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Blog Articles for PrintIndustry.com

Archive for November, 2019

Custom Printing: A Box of Chocolate-Covered Strawberries

Tuesday, November 26th, 2019

One of the few benefits of having been in the hospital, aside from supportive comments like, “You’re still alive,” is the occasional gift of food. I am a creature who runs on its stomach, so I was pleased to receive a box of chocolate-covered strawberries, a sinfully delicious treat I had not heretofore sampled.

However, as a student of commercial printing I was not oblivious to both the design and the construction of the gift box. As noted in prior blog articles, I was well aware that it had to do the following:

  1. It had to hold and protect the strawberries.
  2. It had to tolerate a cold, somewhat damp refrigerator.
  3. It had to not taint the food it contained.
  4. It had to look great.

Description of the Gift Box

First of all, let me describe the box, and then I will address these goals one by one. The box seems to be made of a thick, coated-one-side cover stock, maybe 10pt in thickness. Inside it has been printed in bright red. Outside, on the coated side, it has been printed in bright red and then covered in an additional gloss coating. The cover of this (approximately 8” x 10”) presentation box opens to one side (i.e., it is not separate from the bottom of the box).

This gift box has an ingenious gusset device to allow for expansion when it is folded open and for contraction when it is folded closed. The front of the box includes the company logo on the left and a cascade of stylized white flowers on the right. These flowers even have a slight embossing effect and gloss coating, so they seem to rise off the page.

Inside, the flower motif is repeated, albeit without the gloss coating or the embossing. The edges of the box have been turned and folded over. This makes the sides of the box much thicker, lending an air of stability and substance to the chocolate strawberry packaging.

Assorted advertisements and interior packaging, plus a cover to protect the strawberries, plus the strawberries themselves (not to be forgotten) and their little paper containers (like paper cupcake holders) round out the contents of the package.

It’s impressive.

Back to the Design and Production Goals

A box is a three-dimensional item (more so than a brochure, for example). It is also a functional item. Therefore, it has physical requirements.

If it is flimsy, when you take the package out of the refrigerator a number of times (there are 12 chocolate strawberries), at some point it might collapse and dump the strawberries on the floor. This would not reflect well on the company. (After all, every printed product is an advertisement for the brand.) Therefore, the presentation box has been made for strength/durability as well as beauty. Hence, the turned edges.

Similar boxes might be made of chipboard covered with printed litho paper or even corrugated board with printed litho paper laminated to it. But in this case to save space, reduce weight, and because the strawberries are comparatively light, what looks like printed cover stock with lamination and turned edges seems to be the perfect choice for the substrate.

Now all of this has to live for a while in the refrigerator. Since they are large, I have been eating one chocolate strawberry each night. So far so good for the strength of the box. If you are a wine maker, you have the same issues with bottle labeling. The labels (and their printed ink and foil decoration) have to stay functional on cold, wet bottles presumably for an even longer time without degrading. In the case of the strawberries, keep in mind that the fruit is juicy and the chocolate is fluid enough—even straight out of the refrigerator—to cover the eater’s fingers and face. So chemical and moisture resistance is a plus.

Even more important than durability is the non-toxic nature of all of the custom printing (anywhere near the food). Everything that comes into contact with food has to be printed with food-safe inks that are acceptable to the Food and Drug Administration (and probably other legal organizations as well). The ink cannot “migrate,” or move from the packaging to the food. Hence, the little paper wells for each strawberry, and the unprinted cover sheet that keeps the strawberries secure in their little paper holders.

Finally, the whole package has to look good—upscale, sinfully delicious, awesome, like a sensuous delight. Not just the contents but the packaging as well. After all, it’s what you see first.

In the case of this package, let’s start with the color. Red, particularly the fire-engine red of this particular box, is a color of passion. Given that such a delicacy is often a shared token of love (as opposed to an “I’m glad you’re out of the hospital” gift), it is most appropriately decorated. The white (the only other color, or actually the absence of color, since all of the white is reversed out of the press sheet comprising the box) creates a dramatic contrast against the bright red. This is further enhanced by the embossing.

Why is this important? First, rule number one, as noted above. Everything is an advertisement. The beauty of the box sells it to the buyer. In my case, it also made me feel appreciated when I received the gift. It’s simple, well designed, and functional. Moreover, it contains a sensory delight—food.

What Can We Learn from This Case Study

As before, stay out of the hospital. It’s not worth it, even for chocolate-covered strawberries.

Next, start looking at packaging. Closely and carefully, as a printer and designer. I took a moment when analyzing this gift box to also check out some of my fiancee’s shoeboxes and designer shopping bags. (She collects both for our artwork with the autistic.) In all cases there was artistry, clearly applied to not only the decoration but also the structure of the bags and boxes. Some included foiling effects, embossing, different gloss and dull coatings. Some were made with corrugated board, some with chipboard, some with thick printed cover stock used in commercial printing. Many of the bags and boxes had turned edges. Some had interior linings pasted down over these turned edges (like endsheets pasted down in the front and back of a casebound print book).

An amazing amount of work has gone into these few boxes and bags in my fiancee’s and my house. You may well benefit from finding and analyzing similar packaging (and even taking it apart to see what kind of die cutting and laminating went into the final product).

We can also surmise, from the complexity of these packaging products, that it’s essential in your own print buying work to involve your commercial printing supplier early. Not every printer can do this kind of work. Do research and get referrals. Specific printers specialize in this kind of work. Make sure you like their samples and references.

When you have a handful of custom printing vendors in mind, communicate your design goals with physical samples: what you’ve collected or what your printer can show you. Don’t just send photos. After all, you have to be able to open and close a presentation box comfortably. It has to feel good in your hands. This is a physical experience. So ask for a paper dummy (an unprinted prototype of your final design) before any ink hits the paper.

Assume this will take a lot of time and cost a fair amount of money. This kind of work involves multiple finishing operations (die cutting, foiling, embossing, folding, gluing, and many more). Find out if your printer does these in house or subcontracts them. Also you may want to ask about using an existing box die (i.e., embellishing a standard box design rather than creating one from scratch). This will save you money.

Finally, as you work through the entire process, from design to manufacturing, keep your attention on what marketers call “the unboxing process.” In short, this refers to what a person feels when she/he opens the box and sees the strawberries, or anything else, nestled inside. (Think back to what it felt like as a child to receive and open a special, wrapped gift.)

Custom Printing: Functional Printing in the Hospital

Monday, November 18th, 2019

About five years ago my fiancee and I had a house fire. Being a student of printing, and initially having extra time on my hands, I noticed printing samples in all the hotels we lived in. I found printed maps on the walls, informational brochures on the hotel room tables, and pad-printed or screen printed letters and numbers on the stove and microwave.

All of this is considered “functional printing” in that the goal of the printing is utilitarian. (In contrast, you might say that book printing is informational and brochure printing is promotional in nature.)

Fast forward almost five years, and I found myself in the hospital this last week getting a total hip replacement. Again I was a captive audience with time on my hands. So I began to observe the printed products I found in my environment. And, as with the house fire, much of what I found was functional printing (which I have also heard referred to as “industrial printing”).

Samples From the Hospital

The first thing I noticed was the sign above my hospital bed. It read, “Call, Don’t Fall.” The words and surrounding triangle were printed in black ink on a yellow background, and the sign itself had been attached to the ceiling with some kind of contact adhesive.

So what can we learn from this first printed sample?

To begin with, it’s a sample of functional printing because it conveys functional information: If you need to use the bathroom, call a nurse. Don’t get out of bed yourself. You don’t want a fall to complicate matters.

What about the color, design, and placement? First of all, as a captive audience in a hospital bed, I was primarily looking up at the ceiling. So clearly there was no better place to install signage than within my immediate field of vision.

Let’s move on to the shape of the sign, a triangle. A triangle is a simple geometric shape, and the words “Call, Don’t Fall” fit nicely into the surrounding black rule line. Also, as a culture (i.e., in the USA), we have been trained through experience to associate triangular, black and yellow road signs with caution.

So the shape, color, typeface (a serious sans serif, probably Helvetica) all reinforced the (functional) message.

And the placement, which actually reminded me of the floor signage my fiancee and I had installed in movie theaters, was positioned exactly where it would be immediately visible. In a movie theater, people’s eyes are focused on the floor and walls. In a hospital bed, people’s eyes are fixed on the ceiling.

The Menu

From this week’s experience in the hospital I learned that eating is one of the few great joys of hospitalization.

The menu was typeset in a simple, sans serif font in simple columns with clearly readable food categories (headlines) and then printed in red and black.

So what can we learn? Red stands out. Like the yellow of the ceiling sign advising me not to fall, both are primary colors. They are also associated in our culture with important information. Safety and food. What else do you need?

Pad Printing and Screen Printing

I’ve been paying attention. Now that I’m back home and confined to a chair (and writing this article on a cell phone), I’m watching the word “Power” on my leg pump wear off rather quickly.

The printing on your computer keys is functional printing. So is the word “Power” on my leg pump. More importantly, all of the words printed on my life-support console in the hospital were functional printing. 

In the case of the life-support console in the hospital, I made the assumption that all printed words and letters had been added to the plastic pieces with pad printing (a flexible plastic or rubber bulb transfers the ink to the substrate) or screen printing. Perhaps in the near future digital inkjet (direct-to-shape printing) will be the technology of choice.

To get back to my leg pumps, a $60 appliance made to keep me from getting blood clots in my legs can afford to have its “Power” label rub off. In contrast, a $300,000 (life-or-death) appliance in the hospital has to have writing that stays put and doesn’t rub off with light use. (Mistakes could happen.)

So how did they do it? My educated guess would be that UV inks (which remain stable on non-porous substrates) were used, or that some kind of transparent sealant (a topcoat) covered all of the functional printing on my life-support console to provide “rub resistance.”

What We Can Learn From This Case Study

  1. Stay out of the hospital.
  2. Wherever you go, notice the presence of functional printing. You’ll see it on your car dashboard, you computer, and even your sewing machine.
  3. Notice the colors and shapes used in functional printing. Consider how these relate to the cultural associations with which you have grown up. Some colors suggest certain things. Remember that these colors may suggest different things in other cultures. (Sometimes, these meanings can even be the opposite of one’s own culture. For instance, if I understand correctly, the connotations associated with the colors black and white are the opposite in Japan and the USA.)
  4. Look at your computer keyboard. You may see the letters wearing off. Or, you may see a protective coating. When you look at other samples of functional printing, look for protective coatings the manufacturer has used to coat the printed type and improve rub resistance.
  5. Do some research on pad printing, screen printing, and direct-to-shape inkjet printing to better understand the present (and probable future) technologies of functional printing.

Commercial Printing: Creating a Design Grid

Sunday, November 10th, 2019

If you’re a designer, with a blank page-spread on the computer in front of you, how do you start your design? Perhaps you have photographs, some captions, a pull quote, and several paragraphs of text you want to organize and present to the reader as an advertisement. How do you put all of these elements together in such a way that your reader will “get” your most important point, then move on to your subsequent points?

The same question arises if you are designing a multi-page document, perhaps a print book or a furniture catalog (IKEA, for instance, has to do this very thing, and make it understandable, interesting, and consistent with their brand image).

After all, if you do not give your reader a “road map,” a set of directions regarding how to proceed through the material on the printed page, he or she will get frustrated. And a frustrated reader stops reading.

The Building Blocks of Design and Their Purpose

A few elements of design (for commercial printing or the Internet) that come to mind for me are the following: color, typefaces, treatment of photos, and—in some ways more importantly—the design grid.

Why is the design grid so important, and what exactly is it?

Think of a design grid like a structure of girders on which you build a building, or a wire armature around which you apply clay when making a sculpture, or even just the scaffolding built to paint or repair the interior or exterior of a building.

In all of these cases, the structure gives form and sturdiness to the building or sculpture. It is also like a skeleton, which gives sturdiness and form to a human or (other) animal body, while at the same time providing flexibility. Having a spine also allows you to bend and twist.

Using a design grid shows you where and how to position headlines, photos, color blocks, sidebars, or pull-quotes, on a page spread of the print book or on a single-page advertisement. Moreover, it does this by setting up expectations in a reader. The reader knows, for instance, that there will be one, two, or three columns of type on a print book page (twice as many on a double-page spread). Images will fit in these spaces or bleed off the edge of the paper. Headlines may be placed at the top of the page, and running headers along with filios (page numbers) may be at the top of each page with an underline, a half-point rule that bleeds into the gutter.

Consistency makes design elements on individual print book pages (as well as successive groups of print book pages) feel unified. Unity is a prime principle of both fine art and graphic art because it focuses the reader or viewer on the levels of importance among visual elements and on how they are interrelated.

Creating the Design Grid

When I started in graphic design more than 40 years ago, the initial step in creating a design grid, which I am about to teach you, had to be done on paper. We did not have computers, so I would first draw the outline of a page (let’s say 8.5” x 11”). Then I would add margins (let’s say 1” all the way around—top, bottom and sides). Then I might break the central column that remains (everything but the empty margin space) into two or three columns with gutters between them.

When I laid out two pages side by side (a page spread), I would have double the number of columns.

This is exactly what I would do when laying out a small community newspaper I produced in the early 1980s. Now you can do the same thing on your computer in your design program (such as InDesign) using colored guide lines that you can pull down out of the rulers on the page you’re designing. You can also set the number of columns and the space between columns on the computer.

But one thing I would strongly encourage you to do is to design two pages at a time (a spread). Why? Because the reader of a multi-page print book (this doesn’t apply to a single-page ad) always sees two pages side by side. So it behooves you to design multi-page commercial printing projects this way.

The Newspaper Grid I Used

When I laid out each issue of the community newspaper back in the early 1980s, I already had some fixed parameters. (In fact, I also had a stack of blank grid sheets ruled out with margins, columns, and gutters between columns). The type sizes and typefaces had already been determined for the body copy, headlines, subheads, etc. And the paper choice and color choices had also been determined. So I had fewer variables to concern myself with: mostly related to the use of (rather than the creation of) the design grid.

If I recall correctly, I had five narrow columns on the left-hand page and five on the right-hand page. Since the readers’ eyes went first to the outside edges of each two-page spread when she/he turned the page, I had to position the advertisements toward the outside. They were one, two, or five columns wide, and I built them upward (large to small) from the bottom to the outside edges, leaving a “well” in the center of the two-page spread into which I could place the headlines, pull-quotes, and single columns of editorial copy. Because all pages matched this general rule, the reader always knew where to look for both ads and editorial material. There was no confusion, and this regularity and lack of confusion put the reader at ease. (Here’s a summary of these rules of thumb: minimize variables, maintain consistency, set up reader expectations and keep to them—all to make reading easier.)

On the front of the newspaper I could be more creative. I could add a large photo. Perhaps I might bleed the photo off the page (or even tilt it). I could turn a short headline (only a few words) on its side and use it to take up one whole column (out of the five on the cover page). I could extend a headline over one, two, three, or more columns, depending on where the columns of editorial type associated with the headline were positioned.

With all of this I had a lot of options and could offer a lot of visual variety. However, at the same time everything looked like it had been designed by one person. Things were not jumbled around on the page. Each design element aligned with something else. So what the design grid really did for me was to simplify all of my design options while providing the reader with consistency and ease of reading.

Since my time at the newspaper I have had about 40 years of experience designing everything from large-format graphics to print books, from brochures to advertisements. All of these have been based on some form of this initial grid concept. It has made my life considerably easier because I haven’t needed to make up new design rules for each page spread.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

What I would suggest for you, if you’re a designer, is to use Google Search to find examples of design grids (one-, two-, three-, and five-column grids). Look for both the ruled-out design grids without headlines and photos and the very same grids with the design elements included.

Notice how all of the primary visual elements (photos, headlines, etc.) seem to nestle into a corner of one of the columns or extend across multiple columns or all of the columns. They don’t just float in the columns; they are anchored in some way. And each element is aligned in some way with other elements on the page (the fewer “axis lines” or “lines of alignment,” the stronger the structure).

There is no better way to learn this than by finding visual examples (printed and on the Internet) of multiple-column design grids and their uses in commercial printing. Learn from the masters of graphic design. Also, if you get a promotional piece in the mail and you like it, deconstruct the grid. Draw it out right on the brochure, noting the columns of type, the margins, the gutter between columns. Be able to articulate exactly how the designer has made her/his choices in positioning all elements of the design. This is exactly how I learned. Eventually it became second nature.

Custom Printing: Fooling the Eye with Cover Coatings

Sunday, November 3rd, 2019

A lot of good things in life involve fooling the eye. It’s what magicians do. Once you know the trick, it’s no longer magic. But once you know the secret, perhaps you appreciate something larger, such as the skill of the magician and the limits of human perception.

In this vein, I was recently pleased and surprised by a print book my fiancee found when we were thrift-store shopping, our favorite passtime.

Selp Helf (that’s not a typo) by Miranda Sings, a comedian with a penchant for original spelling rules, has an intriguing book cover dust jacket. The title is printed in what looks like black magic marker. I wouldn’t call the font a typeface; it’s more of a hand-scrawled title.

What makes the print book cover unique is that the hand-printed title appears to be actually written on two strips of masking tape. When you run your finger across the two strips, the texture confirms it. There’s the roughness you’re familiar with. In fact, at a couple of points around the edges, the tape feels like its bunched up. You even automatically try to work a fingernail under the tape.

To complete the mental picture as you visualize this cover, Miranda Sings’ byline is set in Courier (typewriter type), and a photo of this comedian is on the right, bleeding off the cover and looking up and back at the print book title on the masking tape.

What’s the Magic?

The fine arts term that pertains to this book cover is “trompe l’oeil.” It is French for “fool the eye.” Wikipedia defines the term as follows:

“Trompe-l’œil is an art technique that uses realistic imagery to create the optical illusion that the depicted objects exist in three dimensions.”

You may have seen paintings in galleries in which the subject matter (often flat images of postcards and similar small objects attached to a flat surface like a bulletin board) looks absolutely real (unlike, perhaps, a painting of a landscape). The tromp l’oeil painting looks so real that you want to touch it.

Miranda Sings goes one step further. (You could say she takes the leap from painting–analogous to the print book cover–to sculpture, because once you touch the faux masking tape, your brain registers the texture as “real” as well as the appearance. Therein lies the magic.

Moreover, using the tools and techniques of commercial printing to achieve this visual and tactile result showcases one of the benefits of physical printing over the Internet. Images on the Internet (or even images created with computer virtual reality) can be immersive. They can envelop you and transport you to another realm that “feels” real, but this magical achievement does not involve the sense of touch (at least it doesn’t do this yet). A print book is a physical experience. The Internet and any other virtual (computer-generated) experience is not.

How Did They Create the Magic?

Commercial printing uses a set of tools and techniques (building blocks, if you will) to elicit a mental and tactile response. In this particular case, three of the tools are low-relief embossing, the introduction of hand-drawn images (the print book title) into the computer workflow with a scanner, and the art of contrasting different cover coatings against one another.

You could go even further, and you could say that the chemistry of cover coatings (many of them UV coatings; some based on varnish) is another magical tool. This is particularly true these days, since numerous kinds of textured UV coatings have been developed in recent years.

To begin with the embossing, you can see how the technique was done by removing the dust jacket. (Again, remember that the cover I mentioned really is the dust jacket. The book itself is case bound. The actual cover is made of red paper and cloth and only has printing on the spine.)

When you remove the dust jacket and look at the back of the press sheet under a good light, you see (and can feel) an ever so slightly formed embossing that includes the bumps along the edge that my finger had perceived as the edges of absolutely real masking tape. For me, what makes this so intriguing is how slight the embossing is. It feels only as thick as masking tape. Other embossing and debossing I have seen has been much deeper. The artistic term for this is “bas relief.” It means “low relief.” It’s not a new concept, but it has been especially well done (i.e., supremely effective) on this dust jacket.

Let’s move on to the hand lettering. While it is possible that there is a hand-drawn font that looks like magic marker scratchings (with multiple overlapping lines made to look thicker), to me it looks more like someone drew the title on paper and then scanned it and placed it in the InDesign art file.

Interestingly enough, when you look closely with a 12-power printer’s loupe you can see that all four printing inks have been used to create a bold, heavy black ink. (The printer’s term is “rich black,” and it is composed of various percentages of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black.) What you see when you look closely with a loupe is halftone dots of all these colors laid over over one another at slightly different angles.

Finally, the designer knew how to use cover coatings. These are the chemicals applied to the press sheet (usually) after the printing ink. To help you visualize this, the commercial printing paper itself is often porous. Therefore, it is often topcoated with a dull or gloss coating. The printing press deposits ink on this coated surface, and the inks stay put. Because of the coating, the inks are less likely to seep into the porous paper fibers on the base custom printing sheet.

In contrast, the cover coatings I speak relative to the faux masking tape on the book cover dust jacket are applied after the ink has been deposited on the press sheet. These can include UV coatings (gloss and dull), aqueous coatings (dull, gloss, and satin), film and liquid laminates (dull and gloss), and varnish (and, again, they are applied over the printed sheet). That said, they can be “flood” coats, in which case they cover the entire press sheet (or in this case the entire dust jacket). Or they can be “spot” applications placed only in specific locations. What makes this magical is that you can cover one area with a spot gloss coating (in the case of this dust jacket it would be everything but the masking tape) and another area with a dull coating (in this case the masking tape itself). The contrast between the two then creates the perception of the masking tape.

Now to expand upon the various options contemporary designers have at their disposal, print book cover coatings have multiplied significantly in the past seven to ten years. You now have a lot more options than just dull and gloss. (And many of these are related to UV–or Ultraviolet–inks, which are cured or dried with UV light.)

Some of these coatings have a rubbery feel that seems to grab your fingers. In fact, I once received a print book of sample cover coatings from a paper manufacturer that showcased an image of a spider. On the hairy underbelly of the spider the printer had applied just such a rubbery coating. Other parts of the spider were gloss or dull coated. Touching the belly of the spider was unsettling, to say the least.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Printing is a physical medium. Think about what this means (compare physical printing to computer-based, or Internet-based, experiences), and then use the differences to your advantage. Capitalizing on the physical attributes of commercial printing makes holding and reading a print book a unique experience. In fact, in recent years it has become an increasingly tactile experience. If you’re designing books, it behooves you to learn about and then exploit these differences.
  2. Call your printer or paper merchant and ask for a few paper sample books showcasing the effects that can be achieved with different cover coatings. This will help you in two ways. It will open your mind to the multitude of effects, and it will make it easier to communicate your goals to your book printer or commercial printing vendor. You may even find some of these books on sale (or for free) online if you look for paper merchants.
  3. Ask your printer about the following: textured UV coatings and reticulation varnish. I mention this because the most dramatic effects I’ve seen have been crafted with UV coatings. I also mention reticulation varnish because it’s a unique effect (similar to seeing water droplets bead up on the surface of your car after a rainstorm). It’s not for every occasion, but it’s worth exploring. (You may also want to Google reticulation varnish online for an explanation of the chemistry behind this process.)
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