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The Stevie Awards

Nov 1, 2006 12:00 PM, By Steve Johnson

Six months ago, I asked AMERICAN PRINTER readers to help prove a point by sharing their variable-data printing (VDP) case histories. Not the same old stories we’ve heard over and over, but fresh examples that have been overlooked, perhaps because these projects didn’t fit the expected profile of variable printing.

I wanted to showcase these “break the mold” stories. Some industry experts reacted with skepticism to my insistence that all entries utilize variable data, but not for the purpose of direct mail marketing. This concept was, and still is, beyond the imagination of many of the digital world’s consultants and vendors.

It wasn’t beyond our readers! Showcased here are some of the entries, each one a winner of the (soon-to-be) coveted “Stevie” award. All entries were subject to the rules and regulations explained in my July 2006 column, most of which I have blatantly revised on the fly in the interest of getting a good story.

Stevie winner No. 1

ENTRY | Pixkapow from Inter-State Studio & Publishing Co. (Sedalia, MO)

OVERVIEW | Combination proofs/order forms/envelopes for school photos

DESCRIPTION | Inter-State entered the school portrait market in the 1930s, expanding to school yearbooks in the 1960s. An early adopter of digital print, Inter-State acquired HP Indigo presses to produce short-run yearbooks. That might be a case study in itself, but Inter-State was only getting warmed up.

In the school portrait market, photos are shot of every student. Proofs are delivered to the school and distributed to each student, coupled with order forms, descriptive brochures and return envelopes. Each child totes this assortment of paperwork home to Mom and Dad, who select a photo and style, complete the order form and add payment. This information is sealed in the return envelope and given back to the student, who returns it to the school.

Inter-State’s goal was to combine all elements into one piece. The result: a totally digitally printed order form with a preconverted envelope attached by a perf, and with the photo proofs actually printed on the form.

OBSERVATIONS | The purpose of this product is obvious: One piece = nothing to get lost = more orders = more sales. Every piece is full variable color. The form is covered with the actual color proofs of the child’s portraits, demonstrating different layout styles and packages, plus retouching options.

The child’s signature, collected when the photos are taken, is reproduced as a headline. The use of digital is carried even farther by adding a barcode to the reply envelope and providing a unique numeric code for optional online ordering and payment.

Inter-State’s enthusiastic George Fry told me, “We’re pushing through four or five terabytes per day here!” This is a telling remark. This Stevie-winning order form has as massive a use of variable data on one piece as I’ve ever seen.

Creating the very complex template was only a start, though. What was needed was a digital press system that could handle the sheer volume of data from the multiple elements and color graphics. Inter-State found Xeikon’s people and products to be best suited to this project.


Stevie winner No. 2

ENTRY | Fold ‘N’ Go from Convertible Brands (Sedalia, MO)

OVERVIEW | Preconverted papers for digital applications

DESCRIPTION | One company; two Stevie awards. In the story above, Inter-State was challenged by two problems. The first was finding equipment that could actually handle the massive data volume of ongoing full-color, fully variable, high-resolution information. As noted, Punch’s Xeikon did the trick.

The second problem — the folding, perfing, gluing and gumming of the printed forms — was found to have no satisfactory solution. Zero spoilage always is required in VDP but usually is handled clumsily, and it is the glaring weak spot in any digital workflow that includes finishing.

Inter-State’s answer was to move to pre-print conversion. After much experimenting, Fry designed a preperfed, pregummed, preglued design that is rewound after converting for feeding through the roll-fed Xeikon presses. After printing, the forms are parallel folded, with the envelope portion formed by contact adhesive.

Presuming other digital printers could benefit from such a solution, Convertible Brands was formed. Do you have a digital print application that is bogged down in the bindery? Give George a call. He has some paper to sell you.

OBSERVATIONS | Since the birth of digital print, postpress has been a major obstacle. The digital press sheet that wins quality awards often crumples and dies when folded or glued. By moving the bindery ahead of the print stage, Convertible Brands is making a bold stride toward attaining zero spoilage, the holy grail of VDP.

Stevie winner No. 3

ENTRY | Personalized Trading Cards from PLUS Digital Print, LLC (Menomonee Falls, WI)

OVERVIEW | Trading cards for trade show attendees.

DESCRIPTION | How do you get the 134 registered attendees of a three-day business summit to really mix it up and network? Instead of the hackneyed business card swap, PLUS Digital Print created a “bubblegum card” style template with the name and firm of each registrant printed above a full-size mug shot of the attendee. On the back is the name, title, phone and e-mail contact info, a favorite quotation from the individual, a summary of his or her firm’s mission statement, and a card number.

Each attendee was given 150 personal cards, plus a checklist card with all 134 names listed. During the conference, everyone was to collect a card from everyone else. At the end of the summit, everyone had a complete deck, had introduced themselves to one another in the process and left with a photographic reminder of each person.

According to John Budny, the client reprinted the entire job after the conference, this time in collated decks, presumably so registrants could fill in any holes in their decks.

OBSERVATIONS | This one seems so easy, yet it would not work without a little creative thinking. The business card swapping routine has been elevated to exponentially increase effectiveness. Only with VDP could this be accomplished, because the cards were customized and printed for one-time use.

Budny says he sells this sort of project as “versioned variable printing.” PLUS Digital Print runs a NexPress, but I haven’t revealed whether the print was produced from a series of short, static runs or merged on the fly with variable software…and I don’t care. The result is what counts, as long as the project can be produced effectively enough that variable information can be incorporated and add enough value to cover cost per piece.

Your photo here

The first person to hear of this competition (and the perpetrator of the name “Stevie”) was American Printer editor Katherine O’Brien. She sent me three different samples of VDP that caught her trained eye, and although I’ve stated all entries must come directly from the print producer, I’m featuring one of her samples here.

Honorable Mention

ENTRY | fd’s Flickr Toys from Watson Consulting

OVERVIEW | Customized Web-to-print posters

DESCRIPTION | On a Web page form, visitors are shown a template and prompted to either choose a graphic that is posted online or to upload their own graphic. Cropping and orientation instructions as well as border and color information are selected with some very simple-to-use radio buttons.

Title and body text are keyed in, a font is selected from a pull-down menu, and voilà! An on-screen poster appears, bearing a striking resemblance to a well-known series of motivational products. Upload it. Save it. Share it with friends. Or…

Order a printed poster, for the nominal fee of $12.00 a pop. Suddenly, a harmless online toy is selling VDP at a healthy profit margin.

Do you wish to lampoon a friend or coworker in a manner visible from 10 feet away? Or do you prefer to take the high road, immortalizing your kids or inspiring the office with glorious images? Either way, there is a digital printer out there who will get your 12 bucks.

OBSERVATIONS | The “Web-to-print” process applications usually profiled are client-specific. A print provider creates a Web site for a specific customer to order templated products, most often stationery (such as business cards) or promotions (such as postcards, merged online with an uploaded mailing list).

Applications such as this one are more far-reaching, allowing the printer to become the content provider, which should allow higher margins and a virtually unlimited client base.

Another interesting aspect is the marriage of VDP and wide-format digital. I’m surprised we haven’t seen more of this combination. I believe there is an untapped market for VDP among wide-format printers that the vendor community has largely missed.

I should mention that the motivational poster style is just a start. Further exploration of this Web site reveals alternate oversized formats, such as movie posters and billboards, as well as page size images like magazine covers, calendars and trading cards.


Lessons from Stevie

Thanks to you, I’ve learned a few things about the “real” state of VDP in the current marketplace.

  1. I set out to prove there are practical and innovative VDP applications beyond direct mail. With your help, I succeeded. The key word is “beyond,” not “instead of.” Direct mail remains the primary arena for VDP volumes. Note that Inter-State won Stevies for an ongoing project that never touches the mail. Ironically, Fry expects that the biggest market segment for his new line of pre-converted papers will be digital direct mail printers.My point is not to slam mail but to demonstrate that higher profit opportunities for VDP lie beyond the post office.
  2. I’m certainly not the first pundit to observe that if direct mail is over-promoted for VDP, then Web-to-print is the sleeping giant. I don’t want to move from one platitude to another, but this area deserves some thoughtful consideration by anyone in or considering entering the digital printing process.The cost of implementing a “digital storefront” has gone the same direction scanners did a few years ago. In the Internet heyday of the late 1990s, a robust “Web-to-print” site might have cost six or seven figures’ venture capital to construct. This was totally out of reach for most print shops. Today, software packages and online services bring the cost down to thousands, maybe even hundreds, of dollars.Terms like Web-to-print and digital storefront are somewhat misleading. Remember desktop publishing? That unfortunate phrase really just described a new typesetting and prepress workflow. Banish all preconceptions, and rethink Web-to-print as nothing more than a potentially better way to collect and manage print files from your customers. That ought to get your interest!
  3. Overall color quality isn’t what it could be. I say “could be” because digital imaging has the technical potential to equal or surpass offset, right now.This might be a “garbage in, garbage out” issue, reflecting the marginal quality of images in some customer-furnished databases. In the example of Stevie No. 3, the color images varied (no pun intended) from portrait to portrait. Budny explained that the images furnished by the client accounted for this variation. With a total run length of 150, his client wasn’t willing to spend the extra money or time required to manually retouch 134 unique images.The downside of this mindset is that if quality expectations are low, traditional printers lose their edge. Quality is our claim to fame, and if quality doesn’t matter, it becomes harder to justify our prices. The up side is that quality often matters more than the client lets on, which gives us an opportunity to add real value.
  4. The Stevie-winning concepts were created internally. They had to be, for I wanted entries that were new and different.Stop and think. That digital press salesman is telling you he knows lots of great ways to make millions in digital printing. He knows of some terrific applications, he says, and he’ll share them all with you. Just remember that he’s probably never sold any printing in his life, so ideas that seem good to him might not work for you. Remember also that he is making this speech to every one of your competitors. The most amazing ideas will soon be commodities if everyone who puts an image on paper starts selling the same thing.The Stevie examples are not templates to copy. For this reason, I’ve presented summaries instead of in-depth case analysis. The purpose is to stimulate your creative juices to flow through a different channel. The cliché “think outside the box” is badly overused, but it is just the prescription for high-margin success in VDP.
  5. I repeatedly use words like “fresh” and “new” instead of “tired” and “stale” to describe Stevie winners. To a small degree, I did not succeed, because I recognize some of the winners have been profiled elsewhere. I attribute this to another industry problem: We don’t brag enough. Those of us who believe in shamelessly promoting ourselves do so to anyone who will listen. Those folks jumped at my call for entries.

So many printers tell me their firm is “the best kept secret in Anytown, USA.” Enough of this. I want samples from all of you, not just those who know how to promote themselves.


Steve Johnson is president of Copresco (Carol Stream, IL), a pioneer in digital printing technology and print on demand. Contact him via

Keep those entries coming!

But wait…there’s more! I’m flattered, gratified and overwhelmed by your responses. Did you send an entry that wasn’t featured above? You might be a winner! I’m running out of space here, but I don’t want any good idea to pass unnoticed. The only solution is to make the “Stevie awards” an ongoing feature. In a few months, I’ll present more of the great examples I received.

And if you meant to enter but haven’t yet, it isn’t too late.