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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: “Going to School” on Fabric Printing

November 20th, 2017

Posted in Fabric Printing | Comments »

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.

Posted in Fabric Printing | Comments »

Large Format Printing: Printing Fabric and Garments

November 13th, 2017

Posted in Fabric Printing | 6 Comments »

I have a client who for the past three or four years has been producing and reprinting small color print books for fashion. I have written about her before in this blog. She is a “fashionista.”

Her books are like small PMS books, but they tell you what colors are appropriate for your clothing and make-up based on your complexion. These little print books are an example of industrial (or functional) custom printing: that is, printing that decorates items with a practical use rather than just a promotional or educational goal. A street sign or a computer keyboard would be two more examples of functional printing.

My client has been producing these color books on a local printer’s HP Indigo digital press, but now she plans to expand her product offerings to include clothing based on the same color theory. So this week we discussed fabrics, ink sets, and press runs, and I began to study in depth those digital technologies that allow designers to print on fabric.

How I’m Approaching My Client’s Job

Fortunately, I already had a cursory understanding of fabric printing. I knew that polyester required dye-sublimation printing, and cotton fabrics required inkjet. Since my client was starting to articulate the specific clothing items she wanted to decorate, I started to study the materials from which they were fabricated. Then I went to the online fabric printing websites she mentioned. My client said she preferred the autonomy and control that came from finding her own financial backers rather than buying fabric printing online. (Apparently, in some cases you can provide art files to vendors who will produce your clothing for a cut of the profits, returning to you only a percentage of what they sell. My client didn’t want this.)

Therefore, I approached the commercial printing vendors I work with who have large format printing capabilities. However, I quickly learned that for the most part these vendors focused on vinyl banners, not clothing.

So I called up a vendor I knew dealt in exotic packaging, marketing promotions, and large format signage. I think this will be a good starting point. My client’s first priority is to produce 100 units each of five items of clothing. These range from scarves to t-shirts in solid, unique colors.

From my research, I first learned that the composition of the substrate matters a lot in how you image fabric. Therefore, as the next step I found a list of fabrics my client had already researched through her online fabric printing vendors. They included everything from lycra to rayon to cotton, gauze, chiffon—words I had only heard before on TV fashion shows my fiancee watches. Fortunately, my client could pare this list down to a few specific fabrics, noting precise percentages of materials in the blends.

Colors, Fabrics, and Longevity

Based on my client’s desire to offer solid-color t-shirts, it seemed that direct to fabric might be the best option (this I learned from one vendor). Direct to garment, the other option, seemed more appropriate for designs printed on the front of a shirt, for instance. The t-shirt would be held firmly in place in some sort of “jig,” and the design would be directly inkjetted or sublimated (for polyester t-shirts). This means the ink would be turned from a solid directly into a gas (bypassing the liquid phase, hence sublimation) using a heat press. This gas would migrate into the garment, solidify, and bond with the polyester fibers, providing superior durability and brilliant color.

Unlike the banners and even the table throws printed with UV ink or latex ink, the dye-based inks used in garment printing would actually go deeply into the fabric. They would not sit on top of the fabric. For clothing, this would be ideal.

I also learned that the dye-based inks could be either printed first on a transfer sheet (or “liner”) and then the images could be transferred through heat and pressure onto the polyester material, or they could be jetted directly onto the fabric and then bonded to the fibers of the fabric with heat and pressure.

Since the direct disperse method (the name for the direct printing option) would send the dye-based ink deeper into the fabric, this might be a plus, since my client’s t-shirts (which would start out as white shirts) could potentially be dyed all the way through the fabric (so the part facing the wearer’s body would also be in color). Apparently, the printing of an image or even a solid color via a transfer sheet would not go as deeply into the fabric.


From my reading I then learned about the various kinds of water-soluble, dye-based inks and their pre- and post-treatment requirements. These include:

  1. Disperse and sublimation dyes. These are used to print on polyester, rayon, lycra, acrylics, and similar materials. After printing, they must be treated with heat to ensure the dye’s bonding with the substrate.
  2. Reactive dyes. These are used to print on cotton, linen, rayon, and other celulose-based substrates. They require both pre- and post-treatment.
  3. Acid dyes. These are used to print on wool, silk, cashmere, nylon, and similar fabrics. They require post-treatment.
  4. Pigments. These are used to print on natural fibers such as cotton. They require post-treatment.

(Based on my research it looks like the pre- and post-treatments include some or any of the following: washing, chemicals, and/or heat, to fix the dye-based inks permanently.)

From my reading I learned that my client’s specific custom printing inks would depend on her choice of fabrics, and her choice of fabrics would depend upon the specific garments she wanted to produce. (For instance, the sheer scarves might be treated very differently from the t-shirts.)

The Digital Advantage

To put this in historical perspective, prior to the advent of digital custom printing, my client would have dyed the fabric from which her t-shirts would be made (or the shirts themselves) in hot water baths of dye. Probably she would have been required by the manufacturer to produce a large minimum number of t-shirts to make the job cost effective. She might also have had access to only a limited color palette.

If my client wanted an image or pattern on her garments, she would have needed to print the job via custom screen printing. This too would have required a large minimum order based on the extensive work required to prepare the screens and ink, as well as to clean up after the production run. Presumably there also would have been a limited number of color choices for printing the art or patterns.

Given that my client wants to offer a plethora of colors and print limited production runs, digital custom printing via either inkjet or dye-sublimation (directly or with a transfer sheet) will allow her to keep the press runs low, the color saturation high, and the color and pattern options varied.

Printing to Garment or to Fabric

At this point, the vendors I spoke with seemed to prefer printing to fabric bolts (flat rolls of fabric priced by the printed yard) rather than to garment (directly on the t-shirts, for example). My client may be ok with that. We’ll see. Of course printing to fabric will require skilled labor after the printing phase in order to sew the finished products.

What to Research

My main concern at this point is the colorfastness of the printed products. I want to make sure the dye-based ink will stay in the fibers. So I plan to get lots of printed samples (much as I would do with ink or toner on paper). I will probably encourage my client to test these samples in sunlight, rain, and the washing machine and clothes dryer. This is still the realm of commercial printing, and as with all commercial printing, understanding the intended product use is essential. After all, even a vinyl banner must be printed (if it is for exterior use) to withstand sunlight, wind, rain, and snow.

Nevertheless, even with all the questions, this is very exciting. It’s also a growing area of commercial printing, along with packaging, labels, and even inkjet printing on wood paneling and floor tiles. Industrial printing is very hot at the moment.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

No matter what you’re printing, sooner or later you will find something completely new, and you’ll need to learn about new techniques, new materials, and new processes. The best advice I can give you is to read voraciously, find and work with those who know more than you do, and acquire samples that you can test under the harsh environment of actual usage.

With my client, this will be an ongoing process, albeit a very exciting one. If you’re a designer, you may want to learn about this area, too. It might just ensure your relevance in the commercial printing industry.

Posted in Fabric Printing | 6 Comments »

Custom Printing: Benefits of Being Alert and Nimble

November 6th, 2017

Posted in Printing | 2 Comments »

Two things happened this week with two separate print-brokering clients’ jobs, and yet I saw a connection between them regarding being aware and being flexible. I thought you might find these insights helpful in your own print buying work.

The Missing Specifications in a Print Book Estimate

The first incident pertains to the cheese cookbook I’m working on. To give you some background, I have been working with my client for over a year to develop and print a wealth of information on cheese-making. The book is now two volumes, Plasticoil bound, 350 to 400 pages per volume, 8.5” x 11” in format, with a press run of between 500 and 2,000 copies. It has a coated cover, but there will be additional plastic sheets covering the front and back of the book. The goal is to protect the books from moisture and food.

In this round of pricing I had received estimates from five of the seven vendors I had initially approached with more preliminary specs. My client is almost done now and ready to print. So we’re tightening up the pricing and making sure all specifications have been addressed.

This week I received prices from the fourth vendor. Initially they looked great. They were right in line with the pricing of the current low bidder, giving me some flexibility in choice. However, upon further examination of both my specification sheet and the book printer’s estimate, I noticed that three key items were missing. The printer had neglected to include the hard-copy proof (not a great expense), the shrink wrapping, and the outer plastic sheets to protect the covers. It was only after the second pass through the spec sheet and the bid that I saw what was not there. So I asked the printer if they had been included. A day later he said they had not, and he provided additional pricing for these items.

To make a long story short, the extra cost for the shrink wrapping ranged from $500 to $1,600 for 500 to 2000 books, and the extra cost for the plastic sheets for the front and back of the book ranged from $900 to $3400 for 500 to 2000 books. Depending on the press run, this was a huge amount of money, and it could have been easily missed and then only caught after the book printer had completed the job and submitted the bill.

What You Can Learn From This Case Study

The moral of the story is: Look at what’s not in the estimate as well as what is in the estimate. This is why I’m obsessive about checking and rechecking bids. Moreover, I know that each book printer’s estimate will be presented in a slightly different manner (format, wording, etc.) and that most printers will include certain items but not specify them on the bid. So having such a moving target, such variety in the presentation and meaning of estimates, necessitates careful checking and rechecking. Better to discover the hidden costs now, early in the process—or before the job has gone to press—than to find them after the job has already been awarded.

A Proofing Dilemma with a Small Poetry Book

Being alert and nimble is essential to the successful print buyer. Here’s another example.

This week another client of mine, who is printing a book of poems in memory of her deceased husband, needed to receive and review a proof. I had designed and uploaded the press-ready PDF of her print book, and it was time to confirm that all was right with the printer’s version before proceeding.

To give this some context, this is a 28-page-plus-cover print book. It is very small in format: 4.5” x 6”, printed on 70# cream text stock with a 100# natural cover stock for the saddle-stitched cover. There will only be 20 copies printed. But what makes this unique and important is that it is an individual client’s print book, not a job for a business. It is a labor of love for her, so it has to be right.

This week my client called me to let me know that her email was down (it was a problem with her computer, not the Internet provider’s service). Therefore, we potentially would not be able to review the online PDF proof once the printer had made it available. (In this particular case, due to the simplicity of the book, I had encouraged my client to forgo a hard-copy proof and just review the book online. For a more complex job, I would have advised her otherwise.)

Thinking quickly, she and I worked out a plan: She would pay for a physical proof of the print book (plus the cost of shipping). The printer would make an extra copy of the proof (at his cost), so my client would not need to return her copy. I discussed this with the printer, and he agreed.

Changing the workflow for a print job is an occasional necessary evil in print buying, but in this case there were benefits as well.

First of all, custom printing produces a very tactile product, and this turn of events meant that my client would actually see a copy of her print book on her chosen paper stock prior to its being printed. I had sent her a paper swatch to show her the thickness of the paper and the cream colored tone, but it was really just a square of paper. I also did not have a corresponding swatch of cover stock paper to show her.

But the way things were happening–even if not according to plan–my client could feel the texture of the paper and see her own printed poems on the chosen stock in the correct 4.5” x 6” format. She could also see the brown color of the cover, and see whether she liked the tone when printed on an off-white press sheet. If she wanted to make changes to any of the physical attributes of her poetry book, she could. Had she only seen a screen proof, all of these physical production qualities would have been absent.

Granted, this poetry book has one quality that sets it apart from a lot of other print jobs. It will be printed on an HP Indigo digital press due to its ultra-short press run (20 copies). (Printing such a book via offset lithography would be prohibitively expensive for 20 books.) But, fortunately, a digitally printed book can easily be proofed on the specific paper stock you have chosen for the final press run. It will then look exactly like the final printed product.

(As a final note, after I had written this blog article, my client’s physical proof arrived. It was delivered to the wrong house, and the printer had used an earlier—and therefore erroneous–version of the text. Nevertheless, my client could see most of her poems on the correct paper—both cover and text. Shortly after I had brought this to the printer’s attention, he sent me a revised PDF proof for my client. So my client can now take the weekend to read the book cover to cover to ensure its absolute accuracy. Best of all, the printer will only charge $10 to $15 per new proof cycle.)

What You Can Learn From This Case Study

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Changing your process on the fly is not always ideal or comfortable, but if you’re alert, you can sometimes find benefits not otherwise available. For example, in your own digital print buying work, ask about proofing the job on the specific paper stock you have chosen. You will both see and feel exactly how the finished product will look. You will be able to see whether a cream coated stock will change the printed toner colors in adverse ways (for example, yellow-white paper can make people’s faces look jaundiced). It’s better to see this on the proof than in the final print books.
  2. Proofing on the actual stock (for a digital print job) can also be helpful if you have heavy coverage solids. You’ll be able to see immediately if the toner lays down evenly (or if there are holes or uneven colors). In this way you can see whether a coated or uncoated press sheet would be better for your particular artwork. You can even scratch the dry toner with your fingernail to see whether there will potentially be problems with scuffing and whether you should therefore laminate the print book covers.

Posted in Printing | 2 Comments »

Envelope Printing: A Few Thoughts to Get You Started

November 1st, 2017

Posted in Envelope Printing | Comments Off

If you’re a marketing executive or designer of marketing materials, you know that almost nothing of importance gets to your prospective clients without an OGE (outgoing envelope). In many cases, nothing gets back to you without a business reply envelope (BRE). The only exception I can think of, other than marketing collateral passed out at conventions, is the postcard, since this workhorse of modern marketing travels unencumbered (without an envelope).

So it helps to know something about envelopes.

In my experience there’s a lot to know, and this can sometimes seem quite overwhelming. There are all the different sizes (from small coin envelopes up to 9” x 12” mailing envelopes, or larger for medical x-rays), aspect ratios (ranging from rectangular to square), paper weights, flap shapes, paper surface textures, and methods of closure, not to mention colors and whether or not there is a window.

The most useful suggestion I can make is to ask your commercial printing supplier for an envelope printing template booklet (or poster). I have seen several that address all of these issues in one place. Such a publication is immensely useful.

Custom Printing Methods

There are a number of ways to print an envelope. Direct offset printing right on the envelope is usually an economical choice for a large number of envelopes (let’s say 1,000 to 5,000 or more). If you are printing a small amount of text or simple graphics on the envelope, you can use a small offset press or even a jet press that can print 30,000 to 60,000 envelopes per hour (depending on the color configuration). That’s fast.

Based on my experience, this is the best option for simple graphics. However, based on my recent reading, a jet press even works well for ink that bleeds off the edge of the envelope. To be certain, I would always ask your printer if the complexity of your envelope artwork warrants direct printing on the envelope or offset printing on a flat litho press sheet and then conversion into an envelope.

The conversion option is ideal for heavy ink coverage. Let’s say your envelopes have full ink coverage on both sides. Such a product will be of a higher quality if the job is first printed on a flat sheet and then die cut, folded, and glued into the recognizable envelope form. (Again, this is in contrast to printing on what is called a “blank,” which is a standard size–such as a #10 envelope, which is 4 1/8” x 9 1/2”.) It costs a lot to print and convert envelopes (obviously the exact cost depends on the quantity) because it requires both steel-ruled cutting dies and the conversion steps of cutting the paper and then folding and gluing it into an envelope. So there has to be a good reason to “print and convert,” and this is usually due to the complexity of the printing, the amount of ink coverage, and/or a non-standard envelope size.

The third option is flexography, which is great for huge quantities of printed envelopes (let’s say 100,000 or more). For this technology, a rubber relief plate wrapped around a cylinder prints the envelopes as they pass through the press (in contrast to the offset lithography option in which the plates are flat, with both the image area and non-image area on the same level).

The fourth option, for much smaller press runs, is digital, usually laser printing. What makes this an attractive option is that there is no set up, so even for a short run of 300 envelopes the total cost is reasonable. If you were to do this short a press run on an offset press, your press make-ready would be expensive enough that your cost for 300 copies or 3,000 copies would be surprisingly close. For digital printing, there is essentially no make-ready, so for short runs your overall price will be low.

That said, there’s another reason to like digital printing for envelopes. Every envelope can be different, so either you can change the address information for each envelope (you wouldn’t even add the addressing information on an offset press run of envelopes), or you can vary the teaser copy on the envelope (the marketing blurb that grabs the recipient).

Paper Weights for Envelopes

If you’re specifying an envelope, you will most likely choose a text weight paper. Let’s say you’re inserting three pages that are 50# text, which is also 20# bond (each kind of paper is weighed at a different basic size, so these two paper stocks actually feel the same). You would probably specify 24# envelopes (a little heavier than the letterhead). Two other good choices would be 24# envelopes for 60# text letterhead paper or 28# envelopes for 70# text letterhead paper. Increasing the paper weight a little, like this, provides a sense of gravitas (philosophical weightiness) to the marketing piece. It seems just that much more important.

I have also received much heavier weights of envelopes in the mail. However, you should remember that the heavier the product, the higher the postage. When I was a graphic designer, as a rule of thumb I would specify 28# envelopes for the larger sizes, such as the 9” x 12” catalog and booklet envelopes. I found these a little more durable, since they were thicker than the usual 24#, and this was a benefit if the envelope contained a heavier product than a letter. For letter-sized envelopes, I would specify 24# stock.

Options for Envelope Closures

Here are just a few:

  1. Remoistenable glue. When you insert a folded letter into a #10 envelope and lick it to seal the envelope, you have just used remoistenable glue. This name distinguishes this glue from the glue that attaches the permanently sealed flaps of the envelope.
  2. Button and string. If you have a brown kraft envelope that will travel around your office, you may want to close it with a string that wraps around two paper buttons.
  3. Peel-and-stick envelopes. You peel off a sheet of paper attached to the glue, and the flap sticks to the opposite side of the envelope. This makes it unnecessary to lick a flap before sealing it.
  4. Clasp envelopes. These have a little metal brad that fits through a hole on the flap and then is spread apart to seal the envelope.

Window Envelopes

Plastic patches (that used to be glassine, poly, or celophane) cover windows on envelopes through which you can see the address information. The window patches come in standard sizes (and placements), although there are a few options for each. This is a useful product because you only have to address the letter, not the envelope.

Consider Postage

Keep in mind that the standard cost to mail a #10 envelope is not the same as the standard cost to mail a 9” x 12” envelope. Do some checking with your Post Office before you create a budget. Size matters, and weight matters. To be safe, give your Post Office a sample with all enclosures already inserted.

The same goes for square envelopes. There is a postage premium for such an envelope. Discuss this with your Post Office.

Consider BRE Markings

If your envelope will be designed to come back to you, you must follow the design requirements of the Post Office. These include size and placement of certain preprinted type (in addition to the address) and various scannable barcodes. Placement of these is crucial if you want to avoid heartache and surcharges. The Post Office can provide booklets on preparing business mail.

Find a Good Direct Mail Printer

It doesn’t hurt to develop a good working relationship with a dedicated envelope printer. Not that most commercial printers aren’t a good source for this kind of printing, but printers that focus on envelopes and other aspects of direct mail printing will be fluent in all of the postal regulations. They will be able to give you templates to help you design business reply mail, and they will have all of the printing and inserting equipment to complete the various steps of a direct mail job efficiently and economically. In my experience, such a printer that also does commercial printing is a real gem.

Posted in Envelope Printing | Comments Off

Large Format Printing: The Standee’s Missing Piece

October 27th, 2017

Posted in Standees | 2 Comments »

Coming up with a solution to a problem on the spot is a blessing. Sometimes the insight comes; sometimes it doesn’t. But I was grateful last night as my fiancee and I assembled a new standee for Ghostbusters that I had a realization on the spot. It solved a problem and offered some awareness into the particulars of large format printing, die cutting, corrugated paperboard, and the printing process of flexography.

The Problem

The problem was simple enough. I was assembling the sides of the bottom base for the Ghostbusters standee, and I noticed that I had two “right” sides and no “left” side. The side pieces were relatively small, perhaps two feet square, with side-specific drill holes, slots for tabs, and scores for folding. I found both and realized they were exactly the same. I was stumped.

Fortunately, my next thought was that I could fold one of the pieces backwards (against the press score). In this way I would essentially have two mirror-image pieces. I could use one for the left side of the standee base and one for the right.

However, this would mean that one side of the base would be the unprinted, light-brown color of the corrugated board. (The black ink on the other side would then be inside the standee base.) Ouch. The rest of the standee would be either gloss black ink or matte black ink. The flaw would be visible from the opposite side the movie theater.

The Solution

I was grateful for the next insight that popped up like a lightbulb over my head: We would paint the unprinted cardboard panel.

As was our good fortune, my fiancee and I had just presented an art therapy class earlier in the day involving painting. Our acrylic paints were still in the car. So I went out to collect them, along with a hairdryer to dry the paint. Problem solved.

Moreover, the front of the standee base had been covered with 4-color, printed litho paper. The black background and printed text had been produced on an offset commercial printing press and then laminated to the fluted cardboard. In contrast, the cardboard used for the sides and back of the structure had the original uncoated brown sulfite paper surface. This had been printed via flexography, so the ink was a dull, matte black—except on the problematic side panel.

Fortunately, the acrylic paint we had used in our art therapy class was water based and had a dull finish. It soaked into the cardboard slightly, and it provided the exact matte black finish the flexographic commercial printing press had imparted to all of the other standee base panels that had not been covered with printed lithographic paper.

The Lesson

Even a scenario as simple as this can provide a wealth of information on creative thinking under pressure, the difference between offset lithography and flexography, the composition of commercial printing inks and their appearance on coated vs. uncoated stock, and pick-and-pack fulfillment services. Here are some thoughts:

Pick-and-Pack Fulfillment

If you are a fulfillment manager, don’t assume that every order your department processes and mails out is assembled correctly every time. Institute quality checks. In the case of the standee, this was not the first time we had opened a standee box (which is actually a “kit,” just as any other selection of items sent out by a fulfillment department of any company) and found pieces missing. In the past, image panels from the front of the standees had been omitted, requiring us to stop the installation, call for back up, and wait several days for a new piece to arrive. So if you’re sending out kits of anything, check them regularly to ensure their accuracy.

Offset Lithography vs. Flexography

Printers use flexo printing to decorate corrugated board directly. The heavy pressure of offset lithographic press rollers would crush the fluting of corrugated board as the paper stock ran through the press. In contrast, the rubber plates of a flexographic press will not damage corrugated board, so this process is ideal for boxes, standee bases, and any other fluted (and/or crushable) product that does not require precise 4-color commercial printing. If a manufacturer wants to print full color ink on a corrugated carton, he will first print the image and text on an enamel press sheet, and then laminate (glue) this to the corrugated board.

Identifying Flexographic Printing

Printers choose offset lithography for full-color printing and flexographic printing for simple solids and type printed directly on cardboard. Beyond this fact, another easy way to identify flexo is the matte surface of the ink (when printed on uncoated stock).

Flexo ink also rubs off corrugated board rather easily (when we’re assembling standees, my hands get all inked up from handling flexo-printed pieces used for the backs of the standees).

The Cost of Flexo vs. Offset

Since the backs of the standees (anything the casual viewer would not see) take up a lot of space, printing solid black litho paper on an offset press and then laminating it to this much cardboard would be prohibitively expensive compared to flexography.

Die Cutting and Scoring

The two side panels for the base of the standee each had a “front” and a “back.” They should have been mirror images of one another, and the creases (scores) for the folds on the two pieces should also have been mirror images. Instead (on both counts) they were the identical shape.

This really goes back to the issue of accuracy in fulfillment (kitting), but in addition it shows you how to identify a score. The crease (which is made on the folding equipment, or directly on press for some kinds of work) allows a thick piece of paper to be folded evenly without cracking, buckling, etc.

Even though this would not have solved the problem of which side of the cardboard had been inked, turning one of the two identical pieces over, and folding the cardboard backwards along the opposite side of the score, did create the proper mirror-image piece for the other side of the standee base.

Quick Thinking

Quick thinking is an asset. First I panicked. Then I did nothing. Then I thought about printing, die cutting, flexography, and acrylic paint used in our art therapy class. Then the solution came to me in a flash of inspiration. May all of you be as fortunate in a crisis.

Posted in Standees | 2 Comments »

Commercial Printing: Saving Money Buying Printing

October 23rd, 2017

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“Saving money.” These words have a nice ring to them. Here are some ways to do this.

An Example: Using a Cutting Die More Than Once

A print brokering client of mine is about to (hopefully) award me a job she has been sending my way for a number of years. It is a small print booklet with diagonal, step-down flaps in the corners of the successive pages. Each is a different color, and together they provide an easy way to navigate through the sections of the booklet.

As a commercial printing exercise, however, this has been expensive and somewhat hard to accomplish. Since the divider pages step down (each is shorter than the next, all have solid colors printed on the tabs only, and each tab abuts exactly to the next without revealing the white paper below), metal cutting dies are needed. Fortunately, though, my client (a freelance graphic designer) and her client (a for-profit association) have maintained the physical structure of the booklet for several years and have just redesigned the graphics annually.

What this has done is the following:

  1. The first year was a nightmare. In spite of the dies, the job was new, and cutting the press sheets exactly, such that the step-down dividers abutted perfectly without any white space between them showing, was a very slow process. My client’s client had to pay extra for the die that year, and the printer lost money on the torturous die cutting work.
  2. The second year, the printer used the same cutting die. Therefore, the cost of the die was subtracted that year. The printer was also happy because by the second year he could do all the diagonal cutting more easily. He had had a lot of practice.
  3. Both the client and the printer were happy. And the client kept coming back to me (and the printer I represented) because the process was easy and cheaper than a new design. And even though the overall creative “look” changed from year to year, there was a recognizable brand consistency in the physical structure of the booklet with its step-down tabs.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

For recurring jobs that cost a lot (because they involve work your printer cannot do in-house), any processes you can repeat (unchanged) from year to year will save you money. Usually this involves a finishing technique rather than a custom printing technique (i.e., foil stamping, embossing, and die cutting all require metal dies that can be reused).

A Poor, But Artistic, Self-Employed Client

This client was a clothes designer. She needed some tags and booklets and business cards and other little paper items that would either be attached to, or that would accompany, her hand-made clothes.

Here’s how I saved her some money.

I went in the back of a commercial printing shop and dug through the boxes of partially used paper. I was looking for different colors and surface textures, but all with the same size (8.5” x 11”) and the same weight (80# cover stock). Then I created a single 8.5” x 11” art file with all of my client’s print jobs ganged up on the one sheet. I made the cut marks obvious so my client could take a ruler and a knife and cut the printed products out herself once the job had been printed.

Then I gave the paper and the art file back to the printer for reproduction on his smallest press, an 8.5” x 11” single-color duplicator, if I recall correctly. Small presses like this one bill out at a lower hourly rate than a much larger press (a 40” Komori, for example). In fact, the job was dirt cheap, and there was no finishing (trimming or anything else). The commercial printing vendor gave me the printed sheets, and we were done. Then my client cut them herself and punched a hole in each (with a single-hole-punch) for the ribbon to tie the tag onto her hand-made garments.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

Ganging jobs saves money. That is, if you lay out a rack card and a business card on the same press sheet, and your printer produces both jobs together, the overall cost will be less than if the two jobs had been printed separately. Be creative in applying this concept, and you can save some serious money. My client and I went even further and omitted finishing from the production steps the printer would otherwise need to do. In your case, keep in mind that anything you do will lower the overall cost. (But do realize that for anything but the simplest process, your printer will do it better.)

Another Ganging Example

My fiancee and I like to collect “fan” books. Not books for fans of certain artists or rock groups, but the kinds of books that can be fanned out (like a PMS color swatch book). We have collected and then given away to family members such books as an insect fan book, a mythology fan book, and a presidents’ fan book.

What makes these all very special is the intricately cut, printed image at the top of each long, narrow page. Plus the fact that the 100+ pages of each print book are all attached at the bottom with a screw-and-post assembly, which makes them a good learning tool. Kind of like a collection of flash cards, all attached at the bottom.

To go back to the intricately die cut nature of each book, as noted above, this is potentially an extraordinarily expensive product. My fiancee recently pointed this out, and I started to think about how the publisher could do this and not lose his/her shirt.

This is what I came up with. Granted, each die cut god’s or goddess’ head (or insect body, depending on the book) had to be die cut. And each metal die had to be created. However, I wondered whether all or at lest many of the various pages had been laid out on the same large press sheet in such a way that a single complex die could be used to chop out the contour of a large number of book pages. Presumably it would have been much cheaper to have made only a limited number of large and intricate cutting dies that would chop away the scrap around a great number of these die cut fan-book pages.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

The lesson is the same as in the last example. If you can “group” otherwise time-consuming and expensive processes in the commercial printing or finishing portion of your job, you can save money. Most likely your printer will bring up this subject. If not, ask him yourself about ways to save money by ganging up jobs or portions of jobs.

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Custom Screen Printing: Preparing Art Files for T-Shirts

October 19th, 2017

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I got a call from a printer this week saying a file I had submitted hadn’t passed preflight. Given my experience with printing and prepress, I was somewhat chastened, but after a discussion with the custom printing supplier, I went off and did my own research, and I learned something.

This is what happened, what I had initially submitted, and what I wound up submitting as the final art file. Hopefully my learning experience will make your life easier.

The Initial Art File

First of all, I don’t do a lot of design work anymore. I used to be an art director. Now I just design a few jobs a year. The one in question was a logo for a t-shirt, which is considered to be a promotional item. That’s the category as noted by this particular custom screen printing vendor.

The logo I had designed and prepared for printing (requiring two completely different mind-sets: one creative and one technical) consisted of three figures in 100 percent cyan above several lines of type and a rule. The type was to be printed in either cyan or black. Finally, a black rule line completely encircled the logo. No colors touched, so there would be no trapping issues.

I had been asked (by the printer’s rep at the online custom screen printing vendor) to provide the file as an EPS. This was the only requirement voiced when I requested the printer’s specs for the final art.

To be safe, and based on my prior experience over the years, I prepared the art file in Adobe Illustrator. I still depend on Creative Suite 5. I find it perfectly usable, so I have not moved to the subscription-based Creative Cloud applications. I had initially created the logo in InDesign (because I am most comfortable designing a job within this software) to show the client, so this Adobe Illustrator file was a re-creation of the initial art to facilitate the custom screen printing.

I had ensured the correct and consistent use of color (only two colors), and I had converted all type to outlines (but with a “fill” only and no “stroke”). However, since I had initially created the three figures above the type in Photoshop (as bitmapped art), I left them in this format. The TIFF file I had placed was of exceptionally high resolution (and I had even reduced its dimensions slightly), so I was not worried about jagged edges, even though it was a bitmapped (or “raster”) file and not a “vector” file. (That is, the image was not composed of mathematical descriptions of curves and angles; it was a matrix of dots.)

Unfortunately the screen printer rejected the art, asking me to “vectorize” all elements of the logo (the three figures as well as the type).

The Revised Art

Since I don’t do a lot of design work anymore, I quickly gave up on Adobe Illustrator’s auto-trace function. Not because it is deficient in any way. I just wanted to do what I was used to doing. So I placed the Photoshop image (the three figures) in Illustrator and started tracing them using Bezier curves. The image was relatively simple, but this got old fast. It was slow, tedious work.

I also knew from experience that you could use Photoshop to select portions of a drawing (using the “magic wand”) and then convert the selection to “paths.” Adobe had developed this function to ensure that artwork and type would have crisp edges.

I selected the three figures in Photoshop, saved them as a selection and then as a path. Then I copied and pasted the path into Illustrator. Initially it had all the “points” showing it had been converted to paths (Bezier curves), but it had no color (neither the outline, or “stroke,” or the contents, or “fill.” So I set the stroke to none and filled the paths with 100 percent cyan.

At this point I knew that nothing in the logo file would be bitmapped, and everything would be vector art.

Initially I saved the three figures as a single EPS file, which I placed in the Illustrator logo file. Then I thought better. I remembered that in the past, printers had warned designers against “nesting” one EPS file in another EPS file.

Whether or not this is still a problem, I’m not sure. So I played it safe. I copied the three figures from one Illustrator file and placed the image (and all control points, which were still visible on the outline path of the art) in the Illustrator master file for the logo: all of one piece, with no nested EPS files.

We’ll see what will happen next and whether I’ll receive another call from the custom screen printing vendor.

What We Can Learn From This Experience

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Not all printers do things the same way, or use the same equipment, so their requirements for final art will often differ. (In fact, I had created another version of the same file with both bitmapped and vector art for three signs. They had been printed without incident.)
  2. In the case of the t-shirt screen printer, I had asked for specs for the final art, but I had not received explicit enough instructions. My advice is to save yourself time and trouble. If you can do so, either check the vendor’s website for explicit file creation instructions or talk with a technical rep (not necessarily just a customer service rep) at the printer. There are some general rules (for instance, most printers would prefer that the type letterforms be converted to outlines). Some printers want PDFs. Some want editable, native Illustrator or InDesign files. This printer wanted only an Illustrator EPS file. It never hurts to ask.
  3. Getting a call from a printer is not unusual. I recall at one point in my career when printers were saying that 80 percent of files had errors. That may or may not be the case now (it may be much lower), but it does happen a lot. Think of it this way. Prepress is complex. There are many variables and many options, so it’s much easier to get something wrong than to get everything right. A preflight check is like a proof. It’s an opportunity to identify and eliminate errors.
  4. Also, it’s better to receive a call and need to resubmit an art file than it is to have a flaw printed on hundreds of t-shirts.

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Large Format Printing: Thoughts About a Gigantic Standee

October 17th, 2017

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My fiancee and I just finished assembling a huge standee for the Transformers franchise. It is called Transformers: The Last Knight. It is huge. No, huge would be an understatement. It took us nine hours to assemble and install. And we may need to go back to another movie theater and assemble a second one.

Why This Is Relevant

My fiancee’s grandson, who is now five, likes to use the word “gi-normous.” It is a cross between gigantic and enormous. And so is this Transformers standee. Putting the installation work aside for the moment, this standee is a good example of foresight, commercial printing acumen, distribution know-how, and marketing genius. You could also argue that it is a masterful example of finishing technology in that it includes hundreds of die cut pieces of all sizes.

More than anything, this standee shows that a large format print product is a combined printing project and physics project, in that it must stand up by itself and support its own weight as well as look good. I would say that it also reflects the marriage of graphic design, illustration, and computer aided design (CAD). After all, the entire product was initially envisioned on a computer screen, and presumably all die cuts and assembly slots and tabs were also positioned with the use of a high-powered computer workstation.

From the point of view of an artist, this is a dynamic paper sculpture. The designer has created an interior structure of cardboard boxes (fluted paper board for its strength and its light weight) and an exterior shell of bendable chipboard pieces placed layer upon layer to create three-dimensional arms, legs, and armor, with significant physical depth.

And again, all of this weight, once assembled, will still stand up to the abuse of young movie-goers who want to hang from the structure and push and pull at it.

Finally, this is a masterful example of organization. All of these unassembled pieces arrive at each theater in two cartons (“shippers,” as our installation broker calls them). Most but not all scrap has been removed from the die-cut pieces. We have to remove the rest. Many of the pieces for this standee come in plastic bags with labels (A through E), and each of the “lugs” is numbered (A-1, A-2, etc.) (“Lugs” are small die-cut graphic pieces inserted onto a larger graphic panel.) And all of this has to be accurately explained in words and pictures in the assembly instructions. (For this particular standee, the 11” x 14” instruction booklet is 54 pages long.)

So the big question is, how is this relevant to designers? Well in almost all cases of large format printing or point of purchase (POP) and point of sale (POS) commercial printing, the designer has to think about not only the creative and marketing aspects of the job but also the graphic treatment and custom printing, as well as the finishing operations, packaging and distribution, and assembly. In addition, the designer has to consider the physical requirements (whether the printed and assembled product will be able to hold and display any products, as do the point of sale standees at the grocery store). Usually these POS and POP displays are much, much smaller than the Transformers standee. Granted. But the same steps and considerations usually apply.

Specifics of the Large Format Print Job

Let’s focus on the most extraordinary aspect of the job.

I would say the overall organization of the standee was beyond measure. After all, nine hours (spread over two days) can be either interesting and challenging, or it can be torture. This depends on many things, including the accuracy and specificity of the instructions (relevant descriptions and good photos) and the packaging of the printed materials. (Interestingly enough, the weather makes a difference, too, since moist cardboard won’t hold it’s shape well when you’re inserting tabs into slots, and overly dry cardboard will cut you).

Beyond the quality of the instructions and packaging, the Transformers: The Last Knight standee has an interesting overall structure. As noted before, the designer “hung” portions of the movie character on a structure of long, thin boxes that my fiancee and I cobbled together with screws. From my fine arts training, I saw this as being similar to the wire armature around which a sculptor builds a clay figure. In both cases the physical “skeleton” of the piece is never seen, but it holds up the entire structure (just as our own skeletons do).

In the case of this Transformers standee, all small graphic pieces came in five bags, which corresponded to specific areas of the overall standee. These included the knight character’s head, right arm and sword, left arm, raised knee and foot, and bent supporting leg and foot. These were situated in rock formations, which held a title plate (movie title and movie studio information).

Each of these had to be assembled in a certain order and then stitched together into the final 9-foot-high structure. My fiancee and I actually had to change the order a bit, since we realized we would not be able to move the standee out of the room in which we had built it once it was fully assembled. So we put together the bottom half, the structure for one arm, and the top half with the knight character’s head, and then moved everything to the final staging area in the movie theater. In that location we assembled the final composite pieces in place.

All of this had to be thought out by the designer, printer, marketing agent, die cutting fabricator, and everyone else long before ink ever hit the commercial printing paper. For that alone I was both impressed and grateful.

What I Learned, and How You Can Benefit From It

  1. This was, more than anything, a huge paper sculpture. It was very interesting to me that the interior structure depended on the strength and lightness of corrugated paperboard wrapped into numerous boxes and poles to support the knight character’s back, arm, sword, and legs. Moreover, it was interesting to see how the thinness and bendability of chipboard with printed paper laminated to it provided the kind of multiple layers out of which the surface of the 3D knight was crafted.
  2. As noted above, the foresight and organization were astounding.
  3. The size of the overall structure was a marketing plus. Not only did such a large structure dwarf all nearby standees, but since the knight himself was so much larger than a normal person, this added to the “wow-factor” of the standee. Ironically, the title panel displaying the name of the film and its movie studio was slightly smaller than usual. Because of this, the knight character seemed even larger than he really was.
  4. I think about not only this installation but the installation of the same large format print product in theaters across the country. The movie studio paid a huge amount of money to make the film. Then they paid a huge amount to design the standee, then fabricate it, pack it safely, and ship it across the country. The cost of shipping alone must have been astronomical. Then the movie studio paid for installation. So the overall expense to promote this film was very high (just for the standees, and excluding all other marketing venues). Since the overall goal will be to make a profit, it boggles the mind to consider the cost and potential gain. This is a huge industry.

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Custom Printing: An Approach to New Print Jobs

October 10th, 2017

Posted in Digital Printing | 2 Comments »

Out of the blue today a client I hadn’t heard from in over a year emailed me. She had a custom printing project and wanted my help.

The Print Job

This is what my client wrote in her email:

“I need pricing on 100 front and back printed programs for an event on May 20th. They are for a black-tie event. I will get you all of the details next week. Can you cost these for me? A nice cream card-stock will do. Call with questions.”

There were two attachments to the email: two logos and a 5” x 7” full-color card with a night shot of the U.S. Capitol as its background and a lot of surprinted type. So I made the erroneous assumption that the card was the project. In fact I made other assumptions as well:

  1. Since the job was such a short run (100 copies), I assumed that it needed to be printed on a digital press. I knew of a trusted printer with an HP Indigo, so I figured I’d get his prices first.
  2. Since the image was full color, I assumed the job would look best if printed on a coated stock (cream coated, since this is what the email requested). I thought the toner would sit up more evenly on the coated surface than on the hills and valleys of an uncoated commercial printing stock. I assumed that a rough, uncoated paper finish would dull down the photo, and it would lose it’s crispness.

When I called my client to discuss the job further, I learned that the attachment to the email was the invitation, but what I needed to price out was a program for the evening. This also clarified the schedule. That is, my client would need delivery on or before the day of the event rather than several weeks earlier (i.e., my client would not need extra lead time for mailing the programs to attendees).

So essentially I was getting bits and pieces of information that were helping me create a list of specifications for the printer, as well as the due date, information not completely clear in my client’s email.

To get back to the program, it would be text only (script) with no photo. This implied that the paper stock would not need to be coated. It just had to be heavy and yellow-white (i.e., cream or natural white) rather than blue-white (or solar white). In fact, when I called the commercial printing vendor to discuss the job and get feedback and suggestions, the sales rep suggested an uncoated sheet. For such a project, she said, the uncoated paper would be more upscale. Since this was a black-tie event, I was sold.

Here are the specs I compiled to share with both the printer and my client.

100 copies (print two sides)
K/K, no bleed
5.5” × 8.5” vs. 5” x 7”
Uncoated natural white (cream white), 110# cover (eggshell or antique), such as Classic Crest, Crane, or Strathmore; option for 110# cream dull coated cover stock
Hard-copy proof to client (on actual paper stock)
Please provide file upload date: Job must reach client by May 17 for May 20 event.

Digital Printing (on Indigo)
100 copies – $xx.00
Add an additional $xx.00 for delivery (approximately).

As you can see, I kept the dull coated stock in the spec sheet as an option in case my client didn’t agree with the printer’s advice to use an uncoated paper. I also specified Classic Crest, Crane, or Strathmore, since I knew these were stationery makers with paper offerings ideally suited for a gala dinner program (I had learned this from the same custom printing supplier a while back).

In addition, my client had printed her business cards on this paper, on 130# cover stock, a while back. Since the gala program was significantly larger than a business card, I suggested 110# rather than 130# cover stock, and the sales rep agreed with the choice. It would be heavy (lending a sense of gravitas to the piece) but not too heavy.

Over the phone my client said the type would be black only or some special PMS color, perhaps a metallic. Since she had asked for something beautiful and inexpensive, I noted that digital printing was ideal for the 100 copies she wanted. But I also told her that while digital custom printing could produce the black script type for the gala program, a PMS color would require moving the job to an offset press. This would cost her three to four times as much. She understood.

So we had paper options, color choices, and the schedule. Normally I would suggest a digital proof for this job. After all, it’s a simple project: a little type on paper with no bleeds and no images. However, in this case the product would go to a black-tie dinner. Presumably it was to be a charity event, and attendees would have paid a hefty price for admission. Since there was going to be a little extra lead time, I suggested a hard-copy proof produced on the actual commercial printing stock. If my client hated the look, there would be time to change the paper on the final press run.

Finally, I looked at Google Images to find samples of “gala dinner programs.” I wanted an overall mental picture, since my client had asked me to suggest a size. I told her that if there was to be only a little text, in script (as my research online had suggested), then 5.5” × 8.5” or 5” x 7” would be fine.

Finally, I wrote up the specs as noted above and sent them to both my client and the printer’s sales rep for feedback. I thought I would resolve any discrepancies in their responses once both had replied to me. That’s where I am now. We’ll see what happens next.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

This is a simple job. However, it addresses many of the same questions that will arise in complex jobs, and my personal approach may be instructive as to how you can approach your print buying. Let’s say you have an in-house client (in a corporation) or a freelance client (as I do), and you need to help your client be specific. After all, most people outside the publications department (or other graphic department) will not have a clue as to the specific information you will need to provide to solicit custom printing bids.

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Craft a custom printing specifications sheet that includes everything from trim size to paper stock, ink choices and ink coverage, binding, proofs, and delivery. Update this periodically. Consider it a work in progress. When a job comes in, you can add specifics to the relevant items as necessary. Some print jobs won’t need certain specs. For instance, there’s no binding required in my client’s job. As a start, you may want to collect printing bids from a number of jobs and a number of vendors to get ideas for your “master list of print specs.” (That is, see how commercial printing suppliers have described various print jobs in the estimates they have sent you over the years.)
  2. Make no assumptions. After all, I thought the photo of the Capitol on 5” x 7” stock was my client’s upcoming job, when really it was just the invitation she had designed.
  3. If there is any reason at all to think that even a small job should be proofed on the actual printing stock (if the job is digital, or in some cases even if it’s offset), do it. It’s better to see the paper and not like it at the proofing stage than to find this out after the job has been printed. Also, it is usually smart to request unprinted paper samples from your printer.
  4. Discuss delivery early in the process. Your job does no good if it gets to the client late. Make sure there’s time for every component of print production. If not, consider tightening up the schedule by requesting a PDF proof (screen proof, virtual proof) instead of a hard-copy proof.
  5. Do what I did. Share the specs with the printer and ask for suggestions. He (or she, in my case) can be a fountain of information. You may come up with ideas you hadn’t dreamed of, and some of these may actually meet your budget.
  6. Whenever possible, discuss your job specs with the printer early, even if the specifications are not yet in final form. The bidding process will get you thinking about items you may otherwise overlook.

Posted in Digital Printing | 2 Comments »

Book Printing: An Approach to Designing Infographics

October 5th, 2017

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A print book designer colleague of mine had a problem with a graphic last night, so I called her up, and we discussed infographic design at midnight (she’s a freelancer, and she was on deadline). Her design wasn’t working.

Now infographics weren’t as prevalent when I was doing print book design in the ‘80s as they are now, perhaps because we have so much more information now to digest, an overload of things to focus on, and a decreasing attention span. All of these can explain the explosive growth of infographics.

Wikipedia defines infographics as “graphic visual representations of information, data or knowledge intended to present information quickly and clearly.” Wikipedia goes on to say that infographics “can improve cognition by utilizing graphics to enhance the human visual system’s ability to see patterns and trends.”

So they address both sides of the brain. They give the left hemisphere of the brain the logical, analytical information it craves, but they present this in a spatial and holistic, image-based format, which the right hemisphere of the brain likes.

Back to My Colleague

My colleague had positioned the initial elements of an infographic, condensing information about the birth rate, registration rate of new births, and birth registration offices. She had the beginnings of a similar infographic for a national ID card. (My colleague does work for government and non-government world-wide organizations, so this graphic was to be inserted in a print book for a small country in Africa.)

Needless to say, it was urgent, so I helped her at midnight.

The Problem

My colleague already had the icons for the registration rate (a circle with a blue highlighted segment surrounding a large numeric percentage), the registration method (a pencil and icons of two sheets of paper), and the registration centers (icons of administrative structures that looked like a series of tiny Supreme Court buildings).

In the center of the three icons (each with both an image and a short description) she had placed an icon of a baby. Unfortunately, the baby was the same size as the other icons, and the other icons just seemed to float around the baby. There was no implied visual connection between the baby (the births) and the administrative logos.

What added to the problem was that all of this visual information needed to fit in a narrow horizontal bar across the page. Otherwise the infographic would not fit in my client’s design grid along with all the other page elements.

The Solution

First my colleague and I discussed the need for simplicity. Infographics can convey a lot of information, but the icons used must be immediately understandable. Readers have little time, too much information, and limited attention spans, so they need to “get” the icon instantly. When my colleague understood this, she revised the image for the registration offices to include a man and woman standing on either side of an office counter (a more personal image than the small buildings), with the woman holding up an application form.

My colleague did a good job of condensing all of this visual information into a simple icon. The other two icons she chose to keep. However, she aligned them on one baseline (as noted before, the initial infographic had included three icons in a triangular formation around the baby). She then put a large bracket to the left of the three icons (joining them all visually). To the left of the bracket, she put the baby (a larger image than before).

My colleague also used color to her advantage. She highlighted the title (birth registration) in orange on a gray background (that comprised the entire rectangular boundary of the infographic). She also made the bracket and the baby orange. The three smaller icons (registration rate, registration method, and registration centers per 100,000 people) she highlighted with blue and white. She treated all three in the same way visually by using the same colors.

Because she had made these graphic choices (color placement and baseline alignment), the three blue and white icons “read” as being of equal importance and similar nature, and the larger baby and the bracket “read” as being the entity relating to those three icons. In short, my colleague had visually defined the relationship between the baby and the three administrative icons using size and color.

This was a success because the reader’s left brain hemisphere would absorb the analytical information more readily if the right hemisphere of the brain could first see a visual relationship among the pieces of information.

My colleague then made a “national identity card” icon and, using the same color distribution (and replacing one of the other icons with a fingerprint icon representing a “biometric ID”), created the second half of the infographic (to the right of the first, all within a narrow strip across the page). The consistent use of the blue and white for the minor icons and the orange for the heading, the bracket, and the main icon (in this case the national ID rather than the baby) unified the design visually while showing the reader what information was similar and in what way the various pieces of information were related.

The reader could absorb this information immediately, in a single glance, based on the color placement and spatial relationships. Presuming the reader could grasp the relationships through the graphic treatment (right-brain, spatial understanding), this would encourage the reader to go ahead and address the content of the infographic more closely (left-brain, analytic understanding).

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Infographics are one of the main design/editorial tools in use today. They convey a lot of information quickly by first showing the interrelationships (interactions, levels of importance, flow of activity or information) and then including selected data to support the visual treatment.
  2. Simplicity is key. You have only an instant to grab the reader’s attention. Simplify the design, and use consistent color placement, simple type treatments, and a simple design grid to give structure to the visuals.
  3. Make sure the icons are immediately recognizable, even in a very small format. Consider using numbers (percentages, for instance) where appropriate as both a large graphic element and as a statistic (i.e., both as content and as the graphic treatment).
  4. It doesn’t hurt to show your infographics to others. They may be immediately understandable to you, but another set of eyes can often help you simplify and clarify the meaning and flow (i.e., successive steps in a process, as in a “flow chart”) of the information you’re trying to condense for the reader.
  5. Keep in mind that infographics are deceptively simple. They convey a lot of information quickly, both visually and in terms of their content. Make sure you don’t accidentally mislead or confuse the reader.

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