The trouble with printshop design

AlphaGraphics LogoA few years ago, the tagline underneath the Alphagraphics logo read “Design • Copy • Print • Miracles.” This made me decidedly uncomfortable, but it did provide great encouragement for those who wanted the impossible done yesterday. Today, the tagline reads “Design • Copy • Print > Communicate.” I’m much more confident with this message, but I have to admit that the first element is a bit problematic.

The difficulty is in the definition. When Joe or Jill Consumer thinks about design, they may think of anything from the generation of ideas to the creation of art. Printshops (including AlphaGraphics) are pretty good at the latter, but fairly lousy at the former.

Here’s the problem:

Printing companies are production shops. Typically the design department is doing everything from page layout to prepress, including drawing the occasional logo or creating a newsletter or magazine template. Key to their operation is getting files to all of the machinery that has to run to keep the shop profitable and the employees (and owners) fed.

Jill Consumer calls up and asks if we can draw a logo for her new business. “Do you have an idea of what you want?” we ask.

This sounds silly to Jill. If she knew what she wanted, she wouldn’t have called to ask if we could do it. It’s not silly to us, because we know that most of the time will be required to come up with what she wants, not in drawing the final version. And if Jill is not good at making decisions, or if she is very particular (read finicky) about the final details, the time can be excessive. So, if I take on the project, I risk locking up hours of design time that could otherwise be used to produce work that will enable all of the other machines and people in the shop to be productive and make money.

Here are the Options:

If you can describe it, we can usually produce it. If you can draw your new logo (or something similar) on a napkin with crayons, we can produce it. Printers are exceptionally good at layout. If you need a brochure, presentation folder, booklet and you’ve got copy and photos, we can layout something beautiful for you. If you want three designs to choose from, that’s another story.

Conceptual development is what I call “creative” design. Some of us printers would like to do this type of design.  I’ve reached the conclusion that it’s basically impossible.  It’s simply unprofitable to devote the time required to do artistic design in a production environment. Even if we dedicate an employee to this kind of task, they will inevitably get pulled off when a higher priority production project comes around.

Creative design is best done by those without the overhead and production concerns of a printshop. Basically, Joe and Jill Consumer have three options:

  1. They can try to do it themselves. Many people consider themselves to have an artistic flair. This is fine only as long as the end product must please only the artist. If you want the art to please others, it’s best to involve others in the development. Technically, this option also has problems. I’ve written before about the perils of DIY design. On the upside, you may be able to create something that a professional graphic artist can convert into usable art without too much trouble.
  2. Hire an agency. Depending on the project, this might be a good solution. An ad agency’s reputation is based upon it’s creative talent and the quality of the products and campaigns produced. Agencies are most effective when the scope is large. In other words, if you’re planning a campaign that will include print and broadcast media, PR, internet, and some collateral print pieces; an agency is the appropriate choice. Agencies have overheads, too. The development cost might be considerable if Joe and Jill want a logo or a single printed piece, but they’ll probably get the product they want.
  3. Freelance designers are a great option if the scope of the project is well defined. At AlphaGraphics, we regularly refer customers to freelancers for creative design. We naturally ask them to bring us the project for printing when design is complete. In most cases, freelancers do not have the overhead concerns that printshops or agencies do. It may be possible to find a freelance designer that will work on a project basis, but most prefer to charge hourly rates. Project timetables may also be lengthened if the freelancer has a day job.

Paying for Design

For some reason, the concept of actually paying for design work seems difficult for some. We logged over four hours on a brochure project for a local church recently. The individuals involved could never agree on exactly what they wanted and the project was scrapped after bouncing in and out of the PROOF bin for a month. Short story–I billed for the design and they haven’t paid it.

If Joe and Jill hire an architect to draw up plans for their new house and they never get to build it, they’re still obligated to pay the architect for his work. It’s the same with design and printing.

Expect to pay for design, especially in a printshop. There are real costs involved, including the opportunity cost of the time spent on your project. There are many ways that Joe and Jill can help to control design costs. Most important are their ability to stay focused, organized and specific to minimize the time spent on edits and changes. More about this later.

Final Words:

The tagline is not a misrepresentation. We definitely do design at AlphaGraphics. We’re careful about it, though. I suspect that other printers may view this area of business in much the same way. Final advice: Follow Poor Richard’s Rule #1 — always ask the printer. If your project is too open-ended for your printer, he’ll let you know. And you might be surprised . . . a lot of things that look complicated really aren’t.

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2 Responses to The trouble with printshop design

  1. [...] in any production shop. I’ve written before about the challenges of printshop design (see The Trouble with Printshop Design ). It’s not that the equipment or the employees in the design office are so all-fired [...]

  2. [...] before on the difficulties of trying to integrate creative design into a production environment (see The Trouble With Printshop Design).  If being a marketing service provider means taking on customers like this one, printers will [...]

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