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Archive for the ‘Packaging’ Category

Commercial Printing: A Spectacular DVD Package Design

Wednesday, May 16th, 2018

Seeing a sample of quality design and commercial printing can be a moving experience. I know this is just custom printing, and I shouldn’t get carried away, but I recently saw a video box at my fiancee’s mother’s house that was simply in a class by itself. I thought it might be of interest to you from both a design and a production standpoint.

A Description of the Video Case

My fiancee’s mother is 99, and one of the things my fiancee and I like to do is find movies for her in thrift stores. Her mother loves watching videos. We recently found a DVD for To Kill a Mockingbird with Gregory Peck that had a beautiful, classy CD case.

The first thing you notice when you pick up this DVD case is its heft. It’s heavy and well crafted, and this gives a sense of dignity and seriousness to the box. The interior presentation is a triptych, with the left and center panels covered with two thick, transparent plastic disc holders, thermoformed with recessed wells to hold the two DVDs. Even the four wells around each DVD, included so the viewer can easily grasp and lift out the discs, are sturdy. There is nothing flimsy about this case.

The CDs are nicely but simply printed, presumably via custom screen printing, since the ink is thick and has a bit of texture. The three-color treatment is subtle but effective. The main text is black over a white background with a pattern of lighter, gray type that seems to have been taken directly from the print book version of To Kill a Mockingbird.

On the rightmost panel is a sleeve that wraps around vertically. It is open on two sides (left and right), and it is attached to the base art. The sleeve contains an envelope in which 4-color promotions for other videos have been inserted. These have been printed on thick cover stock, continuing the overall air of opulence reflected by the entire DVD package. Moreover, the designer included die cut thumb tabs to allow the viewer to reach in and easily grasp and remove the envelope.

Under the two plastic DVD holders is a full-bleed, sepia-toned montage of images from the movie. This provides a dated look to the package, which is appropriate given the subject matter. At the exterior margins (the perimeter of the box), this photo montage covers the turned-edges of the fabric on the three exterior panels of the DVD package, giving a rough feel to the overall box presentation. But interestingly enough, the product designer has used extra-heavy binder’s boards under the turned edge cover fabric. When all panels are folded up, the DVD box has heft. It feels good in the hand, since it weighs about as much as a case-bound book. This seems particularly fitting, since the movie includes trial scenes, and the overall packaging of this DVD case has the feel of a law book.

Finally, there is a tip-on page attached to the back panel. It contains supplementary promotional information printed on a thick, gloss coated sheet (probably 100# text), affixed to the main box with fugitive glue.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. More than anything, this DVD package exudes quality, seriousness, and durability. So I would encourage you to consider the relationship between form and function in whatever you design, be it a print book, a brochure, or a product package. If the subject matter has an air of gravitas, make sure this is reflected in both the creative design and the materials from which the printed case is made. Subconsciously, the feel of a product tells the reader or viewer as much as the creative print design.
  2. This goes double for any promotional product. The To Kill a Mockingbird DVD case is essentially an advertisement. How it looks and how it feels will either sell the DVD or not. If it feels flimsy, it probably won’t pique the viewer’s interest as much, and a sale will have been lost. In your own promotional custom printing work, keep the sales goal in mind. Make sure the printed package reflects the quality of the item it contains.
  3. A DVD box has to be durable. Presumably, the viewer will want to keep the DVDs for years. Using binder’s boards that will not warp and plastic DVD holders that will not crack or chip makes good business sense.
  4. To Kill a Mockingbird was a print book before it was a movie. Therefore, it makes good design sense to have text on the cover art for the DVD discs themselves. In your own package design work (or any design work for that matter), find ways to tie the design into the meaning/tone/purpose of the printed piece. Consider color, typefaces, paper surfaces, and paper coatings. Each of these will either reinforce or detract from the meaning or purpose of the product. Make sure the tone of the subject matter and the design presentation are congruent.
  5. Product packaging is an advertisement. If it is well done, it will sell the next set of discs as well as the first. Keep this in mind when you’re designing anything. The look and feel of marketing materials either supports or detracts from the “brand.”
  6. Use appropriate printing technology. In the case of To Kill a Mockingbird, the custom screen printing on the DVD discs themselves gives an air of opulence to the product because of the thick, tactile ink. Other approaches to decorating the discs might have used thinner ink, which would have detracted from the overall effect. Keep this in mind when you design anything. Think about the difference between an inkjet printed garment, for instance, and one that has been decorated with thick, custom screen printing ink. The ink sits up on the surface of the product. You can feel it when you run your hand across the t-shirt or hat. Even a print book with a soft-touch cover coating that feels good to the reader’s hand will make an impression.
  7. People like to participate in a design. The tip-on advertisement on the back of the DVD case can be peeled off and repositioned because of the fugitive glue. Most people like this sort of thing.
  8. Be opulent where appropriate, but make sure you also understand the overall cost plus your budget. Clearly this product package was expensive to produce compared to a simple plastic case. But it will last through many viewings, and each time it will make a favorable impression. You have to ask yourself whether it’s worth it. In many cases the answer will be yes. In some cases, no.
  9. Complex print jobs like the To Kill a Mockingbird DVD case cannot be printed by all vendors. Make sure your print vendor has the right equipment and knowledge to successfully execute the specialty binding work, die cutting, or coating work. Ask your commercial printing supplier for product samples to make sure you’re satisfied with his skill and to ensure the success of your custom printing project.

Commercial Printing: Hand-Drawn Packaging Art

Tuesday, December 19th, 2017

I remember growing up on Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” hearing that if fifty people a day came into the recruiting office and sang a bar of “Alice’s Restaurant,” the collective effect would be a movement, the “Alice’s Restaurant Anti-Massacree Movement.”

Well, I see another movement coming, in commercial printing and packaging. In our living room my fiancee and I now have a square corrugated box of nuts, two Chipotle cups, and the printed box for a container of Cabernet Sauvignon “House Wine.” What they all have in common is that all of them look “hand drawn,” and all are monochromatic, flexo print jobs.

I’ve already written a blog post about the humor, playful drawings, and quaint sayings on the flexo-printed nut carton, so I will focus this time on the two cups and the box of wine. I see some interesting marketing benefits inherent in this casual approach to design. I think it’s an exceptionally effective approach that rests firmly on basic principles of psychology.

Overview (the Chipotle Cups)

First the Chipotle cups. I have long been a fan of Chipotle’s design and marketing work because it engages the viewer using surprisingly sparse imagery. Like other Chipotle marketing work, these two cups rely on single-color custom printing. When I look at the ink under a 12-power loupe, I see a dark brown, almost black ink with a hint of red coloration. The halos around the perimeter of the type letterforms, with ink that is somewhat uneven and bubbly under high magnification, indicate flexographic commercial printing. But even on the exceptionally small type, this does not diminish readability. To the naked eye, everything looks crisp.

Each of the two cups includes about 25 lines of printed type. Both are entitled “Cultivating Thought, Author Series,” although the type treatment of this title differs from cup to cup. On one cup, the title is surrounded with drawings of figures, power tools, and electronic gadgets (a TV remote, a cell phone). Everyone seems somewhat stressed out, based on their expressions. They seem to be busy, perhaps overwhelmed with multiple tasks.

The text copy on this cup (written by Colson Whitehead) provides a zany, stream of consciousness glimpse of a couple whose TV is possessed. It only plays reruns of Cheers (the episodes with Diane).

The second cup has only one image, a smallish surfer on a surfboard, with all manner of words (like “creative,” “motivation,” inspiration,” and “love”) jammed together in a “tag cloud” and flowing like a cresting wave behind her. The words nestle into one another and are presented in a hand-dawn font reminiscent of 1960s posters. Their combined image forms the surfer’s wave behind her.

In a stream of consciousness form, the narrator (Sue Monk Kidd) addresses the question of what to do with her life. It’s almost like reading a diary, very personal, very intimate. The text reveals the narrator’s coming to embrace not the answers of life but the questions themselves.

What Do the Cups Say About Life, Art, Psychology, and Marketing?

I think the way to understand these cups is in the context of hand-drawn marketing items in general. Here are some thoughts:

  1. We live in an increasingly impersonal world. No one seems to even notice us, let alone care. Within that context (which goes against human nature), an informal marketing item that directly addresses the reader with a brief, interesting story, can be very compelling. It is personal and concrete in an impersonal world.
  2. Humor makes the pain and absurdity of life less oppressive. (Think back to the zaniness of 1960s movies and TV shows.)
  3. Cool, edgy text copy invites the reader into a small, exclusive group: the smart, savvy people. Everyone wants to be a part of this exclusive club. Even the Chipotle restaurant interior design, signage, and marketing collateral, as well as the restaurant logos on the cups, reinforce this message of ultimate “coolness.” Affiliation is a basic human psychological need. This tribal and casual marketing approach directly addresses this need.
  4. From the point of view of the vendor, the reader is a captive audience. Anything printed on the food packaging (cups, bags, etc.) will be read at some point, particularly if the person is eating alone. (Think about how many times you have read the cereal box while eating breakfast, when you’re not on the phone or checking emails.)
  5. Single color type and art stand out in a marketing arena (i.e., the customer’s entire field of vision) in which almost everything else is presented in full color. Marketing messages compete for your attention. Any marketing item different from all the others will stand out. Ironically, as single-color, casual marketing items become the norm (i.e, the “movement” I mentioned above), they too will cease to be visible to people.

Overview: The Box of Wine

“House Wine” seems to be the name of the company as well as the description of the contents of the box. When I was growing up, liquids came in bottles. Now they come in bags (flexible packaging) and boxes (folding cartons with flexible packaging inside).

The title “House Wine” just works. People these days embrace “utilitarian-chic.” Simple, hand-drawn line art and type give a functional appeal to this box of wine, as does the notation that one box equals four bottles or 20 glasses. People today like lots of information, specifications, details. The box includes all of these.

Again, like the Chipotle cups, the box of wine is printed in one color: black. This is not really true, although the overall look is of a one-color, low-budget job, a functional product with a functional design. It actually has a little blue ink, positioned on the doors of the house (which is the logo, “House Wine”) and the word “original” on one side of the box. The box design looks sparse, just the perfect drink for those who either love to live simply or who have no other choice.

What Does the Box Say About Life, Art, Psychology, and Marketing?

Like EF Schumacher’s book on economics, Small Is Beautiful, this box exudes simplicity in its low-impact, environmentally-conscious commercial printing. Under my loupe I can see the halos around the text and the watery looking ink (with bubbles and other irregularities) that reflects flexographic custom printing. Since the packaging is a box with gloss litho paper covering the corrugated fluting, I’m not surprised that it was printed via flexography (although the litho paper could also have been offset printed and then glued to the corrugated material).

Here are some thoughts about the overall look:

  1. As with Chipotle’s two cups, this box has a simple, casual air. I’d say it would appeal to young people on a budget who want to savor the joys of life but who may lack sufficient cash flow.
  2. These customers may also have a taste for energetic living, the irreverent, and simplicity.
  3. The design is simple and bold, easy and cheap to produce, and environmentally conscious in its appearance. I think it’s aimed directly—and quite effectively—at young urban professionals.

Overall Views

Overall, I love the approach of this product packaging (which is really marketing collateral). My only hope is that the approach doesn’t morph from a quirky and edgy experiment into a movement, and then into a commonplace style seen everywhere. It’s like the bell bottom jeans of the hippies. At the beginning they were a protest. At the end, they were a uniform.

Commercial Printing: Three Intriguing Printed Samples

Saturday, October 29th, 2016

My fiancee always has her eye out for exceptional printed samples because I’m always talking about custom printing. She has become a printing aficionado, and I always get a steady stream of new ideas from her.

We were at the beach recently, and she gave me three commercial printing samples that caught my eye. Here’s what she gave me, as well as my assessment of either why they work particularly well or what we can learn from them:

The Cosmopolitan Cover Tip-On

To begin with, a tip-on is a separate printed sheet glued to the front or back of a press signature. In many cases I have seen fugitive glue used in this process to allow for the easy removal of the attachment. Fugitive glue is like rubber cement. You can easily peel off a printed sheet (or even an object like a plastic card) that has been fugitive glued to another printed sheet.

This particular issue of Cosmopolitan magazine included a fake cover (or additional cover), with the logotype of the magazine (often referred to as its “flag”) printed at the top of a cover-weight gloss press sheet (above a perfume ad mocked up to look like an actual magazine cover). It had the word “Advertisement” printed at the top, but to me it looked like a real cover (complete with a knock-out box for the inkjetted address, carrier route sorting information, and the Intelligent Mail barcode).

Now I have seen many similar tip-ons added to the front cover of magazines, but for the most part they have been produced on uncoated vellum bristol paper (postcard stock). They have looked like cover wraps, and for the most part they have imparted information (usually that it was time to renew my subscription) adorned with the publication branding and some light marketing copy.

What made the Cosmopolitan tip-on so intriguing was that I was certain—until my fiancee peeled it off the actual magazine cover—that this was in fact the true cover. The logotype made it believable. It was sexy. Now that’s powerful marketing.

The Organic Apple Chip Bag

It takes some serious marketing mojo to get away with charging more than $5.00 for a small bag of chips. And this particular vendor succeeded masterfully.

The next piece, which would be considered “flexible packaging,” is printed in solid black heavy coverage ink. With a loupe I can see black halftone dots under the solid black ink coverage. I learned this technique when I was an art director. Black ink by itself can look washed out. Since I can see some imperfections in the ink when viewed through my loupe (it looks a little uneven and watery in places), my guess would be that the job had been printed with flexographic equipment. This is often used for flexible packaging.

To minimize the slightly washed out look of the ink, the designer had specified black ink over a black halftone screen (as an alternative, he or she could have also opted for a “rich black” ink, a composite of black ink and other process colors). This works beautifully. It makes the entire bag seem lush and indulgent. It also makes the 4-color apple and reversed, hand-lettered type (actually just a simulation of hand lettering) jump right off the page.

The design is cute (the logo is made of sliced apple chips placed to make letters), and the simulated hand lettering gives the product a relaxed, casual feel. The organic specifications (gluten-free, fat free, non-GMO, etc.) provide a healthful and sustainable aura, targeted at customers in the upper financial echelons who want to be healthy and environmentally sensitive. If I had the cash, I’d pay this much for a product of this caliber.

Needless to say, since you can’t test the chips before you buy them, all of this mojo has to be conveyed through the lush ink coverage, the contrast between the images and the background, the playful typefaces, and “crunchy granola” marketing copy. This is a success.

The Sidewalk Chalk Box

The third sample is really less of a marketing success and more of an educational tool, providing in a small format all you need in order to grasp the concepts of die cutting, scoring, and folding (as well as laminating a 4-color printed cover sheet to fluted cardboard stock).

What appeals to me about this simple package (known as “folding carton” work on “corrugated board”) is its educational value. If you disassemble the carton and lay it completely flat with the printed side down, you can see the fluting of the cardboard, all the scores for folding the flat box into a three-dimensional finished piece, all the die cut tabs plus the die cut window for the front of the box, plus the one tab that has been spot glued to allow for joining the four sides of the box (exclusive of the top and bottom) into a cardboard cube.

On the flip side, you have a sheet of enamel litho paper, printed in four colors and laminated to the corrugated board.

When you wrap it all up and stick the tabs where they should go, you have a three-dimensional product. It is no longer a flat, printed sheet. It is an object you can hold in your hands, a cube, even before the manufacturer puts the toy in the box.

What makes this interesting to me, beyond the education it provides in how boxes are constructed, is that in creating every box a designer must take into consideration the physical properties of the finished packaging as well as its design (how at appears) and its marketing message (both the content of the copy and the emotional effect of the graphic design).

But once it’s in the store on the shelf with innumerable other items, all of this goes out the window. Then it’s just you and the box. Will you buy it, or won’t you?

Custom Printing: Using Bags to Sell Fast Casual Food

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2016

With our hectic schedules, my fiancee and I eat more fast food than I’d like to say. We have found that you can sleep, eat, and run a business from the privacy of your own car.

That said, a few of the bags in which the fast food has been served have piqued my interest due to both the simplicity of their presentation and the power of their marketing message.

The McDonald’s Bag

My fiancee is addicted to Egg McMuffins. I love the Filet-O-Fish sandwiches. What has struck me, though, is the power of simple, bold colors on unbleached kraft paper (i.e., paper bags). On its main bag, McDonald’s has printed its name, the golden arches, and its signature tag line (“I’m lovin’ it”) in bold primary colors. Moreover the golden arches are positioned slightly off center on the back of the bag, and they extend onto the bag’s side.

A small red vertical bar out of which the tag line is reversed balances the larger (but lighter) golden arches, creating an asymmetrical weight distribution. This actually evokes more drama, movement, and excitement than would a centered, symmetrical approach to the same information. In particular, the golden arches’ extending off the back and onto the side of the bag gives a more expansive feeling to the design.

What really intrigues me, though, is the treatment of the iconic “McDonald’s” moniker.

“McDonald’s” has been set in an extra-bold, sans serif typeface, broken down into three lines of type. It is printed in a light blue ink, so the heaviness of the typeface is somewhat subdued in an elegant and sophisticated way.

Keeping true to the current fashion of breaking words arbitrarily (not hyphenating them at syllabic points), the McDonald’s logo has been broken down into these three groups of letters: “McD/on/alds.” I understand and appreciate the first line. It offers the traditional nickname for the company: “McD’s.” The letters “o” and “n” fill the next line, which is set under the first line with just a smidgen of space, providing an almost sculptural look reminiscent of the “I(heart)/NY” image from 1977, created by Milton Glaser. The shape of the letters is striking, and the lack of leading makes this even more evident. It also ties the first line closely to the second.

As noted before, there are no hyphens. This is rather avant garde, placing the design (and the patron holding the bag) in the position of the intellectual or artist (i.e., stylish and contemporary). The third line contains the letters “alds” set in a much smaller point size but again placed under the preceding line with almost no leading.

Even though the word has not been broken into identifiable syllables, it nevertheless reads like the expected “McDonald’s” with the added benefit of looking avant garde, artistic, and cool.

As a final note, all three lines have been placed immediately against the left vertical fold of this panel of the bag with no surrounding space. That is, the type abuts to the fold. This creates even more drama. In addition, the structure of the three-line word, “McDonald’s,” is perfectly left and right justified. This accounts for the differences in type size of the letters on the three lines (so they will be precisely justified), but it also allows the bag-holder’s eye to travel down the contour of the letterforms on the right-hand margin.

So What Does This Get You?

Some people just eat the food. I like to read between the lines. This is what I learn from this McDonald’s bag:

  1. McDonalds is rebranding itself to look environmentally aware and sensitive. The bag is made of unbleached kraft paper (no caustic chemicals were used that might harm the environment). The lightness (thin ink film) of the red, yellow, and blue custom printing gives prominence to the absorbent kraft paper.
  2. McDonald’s has an artistic eye. The bag reflects an aesthetic sensibility.
  3. Artistic implies “intellectual.” Therefore, the branding invites the viewer to join the exclusive realm of the intellectual while eating his/her burger and fries. People have a need for affiliation, and a good marketer will draw the viewer into the small and exclusive “club.” And McDonalds is an ace at marketing.
  4. The homage to the big, blocky sculptures of the 50s and 60s (as reflected in the large, heavy type) reinforces this artistic, upscale look.

Pretty soon you’re stopping at McDonalds several times a week, as my fiancee and I do, absorbing both the food and the marketing message relayed through this custom printing job.

The Chipotle Bag

I’ve written in earlier PIE Blogs of my love for the simplicity of Chipotle’s commercial printing materials. A hand-drawn illustration, a little type in brown ink. The minimalist look can go a long way.

Chipotle has been producing “Cultivating Thought—Author’s Series” bags that wax philosophical. The one in front of me has about a thousand words, in stream-of-consciousness style (like William Faulkner or Gabriel Garcia Marquez), addressing our tendency as a species to not watch where we’re going or be present where we are. It’s called “Two Minute Driving Lesson” (by Jonathan Franzen). The article weaves in and out of driving skills, politics, the ecology, and philosophy, basically asking the question: “If you’re taking such an extremely short view, how are you even supposed to see a pedestrian who’s starting to cross the street?”

Actually, it literally asks this question. Franzen’s query takes up most of one side of the bag, printed in brown ink in a simple sans serif face (not unlike the McDonald’s bag but in a less bold type) with generous leading between the short lines of text. There’s also a Chipotle logo bleeding off the right bottom side of the bag, and the “Cultivating Thought—Author Series” tagline mentioned above reversed out of a solid brown that bleeds off the right, left, and bottom of the bag.

As a culture, we seem to be moving away from images in our marketing materials to embrace type, both for its message and for the sheer visual beauty of the letterforms.

So What Does This Get You?

Here are some thoughts:

  1. People still read. In fact, in the morning while eating cereal, a lot of people read the cereal box. Chipotle marketing execs are smart, and they realize they have a captive audience. Presumably people will read their fast casual food bags while eating (unless they are on their smartphones).
  2. Brown type on light brown kraft paper just feels ecologically sensitive. Perhaps it even makes you want to stop at Starbucks for a latte. Hand-drawn illustrations incorporating witty, provocative signs above a frazzled driver in a car (just like my fiancee and me, driving to and fro’ with our McDonald’s and Chipotle bags) add humor. However, they also evoke a sense of recognition in the reader. He or she is “hard-wired,” as the bag says, to be short-sighted. Like the McDonald’s bag, the Chipotle bag draws the reader into the experience and provides a sense of affiliation. “We are all part of this group,” the reader can say. And, as we know, affiliation sells product.

The Overall Outlook

First of all, I’m pleased to see any marketing collateral that requires people to read. We don’t do enough of that as a culture. More than that, I like marketing collateral that is edgy and that makes people think. Both the McDonald’s and Chipotle bags do this.

Finally, I think it’s masterful marketing to use a platform (or substrate in this case) that will be right before the eyes of the person eating the hamburger, fish sandwich, or burrito, to not only sell the product but to also challenge the user to think.

Andy Warhol would be proud.

Large Format Printing: You’ll Go Nuts for this Printed Carton

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016

On our way home from a standee installation at a movie theater last week, my fiancee stopped the car abruptly and jumped out. She grabbed a cardboard box covered in what appeared to be hand scrawled black Sharpie lettering and drawings. After commenting that I didn’t want to go to jail for stealing garbage, I put the box in the back seat, and we sped off. Needless to say, the box now lives in our front room, an example of pop art and corrugated board printing.

Why? What makes this box so special?

The Product

First of all, the box is different from most other boxes. It is covered in black Sharpie (or so it appears). The company website (it is a nut company) is displayed prominently and underlined. It also appears to be hand lettered (albeit in white). There is almost no place for the eye to rest on any of the four printed sides of the cube (the box is of almost equal dimensions) because there is writing everywhere.

Most of the writing comprises puns, and comments about how delicious the nuts are and how this is a family business. The marketing copy exudes an almost childlike innocence, a sense of wonder and energy and fun. You want to read every word. Then you want to eat the nuts and keep the carton. There are even several cute drawings of nuts with faces, feet, and a hat.

From a marketing point of view, what makes this special:

  1. First of all, it is very personal and friendly in tone, in contrast to most printed carton art. It draws the viewer into the world of the nut-maker by appealing to his/her sense of humor.
  2. It also stands out from almost all other packaging art in that it appears to be hand lettered. Clearly it has been printed. However, only when you think of the labor involved in hand-lettering thousands or hundreds of thousands of boxes do you start to think about how it was printed.
  3. The overall “feel” is of a local food co-op. The box is brown corrugated board. The writing is black ink, except for the white logo, so there is a bit of an environmentally-conscious vibe going on here. It’s casual, approachable, anything but corporate.

The Process

So how was this produced?

Creating the art was easy enough. The graphic designers either produced a hand-lettered original, which they then scanned and brought into the page composition software, or they drew the lettering and images of nuts with faces and legs with a tool like the Wacom Tablet and a stylus (i.e., they created the art within a drawing or painting program).

Producing the carton could have entailed one of three commercial printing processes: inkjet, flexography, or custom screen printing.

Custom screen printing would have been ideal if the press run were large enough. Setting up the screens and ink is labor intensive, so only a long run will justify the make-ready cost. When I look at the box with a high-powered loupe, I don’t see the thick ink film I’ve come to expect from screen printing.

Flexography would have been optimal for shorter press runs, since offset printing would have crushed the fluting in the corrugated board. The rubber plates used for flexography would have printed the artwork on the carton without damaging it, and for small to mid-sized press runs, the process would have been economical. (You’ll find a lot of package printing done via flexography, particularly frozen food cartons, milk cartons, etc.)

When I look closely, I see faint outlines around the lettering. The ink is rather thin and transparent, so you can see not only the fibers of the cardboard, but you can also see that the density of ink within the letters is lighter and the outlines of the letters are a bit darker. This is indicative of flexography.

The third option would be inkjet. This would be great for very short runs or variable data custom printing, in which each box would be slightly different from the others. Since inkjet print heads don’t actually touch the substrate, the process is also great for corrugated board because it won’t crush the fluting. But when I look at the type and images through my high-powered loupe, I don’t see the minuscule ink droplets indicative of inkjet printing.

So I’ll vote for flexography as the process used. That would be my best guess.

What You Can Learn

Here are a number of things to think about:

  1. If you do something totally different, it will stand out. In a world full of standardized cartons, this one really catches the eye.
  2. Consider your audience. Crafting a personal tone and casual appearance works for this nut company. It would usually not work for a computer company (although I have seen some simple black ink-on-corrugated-board marketing work from Apple over the years).
  3. Consider the most appropriate commercial printing technology. Offset printing crushes corrugated board. Screen printing, flexography, and inkjet printing do not. Be mindful of both the economics of custom printing (the most efficient and cost-effective way to print) and the functional requirements of a print job.
  4. From time to time, take a chance. My fiancee loved the design. That’s why she took it as pop art (think Andy Warhol in the ’60s). Some people won’t like it because it’s so outlandish. Great design doesn’t play it safe.

Custom Printing: Packaging and Presentation Sell Products

Monday, November 9th, 2015

Presentation sells. It’s as simple as that. If you went to a thrift store, and a sales clerk dumped out a box of miscellaneous used goods and a selection of diamonds, you’d probably assume the diamonds were costume jewelry.

Conversely, if you were to go to a diamond store—particularly one that made you set up an appointment first—you’d probably assume the store sold the highest quality diamonds. In both cases, you could be right or wrong. Regardless, you’d probably agree that presentation mattered a lot.

A Sample Cosmetics Box

My fiancee brought home three tins of eye shadow the other day. They came in a laminated stack of corrugated board formed into a slab (for want of a better word). Picture a chunk of cardboard (eight layers deep) with three holes drilled in it. At the bottom of each is a finger hole. You push up and the eye shadow pops out.

On the front of the packaging (i.e., the topmost 4” x 6” piece of fluted board) is the name of the cosmetics company, along with the name of the product, the product weight for each tin, and one- or two-word descriptions of the colors. Around each of the 2” holes for the tins of eyeshadow, there is a black circle.

On the back of the corrugated packaging the company logo and product name have been repeated, along with lists of directions, ingredients, manufacturing information, and disclaimers (no animal testing, etc.). Each finger push-hole (for releasing the tins of eye shadow) is surrounded by another small black circle, and the color of each eyeshadow is printed beside each of these holes.

When you consider that all of the type is printed in black ink on the brown, sulfate corrugated board (except for white lettering on the front displaying the color names), the type/art is rather minimal. It looks like it was produced via flexography using rubber plates.

In contrast, the thick white ink displaying the names of the colors jumps off the brown page. I looked at this type under a loupe and tried to scratch off a little bit with the edge of a knife. My educated guess would be that the white ink was an example of custom screen printing due to its thickness and the slight pattern in the ink. In fact, it’s so thick that it even looks like press-on vinyl lettering.

Why Does This Matter to a Graphic Designer or Printer?

First of all, I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s like a box, yet unlike a box. It’s kind of gritty and casual, with the patterns of the fluting showing through the brown covering sheet of the corrugated board. The edges aren’t perfect where they have been glued together (laminated) and then cut and drilled into the final shape. In fact, it’s almost like a block of wood that has been shaped into a display case.

That’s what makes this work for me. It’s completely unique. Regarding the banged-up nature of the packaging, this goes with the earthiness and environmental look of the piece. The custom screen printing white ink labels jump right off the page, since their simple, sans serif, all-caps design in thick white ink are in such contrast to the background. And the eyeshadow tins sitting in the three little wells look pristine in contrast to the surrounding packaging.

If you found the three tins of eyeshadow on a shelf in a store, would you buy them? Maybe. But maybe not as quickly as if they were in this cool little display case. And everything that catches the eye of a potential buyer draws her, or him, one step closer to the final purchase.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Flexography is a particularly good alternative if you’re printing on corrugated board, particularly if you’re seeking a distressed, or gritty, look. After all, flexography doesn’t crush the fluted center of corrugated board. It also lends itself to a less than perfect ink application. For some products, this works better than perfect ink placement.
  2. Consider contrast in your packaging. Black type on brown cardboard will look subdued. Adding white, however, will draw stark contrast with the background. Consider where you want your viewer’s eye to go first, second, third.
  3. Do something dramatic. This designer did not put this packaging in a second box, so all of the rough edges are still visible. You know immediately that eight pieces of cardboard were laminated together. If you’re aiming for a hard-edged, high-fashion look, perhaps this won’t work. If you want a gritty look, it’s perfect—and unique.
  4. Choose the right technology for your design goals. In this case the designer knew the white ink would be more dramatic if it were thicker. It looks like she/he chose custom screen printing as the best way to do this. Another option would have been white foil stamping. (However, this would have required a die, and that would have added cost and time to the process.)
  5. For good or ill, it’s all about selling. So make a physical mock-up, and think about whether you’d buy a product in that particular packaging. This mindset makes you even more valuable to the marketing department and all other business development departments in your firm. After all, you’re making them money with your graphic design and custom printing.

Commercial Printing: Deconstructing the Carton

Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

Throughout my reading in the print and online trade journals, I have seen a handful of themes regarding the present state of commercial printing:

  1. Packaging and labels are two of the most rapidly growing niches within the trade. This includes short-run labels digitally printed either through laser technology or inkjet, flexible packaging (such as juice boxes and apple sauce bags), and folding cartons (chipboard and corrugated board, digital as well as analog).
  2. Ceramic printing, and the printing of flooring and other building products, are also growing exponentially.
  3. Fabric printing for fashion and interior design is growing.
  4. 3D printing, in every conceivable arena, ranging from shoes and jewelry, to weapons, food, and internal organs is growing rapidly.
  5. Magazine and newspaper printing isn’t dead. It has just migrated to other countries around the world, such as China, India, and Saudia Arabia. In some of these countries, people are demanding more and more printed magazines and newspapers along with their electronic media.

This short list contains my observations culled from (and echoed by) every conceivable media. For printers, print brokers, and buyers of commercial printing this is welcome news. Print is not dead.

In this light, when it comes to printing you can lay your hands on immediately, a good example is the common shoebox. Think about it. It takes marketing savvy, chutzpah, and skilled commercial printing vendors to create these works of art and at the same time command premium prices for their contents, the shoes.

Deconstructing the Shoebox

My fiancee came back to the condo with about twenty shoeboxes yesterday for a weaving project for the autistic students to whom we teach art. We will convert these to small looms by cutting slits in the cardboard and then stringing up the boxes with yarn. In art therapy, these boxes will be used for weaving fabric wall hangings.

Within the universe of these twenty shoe boxes, I saw an educational moment for print buyers regarding the construction of designer cartons.

Here’s a description of one.

  1. To me it was clear that a sheet of enamel custom printing paper (perhaps an 80# or 100# text stock) had been printed in three colors (metallic gold, burgundy, and black, with full bleeds) and then covered with either a liquid or film laminate before being glued to a corrugated board base.
  2. The printed boxes, which presumably had been laid out flat on a press sheet with their assorted tabs for gluing, were then converted.
  3. This conversion process involved first die-cutting the tabs and then removing all waste paper. Then, all the tabs were folded up and glued with spot glue (either cold applied or hot melt) to create a three-dimensional carton. The top and bottom of each box had a lip, an extension of the printed litho paper that had been folded over and glued into the inside of the box. From the outside of the box, nothing was visible but the gloss coated, full-bleed, printed graphic.
  4. On the inside of the particular box I have chosen to describe, one could see the fluting of the corrugated board with white paper covering the parallel ribs. Even with the paper covering, this fluting was still somewhat visible as a textural pattern.
  5. On one side of the bottom of the box a 3/4” hole had been drilled and a plastic grommet had been inserted. Perhaps this was to offer a glimpse of the leather boots inside this particular carton.

The whole effect of the printed carton was opulence, even for this particular “cowgirl” boot. On the side of the carton along with the boot size, color, and stock number, was a clear strip of adhesive acetate on which the UPC barcode had been printed, presumably either with an inkjet technology or a thermal printing appliance.

What You Can Learn from this Case Study

  1. A cynic might say that these boots cost more than they’re worth. However, to those who understand and appreciate the branding, the attention to detail even in the boxes themselves, owning these boots at any price might be reasonable.
  2. The graphic design of the boxes (the surface appearance without the physical, three-dimensional structure of the cardboard) clearly reflects an awareness of the buyer’s values, preferences, and lifestyle. One could see this in the choice of fonts and colors, and even in the choice of lamination materials to give the product a highly reflective sheen.
  3. The physical attributes of the box–including the materials, box design, and graphic design choices; the finishing of the carton from a flat printed sheet to a laminated press sheet; and the conversion of the press sheet on corrugated board into a diecut, folded, and glued box—all reflect craftsmanship. A savvy buyer would assume this craftsmanship extends to the product in the box as well.

All of this was contained in the box, for those who would observe closely and think.

Custom Printing: What Is Flexible Packaging?

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

When I was a boy, we had milk bottles delivered to our door. Glass bottles. Boy, have things changed. Now, beverages are just as likely to come in boxes or pouches with straws.

These containers fit into a particular segment of the package printing industry called “flexible packaging.” A PowerPoint series I found by Peter Schottland, produced for the American Packaging Corporation, called “An Overview of the Flexible Packaging Industry,” defines flexible packaging as:

“A package or container made of flexible or easily yielding materials that, when filled or closed, can be readily changed in shape. The construction may be of paper, plastic film, foil, or any combination of these. Includes rollstock, bags, pouches, labels/wraps, lidding, shrink sleeves and stretch film.”

What makes this of particular importance to me is that these are fertile areas for custom printing and graphics. The market is growing, and as a printing broker I find this intriguing.

Further on in Schottland’s presentation, he notes that the increase in flexible package printing is due to lower materials costs than for rigid packaging (rigid cartons, for instance), improved technology, reduced materials consumption, and the benefits of the paper, films, and foils used in this process.

How Do They Print Flexible Packages?


According to Peter Schottland’s presentation, the main commercial printing technologies used for producing flexible packaging are rotogravure and flexography.

To provide a brief review of these processes, unlike offset lithography rorogravure does not use plates. Instead, the text and images of a page or package are engraved directly into the rotogravure cylinder using lasers, diamond-tipped tools, or chemicals. The deeper the wells engraved on the cylinder (with images, solids, screens, and type composed of dots), the darker the ink. The ink from the ink fountain fills the wells as the rotary press cylinder turns. Then a doctor blade removes the excess ink. Then the rotating rotogravure cylinder makes contact with the web of paper (a roll, not sheets) and deposits the ink on the substrate. Heat dries the ink before the paper enters the next color unit.

As you can see, the process involves a direct deposit of ink, unlike offset lithography (in which the image is transferred from the plate to the blanket to the printed substrate). Also, this is an intaglio process (as opposed to a relief process), since the ink wells are recessed into the rotogravure cylinder.

Rotogravure is a good choice for flexible packaging because it maintains exceptional quality over exceptionally long press runs (millions of images, for instance). In addition, it will allow for custom printing on webs of foil, film, or paper. According to Wikipedia, rotogravure has the “ability to print on thin films such as polyester, OPP, nylon, and PE, which come in a wide range of thicknesses, commonly 10 to 30 micrometers.”

The down side, other than the need to print hundreds of thousands of images to make the process cost effective, is that the text as well as solids and images are composed of dots.


Wikipedia defines the term flexography as a “modern version of letterpress which can be used for printing on almost any type of substrate, including plastic, metallic films, cellophane, and paper.”

As noted in prior blog articles, flexography (a relief process, as opposed to the intaglio process of rotogravure) employs rubber plates with raised type and images to print on webs of paper, film, plastic, etc. Lasers or chemicals are used to image the raised plates, which are mounted on the press in exact register. The press inks the plates, and a doctor blade removes any excess ink before the rubber plates apply the image to the substrate.

Again, this is ideal for flexible packaging since it allows for custom printing long press runs on rolls of foil, film, and paper.

Other Technologies

Although rotogravure and flexography are the technologies of choice for flexible packaging, some flexible package printing is done via custom screen printing (for long runs) or digital printing (for very short runs).

Why This Is Important

As with other commercial printing technologies experiencing a growth spurt, it is prudent to be aware of what flexible packaging is, what it looks like, and how it is produced. Look around in the grocery store, and you’ll see little pouches of apple sauce where there were once only glass bottles or metal cans. Learn to identify this packaging, and understand how to print it, and your graphic design skills will stay relevant and in demand.

Package Printing: Indigo, Scodix, and Highcon, Oh My

Saturday, June 28th, 2014

In the movie The Graduate, Mr. McGuire tells Benjamin, Dustin Hoffman’s character, that he has one word for him regarding his future success: “Plastics.” To update this 1967 movie quote and apply it to the present state of printing, I’d say the word is “packaging,” and Highcon, Scodix, and HP will reap the benefits.

Why do I believe this? Because I just read an article in Packaging Europe News (9/25/13, “Highcon and Scodix Demonstrate the Value of Digital for Folding Carton at LabelExpo”) referencing LabelExpo in Brussels, Belgium, in which Scodix and Highcon presented “new digital technologies that will enable folding carton packaging converters to differentiate themselves…” and “further stress the importance they place on the move towards digital packaging production.”

Packaging Is Physical

Unlike a book or newspaper, product packaging has to be printed in some way. Picture a big box store like Target with row upon row of products with no packaging, or with blank packaging. You can’t do it. In fact, I’ve seen increasingly intricate packaging in recent months—and more of it. From printed shrink sleeves adorning bottles to flexible packaging, I’m seeing an explosion in packaging design and production. LabelExpo just confirms it.

The HP Indigo 30000 (Digital Custom Printing Excellence)

I don’t think any digital press exists today that matches the quality level of the HP Indigo. It produces toner-based digital custom printing (electrophotography, or xerography) that rivals offset for all but the most discriminating eyes. Moreover, it overcomes any perceived liability with its ability to print a different image every time it delivers a press sheet.

Mass customization is key. As the Packaging Europe News article notes, “Value can be created by meeting the demand for better shelf appearance, shorter runs, versioning, private label, reduced inventory, and sustainability.”

Applying this to the HP Indigo, the new 30000 press accepts a 20” x 29” press sheet. That’s comparable to a 20” x 26” cover sheet size for an offset lithographic press. In simpler terms, digital presses can now compete head to head with offset presses.

Given the exceptional custom printing quality provided by the HP Indigo line, its ability to economically produce a print run of one copy or 10,000 copies, and its ability to produce infinitely variable products within a single press run, it seems that the new HP Indigo 30000 is right on the mark for a packaging industry that demands shorter, more varied press runs.

The Highcon Euclid (Digital Diecutting)

Highcon has produced equipment that will use digital data stored within a package-design art file to do intricate cutouts as well as the standard cutting and creasing required for package conversion (i.e., for turning a flat custom printing sheet into a completed box).

After all, if you disassemble a simple carton for a tube of toothpaste, pulling apart all folded and glued flaps, you’ll see how intricate the flat diecut shape must be before it can be folded back up into a usable box. Now, instead of needing to pay extra—and wait extra time—for the creation of a metal die with which to stamp out the blanks for the carton, the Highcon Euclid can directly process the digital information in the art file, and cut or crease the commercial printing sheets with a laser.

What this means is that you can diecut one or 1,000 boxes economically, since you don’t have all the set up charges. And you can start diecutting and creasing the box forms immediately, since you don’t have to wait for the die-maker to strike the die.

Scodix Packaging Adornment (Digital Metallics and Embossing)

Think about packages you see in the drug store. They include pharmaceutical supplies and cosmetics, among other products. Drug manufacturers and cosmetics manufacturers often include elaborate metallic inks, foil stamping effects, or embossing in their product packaging. In past years, these have required metal dies. For instance, you would make (and wait for, and pay for) one die for a gold metallic for a single cosmetics folding carton.

But why stop with one color? The Scodix digital enhancement process can simulate multiple colors of foil stamping on the same box, and it can do all of these at the same time without any dies, because it is a digital process.

To go even further, Scodix can add up to .7 millimeters of “build.” This effectively eliminates the need for metal dies if you want to add embossing to a product package.

And in a move reflecting their commitment to packaging design and production, Scodix now offers the Scodix Ultra digital enhancement press that accepts a B2+ sheet (21.5” x 31”), perfect for use in concert with the HP Indigo 30000 and Highcon Euclid.

Enough said. The future is just one word: “packaging.”

Custom Packaging Printing: Blister Packs and Clamshell Packaging

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

I learned a new phrase yesterday: “clamshell packaging.” So I did some research, and I checked out the online photos. I saw a vast expanse of commercial printing opportunities within the arena of packaging, including medical supplies like gauze pads in blister packs with printed peel-off lids, and pharmaceutical samples in fold-over blister packs that allow you to push a pill out of the packaging through the printed foil cover. I saw hardware supplies (screws, for instance) in plastic clamshell packages with fold-over lids. I even saw hamburgers in printed cardboard or cellulose clamshell packages.

And everything had some sort of custom printing on it.

Some Key Words, Phrases, and Concepts You Should Know

Blister Pack

A “blister pack,” also known as a “push-through pack,” has a perforated foil base attached to a matrix of plastic domes (thermoformed or injection molded polystyrene, polyester, or PVC). These usually encase pills or capsules and protect them from moisture and tampering. This is what you get when your doctor gives you prescription samples. On the bottom of the aluminum foil you will usually see custom printing related to the enclosed pharmaceutical. Of course, the carton also needs to be printed.

Blister packs come in a variety of options. Among these are the “fold-over blister,” which has a number of panels and folds up like a little wallet to protect the pills in the plastic bubbles. “Face-seal blister packs” include the cards you find at the grocery store containing razors, cosmetics, or small toys under plastic bubbles that have been heat welded to the cardboard cards. Again, the cards need to be printed. “Trapped blister packaging” refers to plastic bubbles that extend out beyond both the front and back of the cardboard card. The enclosed “product” seems to float.

Clamshell Containers

These can be one-piece plastic containers (thermoformed or injection molded polystyrene, polyester, or PVC), or they can be containers made of paper board. Either way, each is a single piece of material containing a base well, a hinge, and a cover.

Clamshell containers are not only used for food (styrofoam containers at hot-food bars in grocery stores, and cardboard clamshell boxes for McDonalds’ Chicken Classic sandwiches). More and more often, they are being used for small electronic devices. The inaccessibility of the packaging deters theft. In fact, the design works so well that 6,000 Americans visit the emergency room each year with self-inflicted injuries received while trying to open clamshell packaging. They have even coined a term for the ensuing anger: “wrap rage.”

Thermoforming vs. Injection Molding

The plastic part of the blister packs and clamshell packs has to be made into a bubble to cover the enclosed products. Either the transparent plastic can be heated until it is pliable and then formed into a specific shape over a mold, or molten plastic can be injected into a mold cavity, where it will cool and harden into the final shape.

Custom Printing Blister Packs and Clamshell Packs

Look closely at the blister packs and clamshell containers in the stores you frequent. You may have missed them before. After all, you’ve probably been focusing on the product rather than the packaging. You’ll notice the printed cards in the blister packs and the printed foils covering the pharmaceuticals.

According to the commercial printing vendors I have researched, these printed packages are produced via gravure printing or flexography in 4-color process inks and/or spot colors, often with a varnish.

On some of the clamshell packs you might even see crack-n-peel labels that have been printed via offset, gravure, or flexography. These can be wrapped around the clamshell packs to identify the product while holding the packaging together.

If you look closely, you might also see printing on the foils included in the blister packs of drug samples. This foil is printed in web reels, and then slit down into the final size and labeled with batch numbers.

Issues Regarding Custom Printing Inks and Food

According to the Food and Drug Administration, any inks or coatings that may come into contact with food must be separated by a “functional barrier” that keeps the printed surface away from the food product. One option would be an overprint varnish made from FDA-compliant materials and applied (with FDA-approved operations) as a uniform coating with no pinholes.

Why You Should Care

As long as blister packs and clamshell packaging encase everything from microcassette recorders to food to drugs, no print designer need fear obsolescence.


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