Paper-only creative options for sustainable print

Paper-only creative options for sustainable print

Some of the most popular creative print options rely on nothing but paper. This could be to add texture to the page, vary the reading experience, or simply to make the print stand out.

This is an important topic because plastics are very widely used in print for popular finishes such as foil embossing and UV ink. The amounts of plastic used are tiny, but for many publishers and print designers, eliminating plastic from their productions is often an aspiration.

This article covers the following paper-only creative options, and discusses how they can be used as part of a captivating, eye-catching and sustainable production:

  • embossing and debossing
  • die cutting
  • plastic-free overlays
  • throw-out pages and covers
  • mixed and creative stocks
  • bespoke page sizes
  • mixing full- and short-width pages.

Blind embossing and debossing

Debossing is where an area of the page is indented using a metal embossing die, which is pressed into the page to make the impression. Embossing is where an area of the page is raised; it is achieved in the same way as debossing, but from the back of the page.

The effect is a tactile area of the paper which appears the same colour as the rest of the page. It is more effective on thicker boards, because the indentation can be deeper and therefore more pronounced.

Embossing and debossing are often deployed in combination with ‘foil’, a plastic layer, often in a contrasting colour. Without a foil, it’s known as a ‘blind emboss/deboss’.

This book, called Make a Mark, uses both blind and foil debossing. The title was blind debossed for added texture and a clean, minimalist look.

Debossed book
The book’s title, ‘Make a Mark’, is blind debossed, creating an indented area the same colour as the page. The smaller lettering on this cover is debossed with a black foil added.

Embossing and debossing are most popular for covers, as cover stocks are generally thicker than the text pages – and also because publishers are keen to make their covers stand out. The effect is often applied to highlight a title or other printed feature.

Embossing and debossing require no heat or chemicals to apply, only pressure. For each production, a custom die will be made, which is applied to every copy. Dies are cast from metal and discarded when no longer needed – but since they can be reused almost indefinitely, it means the longer your print run is, the lower your energy usage per copy. The same die may even be reused for multiple issues of a magazine or other publication.

While embossing and debossing is commonly used for titles, images and logos on covers, another option is all-over embossing. This is where the whole page is embossed with a pattern, to add a textured effect to an entire front cover. Examples include linen embossing, pebble embossing, and leather embossing. 

Mother Tongue magazine, printed by Park, uses an all-over cover emboss to produce a textured finish – as pictured here.

all over embossing

Die cutting

Die cutting is a process where a section of paper is removed, revealing part of the page underneath. It can be used to add interest to a front cover, and provide a sneak-peek of the content underneath.

A custom die cutter is made for each production, and is discarded afterwards. A small amount of additional wastage comes from the section which is cut out. This offcut waste will be sent for recycling by the printer, so this has very little environmental impact.

For this production of Unwoven, we used die cutting for their cover. The cut-out section revealed an image of a woollen textile below, providing a preview of the content of the magazine.

die cut magazine cover

Plastic-free overlays

Some productions incorporate translucent plastic pages to overlay the content of the page beneath. The same effect can also be achieved using translucent paper.

For this auction catalogue by Dorrance Hamilton, a translucent page with printed floral designs provides a sophisticated opening statement for the piece.

sustainable print options

Translucent paper is made from cellulose fibres only, with no other plant material, and the high air content of the paper gives its transparency.

A blank translucent sheet can be inserted  to break up sections of information, or create a sense of anticipation for what is below. The sheet can also be printed with text or images to add an extra layer of detail, embellishment or content to complement the page underneath.

Throw-out pages and covers

Throw-out pages and covers are those which fold out from a production, and they are popular for a range of different purposes. They can be used to showcase wide images which may not display as easily across a double spread, display visualisations of data, or draw attention to special content.

Miami Beach Now, a book made for a Miami beachfront development, used throw-out pages to add extra information alongside their landscape imagery.

fold out pages

Throw-outs are often 6pp or 8pp. They can be used within the main text of the production, or as part of the cover.

They are also a good way to maximise the use of your cover stock, especially if you’ve chosen a particularly creative stock, such as one made with special materials or interesting inclusions (we talk more about these below).

Once again, this is a very sustainable option as it requires only a couple of extra pages, and a tiny amount of energy to fold the pages. 

Wrap magazine included fold-out sections of prints by their featured artists. They took this idea a step further by making these sheets pull-out, meaning that they could also be removed from the magazine as posters.

sustainable magazine spread

Mixed and creative stocks

Using a mixture of different materials in your production can be a sustainable and affordable way to highlight different sections of content.

The Basement magazine used two different stocks to mark the journey between different sections of content within the magazine. Galerie Gloss gave some elements a more stylised, glossy look, whilst the grittier stories were presented on the uncoated Soporset Offset paper.

mixed stocks magazine mixed stocks magazine







It’s also not unusual for fashion magazines to switch between gloss paper for high-resolution photography, and trendier uncoated paper for editorial sections.

Mixing stocks can also be a budget-friendly way to incorporate a more expensive creative paper, that wouldn’t be affordable for the entire production. Many publishers will use a special or recycled stock for just a small section, or for their cover, as a way to showcase their sustainability without going over budget.

A good example is this edition of Wild Alchemy, which used Favini Crush, containing organic residues including kiwi and cocoa, for the belly band around the journal jacket.

recycled paper

Whether you choose multiple stocks, or just one stock for your production, there are a range of creative and sustainable options available. We compare the sustainability, price, and features of these in detail in our Paper Finder Tool.

Bespoke page sizes

Many bespoke productions may choose non-standard page shapes and sizes, to help their production stand out on the shelf.

Paper is bought in large sheets which divide into standard sizes and typically make four or eight pages per sheet of paper. Some non-standard page sizes can also be cut from these standard sheets, with little or no waste.

This auction house printed their catalogue at an unconventional square size. They chose 210 x 210mm dimensions, which allowed us to print in 24-page sections, with no wastage.

sustainable auction catalogue

If your chosen dimensions don’t fit into a standard sheet, it can increase costs, as more sheets must be bought. It also creates more paper waste, which, although easily recycled, would be considered less sustainable than creating no waste with standard page sizes.

However, if you’re printing to a non-standard shape in large quantities, you can order paper cut to a size which will fit with your dimensions. For print runs which use the equivalent volume of paper to 5,000 copies of a 128-page publication, it would be more cost-effective to order paper cut to size based on the chosen dimensions of your publication.

For shorter runs, ordering bespoke sheets may not be economical. You can therefore choose to either cut to a standard size, a non-standard size which produces little waste, or a non-standard size which produces more waste. This will depend on whether you feel that the size or shape you want is worth the offcut wastage and associated costs.

Mixing full-width and short-width pages

Another way to add variety to the reading journey is to have a mixture of page widths within your document.

The Journal used a standard page size for their main text, but added a short-width cover wrap to add a vibrant pop to the magazine, and provide additional information for the reader. The front details the contents inside, while the back shows the publisher’s environmental credentials.

paper-only sustainable printing

Paper-only creative print options

For another example, this independent magazine wanted to use different stocks for different sections of content. Each section is a different length – cut to size based on the most efficient available sheet size for that stock. The left side of this image shows the short uncoated pages in black, the full-length white pages underneath, and a full gloss spread on the right.

mixed page sizes

Swapping plastic for paper in creative print

As we’ve seen, you don’t necessarily need anything more than paper to achieve a striking and creative piece of print; some of these options can also make useful creative swaps for popular plastic-based finishes.

For example, choosing to simply deboss, instead of debossing with a foiling, will be similarly effective in adding texture and emphasis to the debossed area. However, it will eliminate both the plastic usage, and the heat energy to apply the foil to the page.

Likewise, using a translucent paper instead of a plastic one will produce an almost identical effect, with a much lower carbon impact.

These simple substitutions can be an effective way for publishers to reduce their impact on the environment, without compromising the beauty and creativity of their print.

Sustainable printing with Park

Park’s experts can help you to choose the ideal mix of creative elements for your sustainable production. Our previous articles in this series, expanding on the content in Sustainable Print Design, also provide more detail about the environmental impact of different bindings, laminates, and plastic-based finishes.

Our facility is carbon neutral and runs on renewable energy. Many publishers also choose to offset their materials with a ClimatePartner project. Read more about our sustainable printing services here.



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