Learning to Design for Print

Marina Joyce is a designer and printer and now the author of a new book “Designing for Print” aimed at picking up where design schools are failing today; teaching designers and others about the decisions, skills and considerations that need to go into putting something on paper.


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Ulrik Hogrebe: Hi Marina — welcome to TypeThursdays. You just launched a Kickstarter campaign for your new book “Designing for Print” which I am really excited about. We are going to be diving deep on that, but before we get going, why don’t you tell us a bit about yourself?

Marina Joyce: Hi Ulrik! I am pleased to be here and thank you for inviting me! It’s always fun to commune with design-minded folk. In terms of background, I am assuming you want to hear about the part that led to the book?

Designing For Print

Ulrik: Yes please — a bit of background on how you earned your chops in the fields and how you came about the idea of writing a book?

Marina: Okay, cool. Well, in short, I bought a printing company when I was 27 years old. At the time, I knew nothing about printing, but I didn’t really know that at the time.

As I started to reach out to the community and talk about the book I started to get feedback. And the gist of it was “Wow, you have a unique POV because you are a designer AND printer”.

The longer story is that ever since high school I have been doing various graphic design jobs for any person, company or group that’s wanted to pay me. I became a single parent and ended up working for a holding company that wanted to diversify into real-estate related companies and I ended up being their “start-up” person. I started a new division for them on top of two new subsidiaries in four years. I was doing all the branding for all their companies — about 7 I think — and all the marketing at home at night working as a freelancer, while during the day I was President of a company. I’ve never actually written that down before and looking at it now, it seems pretty funny.

I thought to myself; I like printing. I know how to run a company. So… sure! And so I bought a print shop.

At any rate, the owner of the print shop I had been using came to me and said he was retiring and asked if I would buy his company. I thought to myself; I like printing. I know how to run a company. So… sure! And so I bought a print shop. My vision was the company would be a design-to-print company. I would be doing for my customers what I had been doing as my night job. I could take an actual computer disc at a time in LA where very few could (believe it or not there was such a time) and because of that, we grew like crazy. Ended up being a pretty good business model, all in all.

Marina is both a Graphic Designer & Printer

Then, a few years ago I was asked to speak to UCLAX students about ink on paper. It was an evening lecture with about 80 people or so. Afterwards, something like 78 people came up to me and they all said the same thing; “Teach a class! We need this stuff! We aren’t learning this stuff!”. I should say that I bear no ill-will towards UCLA. I went to school there, but can’t speak to what they are teaching now.

From that, I decided to write a syllabus thinking it would take an hour or two. Well, 6 months later I had the table of contents for a book. So I decided I might as well write it. At the same time, I was running a company and I have 3 kids so it hasn't exactly gone quickly. But finally, I finished the book last year and now I am kickstarting it!

But really, it didn’t grow out of me thinking I was special or super talented or any of that. As I started to reach out to the community and talk about the book I started to get feedback. And the gist of it was “Wow, you have a unique POV because you are a designer and printer”. Despite being somewhat thick skulled and extremely ADD, it eventually started to sink in and when I started talking about and promoting the book from that vantage point, things really started to click.

Ulrik: Ok wait — this is fascinating. So you went and bought a print shop as a 27-year-old without actually having worked in one before? How was that as an experience? What was the learning curve like?

…my reps taught me about coated and uncoated and what the different finishes were called. Now I was learning that paper comes in parent sizes and that there are literally 100s of different types. Then add inks, treatments, techniques, presses etc.

Marina: Overwhelming! The owner George was retiring because he had emphysema from smoking like 6 packs of cigarettes a day, so I remember walking in and there was just this cloud of smoke… Well, my dad was an auto mechanic and summers I would work in his shop, like when I was 12–14, just this little girl in tiny Sears coveralls… so I was used to men, loud tools, grease, etc. Which is kind of similar to a pressroom. But I really was just thrown into the deep end. The first thing I learned was how to do an estimate. And then it just avalanched from there.

When I was buying print in my old job my reps taught me about coated and uncoated and what the different finishes were called. Now I was learning that paper comes in parent sizes and that there are literally 100s of different types. Then add inks, treatments, techniques, presses etc.

Spread from Designing for Print

In the beginning, I just had to take fake it until I made it. Customers and prospects would call and I would go pick up a sample and say “Sure, we can print this”. Then bring it back to the shop and my Pressman would say “No we can’t”. Then scramble to find a solution. I would call binderies and describe the sample. Literally going “It is 8.5 x 11. It has two staples but not through the spine. Through the front to the back” and the bindery person would say “okay, it is side-stitched.” That’s how I learned.

As my skills grew, I started to turn the shop around to what I had envisaged. When I was buying print for all those companies in the holding company, we used a “good” printer and we used a “cheap” printer. George’s shop was the cheap printer. So I had to re-engineer the quality requirements, upgrade presses, retrain employees to get with a more modern and higher quality standard and so on. It was an intense time. I would pick up my daughter from school and bring her to the shop where we would eat fast food. Then while I worked she would play some kind of reading game until I would put her to bed in my car which I parked in the shop. Keep on going till 1 or 2 in the morning, go home and do it all over again the next day.

Ulrik: Wow! That is amazing! I am seeing this as one of those training montages from films. Like Rocky, but for printing!

Tell me a bit about what the need is as you see it? I mean, I am backing your book, because I have literally no idea where to start — but is that normal? What are the typical things you hear from designers today?

You will learn about paper, ink, printing methods, bindery… and how to design for specific outcomes within those processes. This book is about decisions you need to be making in the design stage…

Marina: Well, it’s complicated. Designers, like printers, are fragmented as an industry. You have self-taught designers, in-house, freelance, 4-year college grads and trade school grads. Then you have agencies with a hierarchy of Creative Director, Sr. Designer, Designer plus a Production Department that cleans up the files. You have Web Designers who are asked to design a print project and don’t have a clue about how different print is from web. Then you have the amateurs and volunteers who are using MS WORD (shudder) to create brochures. It’s a mess. There is no industry standard certification path either. So really, I wrote my book so that wherever you are on that spectrum, you can go straight to the information you need and get advice, strategies and answers.

Spread on Book Binding from the book

To answer your question; typical issues are that designers are not taught enough about paper to spec it. Then on top of that, their deadlines are too short. Designers don’t have time to email their printer and say “Hey, I’ve got this identity system… I want the whole thing to print on McCoy gloss, what do you think?”. Because the print rep would say nooooooooooooo! So instead they send over a job and call out McCoy gloss for business cards, letter heads, envelopes. And everyone at the printer is shaking their heads like WTF—and the client is wondering why this system is costing 4x their last system. So in short, designers need to know this stuff now.

Ulrik: Agreed! Speaking for myself as a web designer, you know — I want to do print. Print is tangible and well, sexy. And like most designers I am an avid collector of printed ephemera — but yeah, my working knowledge stretches to coated and uncoated. And really understanding what I can do with the medium is beyond me — like types of print, texture, embossing… erhh… I don’t even know what I don’t know. Is this the kind of thing that the book will cover?

Part of the table of contents

Marina: Yup! The book covers strategy for specific project types where ink and paper significantly affect cost/outcome/turn-around time etc., for example, if you are creating an identity system. It covers things like choosing logo colors that will work in print and web (a huge problem out there since websites tend to come first and people then want to retrofit the hex code). You will learn about paper, ink, printing methods, bindery… and how to design for specific outcomes within those processes. This book is about decisions you need to be making in the design stage and I am not talking about speccing paper. So things like where elements are placed, how images are built, where the score is happening, deciding bindery up front…

Ulrik: Right — and what I really like is that you will actually print a bunch of this in the book — i.e samples etc., so you can actually see and feel it? Is that right?

…there is a covering up on the part of the printing community because we want your work and we are willing to repair it. But sometimes it’s irreparable and sometimes it simply cannot be done.

Marina: Yes, to a point. There are some processes that we have photographed because I wanted to keep the book at a price-point that made it affordable for many. Though, we are printing in 7 or 8 colors to illustrate spot vs CMYK vs high fidelity.

Advice on working with Printers

The thing is… printers fix designer files every day, all day long for those who do not know what they are doing. Then there are those who do, and their jobs sail through production! You might not know that your lack of knowledge is affecting your jobs or your relationship with your printer, but it is. I am not doing this to sound mean or slam the lack of knowledge. But there is a covering up on the part of the printing community because we want your work and we are willing to repair it. But sometimes it’s irreparable and sometimes it simply cannot be done; as in the design cannot be produced. I have seen it happen scores of times and then it’s not just a problem for the printer.

Ulrik: I see. So with that, let’s talk about the Kickstarter campaign before we round off. How has the experience been so far?

Marina: People love it! Everyone thinks it’s a great idea! But, not everyone is pulling the trigger. I think it is really going to take leaders in the community saying “You need to go buy this book” but luckily some are.

For example, Daniel Dejan has said some really nice things and so did Steven Heller. Which is just freaking amazing! I mean, both are such respected voices in the design community.

Ulrik Hogrebe: Ok, rounding off. With so much experience I can’t let you off the hook without a final question: top 3 best pieces of advice you give to people about the print process? And then I’ll let you go.

Marina: Hmm. Well, I happen to have a great book that is a really good investment if you want to know this stuff, but in the mean time…

  1. Knowing how to choose the right printer for your projects is really important. My book covers that… but in the interim look at their samples and if something isn’t right move on. Talk to people who are doing the same type of work as you and ask for recommendations. Facebook groups are great for that.
  2. Digital printing, offset, letterpress, large format and flexography are all different processes with different requirements. Don’t assume that a skill set learned for flexo projects (ie: labels) is going to work for a booklet printed offset.
  3. Printers can get you swatch books and paper company promos. There is so much to learn from these! Take a lunch hour and sit down with a swatch book and really look at the different techniques showcased and how they work. Read the production notes and understand the processes.
  4. And this one is important. Your monitor is not a proofing device. When you are designing for web, you hit preview and see the error immediately. When you are in InDesign and hit preview… that is not a proof. Proofing systems vary from printer to printer so get with your printer when you are between projects and learn about what they can and cannot do proof-wise. Find out what their proofs represent. Are they G7 or Gracol certified? That can make a difference!

Ulrik: Fantastic! Marina — thank you again. And good luck with the Kickstarter — as I said, I for one definitely need this in my life.

Marina: Thanks for the opportunity to talk about my book and my love for design and print. It’s been a passion my whole life. And thanks to TypeThursdays as a whole, which is super cool. I am definitely a fan!


Available for purchase on typethursday.org

Go get yourself a copy of the book through Marina’s Kickstarter here: Designing for Print on Kickstarter

Marina has a website jammed full of print related tips and goodies here designingforprint.com

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