The gap between design and print

 In Market Intelligence, Strategic Marketing

In today’s printing industry the trend is to move into digital production workflows. Anything that we can automate, will be automated at some point. Anything that we can digitalize will be converted to bits and bytes. Manufacturers are pushing hard to make inkjet printing the standard in any industry where it could be applicable. The benefits seem plenty and the possibility to shorten process cycles sounds alluring to many. But there still is some ground to cover; in particular where it concerns harmonizing designers and producers.

Looking at the changes in print production over the last decades, an example of automatization and digitalization is found in the way we place artwork onto media in traditional workflows. Innovations have led to the removal of production steps such as the necessity to stick to a combination of films, plates, screens and rollers. A welcome change came with direct-to-screen and direct-to-plate to optimize traditional methods by removing intermediate steps and move the computer closer to the final production stage. And later, to counter long production lines with mechanical processes and direct contact with the media, inkjet proved to deliver the benefit of contactless printing, driven directly by digital data.

Over time, speed and quality of inkjet printing have increased and new technology has allowed us to print digitally on many different surfaces. Industries have changed and will continue to embrace new application processes. The ceramic industry, for instance, is a good example of how digital inkjet can be disruptive and how an entire market incorporated a vastly different production method in matter of a few years. A similar push is envisioned for other industries, including textile and packaging.

One would assume that because of this increased acceptance of the conversion to digital processes, the entire supply chain adapts and streamlines linked processes from ideation to execution. Paradoxically, this is only true to a certain extent. It seems to be confined to the technical portion of production, from print ready files to actual output. It does not seem to connect with the portion of artwork design before the pre-press stage.

The Gap

There is a huge gap between the design community and the production environment. All too often, we find that there is a disconnect between those that create the artwork and those that have to print it. And it comes with a distinctive perspective on the industry as a whole, with some alarming question marks popping up as a result.

The biggest issue may seem to be the technical misunderstanding on how to build and process digital artwork files; still today, it is up for debate what the best practice approach is. In most inkjet segments there are no standards. A print operator or pre-press professional may understand the technical issues with resolution, color spaces, profiles, transparencies and how to set-up files in such a way that they are least likely to create problems in the production flow.

Meanwhile, most designers simply don’t care, as long as their creative software saves their ideas in a digital file that they can shoot off to the printer. If, at a later time, a part of the dessin needs to get a color replaced, or the illustration needs to be enlarged for wide format printing, this may be seen as a problem belonging to the print service provider. Let alone that the same artwork has to be printed on different types of media, via different production systems, for various types of applications. There is a whole service and consultancy business model that has a focus on this part of the industry alone.

More strikingly is not the mismatch on a technical level, but the apparent apathy, or lack of willingness perhaps, to empower the creative industry to get more control over what happens with the fruit of their labor.

Distant Connection

No better place to witness this issue as during events such as Heimtextil and Premiere Vision and the many other exhibitions like Fespa, Drupa, ITMA and others. Even though in recent years the design community seems to have found its way into exhibiting their creative work to potential customers, it still encompasses two very distinct worlds that don’t speak the same language.

Anecdotal, yet illustrating such disconnect beautifully, is the encounter with a design house owner that was asked about their business model. In trying to figure out in how far the designers knew where their artwork would eventually turn up and what the value of their work actually was, the man sharply pointed at the traders and agents that sit between them and the brand owners.

“We often have no idea where our dessins end up being used. We create and show our work to intermediates who select a few illustrations that fit in with a certain campaign or accommodate the wish of a brand. We don’t know who is printing our artwork, nor do we know how our designs are being processed. Those of us that have signature designs can sell artwork at premium prices and might know for what application it will be used, those that don’t may see their work resurface as adaptations in the weirdest places.”

In short, apart from commissioned work, artists create art for the sake of creating it, not for the reproduction of it.

Much of the artwork is still being shown in hard-proof print on paper, even though it has been designed to be a dessin for an application with a different type of media (think curtain, wallpaper, tablecloth, bed linen). Often printed in-house as a single sample copy for customer browsing.

Who has not seen the ostensible weird ritual of a person skimming through the huge amounts of sample prints on a desk at a show? To some, it looks a lot like a Tinder swipe process. Hardly ever is the design portfolio available online, out of fear for illegal copying. Indicative is the prohibited use of cameras at events. It is all too easy for the designer to lose on income because someone copied and sold their original work. A case can be made that Block Chain would be a welcome technology to counter this problem.

Yet, at some point, the designer will provide a digital file for print. Once artwork has been sold based on the preview of the paper hard-proof, the design swaps ownership. And with that, all further technical print related implications are also handed over.

“We mostly deliver an image file in CMYK, as TIFF or PSD, the same as what we used for our sample print. We can provide vector work, but this is mostly only on request. We simply don’t know what happens next. Sometimes we are being asked to change a color. Sometimes we get a call from a pre-press person that wants us to deliver variations of the file. That’s it.”

Question is whether a designer needs to know or understand what happens down the line. Some would argue there is no need to know. But any pre-press person will have had their share of disbelief about what’s handed to them, lamenting the stupidity of those that created it.

A Price to Pay

Another question mark, and a dark one at that, is the one about the business model and sustainability of the design community. Besides the fear of theft and the topic of copyrights and ownership, the more important subject is the value to price comparison.

At the recent Heimtextil event in Frankfurt, a wallpaper designer from Italy proudly showed his craftsmanship by means of beautiful handmade samples. Years of practice and hours of labor went into every single sample he had on display. His average price per dessin is €800. And every piece he creates takes about 4 days on average to produce. The portfolio included some 1200 current pieces, from which he said 15% will sell. With him were his four colleagues. Five mouths to feed. Do the math.

The samples were unique items. Each dessin that sells needs to be scanned and prepared for reproduction. The depth and relief, the glitter and gold, the deep blacks and the strokes of the brush are likely to lose their quality and characteristics along the way. The artist also had no idea where his work would turn up. He knew of a couple that were printed digitally and sometimes the final wallpaper product was, to him, a slap in the face.

Last year, at Premiere Vision, there was again a design section. Literally with a wall dividing them from the rest of the show. Almost as to emphasize that their existence has nothing to do with the rest of the market. Here too, inquiries resulted to a similar response. Doing the math, even though it is just on empirical representation, the following figures could raise some eyebrows.

About 250 design studios attending. With an average of 5 designers per studio. Each studio bringing around 2500 dessins. Selling rate between 10% and 15%. Yearly replenish rate roughly 500 to 800 designs. Normal selling price €400 per piece, with a maximum of €1200 per signature piece. Of course, these figures may not be a true representation, since not all studios were inquired, but it does give an impression of what goes around. Lots of work, not so much to earn. It seems at least worrisome for the future of some. And indicative for many to rethink this business model.

Anyone that has ever visited Premiere Vision also knows that the unbelievable sum of all printed samples at the trading houses outweighs the relatively small amount of designer samples. Potential customers are simply overwhelmed by the sheer number of dessins to pick from. And, similar to the concept of fast fashion cycles, this could be called fast design cycles. This artwork is made much faster than the handmade wallpaper, because the start and end point is digital. Quantity seems to outflank quality. And, with that, price trumps value.

Promise in Print

Perhaps this is also why there are only a few that show a dessin on the media it was designed for. It is rather costly to prepare a single item as sample, just to prove the point that the artwork is a true fit for the application. How in contrast is it with the adamant promise of the digital printing industry that it has a focus on customized goods, where every person can get a unique product, printed specifically for them. Short-run with fast turnaround, just single pieces without stock.

Moreover, the push to localized production for a local market could potentially activate more opportunity for the designer to keep control over all steps, enabling them to turn print into end-product, instead of merely being a supplier of illustrations. Question is whether a designer is even interested to change from creator to producer, as much as a writer would want to become a publisher, or a musician would want to start his own distribution.

The digital promise is within reach to be fulfilled. However, the old adage of “stick to your trade” will apply here as well. And it is imaginable that industrialized production will sustain the status quo of the design community, where only the happy few can escape the stranglehold and become a disruptor. If only for a closer cooperation between designers and producers could there potentially be a change in the supply chain.

This article was written by Roland Biemans, founder/owner of LMNS. With an international background of research, development and marketing of software, hardware and supplies in the inkjet printing industry, Roland played an important role at different companies adapting and transforming technology for the development of innovative practical solutions. Among these solutions were the first refill sets and bulk ink systems for large format inkjet printers, edible ink, media winding systems, the first ever double-sided digital textile printer, software for controlling engravers, routers and cutters and an award winning contract proofing software. Most of his time was dedicated to the development and sales of software for color correction, color separation, proofing, photo editing and driving inkjet printers in the sign, banner and color reproduction industry. Roland initiated the digital textile print competence center in Eindhoven, The Netherlands. Early 2013, he became board member of the European Specialist Printing Manufacturers Association (ESMA), and continues to support the association as Technology Partner. The Specialist Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA) awarded Roland with the outstanding service award in recognition of his effort in advancing the industry and its association. More information about Roland can be found at his LinkedIn page at:

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