There are lots of ways to make your designs stick.
Adhesive papers come in many varieties for different
aesthetic looks and practical purposes. Choosing the
right one for the job is a matter of creative preference
filtered through technical specifications. With
a particular usage in mind, designers need to review
label stock materials, the processes of label manufacturing,
and how they are applied in order to decide
what meets their clients’ needs.
Begin by understanding the five components to
- Topcoat or laminate (this is optional)
- Face stock
- Backing or liner
- Substrate (what the label is going to stick to)
All five components have characteristics that affect
design. Let’s look at these components in the context
of the three types of labels used most often by
designers—pressure-sensitive labels, mounted sheet
labels, and static cling labels.
These self-adhesive labels are constructed with a face
stock (the part that gets printed on). Over the face
stock is the optional topcoat, or laminate, that acts
as waterproofing. Under the face stock is the adhesive,
followed by a nonstick liner that gets peeled off
An example of this type of label, crack and
peels, are pressure-sensitive label stocks that get
sheetfed printed; they’re either cut to size (e.g., mailing
labels in stationery packages) or kiss-cut to stay
on larger sheets until individual labels are peeled off
when needed (think of those labels you run through
your laser printer). Another variety of pressuresensitive
paper label is roll labels. These are printed
by flexography rather than sheetfed lithography.
In flexography, the label stock is printed on a
curved (flexographic) press drum, then rewound on a
cardboard core. They are most often used in packaging,
although rolls of self-adhesive postage stamps are
also offered on pressure-sensitive roll labels.
Paper is a versatile, economical, and easy-toprint
face stock that can be die cut into any shape.
Face stocks come in a variety of finishes, including
the coated stocks: high-gloss cast coated, gloss, semigloss,
and matte; and uncoated stocks that often
match writing-weight papers. There are also specialty
stocks such day-glo, metallic, and foil papers.
Adhesives for pressure-sensitive labels can be
formulated to be removable or permanent. Another
important aspect of pressure-sensitive labels is that
the roll label variety can be used with automatic
applicators to adhere the labels to the substrate
surface. This means faster application time and less
cost than hand application. However, crack and peel
labels are generally meant to be used one at a time
and hand applied.
Pressure sensitive (PS) film labels are constructed
and work the same way as paper ones, but the face
stock is film. The film is transparent but can be made
opaque by printing a background color with opaque
inks. A wonderful thing about using a clear film label
is that the color of the product can shine through the
packaging, providing a no-label look.
Topcoating or laminating isn’t necessary because
film is already moisture resistant. However, inks need
to be specially formulated for film face stock. One
option is using UV inks that can provide a superior
brilliance of color.
Film labels are good for applying to curved surfaces.
They work especially well in packaging that is
handled and squeezed because these labels flex and
are durable. (A variation of PS film labels are full
wraparound stretch sleeve ones that cover the package
completely … but these are not technically pressure-
Mounted sheet labels
Premium face stock can be used in conjunction
with a glue machine to turn virtually any sheetfed
lithographic paper into a label. Here’s how it works:
A sheet of paper is printed, often including specialty
processes like engraving and foil stamping. The
printed material is then topcoated—for example,
varnished if there is a need to protect the graphics,
provide a moisture barrier, or help the package resist
abrasion. Once the sheet is dry, it’s run through a
machine that applies adhesive. The sheet is then
adhered onto the substrate, which is often chipboard.
Once the bond is fully dried, the laminated
board is scored, die cut, then folded and glued to
make a box.
The great advantage to using this process is that
the surface printing quality of a premium paper is far
superior to typical coated board stock. You end up
with a stronger box and better looking printing. If a
full-bleed flat color is printed on the coated side of
the chipboard and laminated on the uncoated side,
the resulting box can be very impressive indeed (see
the Stila packages below).
Using premium stocks, belly-band labels can be
created when a strip of face stock is wrapped around
a substrate, like a package or deck of postcards,
and then glued to itself with adhesive applied on
the label’s overlapping edge. Belly bands are easy to
break or slide off the piece, leaving the items they are
wrapped around unaffected.
Static cling labels
Another use for labels—one that has nothing to
do with packaging or stationery systems—is for
temporary and display signage. Static cling labels
are made of specially formulated self-adhesive vinyl
film that sticks by static electricity to the substrate.
As with a pressure-sensitive film label, the film is
transparent but can appear opaque if printed that
way. Topcoating isn’t required, but special inks have
to be used.
These labels can be easily repositioned, so they’re
great in environments where signs need to go up for
a short period of time. For a more permanent or ofthandled
sign, a designer should specify a different
material … but static cling labels are a great way to
get a brand message into an environment.
Beyond these types, there are a variety of specialty
labels created for very specific purposes. These
include such things as premade label sheets that work
in laser printers; barcode labels for inventory tracking
and pricing; retail price stickers; clothing labels for
branding and washing instruction; CD and DVD
labels; as well as tamper-resistant, tamper-evident,
and other security labels that help protect consumers.
Typically, these labels are not created or specified
by designers, but their application on a product can
affect a design. In addition, there are also labels made
of specialty materials like heat-sealed labels, aluminum,
and magnetic material.
Adhesives, topcoats, and liners
An important consideration when specifying
any label is what type of adhesive will be used.
Adhesives are made from natural rubber, acrylic
polymers, and silicone, each of which has different
properties, applications, and costs. Adhesives can
have either high or low tack— meaning very sticky
with a high cohesive bonding strength, or lightly
sticky with a low level of adhesion. This makes a
difference in whether or not the labels will be permanent
Items like warning labels on hazardous materials
need to be permanent … while name badges for a
conference need to be easily removed from clothing.
Beyond these characteristics, adhesives can be formulated
for hot or cold temperatures, or to resist grease
and oil, and even be usable with food products.
Topcoating a label can be done for aesthetic
or practical reasons. Chemical coatings are applied
to the face stock to improve the appearance of the
ink, create contrast within the graphic elements, or
provide a protective abrasion-resistant or waterproof
surface. Spot lamination can be done using matte
or gloss film to highlight certain areas in the label.
Overall film lamination, either in matte or gloss film,
will create a label surface that is able to withstand
moisture. Varnish will seal the ink on a face stock to
help protect the surface from rubbing or ink offset,
while UV coatings provide special visual effects in
“I know that designers often think UV coatings
are protective, that they work as a barrier to UV light
and therefore help inks resist fading, but that’s not
true,” says print management expert Marcia Mosko,
president of Tobu Print Group in Los Angeles. “UV
refers to the fact that these coatings are dried under
UV lights. They are slightly moisture resistant, but
they aren’t really considered protective coatings.”
Label carrier paper, also called backing or liner,
is not ordinarily specified by designers. These stocks
are selected to work with specific face stocks in pressure-
sensitive labels by manufacturers. Most backing
is treated with a silicone coating on the white kraft
paper in order to provide easy removal of labels from
the carrier. Ask your printer for samples to examine
the material when creating a pressure-sensitive label.
What’s right for my project?
In any design project, client and brand needs drive
aesthetic solutions. Choosing the right type of label
for the brand is mostly a matter of thinking through
how the labeled item will be used and by whom.
Walking through a day in the life of the label will
tell you special materials and adhesive required.
Some basic questions to ask:
- Product: What product will be sold or promoted?
- Container: Is a container needed? What type of
container is best? What material should it be made
out of? What is its shape?
- Environment: Will it be exposed to heat or cold?
Humidity and moisture? Will grease, oil, sunlight,
caustic chemicals, or other factors affect durability?
Does it need to be a permanent label or
removable and easily peeled off?
- Applying the label: Will this label be affixed
by machine or by hand? Of huge importance is
whether or not your client will be using standing
(or existing) containers or if a new package can
be created. The realities of filling containers with
products may well restrict design choices. It’s mandatory
to talk these things through up front.
Getting the best results
Getting great results with printed labels is a matter
of planning and preparation. Discuss the product
and the design itself with your printing supplier as
early in the creative process as possible.
“Designers should meet with their printer
right away. That way they can see a lot of finished
samples,” advises Gabriel Venegas, a customer service
representative at Acme Graphic Arts Finishers in
Vernon, Calif. “This is important because seeing the
finished item lets you look at the way things are put
together and function. It’s a lot easier to talk about
technical considerations when you’re going over a
real sample that is similar to what you’re thinking
about making.” He suggests taking a look at standing
(existing) dies, packages, and containers that your
printer may already have.
After preliminary meetings, proceed with design.
Once a design has been determined and the preferred
product container and label materials are selected, it’s
a good idea to do some testing. “Designers should
always ask for test labels to be included in any packaging
job” says Mosko. “Blank labels cut to size on
the specified stock should be supplied to the filler
who will be providing the product container. That
way a test can be done to make sure the label will fit
the actual container before the labels are printed.
“Sure, this is expensive—somewhere between
$2,000 and $10,000—but it’s worth it to not print
up incorrect labels,” she adds.
Good advice is priceless
Creating labels and other adhesive-based designs
requires technical expertise. This is one area where
designers should work closely with their printing
consultants and others who are experienced with
these types of projects. Despite the many factors and
considerations to review, sticky stuff is potentially a
powerful tool to help successfully brand your client’s
products and services.
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