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Designed to make a difference

The Widthwise 2019 poll shows that when it comes to software investment, PSPs are channelling their spend towards design packages. So what’s waiting to grab your attention? Simon Creasey investigates.

Just under a decade ago, Cheltenham-based large-format PSP The Bigger Printing Company started offering a design service to its customers. “We added it in order to meet the demand for clients who needed a relatively simple design for a roll-up banner, poster, PVC banner etc., but only had some brand assets and the requirement was too small for a graphic designer, but without some design assistance, the print couldn’t go ahead,” explains David Bowen, marketing and operations manager at The Bigger Printing Company. The service was an instant hit and although Bowen says that today it is not a large part of the company’s service offer it still generates a steady amount of work and income. Over the last few years a growing number of large-format PSPs have added or explored adding a design service - a trend that looks pretty much set to continue if the findings of the 2019 Widthwise survey are anything to go by. 

According to the poll (of 247 UK/Ireland large-format PSPs), although expected investment in software and finishing in general is very flat - 79.35% said they would not be buying any of the software or finishing options listed in the poll (workflow, MIS, versioning, W2P, cutters, laminators etc) up to the end of 2020 - of those saying they would spend, the biggest number (10.53%) identified design software. That makes sense when you consider that asked where they plan to innovate/add services within the next year to meet customer demand, by far the biggest percentage - 64.78% in fact - said creative design.

So what’s behind this trend and what options are available to large format PSPs looking to branch out into this area?   

According to Bernhard Nitsche, sales manager for UK and Scandinavia at software provider CADlink, the push from printers looking to introduce additional services like in-house design is a relatively recent trend. 

“In the 1990s, everybody in the large-format sector was focused on printing only so everything was hardware driven. Nobody really cared about software. However, nowadays people are looking for an effective [software] solution.”

This push is being driven by increased competition in the market and growing pressure on margins. “A lot of people would like to have a point of difference [from competitors] and when you have a software solution that helps you and makes it easier to generate [designs] then you have an advantage,” says Nitsche.

He adds that the push also ties into two wider industry trends: “Companies want to streamline their internal design department and they want to reduce the amount of software they use - they want to optimise their workflow from Web-to-print with minimum interaction. Both trends suit us as we have a full design front-end solution and a queue-based Rip solution which we can automate completely.”

Nitsche explains that the company’s SignLab design software package DesignPro was specifically developed to make the creation of design for large-format printing easier. “To find someone who is really artistic these days has become more and more difficult, so printers need software that doesn’t require a design specialist to make great looking designs,” says Nitsche.

He thinks that some of the existing design software tools that large-format printers could use are too complex and don’t necessarily meet the demands of the market. 

“You might ask the question: why do you need dedicated software for [designing] large-format [print] when you have Illustrator. But, for example, with Illustrator you cannot go over 6m in width or length in design because most of the time it is page document format, but when you’re working on a truck [vehicle graphic] you can easily produce a design that’s 10m to 15m long, so sometimes there is a need for dedicated software.”

Hence the creation of DesignPro. Nitsche says that SignLab’s product takes the pain out of designing large-format print. The package is “loaded with all the text composition, design and layout tools” printers need in a “single, easy to use package”. He adds that DesignPro is perfect for existing users of CADlink’s SignLab software package or for signmakers currently using other software that may not be sign specific.    

As well as being fit for purpose for signmakers, Nitsche also thinks that unlike some other design tools on the market SignLab’s DesignPro package can easily be used by someone with rudimentary skills. 

“You can do brilliant things in Illustrator, but just to create a simple drop shadow you break your fingers. That’s where we come into play because in just three clicks [using our software] you can create a nice shadow outline that is contour cut ready and we can output this straight away to a laser or a router. A lot of people are looking for click reduction. You have to make things very simple because if it takes you 10 minutes to do a job versus 30 seconds than that is a big difference.”

He says that the company continuously adds to and updates its software to ensure it matches the changing demands of the market - CADlink is currently selling version 10 of its SignLab software. 

It’s a similar scenario at CorelDraw, which launched a new version of its flagship Graphics Suite in April last year and this March unveiled a native MacOS version to sit alongside its Windows version.

“CorelDraw has built its reputation as a leading graphics suite that’s focused on professional results, output, and ease of use,” says John Falsetto, senior director of products, CorelDraw. “When it comes to delivering outstanding projects every time, designers deserve real choice. With 2019, we’re bringing the power of CorelDraw in a truly native experience to the Mac, delivering the high-end tools professionals need.”

Falsetto says CorelDraw’s Graphics Suite has always been “very prominent in the large-format space” and it is a sub-sector of the market that has been using the company’s software for many years. Although he has not detected a “specific spike in demand from that space recently, that demand has remained strong”.

He adds that the company continues to focus on a number of different areas, such as improving user workflows, productivity and features and enhancements that help users get their work done more efficiently while not sacrificing on quality. 

“As we look to the future, we will continue to focus on workflow, productivity and other features that help our key segments - large-format is certainly among those,” explains Falsetto. 

“This year in fact marks the 30th anniversary of CorelDraw, so when you have a legacy such as ours, with power and feature functionality that we do, we constantly challenge ourselves to come up with creative ways to improve the product experience for each segment’s workflows, allowing them to continue to be more and more productive.”

Like CorelDraw, Adobe continues to make significant upgrades to its Creative Cloud applications like Photoshop and Illustrator, which are also commonly used by large-format PSPs. Late last year it introduced major updates to its desktop applications, including a new ‘content-aware fill’ workspace in Photoshop and the ability to design with photorealistic, freeform gradients in Illustrator.

But it’s not just software specialists like Adobe and CorelDraw that are looking to develop specific features that aid customers like large-format printers looking to add a design service to their armoury. Over the last few years a growing number of equipment manufacturers have also branched out into this area. 

For instance, Esko offers ArtiosCad, which according to the company makes “design and pre-production of multi-part packaging and POP displays more simple, intelligent and productive, avoiding guesswork, waste and errors”.

The product boasts an “extensive online library of proven parametric design templates” that signmakers can use to “produce complex designs easy and fast, taking away the need for 3D design expertise”. It also offers tools that can easily apply print effects, claims Esko.

Another manufacturer that has created a similar offering is Zund. It sells Zund Design Center, an Adobe Illustrator plug-in for creating single- and multi-part packaging and three-dimensional POP/POS displays from folding carton, corrugated cardboard, foam board, sandwich panel, PP, PVC, and MDF. Like ArtiosCAD, Zund’s software contains an extensive library of parametric designs. Users can simply choose one of the templates, enter their own dimensions and then add logos, patterns, text and other design elements. 

Also trying to make life as simple as possible for large-format PSPs is Shiraz Software. The company is poised to launch a new product called Rosetta, which business development director Ramin Shahbazi describes as a “complete workflow/Rip solution with integrated design applications”.  

“These design applications are each specifically designed for the different vertical markets in the large-format print markets, including photo/fine art/wall art, textile/wallpaper, GIS/copy shops, dry labs as well as some others,” says Shahbazi.

Rosetta also includes new “image streaming technology” which he likens to Spotify and allows users of the software to “securely and transparently” stream images for printing. He believes the company’s new software could be game-changing and offer large-format users that all important point of difference from competitors.

“I haven’t been this excited about this part of the market for many years,” says Shahbazi. “It’s been the same old, same old, whereas now I can see an area where we can add a lot of value to someone who is looking for a solution like that.” 

Based on the findings of the Widthwise 2019 poll there are plenty of large-format PSPs out there looking for this type of software solution. 

Adding an entirely new business service can be daunting - especially if, historically, a PSP’s primary focus has been on similar style print jobs. But it seems that many are taking the leap. As The Bigger Printing Company’s David Bowen, points out: “The real value our design service provides is supporting clients who need technical assistance to ensure the design prints as they hope it will - especially when the design contains technical elements such as white ink/spot cut paths.” 

Bowen adds that at the moment his company is not particularly looking to grow the design service it offers customers as it can slow the production process down and pulls on other resources within the business. And, he says, the “number of clients who are now exploring using Photoshop and Illustrator is greater now than it was a decade ago, and we are finding some clients are putting artwork together which they didn’t used to”. That said, he acknowledges the additional value the design service has brought the business. Design software developers are waking-up to the fact that large-format PSPs see an opportunity, so expect them to start filling any gaps in the current market offering.

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