Six years ago, following a presentation about the wonders of our production inkjet capabilities, a client sat back in her chair and thought for a moment. The room was silent as we waited for her to say, “When can we start?” Instead she said, “What do I tell my designers?” She went on to explain that the design team for this very large financial institution had spent years learning to minimize versions in their direct mail creative to avoid plate changes and plate charges. She joked about a “Men in Black” neuralyzer moment where she would point a pen-like device at the designers to make them forget everything they had been practicing for years. That was the catalyst for a presentation titled, “Designing for Digital.” It took 69 slides to cover topics including design decisions, color considerations, and media. General digital design rules had three sub-topics: color, typography, and images.
The presentation had three objectives:
- Unlock the potential of digital print;
- Embrace its “weird and wonderful” possibilities, and
- Understand the impact of software, hardware, ink, and paper.
One of the most important things we had to communicate to designers was the fact that digital inkjet printing was diff
erent. In fact, some said the machine was technically not a press because there was no pressure or direct offset of ink to paper. Ink for this new platform was also very different from what they had always known. Rule one was that all colors referenced in the design file would be produced with CMYK inks, and there was no such thing as Pantone in this new world of production inkjet.
This brave new world also brought requirements that seemed counter to the concept of creative. Rules and organization became key success factors. Tasks like file naming and asset naming took on new importance and quickly became important drivers in how designers approached production inkjet. Identifying variable fields and code requirements introduced an element of programming into design. While many thought designers would fight the introduction of rules and requirements for production inkjet as overly constraining to the creative process, designers embraced the rules as a way to make design more effective by enabling one-to-one marketing.
Designers Will Need to Learn New Terms and Techniques
Like every new technology, production inkjet introduced a new vocabulary. Designers need to understand color gamut and color space, and concepts like simultaneous contrast, in order to manage their expectations about color. In their great book, The Designer’s Guide to Inkjet, authors Elizabeth Gooding and Mary Schilling make color gamut and color space easy to understand with this “Why Should You Care” example: “If the color space you use on the computer monitor is larger than the color space of the print device, the printed colors will reproduce inaccurately relative to what we see on the screen. These colors are considered “Out-of-Gamut,” because they fall outside the color gamut mapping of the device. It’s like asking your GPS for directions in Canada when it only covers the United States.”
“Adding noise” to blocks of color is one of the best pieces of advice I learned when starting to design for production inkjet. The noise is a pattern a designer adds to a block of color to better distribute the ink. Telling a designer this makes a difference is a good tip; showing them a block of color printed with and without noise is a lesson they will never forget.
Another unforgettable lesson for designers who are new to production inkjet is an adjunct to something we all learned about personalization and variable content. Designers were always taught to design for the longest content. The design rules for typography amend this rule when considering variable fonts—design for both the longest and shortest content.
The rule for images is easy to remember because it’s such a bad pun. Designers need to think about the big picture when considering images. In other words, keep all images in mind when developing base versions of your design. Another rule that designers embrace when they see the result, even though it means more effort on their part: Crop images to their exact final width and height, resolution and color space in Photoshop before placing in the document. If an image requires fine detail, the inviolable rule is “1-by-1.” In other words, that image should be one inch by one inch or larger.
5 Best Practices that Stand the Test of Time
I thought it would be interesting to look back on my first “Designing for Digital” presentation to see if my “Top 5 Design for Digital Considerations” have changed as the platform has evolved and paper and inksets improved. I learned that best practices have staying power, since the list is the same today:
- Always consider your physical attributes and finishing requirements;
- Define variable content;
- Demonstrate color awareness;
- Employ asset management;
- Understand file prep.
Communicating with designers about production inkjet isn’t a one-time presentation. It’s an exciting conversation about the freedom that rules bring, and it continues with the endless possibilities of optimization.
If you enjoy hearing fresh voices from the inkjet user community (with no commercial interruption) check out these other posts:
- Robert Clark on IWCO Direct’s Journey to Inkjet
- Steve Malec of IWCO Direct on Developing a Testing Process for Inkjet
- Tim Cooper of Harland Clarke on Understanding Workflow Capacity
Mike has extensive experience in direct marketing strategy and design. As Executive Creative Director at IWCO Direct, he is focused on increasing return on marketing investment (ROMI) with efficient and effective creative that increases response rates across all channels. His creative concepts are used by some of the largest and most sophisticated marketers in the U.S. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.