Using Paper Swatch Books


When I first started working as a graphic designer, one of the things that got me super excited was SWATCH BOOKS! It was just like going to an art supply store or a fabric store, colors, textures, potential and ideas… except it was all on paper instead. I loved seeing the new colors that the paper mills adopted each year, colors that reflected trends happening in interior design and fashion.

Textures also changed, but not from year to year… mostly decade to decade.

Getting a new design assignment and heading to a paper cabinet for inspiration was even better. Imagining how an identity system might look, or a cover and text combination for a report, was so fun I really never thought of it as work.

Honestly, it was some of the most joy I had as a designer, speccing paper.

And because I was a printer too, I had deeper than average knowledge of how certain images or types of information would reproduce on different papers. Often, we were able to help a designer steer clear from an unhappy outcome by recommending a different paper for the project. We asked…. “what are your expectations?, How do you want this to look? Do you want it slick and polished or earthy and textural?”

 I learned, however, that not everything shown in a swatch book is available. And I learned this the hard way.

After spending time going through lots of swatch books and narrowing my choices and figuring out how the design would work, I would find out that the paper I wanted was not available. What a bummer!

Not only had I spent a good deal of time working the design around a specific paper, but it was shown to the client and they were excited about it too! Sometimes we had already ordered and shown dummies and printing estimates to the client.

It was after a few of those disappointments that a kind and patient paper rep showed me how I was messing up. And I will show you too, but wait for it…

A swatch book usually represents one line of paper made by a paper mill. For example, Neenah is a paper mill and one of their lines is Classic Crest. After 2008, many paper mills cut-back on the number of papers they made. There was a lot of consolidation amongst mills.

Prior to 2008, a mill might keep a line of “prestige” paper going, even though it was not a big seller, because it represented the quality and extent of their craft and skill. After 2008, papers that were not big sellers were discontinued after the current inventory was sold.

I am telling you this because after the great recession, these problems increased for everyone. It’s easy to spec the wrong paper, even if you’ve been a working as a designer for a long time. There are papers you have come to count on for over 10 years, or particular shades, that are no longer available. And you will not find out this important tidbit until you order a reprint for a client or try to specify that sheet for a new project.

 Here’s an assortment of swatch books shown open to their waterfall pages or chip charts. The glorious colors and textures remind me why I chose to be a designer.

The waterfalls are labeled with the weight, color, and finish of the samples collected.

swatch assort crop
Below is an example stocking chart for Mohawk Superfine (check with your printer about current stocking info). The stocking chart is typically printed under one of the waterfalls, or under the printing samples included with a swatch book. This one shows the finishes, Smooth is first, and then from left to right, the weights, caliper, sheet sizes in inches and millimeters, the m weight, the number of sheets per package, sheets per carton and finally the colors.
superfine stocking
Here is a closeup. The first columns are of interest to the printing estimators who need to know the making sizes and number of sheets per carton. Check the colors before you call your printer for an estimate. In this chart, 24lb. smooth is available in all colors at the most common parent sheet size of 35 x 23. But if you look at the 28lb weight, you’ll see the same sheet size is only available in one color. Why? 28lb is not as common as 24lb.
superfine stocking closeup
If you do not see the color you want in the weight you want it, it is not the end of the world. You can order custom paper, or even a custom color. If you want a custom paper, a minimum of TONS of paper is required.

Just because you see the color and weight you want in the swatch book, this does not always mean the paper can be used for your project.

The distributor may be out of stock and may need to order it from the mill, which could take a couple of weeks to arrive (depending on where you and the mill are located). The mill may be out of stock, or be in the middle of making more and that may take a month. The color and weight you want may have been discontinued since the swatch book was published. This is why you call your printer to see if what you want is available — before — you show your client.

There is even more info about envelopes, printing details and such, especially for electronic or digital printing. You can see if the paper is available in parent sizes for sheetfed printing or rolls for web, and minimum weights for custom orders.

Recycled content and environmental certification details can also be found on these panels, but often recycled content is noted on the waterfall swatch. This info is usually under a waterfall or under the printed samples, like the page below.

mohawk produciton notes

One of the most useful things about swatch books is the printed samples.

Not only do they showcase costly and elaborate printing techniques, but you can also see samples of foil stamping, embossing, die cutting and other finishing methods. The sample below shows the same image printed on a warm white paper (left) and a cool white (right). You can see how the mood is different, something you may want to convey as a designer.

fish comparison

swatch assortment crop

It’s important to keep your swatch library up-to-date, not only to monitor trends in color and design, new printing or finishing techniques, but also to steer clear of designing around an outdated paper.

Your print rep can keep you up-to-date and will happily share the promotional examples that showcase not only the finest printing techniques but also current design trends and designers. If you do not have a print rep you may be able to have a paper rep call on you directly, depending on the amount of business you do in paper.

Much thanks to Mohawk Paper for the Superfine line (which I spec often) you can see more of their products at www.mohawkconnects.com.

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