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Designing for Flexo

Graphic designers provide their perspectives on flexographic printing.

August 2008 by Tom Polischuk
Flexographic printing has come a long way, baby! It’s not your father’s printing process anymore (not even your older sister’s).

Flexography has made huge technological gains in many areas, resulting in print quality improvements that have allowed it to rival the benchmark standards established by gravure and offset printing. These improvements, combined with some of its cost advantages, have allowed flexo printing to become a major force in the package-printing arena.

“The flexo print process has made great strides in the last decade,” says Darko Martinovic, managing director, SGS Evolution Designworks. “Advances such as hybrid screening, photopolymer plates, direct-to-plate technology, and gearless presses have all combined to improve the ability of flexo to compete with gravure and offset.”

It wasn’t too long ago that gravure printing leveraged its high-quality, high-volume capabilities to provide cost-effective printed products. “Initially, gravure was the powerhouse of print formats in the packaging industry, providing an extremely high degree of control in consistency of color, image, and ink lay over very large, high-volume commercial print runs,” says Kris Sexton, president of Directions, a design and consulting agency. “The expense of gravure printing was offset by the print integrity maintained over a long run. It required fewer change-ups, and cylinders lasted longer due to their construction.”

Clearly, however, the days of leveraging high-volume runs to reduce per-unit costs have fallen by the wayside. Marketing strategies trending toward regional marketing and promotions, along with cost-driven needs to reduce working capital inventories, have significantly altered the landscape and reduced the viability of long print runs.

This has dealt flexography a good hand. “Initially, flexo was an attractive alternative to gravure, because it provided quicker setup and handled short runs effectively, with good or acceptable image definition,” relates Sexton. “Flexographic printing is a simple, less expensive form of commercial printing and can be utilized for a broad variety of applications and on a wide range of substrates, with a good quality result.”

Design considerations

Although many of the recent improvements in flexo printing have broadened its capabilities, specific factors need to be understood when designing graphics for this process. ­According to Terri McConnell, director of brand strategy for Gravity, a subsidiary of Phototype, flexo has a several important limitations that must be considered. These include:

• Dot gain is a problem, especially when creating drop shadows and soft gradients, blends, and vignettes;

• Minimum line weights and type sizes are more difficult and traps are often heavier, making small type areas and more elegant, fine-line aesthetics challenging;
 

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