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

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Custom Printing: More Info on Print and Virtual Reality

January 17th, 2018

Posted in AR/VR | Comments »

I recently had the opportunity to try on a virtual reality (VR) headset for the first time in a computer store. It was a transformative experience. I totally lost awareness of the actual world around me as I explored a realm that seemed equally real. It was like a dream.

In this context, I was particularly intrigued to find an article on about the marriage of augmented reality (AR, which is slightly different from virtual reality) and commercial printing. Entitled “Why Print Legacies Like Time Are Betting Big on Augmented Reality” (published online on 1/8/18 and written by Tim Carmody), the article addresses some of the issues and concerns in this expanding link between print and digital communications.

The article begins by noting that for the first time in its 94-year history, the prior issue of Time had been guest-edited (by Bill Gates). I think this is a very big deal, since Gates is clearly one of the most influential names in the history of personal computing. At the same time, this particular issue contained “activations” (links to) four separate augmented reality experiences accessible with a smartphone app created by Time’s Life VR.

Augmented Reality vs. Virtual Reality

To understand the difference in the terms referenced in the article, I did some research on virtual reality and augmented reality. Both are computer generated, usually incorporating a headset with a screen that covers the viewer’s entire field of vision. In my own experience trying this at the computer store, the headset itself also eliminated ambient light to further focus my attention on the screen (some virtual reality experiences use screens in an actual, physical room).

The main difference between augmented reality and virtual reality, as I understand it from my reading, is that virtual reality presents a separate, completely contained world for the viewer to experience while augmented reality adds computer generated text and images to the viewer’s field of vision. It enhances reality rather than creating an artificial world.

I think both have their place, and I think they will both be very big in coming years. Carmody’s article reflects the same sentiment, noting that “…the right set of experiences have emerged…to make it mainstream.”

How This Relates to Commercial Printing

The article reminds us that Time has been around for 94 years. That’s a very long time when you think that our country has only been around for 242 years. And Time is positioning itself to benefit from this growth in augmented reality.

According to Mia Tramz, managing editor of Life VR (as quoted in “Why Print Legacies Like Time Are Betting Big on Augmented Reality”), “In the way that VR was nascent a few years ago, I think AR is right now.” Because of this, Time Inc. plans to roll out augmented reality activations across its line of products and also both augmented reality and virtual reality experiences that will be stand-alone items (not linked to Time Inc. print products). That is, Time sees reader demand both for integrating print publications with AR and VR applications and for creating free-standing AR and VR experiences, which they refer to as “off the page” opportunities.


  1. Time sees opportunities for readers to both entertain and inform themselves using this growing technology.
  2. Photography has always been a key ingredient in the success of Time throughout its 94-year history.
  3. Time sees benefits to both the printed product and the digital experience by uniting print and AR/VR.
  4. Time sees a wealth of advertising opportunities coming from this union of print and AR/VR.
  5. Time is focusing more on augmented reality than on virtual reality because it does not want to limit viewers to a single, fictional world but rather to enhance the viewer’s experience of the real world.

To these benefits noted in Carmody’s article on, I would add my own beliefs:

  1. Time wants to stay relevant. And the best way to do this is to gauge reader interest and the current state of AR and VR technology (both of which Time Inc. considers viable), and to give their readers what they want.
  2. A print publication such as Time magazine provides an ideal platform from which to experience the enhanced educational and entertainment opportunities of both VR and AR. On one hand Time magazine is a trusted platform for information and imagery. It is also a base from which to launch VR and AR experiences. Furthermore, the marriage of VR/AR and print offers more benefits than either print or digital alone.

The Challenge for Augmented Reality

The main challenge noted in Carmody’s article is to make the experience easier for viewers. (The article refers to this as its having less “friction.”) After all, a viewer has to have a smartphone (which most people have) and then download software (an app) to make the AR or VR activation work.

At this particular point in the development of AR and VR, notes Carmody, there are more options, such as the software in the Snapchat platform. People are more comfortable using something they are familiar with, and more and more people are familiar with Snapchat. Also, other platforms will presumably offer AR and VR connections in the near future.

In addition, Time Inc. offers its own smartphone app, Life VR (and presumably other publishers also offer or will soon offer similar apps). Granted, once a reader/viewer has downloaded the app from a particular publisher, the publisher must continue providing compelling VR or AR experiences, or the software on the user’s smartphone will just sit idle.

Examples of AR Success in Marketing

To make this more concrete, here are two examples of connections between marketing and VR/AR as noted in “Why Print Legacies Like Time Are Betting Big on Augmented Reality”:

  1. Home Depot provided an augmented reality experience launched from a banner ad in which the smartphone-equipped customer could photograph a Christmas tree and then place it in a photo of his or her own living room.
  2. IKEA provided an augmented reality experience in which the viewer could place furniture in his or her house using a smartphone camera.

(Granted, the first example was launched from an online banner ad, but presumably it could have been launched from a print ad.)

So the takeaway is that a marriage between editorial and marketing or advertising could fuel the growth of AR technology, particularly since consumer interest/demand is present and since AR applications are becoming more “frictionless.”

What You Can Take Away From This Discussion

  1. Follow the advertising dollars. Advertisers see opportunities in the marriage of print publications and your phone using AR technology.
  2. Readers like the experience of VR and AR because they are immersive. They engage multiple senses and provide an emotionally pleasurable experience.
  3. There is a mutual benefit shared by both print editorial and augmented reality that makes AR a compelling proposition. Each enhances the other. In addition, print is a cohesive and trusted force. People have faith in Time magazine. This reinforces the credibility of the attached AR experience.
  4. As print designers and printers, you will still be relevant if you have broad knowledge and technical skill in both commercial printing and augmented reality/virtual reality.

Posted in AR/VR | Comments »

Book Printing: Different Approaches, Different Prices

January 9th, 2018

Posted in Book Printing | Comments »

A print brokering client of mine sells a small color book that helps her clients choose fashion and make-up colors. She is a “fashionista,” and her product is essentially a PMS color book for cosmetics and clothes. I’ve seen other swatch books for choosing wood paneling (in the hardware store) and still others for choosing paint (also in the hardware store).

My client’s print books are very small in format: approximately 1.5” x 3.5”. They comprise 114 pages plus cover, and they are attached on one side with a metal screw and post assembly. Each leaf (front and back of a page) has a color on the front and explanatory information on the back.

My client reprints every few months depending on her clients’ orders.

That said, my client has new financial backers who are interested in increasing the number of books printed and also adding color chips to the print books. So I’ve been soliciting prices based on various reprint totals for the 22 different versions of this book (since different facial complexions warrant slightly different color swatches).

Adding New Colors

About a week ago, I requested prices based on my client’s $2,000 budget for printing and shipping a selection of the 22 master copies of the print books. (In some cases, my client needed one, two, maybe even six copies of a particular original book, but for some books she didn’t need any copies since she already had inventory.)

According to the book printer, my client could get 99 books for her $2,000 budget. That said, she could also get five additional colors added to the end of each book for just $85 more.

This small amount would cover the printer’s adding the pages to the master art file (for each original of the 22 titles), printing the pages (5 colors x 99 copies), laminating them, round-cornering and drilling them, then assembling the pages into the new print books and individually shrink wrapping each bound book.

So essentially, the printer would do all of this for almost nothing. All my client would need to do would be to provide the five leaves (front and back of the pages) together as a single PDF file.

The big question is why would this be so cheap? Here’s the answer. Because almost all pre-press, press, and postpress operations would already be a part of the initial job (the reprint of the 99 previously printed books). Another way of saying this is that once the five extra pages had been added to each of the 22 master files, everything else (all other prepress, press, and post press operations) would be the same as if the books had been reprinted as is.

The Prior Bid: Extra Swatches Produced As a New Job

Prior to this plan, my client had asked about printing three sets of 300 copies. The printer’s estimate had been close to $3,000.

Now why would it cost so little to add five pages to the end of 99 books and so much to print three sets of 300 small color swatches?

Again, it really has to do with the set up (or make-ready) for the various aspects of the print job, even if this is a digitally printed job (liquid toner printed on an HP Indigo press) rather than an offset job. For the three sets of 300 copies, all aspects of prepress from preflighting the PDF files to imposing the job (about 30 color chips will fit on this particular HP Indigo’s 13” x 19” press sheet) would be required. Therefore, ten separate press forms would be necessary (30 1.5” x 3.5” color swatch book pages per sheet multiplied by ten press forms), and the printer would need to print three copies of each press form.

And that’s just printing. Then the pages would need to be laminated, and all die cutting operations would need to follow (trimming, round cornering, and drilling for the screw and post assembly). As a stand-alone job, without the reprint of 99 copies accompanying it, even these 900 loose swatch pages would cost an incredible amount when compared to the $85 for producing 5 pages of fashion color swatches multiplied by 99 reprinted books (i.e., by doing both jobs together).

The Take-Away

All of this can be mind-numbingly complex. But the main thing to learn is that by ganging up all prepress, printing, and post-press finishing operations for the 99-copy reprint of my client’s color book–plus the extra five color swatch pages per print book (multiplied by the 99 reprinted books)–my client is almost getting two jobs for the price of one.

This is reflected in other aspects of the job as well. For instance, my client looked at an option to reprint 44 books before she settled on 99 books (various numbers of copies of the 22 master book files). In this case the estimated unit cost was almost fifty percent higher for 44 books than for 99 books. Another way of saying this is that it would cost two thirds as much to print 44 books as to print 99 books (rather than approximately half as much).

I’m not surprised when this happens in offset printing. After all, there’s a lot of make-ready in offset lithography that doesn’t exist for digital printing. In fact, most printers will tell you that the unit cost for digital printing is almost the same if you print one copy or 500 copies. But apparently in this case–probably due to the extensive laminating and die cutting work–it really pays to print more than you need rather than risk printing less than you need.

How This Relates to Your Own Print Buying

So, in your own print buying work, consider the following:

  1. If you’re doing multiple jobs, ask your book printer whether there is any way to gang up any of the individual prepress, printing, or post-press/finishing operations to reap a cost benefit. In most cases, the more complex the job (the more prepress, press, and post-press finishing operations needed), the greater the savings will be for ganging the work.
  2. Talk with your printer. Ask questions. Make it a habit to discuss various options for approaching a job. How you approach it may yield vastly different overall costs.
  3. Find printers who value saving you money to earn your business. Considering various options for producing a job takes time. Not all printers will approach a job as a consultant and take the time to consider alternatives. If you have found the kind of printer I’m describing, make him a partner, and nourish a mutually beneficial working relationship of trust. It will pay off.

Posted in Book Printing | Comments »

Book Printing: Resolving Printing Problems

January 3rd, 2018

Posted in Book Printing | Comments »

I got a dreaded email from a book printing client today, the kind that no commercial printing broker likes to receive. My client was unhappy with the printed product that had just been delivered.

(Ironically, she had been my assistant seventeen years ago when I was an art director, and I had taught her to be a hard-nosed print buyer, accepting nothing but the highest quality.)

My client’s print book is approximately 300 pages, 6” x 9” format, and perfect bound. It’s a government textbook for high school students. I used to design and typeset this specific book myself back in the early 1980s.

My client had two problems with the book:

  1. There was a visible shift in the paper within the final signature of the book. The last pages had a bit of a purple cast, faint but still noticeable.
  2. The type on the book’s spine was not centered vertically (between the folded edge of the front cover and the back cover).

How I Approached These Problems

I have two deeply held beliefs about problems in custom printing. The first is that problems will occur from time to time. After all, this is a multi-step process with ample room for error. It’s not whether problems will arise but how they are addressed that counts. And the second belief is that the first thing to do in a crisis such as this is nothing: that is, don’t react immediately, but rather observe and gather facts.

So I asked my client about the extent of the problem. She only had 200 office copies of the 3,000 total press run. I suggested that she spot check books in the small boxes she had received (twenty boxes of ten books each). (That is, I asked her to to check a few books in each box.) I assumed (just a hypothesis) that the problematic books would be together in several boxes rather than distributed throughout the press run.

While I was waiting for my client to spot check the print books, I called the book printer’s CSR (customer service representative) and the sales rep.

The CSR did some research and discovered that although the paperwork did not disclose this fact, the plant manager had changed paper lots at the tail end of the print job. That is, 30,000 press sheets of paper stock (for a sheetfed job rather than paper rolls for a web press) had been made and sent out at one time, and the remaining 1,200 sheets of press stock had been created at a different time. Because of this, there was a difference between the two paper lots (a faint purple tinge on the 1,200 sheets but not the 30,000 sheets).

So we had our first answer. Approximately 4 percent of the overall press run had this problem (1,200/30,000 sheets). I apprised my client. (Of course, this did not answer the question of why the difference in paper color had not been caught during the press run, but it does suggest that the difference was slight.)

I then called the sales rep and asked him to contact my client. I wanted my client to have immediate access to the actual printer, not just to me, the print broker. He and I also discussed the extent of the problem and the fact that my client had noticed that the type on the book spine was not centered between the front and back covers.

The sales rep did some checking into the spine issue. He found that the photos and solid colors on the front cover abutted exactly to the fold of the book spine. In addition, the type was also not centered on the digital proof of the cover. Nor was it centered vertically on the prior year’s edition of the book. Presumably my client had missed this. (We all look at a job more critically when we find one problem, so we often find other problems as well.)

That said, being right is irrelevant when the client is upset. My client had pointed out that she had spent good money on this job, with this printer, and the product was not up to the usual level of quality.

(To put this in perspective, I can understand my client’s view entirely, since this printer usually provides the highest, or one of the highest, bids of all the competing vendors for this job. So my client essentially has been willing to pay a premium for the usual high quality and service this vendor offers. However, in this case my client felt that she hadn’t received the quality she had come to expect from this vendor.)

Potential Resolution

I asked how my client wanted to proceed. I wanted her to be happy, and I wanted her future business. First of all, she said she needed the remaining 2,800 books to be delivered. So I made sure this happened immediately.

Her taking delivery of the balance of the job implied that, while below her level of expectation, the print books were still usable. She needed them in her warehouse immediately for this year’s government education students. However, since she was not completely satisfied with their quality, she wanted a discount. But she wasn’t sure how much was appropriate compensation.

When we talked, I suggested that she take a couple of days to consider her request. I told my client that the sales rep was doing further research into the cause and extent of the misaligned type on the book spines. (I did not tell her that the front cover art abutted exactly to the fold of the spine because I had not yet received all of the information on this problem from the book printer.)

I also reminded her that about four percent of the job had been affected by the book printer’s changing paper lots (which is standard industry procedure in such a case, although in this instance it had led to problems). I said that the four percent might be a reasonable starting point for a discount, plus whatever my client felt was reasonable for the spine type alignment issue.

At this point (only a day after the problem had been brought to our attention), the book printer’s sales rep drove up from the plant to meet with my client and her assistants to offer support and assistance. His goal was to assure them that the printer would do whatever was necessary to regain my client’s confidence and make her whole.

At this point nothing has been completely resolved, but things are going in the right direction.

What We Can Learn from This Case Study

Both the book printer’s sales rep and customer service rep made it clear immediately that my client’s distress was of prime concern to them. They wanted to remedy the problem this year and ensure that it didn’t happen again in successive years. Since there was no time to reprint (and since the errors were not of sufficient gravity to even warrant a reprint), they nevertheless wanted to make my client (and her company) whole again.

Not every printer will do this. In your own print buying work, this kind of printer is a “partner,” who wants to resolve issues to your satisfaction and then continue the business relationship. Hold onto a printer like this. And remember that things do go wrong in custom printing. The important thing is how the problems are resolved.

To reiterate, the problems were not severe enough to reprint. If you have problems like this, it is important to be realistic and to only ask for a reprint for an unusable product (made unusable by the printer’s error). So if you missed something in the proof, you might ask for a reprint “at cost,” but your sign-off sheet does say that you approved the proof, whether or not you missed anything problematic.

You can be certain that in a small fraction of the jobs you print, something will go wrong. A printer who will help you resolve the problems is a keeper.

Posted in Book Printing | Comments »

Book Printing: Digital Book Printing at Lightning Speed

December 26th, 2017

Posted in Book Printing, Digital Printing | Comments Off

A print brokering client of mine called me up early last week and asked whether I could provide a direct reprint of her prior year’s government textbook, 350 copies, 6” x 9”, 272 pages, perfect bound, delivered to Florida from Virginia in a week’s time. There was to be a meeting in a convention center on a university campus, and my client’s boss wanted the participants to have copies of the print book. Due to an inventory miscount, my client’s warehouse had run out of copies of the book before the next issue had been printed.

Fortunately, my client had been buying the printing for this book from the same printer for many years, so he had a strong motivation to do what she wanted, but I was still initially unsure that it was even possible. So I asked the sales rep.

What the Book Printer’s Rep Said

The printer said this was possible as long as he got a firm commitment that next day so he could purchase paper. The books would be produced digitally and then perfect bound. My client could have a PDF proof, but it was “confirming-only.” That is, the production process would not stop and wait for her approval. The proof was just a confirmation that the print book was a direct reprint from the prior year’s art files.

Now this news made my client very happy, but to be honest it both surprised and intrigued me. Almost forty years ago I had actually copyedited, typeset, and pasted up this very book for this same organization (three times a year). In fact, more than twenty years ago, I had hired and trained the woman to whom I was now brokering this printing (as a graphic designer), back when I was an art director. Back then, the book took six weeks to print and bind at a large book printer. So in my eyes producing 350 copies in one week was astounding.

Glitches and Resolution

Included in the one-week schedule was the shipping time from the book printer to the university. I did not know at the time, but a two-day delivery time from the Virginia printer to the Florida university actually required a third day for delivery. The print books would arrive at the university in two days, but the delivery service would have to arrange an appointment for final delivery (within the university) on the third day. In addition, the delivery would incur a surcharge since it would be made to a convention center. And it would be an inside delivery.

All of this is relevant because it shortened the time the book printer had available to digitally print and perfect bind the books.

The schedule proceeded as follows. My client contacted me on a Tuesday. She committed to the press run (it was still in flux at this time between 340 and 400 copies), and reviewed the proof, which the printer immediately provided as a PDF on Wednesday. Then the printer produced the pages (272 pages x 350 copies = 95,200 pages, so it wasn’t a short run) and bound the book in house, handing it off to the delivery service on Friday. The following Tuesday it arrived at the university, and Wednesday it was delivered to the final destination within the university.

My client was relieved, I was relieved, and the printer was relieved.

What We Can Learn from This Case Study

First of all, this couldn’t have been done if the press run had been very long (thousands rather than hundreds) because the various analog steps of a true offset print run would have taken longer than book production on a digital press. (For example, since there are no custom printing plates on a digital press, there are none to image, none to hang on the press, none to wash up, etc. But even the digitally printed pages still had to be trimmed and bound, which took time. However, all of this was still possible within this time frame.)

Secondly, digital printing opens up a lot of options that had been unavailable when offset printing was the only technology. More specifically, back in the day, no one at the university conference would have received a copy. It wouldn’t have been possible. So they would have missed a learning opportunity, and my client’s boss would have missed a marketing opportunity.

Basically, this means that a bookseller (or in this case an educational foundation that provides books as part of an educational experience) can produce an initial offset book print run that’s almost right and then follow up later with a short digital print run if necessary.

Otherwise, to avoid running out of copies, such a book provider would need to always overestimate and overprint a job. And this would lead to excess inventory that presumably would eventually be thrown away. But before the books were discarded, they would take up space in the warehouse, and they would be counted during inventory. Essentially they would cost money to be produced and stored, but they would generate no income.

Not needing to do this saves a lot of money. So in your own work, even if you need to reprint a few hundred books now and then (and their unit cost was quite a bit more than the offset press run: about $10.00 per book for 350 rather than $4.60 per book for 3,000), the cost still is reasonable when you consider the avoidance of waste and extra storage costs.

What we also learn is that dedicated book printers have their own perfect binding equipment. This shortens the lead time for binding, since most other printers have to subcontract out this work. In fact, another (much smaller) press run of books for another client of mine will take a full week to bind because the printer in question is small and therefore does not have in-house perfect binding capabilities.

Granted, in most cases perfect binding equipment at a book printer is large and is intended for long press runs in order to be cost effective. However, some book printers have smaller perfect binders that are ideal for short digital runs.

The final thing I would like to point out is that even with a short press run, the text pages of a long perfect bound book still require a lot of post-press finishing work after the liquid ink or toner is on the press sheets. The pages still need to be bound and trimmed to size, then cartoned and shipped. So if you need to do a job like this, research all the shipping costs and physical requirements first. Make sure you know whether the delivery point is a loading dock or a location inside a building. Avoid finding this out at the last minute.

Finally, this is not the kind of thing every printer will do for you. In my client’s case, there was a long-term, mutually beneficial working relationship that kept my client coming back and motivated the printer to meet the requested schedule, no matter how short it was. When you buy commercial printing, you’re buying a process more than a product, so it is extremely helpful to know your print vendor is a trusted business partner who will cover your back.

Posted in Book Printing, Digital Printing | Comments Off

Commercial Printing: Hand-Drawn Packaging Art

December 19th, 2017

Posted in Packaging | Comments Off

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.

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Book Printing: Thoughts on the Future of Book Printing

December 11th, 2017

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I found a very heartening article online today about print books. The article was in Printing Impressions (or more specifically, It was entitled “2018 Book Manufacturing Outlook Includes Ranking of Top 5 Book Printers from PI 400,” written by Julie Greenbaum and published on 12/6/17.

Book printing is very much alive. This is nothing new. I’ve been writing articles from time to time in this blog saying the same thing. What I found interesting about Greenbaum’s article, though, is the new information it shares about book printing, and the new drivers for growth in book printing as well as the kinds of changes and new equipment to which this will lead.

Same Day Delivery: The Amazon Model

Greenbaum’s article opens with the “new disrupter,” Amazon’s same-day delivery model. Now I realize that you can go online and Amazon (as well as other web portals) will allow you to upload your print book files, and print an on-demand run that is replenished as Amazon (or another vendor) sells your digitally printed books. However, Greenbaum’s Printing Impressions article approaches this more from the vendor side of the equation. That is, the article addresses the book printers that will actually produce the books for Amazon, and considers what their strategy will be for meeting the “same-day delivery” model.

To answer this question Greenbaum references John Conley, CEO of Borderland Advisors, noting his belief that production inkjet (large-format, quick throughput, sheetfed and roll-fed inkjet printing on large equipment) will be one answer. However he expects there to also be new market-driven improvements (and even groundbreaking print-engines that haven’t been developed yet). He also believes that improvements in digital binding are on the way. Conley thinks that costs will decrease and quality, reliability, and speed will improve to meet the demands of consumers.

On the positive side, this will allow more titles to be produced, since inventory can be tightly controlled. Instead of printing a huge number of only the most popular books, it will be possible to print fewer copies of more titles reflecting the varied interests of the numerous niche market customers.

Continued Demand But Shorter Press Runs

“2018 Book Manufacturing Outlook Includes Ranking of Top 5 Book Printers from PI 400” then goes on to share the opinions of management at Walsworth in Marceline, MO; Edwards Brothers Malloy in Ann Arbor, MI; and Worzilla, in Stevens Point, WI.

David Grisa, executive vice president of commercial sales at Walsworth, notes the continued demand for short-run printing, and describes the digital binding changes Walsworth has implemented along with e-commerce solutions, inventory management, and fulfillment services. In short, this book printer has expanded the services offered, improved the company’s workflow, and expanded its digital printing capabilities in response to the needs of the market. As Grisa says, “Digital printing has allowed us to economically produce smaller order quantities.”

John Edwards, president and CEO of Edwards Brothers Malloy, seems to share Grisa’s beliefs. Greenbaum’s article notes Edwards’ views that “Being able to print a book of one helps its customers manage titles that can range from one book to those in the thousands.” Edwards says this “has kept titles alive, economically.”

Being able to produce anywhere from one book to thousands of books has helped Edwards Brothers Malloy’s customers both control inventory and respond to their own customers’ needs much more quickly. And the quick turn-arounds made possible by digital printing, along with diversification of printing services, has kept printers relevant while at the same time providing more books (and more titles) to people who still prefer print books.

Edwards does note that for longer press runs, offset printing is still the more economical method.

A third printer Greenbaum mentions in her article is Worzilla, in Stevens Point, WI. Worzilla’s president, Jim Fetherston, notes that Worzilla can be economically competitive even on runs of several hundred books on its offset printing equipment due to improvements in its presses and finishing equipment. This has allowed Worzilla to produce high-quality full-color books more quickly and efficiently.

What’s In Store for 2018?

Greenbaum’s article, “2018 Book Manufacturing Outlook Includes Ranking of Top 5 Book Printers from PI 400,” goes on to describe Conley’s (of Borderland Advisors) vision of the near future, noting:

  1. Schools are not abandoning print books and embracing digital readers. They’re still not sure how effective ebooks are as a learning tool. More specifically, educators are not sure that students retain information read on a computer screen as well as what they read in physical books.
  2. Printers will continue to consolidate. There will be fewer offset book printers and a lot of digital book printers and printers with both digital and offset capabilities.

Grisa (of Walsworth) notes:

  1. There will be shorter press runs requiring less inventory management.
  2. Grisa sees the advent of simplified workflows and improved fulfillment services.
  3. Grisa also notes that there is “an increasing need to reduce the total cost of production, not just reduced unit costs.”

Edwards (of Edwards Brothers Malloy) notes:

  1. Print is “still viable and in demand.”
  2. But the paper market is changing, and this could seriously affect paper availability and pricing.
  3. And Edwards expects any increases in energy prices to affect shipping costs and therefore overall costs (since freight is a big part of the total print production expense).
  4. Edwards also expects “a trend this year toward shorter runs, faster replenishment, and a focus on ultra-short, on-demand runs to minimize inventory.”

Fetherston (of Worzilla) notes:

  1. There’s no better cure than a print book for spending too much time in front of a computer screen.
  2. Since online news has become unreliable in some cases, Fetherston believes a print book “is reemerging as a vehicle where readers can determine if the author is knowledgeable, credible, and worth reading.”

What You Can Learn From This Article

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Print books are not going away. People still find value in the print book reading experience, the ability to learn from print books and retain that knowledge, and the ability to trust their content.
  2. The technology is changing to meet customer demand for more titles but with shorter runs. This means increased speed, reliability, and print quality, as well as the need for more digital finishing options.
  3. There’s still room for book printers that can adapt, providing a variety of services: digital and offset printing, finishing, inventory management, and fulfillment.
  4. There will be more consolidation of printers.
  5. Book designers will still be in demand and their skills will be relevant.

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Custom Printing: Hand-Printing Your Holiday Cards

December 7th, 2017

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It’s the holidays again, and whatever holiday you celebrate, it’s always nice to receive a physical, paper card with a handwritten note. It goes miles beyond a virtual card. I really do believe that.

I’ve given thought recently to ways you can produce individual works of art if your card list is manageably short. Some of these methods I’d like to try in the next year with the autistic students my fiancee and I work with, since they lend themselves to fine art printing as well as greeting card printing.

Monotype Printing

You will find this referred to as both “monoprinting” and “monotyping,” but the more accurate term for what I’m describing is monotyping: that is, painting an image on a flat plate (it was originally a copper plate, but you can use anything from glass to plastic as long as it’s flat), and then printing this plate on finely made paper.

This is custom printing, since you’re transferring an image from a plate to a substrate, but you only get one “truly” original print each time you do it.

These are the steps:

  1. You use commercial printing ink, oil-based artist’s paint, or even water-based paint to prepare your image on the glass or plastic printing plate. Then you lay either dry or damp paper over the plate, and using a spoon, a roller, a Japanese baren, or even the drying rollers of an old washing machine, you apply even pressure to transfer the ink from the plate to the paper.
  2. Since you have neither a raised nor a recessed image on the plate, your first image is the only original. If you try to print again, you will get a “ghost” image, which may actually be to your liking. It just won’t be exactly like the original, and it will be lighter.
  3. You can add ink to the plate with a brush and then print again (but it will be a slightly different version).
  4. You can also go back into the original print with brushes and paint (or ink) to add to, or adjust, the image.
  5. Even though you only get one original image this way, you can combine the brush strokes of painting with some of the characteristics of printing (such as the dense, rich tones). What you often get is a happy accident, a combination of spontaneity and experimentation that you might not be able to otherwise consciously create.
  6. You have both an additive and subtractive approach to monotyping. The additive option is what I just described (adding ink to an otherwise blank custom printing plate). The subtractive option involves inking the glass or plastic plate entirely and then using a rag, brush, stylus, or other implement to remove the ink you don’t want to print. You can even use your fingers.
  7. Another option involves rolling out commercial printing ink onto one sheet of printing paper (or onto a printing plate), laying another piece of paper over it, and then drawing on the back of the second sheet with a pencil or other implement. When you peel off the second sheet from the first (or from the printing plate), what you have is a line drawing made from the ink that has been pulled up off the plate onto the back of the sheet by the pressure of the pencil.
  8. In addition to painting or drawing further on the final print with ink and a brush, you can also wipe the plate clean and then paint a different color image onto the “matrix” (i.e., the image area of the plate). If these two different color images are in register (the same meaning as in commercial printing), you will have a coherent, multi-colored print.
  9. Giovanni Castiligone is credited with having invented the monotype, but Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, and William Blake also used this technique extensively.
  10. The term “monoprint,” while often used interchangeably with “monotype,” really refers to a plate (called a matrix) that has one or several permanent features but that you still alter in some way from print to print. You can have some consistent lines and tones but change the rest of the overall image from impression to impression (in terms of color, line, tone, etc.).

Why Is This Relevant to You As a Designer or Print Buyer?

In this world of digital media, where everything is evanescent, temporary and without physical form, a hand-printed holiday card will make a distinctive impression on your clients, your friends, or your family. Each image of a monotype is unique, plus you have the tactile qualities of the paper that set these cards apart from digital-only holiday greetings.

Relief Printing, Easier Than Monotype Printing

As an alternative, the relief print is a much easier to create when you need multiple copies. However, it still yields a hand-designed and hand-printed card. If your list of recipients is long, this might work better for you than a monotype.

Anything that can be cut away to expose an upper level and a lower level will work. I’d suggest wood, which was the traditional medium for woodcuts, but it is often hard to cut, depending on the particular variety and its density. A good alternative would be a linoleum block, which is a block of wood with a sheet of linoleum on one side (this is called linocut printing).

You use knives and gouges from an art supply store to carve away any part of the image that will not print. Once you ink the plate, only the raised image areas will accept ink. The non-image areas will be far enough below the surface of the plate to not receive any printer’s ink.

Once the plate has been cut, ink it with a brayer (a roller that applies an even film of printer’s ink). Then lay a sheet of custom printing paper across the surface of the plate, and rub the back of the paper with a wooden spoon or a roller, or run the plate and paper through a printing press (an art press, not a commercial printing press).

The linocut printing plate will not have the characteristic grain of a woodcut, and it won’t last for as many impressions, but the overall process will be much easier to master than woodcut printing.

In addition, if you use more than one custom printing plate (in register with the others), you can produce multi-color prints (one color per plate).

Alternatively, you can print one color, clean the plate, then cut away sections of the linoleum that will not print in the successive color, and ink the plate with another color of ink. (This is called “reductive printing,” since you are reducing the linoleum plate for each successive color.)

You can even do this kind of relief printing with softer materials. For instance, my fiancee and I have used styrofoam plates from grocery store meat departments (the plates under the shrink-wrapped cuts of beef, pork, or lamb). These are easy to cut with a stylus such as a pen or pencil, or even the point of a pair of scissors.

Or you can even cut a potato in half and then use a kitchen knife to carve relief areas (image areas and non-image areas). Or you can take a bar of soap and cut it into a relief plate.

On an entirely different note, we have even done Japanese fish printing with our autistic students. Granted, we used rubber fish, unlike the traditional Japanese method, but this was still relief printing, since the raised parts of the fish (such as the scales and side fins) printed while the recessed areas like the eyes did not.

Why Is This Relevant to You As a Designer or Print Buyer?

Going back to the oldest methods of printing by hand will increase your understanding of modern commercial printing because, at its deepest levels, even computer-controlled offset printing has a direct link to the original custom printing techniques.

Creating your holiday cards by hand will also yield a printed product that is personal, unique, and a joy to hold in the hand. You can’t say this about an e-card. Make a special impression on your family and friends with the techniques of old-school printing.

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Custom Printing: Printing Electronic Circuits on Fabric

December 4th, 2017

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When I first read the article “Fully integrated circuits printed directly onto fabric” (, 11/08/2017), all I could think about was growing up watching James Bond. I have begun to wrap my brain around 3D printing, knowing that some people are already printing food and body parts with a greater or lesser degree of success. I also know that the definition of custom printing has expanded way beyond the realm of ink on paper or even digital toner on paper.

But learning that a process was under development to print flexible circuits directly onto fabric, such that you could become part of the Internet of Things (IoT), get medical or other feedback from your clothes (as you might from a Fitbit), or perhaps experience Virtual Reality (VR) or Augmented Reality (AR), got me thinking about how everything is now connected and everything is digital. It was like a virtual Zen moment.

The Article About Printing Electronic Circuits on Fabric

Here’s the gist of the article:

“Researchers have successfully incorporated washable, stretchable and breathable electronic circuits into fabric, opening up new possibilities for smart textiles and wearable electronics” (from “Fully integrated circuits printed directly onto fabric”).

The process uses inkjet technology and environmentally friendly ink. To this process, researchers at the University of Cambridge along with colleagues in China and Italy have added graphene, a two-dimensional form of carbon that can be printed directly onto the fabric to create integrated circuits that will withstand up to twenty wash cycles.

What makes this intriguing is that “The versatility of this process allowed the researchers to design not only single transistors but all-printed integrated electronic circuits combining active and passive components” (according to the article, “Fully integrated circuits printed directly onto fabric”).

Up until this development, adding electronic circuits to clothing has been problematic. The circuits were rigid structures (with components mounted on rubber or plastic) that were uncomfortable to wear and that were destroyed by washing. In addition, the inks used in prior fabric printing of electronics had included toxic solvents, whereas the researchers at the University of Cambridge (and their colleagues in China and Italy) have been able to base their inks on non-toxic chemicals.

The article quotes Professor Roman Sordan of Politecnico di Milano, saying that although researchers had developed relatively simple integrated circuits, this “process is scalable and there are no fundamental obstacles to the technological development of wearable electronic devices both in terms of their complexity and performance.”

These integrated circuits operate on low power, are flexible, and can be washed. All of these characteristics set this generation of fabric printed electronics apart from its predecessors.

The Applications for Such Technology

The article, “Fully integrated circuits printed directly onto fabric,” goes on to list the kinds of potential uses for this fabric printed electronics technology. These include:

  1. Medical Devices. The electronic circuits could monitor the wearer’s vital signs and provide feedback. This could be similar to wrist watch-like devices, such as the Fitbit, that monitor heart rate, calories burned, steps walked, duration of the exercise routine, etc.
  2. Energy Harvesting. Presumably you could capture solar energy and then store it using such a device. This might be similar to the solar panels attached to some laptop carrying cases, but the flexible circuitry would be incorporated into garments that could be comfortably worn.
  3. Military Uniforms. Presumably the technology could incorporate communications or virtual reality capabilities to augment the soldier’s awareness and information processing abilities, or even facilitate communication.
  4. The Internet of Things. Garments could communicate with other digitally enhanced items, providing data to other items or to the wearer by establishing a vast communications grid.

But What Does This Mean for You As a Commercial Printing Buyer

This is a step into the future. We’re no longer in Kansas. Presumably, future iterations of this custom printing process will tolerate more than twenty wash cycles, improving their longevity. But for now this means that things will be connected and will communicate just as people do.

For a savvy print buyer, it is wise to expand the definition of custom printing. Just as 3D printing uses a three dimensional rather than two dimensional grid to produce an object rather than a brochure or flyer by using a process similar to inkjet printing, the graphene-printing process also depends on inkjet printing technology for its success.

In addition, you could even draw an analogy between the functional or industrial printing realm that has been a growth industry of late and the commercial printing of integrated electronic circuitry on fabric. In both cases, you are using printing as a functional component of a usable item. You’re not producing a promotional or educational product. You’re making something in which the printing component has a functional use–just like a stop sign or the printing on the keys of your computer.

From the point of view of a designer, this means that there is room for explosive growth in designing items that depend on both their functionality and their aesthetics. Apple’s iPad and other products exemplify this mindset, as does the OXO Good Grips line of kitchen tools. All of these are successful because they are visually appealing, they feel good in the hand, and they do something useful both intuitively and well. Design is baked into the product. It is an essential component.

Regarding the future of wearable integrated circuits, think about Google Glasses. Glasses have already been developed for commercial use that provide augmented reality information to the wearer, enhancing his or her sensory awareness while providing useful information. I think that successfully (and comfortably) incorporating integrated circuitry into garments will play a similar role.

Finally, this means that a successful designer will need to develop multiple skills. I think it won’t be enough to just design print books and brochures for commercial printing. Already the designers in the highest demand can craft (for instance) a multi-channel promotional campaign that links a billboard to a website through a QR code and your cell phone camera (or through NFC, near-field communications). Adding 3D additive manufacturing to the mix along with wearable electronics that link to other objects and provide useful information will be a growth industry that will still depend on effective design and marketing skills.

There will still be the need to persuade, educate, and communicate through visual media using design skills and aesthetic awareness. In fact, I think the need for these skills will increase rather than decrease.

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Commercial Printing: Print in the Fashion Industry

November 27th, 2017

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I have had an eye out for news about the fashion industry recently, since I have been helping a print brokering client find fabric printing sources for her new clothing line. I have mentioned her before in this blog. She started with a print book color system for choosing hues complementary to one’s complexion, and now she is expanding her color system into garment production.

This is what I have read recently.

3D Printing of Athletic Footwear

The first article I read was “Adidas’ latest 3D-printed shoe puts mass production within sight,” written by Fitz Tepper and published on

The article references a new 3D printing process used for Adidas athletic shoes, in which the 3D printed midsole can be varied in thickness and flexibility depending on the computer data. “Different patterns result in different density and feel” (according to the article), and presumably this will be variable at some point based on each individual buyer’s needs. The article notes that after the 3D printer has produced the midsole, it is attached to a fabric top of the shoe constructed in a more traditional manner.

What makes this 3D custom printing approach to shoemaking intriguing to me is that Adidas’ 3D printing company, Carbon (located in Silicon Valley) has developed a new form of additive manufacturing that works more quickly than prior technology (while also printing the shoe with a more flexible 3D filament material). The process is called Digital Light Synthesis, and it uses a special light in the printer to solidify the resin up to ten times faster than more traditional 3D printing.

Israeli Tech Firms in the Fashion Industry

The second article I read was “Five Israeli Companies Changing The Face Of International Fashion Tech,” by Kathryn Dura, published in NoCamels on October 15, 2017.

To quote from the article, “Ranging from e-commerce and 3D online shopping to 3D printed clothing, wearable technologies and eco-fashion, digital fashion is incredibly broad but making a strong and swift imprint.”

Dura’s article highlights a number of Israeli firms that have brought technology into the fashion industry, partially in response to declining sales at brick-and-mortar stores.

One of the start-ups noted in the article is Donde Fashion, which uses image recognition technology to allow consumers to identify and search for garments using images rather than the traditional words and phrases used in most Internet searches. Dura notes that “the Israeli startup has users narrow their search with images of clothing items, colors, clothing specifications (for example, sleeve lengths, necklines, etc.), materials, and patterns. Traditional filters of size, price, and brand are also available.”

Another Israeli start-up, Syte.AI, also uses an artificial intelligence and machine learning process to allow users to hover the computer cursor over an online image and find out where to buy a specific garment.

Still another Israeli start-up, Invertex, focuses on the actual fit of each garment, to make sure that whether a consumer is buying in a store or online, the product is a comfortable fit. According to “Five Israeli Companies Changing The Face Of International Fashion Tech,” “The company’s unique combination of accurate 3D-body-mapping technology and its cognitive AI fit engine allows consumers to enjoy a guided shopping experience on e-commerce and in physical stores, with the confidence that each product they select will always fit them perfectly.”

Finally, Dura’s article describes the fashion-based offerings of Kornit, which is what initially caught my interest, given my print brokering client’s (the “fashionista’s”) move from color swatch print books into garment manufacturing.

Dura notes that Kornit Digital has developed direct-to-garment printing equipment that is much faster than prior generations of garment printing machinery. While my client’s specific needs are for roll-to-roll custom printing (which will then be fabricated into finished clothing) rather than direct-to-garment printing, the article’s description of Kornit’s new technology makes it clear that Kornit is a company to watch. More specifically, if you’re doing fabric custom printing, a good way to start choosing vendors is to look for printers with any of Kornit’s many types of fabric printing equipment.

Printing Dress Shoes, Fabric, and Jewelry

Finally, I have been reading numerous articles on the 3D printing of jewelry, fabric (not the garments themselves but the actual material used in unique high-fashion garments), and even shoes.

We have already discussed Adidas footwear, but 3D printers go far beyond athletic shoes. I have seen many images of 3D-printed high-fashion women’s dress shoes based on intricate latticework patterns. The same goes for the complex 3D printed weaves of fabric used to construct women’s clothing. And you can see similar detailed patterns in the rings, bracelets, and earrings that appear on fashion runways. All of this is the product of advances in 3D commercial printing, also known as additive manufacturing.

What You Can Learn from These Articles

  1. Printing is expanding to include 3D manufacturing as well as the jetting of ink onto flat substrates. Just as you can create a virtual experience that is flat and decorative (a world in a book, a brochure, or a large-format graphic), you can produce a physical object with a 3D printer and plastic resin. In both cases you engage the emotions and aspirations of the consumer.
  2. Printing is expanding to embrace more and more functional or industrial venues. That is, in addition to producing educational and promotional materials, the commercial printing industry is employing digital and analog custom printing methods to create usable products (from signs to computer cases to keyboards).
  3. Digital creation and adornment of 3D products is expanding to printed tiles for walls, floors, and ceilings; wallpaper; and fabrics for clothing, interior design, and linens.
  4. The procurement of these products extends from brick-and-mortar stores to e-commerce websites.
  5. Technology facilitates all of this growth. This includes the technology of printing on rolls of fabric and garments themselves. It also includes 3D printing technology used to manufacture three-dimensional jewelry, footwear, and clothing. And it even includes the combination of artificial intelligence, tags embedded in garments, and big data manipulation to track how people use the fashion products they buy.
  6. In the long run this means that the definition of commercial printing is growing and changing, and the opportunities for the design and production of fashion items are also expanding. For those in commercial printing and the graphic arts, this is a most encouraging sign.

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Custom Printing: “Going to School” on Fabric Printing

November 20th, 2017

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As with any other commercial printing technology, there’s more to fabric printing than the online promotional and technical material would suggest. This is not a bad thing. It just requires study.

I’ve been working with a “fashionista” recently, who is expanding her color offerings from a color print book to clothing. (Her initial product is a book of color chips bound with a screw-and-post assembly that resembles a PMS color swatch book. However, instead of choosing colors for graphic design projects, it helps you choose appropriate fashion colors based on your complexion.)

So my client and I have been researching online and brick-and-mortar fabric printers, and in the process I’ve learned a lot:

  1. Printing on fabric is not the same as making a garment. The first thing I learned is that many vendors will print your design on fabric, but once this is done, you still have to find another vendor to cut the garment pattern and sew it into a usable product. That is, the end product for many printers is just a roll of printed fabric.
  2. That said, some fabric printers do fabricate the garments as well as print the roll of fabric. This is very helpful, and I’m a strong believer in having fewer rather than more vendors in the mix. This is one reason I’m not at all averse to having the printer also provide the fabric (rather than having my client provide the fabric). Suppliers that take a job from computer art file through the inkjet or dye-sublimation printing stage to the fabrication stage are responsible for the entire product, but they also often understand the “transitions” between one stage and the others more thoroughly than those who just specialize in the custom printing process.
  3. Of course, there’s also direct-to-garment printing. This seems to be more appropriate (from my research) for smaller-format graphics that will be positioned on the front of a shirt (for instance) rather than across the entire swath of fabric comprising the shirt.
  4. In the case of the vendors I’ve approached, printed samples are more than likely based on the art the vendor has chosen (rather than your art file). Actually, this seems reasonable, since loading and processing the digital art file for your pattern takes time, which should be billable. In spite of this, it seems to be perfectly appropriate to request a “solid” and a “print” to see how both will look. Of course, depending on the vendor, you will still be paying for the sample ($25 each in the case of the printer I found), but you can learn a lot about the vendor from the quality of the graphic, the quality of the color, and the quality of the sewing (in my case, my client and I will be paying for two sample scarves, completely fabricated, not just fabric).
  5. Printers seem to print on white fabric, not dyed or textured fabric. I’m not sure why, nor am I certain that this pertains to all or even most custom printing vendors. For a shirt, this is not a problem. However, for a garment like some sweaters, portions of the opposite side of the fabric are visible. Perhaps a flap or lapel of a cardigan folds over, exposing what would otherwise be the inside of the garment. If this is white, it might look odd against a darker fabric. This is why my client and I asked about printing both sides or working with pre-dyed fabric. Apparently this is not an option (or is very difficult) with dye-sublimation commercial printing.
  6. Furthermore, printers seem to print on only one side of the fabric. This may be due to “print through,” which seems to be the migration of inks through the fabric, providing a lighter version of the print design on the opposite side of the fabric (like “show-through” in offset printing on paper).
  7. My client found a low-cost printer (a machine rather than a vendor) that will print on dyed or textured fabric. This particular piece of equipment is called “FabricZoom.” If you’re starting in fabric printing yourself, I’d encourage you to check it out online. The website is What makes this unique is that you print using spot colors (mixed colors, such as the match colors you would use for logos when printing conventionally on paper) instead of process colors (those inks that allow you to create multiple colors by spraying jets of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black onto a substrate–like a conventional inkjet printer). Fabric Zoom’s approach makes it impossible to create misaligned CMYK builds. It is also quite affordable at about $2,000+. Personally I’m impressed with the build quality as well. It seems to be substantial and sturdy.
  8. Having your own fabric printer doesn’t mean you will produce all your own garments. Think of a $2,000 fabric printer as analogous to your home or office inkjet printer for paper. If you’re designing prototypes of garments, you can try out your designs using the small bolts of fabric you acquire and then hand off a single, completed item to be mass produced by a larger shop. In fact, not having one of these machines is like being a print designer and not having a color inkjet and a laser printer. You’re not as able to visualize your final design of a project when you can’t hold a mock-up in your hand and see how it feels.
  9. Follow the equipment. I’ve been personally taken with the Kornit Allegro. I’ve been reading about its dye-sublimation capabilities, and I’ve seen photos of various configurations in which the interim heat press section with calender rollers seems to be missing. Personally, I assume this means the equipment can do both dye-sublimation (on polyester) and inkjet (on cotton). That said, when I see various online fabric printing sites that show this specific Kornit Allegro printer on their pressroom floor, I become a little more interested in that particular fabric printing vendor. It’s like learning an offset printer has an all-Heidelberg shop (one of my favorite offset press manufacturers based on their quality and precision).

What You Can Learn from This Ongoing Case Study

  1. Learning something new is a process. My client and I have hit some dead ends. But I don’t think they were failures. I think they were learning experiences, because in each case we collected a little more information about what kinds of products my client wants to offer, and what some potential vendors can do and what they can’t do.
  2. Buying a lot of equipment so you can start your own fabric designing business is not necessarily wise. After all, you have to pay for the building, your staff, and the equipment. But having no equipment may not be wise either. In many cases you can buy a small version of the chosen technology to do your own prototypes in-house and then subcontract the final production run. Keep in mind that this still takes money. For fabric printing, the FabricZoom may be a good answer.
  3. Always find people who know more about the field you’re entering than you do. If they have no potential for financial gain, all the better.
  4. Enjoy the excitement and the novelty. But do read, study, and see everything you can before you put down money. Along this vein, a large-format commercial printing show like SGIA (the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association) might be a good investment of time and funds.

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