Ed #8 Digital Variables

Data On Digital

Before you decide to go variable, however, it’s good to keep a few things in mind. Not all commercial printers are equipped to handle VDP, and compared to conventional static printing, VDP requires a broader range of skills. While software has become easier to use, graphic arts professionals are likely to need the help of information technology specialists to acquire and manage the data required, and at most of the printers that offer digital printing, IT experts are full-fledged members of the production team. And of course, the data must be good. Nothing blunts the impact of a personalized publication more than a mangled name or title.

VDP also may require a new way of looking at costs. Compared to conventional static printing, both production times and costs are likely to be higher—even the toners and inks are more expensive. But trying to compare the cost of VDP to the cost of static printing is like comparing apples to oranges—or rifles to shotguns. Production costs are likely to be higher, but so are responses and purchases, which can make VDP more cost effective. And since VDP allows you to print on-demand, there’s no need to print and store large quantities of copies that may never be used or that quickly become out-of-date. In the long run, it might actually be less expensive to pay as you go and only print the number of publications that are required at the moment, without tying up capital in brochures stacked on a warehouse floor. 

Key elements of the technology may be new to you as well. One of the biggest differences is that most of the systems rely on toners, not inks.

After they are applied, toners are typically baked onto the surface of the paper at a high temperature. If the temperature becomes too hot, however, the toner can fuse and the image can become shiny. Adding a second pass through the press, or printing on both sides of the paper (duplexing), can sometimes remelt the toner and make it look mottled or uneven. For this reason, many experts recommend against using toner-based printing systems to print letterhead stationery—feeding it through a high-heat laser printer might cause your name or logo to lose definition.

Compared to conventional inks, toner is also somewhat more likely to crack when folded, so it’s important to avoid large floods of color or heavy toner coverage on the folds. Using perfect binding rather than saddle stitching will also help to reduce cracking problems. You might have to rethink the way you print black too. In offset printing, color is sometimes printed beneath the black to intensify the tone, but doing the same in toner-based systems will produce a brown tint. What’s more, dry toner-based systems typically cannot print at the high resolutions available with the best offset printing, so the use of extremely fine screens should be avoided. Liquid toners, which have a smaller particle size than dry toners, behave more like conventional inks than dry toners.

Designers should be aware of other issues as well. The electrostatic charge used to attract the toner often varies in strength acros sheet, which can make it difficult to control gradations. Since relatively few of the systems available today allow for the use of spot colors, it can be difficult to match corporate colors or to print metallic inks. Keep in mind too, that what you see on the monitor is not what you will see on press—the colors you see on screen are inherently more vibrant and encompass more of the entire spectrum.

While VDP opens new options in communications, it’s best to proceed carefully. You and your printer should match the equipment to the demands of the job—each type of equipment has its own weaknesses and strengths. You want to make sure that the printers you work with are experienced in handling both the printing technology and the information systems needed to drive it. And especially when you’re just starting out, it’s best to keep things both simple and subtle. While it’s possible to personalize virtually every aspect of a publication, large numbers of permutations become more difficult to manage—simply assembling all of the images and reviewing all the options can be challenging. It also appears that the days of boldly calling attention to personalized information are coming to an end. Today, many of the best examples seamlessly weave personalization into the project without flaunting it. After all, the goal is to reach customers, not to showcase your technical prowess.

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