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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Archive for March, 2020

Book Printing: Everything Is Connected to Book Length

Monday, March 30th, 2020

A print brokering client of mine (a husband and wife publishing team) has a perfect-bound print book going to press in a week. As initially bid, the book was 80 pages in length, 1500 copies, produced on 60# antique eggshell text stock with a 12pt. cover, 5.75” x 8.5” in format with French flaps, hinge score, luxury matte film laminate, and deckled edges on the text pages. It is one of a series of books with these very specific qualities, aimed at a market that appreciates the tactile qualities of print books.

A few days before the file upload date I found out that the actual book length was less than expected: 62 pages rather than 80. Of course, since the print run length will be 1500 copies (i.e., offset lithographic printing rather than digital printing), I knew this page count would need to rise to 64 pages to be a complete press signature. So I revised the specs and sent them back to the book printer for repricing.

However, it didn’t end there because in book printing, everything is connected.

Considerations (The Number of Signatures)

On the side of economics, the book will be shorter, so it will cost less to print. Specifically, here’s why. At 80 pages, the print book would have been three signatures (presumably), since this printer likes to work in 48- and 24-page press signatures, so the book would have included a 48-page signature, a 24-page signature, and an 8-page signature (i.e., for this particular book printer, it is apparently cheaper to break down the book like this—as opposed to breaking it into 32-page signatures).

But once you reduce the page count to 64 pages, presumably the signature count will now be two signatures rather than three (probably a 48-page signature and a 16-page signature, and for this particular printer the 16-page signature may be more expensive to print because it doesn’t fit the ideal scenario for the print shop—i.e., it may require a bit more work).

Why does all of this matter? It makes my head spin.

The short answer is that two press runs will be cheaper than three. So my client (the husband and wife publishing team) will pay less overall, even if the 16-page signature production will not be as efficient as the 48-page signature. But to be sure, we’ll have to wait for the revised estimate.

Considerations (Design Issues)

As noted above, all of this client’s print books follow the same format to support their brand. That is, the cover art may change, but the size, French flaps, luxury matte film coating, and deckled edges identify all books as originating with this publisher. Subconsciously, clients can tell.

That said, a 64-page print book is much thinner than an 80-page book, so the spine will not have room for text that is of a readable size. In fact, in many cases a book designer would produce this title as a saddle-stitched book rather than a perfect-bound book (i.e., with no spine). But this would make the book not match its peers from this publishing house.

In addition, for such a thin book, the 12pt. cover and the French flaps folding back under the front and back covers will make the cover feel more substantial than the text block (presumably). In fact, in other cases I might even suggest to the client that she/he request a paper dummy (unprinted book sample made with the chosen cover and text paper). But in this case, this publishing team has a consistent brand look to uphold by using their standard paper stock and cover format.

Now what I did do is provide options. I did ask whether my clients wanted to keep or forego the French flaps (to make the covers less substantial) and move the cover stock from 12pt. to 10pt. (the next lower paper thickness I would suggest), and as expected they said no.

Considerations (Art File Preparation Issues)

Since the print book will be going to press in a few days and the text of the book has already been laid out and finalized, one key art production task will be to create the cover file. The cover designer (a different person than the text designer) will need to create one flat piece of art in Photoshop that has a (reading from left to right) back cover, spine, and front cover (the interior covers, front and back, do not print in this case). Again, this has to be of one piece, and the spine in particular has to be the correct width, or the printed back, spine, and front of the cover will not fit correctly on the text block. (In fact, if the book were long enough to have a spine with the title on it, the title might not be centered on the spine if the spine were not of the correct width.)

So how do you determine the spine width?

The printer does this, based on the page count (64 pages) and the specific text stock (60# antique eggshell), which in this case has a caliper of 420 pages per inch. (My math says this yields a spine width of .15”, but I always have the printer do the math and actually give me this number to ensure accuracy.)

With this in mind the cover designer can create a Photoshop file with a 5.75” x 8.5” back cover, .15” spine, and 5.75” x 8.5” front cover stitched together, and with 1/8” of bleed past the trim edge for any art that bleeds off the page.

For those who are wondering, the 5.75” measure (rather than 5.5”) allows the cover to extend slightly over the deckled edge of the text pages.

What We Can Learn from This Case Study

First and foremost, remember that everything in book printing is connected. Even a change in the page count can affect not only the text but also the cover, any space you need on the spine for a title, the feel of the weight and size of the cover relative to the text block, and on and on.

Second, always ask for a cover template when you’re preparing the cover art. This will show you exactly what the book printer will need in the art file to ensure that the cover fits the text block accurately.

Third (and this does not apply to my clients because they want the same production specifications for all of their books), consider requesting a paper dummy of your book before you actually print it. How everything will look and feel (from the weight of the cover stock to the bright white or cream tint of the text) will be evident, so there will be no surprises when your printed job arrives.

Custom Printing: A Few Random Thoughts on Halftones

Tuesday, March 24th, 2020

With the Coronavirus threat upon us, I have had extra time recently, so I have taken this time to brush up on my knowledge of commercial printing. I thought I’d start by reviewing my textbooks on color prepress and custom printing.

In this light, I chose the subject of halftones. I thought my findings might be of interest to you.

Why Use Halftones?

Offset printing is a binary process. Either you print ink in a particular place on your press sheet, or you print nothing. You can’t print a continuous tone image (either color or black and white) where black tones transition into gray tones and finally into white.

So how do you get images to look right on a commercial printing press?

Long before computer prepress and scanning devices existed, it was discovered that if you photographed a continuous tone photo through a glass sheet covered with a matrix of “cells” (like small, separate windows), this process would yield an image composed of dots. Depending on the lightness or darkness of the area represented, you could have a light area comprising many small dots or a dark area comprising many large dots.

Due to the regular position of the little “windows” on the halftone screen (the same number of lines of halftone dots, all lined up across and up and down on the screen), there was a constant and finite number of halftone dots. They were just larger or smaller in size, depending on whether they were in dark or light areas.

The number of halftone dots per linear inch was called the screen ruling. For reproducing images on thin, porous paper like newsprint, commercial printing suppliers would use coarse screens (85 lines per inch, for example). For coated paper, printers would use 133lpi or 150lpi screens (or even much higher rulings).

As the printing and prepress processes were computerized in the ’80s and ’90s, all of the above information pretty much continued to be true (albeit on a digital rather than analog level).

On the plus side, the human eye is very forgiving, and from a normal reading distance, the dots in the finer halftone screens (133lpi or 150lpi) cannot be seen easily, whereas the dots of the coarser halftone screens (85lpi) printed in newspapers are usually visible. Unfortunately, trying to print finer line screens on newsprint yields muddy images, since the absorbent nature of newsprint makes the halftone dots spread. Ink goes into the paper fibers and travels. Images look horrible. So you really do need the coarse (lower-number) halftone screens for cheaper paper.

Fortunately, coated printing paper allows the ink to dry on the surface of the press sheet (rather than seeping into the paper fibers), so the halftone dots can be smaller without spreading (they’re called “hard halftone dots”). But these harder-surfaced, coated press sheets are more expensive than lower-grade papers like newsprint, so high quality photos, in which you can barely see (or not see at all) the halftone dots, usually wind up in higher-end publications.

To keep you apprised of the printer’s lingo, this growth of printing dots is called “dot gain.” One way commercial printing vendors compensate for this is to print less ink by intentionally lightening the halftone screens (by slightly reducing the halftone dot sizes) so the printed output will be correct after the inevitable dot gain.

What About Color Images?

Back in the day, printers separated 4-color images into four distinct negatives, one for each of the commercial printing process colors: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. Then the printers produced printing plates from these negatives. All of this was an analog, photographic process. Now, all of this is achieved digitally with scanners and computers, but the concept is the same. An image is scanned and then separated into the four process colors. These are then printed not to film but directly to custom printing plates, one for each color.

But here’s the trick. Each of these four separated images really is just one halftone, just like the halftone described above that is used for black and white images. The difference is that the four halftones for color printing are rotated at slightly different angles to one another. For example, one option is 15 degrees (cyan), 45 degrees (black), 75 degrees (magenta), and 90 degrees (yellow). Yellow dots are less visible, so they can be set closer to the angles of the other screens (15 degrees in this case). The best angle for viewing is 45 degrees (so it’s used here for the black plate).

Because of this distribution of the four halftone angles (just the halftone angles, not the printing plates themselves), once the image is printed, you will see a circular “rosette” pattern in the images if you use a 12-power printer’s loupe to magnify areas of the photos. These rosettes are the visual indication that the halftone screens have been rotated. And they appear larger or smaller depending on the size of the halftone dots in a particular area.

Another way to say this is that the rosettes are more visible in areas printed with more ink (dark areas) and less visible in areas that take less ink (lighter areas).

Dot Shape

These halftone dots can be a number of shapes, including round, square, and elliptical. Round dots are the norm (from very small to very large depending on the density of ink in a particular area). Elliptical dots, on the other hand, are very good for skin tones because as they grow in size (from small at the quarter-tones to larger at the three-quarter tones), the longer dimensions of the elliptical dots eventually touch each other, and this makes for smoother gradations in flesh tones.

(Square dots are good for detail work with lots of straight lines and angles.)

I’ll say this again because it’s very complex. But the overall concept is what’s important. The way elliptical dots touch at the long ends as they get larger (to allow for increased ink distribution) makes for smoother transitions in the tones of a human face. If you’re printing high-end glamour photos for Chanel, this is useful information indeed.

Amplitude-Modulated vs. Frequency-Modulated Screening

All of what I have been explaining is called “amplitude-modulated screening.” This just means the dots are all on a fixed grid (i.e., the same number of rows and columns of halftone dots in a 150lpi screen, for instance). They are just larger or smaller depending on the ink density.

In contrast, you can now use “frequency-modulated screening” or even a hybrid that blends both AM and FM screening. Frequency-modulated halftone screens are made up of equal-sized dots (minuscule ones). They’re all the same size, but where there’s a lot of color, there are a lot of small dots.

If you look closely at the output of an inkjet printer, you’ll see exactly this kind of pattern. In contrast, if you look at the output of a laser printer, you’ll see some version of amplitude-modulated halftone screening. Laser printers may not use the exact same screening angles as used for offset commercial printing. They may not even produce the same rosette patterns. But they are based on similar mathematical algorithms as those used for offset printing.

TAC, UCR, and GCR

First, here’s the wording referenced by the acronyms above:

TAC=Total Area Coverage
UCR=Undercolor Removal
GCR=Grey Component Replacement

TAC means total area coverage. If you print 100 percent coverage of all four colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) in one place on a press sheet (a high-density neutral area of a photograph), you could conceivably be printing 400 percent (100 percent x 4 colors) total ink coverage. Unfortunately, too much ink makes the offset lithographic process break down, and the paper also can’t handle that much ink (it gets too wet and comes apart). The ideal overall target might be 270 percent to 300 percent for all four colors, depending on your printer, the press, the paper, etc.

UCR means Undercolor Removal. This and GCR or Grey Component Replacement are ways to replace the cyan, magenta, and yellow in a photographic image with black. When you do this successfully, you achieve two things:

  1. You can use less ink. This reduces materials costs and ensures that there’s never too much ink anywhere on a press sheet (see above for the results of printing too much ink).
  2. When you create neutrals, or even gray areas, with cyan, magenta, and yellow, any misregister of the printing plates will cause color shifts and color casts. Replacing some of these hues with a percentage of black will minimize these color shifts significantly.

What You Can Learn From All of This

If your head hurts from all of this information, I apologize. That said, it doesn’t hurt to begin to understand the nuances of prepress and presswork. It will help you understand why you prepare design files for press the way you do. It will also help you make good choices regarding printing paper.

There are a lot of good textbooks out there that describe these technologies and their challenges. However, it’s even easier to find little booklets produced by custom printing suppliers and paper companies that give you this information in a condensed form (only what you need). The more you know, the better able you will be to discuss your commercial printing needs with both your sales rep and the pressmen actually printing your job.

Commercial Printing: Package Printing for Vegetables

Monday, March 16th, 2020

Everywhere I look now I see articles about how digital custom printing benefits the package production market. Moreover, this seems to be a two-way street, with the approach of a business to packaging and distribution changing and growing in response to advances in digital commercial printing.

More specifically, I read an article this week about corrugated packaging for vegetable boxes. The title of the article was “Keeping Packaging Fresh for Veg Boxes.” It was written by Cristobal Macedo of HP (Hewlett-Packard) and published online in Packaging News on November 7, 2018. The article focused on a new breed of consumer, the “locavore,” who prefers to buy locally sourced foods. The article refers to them as “ideological consumers who prefer to buy foods farmed in their region” (“Keeping Packaging Fresh for Veg Boxes”). So, as I understand it, the term seems to pertain more to supporting local vendors than to buying fresher produce (although both may be true).

The article goes on to say that online vendors are offering seasonal fruit and vegetable boxes as well as eggs, cheese, meat, and other foods, and that this creates the need for corrugated (and other) packaging. Moreover, it also creates the opportunity for marketers to directly communicate with consumers in bi-directional ways using commercial printing as the initiating medium.

In addition, the success of the online sale of locally sourced food, and the interactive marketing it has spawned, has further increased demand by locavores, and the number of local food vendors has grown. Furthermore, their entry into the locavore market has increased the demand for digitally printed packaging.

The Perfect Storm

What makes this marriage of locally sourced food and digital package printing so successful is the variable nature of digital commercial printing, the ability to economically produce short print runs of corrugated food packages, and the availability of food-safe inks that do not migrate into, and therefore do not contaminate, the food.

Regarding the issue of press run length, for analog printing to be a competitive technology, food vendors would need to produce much longer runs of their packaging jobs. There would be issues of storage, waste, and possible obsolescence of packaging. Printing on corrugated board via offset lithography would not be an option, since the pressure of the press rollers would crush the fluting in the corrugated board. Therefore, low-pressure options such as flexography (a relief custom printing process using rubber plates) would be the technology of choice. This would allow for direct printing on the corrugated board, but it would yield lower quality results than offset printing, so (presumably) the creative packaging design would need to be simpler. Or, if the press run were very long, the printer could offset print the marketing artwork for the corrugated boxes onto liner paper that would be laminated to the fluting, and then the flat box material could be converted into corrugated cartons.

But all this would only be good for long press runs.

In contrast, digital printing allows for the spraying of non-toxic printing inks directly onto the fluted corrugated board of the cartons, with the print heads never directly contacting the substrate. Therefore, nothing can crush the box material. Moreover, the high quality of the technology will allow for much greater detail (both higher resolution and a wider color gamut than the other commercial printing options), all while allowing for economical, short press runs.

In addition, all of this can be done quickly, with an infinite varying of the creative marketing message on each fruit or vegetable box or with short, versioned press runs that allow for seasonal marketing (maybe a special press run for fresh peaches during a limited period) or localized marketing (maybe a special press run of boxes aimed at a small geographical location).

At it’s most granular level, this can even allow farmers to communicate directly (through their package messaging) with individual customers or at least small groups of customers. Such messaging can therefore be more personal and targeted to the customer’s interests, and this can open up a dialog between the food producers and the food consumers.

Such a dialog can then be enhanced through the pairing of online messaging with the printed package. A customer can initiate the purchase online through a web-based store; the fruits and vegetables can be packaged in boxes decorated with digital printing; and when the boxes arrive at the customer’s door, specific messaging on the corrugated cartons can direct the customer back to the Internet to further the conversation with the local food vendors. (This messaging may include nutritional information, cooking recipes, and information about the farm and the farming practices.)

In addition, digital printing offers a functional tracking benefit. Since each corrugated box can be different, identifying codes can be added to track the growing and shipping of all food products.

Macedo’s article in Packaging News, “Keeping Packaging Fresh for Veg Boxes,” refers to the “unboxing experience,” noting that receiving the package, reading all of the printed messaging, and absorbing the overall “look” of the brand allow for an intimate point of connection between the farmer and the customer, particularly since the customer can personalize the boxes when she or he orders the food online. In addition, the farmers can enhance the experience by varying the packaging. Therefore, the customer can be continually intrigued by new and different packaging each time she or he orders.

The Farmers

“Keeping Packaging Fresh for Veg Boxes” goes on to describe some of the food producers who have benefited from digital printing technology.

The first case study involves an egg vendor in the Czech Republic, Golden Egg. Macedo’s article notes that the commercial printing quality available through digital inkjet allows for superior graphics, which can be varied to show the region where each batch of eggs originated. This visual, as well as written, sourcing information can enhance both the knowledge and the confidence of egg buyers.

The second case study involves Vignola, an Italian fruit consortium. Using digital printing paired with QR Codes, the vendor produces individual fruit boxes that can send the customer (via the Internet) to information on the grower, the date of the food production, etc.

A third case study involves Yamo Foods in Germany. This vendor prints corrugated packaging (through Thimm Group) that is food safe (due to the nature of the digital printing inks). Buy beyond this, Yamo can provide “tamper-proof boxes with a printed safety strip” (“Keeping Packaging Fresh for Veg Boxes”). This not only provides secure packaging throughout the process but also enhances the customer’s level of comfort in the reliability and safety of the food product.

What You Can Learn from This Article

There are a number of elements in Macedo’s article that interest me and that might interest you as well, if you design printed products or sell custom printing:

  1. The concept of the “locavore” is supported by the flexibility and personalization capabilities of digital commercial printing. Just as the nature of the locavore creates the demand for digital printing, the capabilities of digital printing also foster the growth and multiplication of small farmers through variable-data printing and online communication. Each fosters the growth of the other.
  2. Printed marketing materials and Internet communication also have a mutually supportive effect. Used together, they are more effective than either used alone.
  3. All of this consumer demand bodes well for growth in digital printing: including the quality, cost, and flexibility of the technology, as well as the growth of post-press finishing operations (and other elements beyond the printing component).
  4. All of this also bodes well for printing in general, digital printing specifically, and both copywriting and package design.

Book Printing: Thinking Outside the Box

Monday, March 9th, 2020

In my recent print brokering work, I have worked with two clients whose print books have lent themselves to various optional presentations to save money. The thing to keep in mind when designing a book is that book printing is actually a physical manufacturing process. We forget this. We often think of a book as an intellectual or artistic product, something more than an “object.” However, if you approach it as a physical product made from various kinds and thicknesses of paper that has to weigh a certain amount and open and close, and if you take into account the fact that different printers can do different things well and economically, then book printing becomes a puzzle of sorts, a challenge.

The First Book

The first book, from the first client, is a 5.5” x 8.5” perfect bound print book (with a press run of 50 or 100 copies; i.e., short enough to be a digital print job). Unlike most perfect bound books, it has an additional dust jacket. Usually, dust jackets are reserved for case bound books. Like a case-bound book, my client has designed a very simple outer perfect-bound book cover with just the book title in black.

To the unaided eye, it looks like someone has just not yet affixed the cover (i.e., the accompanying dust jacket) over the book block (the text plus the existing book cover with only the title printed on it). How do I know this? Because my client sent me a photo of the perfect-bound book and the accompanying dust jacket. Take this as an object lesson for your own print buying work. Nothing conveys the goals of a print book designer as well as a photo or a physical copy of the book.

Once I understood my client’s desires, I didn’t question them. I assumed this treatment was what he was accustomed to from other countries (other countries often have different approaches; for instance, French flaps seem to be more European in design than American). So I sent out bid requests to four printers, “as is,” with no changes in the specs.

I have now received three of four bids. The printers changed some of the specs (offering what they could produce with their equipment or what they would suggest as an alternative approach to my client’s specs):

  1. Two printers bid the book as is (perfect bound with an additional dust jacket). They may or may not have thought this was an unusual format. (Usually you would produce a perfect bound book with or without French flaps, or you would produce a case bound book.)
  2. One printer could only produce the book digitally (no offset print runs under 1,000 copies). He would have limited options for digital printing. They would include a paper-covered case-bound book (as opposed to a fabric-covered case-bound book), made with limited options for the paper cover. This could then be wrapped with a 4-color dust jacket printed on laminated, enamel text stock. Based on the economics of scale, this printer would probably provide an extremely low price for such a printed product. Keeping options to a minimum insured the printer’s buying a limited number of supplies in bulk, rather than a lot of different supplies for higher prices. The only reason I asked this printer to essentially bid on a different product than my client had specified was the following. My client had mentioned three times that his budget was tight. That is, maybe he would be open to alternate ways of doing things to save money (such as a simple case-bound book).
  3. The fourth printer bid the book as a case-bound book without asking me about changing the requested bindery method. Again, I didn’t mind. Options might yield lower pricing. That said, when I received the price I asked the sales rep about options, and she suggested a perfect-bound option with French flaps. The book would have the look of a case-bound book. It would have three-inch fold-in flaps on which the author could put explanatory and marketing information. But this cover would replace the separate dust jacket, and the 65# cover my client wanted with the book title in black would then become the title page of the print book. The sales rep said this would cost less than the case-bound version (at this point her bid was the low bid, so I was hopeful that once she rebid the project, her bid would be wonderfully low. We’ll see what happens).

To complicate matters, my client had noted that he had solicited pricing from China. The unit cost was great: $8.50 per book. However, the shipping cost had made the total cost prohibitive. Hence, he had come to me.

Now what makes all of this interesting is that the low bid vendor’s price (with the French flaps, which as noted would already cost less than a case-bound volume) was only about $17.00 per book, with money included for both potential overs and estimated freight. And this price would most likely come down as the printer rebid the job as a perfect-bound book with French flaps rather than a case-bound book with an additional dust jacket.

You could say that almost double the initial cost is bad. But we don’t know that yet. (I haven’t received the revised bid yet, or my client’s projected freight cost from China.) All we know is that the manufacturing cost for the book through the Chinese vendor is half that of the US vendors.

The total cost all depends on what my client’s Chinese vendor would charge over and above the $8.50 per unit manufacturing cost to account for shipping. Moreover, this particular low-bid US vendor could potentially omit the French flaps and bring down the price even further, depending on what my client wants to do (and what he wants to pay). And he may like the comfort level of not printing as far away as China.

What We Can Learn from This Case Study

Think about these things for your own commercial printing work:

  1. Don’t necessarily be wedded to a particular print book style or format. Discuss the look and feel you want (early) with your print provider, but listen to his suggestions.
  2. Get multiple bids. Keep in mind that some printers will have all equipment in house (like my low-bid vendor). This drives down the price and often increases the number of options he can provide (again, my low-bid vendor can do remarkable things with low-run work—50 copies–for a great price).
  3. Use physical samples and photographs to communicate your needs and desires, not just lists of specifications.

The Second Book

Think of the second book as an unbound book comprising 68 pages. It is from my “fashionista” client who usually produces small color-swatch books of hues used to help women choose clothing and make-up based on their complexions.

This particular print book is a second product based on the same color samples and color theory. It contains 66 pages (33 cards), each with a different color on each side and a semi-circular cut-out for the user’s chin (plus a two-sided instruction sheet). You hold the color up to your chin and see whether it works with your complexion.

My client had a prototype made on 14 pt stock, laminated both sides, just to see how it would “look and feel.” After all, it had to feel substantial enough because she planned to charge a lot for her set of color chin cards. They would have to be firm and hold up to heavy use (hence the lamination).

She received the prototype this week and loved the colors but thought the 8.5” x 11” cards were a bit flimsy. She asked about printing on paper thicker than 14pt. So I approached the sales rep.

The commercial printing sales rep said the digital press (again the equipment at this particular printer, as opposed to at all possible printers) would accept nothing heavier than 14pt stock.

Moreover, he suggested increasing the thickness of the lamination to solve the problem. He had priced the job with 1.5mil laminate on both sides, but he could provide 3, 5, or 10mil as well.

So I have something to bring back to my client, to see how she wants to proceed.

What We Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Think outside the box. What my client was really saying was that she wanted a thicker product (overall, not necessarily thicker paper). After all, think about how bulky menus can be. That’s not just the paper thickness; it’s the thickness of the lamination.
  2. Be aware that digital presses have more limitations than offset presses. Some can only handle thinner paper. Moving the job (in my client’s case a 50-copy set vs. a 100-copy set of the 68 pages, or 34 cards) to an offset press would have driven up the price significantly. Adding a thicker laminate, on the other hand, solved the problem through creative thinking and an open mind.

So the take-away is as follows: Look to the book printer for his expertise and creative thinking. Be flexible, and you might wind up happier with the printer’s advice than you would have been with your own initial plan. And you might wind up saving money, too.

Custom Printing: Thoughts on Designing with Photos

Monday, March 2nd, 2020

I was reminded this week while teaching an art therapy class that the principles of design are the same for fine arts and graphic design. We were making clocks by building up paper collages over Nordstrom shoe boxes with clock motors attached to the box tops.

As source material for the collages, my fiancee had collected and silhouetted photos of the autistic members, and had also collected large sepia images from an oversized Italian fashion magazine as well as color photos and drawings from an advertising promotion print book.

What started as a fine arts project began to gradually expand into a graphic design project, as the autistic members and their parents and aides wrapped the images around the boxes, in various sizes, at various angles, and with various photo croppings. Some images were tightly cropped, with parts of models’ faces wrapped around the box corners or cut off entirely. In some cases the members even cut out words from the magazines and pasted them down, or glued Scrabble letters onto the clock shoe-boxes to spell words.

I observed, and I thought, and then I explained the following principles to help them with their artwork:.

Photo Cropping

Images can have a lot of space around the subject matter (such as a person’s face), or they can be “severely” cropped. That is, you can focus intently on one aspect of the face, such as the eyes, by cropping away everything else.

This concept is immediately transferable to publication design as well. (In your own work, whether you’re designing a brochure, logo, or print book cover, try different approaches to photos. Decide what you want the image to “say.” What’s the message you want to convey, and how can you most effectively make this statement by highlighting certain elements of the photo? If you’re doing this on a computer with an image editing application and a page design program, your ability to play with different approaches is enhanced (compared to my fiancee’s and my students’ approach with scissors and glue).

I also encouraged the members to run the photos off the edge of the boxes, and perhaps from one side of the shoe box onto an adjacent side.

This is relevant to publication design as well. In graphic design it’s called bleeding an image off the page, and what it does artistically is give the impression that the magazine, brochure, or print book page is larger and more opulent than if the photo did not bleed off the page (if the image is just surrounded by the white text page). The bleed gives the illusion that the image is much larger and that it actually extends off the page.

Photo Contrast

Much of what creates interest in either a work of fine art or a page in a graphic design project is the contrast between (or among) images. This contrast can be achieved in many ways:

  1. Contrast of size
  2. Contrast of color
  3. Contrast of content (simple vs. busy, for instance)
  4. Contrast in the edge treatment of the images (straight edges, torn edges, or shadows behind the images)

All of these were relevant in the creation of the autistic members’ clock collages on the shoe boxes, but they are also equally relevant in the design of a print book, brochure, poster, etc.

I suggested that the students start by choosing a larger image (perhaps a sepia or black and white one) for the background of the front of the clocks. The clock hands and numbers would eventually be placed over this large, dominant image. I suggested that they then choose smaller images (including their own photos which my fiancee had silhouetted) and other photos to position in various places over the larger photo (i.e., smaller shapes positioned over one unifying, larger shape).

The autistic members saw just how the smaller photos laid over the larger photos created a contrast in size, actually making the larger photos seem larger and the smaller photos seem smaller. A silhouette of a person looked small when superimposed over a sepia toned background. This created a sense of interest, balance, and movement. That’s what contrast does in a piece of fine art, but it’s also what it does in a graphic design piece like a print book cover.

I noted that the sepia toned photos were “desaturated.” They lacked intense color. Therefore, the members could create contrast, interest, and movement with small color photos laid over the larger, less intense images. The intense hues of the smaller color images would catch the viewer’s eye first.

The same is true for designing a poster or any other graphic design piece.

Now for contrast in content. One of the members found a color photo of a hand and placed it over a much larger sepia toned photo that included a number of people. The difference between the busy background photo and the simple elegance of the hand photo made for an interesting contrast.

Finally, I encouraged the members to tear the photos. I noted that this created random, irregular photo edges that might be interesting when laid over straight-edged photos—again, a contrast between the simple and regular and the varied and jagged.

Moreover, I told the members, parents, and aides about line direction: vertical lines imply stability; horizontal lines suggest peace and tranquility; and diagonal lines give a sense of movement and energy to an artistic piece.

Again, the same is true for graphic design.

Now contrast by itself is just a trick. I strongly encouraged the members to use the contrast to set up an intentional direction of eye movement through and across the various sides of their clock collages, using such attributes as strong color or interesting photo cropping to draw the eye to certain elements of the design first, second, third, and so forth.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

The first thing to learn is that successful graphic design and successful fine art are based on similar (or even the same) principles. You can learn a lot by going to the art museum or studying fine art print books along with your design textbooks. In fact, you might want to study the following artists: Piet Mondrian, Toulouse Lautrec, and Andy Warhol, all of whom pursued careers in both graphic design and fine art. If you keep an open mind, you’ll learn a lot.

Another thing to learn is that contrast elicits interest in a piece of fine art or a graphic design. You can contrast size, color, edge treatment, or the amount of activity in photos. But for this not to become a trick of the eye, it’s important to consider the message you’re conveying and how you want the reader’s eye to travel through the fine art piece, poster, brochure, print book page spread, or whatever. Ask yourself the following. How can your treatment of the images reinforce the statement you’re making?

Another thing to learn is that the more you look, the more you will see. If you like a billboard you see while driving, ask yourself why. What is the message it conveys, and how do the various graphic elements reinforce this message? If you like a poster, brochure, or print book page spread, ask yourself the same questions.

Also, since our world is becoming increasingly visual, with YouTube apparently surpassing Google as the primary search engine, consider the use of photos online, in commercial printing, and even in photo collage. (By the way, the collage work our autistic students were doing is called photo compositing in the graphic design world. The main difference is that graphic designers do the compositing in Photoshop on a computer rather than by hand with magazine photos, scissors, and glue.)

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