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

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Archive for the ‘Design’ Category

Custom Printing: When Press-Ready Art Files Misbehave

Sunday, August 29th, 2021

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I received a harried email from a colleague earlier this week. Her print book supplier was having problems with her art files. More specifically, a rather complex graphic background used for the print book cover and then repeated on the divider pages was not showing up when the file was opened on various computers in the commercial printing shop.

Things like this used to also happen frequently when I was an art director/production manager at a local nonprofit organization. The designers would come into my office frustrated, asking me to fix their computers.

And, ironically, this is the same kind of brain freeze I experienced a few days ago when my fiancee’s and my laser printer stopped working.

What Do All of These Computer Problems Have in Common?

My fiancee always urges me to take a breath and approach a computer crisis with logic. And as (probably) most of you who do graphic design work on computers know, this is initially almost impossible.

When I was an art director and the designers came to me for help, I could (usually) quickly get their computers up and running or fix an error in the application files because I was not involved in the art preparation. To me, it was a computer problem to be resolved. To the designers, it was an impediment to their progress in their design work. Clearly these are two entirely different frames of mind.

With my fiancee’s and my non-functioning laser printer, decoding the pattern of lights on the console made the problem clear (there were no lights). Online documentation and a phone call to a laser printer vendor suggested that in this specific printer the power supply was vulnerable to voltage spikes. From this I inferred that I needed to replace both the printer and the surge protector (surge protectors take one power spike and then are no longer good protection).

I further surmised that the same power surge would have knocked the two televisions offline and made their Netflix connection problematic. (This had just just occurred as well, and although it was unnerving, it made sense in light of the printer problem. A power surge had apparently disrupted the televisions and killed the laser printer.)

So how does this help you if you are a designer?

  1. When you’re having problems with the hardware, note the pattern of console lights (on printers, hubs, switches, etc.) and look online for their meaning. Lots of hardware manuals are online and available for free research.
  2. Turn everything off. Let it reset. Then turn everything on. Work from hardware (first) to software (second). Let everything have a moment to settle.
  3. Look for patterns. Come up with a logical hypothesis. Try to isolate the problem. In my case with the two televisions and the printer, once I had resolved the TV issues by turning everything off, letting it rest, and then turning everything back on, and once Netflix had reset, I only had the printer to worry about.

This is a psychological issue, but for me it makes it easier to solve daunting problems when I have a measure of success in solving smaller ones. Little successes breed bigger ones. This may be equally true for your computer and printer, computer operating system, design software, and problematic files (in that order). In my case with the printer, having checked the lights and determined their meaning, I knew the next step was to get online and buy a new one.

Back to My Colleague’s Art File

So when I received my client’s press-ready PDF file to review, here’s how I proceeded:

  1. I knew it was a software glitch, unlike my own problems with the televisions (still computers, in essence) and laser printer.
  2. My colleague said the commercial printing vendor had noted the following: The complex graphic pattern (a green and gold abstract effect behind the text of the cover) appeared on some computers and not on others. Therefore, I tried to open it on my fiancee’s Macintosh, my Linux-based IBM computer, our iPad, and my Android smartphone.
  3. The smartphone and iPad could not open the file at all. From this I surmised that it was possibly too large, too complex, or damaged.
  4. The complex graphic pattern was missing entirely from all divider pages when viewed on the Macintosh. On the Linux-based computer, however, the image was in place, consistently, on all divider pages. While I was perplexed that the two computers displayed two different versions of the same PDF file (with and without the graphic), I was pleased that each version was internally consistent (either no complex graphic patterns visible or all graphic patterns visible). I would have been stumped if the problem had been intermittent within one computer operating system or the other.
  5. This was relevant to me for a number of reasons. From my own experience in attending commercial printing plant tours, I had seen that print shops often use Macintosh computers for prepress work (when the files immediately arrive from the clients) and sometimes Windows-based IBMs or Unix (and perhaps Linux) computers further down the pipeline, for storage, servers, plate-making, and such. Noticing that the problematic file worked on the Linux computer but not on the Macintosh was potentially a useful piece of the puzzle.

What I Told My Colleague at This Point

  1. I suggested that my client send the original art file (both the native Photoshop file, in which she had created the graphic pattern, and the InDesign file, in which she had placed the graphic pattern) to the custom printing supplier. The prepress operators could troubleshoot and repair them if necessary and then make a new press-ready PDF file. In contrast, my client’s version of the press-ready PDF file would essentially be unalterable (either usable or not usable as it was, but not repairable). I thought a more knowledgeable person who focused exclusively on prepress matters might have suggestions.
  2. I asked my colleague to check the Photoshop and InDesign files for issues in PDF creation, including bleeds, flattening of layers (in Photoshop), compression algorithms, and anything else related to the complexity of the file. In my own experience, complex files can choke peripherals, such as printers (i.e., they can send too much information, overwhelming the printer and halting the processing of the file). Although this is primarily true for printing jobs to a laser printer, I thought it was still worth confirming that the files were as simple as possible, particularly since the abstract green and gold graphic was already a large, complex image.
  3. On a whim, I asked my client if she had sent the file to the printer uncompressed. The safest way to send a file over the internet is as an archive. Macintosh computers can make an archive of a file easily with a right-click of the mouse. Windows-based computers can use WinZip. Compressing files in this way makes them smaller and protects them in transit. My colleague said she had done this.
  4. I also noted that in a pinch the commercial printing vendor might be able to place a new PDF version of the graphic (made from the original Photoshop file) on all divider pages (the digital equivalent of “stripping in” corrections). This might cost a little extra, but it also might solve the problem. Sometimes it’s better to find a work-around rather than spend an inordinate amount of time looking for the cause of the problem.

My Colleague’s Solution, and What We Can Learn from This Case Study

I found out a few days later from my colleague that the problem had been a specific Photoshop “Luminosity” command (which pertains to the value or lightness/darkness of an image rather than its color information). I believe this explanation had come from the prepress operators at the commercial printing supplier.

That said, being able to diagnose your own computer and printer problems, or at least making an attempt to do so, is an excellent first step. In many cases a logical approach to isolating the problem will help you resolve it.

Here’s what we can learn from this process:

  1. Look for the quick fixes first. For instance, always compress files (make an archive) when sending them online. This will protect them from corruption in transit over the internet.
  2. Simplify files whenever you can. Flatten Photoshop files, for instance. This makes them simpler and smaller. Use the proper resolution but don’t be excessive. (For a 133-line printer’s halftone screen, a 266 dpi image is of sufficient resolution in Photoshop. More than that just makes the files excessively large and slows down processing.)
  3. Consider the simple answers. Turn everything off. Wait. Turn everything on and try again. Sometimes this fixes the problem, particularly when it resets the software.
  4. Rely on the printer’s knowledge (the prepress operator’s knowledge in this case). Don’t hesitate to place the problematic image into a separate InDesign file to see if it still doesn’t print or show up in a distilled PDF file. The key here is to isolate the problem.
  5. When in doubt, give your custom printing vendor your native files (Photoshop and InDesign) as well as the press-ready PDF files. The prepress operator can alter these to fix errors, whereas a press-ready PDF file is essentially locked down and is only editable in minimal ways.
  6. Remember to take a breath and approach the problem with logic. This is often the hardest thing to do when something doesn’t work.
  7. Consider work-arounds. Having the commercial printing supplier electronically strip-in a problematic image, chart, page, etc., can often be easier than spending an inordinate amount of time trying to fix the problem in your own digital file.


As I reread this PIE Blog file (which I will admit is abstract, detailed, and perhaps a little dull), I was reminded about a comment I once heard about a car repair manual. If your car is running, an auto manual is painfully dull. However, no other book is nearly as exciting to read when your car has broken down and you’re stranded.

Before you need it, consider the aforementioned approach to fixing misbehaving computer graphics files.

Custom Printing: Effective Design for Both Web Layout and Commercial Printing Work

Monday, July 5th, 2021

A single publication design that “works”–aesthetically and functionally—both on the computer monitor and on paper (in a commercial printing product) is rare and wonderful. Sort of like a unicorn.

With this in mind, I received an online prospectus from my fiancee’s financial planner this week and was struck by the graphic artist’s awareness of design theory, content organization, and how the reader’s eye works. I wanted to share this with you as an object lesson. Much of what you need to know as a designer, you can learn by studying this Blackstone financial prospectus.

The Financial Prospectus

More specifically, this is a Blackstone Real Estate Income Trust prospectus (usually provided as a small format print book), the driest of material unless you’re a stock market geek. It is one long document, clearly intended to be read online as well as on paper. So given the differences in reading style for online and paper-based information, this document poses a challenge. Moreover, it is mostly a black and white design. What it does best is organize information into manageable chunks (like an informational graphic), while highlighting the most important elements. Because of this, the reader can skim the document, immediately grasp vital data, and then come back for a closer review at a later date.

How It Was Done

The first chunk of copy comprises the title and the date in a large, Modern-style, serif typeface. It has been determined that online text is easier to read in a sans serif face and print-based text is easier to read in a serif typeface. Interestingly enough, the designer has improved legibility by making the headline and date large enough to be an aesthetically appealing design element (as well as content/information). She or he also set the title in a bold face and the date (in just a slightly smaller type size) in a roman face. The contrast identifies the two separate levels of importance.

Moving onward, the next graphic element is a solid, black box containing reversed type. Reversed type is harder to read in a print book (or other printed product) than black type on white paper, and this rule of thumb is doubly true for online reading. To compensate (and facilitate online readability—by old and young alike), the designer has made the type slightly larger and bolder than needed. This significantly improves the legibility of the white type on the solid black background.

Moreover, the designer has greatly increased the size of the statistics (“Total Asset Value,” “Number of Properties,” and “Occupancy”) of the Real Estate Income Trust prospectus. This huge size difference highlights three statistics that by themselves will hook anyone potentially interested in this financial opportunity. The reader’s eye goes directly to the statistics because of the size difference (with numbers about four to six times the size of the text copy).

In addition, the lines and strokes of the Modern-style typeface are attractive. The text is not purely informational. It is a design element. But if you have only an instant, you will see the large numbers, digest the data, and then have enough information to either read further or move on.

To distinguish among various chunks of copy, the designer also uses contrasting type size, bold vs. roman and bold italic type, and a thick white rule line to separate content into chunks and to identify the relative importance of these bits of information.

So far there has been no use of color. In a world full of color printing and online color, this financial prospectus already stands out because of its uniqueness (like the black and white Volkswagen ads of the 1960s). Therefore, the multiple tints of light yellow green added to highlight the four classes of investment shares in the next section both jump off the virtual page and are at the same time elegant. The green looks sophisticated and understated on the solid black background.

Supplemental type in the solid black box is set in a smaller (but still readable) serif typeface. While a bit harder to read than the preceding bar chart in various shades of green, the reversed type is still legible. At this point, since the reader will already have absorbed the gist of the information, the clarifying material can be a little harder to read without annoying an interested reader.

The Next Section

The next section is entitled, “Diversified Portfolio Concentrated in Growth Markets.” For many people, reading anything like this document would be akin to reading the phone book or a dictionary. But again, Blackstone has used graphic principles to pique interest, create elegance, and facilitate reading.

So far, visual information has been displayed in an info-graphic format, with the most useful information dramatically enlarged for instant recognition while also reflecting an aesthetic value in itself. This next section approaches communication in the same way.

This section is laid out in three columns, with a photo, “Property Type,” and “Metrics” side by side. The photos are all black and white, with a little more contrast than usual, which makes them look artsy. The numbers are, again, extremely large. Their letterforms, in the bold, Modern-style typeface, are graceful as well as informative. The explanatory letters and glyphs (“k,” as in “10k,” and “M,” as in “141M Square Feet”) are typeset either in “small capitals” or, if lowercase, in a slightly smaller type size than the main text. This two-tiered effect adds to the sense of elegance.

In fact, the whole vibe of the prospectus, with its mostly black and white color scheme and graceful large numbers and rule lines is a bit Art Deco in style. In fact it reminds me of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work and the art of the 1920s. (The design seems to echo the tone of the Jazz Age.)

The Third and Following Sections

A “Performance Summary” chart follows, and it is organized with thin rule lines, a few much thicker rule lines, and tint screens, plus lots of white space. Everything is crisp and elegant, as before—in black and white. Finally, there are two pages of boilerplate financial information. It’s there if you want to read it, but because of the superb organization of all of the other material, you already know what’s most important. In fact, if you only read the huge type in the overall prospectus, you can still decide whether this financial product interests you.

Two pie charts accompany the text, and these are the final and only use of color along with the aforementioned light green bar chart. By being kept to an absolute minimum, the color absolutely screams for attention.

And now I will leave you with one final observation. Everything is flush left. Granted, this is easier to read than justified type, whether online or on paper. But beyond that, since as a culture we now have so much less time to read so much more information, we tend to skim. In fact, experts have determined that we quickly scan down the left margin of an online page and then only read toward the center of the page at the headlines. (This eye movement resembles the cross strokes or “bars” of an “E” or “F.”) We move across briefly and then jet down the page deciding what to read.

In Blackstone’s financial prospectus, the designer has used this awareness, along with an awareness of many other characteristics of reading style for online and printed text, to facilitate the reading experience. If you can get the reader to read, and if you can make this process easy and pleasurable, only then can you transmit the content that is the reason any printed or online product exists in the first place.

The Blackstone designer did just that.

What We Can Learn

    1. Readability is paramount. If you make reading hard, you’ll lose the reader. Enough said.


    1. Learn the differences between reading online text and reading text in commercial printing products. Study the mechanics of vision, and learn how the eyes change as the reader gets older.


    1. Group related information in your design work. Show the reader what’s most important, secondary, tertiary. Lead the reader’s eye through and down the online page or printed page.


    1. Consider the connotations of type styles, color schemes, and design grids as they relate to the purpose or theme of your document. A dramatic use of type size differences, in the preceding sample, both facilitates readability and gives the piece a feel of Wall Street during the Roaring Twenties.


  1. The best way to learn all of this and make it second nature is to copy good design. (Stravinsky, Faulkner, and Steve Jobs all voiced some version of “Good artists copy; great artists steal.”). Create a swipe file containing print work (or print outs of online work) you like. Be able to explain how the form and style choices support the theme, meaning, or content of each piece.

Cheap Printing Services as Long Term Solutions

Saturday, April 10th, 2021

Printing plays an important role in making elements of a business visible in front of consumers. These consumers do not always have to be end users, but could be representatives of other businesses. Different types of printed materials commonly required are brochures, flyers, books, posters, T-Shirts, key chains, and others. These days, suitable print coordinators who can get in touch with various print companies all over the world are available for such tasks.

Businesses have resorted to digital print services due to various reasons, one of them being cheap printing services. Technology has made it possible for printing machines and their related costs to be low, enabling companies to decrease their printing rates. There is no company which does not make use of digital print services at present. A Publishing House is an example of one such company. It makes great sense to carry out internal communication in the form of magazines and newsletters with the help of such printing services.

More About Digital Prints

In addition to providing cheap printing services, digital print enables companies to complete printing projects at a rapid pace. The print medium also helps a company clearly communicate with its target audience. Low volume print jobs like newsletters can be easily completed through digital prints. It is also suitable for proofing purposes.

One of the reasons why it is so efficient is because it can print to different media from digital-based images. It creates professional samples, allowing users to get detailed samples of their print jobs in a short time.

Yet another benefit of this technology is that changes with respect to colors, text, and photos can be made easily, but without slowing the process much. Businesses can benefit from customized marketing campaigns through this method. However, those who want high volume prints need to look for offset printing companies instead.

Kinds of Prints

While some companies look for specific types of printed matter, there are others who look for a variety of printing solutions. Common kinds of printed matter are as follows:

  • Letterheads
  • Notepads
  • Banners
  • Flyers
  • Standees
  • Pamphlets
  • Membership Cards
  • Brochures
  • Hologram Stickers
  • Leaflets
  • Posters
  • Plastic Cards
  • Mouse Pads
  • Grocery Bags
  • Car Wraps

Since printing coordinators can be contacted online, there is no need to travel to a new geographical location for finding a print vendor. Payments can also be made online, using wallets and payment gateways. It is possible to check the rankings of final print companies with the help of customer reviews on Google and other websites.

Print Offers are Available Online

Visits to various reputed print websites through the coordinators will help customers look at attractive discounts from time to time. Such discounts on good quality services are rarely available at offline stores. Quick delivery is also made possible, usually within a day or two, though this is based on the nature of assignment.

Print quality gives information about the nature of business. Therefore, it is important to choose reputed printing companies for the best results.

Custom Printing: Engage the Reader’s Eye with Page Design

Saturday, February 6th, 2021

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Whether you’re designing a print book (everything from the cover to the table of contents and the interior text pages), or you’re designing a poster, a brochure, or even a web page, your first goal is to make the design inviting and readable. If you can’t capture the reader’s attention, you can’t engage the reader. You can’t tell a story, teach the reader something, or persuade the reader to buy your product or service. If you don’t do this, all of the information on the page is meaningless.

But how do you organize text and images on a page to make the print book, poster, or brochure both enticing and readable?

Grouping Similar Information

Group things together that are related, and make things that are different look different. Also, give the reader a hierarchy of importance in the design. (What’s the most important element, then the next most important element, etc.?)

In this light, I remember reading a book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez that was particularly frustrating because it had no punctuation and no paragraph indentations (as a method of illustrating the stream of consciousness of the main character). Had the print book not been required reading for my college class, I would have missed a captivating story.

So, a device as simple as a paragraph indent will indicate to the reader the transition from one idea to the next. What would otherwise be a sea of gray type becomes a series of groups of ideas.

A good designer can use type style and size; width of margins; and contrast between the headings, subheads, and text copy (including type size and contrasting fonts) to group some information together and set this apart from other information.

But what other methods of organizing book content does the designer have at hand? One of these is the distinction between the cover and the main text pages, and between both of these and the front matter and back matter of the print book (i.e., the table of contents, copyright page, and title page in the front of the book, and the index and afterword in the back). The best way to learn to craft this global organization of a book is to observe, copy good design, and then create your own design work.

A Few Points on Magazine Design

In contrast, on a magazine page spread, the graphic artist has a few more design elements to consider than a print book designer. (Of course, this depends on the complexity of both the print book and the magazine.) These may include photos, captions, color screens and solids, and pull quotes. All distinctions (i.e., contrast) between one design element and the next will work together to serve up little chunks of information in a manner that aids in the reader’s comprehension.

It is up to you as the designer to determine this order of reading and to use your page design skills to facilitate it. The building blocks of page design include contrast in type size, contrast between type styles, size and color contrast within and between photos, and the use of white space on the page spread.

With magazine design, as with print book design, you use these to group certain visual elements and indicate their relative importance. There are a plethora of tips and tricks to create this “road map” for the reader. but in just a few words, your primary goal is to direct the reader’s eye around the page.

A good way to learn how to do this by studying design grids (the structure of a page: how things are placed within a predetermined “scaffolding,” also referred to as “page geometry”) of the books, posters, and brochures you find striking. Observe. Notice what you like. Then deconstruct it and articulate why you like it and what design rules the graphic artist has used to give order, structure, and unity to the layout.

Eye Movement (Some Samples for Illustration)

One of the key methods for leading the reader’s eye around a print book page, a magazine page, a poster, or a brochure is to note the visual direction implied in photos or other visual elements (even the style and placement of type).

For instance, my favorite design book (Design Basics Index by Jim Krause), to which I often refer in the PIE Blog articles, includes four sample business cards for a surf shop. Each sample includes the client’s contact information and a blue ocean wave. Nothing else. The four samples are very similar. But here are the differences:

    1. In the first option, the wave is breaking to the left (toward the edge of the card), but all contact information text is stacked and on the far right of the card. Because the wave is breaking off the left side, it leads the reader’s eye off the left side of the business card. It does not lead the reader’s eye to the name, address, phone number, and other contact information. It may look pretty, but the design and the intended eye movement are at odds. (Krause says as much in the text of his print book, but I would add one other observation. In this culture we read from left to right. So if the wave leads the reader in the opposite direction, this goes against her/his expectations and hinders the reading process.)


    1. Option #2 has all contact information stacked on the left of the card (set flush left). On the right the wave crests and is about to “break” off the edge of the business card. The reader’s eye goes to the cresting wave first, but then it has to “back up” (go back to the left side of the card) to get to the contact information. If you only have a second to make an impression, this card may only give the hasty reader an image of the cresting wave, and she/he may miss the contact information. The takeaway? Assume the reader will unconsciously read from left to right. Make sure your placement of design elements both reflects and encourages this eye movement.


  1. (Actually both option #3 and #4) Krause’s third and fourth design samples are very similar. The only difference is in the way the wave is drawn. In both cases the wave crests and is about to fall to the right, onto the contact information. On the third sample card, the wave beyond the curling crest exits the page exactly horizontally. But on the fourth sample business card, the curve under the crest of the wave cradles (or contains) the lines of contact information (because it curves upward slightly on the right as it bleeds off the edge of the business card). This particular design, unlike the other three, includes a cresting wave falling onto the most important part of the card (the text), but it also holds the reader’s eye in place with a simple rising of the water to the right of the wave.

The Takeaway

Learning design can be a lifetime pursuit. I personally learned my design skills not in school but on the job. But what has helped me the most has been looking closely at the design work of the masters and asking myself the following: What was the overall goal? And how did the designer achieve the goal using the elements and principles of design?

The elements of design might include type style, size, and weight; page geometry, or the design grid; color; and imagery such as drawings and photos. And the principles of design might include repetition, contrast, unity, and the like.

So the short answer is: Observe, deconstruct, understand, create.

Custom Printing: Achieving Visual Contrast in Print

Monday, December 14th, 2020

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If you’ve ever seen the high-contrast drawing of one vase or two faces (called the “Rubin Vase,” if you Google it online), you understand that contrast makes “things” stand out: like the proverbial “can’t see the forest for the trees” quote suggests. One’s perception of the Rubin vase switches back and forth between two black facial silhouettes and one white vase (called a “bi-stable image”) only because of the contrast between the stark white and black achromatic “colors.”

My fiancee and I were discussing this concept with our autistic art therapy class recently, and I thought about how contrast as an important element of design in the fine arts was equally relevant to graphic design for commercial printing. After all, if you research the famous masters in art history print books, you will notice that many of them were also graphic designers.

Contrasting Images

With this thought in mind I did some research in the Design Basics Index, my go-to textbook on publication design. Jim Krause’s print book notes one of the cardinal rules of design, “Styles between images should be either identical, or noticeably different” (p. 200, Design Basics Index).

This echoes one of the maxims of the first boss I had from whom I learned graphic design, “Whatever you do (regarding contrast), make it big.”

In Design Basics Index, Jim Krause says the same thing. Krause includes three versions of an advertisement to illustrate “contrast in style, agreement in theme” (p. 200, Design Basics Index). All three versions are of a symmetrically designed ad (its balance achieved with all elements centered vertically), with a large photo of the arch above a (presumably) cathedral doorway, in color, containing a half-circle stained glass window with radiating sections (like a cross section of an orange). In its presentation, the image looks “painterly,” as though it had been rendered with a brush or even with colored pencils.

Below this image in all three versions of the ad is the tag line in what looks like actual handwriting (it might be a faux handwriting font). This approach resonates with the artistic treatment of the 4-color image above. Below this is a small, vertical photo of another part of the building, then three lines of type (two in a brown hue and one in a more yellow ochre tone).

Finally, in a grey tone, at a larger point size, is the logotype for the historical society the advertisement promotes. Behind all of the type, and abutting the 4-color image of the arched window above the cathedral door is a cream-colored background screen to tie everything together. The screen unifies the design along with the earth tones in the photo, the “antique” look of the handwritten headline treatment, and the browns and yellows of the type in the bottom half of the ad.

So here’s the difference (from one ad to another) and the lesson Jim Krause is teaching with the three versions of the advertisement. The smaller image alone changes from ad to ad. In the first ad, the small image (which appears to be an architectural support on a Gothic cathedral) is a warm-toned (sepia, perhaps) image, which contrasts with the more painterly treatment of the large image of the cornice and stained glass window.

In the second rendition of this ad, the same small image is treated as a high-contrast photo overlaying a ghosted and much larger version of the same image in the background.

In the third version of the ad both the larger image of the stained glass window above the door and the small image of the curvilinear support structure are rendered in the same 4-color, painterly style.

What Jim Krause teaches us with these examples is the following:

  1. Treating both photos the same (both in a 4-color, artistically distressed manner) makes the two photos compete for the viewer’s attention. They are too similar, even if one is much smaller than the other.
  2. The high-contrast-positive image of the support structure (and the screened back, much larger version of the same image in the background) hang together and provide ample contrast with the large, 4-color, stained glass window photo at the top of the ad.
  3. The thematic associations (hand-written headline, earth tones for the type, light cream background screen to tie everything together) all visually unify the ad.
  4. But the treatment of only the larger photo in a saturated, 4-color, painterly manner gives this image prominence because of its contrast with the remaining type and monochromatic imagery.
  5. Or, as my old boss said, “Whatever you do (in this case, contrasting the treatment of images on the page), make it big.” (Another way to say this is that minor contrasts between images look like an accident, whereas major contrasts create drama.)
  6. I would even go one step further on this theme: The huge difference in size between the large image of the arch with the stained glass and the support structure of the (presumably) Gothic cathedral creates drama in and of itself. Difference in size also creates contrast and interest in a design (in both the commercial arts and fine arts).

The Same Is True for Type

As I was learning graphic design (on the job, over many years), I always read that you should limit the number of font changes within a design to two or three typefaces at most. In fact, I learned that it wasn’t even a bad idea to design something with only the various weights (bold, italic, etc.) of a single typeface.

I also learned that, when choosing a typeface for headlines and a different typeface for body copy, I should make the contrast obvious. Choosing two similar sans serif typefaces was not a good idea, and choosing two similar, but not quite the same, serif typefaces was not advisable. If a headline type and a body copy typeface looked almost the same, that would give the impression that the choice was an error, an oversight. Making the contrast between the headline type and body copy type a “big,” or dramatic, one would create more energy in the design of the ad, publication, poster, etc.

Interestingly enough, the ad I deconstructed above, from Jim Krause’s Design Basics Index, actually illustrates this point with its choice of typefaces.

As noted above, the headline of the ad (all three versions) is either handwriting or a handwriting font. All of the remaining type (two font choices, as my old boss taught me) is in a tall, narrow, and perhaps severe Moden typeface (that is, with dramatic shifts between the thick and thin strokes in the letterforms). I can think of no typeface that would contrast as dramatically with the handwriting font (or handwriting) as a stark Modern font. In addition, the handwriting is also more horizontal and less tightly tracked (the space adjustment between successive letters) than the more vertical treatment of the narrow (perhaps even condensed) lines of copy and the logotype at the bottom of the ad.

Again, a big difference in letterforms (from one section to another) creates contrast and drama.

What Can We Learn from This Deconstruction and Analysis of an Advertisement?

  1. The first thing is to learn to observe. Look closely at every ad that appeals to you, every print book design, every magazine that takes your fancy. Then consider what design elements the graphic artist has used to create visual interest, a sense of unity, and even contrast in order to evoke a dramatic mood.
  2. Realize that contrast comes in many flavors: contrast in size, contrast in typeface design, color contrast, contrast in artistic treatment, and so forth.
  3. When you’re designing something, make sure that all of your design decisions support the thematic whole. That is, make sure every choice of type, photo treatment, color, and placement of design elements is congruent with the intended message—what you’re saying and even the mood you’re trying to evoke. Making something look good for its own sake is not enough. To quote a famous architect, “Form follows function” (Louis Sullivan).

Custom Printing: Designing for Digital Printing

Monday, November 30th, 2020

Photo purchased from …

Designing for digital printing is a subject that needs regular attention these days. Digital and offset printing are not the same. While each has its benefits, they both have potential drawbacks that you can minimize based on your approach to the design of your custom printing project.

Moreover, between the quick turn-around requirements, versioned printing and variable-data printing requirements, and ultra-short print run requirements of recent years, it behooves you to study the various ways to minimize the visibility of the flaws inherent in digital commercial printing.

Sooner rather than later, you most probably will need to address these issues.

An Example

Here’s an example. In my commercial print brokering business I currently have a client who is designing a floor sample box. It is a die-cut, fold-up product with 32 separate samples of flooring (1” x 2” x .5” wood chips) inset and glued into wells in the interior panels. On the liner for the interior of the box/book, the names of the wood products are printed (or reversed out of the background). The exterior panels are printed (photos, marketing text, company address information, etc.).

For a while during the design process, all exterior, visible panels of the book/box, including the front and back covers and the spine, were to be printed in 4-color process ink. Inside the box, the liner (which covers the chipboard box structure and surrounds the die-cut wells for the wood chips) was first white with black type, then black with white type, then 4-color process to match the dark bluish-black within the front cover photo. (That is, the design of the box is an evolving process.)

All of this would have been fairly uneventful in an offset print run, barring the need to adequately dry and then laminate the heavy coverage ink. However, both the prototype for the box (a one-off sample that will convince the client to either go forward with the printer or go elsewhere) plus the extremely short press run for the box (100 or 200 copies) will necessitate digital custom printing.

Offset vs. Digital Printing

At this point it may be helpful to review the differences between offset printing and digital printing:

  1. Offset printing involves applying ink from an on-press reservoir to rollers, then to a printing plate, then to a rubber blanket, and then to the paper substrate.
  2. Digital printing involves the building up of an electrostatic charge on a drum to attract toner particles (dry toner or toner suspended in a liquid or oil), apply them to a blanket or belt, and then deposit them onto the paper substrate.
  3. For the most part (and to a lesser extent with coated paper than with uncoated), with offset printing at least some ink seeps into the paper fibers as it dries or is cured with UV light.
  4. With digital printing, most of the ink sits up on the surface of the paper.
  5. Offset printing is static. It cannot apply different information (such as different addresses) to each copy printed. Digital printing can.
  6. For very short runs, offset printing is cost prohibitive (all of your money goes into preparation for the short press run). However, since there’s almost no prep work for digital, you can print as few as one or two copies of a digital press run.

Back to My Client’s Flooring Sample Box

So, my client needed one initial copy (the prototype). It required heavy coverage of ink, 4-color process work, gloss lamination, die cutting, gluing, and assembly. And the final production run will need all of these processes for just 100 or 200 copies (well under a 1,000- or 5,000-copy run—for instance—that might be cost effective for an offset printing job). Therefore, digital custom printing is the way to go. And the potential pitfalls of digital commercial printing will be crucial for my client (the designer) to address.

Potential Problems

Uneven Toner Laydown and Problems with Gradients

Unlike offset printing, digital printing involves electrostatic charges—noted above—that may not be even across the entire press sheet. Therefore, the laydown of toner (toner deposit) may not be completely even. This can lead to artifacts (little bits of toner here and there, marring the precise, even deposit of color) and “banding” in gradient colors (visible bands of color across a press sheet when you’re transitioning from one color to another). The unevenness will be even more visible if you’re printing on a perfectly smooth, coated press sheet.

The Solution

To reduce banding and artifacts in tints or gradations, use Photoshop to add noise—i.e., a visible texture—to the graduated screen or tint. Or use Gaussian Blur on the background screen. Also, make tinted areas smaller, or keep them apart from one another in the design.

In addition, ask your commercial printing supplier about the best length for gradients (the physical length from the start of one color to the end of the transition to the other color) and the best starting and ending percentages for the transition (perhaps 80 or 100 percent gradually reduced to 15 percent across the length of the gradation). Ideal gradations may vary from one digital press to another, or one printing resolution to another, so discuss this with your commercial printing vendor.

Issues with Cracking Toner at Post-Press Folds

Since toner (whether dry toner or toner particles in viscous oil) sits up on top of the press sheet, printing heavy coverage of a 4-color process “build” and then folding the press sheet off-press can lead to cracking of the toner/ink.


Avoid heavy toner coverage over folds, or score the press sheet before printing and folding it.

Color Matching Problems

Most digital presses either have no accommodation for PMS match colors or only a handful of match colors you can choose (such as a the available mixed colors for the HP Indigo press). Therefore, if your cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink builds don’t match the particular corporate logo color you want, you don’t have the same options as with offset printing (i.e., printing PMS match colors using an additional inking unit on the offset press).


Keep your colors within the printable CMYK gamut (which is smaller—i.e., has fewer distinct colors—than RGB or PMS match colors). This is not a workable solution in all cases.

In general, to ensure color accuracy, ask your printer about color profiles (ICC profiles) and whether to save your images (photos) in TIFF or EPS format. The latter, EPS, will allow you to embed color profiles into the saved images.

Trapping Problems

In my own experience (and this may be in the process of changing), tolerance for movement within the digital press is not quite as precise as in an offset press. So if colors have to abut, any imperfections in paper transport can cause problems (visible white lines between colors that abut). In addition, trapping technology, in general, seems to be more comprehensive in offset lithography than in digital printing (again, this has been improving significantly). (Trapping is the intentional, slight overlapping of abutting colors to avoid white lines between them in case the ink or toner placement is not exactly right.)


Keep colors apart, where possible. Also, research trapping options for digital printing. Keep at least one common color (cyan or magenta, not black or yellow) within the two colors that trap. If you design with type printed on a solid or screened 4-color build, consider using black type on a light screen. Or reverse the type from a dark solid or screen.

Transparency Issues

Transparency (this pertains to opacity, glows, feathering, blending, and drop shadows) can cause problems (particularly when “flattening” the file).


Keep the transparency on the uppermost layer (research “stacking order” of elements in transparency). Flatten the files before handing them off to the printer. Proof the page early and often.

Issues with Bleeds

Bleeds can be a problem because digital press sheets are usually smaller than offset press sheets.

To achieve a bleed, your printed image has to extend past the end of the final-size printed page and then be trimmed off to give the illusion that the ink goes off the edge of the page. This often requires a large press sheet. Digital presses often accept press sheets that are closer to 13” x 18” than to the 25” x 38” or larger press sheets an offset press can accommodate.


Larger digital presses are being made. Ask your printer about the acceptable press sheet sizes for his press. As an alternative, find another printer with digital press equipment that can accept a “B2” press sheet (which is just under 20” x 28” in size).

If You Remember Nothing Else…

I personally like to walk away from a discussion of pitfalls with a general rule of thumb: a failsafe way to avoid problems. In this case, here is my advice. Proof early and often using the same digital process for the proof as for the production run (which you cannot do with offset commercial printing but you can do with digital printing).

If you review proofs before proceeding, you will see whether your work-arounds have minimized banding, artifacts, and other problems. If it looks right on the proof, the final run should match exactly.

Creating and Publishing Coffee Table Books

Friday, October 23rd, 2020

If you are into self-publishing, then you understand why book specs are so important, especially when it comes to coffee table books. When we talk about coffee table books, they have to be vibrant and appealing. A picture speaks a thousand words, and a coffee table book must incorporate photographs and illustrations that are meant for casual reading. Coffee table books are placed on a coffee table at cafes, lounges, or homes so that visitors can go through them while they enjoy their coffee.

Today, modern cafes and coffee shops use coffee table books as a way of disconnect from reality or as a symbol of class. If you were always into photography or love drawing illustrations and want people to see them, then there is nothing better than converting your art into a coffee table book. The best part is that with online printing services, the coffee table book printing costs are quite reasonable. Here is what you need to know.

Work on a Theme

The first step towards creating a coffee table book is brainstorm themes. Your coffee table book can have any theme as long as it is intriguing and appealing to the readers. It can be anything from wildlife photography to dramatic selfies, glamorous interior designs, and even distinctive portraits. The primary goal of a coffee table book is to inspire others and have them start a conversation. It is all about celebrating your favorite form of art. A good coffee table book comprises a cluster of images with little context. So, you have to work on a theme and curate the best pictures. You are always free to ask for a second opinion before sending in the photos to the printer.

Design and Layout

Once you have curated your best pictures and decided on a theme, work on creating an outline of your project so that you know in which format you want it to be. Creating a layout will help you in making necessary changes before it goes for the final print. While the online printer will provide you with a plethora of designs and layout, you would want to create your own layout given the fact that it is your artwork, and nobody knows better than you. It is highly important that you only choose high-resolution pictures for a clean and crisp effect.

Choose the Paper Wisely

The coffee table book printing costs can be significantly reduced if you choose your paper wisely. If you are on a budget, always go with the standard size for the book and use the regular paper that other publishing houses use. This way, you will be able to maintain the feel and look of your coffee table book while cutting down costs.

B&W Photographs

Nothing can give you the premium feel and classiness as black and white photographs. Nevertheless, printing high-quality images in B&W is much more affordable than printing images in color. Or you can have a mixture of color photographs and black and white photographs to give your book a distinctive appeal.

Last but not least, always have a good design by your side when designing and creating a coffee table book. A designer will make sure that everything looks appealing.

Custom Printing: Designing Mock-ups for Our Boss’s Tattoo

Sunday, October 18th, 2020

Photo purchased from …

I usually like to limit my writing to subjects I know, understand, and/or have researched heavily. But earlier this week one of our bosses (my fiancee and I have multiple gigs we have cobbled together, including art therapy with the autistic, graphic design, writing, and commercial printing sales) asked us to help design her new tattoo. For free, obviously. She is our boss. She also needed it immediately.

Even though we had done nothing of the sort before, my fiancee is an art therapist, and I have a background in fine arts, commercial art, and commercial printing, so designing for ink on skin seemed do-able. After all, design principles are design principles—whatever the substrate.

This Is How We Approached the Assignment

Our boss is becoming a member of a religious organization, and she had found two relevant phrases, in Latin, that she wants permanently emblazoned on her arm. Our task was to come up with designs she would approve and then pass on to her tattoo artist the next day.

We started with the two Latin phrases and our boss’s comment that she wanted something feminine, and we went to the computer. Since the computer in question has no design software at the moment, we opened a word processor file and copied the two Latin phrases four times. My fiancee and I both had the idea that a script font would be the ideal rendering, so we chose four script fonts (on which we could both agree), set the type, and sent a PDF off to our boss.

We figured she would choose one of the four, and the script type renderings of the phrases would be the base of the tattoo design. We would then embellish the words with floral artwork. She chose the Latin phrases set in Zapfino, a legible script face (of key importance but not always a foregone conclusion for script typefaces).

She wanted the Latin phrases enhanced with flowers, birds, and such. So we went online and found samples of floral flourishes for her approval. Being old and somewhat less technologically advanced, we regressed to our cut-and-paste roots, and took photos of the computer screen to text to our boss.

She liked the flowers, so we proceeded to quick-and-dirty sketches, known back when I was doing graphic design for a living as “roughs.”

Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, we would usually start with “thumbnail sketches” (small, loose drawings by hand just to suggest the “concept,” the idea behind the logo. (A logo is the closest thing I can envision—within the corporate world–to the tattoo my fiancee and I were in the process of designing.) Since we already had the concept (approved by our boss), we skipped the thumbnail sketches and went directly to the “roughs” and then the “comps.”

Now in normal circumstances, if I were designing this alone, for my regular rate, for a client with a budget and a reasonable time frame, I’d probably do the roughs and comps directly on the computer using proper graphic design software. I’d save the PDFs and then send them on to the client. I’d include comps developed from full-size roughs developed from numerous hand-sketched thumbnails. My client would first approve the concept through the thumbnail sketches, then pick perhaps three of them for me to develop into full-size renderings and then an almost-finished final comp.

But my fiancee and I were doing this as a favor. This was an immediate design challenge to address, and I had to get back to my other work. Also, all our boss needed was a handful of somewhat-developed ideas (i.e., more akin to the “roughs” stage noted above).

So I reverted to the handwork, tape, and photocopying I did in the ‘80s and ‘90s because I could do this in my sleep, quickly, without needing a computer or printer (once I had the raw materials).

I printed out two sets of the text file and various sizes of the drawings of flowers, vines, and such, to cobble together by hand until my fiancee and I both liked the results. My fiancee took a set and I took a set, so we could do two different options simultaneously (and so our design ideas would not be potentially in conflict).

This Is What We Tried to Do

Whether it’s a design on paper, banner fabric, or skin (as a tattoo), presenting type and imagery has to address certain design fundamentals. Here is what we had to consider:

  1. The rendering had to be legible. Custom printing in ink, applied with a tattoo gun on our boss’s arm, would require a typeface of a readable size and type design (as noted above). It had to be script but it couldn’t be too floral because it had to be readable from a distance at a reasonably small size (two phrases, one above the other, containing three Latin words each).
  2. The flowers we added had to be recognizable at a small size. Our boss wanted the dots above two letter “i”s to be birds, and she also wanted a sun between the two phrases. We showed her in our quick-and-dirty paste-ups rendered with paper, scissors, and tape, that even at a large size these would be difficult to grasp as images.

(We knew that anyone who saw the tattoo would also see it only briefly, so—like a logo—immediate recognition and simplicity of design would be of paramount importance.)

When all was said and done our boss had three options created by the two of us, in quick-and-dirty format for her tattoo artist to review and amend.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

Design principles are the foundation of everything from the paintings in the Louvre to print books and magazines to tattoos rendered on people’s arms. Here are some things to consider, no matter what you design.

  1. The message is key. In the case of the tattoo, the readability of the text was more important than the attractiveness of the flowers, sun, and birds.
  2. That said, the frame enhances the portrait. The floral style of the type and the flowers nestled in between and around the words provided a tone or atmosphere for the overall tattoo.
  3. Size matters. If the overall image looked good at the large size at which we had created it but then became illegible when reduced down for application to our boss’s arm, it would be useless. It would not communicate its message. Think about this if you’re designing a logo. If you can’t read it on a business card (or if a logo mark is confusing), you’ve lost your audience. Conversely, if you will need to enlarge the logo for a sign, a vehicle wrap, or an exterior banner for the side of a building, make sure you look closely at a physical print of the final-size logo (or other image). Does it still look as good?
  4. Think about the substrate. In the case of our boss’s tattoo, the substrate was her arm. Arms move around a lot compared to business cards with logos on them. You can easily miss the tattoo words or floral design. Design accordingly. You may only have an instant to create an impression.
  5. In addition, colors are affected by their surroundings. In the case of the tattoo, our boss is Caucasian. Perhaps too much yellow in the tattoo would be excessive. Perhaps blues and purples would create a nice contrast. Consider this when you’re printing four-color work on a cream paper stock. The cream paper will affect the colors of flesh tones.
  6. When in doubt, hire a professional. That’s why we handed off the drawings (photos of the rough options for our boss’s tattoo) and let her move on to the next steps with her tattoo artist.

Book Printing: Visually Organizing a Print Book

Monday, August 24th, 2020

People’s attention spans seem to be getting shorter. Too many things to see. Too many things to read. All these visuals coming at you at once.

When I was in school, textbooks had a few photos, charts, and graphs, but mostly I read page upon page of straight text.

In total contrast to this, I found a fascinating print book at the thrift store this week. It’s essentially a sociology textbook for those who have already graduated (laypeople rather than students). And it does a masterful job of visually organizing a vast number of complex topics into timelines, charts, and bite-size chunks of text. Exactly the way we consume material on the internet. Visually and spatially.

The book is entitled The Sociology Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained, and it was curated (edited, compiled) by the following contributors: Christopher Thorpe, Chris Yuill, Mitchell Hobbs, Megan Todd, Sarah Tomley, and Marcus Weeks.

The Key Is the Visuals

Since graduating from college, I’ve learned more about things I didn’t study in school than things I did. Everything from economics to history, to all the other subjects I avoided. In the last 40 years these subjects have become interesting to me because they have become relevant to my daily life. There are probably many other people out there who could say the same thing.

In those 40 years (and before), experts have learned a lot about how people consume and master information on new subjects. In addition, between the ‘90s and the present, the internet has created a shift in how people consume content from a linear reading style to a more random, or at least spatial, approach that favors images, video, sounds, and short chunks of copy (such as bulleted lists).

This is not to say that “long-form” (the current name) journalism and literature have disappeared. The more spatial way of consuming information (like jumping around among a stack of books collecting facts and quotes for a term paper) has just grown exponentially in part because of our exposure to the internet.

The other point to consider is that you can consume and retain information more efficiently if it is presented in an organized manner. When you see how large concepts are connected, you can understand them and remember them better.

The Sociology Book

All of this information on how people learn (based on my reading in psychology, human perception, blog and other marketing, consumer behavior, and advertising) leans toward a more visual treatment of content. This includes an increasing use of photos, captions, call-outs, quotes, time-lines, and flow charts. The Sociology Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained is replete with all of these, and the book employs them masterfully.

I’d even go further in my description. This print book contains fire-engine red, full-bleed divider pages to set apart one section from another. It also includes screened sidebars describing the influential social thinkers (who would be called “thought leaders” today). And there are full-color photos and also infographics to visually show how concepts are related and how one event or process leads directly to another.

There are also screened “In Context” sidebars that place the concepts discussed (such as globalization) within a setting of historical events.

Finally, in describing the organization of The Sociology Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained and how this organization facilitates learning, here’s a description of a sample chapter. Keep in mind that after the front matter of the print book, each article (instead of chapters) follows this graphic presentation.

  1. Each section begins with a double-page divider, with a red solid block of color bleeding off all sides and surprinted with the title of the section in all capital letters in an ultra-bold, sans serif typeface.
  2. The next two-page spread includes a red half-inch bar (a timeline) extending from the left page to the right, bleeding on both sides. Above and below the line are dates in a black sans serif type with arrows pointing to short paragraphs describing significant events. All of these snippets pertain directly to the subject of that section, such as “The Foundations of Sociology.”
  3. Each section then contains a handful of related articles (maybe 10). There is an opening “pictogram” for each article, printed in black ink over the local color. (By local color, I mean one of the many bright, saturated colors that distinguish each article from every other article. These colors do repeat occasionally throughout the print book.) The benefit of the pictograms is that they illustrate each concept in a simple, visual way, and they immediately grab the reader’s attention.
  4. To the right of the pictogram is the title of the article in the all-caps, sans serif font, printed in black. Below the title is the name of the sociologist under discussion, and above and below this title block is a 1/2” solid bar of the local color. The effect is that the reader’s eye goes here first, without question.
  5. Then there’s the “In Context” box immediately below the pictogram (all within a three-column layout) to give the historical surroundings of the key concept or subject.
  6. Some articles include quotes (to enhance the reader’s level of trust in the content of the book). Each quote includes large screened quote marks above and below the text and solid color bars (the local color again) to frame the quotation and the quote marks.
  7. Some articles include flow charts (hand drawn circles and arrows around short blocks of text, which are set in roman type with bold type highlighting the most important words).
  8. The book includes running heads at the top of the page, typeset in uppercase letters and screened to gray. You always know where you are in the book.
  9. Finally, the print book includes a three-column layout of text, which is still important in this visual layout. The text of each article begins with a drop cap in a heavy slab-serif typeface. The text itself is set in a small roman version of this typeface. With all of the sidebars and quotes, the solid bars of color, the duotones, and the pictograms, the reader’s eye–or at least my eyes–appreciate the white space (even if it is within the text columns).

What We Can Learn from This Book

This print book is a wonderful case study in how people learn today. And if you’re a designer or a writer, you can make yourself incredibly relevant by studying the design of print books like these and incorporating what you learn into your own design and writing work. Here are some observations:

  1. If you set up a design structure for a book that treats all chapters (articles or whatever else you call them) in the same way, your reader will understand that these are all equal-value components of the overall print book (i.e., design reflects function).
  2. Do the same with the cover, front matter, and section markers. In the sample sociology textbook described above, you can understand the book’s structure immediately. Whether you do this dramatically or more subtly than the book I described, create a consistent, overall structure for the book. Your reader will immediately know where she/he is in the text.
  3. Keep chunks of information short and self-contained (as in the sociology book’s sidebars and quotes). Bulleted or numbered lists are good, too.
  4. Be aware that people learn better if you show how the concepts are related. A flow chart is good for this. It shows how one concept or event continues into the next (cause and effect, if you will). Make sure the design reflects this.
  5. Pictograms (often used in infographics) are immediately recognizable because they are so simple in design. Think about the signs on bathroom doors. There’s no question about what they mean.
  6. Quotations (short ones are best) can capture the essence of an idea. They also add to the credibility of a book or magazine. (If such and such expert says so, it must be true.)
  7. Drop caps (initial capital letters) date way back to the illuminated manuscripts monks drew and painted by hand. They grab your attention. You immediately know where to start reading.

The Take Away

Increasingly, people prefer to learn from either videos or short bursts of information presented in a visual manner. This makes your job as a designer all the more important. Do research. Study how people are best able to digest and retain new information. You can learn this from marketing, advertising, psychology, and similar textbooks. If you are skilled at presenting information in an easily digestible way, your design skills will always be in high demand.

Custom Printing: Asymmetrical Balance in Your Design

Sunday, April 19th, 2020

When I first started designing publications forty years ago, I had no formal training. I made a lot of errors. Or, worse, I produced a lot of mediocre work.

In part this was because I had started in publications as a word person. I wrote and edited, but did not yet think in terms of how to design a page for a print book, a brochure, or an advertisement in such a way as to grab the interest of the reader. I could, however, recognize good design.

Over time, I found a number of print books on publication design, and I collected an expansive “swipe file” of printed products (everything from business cards to printed shoe boxes to posters) that I considered excellent examples of their own particular category.

The Rules of Design

I am a great believer in practicing the “fundamentals,” just as a basketball player practices dribbling and does lay-up after lay-up daily, I study the rules of design and composition. So year after year I studied “the rules” of design, first of all becoming aware that the rules of graphic design were no different from the rules of fine art. (I had studied painting and drawing for years before moving into art production for commercial printing, so I had absorbed many of the design rules already.)

This is how I think my entry into the field of design for commercial printing might be relevant to you, if you design anything from print books to brochures to banners for hanging on the sides of buildings. In some cases you may have come into the field by accident (without formal training), and as you develop your own skills, you may be looking for pointers.

In this light, I found a book at the thrift store entitled Graphic Design Basics, which was written by Amy E. Arntson. Basics, fundamentals. This book fits the bill.

Principles of Balance

When I speak of “rules,” I want to be clear that I think design rules can be successfully broken. That said, if you break the rules, you have to do it for a good reason, so the first and most useful step is to learn the rules from the masters.

Graphic Design Basics contains everything you need to know (so you can absorb the information and then practice it for the remainder of your career). Because the print book is so comprehensive, I’m going to pick just one concept as a starting point for this blog article, one that I think is particularly effective for spicing up your design work: asymmetrical balance.

To define our terms, the opposite of “asymmetrical balance” is “symmetrical balance.” Your face is pretty much symmetrical. If you draw a line down the center, everything on the left side has a corresponding element on the right. One eye, the other eye, one nostril, the other nostril. Everything is visually in balance. You can tell this intuitively. It’s just right.

You can approach a conservative business card or a formal invitation in much the same way. You can imagine a central vertical line with everything centered, balanced on the left and right, going from the top to the bottom of the card.

Symmetrical balance provides a sense of formality, gravitas, security, to a design. You can do the same thing with photos and text. Just draw an imaginary vertical line down the center of the page, and make sure every element on the left has a corresponding element (of equal visual weight) on the right.

Unfortunately this can become very boring very quickly.

Asymmetrical Balance

Whereas symmetrical balance works through a rigid balance of equal visual elements, asymmetrical balance works through contrasts. Based on things like size, color, and placement on a page (toward the center or toward the edge of the page—perhaps using a single-page advertisement as an example), you can achieve a visceral (or gut) sense of balance that is far more dynamic than a stolid symmetrical balance. This sense of energy and movement can be a useful way to capture reader interest.

But how do you do this? What are the rules? Fortunately, Graphic Design Basics lists a number of them, which I will share with you. You will find the same rules of asymmetrical balance also apply to works of fine art. Therefore, I would encourage you to both visit museums and also study samples of commercial printing.

Here are the principles of asymmetrical balance as noted in Graphic Design Basics. As we discuss these, consider how you might balance weights on a seesaw (teeter-totter). For instance, you could put a large weight on one side, close to the central fulcrum, and then actually balance this heavy weight with a few smaller, lighter weights at the far end of the opposite side (far away from the central fulcrum). Consider this metaphor when you read these rules, and when you look at samples of commercial printing work, I believe you will develop an intuitive, gut reaction to what is or is not “in balance.”

The rules (from Graphic Design Basics):

  1. Location: A large shape in the middle of a page is already in balance. It feels anchored (probably based on our intuitive understanding of symmetrical balance (half of the shape on either side of the imaginary central vertical line of balance). You can balance a large central shape with a much smaller shape if the smaller shape is near the edge of the page (any edge). This is just like the seesaw metaphor noted above. To put this in the terms of graphic design, the central shape might be a large photo, and the small shape near the edge of the page might be a smaller photo. Or, the central shape might be a photo, and the smaller shapes near the outside edges might be call-outs (pull quotes) or even large initial caps beginning paragraphs of text. Squint as you’re designing, and you’ll see the artistic shapes instead of the typeset words.
  2. Isolation: If you position a small shape surrounded by a lot of white space (negative space) on the page, this graphic element will have more visual weight than a much larger group of small objects. The key word is “group.” For example, when you’re designing a page, you can balance a group of head shot photos with a single photo positioned away from this collection of photos.
  3. Texture: “A small, highly textured area will contrast with and balance a larger area of simple texture” (Graphic Design Basics, p. 72). For instance, if you’re designing an advertisement, you can balance a large block of body copy text about the product with a more complex but much smaller headline, perhaps set at the top of the page and extending into the margin, maybe even at an angle. The visually-perceived (as opposed to actual, or physical) texture of the headline, with its complex letterforms, will contrast with and balance the much larger “sea of grey” provided by the body copy of the advertisement.
  4. Value: High contrast adds to the visual weight of a shape in a design. For instance, a small black and white photo on a page (if it has a lot of contrast and rich black tones) will balance out a much larger light (high-key) photo or an area screen of a color. The contrast between the overall black (or other dark color) of the photo and anything else on the page will give the dark photo more visual weight than the lighter, larger shape (perhaps a block of text typeset all in one size).
  5. Shape: “Complicated contours also have a greater visual weight than simple ones” (Graphic Design Basics, p. 74). An example would be a starburst design (in an ad) out of which you might reverse the words “Free Trial.” The jagged edge of this much smaller shape would contrast with, and balance, a much larger photo on the opposite side of the imaginary central line of balance (again, always think in terms of this central line, whether you’re creating a symmetrical or asymmetrical balance in your page design).
  6. Color: Bright and intense color (used sparingly) will balance out much larger design elements in less bright, less saturated color. Think about the use of an intense red color in any ad you have ever seen. Usually a little red goes a long way. In fact, if you highlight even a few words in deep, intense red, the rest of the advertisement can be printed in black, and yet the reader’s eye will go directly to the much smaller shapes (letterforms) printed in red.

What You Should Remember

  1. All of this comes down to two things. If you want the reader to be comfortable, find ways to create balance in a page spread. However, you may want to make the reader uncomfortable in order to confront or challenge her/him. In this case, consider ways to subvert the rules described above.
  2. The main goal is to lead the reader’s eye through the printed page in a specific order you have chosen, based on the levels of importance of the content (or the relationships among the elements of content). Think about the lines of direction and movement you create (for instance, if a model in a photo is looking in a certain direction, your reader will do the same; therefore, it might be effective to place an important block of copy there).
  3. There are many, many more rules (textbooks full). This is only one brief topic. So collect design textbooks and steep yourself in them. Then forget the textbooks and rules, and look at printed design and fine art you like. You’ll see more, and the rules will become a part of you. Some you’ll follow; some you’ll discard.

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