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Designing for Digital Print

With so much “web centricity,” print design is a graphics niche not to be taken for granted at marketing agencies and design firms. There is ongoing concern within the print and design communities that graphic arts students are graduating with only basic print knowledge.

“I graduated [from the renowned Kansas City Art Institute] in 1999 … and didn’t know how to print anything,” said Clifton Alexander, 35, owner and creative director of Reactor Design Studio in Kansas City, MO. The official title on his business card reads, “Creative Chuck Norris,” and the firm bills itself as a “master of awesome print design” and “creator of EPIC brands,” where EPIC is an acronym for “Engaging People In Conversation.”

So how did Alexander evolve from print novice “grasshopper” to Kung Fu master at a seven-employee, $300,000 firm specializing in design for the printed medium? More on that in a moment…

Printing is just a single component of multichannel, integrated marketing. Print firm owners and managers know how other established designers have felt the seemingly magnetic pull of “e.” Curt Schultz, founder and president of creative marketing agency Curtis in Batavia, IL, west of Chicago, told me: “Our focus has dramatically shifted to electronic the past few years. We do a lot of web design and development, mobile, custom apps, SEO/SEM,” elaborated Schultz, who grew up in print designing food packaging for Bunge, then got ink in his blood working within RR Donnelley’s corporate communication department in the early 1990s before moving on to Moore Wallace. “We still do print,” said the 40-something, evolving designer; “just not as much.”

At Austin, TX design firm UnderConsideration, founder and principal Armin Vit admitted, “We do some [print], but the little we do never involves variable data, so I wouldn’t really know the first thing about it.” It was Vit who referred me to Alexander at Reactor. “They do a lot of print and direct mail,” he assured me and, indeed, they do.

“We do print design almost exclusively,” Alexander confirmed, acknowledging that his firm’s media strategy is a bit retroactive. “I feel like I’m on a crusade [for print] every day. Three years ago our sales were flat,” he explained. “We were doing web design, social media, print, and advertising, but nothing stood out.” So Reactor rededicated itself to producing the “highest impact and best work in the print niche,” noted Alexander. “We call it ‘tangible marketing’ that people can touch and feel.” To this end, Reactor’s work often employs effects such as texture and foils. A recent variable-data direct mail piece featured custom folds and a diecut.

“Headlines are More Important.”

Variable data and imaging very well may be the print medium’s last bastion of viability. The ability of digital printing presses to alter text and photos based on people’s interests is a powerful proposition. Alexander and his colleagues at Reactor foresee the future of print, and it is variable: Whether or not designers are ready for it, more variable-data printing (VDP) volume is coming, reported industry research analysts at Smithers Pira: nearly 1 trillion sheets globally within the next five years.

Worldwide, more than 656 billion sheets were printed with variable data and images last year on both digital and traditional offset presses. By the end of 2017, the number of VDP sheets is expected to increase to more than 853 billion, growing from 28 percent to 34 percent of the total output in the market segments under review, added the firm, which had its roots as the Printing Industry Research Association and later was known as Intertech. It should come as no surprise to printers and designers that digital is cannibalizing offset print, and these forecasts give some idea as to how quickly and to what extent.

With more detailed customer data becoming available, designing for digital VDP is even more of a specialty for graphic artists in-house and out. To reach VDP’s potential, printed pieces need to be properly planned. While the fundamental design “bones” are pretty much the same, “the biggest difference,” Alexander said, “is trying to pull out what is the most interesting aspect not only to the client but to the end recipient as well.” Digital production limitations, such as fewer paper stock choices and lack of PMS colors, he added, are outweighed by the ability to highly target the audience. “Headlines are more important,” Alexander stressed, because each is different.

The first step is to think differently about the project. It’s actually more of a mindset than a skill set – being creative in a different way. One key is getting to know the end customer. Alexander cited the example of a VDP mailer that Reactor designed for a bank client in Missouri. “High school football is a big deal in rural Missouri,” he explained. “Small towns live and die with their teams.” So the Reactor creatives developed a tailgating theme tied to a simple promotional offer with a regional twist: Open a new checking account and receive a stadium blanket customized for your local team.

The bank targeted seven different markets with a relatively small print run of 15,000 prospects. “Some people got a Salem Tigers blanket, while others got St. James Bears blankets,” Alexander said. Diecutting was performed inline on Mail Print’s high-speed T200 Inkjet Web Press from HP, which touts, “Now you can talk to Sally Sample with true relevance, even on the largest, full-color runs … however you need to customize, segment, and target for your customers.”

Three customization tactics to consider:

  • Make greeting messages relevant to a customer’s age.Use images that reflect previous purchases.Adapt offers and prices to match individual interests and buying patterns.
  • A fourth strategy is to use vibrant, personalized graphics, which is difficult to do without printing in color. Color is a very powerful tool in variable-data design. In transpromo applications, for instance, adding color can deliver extra impact that helps statements to stand out, especially “because you can give relevant detail to each customer,” HP explained. “Color graphs, pie charts, and sliding scales are best-practice tools for communicating quickly with your audience and reinforcing your message. Documents engineered with color can deliver heightened engagement” for print jobs such as benefits statements, giving statements, stock portfolio updates, and color directional maps.
  • VDP campaign developers can counter privacy concerns about excessive “data mining” simply by being observant like Reactor was about the importance of football. “Even if census or national statistical data is not available, you can generally learn more by identifying characteristics of neighborhoods,” HP’s marketers explained. “Is there a marina, a golf course, a hiking trail, or sports field close by? Is the post code populated with high density housing or single family dwellings? How are the schools?”

Hewlett-Packard cited another financial VDP example where the offer is for a research report. “You can personalize it by offering each reader a different report depending on which trade publication they prefer,” explained the HP literature. “Then, to highlight this personalization, you can feature a color image on the front of the report relevant to the reader as well as an image on the front of the envelope” to draw attention to the offer and encourage a response.

Loyalty Lives Here

Remember, this was a young guy who came out of an acclaimed design school 13 years ago not knowing diddly about print. So how did he learn?

“It truly was baptism by fire,” Alexander said. After several “bad experiences” with area printing companies, much of what Alexander and his Reactor creative partners have learned over the past six years or so is knowledge gleaned from A.C. Printing Co., a diversified, 40-year-old commercial offset shop in nearby Olathe, KS. Sales rep Tim Whitmore has helped A.C. earn status as Reactor’s go-to print partner – the envied position of being the printer who gets a second look at price quotations. “They produce 100 percent of our [offset] work,” Alexander said. “Even if I know AC cannot print a job [in house], I quote it through them because there’s a high trust level there. Their prepress guys are top-notch. We have a reciprocal relationship. When they go above and beyond for us, I bring them homemade cookies or brownies the next morning.” It’s old school, and it works.

Alexander is learning about dealing with data and VDP the same way. While variable data presently represents only about 10 percent of the studio’s work, it’s a growing area. “We definitely are pitching it more,” he added.

Family-owned A.C. Printing added an MGI Meteor DP8700 XL multi-substrate digital press in 2012, responding to increased client demand for more short-run color projects with higher quality standards. Since installing the Meteor DP8700 XL last April, AC Printing has taken full advantage of its new capabilities, with projects including 40-inch, fold-out brochures and full-color VDP. “The flexibility of the Meteor DP8700 XL really set it apart from the other digital presses,” said owner Greg Russell. “We loved that it could print on sheets up to 13x40 inches long, and the huge range of substrates opened up a whole new range of applications for us. It has also made our shop more profitable and efficient on our short-run, 4-color jobs while maintaining the color matching and quality standards of our DI offset presses.”

For most of its variable-data printing counsel, however, Reactor turns to two personalized direct marketing providers with more seasoned experience: Mail Print Inc. and ColorMark Inc., both in Kansas City.

Fourteen months ago, 60-employee firm Mail Print made news by purchasing the HP T200 inkjet web, which became operational last spring. The company’s $3 million investment included a new bindery line that can perforate and fold the marketing pieces as well as new IT infrastructure that can handle huge amounts of data. Founded in 1988, Mail Print became one of the first printers in the Midwest to acquire the T200. It continues to use its four HP Indigo digital presses, which combined produce about 5 million pieces of collateral a month. (The T200 can produce in excess of 20 million pieces of collateral a month.)

A typical Mail Print program is printing customized coupon booklets for a North American casino/gaming customer, which requires customized materials tailored to clients. The T200 press is expected to reduce production time by some 50 percent. “Being on the leading edge of technology can be a significant game changer for our clients,” said CEO Gina Danner. “The T200 technology is the ideal printing application for large mailers, advertising agencies, marketing firms, and corporate marketing clients.”

Danner also noted that many print providers are hindered by a lack of experience with variable-data applications. Many printers find that the intricacies of data mining, manipulation, and the more complex mailing process push the limits of their experience. “Mail Print has been a leader in variable data printing for over 18 years, and the addition of the HP T200 is simply the next step in our evolution. This press allows us to print longer variable runs in full color, where literally every piece of mail is unique, at a cost similar to traditional methods of color shells and black imprinting. Our clients know that color variable printing raises response and purchase rates,” she added.

Digital print competitor ColorMark knows firsthand, too, that VDP is a key technology in the production of unique and personalized products. By writing a prospective student’s name in the clouds using a DirectSmile-like program, ColorMark helped Missouri Western State University boost campus visits by nearly 3 percent with personalized direct mail. Personalized print is the key to efficient direct marketing, contends DirectSmile.

“By addressing different customers and target groups with tailored messages and layouts, you will increase impact and, thus, return-on-investment,” plugs the firm’s website. Its Adobe InDesign-based variable data printing software helps to master myriad personalization tasks. “Vary text, images, color schemes, font types, customer codes, even entire layouts – introduce QR codes and seamlessly include personalized images in one workflow,” the web text goes on. “Thanks to the integrated concept of your VDP solution, cross-media utilization of your variable data documents is simple: Make documents available for online configuration in your web-to-print and e-commerce applications. Let customers generate individual brochures as part of your cross-media campaigns. Or send variable data documents automatically as e-mail attachments.”

More VDP

The aforementioned Smithers Pira figures include VDP output printed on digital presses as well as offset-imprinted and preprinted shells, the latter of which will fall by 0.5 percent annually by 2018. (Editor’s note: These numbers do not include catalog and packaging VDP.) Conversely, electrophotography is forecast to grow by 1.5 percent per annum, while inkjet is forecast to grow at nearly 10 times that rate: 14.2 percent annually. Likewise, full digital output is projected to almost double, from an 8.2 percent market share to 14.2 percent. Interestingly, despite direct mail declines projected at 0.1 percent per annum over the next five years, the VDP market opportunity is highest in direct mail at 264 billion A4 sheets (or equivalent) in 2012 and forecast to grow by approximately 19 percent overall through 2017, to 313.6 billion sheets. The detailed report, “The Future of Variable Data Printing to 2017,” is available for purchase at

“We started out 20 years ago as one of the first printers to do direct mail,” said Mail Print’s Danner. “We went from printing and mailing, to digital printing, to Web-to-print order processing, to cross-media campaigns. This is the next evolutionary step in that process, doing it all faster.”

Ms. Danner told the Kansas City Business Journal about a prospect on the East Coast who prints about 200,000 pieces of direct mail a month at a cost of nearly 30 cents each. “With our new technology, we can get the costs down as low as 20 cents. So there is substantial savings, and we can produce it a lot faster. The production time on that project goes from about 240 hours down to about 80 hours. So it can get to the market faster.”

Digital Nirvana blogger Heidi Tolliver-Walker observed in January, “As digital market share grows, so does the lure of VDP. Not just for personalization in marketing, but also for process improvement, cost reduction, and efficiency. In fact, these are the areas in which Pira found the opportunities for VDP to be the greatest. Process improvement is not sexy, but volume is volume,” Tolliver-Walker continued, “and the more printers start thinking of VDP as a process, not just a marketing approach, the more those opportunities will continue to open up. Plus, process improvement is an easier sell!”

Designing for Inkjet Web Output

Here are 10 inkjet design tips from HP:

  1. Use typefaces designed for digital. They will scale appropriately wherever they are used in your printed material.
  2. Test type sizes for readability. Some typefaces may be hard to see at small sizes. (Some output devices can print type sizes as small as 2 point.)
  3. Black type should be pure black and not composite or rich black. (HP black has the highest black optical density so you do not need to add cyan or magenta, making it more economical.)
  4. Use vector graphics for logos, line art and graphs. These enable our HP Inkjet Web press to deliver the smoothest lines and even tones.
  5. For best results always pre-convert spot colors to CYMK values or Pantone specification.
  6. If your files contain RGB images, let the RIP convert the image for print. This delivers the best quality.
  7. Eliminate any unnecessary transparency in images and other graphic objects. Why? Because transparency makes the RIP work harder!
  8. To ensure cleaner, crisper images use ones that have at least 300-dpi resolution; 600 dpi is recommended if the image contains text.
  9. Avoid converting files multiple times as this can impact image quality. Where possible, standardize on image file formats and resolutions.
  10. Aim for design templates that avoid saturated printed background colors as these soak the page in ink adding to costs for ink and cost of drying.