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Archive for the ‘Design’ Category

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.

Commercial Printing: Thoughts on Developing/Using a New Logo

Wednesday, April 8th, 2020

I’ve been “refreshing” the corporate identity of a client of mine for whom I have been brokering commercial printing. In developing a new logo and new business card, letterhead, etc., I have been reminded of all the issues that arise in logo development and implementation: the issues I have mentioned a number of times in the PIE Blog articles.

The Logo Development Process

At my client’s request, I started with her three names (first, middle, and last) set across one line. Since my client had expressed the desire for a sophisticated logo similar in tone to the logos in Glamour magazine, I started with a classic serif font and set her name on one line. I used initial caps and set the remaining letters in lowercase form.

Below this I drew a thin rule line. Below that, I typeset the name of her company. For contrast, I used a thin sans serif typeface. At my client’s request, I removed the periods after her initials (used in her business name) and the comma before the LLC notation. This simplified the text treatment. Overall, the “stack” comprising my client’s name, the rule line, and the name of my client’s business created a tight rectangle due to the left and right alignment of the first line, the rule line, and the second line. In my experience, simple geometric forms help the reader (viewer) better organize graphic information.

By itself, this communicated the essential information, but it was boring. A huge number of logos look like this. So, to give this logo a unique sensibility and to continue the visual theme of sophistication and glamour, I added an image. My client had shared with me (for a purpose unrelated to her logo) a silkscreen portrait a friend of hers had created many years ago. In this portrait, the artist had framed my client’s head resting on her hand, with her hair cascading down in the background. It was the perfect glamorous image.

So I vignetted this image (fuzzed out the edges to give a dreamy tone to an image that already looked a bit posterized, with only a handful of discrete tones) and placed it above the type. I also produced an option using the same image to the left of the logotype (the reader’s eye will go to the image first and then read to the right, to the words in the logo). My client chose to use both versions, one for the business card and one for the letterhead.

Using the New Logo

A logo can look stunning and yet be totally worthless as a communication device. Design and marketing utility are two distinct issues. So, once I had the two logos in hand, I began to explore design uses to see what problems would arise.

First, I chose a vertical treatment for the business card. With the screen print of the model’s (my client’s) face and hand centered over my client’s name and her business name, I felt a vertical treatment would be unique, would allow for symmetrical balance in the card design, and would allow me to enlarge the logo enough to ensure readability.

After positioning my client’s email address and phone number, centered below the logo, I printed out a version of the business card and ruled it out (drew lines connecting all crop marks). I did this because it would be the exact size of a real business card. (It’s too easy to make design decisions for commercial printing by just using the computer screen at an enlarged magnification, which bears no resemblance to the final, printed business card. One easily forgets this in the moment of design.)

Granted, I did not (and have not yet) add color, although I did suggest to my client that she only add a highlight color in a minimal way, perhaps to the three words of her name (first, middle, and last name).

Issues with the Business Card

Nothing good happens without work, so I was not surprised to find areas of the business card to tweak.

  1. I made the screened image of my client’s face and hand larger in the Adobe Illustrator logo file.
  2. I made the name of my client slightly taller relative to its width (i.e., slightly condensed). This allowed me to enlarge the type on the card to improve legibility (within the small sized width of the vertically oriented card).
  3. I experimented with vertical spacing in an attempt to create balance and allow for maximum white space around all content on the card. (Generous use of white space suggests opulence and sophistication overall.)
  4. I chose the next darker version of the same sans serif typeface I had used for the name of my client’s business. I did this because reducing the size of the logo for the business card had made this typeface too light. It impeded readability.

In toto, I probably printed out ten different versions before settling on one to send my client. My goals were to maximize type size and image size in the small space to ensure legibility.

Moving On to the Letterhead

I actually did the letterhead first and liked it, but when I moved on to the business card and had to thicken the logo type and lighten the screen print of my client’s face and hand, I created a logo treatment that had become visually different from (and incongruent with) the logo treatment I had initially used for the letterhead. So I adjusted all elements of the new letterhead logo (with the screen-printed image of my client to the left of the logotype rather than above it) and then positioned it in the bottom right corner of the letterhead as an anchor. I made it large enough that the reader’s eye would go to the logo first, regardless of what else was on the page.

Then I printed out the letterhead and compared the business card and letterhead. I looked at them, walked away, came back later, and printed out another several versions of the business card and letterhead, tweaking both to make them just right.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Design the logo first. Get it as close to perfect as possible, but remember that this is only the beginning.
  2. Print everything out on paper. It’s too easy to make bad decisions on screen, assuming an enlargement that looks perfect on the monitor will look perfect when the physical business cards and letterhead arrive. Rule out the business card with a pencil, from crop mark to crop mark. Make sure you leave adequate trim margin all the way around between any text and the edge of the business card. (Ask your printer for confirmation, but 3/8” to 1/2” is a good start.) You will be surprised at how little of the card is left for art and type after you allow for the margins.
  3. You can enlarge type a little in one direction (making it taller) so you can fit more on the card at a larger type size, but remember that typefaces were designed with a specific ratio of height to width. If you distort the type too much, it will look odd.
  4. Try every possible option you can think of, in terms of placement of the logo type and image. Try a horizontal and then a vertical treatment of the business card. See which works better. Put the job aside and come back to it. You’ll have a fresh approach. Also, show it to several people and request feedback.
  5. Keep in mind that readability takes precedence over design (ideally, you really need both). If a logo on a business card is unreadable, you need to find ways to improve its legibility. In most cases, the logo you use on the business card may be slightly different from the same logo used on the letterhead or on a large format print sign. Keep going back and forth between/among all items in the corporate identity until all treatments are readable and all logos “look” (rather than “actually are”) the same.

Commercial Printing: Developing a Letterhead Design

Tuesday, January 28th, 2020

A book printing and design client of mine sent me a photo of a flower a few weeks ago when we were discussing her corporate identity. She wants to rebrand her writing business, and she has liked my designs for her poetry print books (and my feedback on her marketing initiatives) enough to ask for my logo-design help.

So this week she asked that I create temporary letterhead (while we work on the rebranding), incorporating the flower image she sent me, as well as her name, address, phone number, and email information. At this pivotal moment, I thought to myself, “How do I proceed?”

Steps in the Process (The Image)

My client had asked for a centered, symmetrical layout, with all of her contact information in the center top of the page under the photo of the flower. So this is what I did—first. I figured I’d give her what she had requested, but then I’d give her some other options as well.

So I placed a small, square image of the cropped photo at the top of the page. Working quickly, I didn’t bother saving the image as a TIFF (or changing it from full color to greyscale). I just wanted to essentially make sketches as the ideas came into my head. (I will say that on the second pass, the next day, I did change the image to greyscale. At that point I also considered the tonal range of the photo (light vs. dark areas). I wanted to make sure that even at such a small size there would be detail in the image. Even (or especially) a small photo had to immediately look like a flower.

I used curves rather than levels in Photoshop. It allowed me to almost posterize the image (i.e., to use a handful of distinct levels, from black to dark grey to medium and light grey, to white). At that size, simple would be best.

I wanted the image to work in black and white first. I didn’t want the saturated red of the original flower photo to distract my client from the overall design. Also, I knew that if my client wanted to print the photo in another color, I could always add one. I also assumed (at this point in a very fluid design process) that it would cost more to print 4-color letterhead than one- or two-color letterhead—which, of course, might not be true for custom printing only a short run of the job digitally).

Looking down into the flower from above (the vantage point of the photo) made for an interesting shape around all of the petals. In addition, all of the interior parts of the flower (the parts the bees like) made for an interesting shape—but it was more abstract, less immediately understandable as a flower. So I cropped to the outer shape of the flower. Immediate recognition, I thought, trumped “cool design.”

I also noted that seeing some of the greenery around the flower petal was desirable (for its immediate recognition as a flower), so I loosened the tight photo crop just slightly. I did keep to a square format, though. I thought this would be more dynamic and solid than any other geometric form (like a rectangle).

So I had my central image, which I had every reason to think my client would like because she had given it to me, and I had presented it in its best light (aesthetically) and its most recognizable form (practically).

A Caveat Before Proceeding

I had fortunately taken the advice I always give others to ask the client what she likes in other people’s logos and letterhead, and what adjectives she considered relevant to the “tone” or ethos of her business. She said she didn’t like anybody’s marketing collateral, but she wanted me to present an upscale, dynamic look, with the elegance of Vogue magazine.

So I had my goal for the next steps.

Type Choices

Even for a letterhead treatment with a photo and a handful of address information there are an infinite number of options. Getting a client to be specific makes this easier. Getting the client to provide physical samples makes this easier still.

So with Vogue as a target I chose a serif typeface at random based entirely on what looked good to me (elegant and dynamic). I figured I could always change it later. I just needed to sketch out (so to speak, on the computer) maybe five different treatments of all of this visual and textual information, using the limited palette of black ink only (which could later be augmented). I think the typeface was Minion. It was the one at the top of the font list on my computer, and I knew that a serif face would seem to be a little more “classy and opulent” in its tone.

To enhance the upscale Vogue look I set my client’s name in caps and small caps (large initial letters in each word of her name and smaller, albeit still capital, letters for the remaining letters in each name). There are three words in her name (it looks like she uses a former married name as well as her own). It would be even more upscale if two of the names were hyphenated, but you can’t always get what you want. I made sure the name was significantly larger than the address, phone number, and email information. And to be safe, I made these one point smaller than I had initially planned. Then I made sure my client’s name was not so large as to be awkward (it still had to be sophisticated).

Page Geometry

When I was starting in design in the 1970s, we used to call this “layout.” Now I think some people call it “page geometry.” Regardless, it’s the placement of design elements on the page.

To start the process, I made exactly the layout my client had requested. (I mentioned this earlier in the blog article.) Then I started to move the elements around on the page. I tried various centered (symmetrical) and asymmetrical options. I put some address information at the bottom of the page with and without a .5 pt horizontal rule. I even realized that with the photo and three chunks of copy, I could set up a layout grid of four columns and put the image and the three chunks of copy on an invisible horizontal line across the top of the page (to anchor them).

When I was done, I went online (Google) and looked under “letterhead samples.” I found a few more ideas and modified them to accommodate my client’s design elements. Then I had five good options. Each was different from the others, in terms of the overall design grid or placement of the name (above or below the flower image, for instance). I wanted to make sure there was enough of a difference to warrant showing my client each of the options. I also remembered the advice another designer had once given me: Show the client only what you like. After all, it’s hard to advocate for a design you’re not pleased with yourself.

Logic and Practicality

When I had printed hard copies of each option (and I strongly encourage you to do this in your own work, because no online image will “feel” like real letterhead and show you the exact size of all design elements), I realized something. I looked at where my client would need to start her typed (or laser printed) letter on the letterhead. Some designs (those with all design elements at the top of the letterhead page) made it essential to start the typed letter farther down the page. Other designs that put the address at the bottom and the flower image and my client’s name at the top left more room, higher up on the page, for the letter my client would write on the letterhead.

This was a practical approach but also a prudent one.

Then I sent off the five options to my client as PDF attachments to an email. The email basically said “Anything can be changed. Let me know what you like and don’t like.” Fortunately, when I awoke this morning, my client’s email registered her overall delight. I was grateful. This doesn’t always happen.

What You Can Learn

  1. Ask your client questions (such as, “What adjectives describe your business?” and “How would you describe the values your business espouses?”). Then listen to the answers.
  2. Ask for printed samples of (or online links to) logos and letterhead treatments your client likes.
  3. Think in terms of the emotional tone of various typefaces, and the tone of all caps, all lowercase, and small-caps treatments.
  4. Think about what colors you will use for the custom printing, but first make sure the design works well in black ink only. Color can detract from your accurately assessing the quality of the underlying design.
  5. Think practically: How much will it cost to do what you want (i.e., the number of printed colors and this effect on the cost of an offset print job vs. a digital print job)? And how much space are you leaving your client to put her/his actual letter on the letterhead?

Commercial Printing: Creating a Design Grid

Sunday, November 10th, 2019

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

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

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

The Building Blocks of Design and Their Purpose

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creating the Design Grid

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

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

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

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

The Newspaper Grid I Used

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

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

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

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

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

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

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

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

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

Book Printing: The “Greyness” of a Block of Type

Monday, October 28th, 2019

I know that a term like “greyness” when referring to a block of black text on a print book page sounds somewhat esoteric, but bear with me. This simple concept can affect everything from the look of a book’s design to its readability and even its printability. And all of this can change based on the age of your readership.

In a nutshell, “greyness” of a block of copy refers to the appearance of text on a white page. Even if it is black ink or toner, a chunk of copy appears to be grey when printed on white paper. This will be affected by the thickness or thinness of the letterforms of your chosen typeface, the amount of leading you add (the extra space between lines of copy), and even your choice of ragged right/flush left alignment vs. justified type.

The Backstory

A client of mine whom I’ve mentioned before desiitgns print books for NATO and the World Bank. I confer with her on the design and make suggestions whenever she gets stuck.

A few days ago, she sent me two type samples. They were actually quite simple, with a headline over a paragraph of text copy. Both type samples were set in a sans serif typeface. Both samples had the same sized headline type and text type (let’s say 24 pt. headlines and 10/14 body copy type with a 5-inch column width, for the sake of argument).

The only difference was that the type in one sample was screened back to 80 percent of black, and the other was 100 black.

My consulting client then asked me which sample I thought was easier to read.

So this was a very simple comparison to make, a bit like my eye doctor’s questioning me as to which lens allows me to read the letters on the wall. “Which is better, this one, or this one?”

My Choice, and the Implications for Your Design Work

I chose the lighter type. I thought the 100 black type “felt” heavy.

As simple as this sounds, it is actually wrapped in complexity, so here are a number of things I told my client to consider (and I would ask you to do the same, if your work involves page design for a print book).

  1. People are liable to stop reading if the act of reading tires their eyes. For a brochure, the type choice can be more flexible because there’s less type to read. For a print book, there’s a lot of text to read, and if its initial appearance is daunting, the reader will be less likely to continue.
  2. On a page, it is easier to read serif type. The reader’s eye travels from one serif on one letter to the serifs on the next letter. However, on a computer screen, it is easier to read sans serif type. When I checked my client’s two type samples, I was looking at a PDF on my computer. So I asked my client to make sure she liked the look of the type on a laser printout.
  3. Even within the two categories of serif and sans serif copy, there is a lot of variance in the greyness of a block of type. Some typefaces appear heavy, while others appear light. To me, slightly lighter type seems more inviting because there seems to be less work to do in reading it (i.e., less eye strain over a length of time). I think others may agree.
  4. But if the text appears to be too light, the reader will need to strain to see it, and this will minimize the accessibility of the type.
  5. More than one and a half alphabets (39 characters in English) worth of text (for the width of a column) minimizes readability.
  6. For text type, 9, 9.5, or 10 pt. type is fairly readable. You will probably find that in addition to lightening the perceived greyness of a block of copy, adding leading (space between lines of text) will increase readability. For instance, 10/12 (two points of lead, if 10/10 is considered “set solid” or with no leading) is quite readable (depending on the typeface). However, also depending on the typeface, I personally find 10/13 (one extra point of lead) or even 10/14, to be optimal.
  7. Readability is based in part on the age of your reader’s eyes. At 61, mine are now less flexible than they used to be. (That is, they will change focus from near to far and back again less quickly.) That’s why I like a little more leading in my type. So when you design something, consider the age of your target reader. And be kind. Your text will be more likely to be read.
  8. This should actually be much earlier in this list, but it’s important to remember that readability is more important than design/appearance. If you lose your reader, a superb publication design is wasted. That said, you can usually find a typeface that both looks good and is readable.
  9. As a caveat, print out your type selections. See how they will look on paper, not just on the computer screen. (After all, the final print book will be on paper, and on a computer it’s very easy to view–and design–a publication that is either smaller or larger than the true 100 percent final size. This can lead you to make bad design decisions.)
  10. There are ways to maximize legibility. Flush left/ragged right text is easier to read than justified copy. It also ensures that spaces between words will not vary. Adding leading improves legibility, as noted before. Shortening the width of a column of type improves legibility. In addition, printing text on a contrasting background (ideally black type on white paper) maximizes legibility. Avoiding blocks of reversed type (white type on a black background, for instance) maximizes legibility, as does avoiding typesetting words in all-capital letters.
  11. All of these rules can be broken if you do so in small amounts of copy. For instance, all-capital heads are easier to read than even a short paragraph of all-capital text. This is a major reason that almost any kind of wild type usage is easier to deal with on a poster (for example, the bulbous letterforms used on 1960s psychedelic posters) than on the page of a print book.

“The Rules” As They Apply to Printing

Beyond the rules of design, type legibility, and the mechanics of the eye, there are printing issues to consider:

  1. Understand how your text design will be printed. This is important. For instance, my consulting client chose the 80 percent screening of black type for her print book. In commercial printing, since ink or toner is either present or absent in any given space (black or white but not grey), the printer must simulate levels of grey with halftone dots. In my client’s case (unless she was going to print the heads in black ink and the text in a separate PMS grey ink), all of the letterforms in her text would be made up of little dots, not solid letterforms. This can minimize legibility.
  2. Fortunately for my client, 80 percent of black (toner or ink) is close enough to 100 percent to fool the eye. From arm’s length (reading distance), the text will appear grey. It should not have visible dots from that distance. However, I would not advise my client, or any designer, to print 50 or 60 percent grey type. In fact, it’s always best (if you have the budget) to choose a PMS grey ink rather than a screen of black ink if you want the text to appear grey.
  3. That said, my client’s sans serif type would be more forgiving than a serif face with both thick and thin letterforms. (The halftone dots would be particularly visible in thin letter strokes, or, worse, the letterforms could appear to be broken in certain thin strokes.)
  4. All of this is accentuated if you’re building a color for the text using multiple hues. As a rule of thumb, I’d say that you should never do this. For headline type, it’s ok, but not for text type. This is because even the slightest bit of misregister (of the three or four printing inks used to build your color) would make the text type appear fuzzy and might make it unreadable.

The Take Away

  1. If you must screen a color or build a color, go for simplicity. Screen the text type at a high percentage (closer to 100 percent black), and only build a color for a headline (that is, a mixture of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black). The fewer of these colors you use, the better. If you build a headline color out of magenta and yellow, for instance, the yellow will be light enough to not be distracting if the register of all inks is not perfect. In contrast, if you build a color with cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, even a slight misregister can cause problems.
  2. Don’t make decisions on the computer screen if at all possible. Print out the type samples and see how they look.
  3. Consider the age of the reader. Older eyes change focus more slowly.
  4. Rely on your printer’s expertise and advice.
  5. Readability always trumps design aesthetics. The first goal is to make your printed products legible.

Commercial Printing: Thoughts on Designing and Tweaking a Logo

Monday, October 7th, 2019

A custom printing client of mine recently asked me for help with her rebranding efforts. Over the years, I have been a designer and art director, and I have also done marketing writing and design work. In addition, I have focused on marketing as subject matter for the PIE Blog articles and Quick Tips articles, so I spend a lot of time studying this aspect of communications and commercial printing.

Since my client just offered me this new work, it seemed fortuitous that I just found an article on adjusting your logo for reproduction at different sizes and in different media (internet vs. print, for instance). The article is “Designing a Logo for Every Size and Usage.” It was written by Ilene Strizver and published on on 8/13/19.

Strizver notes that logos must be immediately recognizable at different sizes. Although you may first see a logo on a business card, you need to see the same visual image when you find the logo again on a large-format banner on the side of a building.

Or, you may see the logo first on a brochure and then online. The first rendering will be achieved with ink or toner, and the second will be composed of colored pixels on a backlit computer screen, which provides a very different visual experience.

Much of what “Designing a Logo for Every Size and Usage” offers is an approach to the letterforms used in the logo. That is, we must first understand that the size of the logo changes the appearance of the letterforms.

For instance, if you create a logo that is 3” wide (an arbitrary width) and then shrink it down to a useful size for a business card, certain portions of the letterforms will fill in and be unreadable. Granted, if you look through a magnifying glass, these strokes in the letters will still be there, but at a normal reading distance, your eye will fool you. The “counters” (the technical word for the curved, enclosed spaces in the letterforms, such as the enclosed portion of a “P”) will fill in or at least not be visible.

Or the letterforms will appear to run together. They may not be distinct from one another. Or the serifs in the typeface may disappear (they’re still there, just below the threshold of readability).

Or, depending on your substrate, the commercial printing technology might be problematic, according to Strizver’s article. For example, if you’re printing on fabric, the inks may bleed into the fibers, making parts of the letterforms fatten up or become blobs of ink.

Enlarging the logo might also be problematic. If you take the 3” logo and enlarge it for use on a banner, the letters may seem to be too far apart. This can impede readability because the letterforms don’t appear to be as connected to one another as you’re used to (that is, you begin to see the strokes as individual letters instead of seeing them as one word). If you have to think about the word you’re reading, this will hinder your comprehension.

And all of this is just for printing with ink or toner. That’s just half the battle.

Rendering your logo on a smartphone screen or tablet or computer monitor may make the letterforms look different than you’re used to. Colors are not always the same as in print (so they may not match the PMS colors of your printed logo). In addition, the backlighting of computer screens makes it harder to read small type. And even though serif faces have been proven easier to read in print, the opposite is true online, where sans serif typefaces are easier to read.

All of this can slow down your reader. And a major rule of marketing and psychology is that anything that slows down a reader or confuses her/him will dilute your marketing message. At best, your prospective client’s reading speed will be impaired. But at worst, you’ll lose your reader entirely.

What to Do / How to Fix These Problems

“Designing a Logo for Every Size and Usage” doesn’t really tell you what to do. Rather it lets you know what to look for in designing a logo, so you can tweak it for optimal readability. Moreover, it presents a novel concept in this light. That is, you should create different versions of your logo for different uses. Not very different, just optimized for the size and medium in which it will be presented. The goal is to massage the logo in such as way that the reader’s eye (with all its limitations) thinks all of the different sized iterations of the logo are exactly the same.

As an approach to doing this, here are the things Strizver says you should consider:

  1. Adjust the letterspacing as needed. (This is the space between letters, which can be altered with “kerning” controls in InDesign.) It should be more open for smaller versions of your logo and tighter for larger versions.
  2. The same holds true for word spacing (the space between words). You need more word spacing for smaller versions of the logo and less word spacing for larger versions.
  3. If your logo has multiple lines of type (perhaps a logo word mark with a tag line under it), add more space between lines (“leading”) for smaller versions of the logo and less space for larger versions.
  4. Adjust the thickness of thin strokes (like serifs) as needed.
  5. Make the “counters” of the letterforms (like the enclosed space in a “P”) more open if you’re rendering a logo at a small size.
  6. Narrow and condensed fonts can be even harder to read (and therefore may need more adjusting).
  7. Readability can be improved by using a slightly different weight for the font (some fonts come in demi-bold and bold, for instance, or other slight variations from one another).
  8. Changing the strokes of a letterform can be daunting. Remember you’re not doing this to an entire font. You’re just tweaking (presumably) a limited number of letters in a logo. You may choose to do this in Illustrator. (This was not in Strizver’s article. It’s my own commentary.)
  9. Another related suggestion of mine (not in Strizver’s article) is that you be conscious of the reader’s age. As we get older, our eyes become less flexible in changing focus. In this case, paying attention to Strizver’s suggestions becomes even more important to your readership.
  10. Make subtle changes to the letterforms, not dramatic ones.
  11. After all, the goal is for none of your readers to see what you’re doing. You’re not creating a new typeface. You’re just making it easier for customers and prospective customers to see your logo and not stumble over the limits of human eyesight or the liabilities of various media.

An Approach to Your Own Design Work

As noted above, I have a new logo/rebranding client. It would be very easy for me to forget all of this in forging ahead with the rebranding work. Therefore, it’s best to slow down and think. If you’re in a similar position, here are some things to consider, based on my own experience as a designer and art director.

  1. Focus on the logo type treatment and any image you will use first. Think like an artist at this point. Try different type treatments and approaches to the logo.
  2. Then view the logo at different sizes. At this point, just observe and make mental notes of potential problems.
  3. Then check your logo on different media. Try printing it out (both black and white and color). Then see how it looks online in various sizes.
  4. Consider all of the suggestions presented in “Designing a Logo for Every Size and Usage.” Make changes and develop a logo style-and-use document for the client based on presenting the logo at different sizes, in different ways, and on different media. But do this last. First, make sure you have an aesthetically designed, dramatic logo that will be a powerful statement at different sizes. Then focus on Strizver’s article as a way only to “tweak” the designs and present them in their best light.

You may be surprised at how effective this can be. I just did this with my fiancee’s daughter’s logo for her yoga studio. I tightened up the spacing between a few letters in her logo (also knows as “kerning”), and the name of her studio, which had initially appeared as a few small clumps of separate letters, visually (and therefore cognitively) became one word. In the case of my fiancee’s daughter’s logo, all it took was equalizing the space between all of the letters in her logotype.

Custom Printing: Design Approaches for Specific Media

Monday, February 11th, 2019

I attended a freelance group meeting yesterday. Most members were writers and designers, some of whom I had known for two decades. One of the designers, who had been a director of publications at a non-profit before venturing out on her own, showed us several PDFs (on her computer) of the booklet designs she had done in the 1980s, 1990s, and recently.

It was most interesting to see the differences among the samples, both from the point of view of how publication design has changed in twenty years and also in terms of the changes made to facilitate reading on current media.

My Colleague’s Design Samples (and the Basis for Her Design Approaches)

In the 1980s my colleague designed booklets with 4-color covers. But between the covers, my client’s print books were black-ink-only products with designs based on text and photos. Overall, the two-column print book interiors were formal in design. As a flourish, in certain cases she had used “caps and small caps” for the titles, which provided a classic tone. (“Caps and small caps” means there are large capital letters at the beginning of each word, and subsequent letters in each word are typeset in uppercase letters but of a slightly smaller point size than the initial letter.)

My client’s more recent samples (between five and ten years old) still included full-color cover treatments, but they also included generous use of process color in the text of the print books. My colleague explained her design decision in this way. The cost of printing process color had been higher when she had designed the first sample books with only 4-color covers and black-ink-only interior text blocks. To meet budget, then, she put all of her dramatic images and color on the book covers to grab the reader’s attention.

By the time my colleague was designing the books with both 4-color covers and 4-color text blocks, the presses at the printers she used had more color units (six or eight), so she could not only add more color, but she could also add multiple coatings to the book covers or use PMS colors to maintain color consistency from press signature to press signature (for background, full-bleed solid colors and screens that had to match exactly on all pages). By this time (five to ten years ago), all of this technology (plus inline spectrophotometers and closed-loop color correction) was available and affordable through her printers. For this reason, the quality and consistency of color in her samples improved, and she could do far fewer press checks to maintain this quality.

New Design Approaches and New Technology

What I found most interesting was the shift from these samples to the next ones, the most recent books my colleague had designed (again, for the same non-profit foundation, although at this point she was freelancing for the same organization).

These new books were much more sparse in their design. There were a lot of 4-color photos but no bleeds and no heavy-coverage color solids. Interestingly enough, the overall design was simpler and cleaner. There were also no background screens of color. The type, for the most part, was sans serif. Even the headlines were set in a simple, bold, and readable sans serif typeface.

She explained her design choices as follows:

  1. At the present moment, most of her book designs existed only online. There was no print version, so there was no inventory of print books. Clients could either read the books online or print out selected pages on their own desktop printers.
  2. Therefore, the goal was online readability. Even though serif typefaces in print books have been more legible (traditionally) then sans serif typefaces, the opposite is true on the computer screen. The simplicity of the sans serif typefaces my colleague had chosen improved their legibility, but it also gave the books an austere, modern “look.”
  3. Most of the clients who downloaded PDF versions of the books could not print bleeds. There were always white margins surrounding the image area on each page. Therefore, the current book designs had no bleeds. Although this was a functional design choice, it nevertheless made the book design seem simpler, lighter, and more crisp. I liked the simplicity. When I thought further, I realized that by removing the background screens, solid colors, and bleeds, my colleague had not only simplified the book design, but she had also provided much more background white space. And since white space on a back-lit computer screen brightens the entire virtual book design, everything looked light, airy, and bold.

What You Can Learn from This

These few samples spoke volumes about the changes that have taken place in print book design over the past twenty years, based in large part on the way we read and the devices on which we read. Here are some thoughts.

In your own work, design appropriately for the device on which your reader will consume the material. Back-lit screens tire the eyes eventually, and a lot of people still like the feel of a paper print book. Choose your printing paper wisely to enhance the look and the readability (consider the brightening effects of a blue-white press sheet, for instance).

Alternately, if you’re designing for online reading, consider simplifying the design, increasing the space between lines of type (the leading), and increasing contrast between heads and text. If your heads are in color, make sure they are not too light in value.

For my colleague’s clients, a third approach was necessary. The book pages had to look good when printed on desktop printing equipment. This involved making sure a black and white laser print would produce high quality black and white photos from color originals. (The PDF versions were in color, and many readers would print their pages on color inkjet equipment, but other readers who only had laser printers could only produce monochrome versions of the book pages.)

In your own work, the best way to ensure readability is to print out a few pages on an inkjet printer and a black and white laser printer and then confirm their readability. Or, if you’re designing for computer-only reading, you may want to view a PDF of the file on multiple platforms (a large computer screen, a laptop screen, a tablet screen, and a smartphone screen, for instance).

No matter how you present your book, the first goal is legibility. If the reader has to work hard to read your book, or if your reader’s eyes tire due to the back-lighting, she or he will stop reading. Even something as simple as whether to use a single-column or two-column layout can affect readability on a screen-only (or screen-first) book. (Think about it. If you scroll down to read a column of text, and then you must scroll the screen in the opposite direction to come back up to the top of the next column, you might just stop reading.)

Custom Printing: Designing a Logo for an Asphalt Paver

Monday, January 7th, 2019

When the driveway paving person came up to our house a few days ago to retrieve a coroplast sign he had inadvertently left behind, he said he was glad my fiancee and I hadn’t thrown it away. He said the signs had been expensive.

Being a custom printing broker, I said I might be able to get them for less than he had been paying. The words just came out. “One seller to another,” I said. “I’m a commercial printing salesperson.”

So we sat down to discuss what he had, and what he needed. The coroplast lawn sign quickly morphed into magnetic signs for the sides of his trucks, a complete vehicle wrap for one of his vans, coffee mugs, hats, and the jewel in the crown of it all: a new logo. He needed a new logo to put on everything.

How I Approached the Job

During my 40-year history within the field of graphic arts and commercial printing, I have been both a designer and an art director. Therefore, I thought back to what I knew to be the best practices for designing a logo: that is, how I could give my client the most versatile and dynamic logo possible, and also help him understand how best to use it on his varied promotional materials.

To do this, I started with Google Images. I looked at hundreds of his competitors’ logos. I wanted to steep myself in all things related to driveway repaving, so I could make his new logo both fit in (be recognizable by his potential clients) and stand out (be more unique, more inspiring of trust, and more striking than his competitors’ logos).

My client had voiced an interest in putting the state flag inside the type outlines of his company name. I had made a mental note. I had also noticed that he liked my business card. Since my card is crisp, simple, and spare in its design, I also kept this in mind as I approached the next step: brainstorming and creating mock-ups.

Making Multiple Mock-Ups

Because my client liked my business card, I started his design with the same display typeface I had used for mine, Gill Sans. It is a sans serif type that includes dramatic diagonal strokes in the letterforms. You could say that it is simple, dynamic, and even “architectural.” To me it seemed appropriate for a building contractor, a company that builds physical “things.”

I started with the idea my client had voiced, putting the state flag in the outlines of the name of his company. When I tried it, the result seemed to be too complex and perhaps even unrecognizable. You couldn’t readily identify the state flag. (I knew that anything other than instant recognition would slow down the viewer, and that he or she would move on to other things.)

As an alternative, which would still address my client’s stated goals, I created a rectangular cropping of the flag blowing in the wind. This gave the image a sense of movement. On top of this image of the flag I placed the title of my client’s business. The first word I set in all capital letters, flush right (white, reversed out of the flag). The second word (“asphalt”), I set in all lowercase letters, also flush right. I tightened up the leading so both words (both lines of flush-right type) would read as a single unit, and so the visual outline of the two words would be a simple geometric form.

I did all of this first in black-only type over a grayscale image. I wanted the design to work in its simplest form. When it worked, I knew I could always add color. In fact, what I did next was duplicate the logo and replace the black-and-white flag with a slightly ghosted, full-color image, with the flag in the same position, so my client would have two options of this version from which to choose.

I had said I would give my client three options, so I took the type treatment I had created and placed it on a different background. In this case I created a picture box filled with a photo of asphalt. (You might be surprised at the variety and interest you can find in a photo of asphalt. There were changes in tone as well as a number of identifiable rocks in the image.)

At the same time, this made for a simple but very tactile, textural background. I reversed the first word in my client’s company name (all caps, as before, and flush right to be somewhat different from all the other logos). Then I created an asphalt gray color for the second word in his logo (again, also flush right). At this point I had a black-and-white-only logo. I thought this might be striking, since all the other logos included a lot of color. To create visual interest and contrast, I then added an abstract image of a road (a wide, black line with a bright red, dashed line on top of it). This I placed immediately above the first word of my client’s company name, the all-uppercase name of the state in which his business operated.

As a variant, I removed the black solid line but kept the red dashed line, crossing the photo from left to right and ending at the logotype. The photo of the asphalt added texture, and the splash of red added drama. At this point I had two options (with an alternate version for each).

Since my fiancee is an artist, she wanted to provide a third option to round out our offerings. So we took a map of the state, at her suggestion, and scanned it. The outline was readily recognizable. Over this we placed the logotype (both words, with the state name still in all caps and the second name of the company in lowercase letters). For all three versions of the logo, we decided to stick with the same typeface.

Over the image of the map we placed the “A” for Asphalt (the second word in the company name) in bright red. Then we wrapped the two words of the company name around this “A.” The “A” was large enough that the touch of bright red anchored the viewer’s eye on the “A,” which looked curiously just like a red plastic cone used by asphalt pavers to warn oncoming traffic. The bright red “A” also acted as a visual hook, and the remaining text, nestled in tightly against the side of the “A,” all hung together as a single unit.

So we now had a third option for our client, the name of the company over a screened-back shape of the state in which his business operated.

The next step will be to send him PDFs of the logos for his initial feedback.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Make sure the logo you create is relevant. It’s easy to make something look attractive or even striking, but if it does not relate to the client’s business, it will not stick in your client’s (or her or his client’s) mind. Make sure that what the logo means and how it looks are congruent.
  2. The best way to start is to look at the competition. Use Google Images, and you’ll have more ideas than you’ll ever want. The goal will just be to do something completely different that stands out but that also looks like it’s for the same kind of business. This isn’t easy.
  3. Think in terms of simplicity. The logo will need to be recognizable in both small (on business cards) and large (on signage) formats. Simplicity is the key. That’s why it’s also good to see how it will look in black and white only, as well as in color. You never know. Someone might still have a fax machine.
  4. Choose fonts that relate to the tone or “feel” of your client’s company: its vision, purpose, and values. For instance, if it’s a traditional business, like a law firm, consider an Old Style font. Or if it’s a builder, maybe a slab serif typeface would be more appropriate.
  5. Create multiple iterations of the logo. If your ideas are working, you might want to take one element (like the typeface) into the next version just to see how it looks. If not, try other typefaces or other treatments. Try versions with photos, and then try versions with type only. Or create options with type and simple icons.

These are just a few ideas. Creating logos is a subject that could fill a bookcase full of books and take a lifetime to master. But the best way to start is to find logos you like–and particularly those that pertain to your client’s field of expertise—and try to determine why they work. (I call this “deconstructing” the logo: asking myself what it is trying to do and how it is achieving this goal.) Then go and make some of your own.

Custom Printing: Revising a New Asphalt Paver Logo

Monday, October 15th, 2018

A short while ago I wrote a blog posting about a new logo I’ve been designing for a local asphalt paver. I described its genesis as a coroplast sign that morphed into a logo commission and then into cups, hats, and finally a large format print vehicle wrap. With my fiancee’s input, I provided three options a few days ago and then heard nothing back from the client. I started to get nervous. I assumed he had hated them. Then I reviewed the logos again, and I wasn’t so sure anymore either.

So today I shared the PDF of the three options with a friend and client of mine who designs print books. Interestingly enough, she used to be an editor, and I started her down the path of design, and since then I have consulted with her on the design of many of her print books, which are for such high-profile clients as the World Bank.

Turning the tables and having the student educate the teacher was humbling but very instructive. It is a lot easier to tell someone how to improve a design than to come up with a good one yourself.

That said, this is what she suggested, what I learned, and what I created for the revised, new logo. As with the initial batch of logo options, we can only wait and hope the client will be either pleased or at least articulate about what he likes and dislikes. Fortunately he called me this morning, and since then we have been playing phone tag.

What I Had Initially Created

As a recap, this is what the first three logo options looked like:

  1. Option #1 was a background rectangle picture box containing a photo of asphalt. Over this I had placed type in Gill Sans, flush right, with the name of the state in all caps and the word “asphalt” below in lowercase letters. I made the first line white and the second line a darker gray than the background asphalt photo. I also added a black and red stylized road above the state name, with a dashed line in the center.
  2. The second option was the same type treatment over the state map (both color and black and white versions).
  3. The third option was the irregular outline of the state map with the type superimposed over the map image. I made the “A” in the word “asphalt” red to provide drama and immediately grab the viewer’s attention.

What My Friend and Client Said, and What I Did in Response

My fiend/client said the road would be more recognizable with a yellow line down its center rather than a red one. I had initially chosen red because of its impact. My friend was absolutely right. I should choose a color that is relevant to the logo, and the line down the center of the road is not red. It is either white or yellow.

She also suggested putting the asphalt image within the outline of the letterforms. I tried this with both the name of the state and the word “asphalt.” It seemed to be too much, so I made the name of the state red and then reduced its size and increased the size of the word “asphalt.” Because of this, the rocks in the image of asphalt (within the outlines of the letterforms) were more visible. Moreover, the image of asphalt was really only pertinent to the word “asphalt,” so it made sense to only have the image within this one word.

In addition, I used the colors of the state flag, rather than the flag itself or the outline of the map. As noted before, I replaced the red in the stylized road with a yellow dashed line. I also made the all-capitals name of the state red (the other color in the flag). So the color palette now reflected the colors of the state flag without my directly including imagery of the map or flag, and at the same time this simplified the overall look of the logo considerably.

Finally, my friend and client had suggested simplifying the overall design by making the top line and bottom line justified rather than flush right. I had resisted this idea. I felt that flush right would be more unique (less expected) than flush-left type, and that justified type would only create an undifferentiated rectangle (the shape of the exterior boundary of the logo). There would be no drama.

Therefore, as a compromise, I enlarged the word “asphalt” (as noted before), reduced the size of the state name, positioned the type with a flush-right alignment, and then added a stylized road (with the yellow, dashed line in the center) immediately to the left of the state name.

Because of these graphic decisions, I had created a continuation of the rectangle on top (the shape of the state name rendered in all capital letters) with the simulated road extending (to the left) to the same vertical axis as the left edge of the “a” in “asphalt.” On the right, I vertically aligned the final letter in the state name and the final letter in the word “asphalt.”

The gist of what I just said is that I had a rectangle. All visual elements of the logo nestled tightly into one another: the simulated road, the state name, and the word “asphalt.” Everything was tight, simple, and airy (in that the logo was not superimposed over a rectangular image). Moreover, the logo includes the texture of the asphalt within the word “asphalt.” So it has a humorous tone.

This is a viable fourth option for my client. We’ll see what happens.

What You Can Learn From This Case Study

Here are some thoughts:

  1. I hadn’t thought of this until just now, but not having either a map or the image of the flag (or the image of the asphalt) behind the logotype will make the overall logo more flexible. It will be easier to coordinate the design of the business card and the vehicle wrap (at vastly different sizes) without a background image. The shape of the words will also be more evident and therefore more immediately recognizable (since the viewer will more readily see the descender of the “p” and the ascender of the “h” in the word “asphalt”). Plus, the slanted letterform of the letter “t” in “asphalt” will also be more visible. The take-away is that you should check your own logo design in a similar manner. Think about what is all uppercase and what is all lowercase. The eye will immediately identify a lowercase word (or one in uppercase and lowercase letters). It will recognize the shape of the word (without needing to read all the letters). If you put part of the logo in all caps, it’s shape will be just a rectangle. This will slow down the viewer’s reading speed. This doesn’t have to be a problem. You just have to be aware of it.
  2. Think about where the reader’s eye enters the image of the logo. In the case of the logo I just created, the eye enters along the simulated road with the dashed line. The yellow grabs the reader’s attention. Then the horizontal line of the road leads the viewer’s eye to the all-caps name of the state (in red). Since the final word, “asphalt,” is larger than anything else, that’s where the eye goes next. It would go there first if not for the yellow in the simulated road and the red in the state name. In your own work, be able to articulate how the viewer’s eye enters the design, where it goes next, and where it goes after that. Make it easy for the viewer’s eye to travel comfortably through the entire logotype and image.
  3. Finally, see what the logo looks like when you make it very large and very small. After all, it may be reproduced on both large format print signage and a business card. Also see how it looks in black and white as well as color. In the case of my project, a black-and-white-only logo directs the viewer’s eye to the word “asphalt” first, not to the yellow line in the middle of the road.
  4. Then put the mock-ups away, and don’t look at them for a day or so. When you see your work again, you will have more objectivity. You will see both the good points and the flaws.
  5. Finally, show the logos to other people, particularly other designers. You don’t have to take their advice, but it will help to get different points of view on your work. It may even give you new ideas to pursue. Then show your logos to your client.

Custom Printing: Choose the Right Font for Readability

Monday, July 24th, 2017

I was at the house of a small literary publisher recently. We were discussing paper choices and binding options for an upcoming book. Apropos to nothing, both the husband and the wife (the publishers) asked my opinion of the typeface for the text and the titles of the new book. They knew I had been an art director and that I still did a little graphic design on the side.

I looked at the type on the copyright page (since it was smaller than the book text), I also looked at the text and subheads in the body of the print book. My clients had printed out the pages on white stock, yet the final printed book would be manufactured on a cream press sheet.

The type is too small, I said. And too light. In addition, the subheads are in a Modern font (sharp contrast between the thin and thick strokes in the letterforms), and the subheads are too small. Plus the type will be printed on a cream offset sheet (which will reduce contrast between the words and the paper). Uncoated offset paper also absorbs ink, so there will be a less-than-crisp edge to the type letterforms. All of this will impede legibility.

They both agreed. They had been concerned, but they had not been able to articulate precisely why they had been concerned. Now they knew.

What I Suggested

One of the publishers (the wife of the husband and wife team) said she would choose a few fonts for the print book designer to consider. She asked for my opinion. Here are the thoughts I shared with her and her husband:

  1. Choose another sans serif typeface for the body copy. Choose one that is standard, without artistic flourishes in the letterforms. Readability is more important than style for text-heavy printed products.
  2. Make sure the sans serif body typeface is darker than the current choice (compare a new page of type to an old page).
  3. Add a point of leading between the lines of copy and increase the point size of the body copy slightly until it is readable.
  4. Consider the audience. If readers will be middle aged or older, their eyes will not shift focus as quickly as they used to, so these readers will appreciate the slightly darker type and the slightly larger point size, plus the extra leading.
  5. For the headlines and subheads, choose an Old Style typeface instead of a Modern typeface. I told my clients to Google each of these general categories. They would see the differences and probably also see a list of fonts within each category. I suggested New Century Schoolbook and Garamond. I told my clients that legibility trumped aesthetics. The Old Style fonts would have less of a dramatic contrast between thick and thin strokes in the letterforms, and this would improve legibility on an uncoated, rough, cream printing paper.
  6. I also suggested that my clients bump up the point size on the copyright page.

Now For Something Completely Different: A Poster

But what if my clients had also needed a poster or other large format print for their trade show booth at a print book seller’s convention? I probably would have told them something completely different.

Posters, large format print signage, and even some brochures have a particular trait that sets them apart from print books or even short booklets. They have very little type. In their case, while the goal is still legibility first, the reader’s eye can tolerate more ornate letterforms and even more contrast between lighter and darker chunks of copy precisely because they will be reading the printed piece for much less time than a print book.

For instance, my clients could choose a Modern font for the headlines of a poster, and since there would be fewer words, the contrast between thick and thin strokes in the letterforms would be an artistic element of the overall design, not an impediment to legibility. Granted, setting the headlines in all capital letters might detract from legibility when using a Modern typeface, but even then, if the headlines are very short, even this might work.

The key words are “might work.” It is an artistic decision based on experience and close observation. The two kinds of design work (books and short-form promotional items) are different enough that you really need a skilled designer with a good eye and experience to make the best visual choices.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

Here are some thoughts:

  1. If it looks and feels wrong, try something else. My clients are not designers. However, they do read, and they had trouble with the lightness of the type. It bothered them. That’s a good enough reason to change it. When in doubt, show someone else, or a number of other people, and ask for their opinions.
  2. Consider your audience. You may be 22, but your audience may be older. (When I was 22, it didn’t even occur to me that one’s eyesight could be so different, simply because I had not yet been middle aged. It’s easy to think that everyone can see to read equally well.)
  3. Consider the size of the type and the “threshold of readability,” which will also depend on the lightness of the type and whether it is an artsy font or a “workhorse” made primarily for reading and only secondarily for its appearance.
  4. Keep in mind that you can improve legibility (even of a problematic typeface) by increasing the point size, increasing the leading, or decreasing the length of a line of type. There are no rules that can’t be broken; rather there are ways to work around the challenges. And if you set type in all capital letters, make sure your lines are short. (Your reader depends on recognition of the overall shape of each word to facilitate reading. Each word has a distinctive outline, and a reader can skim a line of text and recognize a word’s shape with only a glance. But the shape of every word set in all capital letters is the same: a rectangle. And this means your reader will need to scan all letters in the word to grasp its meaning.)
  5. Remember that these rules differ based on the kind of work you’re doing. A poster or other large format print is different from a print book. However, in most cases it’s different because there is less type, and your eye can tolerate more diversity and flourishes in the letterforms when there’s less type to read. Think of a billboard. Then think of a novel. For these, you need two totally different approaches when selecting type.

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