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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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Custom Printing: Functional Printing in the Hospital

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.

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