Industry Influencer: Sabine Lenz

Sabine Lenz, the “Paper Queen,” has long had a fascination with paper and its ability to evoke emotional responses from users. From learning how to make paper to offering her decades of experience in helping others select the best paper and designs to meet their needs, Lenz’ passion for print and paper gives her a unique insight into the future of the print and finishing industries. (

Known as the “Paper Queen” to her colleagues, as the founder and CEO of PaperSpecs, Palo Alto, California, Sabine Lenz long ago embraced her love of print design and all it entails. A deep infatuation with paper even led her to learn how to make it while living in Australia, an opportunity she describes as “a messy, but very empowering and eye-opening experience.” It is little wonder that Lenz’ love of paper, especially its ability to evoke emotional responses from users, led to PaperSpecs’ mission to demonstrate all the ways in which paper can be transformed in the act of communication. Striving to help creatives select the best paper and designs to meet their communication needs, Lenz – and PaperSpecs – provides expert insights and practical, up-to-date information about paper and printing technologies.

What drew you to the industry as a career?

I became a designer in a roundabout way. I was born and raised in Germany and originally got my degree in hotel management. I organized tradeshows for Marriott Hotels, where I had a chance to work with designers for our invitations, marketing collateral, etc. I ended up acting as art director for a lot of the pieces – I am sure the designers did not appreciate this very much – and soon realized how much I loved to live and breathe design. I made the decision to leave hotel management and began my professional life all over again, this time with a focus on design. Then, as now, it was all about print for me all the way.

How does PaperSpecs contribute to the print industry?

Our mission is to inspire – or, as I like to say, “ignite” – compelling print design, which has the power to move people in delightful and unexpected ways. Yet designers have few options when it comes to learning what they need to know about paper and printing these days. The industry is changing so much and so fast that even seasoned creatives have a hard time staying on top of the options available to them.

That’s why I created PaperSpecs PRO. Our members can order all the latest swatchbooks and promotions from more than 30 mills. They also receive weekly PRO Tips on how to use the latest printing and finishing technologies, as well as text and video primers on just about everything printing and paper related. They can even receive a quarterly VIP box full of hard-to-find print pieces if they opt for VIP membership.

What impact have specialty effects had on print?

From foil stamping to raised ink, these finishing options really have the chance to elevate a printed piece, to enhance the story the designer or brand owner wants to tell. They can add a tactile touch; in this overly digitalized world, people crave a tactile experience. The feel of paper and all the different tactile effects that can be incorporated in print communication have the ability to connect with people on a whole different level. That’s where print has the edge over digital. It may not be as quick or cheap to produce as digital content, but it can elicit more of an emotional response when done right.

What industry trends or changes have you witnessed over the last few years?

As print runs have decreased, digital printing and finishing have stepped in and allowed us to enhance a printed piece even, and especially, on short print runs. That’s very exciting news for designers.

How has PaperSpecs worked to address these trends?

Contrary to popular belief, designers love print, but more often than not they are intimidated. They shy away from it because they are not aware of the options available to them. Our goal at PaperSpecs is to break the options down for them. We work hard to explain the various finishing opportunities available to them in plain English. We touch on these new technologies in our short weekly videos, but we also frequently hold webinars that allow us to go more in depth and answer questions directly. This allows us to connect with designers more deeply and better help them achieve their desired goals for a given piece.

What can the print/finishing industry do to help educate the design community?

The importance of print communication has never been questioned. While it is certainly true that a lot of documents are now shared in digital format, such as pdfs, when it comes to sharing important messages or points, print is undoubtedly still the way to go.

Our goal – and I mean our collective goal as the print and finishing industry – has to be to make print accessible and easy to understand for designers – to bridge the knowledge gap that clearly exists. We might have been talking about digital foil or digital embossing for years, but many would be astonished to see how few designers know about them. And, if they don’t know, it is very unlikely they will use them.

When I spoke at this year’s HOW Design Live conference, out of 600+ designers in my session not one of them had ever heard of “sleeking.” They were speechless to see that digital presses can print on foil substrates. So, we need to go where they are. We need to start speaking their language and not be afraid to start with the basics.

What predictions do you have for the industry in the next five to 10 years?

Now if I only had a crystal ball!

Let’s start with this: Print will not go away. As a matter of fact, print is currently experiencing something of a revival. Big online brands like Facebook, Google and Airbnb are all using print in fun and creative ways to tell their story and enhance their brands – and, believe me, they print a lot.

With more and more print and enhancement options available in small quantities and on a wider variety of substrates, we are in for some very creative times.

How will the design industry and the print/finishing industries continue to influence one another?

We both need one another. If designers do not know what is possible, they cannot design for it. Once they are aware, they are eager to push the envelope. The more open printers and finishers are to this, the more they will thrive and the more, in turn, creatives will create and push.

My advice to printers and finishers is to be open to trying something out of the box. It just might be the showpiece that spreads like wildfire through the design community, wins you awards and ultimately gets you more business. It is a win-win situation.