Printing and embellishing: Get the 'wow’ factor

Luxury packaging design of chocolate bars.

Image credit: Adobe Stock/ Annartlab.

It was the early 2000s, and I was in a press room with a print service provider (PSP) who showed a young premium pharma brand manager some press proofs. "It's ok, but I want it shiny," said the young product manager pointing at the press sheet. The PSP scratched his head: "Do you mean a glossier media, or do you mean a UV spot varnish?" he asked. The product manager looked at him blankly: "Just... shinier," she said. An eerie silence hung in the air as the creative vs. production divide loomed, but eventually, the PSP concluded, "I think you mean a UV varnish."

UV varnishes are applied to face materials to enhance the appearance of the surface by adding a gloss finish and to add a protective coating.

Embellishment in print

Embellishments add a ‘wow’ factor to printed products. They help products stand out and differentiate them from competitors, drive higher response rates for direct mail, provide greater shelf appeal for magazine and book covers, and an increased share of attention for premium product packaging and labels. Print embellishments can include special colors, tactile and dimensional spot varnishes, foil stamping, metallic inks, and embossing. Finishing techniques such as die cutting or intricate folding also qualify as embellishments.

The industry also recognizes embellishment as a key focus area. In 2018, the ISO published an international standard (19593-1) that defines a method to handle metadata within a PDF file to communicate print embellishments and post-press processes via "Processing Steps." This proposal was initiated by the Ghent Workgroup and utilized OCGs (Optional Content Groups) in a PDF file to be used as layers that can be turned on or off as required for the intended production process.

Such effects are now becoming much more accessible via a range of digital printing technologies using toner and/or ink-jet techniques at a fraction of the investment. These developments open the door for PSPs to add value beyond Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (or ‘CMYK’, the 4 primary colors of pigment used in 4 Color Process Printing), to a much more comprehensive range of applications for their clients and for designers to expand their creative vision in new directions.

The following are some items for brands to consider when embellishing their print assets today:

Digital embellishment

Digital press vendors offer additional color options besides CMYK, including silver, gold, neon, invisible inks, and UV-fluorescent toner for digitally printed "covert" security applications such as event tickets. Clear varnish can enhance the appearance and add a layer of security against fraud. Digital white ink or toner has versatile uses, such as providing contrast on colored substrates, serving as a base layer on transparent substrates, masking metallic substrates, and creating decorative effects with CMYK + W. It's commonly used in industrial packaging/labels, textile printing, and décor. Vendors also offer embellishment using inkjet technology, layering ink for a 2D or 3D tactile finish or varnish. Specialized inks with glitter and other effects are also available. Digital embellishment can be part of a hybrid process that combines conventional printing with a digital station for inline or nearline embellishment.

Design and pre-press considerations

For applications that include additional colors, such as white and neon, extra work is required in the design and pre-press stages to create image masks and/or convert images to include the additional colors. Applications such as Color-Logic's metallic color system and Touch7 Neon products offer plug-ins for Adobe applications, drastically reducing file preparation time and easing the end-to-end process.

Color Logic image of household items.

Color-Logic's metallic colour system eases the pre-press and approval process enabling a range of visually striking applications to be produced on vendor output devices that feature special inks of toner beyond CMYK.


Print embellishment enhances the benefits of digital printing (cost effective short runs, media variety, and variable data printing) and offers creative possibilities for PSPs to add value and differentiate their products and packaging.

Production challenges

Incorporating embellishing information in the same PDF file that contains the graphics is desirable. Typically, this is achieved via additional spot color separations that hold the information to apply the effect. Spot colors are also used to determine post-finishing processes such as cutting, die cutting, and gluing.

However, spot colors were not created for this purpose and there is no standard for specifying them. This can result in inconsistent naming across jobs, the use of different colors for cutting information, and difficulties in handling spot colors during pre-press, printing, and post-press processes, leading to errors if not handled with care. This also limits automation and the implementation of standardized processes.

PDF Print Engine

Version 6 of the PDF Print Engine launched in June 2022, and offers several new features designed to ease the communication and production of print embellishment and finishing.

PDF Print Engine 6 recognizes any standardized "Processing Steps" within the PDF and helps manage to embellish steps as a RIP function. For example, it can extract and pass on embellishing instructions to post-press devices for automation and integration and ensures transformations applied to the print job also apply to the post-press process.

PDF Print Engine 6 also makes it easier to use spot colors for embellishment by treating them as a standard part of the RIP process, reducing potential errors and making the process more efficient. For example, white plates and spot varnishes can be automatically created, saving time, and reducing errors.

PDF Print Engine 6 allows integration with various embellishing workflows, improving technology and standards for commercial and industrial printing. For more details, visit here.