When ARTOMATIC was around before, we were pretty much alone in doing the complex, creative work because the printers had enough straightforward work to keep them busy and anything overly ambitious clogged up their factories. It's different now–as the regular work has dried up, many printers have embraced creative ambition. As I debated (with myself) whether to return to production, wondering what value I'd really add in today's market, this project came along and made me realise I did have something to offer after all. This project is probably the most complex thing ARTOMATIC has produced since we did the PS2 media kit in 1995.
Sony Computer asked Harriman Steel to design the media kit for the new VITA hand-held unit and to show off its host of new features–cameras, touch screens, extra buttons etc. Harriman Steel's idea was a secret book that tantalisingly revealed, one-by-one, the features of the unit before revealing the unit itself. They also wanted to showcase some of the games that would be available on the new platform.
The starting point had to be the VITA unit and its dimensions would dictate the overall thickness of the book. Knowing how much content we had (64 pages), gave us a target page thickness of 1,000 microns…and a headache. It’s too thick for conventional book binding, which only goes to heavyweight paper, circa 170gsm.
The alternative was a children’s board book that normally has pages 2 – 3 mm thick, but we knew we could be made thinner. Board books are now all made in China, which wouldn’t work timing-wise, and getting a bookbinder in the UK to make them would be prohibitively expensive. So, to solve the inevitable time / money problem, we thought about the raw materials used in a board book–folding boxboard, die cutting and glue–and realised they’re exactly the same in food packaging.
So, rather excitedly, I called David Braun, MD of R. Howard in Lincolnshire, who works in the middle of cabage fields in Lincolnshire.
I’d worked with him on the Pocketgame / Matterbox project for Cadbury and outlined the how I thought we could do it. He was somewhat perplexed by the idea of making a book, but said he’d look at it and a week later, came down to London with a rough mock-up. I then called Sean from Apollo to see if he could make the covers and turn it into a final book.
Board books are perplexing at the best of times: they’re single sided sheets glued on the reverse so each spread is a true spread–no gutters–which gives them their strength and makes them toddler-proof. Because there are no end-papers–the covers are glued to the reverse of the first and last pages–which means the even numbered pages are on the right-hand side.
Initially we’d thought we’d glue it automatically in 4pp sections (2 spreads joined at the fore-edge, 8pp in a normal book) and collate and assemble the books by hand. The initial dummies showed how problematic that was going to be in lining up the die-cuts. Harriman Steel came suggested we make the cutouts uneven sizes back-to-back and print on the reverse of the sheet to make it look deliberate. This only added to the confusion since it made the backs of the pages exist in a way they don’t in a board book normally.
There was further confusion over the size of the book, which required two sets of bleed to accommodate the fact we were producing it oversize prior to binding and then trimming once the book-blocks were glued. We had suggested shrinking the book to make it economical on the sheet, but with the VITA unit being the size it was, there wasn’t a lot of room and we ended up using every last millimeter on the B1 sheet.
It was always going to be produced in multiple languages, which we mitigated by limiting the linguistic variations to one special colour with common CMYK. Sony didn’t have enough units for all the books, so two separate configurations of book emerged–another, paginated differently using the same pages and without the cut-outs, would be used without the units. Thus emerged one of the more amusing aspects of the project, the naming convention of WITH books and WITHOUT books, which led to all manner of confusion with phrases like "the WITH books with covers".
The product was launching mid-February and by mid-December we still had no artwork and hadn’t fully resolved the cover. We’d moved from a flush board cover with cloth spine to a conventional case-bound cover, which kept the book together without relying solely on the pages being stuck together. The need for strength had created another problem–because the book was made from folded sheets at the spine, it was thicker at the spine than at the fore-edge, which meant it wouldn’t have animated the scanimation planned for the cover and sleeve interaction. Moving to a case-bound cover allowed us to score the reverse of the text spreads and even up the thickness of the book from spine to fore edge. Phew!
The artwork showed up just before Christmas and we scheduled it in for printing in January. With projects as complicated as this, it’s not the actual doing of it that takes the time, it’s the planning–it took another week before it actually hit the presses.
Ordinarily a job like this would have to be done sequentially, with every stage tested and signed off before moving onto the next. But that would mean 8 weeks production and we had to start deliveries in the 3rd week of January–and at the end of the first week of January, still no ink had hit any paper. It’s possible to speed things up considerably by bringing all the processes in parallel with each other–making everything at the same time. The disadvantage with this is that it’s very risky and I could sense Harriman Steel getting nervous. I didn’t blame them.
In the first days of January, the covers still weren’t resolved–the hinges had to be a specific length to allow the book to open properly and the change to scored backs late on changed the dimensions of the book and thus the covers. As soon as we had an acceptable cover design that worked (i.e. opened and the pages turned) we sent it off for the sleeve to be made. Sleeves can be notoriously tricky, since they have virtually no tolerance between being too baggy and too tight. You’d really rather make it from a production book than a prototype.
Sat in his factory in the middle of the Lincolnshire fens, David Braun contemplated what he could really achieve even if everybody worked 24 hours a day for two weeks. Then, he thought a bit more and worked out he could collate and glue the books together on his window-patching machine, which meant the laborious element was removed from the equation and he could print, die-cut, fold, collate and glue all at similar speed.
Midway through January, we had books being printed, cut, collated, covers being made and sleeves (and shippers) in production all simultaneously. Harriman Steel were understandably nervous since they’d not seen anything yet. I was calmer–I knew we had everything covered. We had a bit of scare when the first sleeves and books arrived–they looked they might be too tight, but in fact it turned out to be the gloss laminate sticking to the inside of the sleeve. Making the sleeves up with softer creases cured it nicely.
The downside to parallel manufacturing is that you don’t see anything until it’s finished. The upside is that it’s very quick. I showed Harriman Steel the first finished books only days before we started delivering them (which was either good or bad depending on whether you were them or me). To mitigate any further delays, we sent books into the fulfillment house the moment they were finished so they could dispatch them immediately.
So, a lesson in how to truncate schedules or a lesson in how to age prematurely and increase your blood-pressure? Probably both. I’m sure Harriman Steel would err on the latter–they missed out on all the vital controls that designers crave and I’m sure from their perspective it wasn’t pleasant. I felt for them. Sorry, chaps.
For me, it vindicated something I’ve learned over many years of producing really complex print work–provided you’re confident in what the designers and the client are trying to achieve and you can match that with your confidence in your supply chain, it’s possible to make it all separately and bring it together at the end.
That said, it’s only the product that counts and stories aside, I don’t think it could be better. It fits the VITA unit perfectly, it lines up with the controls; the pages turn with elegance and it shows the VITA off magnificently.
One interesting and unforeseen upside is the quality of the colour-work–it leaps of the page and appears almost liquid in its vibrancy. That’s because people who print food all day long really know about colour.
So, two lessons have been learned: 1) it seems there are still some complex, scary jobs that need real understanding, vision and determination to pull off, and 2), I'm convinced we can make just about anything in a food-packaging factory. My sincere thanks to everyone involved.