Graphic Design and Illustration.

Archive for ‘April, 2014’

Image of the Month – April 2014


Whew! It’s been a busy, busy month. Just managed to get one finished for this month.

This one is a cleaned up and coloured image that I drew for one of the @sketch_Dailies drawing challenge. I’ve blogged about them before. The Lady of the Lake from the legend of King Arthur. Most people conjure up images of beautiful, young fair maidens. I decided on a more older, reflective woman. She is supposed to be a Lady of the Lake, not Girl of the Lake.

Drawing in pencil and then inked in markers. The image was scanned in and colour laid out in Photoshop. The bubbles and extra ink spatters were added in Photoshop as well.


A Designer’s Guide to Flexo Printing – Part II


Part II – It’s All in the Dots

This is part of a multi-post story on flexography for the designer. You can read more of my previous posts on the subject here.

As all print designers know, full colour, continuous tone images are printed using half-tone dots. The same holds for flexo printing as well.

The line screens for flexo printing tend to be a bit coarser than conventional offset printing. Most traditional print is either 133 or 150 line screen. I think 175 is the highest offset line screen I’ve ever designed for. Most of the flexo printing I am familiar with ranges from 120 – 133 line screens. But I have seen designs printed as low as 65 line screen.

With lower line screens, there will be less detail in the images produced. Often, this means that designers and illustrators wind up creating highly detailed images where most of the detail is either lost completely, or becomes just a small mush of dots.

So simpler is better. Try to keep your imagery fairly simple and graphic. It will help not only with continuous tone work, but will help with line art and other vector style artwork as well.

You will also find that halftone dots printed flexographically will tend to not reproduce as well as you might be used to. Screens of 70 percent or higher tend to plug up and light screens tend to get quite a bit darker. And over all, the dots won’t look as clean and uniform in appearance as you might be used to. Nice even graduated tones of colour can be difficult for flexo presses to create.

Minimum Dot

Perhaps the biggest problem facing flexo printing is something called minimum dot. Made from a thick, flexible polymer material, very small halftone dots on flexographic plates cannot be safely reproduced. These dots may flop over and cause the printing ink to splatter all over the place. This usually means there is a cut off point – a minimum dot. Usually, this is around 3 percent. Where I work, we have very sophisticated digitally made plates and can go down to 1 percent. I have heard of minimum dots as high as 5 percent.

This means that no colour can fade off to zero. If an object in your design have gradients of colour in them, they must contain at least the minimum allowable amount of all the colours you are using for that gradient. For example, a gradient of red to yellow must have percentages of magenta and yellow in all the steps of the gradient.

At first, this doesn’t seem like too much of a problem, but once these 1, 3 and 5 percent dots print, they often gain on press to be as high as a 10 or even 20 percent dot. That means the nice juicy orange fruit in your design that has some cyan in the shadows will look pretty green and rotten when printed. So you will want to make certain that the process colours you choose for things are as clean and non polluted by unneeded colours as possible. Reds shouldn’t have cyan in them, blues should be free of yellows, greens shouldn’t have any magenta, etc. This can make reproducing photographs quite difficult, and may require extensive Photoshop manipulation to get the colours looking just right. I could write post after post on different techniques that could be employed to correct these kinds of problems in Photoshop, but it would probably make most designer’s head explode with all the technical details. And honestly, if you have good technicians with enough time to deal with your imagery, designers shouldn’t have to spend too much time cleaning up the images. Especially if the image was well chosen to begin with.

[A] Shows a sample gradient going from yellow to red. The dark red has a bit of cyan. [B] show what happens when minimum dots of yellow, magenta, AND CYAN are added to the gradient. [C] shows a nice clean gradient with only yellow and magenta. This is preferred.

[A] Shows a sample gradient going from yellow to red. The dark red has a bit of cyan. [B] show what happens when minimum dots of yellow, magenta, AND CYAN are added to the gradient. [C] shows a nice clean gradient with only yellow and magenta. This is preferred.

When choosing a photograph to reproduce, make certain the colours are as pure and bright as possible, without a lot of really light colours (more on this in my next post when I talk specifically about colour choice). And try to get as much contrast as possible. Colour tends to flatten out when printing flexo, so the more contrast you start out with, the better. Making certain your shapes are clear and distinct will help a lot. A nice faded, blurry background may cause a lot of problems and introduce a lot of minimum dot issues that may be hard to resolve.

Shadows and Glows

Since halftone dots cannot simply drop off to zero, things like soft drop shadows and glows can become a problem. And designers just LOVE drop shadows! Or at least their clients do. Drop shadows in particular are a problem as the black used in a soft drop shadow will have to carry out in the entire background of your design! The minimum dot issue I have already talked about will prevent your drop shadow from fading off to zero percent. This will make the background a bit darker and dirtier looking. The only other solution would be to abruptly end the shadow transition, but with the dot gain flexo presses are known for, this can create a very noticeable, and ugly looking edge.

It is best to either avoid drop shadows altogether, or use a hard-edged shadow. I know, I know, 1995 called and they want their design back, but what can you do? You can use soft drop shadows if black is already being used throughout the background of your design. Then carrying the minimum dot throughout your design will not be as much of a problem.

A nice hard edged drop shadow. It may be a bit old-fashioned, but it generally works the best in flexo printing.

A nice hard edged drop shadow. It may be a bit old-fashioned, but it generally works the best in flexo printing.

This drop shadow has a nice soft edge. A minimum dot had to be carried throughout, making the white background look much duller.

This drop shadow has a nice soft edge. A minimum dot had to be carried throughout, making the white background look much duller.

This background already had lots of extra black in it. A soft shadow is easier to maintain in this instance.

This background already had lots of extra black in it. A soft shadow is easier to maintain in this instance.

Glows have much the same problem as shadows. Glows cannot fade off to zero percent, so everything gets a bit darker. This can produce some unwanted results. And resolving minimum dot issues with glows can be much harder to solve than drop shadows. Especially with a complex background. Glows are often something to avoid altogether.

In my next post, I’ll begin to talk about colour and how your colour choices will drive everyone in production crazy!

A Designer’s Guide to Flexo Printing – Part I



I’ve decided to write a multi-part piece on Flexographic printing as it relates to Graphic Designers. Flexo printing is quite a unique beast, and it has been my experience that most designers out there are not too familiar with flexo printing. For more than half of my 18 year career I have either been designing for flexo or dealing with production issues related to generating films and plates for flexo printing. I’ve decided to pass on a few things to the general design community.

So Just What is Flexo Printing Anyway?

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Flexo printing is a very different beast from offset printing. It is similar in nature to screen printing, but with a lot more issues. The printing plates are made from a very flexible plastic material, usually pink in colour. Somewhat translucent. The images and halftone dots on these printing plates are often very raised and quite noticeable. Wikipedia has a lot more to say about the process.

It is very flexible (really bad pun there) when it comes to the many substrates you can print on. Everything from plastics, metals and corrugated cardboard can be printed flexographically. You will see flexo printing used a lot in packaging. Walking down the aisles in your local grocery store, just about everything in soft drinks, cheeses, prepackaged sandwich meats, tetrapack juice boxes and potato chip bags will be printed this way. And probably quite a bit more.

It’s a wonder with all the packaging being created these days, that more effort isn’t being made to prepare designers for this print medium.

A Brief Couple of Notes First.

While the topics I will cover are of a technical nature, I will try no to get too involved in technical details. That will only confuse the issue and will make for really long posts. I just want to cover basic design problems when dealing with flexo.

I am also writing this with the assumption that people will have a basic understand of printing terminology. I am not going to be spending a lot of time discussing terms like dot gain, or ink trapping.

Lastly, this is mainly a nuts and bolts technical discussion about design. I will not be getting into design or marketing theories regarding packaging and retail. Or the psychology of colour. Or current trends in graphic design. This will be a practical discussion only. You will find though, that many of the things I go over, may fly in the face of current design trends. Flexo has a way of doing that. You get too focused on the technical side of things and the artistic or marketing aspects of design sometimes get left behind. And technicians shouldn’t be the final say in what good design should be. Hopefully, you will be able to find a good middle ground where the printers are reasonably satisfied, and the integrity of the design is maintained. Though, it may require the designer to have to occasionally stand up for themselves 🙂  Hopefully these blog posts will reduce the amount of bloodshed.

After my final post, I will provide some links to the admittedly few online resources I can find on designing for flexo printing. They will go into more detail on flexo printing specs than I will get into.

My First (And Best) Piece of Advice.

The range of print quality in flexo is quite vast. You will have printers who cannot print much more than basic line art with maybe a few simple gradients. And others who come awfully close to matching the quality of offset printing. In my experience, most flexo printers float somewhere in between those two extremes. They can do much more than basic line art, but there may be many restrictions about just what they can do. Getting a hold of the printer and finding out what they are capable of will go a long way to getting a design that will reproduce properly and without any headaches. It will also reduce disappointment you and your clients may have if the final printed piece does not meet your expectations, or if the printer makes any drastic changes to your work.

And to make things worse, you will discover over the course of these blog posts that many of the things you take for granted as a designer either cannot be done easily, or at all, flexographically.

Lastly, because of the great variety in press qualities out there, a lot of the advice I’ll be giving may not always work for your printer. I am going to try and keep things as universal as I can, but there will always be exceptions. Just one more reason to have a good working relationship with your printer.

Quick Little Update

I’ve blogged quite a bit regarding the Ampersand Project, a little side project of the Sketchbook Project. So here is a quick little update of how things went.

The Ampersand Project is now closed, with all results digitized. There is a Flickr stream of the images available. Mine can be found by clicking here. We have also received our painting swap. From someone named Lesley Wilmoth. Too bad that is all the info I have. It is a nice mixed media panting with lots of interesting textures. The colour scheme will fit quite nicely with the decor of my co-artisit’s room and will be hung with pride once I can track down a suitable frame. You can see the image here:

Lesley Wilmoth Ampersand

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