Tue, Aug

Make a difference

Your customers want print with a ‘wow’ factor? You can give it to them. John Charnock, director of Print Research International, looks at the special effects you can now incorporate.

‘Special effects’ is such a generic term that it could cover almost any type of print beyond four-colour output. But for the sake of this article let’s take a look at three key areas of development: effects with inks, with substrate and with software - or indeed the combination of any of the three.


In the screenprint market specialist inks have been used for many years with great effect and now their impact is being felt in the wide-format inkjet sector. Effects with inks range from simple spot colours like Pantone to more sophisticated inks such as thermochromic, UV varnish, IR fluorescing security ink and even printing electronic circuits.

In essence special ink colours enable tone specific hues that can’t be achieved out of the four-colour process, and colours way out of the CMYK gamut - such as fluorescent or metallic. Of course brands want to use them because they’re eye catching. Also, colours like hues of olive green through to almost fluorescent lime are often used in interiors, making the matching of display materials very difficult unless a special colour is used. 

We’ll look at metallics further down this piece, but let’s start by looking at how additional colours can expand the gamut in a specific colour range to create startling effects. And at how varnishes can equally add to the printed product’s uniqueness – rough, rubbery, wet look are all effects that varnishes can create. Matt and gloss in combination is also becoming available to large-format print systems.

A twist on the varnish theme is the development of high build UV varnishes that give a wonderful texture and bring a different perspective to the printed piece. Scodix has a high build digital machine which is so deep they call it digital embossing rather than UV varnish. It really does look and feel like embossed text. But Scodix is not alone; Inca and many of the UV ink manufacturers are developing varnishes and high build inks for creating a tactile experience to the printed product and even digital Braille. 

One of the most exciting ink-based print effects is via the use of metallics as previously mentioned. This is gathering momentum not only in digital arena but in litho offset and flexo too. When Roland DG announced a metallic device it opened a whole new opportunity for  large-format. Many of the wide-format manufacturers are now working on metallic inks, which is a technical challenge for digital devices due to the conflict between particle size of metals within the ink and the nozzle size, which for accurate ink control needs to be as small as possible.

One ink technology that has helped digital devices optimise metallic effects is the opaque white ink, which is becoming more widely available for many large-format print devices (Roland, HP, Mimaki, Epson). These white inks enable the use of extremely reflective metallic and other foiled substrates - rather than metallic ink - to be used in digital devices and the white acts as a mask that enables the colour to stand out against the metallic effect. This maintains the highlight and the contrast of the image but enables the metallic foil to shine through.

It is worth noting that if you use metallic inks without a highlight white the image often looks flat because metallic is effectively a light grey at most visual angles and you can imagine if you put a grey into your highlights what the effect would be.

But white ink is not just for metallics. On its own has also been used to great effect on dark and rubberised substrates – as a single colour job.


The simplest and greatest opportunity to create the ‘wow’ factor is via the substrate you choose to use. Corrugated iron, bamboo, polished metals, wood, metallised, holographic material, rainbow, matt, textured… the list of substrates now being printed with wide-format digital inkjet machines is almost boundless and the opportunity for differentiation and imagination in this area is enormous. The greatest task is sourcing and finding substrates and then testing what works and what doesn't (especially which will void machine warranty and which won’t!).

Combining white ink with unusual substrates has begun to be extremely popular as the white enables bright and punchy imagery and the substrate adds to the effect. Combining white ink with holographic and foil substrates are particularly effective. When used with software such as Colour Logic, where the white can give an integrated metallic effect, it is particularly impressive - especially in an Olympic year when bronze, silver and gold can all be  represented using just silver foil, white and four-colour printing.


The last but by no means least method for creating special effects on the prints you produce is via software: whether it is the very clever software that manipulates images into text like Direct Smile: or HumanEyes  that creates 3D and lenticular effects on screen within the software and then processes the print files to work in conjunction with a specialised substrate, or Color Logic Photoshop plug-in that helps the designer to integrate the silver or white channel into the image and sorts out all the separations for integrated metallic effects. What is impressive about these software solutions is that they make it easy for the creative community to create and specify the effect, which in turn will increase the interest and demand for special effect printing. These software solutions enhance the product, create reaction and response which in turn increases the value of the print.

Although there are many more specific examples of possible effects, the principals remain the same: special ink, unusual substrate and clever software used in combination really does give fantastic results. However, there are two significant challenges when considering offering special effects as a business and successfully selling them.

The first challenge is finding and developing the special effect and investing in the necessary equipment to produce it. The second challenge is how do you sell that special effect and encourage designers and creative organisations to adopt it in sufficient volume to make the process cost effective.

When selling effects it is not just the case of walking into your client suggesting an effect, them saying “yes please’, you charging what you like and revenue coming in every day from there on in. Far from it. Having already spent significant amount developing the effect, or indeed investing in infrastructure needed for special effect printing, there are then several other associated costs.

Training: the sales force, the operators, the designers need to understand the process and what the cost and return is. It is not always easy in today’s price sensitive market to suggest spending more!

Marketing and communication: promoting your capabilities to your customers and potential customers is something that needs careful consideration. Brochures with real print examples and proper case studies can be highly beneficial in the marketing process. But you also need to devote time and money into researching key markets and evaluating the likely response.

There are a number of companies that do this exceptionally well: ltdltd, SP Group, Service Graphics and Augustus Martin all have beautifully produced brochures with fantastic examples of the kinds of creative work they have produced. All of these companies also have kept a portfolio of their work so that they have real world examples to show clients.

If you are serious about special effects printing then its worth investing in an ‘Ideas Room’ that allows creatives to come and play with substrates, dream up ideas, play with effects and all manner of examples. The benefit of this is that you get involved in the project at its conception rather than its execution. This will enable you to influence the client into what is possible and cost effective and what is likely to be cost prohibitive. Creating a culture and environment where creatives can come and see what can be done really is the key to success when selling special effects.

Discussions with the customer regarding visualising the finished result so that the customer can have a good idea of what it is they are buying is a significant issue too. Color Logic has identified the problem and has come up with a great tool for visualising the effect without printing. FX Viewer software enables creatives to import a pdf (with their unique name system) into a virtualised viewer environment and show clients what the end metallic effect will look like. Because metallic effects change with light reflections, the sheet can be moved to show the effect accurately. This saves time and money for proofing the final result but also looks great to show the client!

In a similar way you could use something like FFEI’s 3D Packager software, that not only enables the customer to visualise the surface effect but fully integrates with Illustrator to identify cuts and folds then animate a 2D illustrator file into a 3D folded object. The viewer file is free and enables annotation and collaboration by the customer.

Humaneyes also has a software solution that creates a flash visualisation of the lenticular effect. This not only visualises the effect but helps in the workflow too. Its Creative 3D tool is again an example of a package developed for designers and creatives rather than PSPs but that requires the PSP to have the higher end tool for production.

These visualisation tools are a necessary development and an increasing trend for effects software developers who need to offer design tools upstream to designers in order to develop demand down stream in the print service providers. These tools tend to be at studio software prices rather than high-end workflow and CAD/CAM prices. The response from designers and creatives so far has been very positive; they too are in competitive market and are looking for tools and services to differentiate themselves.

Although many special effect jobs appear attractive in the first instance - because generally they are higher priced - it is worth noting that the cost of sale is generally much higher too: most of these ‘special effects’ will be unfamilar to the client so there will be significant hand holding; jobs will need more focus within the production unit; and the cost of mistakes can be very high when using specialised substrates.

Another challenge when it comes to producing with special effect print is that once one brand has used it others may be reluctant to do so, not wanting to be seen as a follower and copying a competitor, so it is important to have a number of derivatives of the same effect whether that be different images, substrate, or whatever.

One thing is certain - we will see more and more special effect solutions coming to market in the large-format digital print world, partly because this new technology is still evolving but also because in this noisy, highly competitive, attention grabbing environment, everyone wants to stand out from the the crowd. Vive la difference.