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Archive for the ‘Box Printing’ Category

Custom Printing: “Unboxing” the Subscription Box

Monday, October 25th, 2021

Photo purchased from …

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

Let’s unpack this, so to speak.

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

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

But What Is a Subscription Box?

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

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

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

What About the Marketer’s Benefits?

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

Here are some statistics:

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

The Takeaway

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

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

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

Custom Printing: 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: Anatomy of a Product Packaging Box

Wednesday, September 6th, 2017

When going through some piles of paper in the house, I came upon an unfolded tea box my fiancee had disassembled. Flat and all misshapen, with tabs jutting out in all directions, it looked like a curiosity to me. After all, I had seen it months before as a three-dimensional solid and as a product, in some ways more real as a box than as a collection of tea bags (since I buy the groceries but don’t drink tea very often).

This got me to thinking about the nature of boxes and product packaging in general.

First of all, the very best news: Print packaging is a huge growth industry in the realm of commercial printing. Therefore, the more you and I know about it, the more marketable we will be. In addition, it is a growth industry for digital custom printing as well as for offset printing, due to the print market’s penchant for short runs and quick turn-arounds.

The Anatomy of the Box

Take apart a carton. It doesn’t have to be a tea carton, as long as it starts as a rectangular solid with top and bottom flaps. The first thing you see (once it is completely flat) is that it is printed (usually) only on one side. It also has a number of die cut flaps of various lengths going in various directions. If you look even more closely, you’ll see that the flaps are either very long (these comprise the top and bottom of the box) or shorter than the others but of equal length to one another (these are the flaps that fold over, on the top and bottom opening of the box, but underneath the much longer flaps just noted).

If you flip the flat box over, you’ll see all of the custom printing work (some of it positioned at right angles for the top and bottom of the box), plus flaps printed only with printer’s color bars (you’ll never see these once the box is closed). Other flaps have no printing (these are either interior flaps or the side glue flap). The side glue flap has a strip without printing. This is where the hot-melt glue goes to attach the side of the box once it has been wrapped around into a 3D rectangular solid.

As confusing as this sounds, you can easily wrap the flat box around, insert the flaps, tape or glue the side flap, and you’ll have the complete package again. This is called box conversion. A flat sheet is “converted” into a 3D container, a product in and of itself.

Needless to say, type, art, and fold placement are all very important in the production of the box. If the scores for the folds are in the wrong place, if the die cut edges of the flaps are mis-positioned, or if the text and solid bars of color printed on the box are not in the right place (including the bleeds), the converted box won’t look right. Instead of promoting the sale of the product, it will detract from it.

And that is really what it’s all about. The sale. The box is a container, granted. It’s much easier to protect a handful of tea bags in another bag within a box than all scattered in a pile of teabags. But if there were no packaging, the brand producer would have missed an opportunity to promote the qualities of the tea and the lifestyle it reflects. That’s really what the marketing copy and visuals are about: positioning the tea as a vital part of an active lifestyle, or a crunchy-granola alternative to coffee for the bluejean intellectual. The box with its printed adornment does all of this. Otherwise, it would be acceptable for all such boxes to just be labeled “tea” or “food.”

Printing Options

Packaging is often printed via flexography, which is a relief printing process in which raised portions of rubber commercial printing plates imprint the image on the chipboard (or other, usually lower-quality, grade of paper board) as it runs through the press.

Offset printing can also be used to decorate the box. So can digital printing, but we’ll get back to that. Since the paperboard is flat (and uncrushable, unlike fluted corrugated board), this kind of packaging can be produced in many different ways. I’d also assume that gravure is another option, perhaps for very long runs.

Short Runs

But what about short commercial printing press runs? Marketers like to do short runs these days. Some may be personalized. Others may just be versioned (let’s say for a particular holiday or event) to make the packaging stand out on the shelves. (Product packaging must vie with competitors’ product packaging to catch your attention and sell you the product with its text and graphics.)

Printing these boxes is not necessarily the hardest part of the job. Converting the job (die cutting and assembling the box) also involves a lot of work. Usually metal dies inset into wood flats need to be created to make the boxes (in all but some digital finishing operations). This costs a lot and takes a lot of subcontractors’ time, so it’s really only cost effective for long press runs. (When you spread the cost of die cutting and assembly over a very long press run, the unit cost for finishing drops precipitously.)

But if you’re trying to make a single prototype or a short run of boxes, what can you do? Well now you have options. There are digital machines made by Highcon and Scodix that can (in the case of Highcon) digitally crease, or score, the box flats and then cut them with a laser instead of a metal die cutting rule. And prior to these finishing operations, there is (in the case of Scodix) a way to digitally foil stamp or digitally emboss the paper board used for the box.

For a prototype, this is a dream come true. Think about it. You don’t need to make a metal stamping die for the foil or the embossing. And you don’t need a metal die to cut the box flats from the paper substrate. You can even make one box as a prototype, and if the marketing team has corrections even after that point, you can economically and quickly (days, not weeks) prepare a revised prototype. If that design is approved, you can roll out a short run quickly (again must faster than the traditional way).

Granted, the time comes when the press run is too long for digital (or, rather, there is a cut-off point where it becomes cheaper again to amortize the cost of embossing, foil stamping, and die cutting over a long run using more durable metal dies). Only your printer’s estimating department can figure out the exact cut-off point. Also, it depends on who has the Highcon and Scodix equipment and who has to subcontract the work out. This is new technology. Most printers (I’ll venture to say) do not have this equipment, but it’s worth it to inquire and do research, and perhaps even start a working relationship with a long-distance vendor who does have the equipment.

This is the future of packaging, and packaging (along with labels and large-format printing) will be a major player in the future of commercial printing.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Read everything you can lay your hands on about new trends in custom printing. It will help your professional life immeasurably.
  2. Package printing is hot. It may be your future.
  3. Package printing is a 3D process. You are producing a physical object as well as laying ink on paper. It helps to understand the physics as well as the design aspect of the process.
  4. Digital printing and digital finishing will both figure prominently in this area of commercial printing. Digital finishing was a little slow at first, but now it’s catching up in exciting ways.
  5. A trip to a high-end department store to carefully study the boxes in the “beauty” departments, such as the cosmetics counters, will be an educational and productive use of your time. Vendors like Chanel have lots of money and pour it into this kind of product packaging. Close observation will give you design ideas, but it will also teach you about foils, embossing, box construction, etc.

Custom Printing: Shoe Boxes as Promotional Art

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017

My fiancee and I stopped at a local upscale outlet store this week, a number of times, to collect designer shoe boxes for our autistic students. In art therapy we have been creating small shadow boxes (also known as dioramas), or miniature rooms decorated for Halloween. We’ve had our autistic members combine miniature skeletons (some wrapped as mummies), gauze, paint, Halloween stickers, and any other sculptural elements we could find.

All of that aside, my fiancee kept about four of the shoe boxes for herself—just because she liked them. And as a commercial printing broker and student of custom printing, I found her behavior intriguing. I surmised that:

  1. Product packaging sells product (and is a powerful and persuasive sales force).
  2. Product packaging sells itself. I think people buy in part because they like the feel of the packaging as well as its look, and as well as the look and feel of the product in the box (in this case, shoes).
  3. Based on comments my fiancee made, this is especially true for shoe boxes, since a lot of people store their shoes in the boxes after buying them and bringing them home. So unlike a blister pack that you cut or tear away from a product and then discard, shoe boxes can be an ongoing extension of the “brand.”

Sample Box #1

I just went into the art studio in our home and chose four sample boxes that had not yet been used by our students (the art project was so well received that we’ve offered it in four of our classes over the last few weeks).

Under a good light and with access to a printer’s loupe, I see that the first box has been printed on a thick, glossy cover stock prior to being folded and glued into a three-dimensional shoe box. The exterior walls of the box are covered with purple, red, and dark blue squares and other geometric forms. In contrast, the inside has been printed solid orange. It provides simplicity and stark contrast to the exterior.

If you look closely, you can see that the sides of the box are composed of double walls made from the flat, cover-stock press sheet. The box converter assembled the folded press sheets and hot melt glued sections to produce four vertical sides and a bottom. In the same way, the converter created a smaller box cover.

What We Can Learn from This Sample

I’ve said it in earlier blogs, but closely observing how product packaging goes together, how it is “converted” from a flat press sheet into a three-dimensional product (with its own value) is fascinating, and it casts light on a skilled and often overlooked aspect of “finishing,” the activities that occur after the ink has been laid down on the flat press sheet.

In terms of design, this product packaging shows that bright colors and active geometric imagery will appeal to a certain clientele when selling a certain product. The packaging is not sedate. Then again, it shouldn’t be sedate if the shoes in the box are flashy and upscale.

Sample Box #2

The first thing I notice about the second shoe box is that it is composed of thick gloss text paper laminated to fluted cardboard.

In contrast, the first box is composed of just two layers of thick cover stock with a dull coating (perhaps a dull UV coating). The walls of the second box are much thicker than those of the first box, but the two boxes weigh just about the same. This shows one benefit of corrugated board for product packaging: It is light but durable.

However, there is a marked vertical pattern of the fluted ribs visible on all sides of the box (even through the litho printing paper that has been laminated to the fluting). The ribbing is visible through the solid yellow exterior of the box and the yellow, green, and black interior ink.

Like the first box, you can see that the second box started as a flat sheet, was die cut, and then was folded up into a three-dimensional physical product, held together with glue or with folded tabs inserted into slots.

What We Can Learn from This Sample

Like the first box, the second has a simple design. All images are line art, but they didn’t have to be. Since the press sheets that had been converted into both boxes were either laminated to fluted board (in the case of the second box) or converted into a box without fluted board (as in the first box), offset lithography could have been used for either box.

Why? Because no fluted board would have been in direct contact with the heavy pressure of the offset press rollers.

In contrast, printing directly on fluted board must be done with flexography. This process avoids the heavy pressure of the offset press rollers. However, it also requires simpler custom printing designs.

In terms of design, this particular box shows that kinetic artwork combined with intense primary colors (the yellow of the box exterior) will capture the interest of presumably young, fashion-conscious clientele.

Sample Boxes #3 and #4

These are really two variants on the same theme: minimalist boxes produced on brown fluted board. They are simple, but they are actually quite elegant, and they present less of an “in-your-face” style and more of an “earth-friendly” vibe.

Both boxes (in slightly different ways) have been die cut from single printed sheets of fluted cardboard. Then, using folds, tabs, slots, and hot-melt glue, both have been converted into product packaging.

The first has been printed with both white ink and black ink. You can see with a loupe that the ink film is thin (i.e., not custom screen printing but flexography, the other option for adorning fluted cardboard without squashing the ribs of paper). But this doesn’t make the box look any less attractive, just more functional (i.e., “functional chic”). The short side panel of the box is actually a halftone (lightly inked) of a mountain climber (or camper) holding up a sign with the brand name in large letters. For climbing shoes, this is a much more appropriate approach than the heavy ink coverage and glossy look of the first box, produced on cover weight press stock. Overall, the box design underscores the functional nature of the shoes it contains.

Sample #4, the second box produced on unbleached corrugated board, works in exactly the same way. It has even less adornment than Sample #3: just the logo printed on the four vertical exterior walls of the box (in black and a light, transparent yellow over the uncoated, fluted cardboard), plus the impression in black ink—inside the box—of two shoe soles. It looks like the designer had dipped the shoes in black ink and then pressed them against the interior floor of the box.

What We Can Learn from These Two Samples

Humor sells. The interior of the box, which is most of the custom printing, looks like ink has been tracked in on the wearer’s shoes—or mud has been tracked into the house, if you will.

Simplicity also sells in this age of environmentally friendly, sustainable packaging. For practical shoes, this approach works.

Appropriate treatment (in terms of design, as well as the physical substrate used to build the box) makes the biggest difference. Selling shoes for an evening dance in unbleached corrugated board would miss the opportunity for the box to reflect the tone of its contents. Conversely, putting athletic shoes in a frilly box would dilute the brand, confuse the buyer, and miss the opportunity to align the product packaging with the product it contains.

Custom Printing: A Primer on Corrugated Boxes

Thursday, December 8th, 2016

A client of mine is printing a 6” x 9” perfect-bound textbook with a press run of 3,000. But this article isn’t about her print book. It’s about the cartons in which her books will ship.

It’s easy to forget that the finest custom printing job (whether books, brochures, or whatever) is useless until you get it into the hands of your clients—in pristine condition. Thus, the cardboard box that contains your job and protects it in transit is an especially important component of the entire job.

My Client’s Boxes

Most boxes are a standard size. Whatever that standard size may be (there are a lot of options), it is usually still larger than my client’s boxes need to be. She needs each carton to contain 20 of the 6” x 9” textbooks, and she would like to have descriptive information (the title of the print books, a tagline, an address, and the number of books the cartons contain) printed right on the box—not on a label.

Last year there wasn’t time for the box printing, so she had to make do with self-stick litho labels. They looked ok, but they were not as attractive as information imprinted directly on the cartons.

Why is this important? Because the first thing my client’s clients will see will be the cartons, not the print books. And as a consultant once told me when I was an art director, “Everything that a company sends out is an advertisement for the company.” Back then it was a novel concept. Now it is a concept I live by. And my client lives by it, too. So the guiding rule is that the boxes are advertisements for my client’s company, and they have to look good.

So far, so good. But when the deadline arrived, my client still needed a number of supervisor approvals, and so the art file for the box imprint started to get a little late. I was concerned. Here’s why:

Specialized Work

Cardboard boxes need to be printed and then converted. They can be screen printed. They can be printed via flexography (for simpler art), using rubber printing plates and water-based ink. Or they can have offset litho-printed liners glued to the fluted, interior ribs of the corrugated board. The last option is the most expensive (and it provides the highest quality of printing).

After the flat corrugated board has been printed, it has to be diecut, folded, and glued. At this point the carton printing run exists as flat carton blanks that are strapped together and shipped. Once delivered, the flat cartons can be opened and folded into final boxes by the user. (Imagine the boxes you buy and then assemble when you move to a new house.)

The problem is that very few companies do this kind of work. In most cases, printers need to subcontract box printing and conversion. It’s harder to control subcontracted work, and it often takes longer than expected. In many cases the carton subcontractor has a backlog of jobs from many other custom printing suppliers.

Tight Schedules

In my client’s case, what this means is that printing the entire 6” x 9” textbook run of 3,000 copies will take three weeks, but within this time frame the carton printing and converting will take a full week, or one third of the entire production schedule.

Firm Deadlines

My client needed approvals, so the box art went to the subcontractor a little late. In addition, my client wanted to see a proof. Granted, this is a reasonable request. I would always encourage a client to see a proof. However, a hard-copy proof would have taken extra days for the box converter to ship to my client and for her to return via FedEx. So we opted for a PDF virtual proof.

The proof came via email, but it had to be reviewed and approved. Due to the tight schedule, my client had about forty minutes to get all office-staff approvals she needed. Fortunately she was able to do this. And at the exact close of business that day, I gave the approval to the customer service rep at the printer who was subcontracting the box production. That was too close for comfort.

What would have happened if we hadn’t made the schedule? If the box proof had gone back to the corrugated box manufacturer the next morning, my client might have lost her press slot to another client who had met the quick proof turn-around deadline. My client’s schedule might have been lengthened by a day, two days, maybe more. There’s no way to know. Since many box printing clients skip the proof entirely, then requesting a proof and holding it is a risk.

The Future of Corrugated Boxes

Things are changing in the field. If you read the press about the recent drupa printing trade show in Germany, you’ll see that packaging is a growth industry, and digital printing and converting are improving in leaps and bounds. Even now some vendors are able to inkjet your art right on the box. (The pressure of the offset printing rollers would crush corrugated stock, which is why screen printing and flexography are usually the ways boxes are decorated.) After the inkjet printing step, digital converting can use lasers to crease and cut the cardboard blanks instead of relying on metal dies (rules that take days to manually construct for the die cutting).

What We Can Learn from this Case Study

  1. Box manufacturing takes a long time and requires highly specialized skill. It involves subcontractors that usually require tight proof deadlines. This is not a buyer’s market. So submit your box art early and turn the proofs around immediately.
  2. Read the trade journals and keep abreast of developments in digital printing of corrugated boxes and digital box conversion. It will make your life much easier.
  3. Find out early from your commercial printing vendor whether your corrugated box will require custom work. Even if the price is low, the schedule might be daunting.
  4. Consider labels as an alternative. Your printer can buy standard boxes, and print and apply the labels in his own plant, avoiding any custom work by subcontractors. This may not look as nice, but in a pinch it’s often a good alternative.

Custom Printing: Box Manufacturing

Monday, July 27th, 2015

A commercial printing client of mine just received her job, which consisted of twelve short, saddle-stitched print books in a box. The books are 6” x 9” in format with four-color covers, and the slip case box they fit in is a four-color press sheet laminated to corrugated board.

I asked my client how the job looked when the samples arrived, and she expressed pleasure with the books but regret for the slightly off-center art on the box. She had received one sample of the job. The printer had mailed out all other sets to the address database list my client had provided.

Ouch. Few things bother me more than an unhappy client. So I asked her to send me photos of the box showing the art off center. I then sent these on to the commercial printing vendor who had done the work.

(First of all, I asked my client for photos rather than the box itself so I could immediately communicate with the printer. Picking up the box would have taken time. Sending the box to the printer would have taken additional time. Requesting photos as email attachments was much more immediate.)

A Description of the Corrugated Slip Case

To give you some context, the slip case is a little over three inches wide to accommodate twelve short print books. In the back it is a full 9” high, but this slopes downward in the front to about 6” to afford easy access to the books.

On the sides of the box are the front and back of a print book with text and photos promoting the books in the box (individual chapters from the larger text book). I could see that the covers were not exactly centered and were slightly tilted on the background PMS color. On the front of the slip case box, my client had included the title of the series; a list of the separate, bound chapters it includes; and the company logo (all in reverse type). The vertical axis of this centered list had not been precisely centered on the box panel, and all type was slightly tilted as well.

I could see why my client was not happy.

The Dieline of the Slip Case

To figure out what had happened, I checked the combined dieline/PDF proof of the box. This PDF image showed all paper flaps that would be folded in and glued to fabricate a completed box. It was incredibly complex with all of its flaps and glue tabs. The proof showed the exact placement of the images (front and back covers of the main book) on either side of the box, plus the art for the taller back panel and shorter front panel. I could see where the art should have landed (after printing, laminating, diecutting, folding, and gluing).

The Printer’s Response to the Photos

I want to note here that this custom printing vendor has always been candid with me. He has also always produced stellar products under unbelievably tight deadlines.

Because I trust the printer, I listened closely to his response. This is what he said after doing some research:

  1. Although he could see the lack of precision in the photos of the sample box, the other samples he had checked at the print shop were not off center or tilted. Probably the other 250+ boxes were ok. This was not a guarantee, however.
  2. The (separate) box printer/converter had had problems with the press run and had pulled out (and given to the main printer, my trusted associate) a number of rejects. Some were not that bad. My printer would make these available to my client if she received complaints and needed to send a new box or two to a dissatisfied client (i.e., the end user).
  3. And this was the sobering information the printer offered:

  4. Tolerances for box manufacturing are not as tight as for offset custom printing. Whereas an offset printer might provide a piece with a 1/16” or 1/32” leeway from perfect positioning of a printed element, a box manufacturer might have a 1/8” or 1/4” leeway, which would still be considered acceptable. Why? Because all of the die cutting, folding, and gluing operations will actually magnify and exacerbate the slightest deviation from perfect positioning. The multiple operations needed for box conversion will make a problem worse and worse.
  5. In future box designs, the printer said it would be safer to not place a rectangle (the book cover) in a position that would be obvious if there were any deviation from perfect placement.

Even though I was not happy, I could see the printer’s point. In book printing, this might be like placing a 12pt rule all the way around the perimeter of a book cover. Anything but the most precise trimming of the cover would make the printed rule around the cover look uneven. Since commercial printing is a physical process, and all printing and post printing (or finishing) operations magnify errors, it is wise to design with the limits of both offset lithography and post-press finishing operations in mind.

Granted, some boxes–perhaps most boxes–were closer to perfect, particularly after the box printer had removed the problematic slip cases. It was unfortunate that my client’s sample was not perfect. But just as I could see errors in printed maps becoming worse and worse as the multitude of folds magnified any errors in placement, I could see my printer’s point. But if I had not developed such a long-standing relationship with him over the years, I (and my client) might not have had such faith in his response.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. For complex jobs, only work with a printer you trust completely. If anything goes wrong, he will be more likely to tell you honestly what is the printer’s fault and what is considered acceptable, or within tolerance, for particular commercial printing and finishing operations.
  2. Expect box printing to not be perfect, due to the number of individual steps in the process that will magnify flaws. Design your printed product accordingly to minimize the effect of any misalignment.

Book Printing: Producing a Boxed Set of Books

Friday, May 29th, 2015

A print brokering client of mine is preparing art for a boxed set of textbooks. The set comprises four original print books with three copies of each placed within a corrugated box sleeve. What makes this particularly interesting is that neither my client nor I produce boxes every day. So it’s a bit of a novelty and a challenge.

To ensure success, there are some things to consider, some specifications to confirm, and some physical characteristics of which to be mindful. In case you also produce boxed sets of print books, you may find this information useful.

First of All, the Books

The books are 6” x 9” translations of government education articles aimed at a high school audience. They will be 48 or 52 pages (two books of each length). The covers will be printed on 12pt. C1S (coated one side) stock, and the text pages of the books will be printed on 80# Finch white opaque text stock. Once printed, the books will be saddle stitched and inserted into the boxes, and the boxes will be shrink wrapped.

First of all, the text and cover pages will be rather thick, which will give a sense of substance to the short books. For longer books, I would have suggested a 70# text stock. Fortunately, the thickness of the paper will make the pages completely opaque, and there will be no show-through from one side of a printed book page to its reverse side.

Now, the Box

Understanding the composition of the books will help in understanding the necessary specifications for the box sleeve. Basically, each box will contain three copies of each of four books, or a total of twelve short, saddle-stitched print books.

Based on the thickness of the cover and text stock, as well as the number of books per boxed set, the book printer has advised my client to create art for a 2.5”-wide slip case. This will allow a little room for the books to be loose (and therefore easily removed from the box).

To make it easy for students and teachers to both remove and replace the books in the box, the front of the box will be only 5” high, and the back will be the full 9” height of the books. This will protect the books but also allow for their easy removal from the box, and the width will allow all twelve books to sit comfortably in the box sleeve.

That said, the book printer also plans to make a paper dummy of both the box and the books to make absolutely certain that everything will fit as planned.

Once the structure of the box has been confirmed, it will be necessary to determine its decoration. The book printer will print 4-color process ink plus one PMS on a 70# gloss litho text sheet, which will be laminated to the white/brown “e-flute” structure of the box (front, back, and sides). The e-flute construction is essentially corrugated board covered with a printed press sheet, so it will be light, durable, and flexible. The printer will also add an aqueous coating to the boxes to protect them, and once the printing and lamination are complete, the printer’s subcontractor (the box converter) will fabricate them into finished boxes. Into these boxes, the printer will then insert the twelve books before shrink wrapping each boxed set and then carton packing it for delivery.


A box is more than a marketing statement. It is a physical product, in and of itself. It has a function that must be taken into consideration. It must contain and protect the books and allow for their easy removal and replacement—numerous times. Therefore, I was pleased to learn that the printer planned to make a dummy of the entire set before having the dies made to cut the boxes out of the laminated e-flute prior to their assembly. To not do this would risk error. Making cutting dies costs a lot of money and takes time. Needing to make a replacement set if something is wrong with the dimensions would compromise both the schedule and the budget.

Another thing to consider is the time needed for the box production and conversion. I’m not absolutely certain which portions of the box manufacturing the printer will need to subcontract (other than the die making, and the diecutting and assembly of the box forms), but this will take extra time. Subcontracting always does, and the printer relinquishes some measure of control over the production process due to the need for subcontracting. But in some cases it’s necessary. Very few commercial printing suppliers can do this kind of work in-house on a profitable basis.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. For complex jobs that might require specialized work, ask your printing supplier about the need for subcontracted labor. Ask how it will affect the price, schedule, and quality of the job.
  2. For a job as precise as a box for a set of print books, have your printer provide you with the exact dimensions (and a drawing) of the art you will need to prepare. (This is called a die-line.) Then, once you have submitted the art, ask for confirmation that it is accurate.
  3. Make sure your printer creates a paper dummy for a job like this. It’s a red flag if he doesn’t (for his sake and yours). Ask to see the dummy of the box and books to make sure it will meet your needs and expectations.
  4. Proof early and often. I’d suggest that you request physical proofs for a job like this rather than just a virtual, or PDF, proof.

Custom Box Printing: Effective Toothpaste Carton Design

Monday, July 22nd, 2013

My fiancee just brought home a toothpaste box, and I said, “Wow. I want that.” That’s effective marketing. It was a deep gut reaction based on an instant bond with the branding. It preceded any interaction with the product. In fact I haven’t tried the toothpaste yet, although I think I know how it will taste.

Effective marketing comes from effective design and effective custom printing. These are the building blocks, if you will. They combine to create that “Wow” moment.

The Toothpaste Box Design

First, let me describe the toothpaste box.

The Corrugated Paper Folding Carton

The technical term for this printed product is a “folding carton” because it is printed flat and then folded and glued into the carton for the toothpaste. This particular carton is composed of two elements: an unprinted corrugated box (about 2” x 2” x 7”) folded into a rectangular solid with the fluting of the cardboard exposed and facing outward, and with all of the fluting positioned diagonally to the dimensions of the box. Unlike most corrugated board, this carton has exposed fluting. Most corrugated board has the fluting sandwiched between two flat paper boards.

The Outer Sleeve

Wrapped around the corrugated board carton is a printed matte “sleeve.” It covers all four sides of the corrugated carton. However, it leaves about 3/4” on either side exposed, so you can see the diagonal fluting of the inner box. The “wrap” or “sleeve” is printed in earth tones.

Purpose of the Inner Fluted Box

In my opinion, the folding carton for the toothpaste gives an organic “feel” to the piece by means of a tactile fluted box (pliable and a little rough to the touch with its diagonal ribbing). What I find interesting is that the corrugated inner box achieves this organic feel not through any custom printing but through the simplicity of the fluted paper, its color, its texture, and its pattern of diagonal ribbing.

The Graphic Design on the Sleeve

The outer printed sleeve reinforces this organic theme in several ways:

  1. The forest green, beige, and rust brown colors offset-printed on the matte coated sheet provide a subdued and sophisticated, but at the same time simple and organic, feel. The Helvetica typeface for most copy and the corresponding sans serif face of the logo (with its extra tracking between letters) give a contemporary but, again, simple and orderly look to the piece.
  2. The content of the marketing copy reinforces the theme. Words and phrases such as “gluten free,” “fluoride free,” “organic,” “chlorine free,” and “authentic” position this particular toothpaste as a product a prudent, environmentally conscious consumer might buy.
  3. The materials used in the custom printing are “green.” The folding carton copy prominently notes that paper made with 80 percent recycled material went into making the carton and offset-printed wrapper. In addition, instead of using petroleum-based printing inks, the custom printing supplier used more environmentally friendly soy-based inks.

So in the simplest terms, the marketing team made sure the promotional copy, the typeface, the color scheme, the paper, and the custom printing technology all worked together to present this particular toothpaste as an organic, Earth-friendly option for cleaning and whitening teeth.

The Ideal Customer

A savvy marketer envisions an ideal customer and them finds ways to pique his or her interest. One of the key ways to do this is to list the attributes, likes, and dislikes of this “virtual” person. In this case, for instance, the ideal customer might be a 25- to 40-year-old with a desire to protect the environment, and a desire to use healthy grooming products while avoiding chemical additives. Who knows? Maybe he/she even likes kayaking or rock climbing on weekends. Or maybe he/she owns a Subaru with a bicycle rack on top.

With this ideal buyer in mind, a savvy marketer then goes about using ad copy, typefaces, design grids, paper choices, and paper textures (the fluting of the corrugated board, in this case) to create an emotional bond with the potential buyer. If the marketer can use the custom printing and design tools at his/her disposal to elicit from the buyer a sense of affiliation with the values of the brand, the marketer can make the sale.

So here’s to a breakfast of granola and yogurt, washed down with a latte, and then followed with flossing and brushing with this supremely organic toothpaste.

Commercial Printing: High-End Packaging Reflects Artistry and Luxury

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

I’d like to describe the packaging of a straightening iron my fiancee just bought. Perhaps “gush about it” is a better phrase, since this box really impressed me in its design and custom printing work.

This box exemplifies the value manufacturers place on product packaging to sell a luxury item. Depending on the length of the press run, my guess is that the box may have cost several dollars or more to produce each unit. Since it contained a $30.00 professional hair care tool (marked down from over $130.00), the money that went into the packaging was not an inconsiderable portion of the total cost.

The Physical Dimensions of the Box

The box is about 3” high, 12” long, and 6” deep. The hinged box top comes forward, and a flap extending beyond the front of the box snaps shut on the cardboard. Upon close examination, I saw two magnets under the printed paper.

The bottom, back, top, and front are all of one piece, extending slightly beyond an inner box. The cover looks like a case-side produced by a hardcover book printer. Built over thick binder’s board, the cover comprises an outer press sheet with turned edges extending into the inside of the box cover. In much the same way as an endsheet of a case-bound book covers the turned edge paper covering the print book, an additional press sheet covers the inside of the flat iron box cover, extending almost to the turned edges of the exterior paper.

Inside the box is a molded plastic tray for the ceramic flat iron, hair straightening tool. The visible side of the tray is coated in something like a soft-touch UV coating. It ‘s soft and fuzzy, like the skin of a peach.

Finally, there are three, tri-fold brochures in the box, printed on heavy, film-laminated text stock (one in English, one in Spanish, and one in French).

The Custom Printing (Inside the Box)

The interior press sheet, laminated to the cover paper where it folds over the turned edges and extends into the box is printed in a metallic ink in faux zebra stripes. The metallic silver ink stands out against the matte black background. Both inks are very thick.

Initially, I thought this was a sample of custom screen printing. However, using my loupe I saw halftone dots under the black ink. At this point (without knowing for sure), I assumed that the pressman had printed a screen of black and then a second hit of solid black to increase the density of the black ink. Furthermore, I thought he might have done the same with the silver (perhaps a double hit of the ink).

The interior of the innermost box seemed to be a slightly mottled, matte black. I thought it might be flexographic printing.

I also saw where the dull exterior press sheet (maybe 80# text) had been turned over the edge of the box, extending an inch or so into the interior before being glued flat against the binder boards that comprise the box.

The Custom Printing (Outside of the Box)

The outside of the box is matte black (perhaps a double hit of black plus a dull UV coating or varnish). Black metallic foil cut with a die and applied with heat and pressure comprises a text-only design of words related to beauty. The evenness and sheen of the black, hot-stamped words suggest that they are made of foil rather than ink. A similar effect could have been produced with gloss UV coating over a matte black ink, but the intensity of the contrast makes me think this is hot stamping foil.

White, silver, and yellow type and graphics adorn the exterior of the box. The silver is clearly hot stamping foil due to its reflective metallic sheen, but I’m not sure about the yellow. It’s so rich. Maybe it includes some fluorescent ink or some opaque white mixed into the PMS yellow (there are no halftone dots, so it’s not a color build). Or maybe it’s a double hit of yellow. The dull silver zebra stripes are more subdued than the silver type, so I would assume the stripes have been created with ink rather than hot stamping foil.

What Can We Learn from This?

Product packaging is going strong. Even in the midst of a sea change in magazine printing, book printing, and newspaper printing, the sale of product packaging is actually growing.

The flat iron straightening tool was a $130.00 piece of hair stylist’s equipment until it was put in a discount store. The box designer (and the marketing people backing her or him) assumed that a $5.00 (just a stab at the price) box would sell a $130.00 straightening iron. That’s a fair commitment of money as well as design and production time.

My personal belief is that until a material can be invented that will encase products in a screen onto which digitally projected images can be projected, we will have both high-end and low-end product packaging. Tiffany & Co. and other luxury stores will provide shopping bags that are works of art. Even the boxes in the grocery stores containing microwavable dinners will be around for the foreseeable future.

Commercial Printing: Advances in Product Packaging

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

In a world where offset and digital custom printing are struggling for a place among digital-only communications media—such as e-books, Yelp, and Facebook–product packaging work is actually growing.

Advances in Digital Packaging Presses

Until recently, the main focus of digital custom printing within the packaging arena had been custom labels. For flexible packaging beyond custom label printing, the options included offset printing and flexography. However, this has started to change.

The drupa commercial printing trade show highlighted the HP Indigo 10000 (a B2 press, accepting sheet sizes up to 29.5” x 20.9”) that will be ideal for the folding carton and flexible packaging market.

Why is this such good news:

  1. The ability of the press to accept a 29.5″ x 20.9” press sheet allows operators to either produce larger printed products or impose more units on a press sheet. Prior iterations of the Indigo had accepted press sheets closer to 12” x 18”. Accommodating larger press sheets will allow HP Indigo to potentially compete head to head against sheetfed offset presses.
  2. Sustainability of both product and packaging is a deciding factor for many people when purchasing consumer goods. The ability to produce more environmentally sound packaging via digital custom printing is a major selling point, particularly in terms of the waste reduction and productivity enhancing qualities of digital printing.
  3. Mass customization of data and images has become essential as well. The new, larger-format digital presses allow for combining packaging with variable data coupons, tickets, and surveys, thus integrating dialogue marketing with product packaging work.
  4. The variable data capabilities of digital presses such as the HP Indigo 10000 allow commercial printing vendors to add individual barcodes or QR codes to packaging. This helps in tracking individual products, coding and controlling inventory, and identifying counterfeit products.


Advances in Offset Lithography

KBA, Rapida,Heidelberg—these are the heavy hitters in offset custom printing, and these companies have been expanding their offset printing options for product packaging, as evidenced at drupa and elsewhere.

For instance, one particular press, the Heidelberg Speedmaster XL 105-8+LLYLX3 offers eight printing units and coating units, as well as UV-ink printing capabilities. It allows for in-line printed dull and gloss varnish effects, and the use of opaque white, metallic inks, and substrates such as aluminum coated cardboard.

Why is this such good news:

  1. As with other commercial printing arenas, packaging faces cost, quality, and turn-around pressures. Being able to print multiple design effects in-line speeds up the manufacturing process and controls costs. Increasingly, such eye-catching effects as printing on metallic foils can be produced efficiently, allowing packaging to really stand out on store shelves.
  2. Press automation improves make-ready times, reduces waste, and improves overall efficiency. For instance, the Heidelberg Speedmaster XL 105-8+LLYLX3 includes automated pile changing at the feeder and delivery ends of the press. It is increasingly possible to provide eye-catching packaging faster and more economically.
  3. Many of these packaging presses are hybrid, including both offset and inkjet capabilities. This means that variable data can be added during the press run rather than in a separate pass. Printers can use such capabilities for adding QR codes, barcodes, and other variable data, or for error detection.
  4. Closed loop, electric eye devices constantly monitor the color density on press, making adjustments as needed to match preset color data. This leads to faster throughput and less waste, as well as improved color fidelity.
  5. Presses such as the KBA Rapida include automated process synchronization. For instance, 41” Rapida presses can change plates automatically while the press automatically washes blankets, cylinders, and rollers. Again, speed translates into cost-savings and improved turn-around times.
  6. The production of flexible packaging consumes vast amounts of power due to long press runs and high heat requirements (the ovens for drying ink on web presses, for instance). With energy-reduction in mind, KBA has developed VariDryBLUE, which captures heat from the initial drying units and reuses it for subsequent drying processes, reducing heat, saving energy, and lowering carbon emissions.


Product packaging seems to be immune from the encroachment of digital-only media. That said, digital technology has been instrumental in improving the speed, quality, cost, and environmental impact of this custom printing work.


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