my client contacted me last week about using an online AI illustration generator in her work, I went through the preceding discussion with her. I also described the concept of “derivative work,” which involves altering a photo or illustration she was buying rather than reproducing it exactly as it was originally presented.

(To put this in context, back in the 1980s and early 1990s, when we were buying rights-managed reproduction rights, we never would have thought of altering the images or using them to make a political statement or to sell anything but our specific government education print book.)

Interestingly enough, my client had spoken to her lawyer (which I thought was smart), and he had said that artificial-intelligence-created imagery (which is what she now has) cannot be copyrighted because it is not produced by humans.

I told my print brokering client that getting feedback from a lawyer was a smart move. I also said that the final arbiter would be the specific image reproduction license she had purchased, which would set forth her rights and obligations, along with the duration of the contract, how she could alter the images, etc. I presumed that anything not explicitly stated in the license would be fair game, but I also suggested that she consult her lawyer about image alteration. I also made sure she would remember to credit the agency (as noted in the license) from which she was buying online artificial-intelligence services.

The Takeaway

How does this relate to you as a designer or art director selecting photos or illustrations, presumably through some kind of online service?

  1. Read the license carefully and abide by it. Some people, for instance, without knowing they have to pay for it, link their web pages to media owned by other people and (even if it’s an accident) wind up paying hefty settlements. Avoid this.
  2. Understand the concept of “derivative work.” Only alter your images if your license (usually a royalty-free license) says you can do this.
  3. Understand the differences between a rights-managed and royalty-free license, and know when you will want to use one or the other.
  4. Understand that an image may be under copyright in one country but not another.
  5. Consider “public domain” imagery. This is imagery that has fallen out of copyright protection or has never been under copyright protection. Shakespeare’s works (granted they are not images) were created before copyright protection existed. In layman’s terms, public domain means you can use it for free and not hear from a lawyer.
  6. Ideas cannot be copyrighted, only their expression.
  7. If you’re designing for the internet, be especially conscious of your actions. I’ve heard that some copyright owners don’t accept your apologizing and then deleting their image from your website (because someone else might possibly have downloaded the image while it was on your website).
  8. When in doubt, ask a lawyer.
  9. Finally, remember that copyright is a way that other artists can ensure that their intellectual property is not stolen or used in ways they would disapprove of. So it’s not a bad thing, just one for you to understand and be mindful of.

Recent Posts


Read and subscribe to our newsletter!

Printing Services include all print categories listed below & more!
4-color Catalogs
Affordable Brochures: Pricing
Affordable Flyers
Book Binding Types and Printing Services
Book Print Services
Booklet, Catalog, Window Envelopes
Brochures: Promotional, Marketing
Bumper Stickers
Business Cards
Business Stationery and Envelopes
Catalog Printers
Cheap Brochures
Color, B&W Catalogs
Color Brochure Printers
Color Postcards
Commercial Book Printers
Commercial Catalog Printing
Custom Decals
Custom Labels
Custom Posters Printers
Custom Stickers, Product Labels
Custom T-shirt Prices
Decals, Labels, Stickers: Vinyl, Clear
Digital, On-Demand Books Prices
Digital Poster, Large Format Prints
Discount Brochures, Flyers Vendors
Envelope Printers, Manufacturers
Label, Sticker, Decal Companies
Letterhead, Stationary, Stationery
Magazine Publication Quotes
Monthly Newsletter Pricing
Newsletter, Flyer Printers
Newspaper Printing, Tabloid Printers
Online Book Price Quotes
Paperback Book Printers
Postcard Printers
Post Card Mailing Service
Postcards, Rackcards
Postcard Printers & Mailing Services
Post Card Direct Mail Service
Poster, Large Format Projects
Posters (Maps, Events, Conferences)
Print Custom TShirts
Screen Print Cards, Shirts
Shortrun Book Printers
Tabloid, Newsprint, Newspapers
T-shirts: Custom Printed Shirts
Tshirt Screen Printers
Printing Industry Exchange, LLC, P.O. Box 394, Bluffton, SC 29910
©2019 Printing Industry Exchange, LLC - All rights reserved