Cut Through the Confusion

Is there an easy button for digital embellishment design?

June 6, 2022
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By Kevin Abergel, president, Taktiful

Emotion. When you are adding embellishments to print, there is only one goal in mind, and that is creating emotion. Whether it be through a tactile raised effect that makes the bark on the tree you just printed feel like a real tree, a hypnotizing foil effect that mesmerizes, or a metallic or fluorescent toner that is artfully woven into a design for maximum visual impact, the idea is the same: to make you feel something more than just CMYK.

Designers know a thing or two about emotion, in fact one could say their entire livelihood is predicated on using art to convey messaging that, when successfully done, can inspire consumers to discover new products, everyday people to build an implicit relationship with brands, to donate their money to a cause or even try to change the world.

So why is it that with the rise of digital embellishment technologies now making high-end luxurious prints easier and cheaper to do than ever before, the biggest challenge most PSPs encounter is still linked to file design?

“That’s easy,” says Frederic Soulier, general manager at MGI Labs, a new structure created by MGI Digital Technology that supports the digital transformation of the MGI Group's ecosystem to increase adoption of embellished products. “At the very essence of the issue is that there are no recognized file nomenclatures and standards for the digital embellishment market. Every equipment manufacturer, PSP and design agency is using its own nomenclature to name file separations and effects, and this leads to confusion in the design stage, mix-ups at the workflow stage, issues at the production stage, and ultimately may cause an aversion to using these new technologies.”

This is true. Some call tactile varnish “raised spot UV.” Some call it “Sense.” Some name it “3D,” and some refer to it as “Dimensional.” Yours truly even refers to it as “Taktified print.” Printers may also add their own brand name for marketing purposes, so by the time it gets to the designers they don’t know what to name the effect if it’s going out to bid. That’s just for varnish, before considering all the different type of digital foils and other effects.

Mark C. Little, the senior manager of marketing and business development at Ricoh USA, agrees that digital embellishment file setup is critical for smooth workflow and can be a technical hinderance if not appropriately addressed from the beginning.

“When embellishing print beyond the traditional CMYK, such as clear, white, neons, invisible red, gold and silver – creating the appropriate print file layering structure is critical. Designers must know how to set up the file correctly, in order for it to be seamlessly read and understood within their print workflow or RIP software. It can also be beneficial for designers to use techniques such as creating a ‘New Color Swatch’ in Adobe InDesign or ‘New Spot Channels’ in Adobe Photoshop and be adept at creating artwork layers, background layers, and a fifth color spot layer in their file documents. These are some key proficiencies designers should develop to help avoid any issues when it comes to preparing accurate print-ready files.”

Little also stressed the need to use a PDF format that supports embellishment content.

“The PDF/X-4 file format is a more desirable format when compared to the PDF/X-1a file format because it allows the file to carry color spaces, transparencies and optimal content – layers which are then effectively passed on to the RIP.”

April Lytle, the regional marketing manager at digital embellishment press maker Scodix, feels that designers have a hard time because it’s still seen as a relatively new technology.

“Designers had to learn all the rules of analog decoration, but now it’s layered with the multitude of effects directly at their fingertips,” she said. “There is so much potential for experimentation that it can be overwhelming, especially when you start combining features like raised UV over flat foil, which mimics micro-embossing. Also, they now have the added bonus of variable designs and data potential. The nuance of learning the different decoration applications, how they work together, how they can be manipulated into amazing design, takes time and skill that even veteran designers stumble with at first.”

Matt Redbear, head of creative at Blue Ocean Press and operator of a digital embellishment press, said the challenge goes even deeper and comes down to designer education on the creative side.

“One of my biggest challenges is trying to figure out how to embellish a piece after it’s already been designed by another designer. What is their angle? What complementary graphics can I use? How far can my design depart from their original look? I never have the answers to these questions.

“As you know, designers have egos, and in turn can be very upset when their artwork is misinterpreted. Also, if it’s coming from a corporate level, I won’t necessarily have access to brand guidelines for proper use of logos, artwork etc.

“I can only see two ways around this. First, the long-term approach is to re-educate art directors to work with their teams on how embellishment can be applied during the design process. It requires a little more imagination — spatial thinking with regards to three dimensions.

“Who is traveling around teaching embellishments? What about teaching the techniques for print embellishment on a two-dimensional substrate in today’s art media courses? Secondly, the short-term approach is for embellishment designers to co-create with the designers during the development process. This seems to never happen, in spite of my best attempts to make it so. I don’t understand why.”

One of the people that is already out there beating the drum on designer education is Mark Geeves, co-founder of Color-Logic, which licenses its metallics effects system to PSPs. He agrees that education is key, but also having the right tools are important to help bridge the potential educational gap.

“First off, many of today’s designers do not receive formal training in working with print, most are focused on web-based design,” he said. “Perhaps some of the issues lie here. Even fewer are trained on how to work with metallic embellishments. Once creative designers realize what is possible, have access to the necessary tools, and start building experience, it is amazing what they can produce. This is why we started Color-Logic in the first place.”

But not everyone feels the same way. Deborah Corn has a background in the agency world and now runs educational events like Project Peacock, trying to connect manufacturers to print buyers for educational purposes. She refuses to concede that the obstacles printers who offer digital embellishments face, come from the designer or brand side.

“The agencies and brands aren’t the ones who bought the technology and offered it as a service, it was offered to them and therefore the responsibility is on the PSP to create users for it. It starts by telling them it exists. From there you show what can be created, who they can partner with to execute, and resources for how to use it – if they are available.

“I don’t understand anyone who invested in equipment sitting back and waiting for customers to figure out how to use it. Hire a trainer, do lunch-and-learns, create video and written tutorials. Let the designers learn how they wish, and have someone they can ask questions to that speaks their language. I would pay a designer to learn everything they could about the machine and file creation. Then I would hire them month by month to go to every customer file creator to talk designer to designer and show them in an actual file how to set everything up.”

With all of these expert opinions, what is the right way to make it easy for everyone to design for digital embellishment? As of today, there is no secret “easy button” for designing accurately the first time around for digital embellishments. Most PSPs have to resort to either redesigning the art files internally, or offering design services to agencies and brands. While this is probably the best way to create good files, it is an added expense, which may impact prices and turnaround times. The biggest advantage is that PSPs already know from experience what the best visual result will likely look like, and they can also help control the cost of production by not “painting the sheet.”

Simon Eccles, a good friend of mine who has a long and storied history in print journalism, recently told me that previsualizers for digital embellishment are a key aspect to the wider use of digital embellishment.

“It’s always been easy enough for designers to set up effects by using layers in design programs – I first used Illustrator to create a spot-foiled magazine cover in 1989! Effects are all about catching and reflecting the light to give a shift in appearance for passing viewers. The real problem with designing for spot gloss or metallic effects is they can't easily be previewed within standard design apps such as InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop or any of their competitors. Even if a designer can mentally visualize the final result, there’s still the need to show it to a client who may not be au fait with embellishment. No standard digital proof printers can reproduce embellishments or tactile effects, though digital presses with metallic or special color toners can act as their own proofers.

“There’s a handful of software solutions already. Color-Logic offers a Mac-only on-screen previewer for designers called FX-Viewer. This can predict the effects of silver metallic inks, or white ink over silver foil substrates, by rotating the image to catch the light from different angles. It can’t predict spot varnishes or raised effects though.

“The 3D rendering previewers for packaging offered by Esko Studio Store Visualizer and Creative Edge’s iC3D (recently acquired by Hybrid Software) do a very good job with embellishment effects including embossing and varnish faux-embossing. They can even simulate holographic and diffraction foils. Both are relatively expensive though – from just under $1,000 per month from Esko or from $595 per month for iC3D, so less likely to attract commercial print designers who may only want to embellish their creations more occasionally.

However, if you could use a lower cost or free off-the-shelf 3D renderer for the relatively simple shapes of commercial print book and brochure covers, stationery, greetings cards and basic folding boxes and cartons, then it would open up embellishment to a much wider range of users. However, iC3D was created to be affordable too, so maybe it really does cost more to set up a commercial proposition.

“It’s interesting that this year Adobe Illustrator has gained some very simple 3D modelling and previewing tools, plus the ability to import some 3D models from the comparatively low cost ($49.99 per month) Adobe Substance 3D collection. Illustrator or Substance itself might be tweaked to give foil and varnish previews, though I haven't yet seen it done.”

What is clear is that in order for production to be streamlined and for volumes to grow in the digital embellishment market, an easy button for designers will be needed to increase mass adoption. What this easy button looks like can be anyone’s guess, but in an ideal world, in addition to designers actively being taught and trained on how to design for new technologies, there would be solutions that could affordably bridge the entire process, integrating e-commerce, file design, accurate 3D interactive previsualization, costing, and workflow. There’s a gap in the market for an enterprising developer!

So, who do you think should shoulder the load when it comes to teaching designing for new digital embellishment technologies?

About the author: Kevin Abergel is the Founder and President of taktiful (, the digital embellishment sales and marketing specialists. His mission is to make digital embellishments and luxury print the obvious choice for all brands. He combines the science of touch with the power of print to give his customers a taktiful experience worth coming back for. Kevin brings 17 years of successfully selling and marketing digital sensory print solutions all over the world. He dedicates his time to solving his customers business problems through innovative printing technologies, all with a keen eye on increasing brand engagement, brand recognition and brand awareness for their products.


1. Artwork Provided By: Matt Redbear from Blue Ocean Press in South Florida. 

The files are labeled in the order of completion:

1 is for silver foil

2 is for silver + gold

3 is for silver + gold + green, etc. 

Print stats:

9 x 6” postcard

Printed 4/4 digital on iGEN5

Embellished on MGI JV3DS

Pass order (8 passes): 


Silver foil

Gold foil

Green foil

Purple foil

Blue foil

Varnish overlay


Holographic Silver foil

Varnish overlay

Overlay artwork: Generated every mask in Photoshop CC using brushes and filters.

Wave spray (for all foils on front wave): Kyle's Spatter Brushes - Supreme Spatter & Texture

Varnish overlays (both front + back) and moonlit water on back: Filter Gallery > Sketch > Photocopy2.

2. Artwork Provided By: Rebecca Arnett from Spectrum Printing Company in Arizona

Here is her description:

"The main programs that I use for our embellishing processes are Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator.

The process for creating the effect you want is incredibly easy. Most projects usually don’t need more than one or two passes through the I-Jet for final results. If you are comfortable with Adobe products, creating eye-catching images for the I-Jet will be a breeze for any designer. Just have fun and play with textures and masks in either of these programs. You can varnish or foil anything from hand-drawn sketches to photos of products or people.

First you’ll need your design idea and how you want to execute it.

For the Koi fish, I drew out my design in Illustrator. I knew I wanted a yin and yang type of design and decided to alternate the details in two different foil colors, gold and silver. I had to create three layers in Illustrator and figure out the order in which the embellishments would be placed. From there I saved each layer as a PDF and opened them in Photoshop. I had to convert each drawn-out design into gray scale and save them as .tiff images. Once I had my three separate .tiff images, I placed them into the I-Jet program and set up my files for embellishing.

You can get super creative and have as many passes as you want. Keep in mind the type of coated substrate you want to use, and make sure it can handle multiple passes."