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?
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.