Design Agencies & Flexo Printing: Where's the Win/Win?

Design Agencies & Flexo Printing: Where's the Win/Win?

I was asked to write this article for Box Score, a bi-monthly publication by the
Association of Independent Corrugated Converters

Design agencies and flexo printers both have the same clients, and both work hard—or should work hard—to accomplish the same set of goals:

  • maintain brand integrity
  • uphold the packaging component of the marketing plan
  • help our client be successful and make money doing it

First, I'll assert that Newhall Klein is not your typical design agency. I've heard and seen the horrors of designs that can't be printed, with intricate detail and tiny screens that make independent box plant owners go out and hire their own designers. I also understand where the "design firms don't have a clue" stigma comes from.

Which is why, as Newhall Klein embarked on package design services several years back, I was determined to provide accurate graphics files to all printers for all processes and substrates and to at least be familiar with the basics of printing. I know, enough knowledge to be dangerous, right?

Next, I'll contend that you have an important role in brand identity. Corrugated often carries the first impression of a brand. Do they confirm that the product inside was worth buying?

Design Agencies & Flexo Printing: Where’s the Win/Win?

Making the Connections

We've learned plenty since Newhall Klein got started. In fact, many of you have received our artwork at some point over the past 25 years. Our niche is food and foodservice. Regional and national distributors buy product from hundreds of manufacturers who have relationships with you. We've worked with most of the top independent foodservice distributors in the U.S. and Canada, which means we've produced artwork for many of the manufacturers whose boxes end up on your machines.

Because we've developed literally thousands of files for corrugated printers across North America, I'm in a unique position to discuss the trials and tribulations of working with independents.

I'd also like to shed some light on how collaborating with design agencies can bring new appreciation and respect for each of our industries—and give you a competitive advantage. Here's a simple breakdown.

1. Good Communication

We're both in a tough spot. The design agency is the liaison between you and the customer (always in he middle), and you are the final stop that allows the product to be packaged and shipped to market. Pressure to succeed is high. Yet more times than not we encounter pushback on trapping, screening and color. Then, it seems, when our mutual customer threatens to move the business, the printer can accomplish what was originally requested. Time lost in getting our customer's product to market is significant, and that costs all of us. SOLUTION: Design firms need to get the printer involved earlier in the process—in part to determine what exactly their capabilities are. Printers in turn need to be transparent with their true capabilities up front, and they must understand the importance of brand consistency and integrity. Meeting manufacturer needs and expectations makes for a "sticky" customer, one we want to keep.

2. Good Process

Processes in the corrugated and flexo industries are affected by age of machines, anilox rolls, pricing, etc. We know there's tremendous variability from plant to plant and machine to machine. Yet we've encountered the following situations that appear to be process related:

Printing on Corrugate: Good vs. Bad

  • Black is used in the first station of the press (from a previous run), but our design calls for lighter colors to lay down first, so that the black traps properly and doesn't contaminate other colors. We sometimes receive samples from printers where there are not good results, and we have to ask for issues to be fixed the next time. Some of our mutual customers will even reject poorly printed pieces outright. SOLUTION: you know how colors lay down best. Make things happen right the first time, so we don't lose time in QC, rejections, reprints, etc.
  • Skewing or Shifting from one end of the box to the other, resulting in poor registration and variable ink laydown that affects color. SOLUTION: Many printers we work with conduct random pulls throughout the run to help keep them on track with quality.
  • Quality of substrate many times enhances the graphics and printability—or makes them worse. SOLUTION: Some of our clients are working in collaboration with prepress providers to build standards and specs around the substrate and plates. In addition printers must understand the properties of various substrates they are using and how they affect print quality.
  • Set the machine and let 'er run. SOLUTION: Don't. It's not always "full speed ahead" with higher-end graphics. Please check often.

3. Good Color Matching

Manufacturers want their colors to be spot-on, and printers must be able to deliver. Consistency is crucial to brand integrity. Throw in the fact that many manufacturers don't understand that a PMS color doesn't print on corrugated (which is much more absorbent) the same as on a high-gloss coated litho label that may be applied to the same box, and we're all pulling our hair out. There are simply not enough GCMI colors to get remotely close to some brands, and our clients do not want to design brands limited to GCMI color options—their standards are based on CMYK and PMS. This alone is cause for a lot of back and forth. SOLUTION: As designers, we see it as our responsibility to consider GCMI factors, collaborate with printers and suggest a corrugate PMS alternative when necessary. Some printers we work with have invested in an ink kitchen that mixes single batches of PMS colors.

The Bottom Line

From the clients' and manufacturers' point of view, efficient design and printing gets product to market quickly. A must. But brand integrity must be maintained.

Design firms don't have to be an adversary. They can be a partner in the entire packaging process, and can help you form a strong alliance that delivers excellence in design and printing solutions. The more involved we all are earlier in the process, the better the results—as entrepreneurs, professional problem-solvers and solution-providers.

When your customers discover that your company provides brand integrity along with boxes, big payoffs happen.

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