New tech opens up short-run options

By Jo Francis, Monday 09 December 2013

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What do the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), esoteric football magazine Pickles, and newly married Lydia and Jamie from Sheffield have in common? Answer: they’ve all produced their own newspapers – proper, printed newspapers just like the familiar broadsheets and tabloids found in any newsagents – using the nifty easy-to-use system created by Newspaper Club (www.newspaperclub.com).

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And they’re not the only ones now enjoying the possibilities opened up by short-run printing, and the newspaper not by any means the only format newly available as a short-run or personalised product. In the past, certain kinds of print were always going to be the domain of huge job lot orders. But now newspapers, personalised advent calendars, large-format prints and a whole range of textile products are readily available to consumers and marketers just wanting a few. 

Of course, not that long ago it would have been completely unfeasible for anyone outside of the newspaper industry clique to even begin to contemplate producing a bespoke newspaper product all of their own. Imagine, if you will, phoning up the sort of newspaper printing plant that can produce hundreds of thousands of newspapers every night, and saying: “I’d like to order 500 copies of a 12pp tabloid newspaper, please, using my own design.” You would be able to hear the laughter from one end of the press hall to the other. 

Growing market

But such a concept is no longer a laughing matter. Newspaper Club recently announced that it had printed its four-millionth newspaper. That might be a drop in the ocean compared to the volumes that are still being printed every week by conventional newspaper publishers, but in the context of multiple individual print runs starting at just a single copy, it’s a lot of jobs. 

“The newspaper format is very affordable and very impactful,” says head of engineering Tom Taylor, of the firm’s growing popularity. “What unites many of our customers is that they have no experience of printing. They are not people who have bought print or who are au fait with the layout process. So we created the tools to make it accessible.”

Hence the diverse mixture of Newspaper Club customers rubbing shoulders on its website, where the array of papers being created is showcased: the LPO’s centenary celebrations included four special-issue newspapers produced to coincide with the celebratory concerts held during the year; hyper-local publisher The Bedford Clanger has tried pretty much all of Newspaper Club’s formats and has grown its print run from 1,000 to 25,000 in the process; while Pickles, ‘the thinking man’s football paper’, is now on issue seven.

Newspaper Club works with three print partners and offers a choice of digital newspaper printing for low runs from one to 300, and conventional printing for 500 copies and above. Format, pagination and pricing options are all explained clearly and simply on the site, along with top tips on how to get the best out of the medium. 

As for the aforementioned newly-weds Lydia Lapinski and Jamie Salmon, they produced their own extremely cool wedding invitations in the form of digitally-printed tabloid newspapers – one version for guests coming to the whole day, and another for those attending the evening celebration. 

“Using newspaper club was great, their online system was easy and they were very helpful over email. I found being able to order a sample very helpful too, especially as colour was important to me,” says Lapinksi, who plans to generate more bespoke print in future.

“The icing on the cake was winning newspaper of the month, I won a £100 voucher which I am putting towards printing a book I have illustrated.”

Counting down

A wedding or other special occasion, such as a big birthday or anniversary, typically involves something of a countdown. And this is another area where a customised product is carving a new print niche. Marketing ideas man Nick Lewis came up with the idea of ‘7 Days to Go’ calendars after seeing how excited his own children were about counting down the days to upcoming birthdays.

A sort of mini-advent calendar featuring seven windows, one of the selling points of the packs is that they are filled with quality Swiss chocolates, rather than the sort of cheap chocolates few people actually want to eat.

While the calendars are available in generic birthday or anniversary variants, the really clever element comes with the potential to add personalised details and images.

Through a partnership with printer RCS, the packs are available with customised designs, and can be personalised to individual recipients, a feature that Lewis believes opens up opportunities beyond just consumer-based celebration days and into
B2B markets. 

“From a car launch to a charity event, it’s very flexible what you can put on the piece. We can print messages behind each door in the calendar as well, so it’s a smart way of using digital print,” he explains. 

RCS has launched a new website www.snapajack.co.uk to promote its range of personalised products, including the countdown calendars. And for those marking a really big occasion there’s even a 365-day variant in the larger format of 700x500x35mm. It features a year’s countdown using windows on both sides, and a set of images uploaded by the purchaser. At £89.47 per piece it’s no impulse buy, but it’s certainly impactful. 

What unites Newspaper Club, 7 Days to Go, Snapajack and all manner of other bespoke applications is an online web-to-print interface that enables users to create products simply, and control the details of the format, text and images they require. 

This isn’t new, of course. It’s been possible for years with products such as greetings cards and photobooks. But what is new is the sheer range of print applications that are now being enabled in this way. Just launched is Fabpixi (www.fabpixi.co.uk) a sister business to Reading-based VGL’s established Surface View large-format printed mural business. 

The Fabpixi offering differs in that while it still involves large-format graphics, these are printed onto fabric that is then mounted on specially-designed frames. Once the frame is installed (this is part of the initial fee) users can order new images to refresh their environment, swapping the graphics themselves in minutes. 

Customers can choose from the same image libraries available via Surface View, which includes the National Gallery and V&A, or upload their own images. The aluminium frames can be free-standing, or wall- or ceiling-mounted. 

Managing director Michael Ayerst believes the flexibility and creative possibilities will appeal to a wide range of end users, from individuals to businesses, hospitals and schools. 

“With the frame system users can change the image on a regular basis, simply. Even a 6x2m graphic is still very light and can be put up by a single person. We put a rubber gasket on the edge of the fabric and it just pops into the frame,” he explains. “It’s simple, clean and neat, so it ticks all those boxes. It will be interesting to see how it develops, we’re pretty confident about it.”

With four formats available, ranging from 1.2x2m to 6x2m, the sort of interior decoration treatment that would have once been the preserve of architects and high-rollers has become available to anyone.

A very different form of fabric printing can be found at London’s Contrado Imaging, which trades as Bags of Love (www.bagsoflove.co.uk). As the name implies, the firms started off when founder Fran Rodriguez had an idea to produce customised bags, affordably. The product range has grown and grown since then, and now spans an array of items: many different types of bag, socks, cushions, pet blankets, aprons, tablecloths and more, all personalised. 

As well as supplying finished products (made, unusually, in west London) Bags of Love also prints unfinished fabric for customers to make up into garments or items themselves. It’s a service that’s hugely popular with design and fashion students, and a recent high-profile example of the creative possibilities this opens up came via celebrity Katie Price. 

The launch of Price’s latest autobiography involved the sort of promotional collateral typical of such an event – a printed backdrop and pull-up banners publicising the book. More unusual was Price’s own outfit, a catsuit adorned with images of the book’s cover, made from fabric printed by Bags of Love. It provided perhaps the ultimate example of ‘living the brand’ along with plenty of publicity thanks to a creative print application that simply wouldn’t have been feasible in the past. 

Powerful personalisation

In the seemingly ever-expanding area of bespoke printed products another technique enjoying something of a boom is transfer printing, whereby images are printed onto a special type of media that can then be transferred to another object, be it a t-shirt, mug, leather belt or phone cover. This makes it possible to create bespoke one-off products or small quantities very simply. 

Jim Nicol, managing director at specialist supplier The Magic Touch, believes the advent of affordable printers using white toner has opened up a whole new market for transfer printing. 

“Since the introduction of white toner earlier this year the number of products and applications that can now be personalised in full colour has increased dramatically,” he states. “Having the ability to print full-colour designs and logos onto binders, diaries, iPad covers, smartphones as well as most garments and textiles is indeed a marketing dream.”

It’s interesting to note that Nicol cites diaries, which could be viewed as a superfluous relic of the last century, as one of the most popular personalised items being produced. 

Alongside the popularity of Newspaper Club’s offering, it goes to show that technological advances are enabling a whole host of new short-run print applications, while at the same time reinvigorating a few old ones too. 

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