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Package Printing Options

I firmly believe that product packaging isn't going anywhere, regardless of what happens to books, newspapers, and magazines. I can't really envision a grocery store filled with digitally packaged products.

That said, I just collected four commercial cleaning and beauty products from around the condo (one benefit of condo living is that the laundry room is in our front hallway). Under the bright condo lights you can learn a lot from a row of cleaning products.

Two of the product bottles (stain removers) are the same except for the packaging.

One of the two has a paper label that has been printed in process inks and a number of PMS colors as well. The process colors have a recognizable halftone dot pattern indicating the color builds, and the PMS colors are one consistent color (in this case a red and green).

On the back of the plastic spray bottle is a corresponding back label with more information and less branding. Both labels have been affixed to the plastic with an adhesive of some sort.

The other bottle of the same product is almost identical (as a blank plastic spray bottle). The spray mechanism looks a bit more futuristic and industrial, however, in that it has been made of a transparent, light blue (presumably dyed) plastic.

Unlike the other bottle of the same stain remover, this one has a plastic sheath onto which the label has been printed. Unlike some “shrink sleeves” I have seen, this one is opaque white. Most I have seen are clear. No, actually, as I look more closely I see that the white is an addition. It goes almost exactly to the clear edge of the shrink sleeve.

(As an aside, printers print on these plastic sleeves and then slip them over the bottles and apply heat. The heat makes the sleeves shrink and hug the contours of the bottle.)

The artwork itself looks very much like the art on the first bottle, although all colors are CMYK builds. The solid areas of color seem a bit mottled, so I would assume the printing technology was flexography. The slightly coarser halftone screens (than those of the first bottle label) would also suggest to me that the printing technology was flexography. The first bottle label had more consistent, evenly inked solid colors (particularly the PMS colors), and the edges of the type and solids were crisper as well. Of course, this is just an educated guess.

The Benefits of Shrink Sleeves

What I see right away is that all coloration, branding, and text on the first product bottle has been confined to the label. It's what we've all come to expect over the years. But it seems rigid. There's the white plastic bottle, and then there's the printed label. They are completely separate.

In contrast, the artwork on the shrink-sleeve wraps around the bottle. It seems more fluid, more expansive, less confined. Between the light transparent blue of the spray mechanism, the light blue of the type, and the graduated light blue screens, the overall packaging has a much lighter feel than that of the first bottle with the adhesive label.

What We Can Learn

“Thinking outside the box” is an overused catch phrase. However, it's also true in this case. Shrink-sleeve labeling allows you to view almost the entire spray bottle as a single canvas on which to create the promotional art. In contrast, an adhesive label provides two smaller, separate canvasses (front and back) for your message. So you've got two options.

Two More Labeling Options

In the condo, the bathroom is almost on top of the laundry room, so I also collected some beauty products.

The first is an underarm deodorant. If you look closely, you'll see two things:

1. The case surrounding the powdered stick is a single white plastic container with a metallic white cast. At the bottom is a plastic screw assembly that advances the stick deodorant. On top is a transparent, metallic green cover.

2. On the front is a single, transparent-backed, rectangular printed label.

So it seems that the product container itself was molded in some way (presumably from a liquid plastic using a source of intense heat) and tinged initially with a white dye and a green dye for the container and its top, respectively. The dye, therefore, is in the plastic, not on the plastic.

In contrast, the label has been printed onto a transparent sheet. Not a shrink sleeve, as with the prior product, but a flat, clear plastic film affixed to the container with an adhesive. The clear material lets the white base material of the container show through.

Again, when I look closely with a loupe, I see a somewhat coarse halftone screen, and for the solid colors (a dark blue and a gold PMS) I see a somewhat mottled ink laydown and halos (slightly lighter areas around the inside and outside perimeter of all type letterforms). To me this seems characteristic of flexography (a relief printing process using rubber plates), a process ideally suited to package printing on plastic sheeting.

One More Sample (Probably Screen Printing)

The final sample differs completely from all the other cleaning and beauty products. The ink has been printed directly onto the plastic tube (a moisturizing cream).

First of all, the artwork is much simpler than the other product label graphics. There are only two colors. There are no halftones, just type and solid areas of ink: all line art, no gradations.

Also, unlike the other product labels, this one has texture. If you run your finger across the type, you can feel where the letterforms and solid colors begin and end.

Based on my knowledge of screen printing, I would say this had been printed in the following manner. First of all, the thick ink, leaving a raised impression, is indicative of screen printing. In contrast, the inks used for the clear plastic shrink sleeves were more watery and less viscous.

My educated guess would be that after the tubes had been formed out of sheets of plastic and before the face cream had been pumped into the tubes, the tubes could be made to lie almost flat. Screen printing is ideally suited to irregular surfaces. The thick screen printing ink was probably forced through the screen mesh with a squeegie onto the plastic surface material of the face cream tube.

What You Can Learn

Here are some thoughts to keep in mind as you observe printed product labels.

1. Use a loupe (also called a linen tester). It will magnify the letterforms of the type as well as the halftone dots. You'll be able to see how thick the ink laydown is, and whether it is mottled or consistent in its coverage. You'll be able to compare coarse halftone screens to fine screens. And you'll see the shadows of the raised letters if the ink is very thick. You'll also be able to see whether the printer used flat PMS colors or color builds of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black.

2. Think in terms of how a product label was constructed, how it fits on the product packaging, and how it was printed. Consider the benefits and limitations of the various printing processes.

3. If you do some research online, you will find enlarged samples of the various package and label printing technologies, such as flexography and screen printing. You'll be able to see their characteristics (halftone dot patterns and such), and when they're an appropriate package production choice and why.

4. Then you can apply what you've learned to your own design work.


[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]

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