Finesse it with a sledgehammer

August 22, 2008

It’s difficult to describe the exact series of sounds. It started as the usual “kerklunk” rhythm, uniform and predictable as the books are stitched, folded and trimmed. Moments later, the sound had altered. Now a “kerflam,” there was a slight metallic echo after each cycle. An undertone swelled up from deep in the bowels of the machine; a grey and forbidding rumbling foreshadowing some dire sequence of events. With a crescendo and a roar the machine was momentarily quiet, then emitted a last staccato series of clicks a loud metallic “klang!” and fell silent.

I knew we were pushing the limit. The book we were working on had started as 36 pages, well within the capabilities of our trusty bookletmaker. But in a short week it had grown to 68 pages of gloss text and a cover . . . just a little more than the machine is actually rated to do. The hardy machine actually made it through about 600 books before the audible complaints began. It spit out another 30 or so in its death throes, leaving us only 370 to put together by hand at 5:00 on Thursday, for an event that was to take place the next morning.

Upstairs, the wide format printer was spewing cyan ink in places that it was not intended to spew. The company that manufactured this machine has recently been purchased by a company whose initials are comprised of the eighth and sixteenth letters of the alphabet. I think they’re having some difficulties digesting their acquisition. I’m tempted to say that the machine is a lemon, but every moving part in the thing has been replaced so it seems more likely that the whole concept is flawed and the new manufacturer doesn’t have a clue how to fix it.

The technician who comes to make repair attempts is a very nice fellow who sincerely tries his best to keep us running. In Poor Richard’s experience, there are two kinds of technicians. The first is tidy, organized and efficient. Bob Jordan, who works on our presses, falls into this category. He has magnetic hands . . . the right tool always just seems to be there.

The tech for the wide format machine is of the second variety. Brian calls him Pigpen and begins humming the theme from Peanuts (Linus and Lucy) as he approaches the door. You can see the dustcloud from 100 yards away. He is neither efficient nor organized. Tools and screws vanish in his presence. Seemingly minor repairs can lead to catastrophe and major component failures.

In this case, it was disaster in absentia. Printheads had been replaced the previous week, leading to vacuum problems, leading to a new part which we installed, leading to more extreme vacuum problems, culminating in cyan ink spewing in places where it should never spew.

My dad was in the blue jean business for a time, operating a sewing plant only a block away from Alphagraphics. I remember his mechanic very well.  I guess Frederick was an aberration.  I don’t recall him being either neat or organized, but he had Bob’s innate sense of how things run. He worked very well with a hangover. Frederick was acquainted with wrenches and screwdrivers, but his favorite tool was a ball peen hammer.  He could actually occasionally get sewing machines to run by striking them a solid blow at some strategic point only revealed by God to Frederick.  Or maybe it was like zen . . . he was one with the machine. He called it “finessing with a sledgehammer.”

Some days what I really need is Frederick and the ball peen hammer, or  a minor miracle, or maybe a whole 55 gallon drum full of pixie dust. What I’ve got is customers who only want booklets and wide format. Isn’t life grand?

Price, Price . . . the Printer’s Lament.

June 12, 2008

In my previous life (BA -before AlphaGraphics), I sold lumber. Worked for a great company out of Perry, GA that sold treated lumber and other stuff to retail lumber yards all over the Eastern US. We actually marketed lumber, which was a little difficult. You see, it’s really kind of hard to differentiate the #2 2 x 4 you sell from the #2 2 x 4 that everyone else was selling. We ran a really tight business, with excellent customer service, and we always did what we said we would do.

In the midst of the Spring busy season, there was a game that was played. There was alway an item or two in short supply that the customer had to have on the truck. One competitor or another would always lowball this item to get the truckload order. We’d hear, “I had to place the order with ABC lumber because they were 10% less on 2 x 10 x 14 and that’s what I really needed.”

“How were we on the rest of the stuff?” I’d always ask. Usually we were pretty much in line. Frequently, we’d follow up to find that the truck had arrived from the competitor without the “most needed” item.

Here’s the point: It’s easy to price low when you don’t deliver.

Times are tough in the printing world. The market is changing rapidly and mid-sized printers are having identity crises. In Middle Georgia, the summer doldrums are compounded by the weak economy and an ever accelerating shift away from print. With the overall market shrinking, competitors are flailing away and the waves are getting rough.

Two weeks ago, we lost a nice bit of business from an old account. We had printed and delivered their letterhead and envelopes for several years, since they shut down an in-house shop. Here’s the short story: New purchasing agent, Out for bid, taken by an Atlanta printer.

The service requirements for this account are stringent: online ordering and proofing, 3 day turnaround, direct delivery to the end user, small quantity orders. It was not unusual for us to deliver a box of business cards. We had imposed a minimum of 500 cards, but were requested to change this to 100 for the new contract. We bid the contract at what I thought were very competitive prices for the level of service requested. We lost the bid to a company in Marietta, GA; roughly 2 hours to the north of us. The average value of a delivery to this client was around $180. I’m not going to draw the conclusion that the new supplier will not meet the terms of the contract, but I question that they will profit from it.

Last week we printed some letterhead and envelopes for a non-profit. It was a new customer for us . . . one of our old contacts changed jobs and gave us a call. I love it when that happens. After the envelopes were delivered, we were requested to provide pricing for a small quantity of “wallet flap” remittance envelopes. They asked for quantities of 1000 and 3000. We regularly print these envelopes and they occasionally give us fits in the small presses. I price the envelopes accordingly and fairly.

I emailed the envelope estimate and didn’t hear back from them for a week. On Monday, Brian received a call from the customer. One of our competitors had undercut our prices substantially . . . if we would match the price, we could have the order. Two of our folks have worked recently for the competitor in question. There are two presses in their facility–a 40″ Komori 6 color and an antique Ryobi that no one will run. Their business is built around long runs – real estate magazines and such. I am skeptical that an order for 3000 envelopes is going to get a lot of attention when it gets into the workflow. I explained that we would be happy to print the envelopes for them, but declined to match the competitor’s pricing. Why work for nothing?

Customer 3 came in today to ask if they could put some promotional postcards on our front counter. They’re a new business downtown. I recognized the postcard immediately . . . muddy printing, low resolution art, and UV coating. We told him we could do a better job for him next time. He paid $200 for a zillion on from He got what he paid for.

The last customer in today’s story seems to be a really nice guy. He’s setting up a new office in a smaller community to the south of us and had heard of Alphagraphics from one of his associates. We printed his business cards last week. This week’s project was to be a trifold brochure. The graphic designer is associated somehow with the business he’s starting, but the individual offices can purchase their own printing. I like that. We provided pricing for several permutations of the brochure, small quantities printed 4/4 in digital color. Because he had wanted a heavier, “more substantial” card stock for his business cards, I suggested an 80# cover stock for the brochure.

A day later, I received a call asking for revised pricing on larger quantities. I responded accordingly.

The next call was familiar. The designer has a printing relationship and can provide the brochure for a lower price. Could we match it? This time I asked for the exact specs. 4/4 with bleeds printed on 80# text. After revising the estimate to match the specifications, we were right in line. Only one problem . . . the customer didn’t want a flimsy brochure. We revised once more for 100# text. This one worked out OK.

Here is the point: there is a value attribute in every transaction.

Lumber is universally acknowledged to be a commodity, but the value in the transactions my company undertook had to do with integrity and dependability. We delivered what we promised and took care of any problems that occurred. Regardless of the price promised, a product that is not delivered (or not delived on time) has no value whatsoever to the buyer.

There are costs associated with the value provided. These costs have to be recovered in the price of the product to enable the supplier to provide the product to the customer. In addition, the provider must make a profit in order to survive.

The lowest cost provider is not always the provider of greatest value. In printing, if the quality of the product is poor, the cost to the customer in terms of lost opportunities and poor impressions can be far in excess of the price they would have paid for a quality product in the first place.

Finally, it is necessary to understand what you are purchasing. The printer you want to do business with will help you make a good purchasing decision. He’ll help you choose the correct value and price for the product and impression you want to produce.

In times like these, the universal inclination is to pinch a penny until Mr. Lincoln screams. Businesses like mine are balancing on the edge, trying to keep our businesses alive and meet our customers’ needs without compromising the standards of value that they (our customers) have come to expect. Please take value into consideration when you make purchasing decisions. Think about the companies that you want to be doing business with when times get better. Times are tough, but buying cheap may not be the best choice.

If I don’t break it, it shouldn’t have to be fixed.

May 21, 2008

Prerequisite to success in the printing business is a deep and abiding love for gadgetry. Most of us just can’t resist the urge to buy a new machine from time to time. We do intensive study prior to each purchase, calculating the ROI (Return on investment for you non-business types) at least a dozen different ways until we concoct a way to reach the conclusion we need to justify the purchase.

We listen carefully to the claims of the salesperson, promises of enhanced productivity, low maintenance and capabilities beyond our wildest dreams . . . and we believe them all for at least a week after the machine arrives. And then reality sets in . . .

We have a large digital color machine manufactured by a company whose name begins and ends with “X.” It employs fancy electrostatic devices called “charge coretrons” that have something to do with getting the toner to adhere to a belt that ultimately transfers it to paper where it is finally fused into a semi-permanent state of um . . . printedness. We have, over the course of our ownership of this machine, noticed certain problems that occur when these grandiloquent devices malfunction; problems that generally are ameliorated when the component is replaced.

There are two authorized means of obtaining the “charge coretron.” One may call either the “parts” or “supplies” department of the palindromatic company. Contact with both departments is enabled by toll free numbers that connect the caller to specially trained customer service personnel located either in Islamadehli or Pakalaysia (see my former diatribe Outsourcing). At either number, one may reach a helpful person named Dan who, after receiving the part number, will search his database for 10 minutes and then tell you that you have called the wrong department, and that you should spend an equal or greater amount of time with the other department in order that another Dan might tell you to call the first department once again.

Brian, our production manager, was actually brave enough to call the first Dan a second time. He carefully repeated the part number (alpha delta bravo zed seven niner nought dash C3PO) seventeen times until Dan had it down correctly (and could sing it in A minor). We waited as Dan conducted a super-extensive search for our critical part. We were put on hold briefly and listened to The Mamas and the Papas accompanied by a sitar on Islamadehli’s light rock station. And then we received the authoritative answer.

“Your machine does not use that part,” said Dan. “It is not required. The machine will run perfectly well without it.”

Unfortunately, this did not play out well in our actual experience. Trusting in Dan’s confident response, we removed all of the charge coretron devices from the machine, toggled the machine on and submitted a file for printing. It didn’t.

Printers are practical people . . . when our exasperation with a machine surpasses our desire to fool with it, we call the repair folks. Luckily for us, our regional service person, who covers a territory roughly the size of the American West, happened to be within 20 miles of us. Her name begins with a “D.” She is actually very capable, pleasant to deal with, and doesn’t understand her own company any better than we do.

She also has the “magic number” that allows her to speak with people whose names are not Dan and who have actually seen and worked on the machine in question. After a brief but thorough diagnosis of our machine, our technical service person determined that the machine was not running because we had removed the aforementioned critical key components. She replaced them, found one of them faulty and was able to order a replacement by dialing another “magic number.”

Naturally, we did ask if we could obtain the “magic numbers” for our own use in procuring replacement parts for our machine. “D” apologized demurely, explaining that multiple years of training and a high level security clearance were required before such intelligence was authorized; and besides we’d need a special Maxwell Smart shoe phone with an identity chip to tell the folks on the other end that it was OK to answer the phone and talk with us.

“It’s best you don’t break the machine,” she said as she packed up her tool kit to leave.

“So, I replied, “if I don’t break it, it shouldn’t have to be fixed.”

“Right,” she said with a smirk, then turned in the doorway. “But if you get into trouble, call Dan.”

Here’s a video featuring one of my heros, Rube Goldberg. I found the clip on YouTube. It’s almost 70 years old, but it’s still very relevant. It’ll help you understand machines and companies like the palindromatic “X” company that invent them:

The Smell of Trouble

April 17, 2008

It must have been payback for all of my ranting about the end of elegant design (see the last post If Counterfeiters are dinosaurs . . .). I had received a call from a perfectly normal sounding professional type person a couple of days before. He was starting a new operation in Macon and needed “the package” – letterhead, envelopes, business cards, etc. These kinds of calls are usually good news for a printer. If you get the first batch of business, you usually get the reorders and maybe a brochure and some other stuff. All of the layouts were done, he’d have his designer get in touch with the specs.

Shortly thereafter, the specifications appeared by email, including all of the usual stuff with a request for estimates on 2 color and 3 color versions of everything. It could have been the request for 3 color envelopes that caused my printer’s antennae to elevate or maybe it was something in the look or the language of the request. I don’t know, but I put the request down with the intent of calling the designer to get a look at the art before I put together numbers.

Designer is a very broad and general descriptive term, you must understand. It’s definition can encompass the entire scope between Joe and his color crayons and Andy Warhol. Anyone can call themselves a graphic designer, but few earn the title; and even fewer really understand the technical aspects of design. And despite the assertions (and tuitions) of the best art institutes, Poor Richard asserts that great designers are not really trained. They’re born with it. The best ones have an innate sense of artistic balance and color and they soak up the technical stuff like a sponge.

I received the art with a request for samples of work that we had done. The antennae went up a little further. When I opened the .pdf file, the yellow warning lights at the end of the antennae began to flash. It’s not that the art wasn’t good . . . actually the design was elegant and clean. But the color combination was two grays and a red. This was a designer who was busily spending his clients’ money, because he could get away with it.

Offset printing of three spot colors is really one of the least efficient things that occurs in a printshop. The printer has a couple of options. If the registration between the colors is not tight, the printer may choose to run two passes on a 2 color press. The colors that register will run on the first pass, followed by the single color that does not. Alternately, the printer may choose to load up mixed ink on a 4 color press. Digital printing is not an option for letterhead, which is likely to be run again through a laser printer or a toner device. Reheating the toner on the letterhead can make a terrific mess. And envelopes are another problem. Most small presses will run envelopes and register 2 colors. If all three colors register, either the envelopes must be printed on a special press or the sheets are printed before the envelope is manufactured (or “converted” in printereze).

Take as an example, this less than skillfully conceived logo for Impending Disaster Design Group:

Logo #1

If three colors are needed, this is the economical way to do it. This logo will require two passes through a press, but only the light blue and the teal register. The gold can be added in in a second pass. Most printers will even be able to print an envelope with this logo. The lightning bolt is likely to misregister just a little bit, but it won’t be noticeable to the mail recipient, who, after all is only seeing one envelope at a time.

This version of the logo is a little more problematic. Because the light blue, the teal, and the gold all register (touch), it’s going to be nearly impossible to run this logo on a small 2 color press. The best option for this version is to run it on a 4 color press, but that means incurring more expense in setup and cleanup before and after the job. Most printers are reluctant to run 500 sheets of letterhead on a larger press, so the price for small quantities is going to be a little steep.

Another option is to convert the logo to process color. Even though process color adds an ink, this may be a more economical option. The printer is probably running process inks on his larger press (or on a DI press), so special setup and washup may be unnecessary. There is a but here, though. Converting the colors from spot to CMYK means a loss of color integrity. Because process color combines screens from 4 inks to give the impression of color (see Color Separation . . . Whadd’ya Mean?), it will differ from mixed (i.e. spot) inks where the color comes from the ink pigments themselves.

The art I received from the elegant designer was more like this. The logo was admittedly a lot less garish, and actually only 2 colors registered, but the net effect was the same. The designer used two grays – one “warm” and one “cool.” The grays are actually mixed inks, with formulas in every printer’s Pantone book. Without exception, press operators hate these colors. The gray is achieved by mixing several inks (usually a heavy load of white ink with dabs of black and either a red or blue). The measurements must be very exact to achieve the correct color. It’s not easy to mix the colors correctly the first time and if you miss the first time, it’s almost impossible to get them to match when it’s time to run the project again. Succinctly put, the PITA factor for this job is high, and the customer will pay extra for it.

Now, it is not often that Poor Richard is encouraged by his customers to charge more for a job that can be done a better way. The same logo could be produced in 2 colors (gold and black or gold and a mixed gray), using different screens of the black or gray to produce nearly the same effect. True, it would be more difficult to differentiate between the “cool” gray and the “warm” gray, but the cost would be much less and the job more easy to replicate when the reprint comes around.

Admittedly, printers tend to be of a practical bent. Poor Richard is totally unqualified to weigh the aesthetic value of a logo that uses two gray inks against one with only one gray ink.  I can see it very clearly in economic terms, though, and say without reservation that approximately exactly 97.644 percent of the recipients of the letterhead and envelopes will never notice a difference.  In other words, there is no “bang for the buck.”

I’m playing along for now.  We’ve done some pretty elegant printing over the years for some very fine designers. I’ve even sent a few samples by mail. Somehow, though, I’m just not sure that I want to pass muster.  Some jobs just have the smell of trouble, and this one is a little fragrant.

Digitally Pressed

November 29, 2007

So what exactly is a Digital Press anyway?

Xerox 6060

The word “digital” has been bandied about to such an extent in the printing industry, that I’m not sure it has any meaning whatsoever anymore. In the broadest sense, digital printing could be described as any print process that begins with a computer file and ends up on some sort of imaged substrate. This runs the gamut from the $80 Canon inkjet on your desktop (that rapidly consumes ink cartridges worth their weight in gold) to the most sophisticated devices made by Xerox, HP/Indigo or a host of others.

The phrase “digital press” is definitely in. Many of the manufacturers dub their higher end production machines with this moniker. Easily 95% of the digital presses in the marketplace today simply aren’t. Let me explain that . . . they are digital, they aren’t presses. The “press” part of the nomenclature comes from the root word “pressure.” In the case of an offset press, there is actually pressure between the blanket cylinder and the impression cylinder that causes ink to set off (ergo “offset”) onto the paper. Not so with the digital press. For the most part, digital presses are toner devices. Mechanically, they are more akin to a copy machine than a press.

Poor Richard is, admittedly, a reformed offset press snob. For a long while, I referred to our color machines as “color copiers on steroids.” We started with a beast from Canon. It was digital in the sense that you could send a file to it. It worked on the principal of a rotating drum. Each sheet of paper went around the drum 4 times with a different color toner applied each revolution. The result was usually fairly consistently horrendous from one sheet to the next and absolutely unpredictable on consecutive days or if the weather changed. It would run 24# bond at the astounding rate of 6 sheets/minute.

But times have changed. The Xerox monster we have today runs almost any smooth stock at 10 times the rated speed of the Canon beast. Unlike it’s predecessors, it is very receptive to all kinds of files and color modes (RGB, CMYK, Spot). Ever so grudgingly, I even have to admit that the quality is every bit as good as offset. Maybe it’s even a little bit better.

Today I spent a half hour scoring and folding one of the prettiest digital press pieces we have ever produced. A trifold on 100# text with heavy ink coverage, it was designed by one of our university customers. The design was beautiful, but it would have been a bear to print on a press. The front featured a heavy orange solid that had to match up to the reverse. This is the kind of stuff that causes pressmen to go cross-eyed bonkers. We would have wasted 1000 sheets of paper to produce the 1000 brochures that were ordered. As it was, we ran 40 extras digitally for binding waste. The results were spectacular.

With all that said, there are still a few elements that need to be taken into consideration when designing for digital printing. Here are Poor Richard’s tips:

  1. Watch the solids. Big solids that can be a problem on press can also be a problem when they are printed digitally. Depending on the device, solids can fade, stripe, or ghost. The Xerox monster we’re running now really does a wonderful job on solids and is operator-friendly enough so that we can change a belt or drum when a problem occurs. This isn’t the case with all of the digital presses on the market or with all of the human beings that operate them.
  2. Watch the gradients. This problem is sporadic, but there is a more pronounced tendency for gradients to show banding when they are printed digitally. Light screens may also occasionally print unpredictably.
  3. Use a consistent color model. I really like the color gamut that our monster produces from RGB files. It is bright and the color pops. It isn’t color accurate, though. Most of the toner devices are CMYK and (if calibrated properly) will emulate a spot color as closely as process color on a press. Beware:  combinations of CMYK and RGB may yield some very surprising results. And WYSIWYG still isn’t . . . I’m sure that the photograph of the local news team that was sent to us for their Christmas Card looked wonderful on the monitor at the station, but they were all mellow yellow when they printed on our digital press. Be conscious of this and correct color just like you would for offset.
  4. About Color. Color accuracy on digital devices is still a little hit and miss and calibration is as much art as science. One disadvantage to digital presses is the “tweaking” of color. Unlike offset, there are no ink keys that can be used to dial in by eye. That said, if your printer manages and monitors color on their digital machines, colors should be pretty consistent (but not exact) from one project to the next.
    Remember that calibrations and color profiles for digital presses are specific to both device and paper substrate and it is totally impractical for a printer to calibrate to every paper in existence. This means that color will shift slightly between paper stocks. Color may also shift slightly from day to day due to the peculiarities of the machine, even if it is calibrated regularly.
  5. Ask for a hard copy proof. One of the wonderful aspects of digital printing is that you can produce just one copy to look at. It’s not instantaneous, but it is possible. If your project is color sensitive, ask for a hard copy proof on the paper specified for the job.Don’t expect your printer to produce this for free, though. There is time and overhead involved every time a file is opened or transmitted to a device. Printers should and do charge for this.
  6. Think Downstream. If you’re printing a flat sheet, you’re safe. But if the printed piece you design will be folded, this might be a problem. As stated above, most digital presses are toner-based devices. The toner adheres to the paper, but “piles up” on the surface to a much greater extent than does offset ink. When folded, the toner tends to crack, producing a ragged edge at the fold. Ask your printer about this before you design. If they don’t have scoring equipment that is designed for digital printing, you probably need to adapt your design so that no solids will cross a fold line.

What’s Coming:

Rickie, our pressman, who’s had nearly 30 years running offset presses of some sort will occasionally pick up an aberration produced by our Xerox monster, wave it in the air, and yell for all the world to hear, “Job Security!” He then heads off to his press and wastes 300 sheets to dial in color for the next run. He has job security, but only because he’s cross-trained.

There will be a place for offset for the forseeable future. My generation likes to read stuff on paper and we’re not dead yet. Offset is extremely cost-effective for medium and long runs of a static product. There is no replacement for offset on the horizon when it comes to producing magazines, programs, books, etc.

But offset will never be able to produce variable data or images (the subject of a future post) or meet the economies of scale needed for the short and quick color runs that are required in today’s business environment. Digital quality continues to improve. The next digital press we buy will probably use a liquid toner and be able to print on textured substrates . . . the technology to do this is already available.

I love my offset presses, but to quote scripture, “Mene, Mene, tekel, parsin.” (Daniel 5:25) The writing is on the wall.

The Pleasure of Paper

January 26, 2007

(Or the Antiquated Arts of Reading and Writing)

I can’t stand reading from a computer screen. It is a strange bias for one who very much enjoys writing online, but perhaps understandable given my occupation. I have a predilection for the printed page.

As a society, we have lost the art of correspondence. There was a certain grace and formal style associated with letters that has been obliterated by the terse, staccato e-mail burst. E-mail is suited to the communication of a message, but not emotion. It is artless, blunt, and sometimes awkward.

Are corporate communications moving in the same direction? We have lost several good printing projects that have “gone electronic.” Converting a newsletter to “electronic media,” is usually justified as a cost control measure. Poor Richard maintains that the control of cost also significantly limits the impact and effectiveness of the publication. The electronic message simply doesn’t come across as clearly and the audience is limited by the media.

Typically, the “electronic newsletter” is transmitted by email to the potential reader. You may argue that the potential audience is tremendous. But, if the sender is not registered by the reader’s email client, many of these transmissions will be automatically junked. Others will be deleted by the reader. Still others will be filed away and never seen again. Some small percentage will be viewed by the intended reader. The cost control measure will be successful to the extent that some of the readers will print the newsletter out on their own laser or inkjet printer, thus incurring the cost of print production themselves. Quality control of the final product, in this case, is out the window.

Posting on a website is another cost effective alternative, but the limitations are equally significant. Again, the audience is potentially large. But readers must come to the site voluntarily. It does not land in their hand. Even then, websites are not the ideal media for conveyance of complex ideas or information. The typical reader scans a website. He may peruse it. He does not read it closely. An occasional reader may print the page. In this instance, the publisher has again succeeded in passing the cost downward, and again abdicated his control of the appearance and impact of his publication.

Paper is tangible and transportable. An argument could be made that a laptop is equally so. But, paper doesn’t require batteries or an AC adapter. I will grab a magazine or a newsletter and read it if I have a spare 5 minutes. I will not crank up my Powerbook for the same purpose. I will never read a book online, and I can’t imagine how anyone else could even consider it.

To my female readers . . . you are kindly requested to skip or disregard the next paragraph.

One of the strongest arguments for the perpetuation of the printed page is the habitual male practice of “constitutional reading.” Men, what do you take along with you? Will you grab a newspaper, a magazine, a newsletter? How many of you out there are actually taking your laptop into the privy and checking your email or a website during the morning break? Admit it, this is where you absorb a lot of information. Newsletter publishers, will you give up this important audience in the name of cost control?

Female readers may return to the post here.

You may think that it is somewhat hypocritical to complain too intensely about the very media I am currently using to transmit the written word. You have a point. Let’s face it. I’m not conveying highly important information here and I’m not really trying to sell anything, either. I enjoy the creative outlet that these posts allow. Frankly, I was surprised to find that a few people actually do read them.

AlphaGraphics will be sending out a newsletter and some of this stuff may be in it. It will be tangible, colorful. Our customers will receive printed issues by mail. Some of them will be thrown away. Some will wind up in Pile #3 on the marketing manager’s desk. Some will be read from cover to cover. And others will wind up in a wonderful place . . . on top of the toilet tank!

Can You Really Resist Color?

January 24, 2007


Times have changed. When AlphaGraphics opened 9 years ago, we had a Canon color copier. It was whiz bang! It printed beautiful color, mostly on uncoated laser bond (spruced up typing paper), one side only and you couldn’t get the same piece to print the same colors two days in a row no matter how much you calibrated the thing.

And color copies were expensive! In those days, grandmoms would come in with photos of their grandchildren. They’d want to play with the size and color and get it all just right. We’d explain to them that each copy was $1.45 and they’d fall out on the floor. They’d pass out right there in the middle of the printshop, flowerdy print dresses, funny hats and all. We’d get ‘em up with some smelling salts, encourage them, and walk them out to their cars.

The Canon was good for entertainment, but not for much of anything else. It printed at 6 pages per minute top speed, but it jammed every 3 sheets. We had one grandmom go completely senile waiting for copies of her grandkids. She forgot why she had come into the shop, wandered out the door and we never did see her again. She left her car in the parking lot and they found her in Unadilla the next day, asleep in the back of a school bus.

In those days we did a lot of 2 color printing for businesses. Process color was only done by the big shops on big presses and it was REALLY EXPENSIVE. If a small business wanted a brochure, it was usually 2 color or black and white. We had an advantage in Middle Georgia because our press could handle gloss paper with little difficulty.

Times have changed. Today’s audience expects color on almost everything. And with the evolution of technology, prices have come down amazingly. Our digital color press prints at over 10 times the speed of the old Canon and we do 4 color press work in house almost every day. We don’t have a way to make color copies any more, so we’ve lost the grandmoms’ business.

Some of our customers haven’t figured this out yet, though. This post is for them.

Here’s a chart:

This nice graph shows the price of a “typical” trifold brochure, printed all different kinds of ways. Don’t try to figure out too much about the prices from this . . . the prices on an actual job will vary with paper, design time required, and about exactly 273 other factors that are way too complicated for this post. There are a couple of things to notice here:

  1. Color prices are still higher than black ink or 2 color, but not by an awful lot. The prices have come down dramatically. It is possible to print, cut and fold 5000 brochures for around $1000. That’s $.20 each.
  2. Digital color (the green line) has made it possible to print even very small quantities at a reasonable price. The digital price for 500 gloss trifold brochures is less than $500. You can double the quantity for around $250 more.
  3. Because every impression costs the same on a digital machine, the prices get out of line around the 1200 quantity mark. But this is where the printing press kicks in. Small format 4 color presses are competitive and practical from about the 1000 sheet range and up.

Here’s another chart:
This chart shows the price gap between the 2 color version and the full color version of the same trifold brochure at various quantities. The line shows the price premium for the full color job. The bars indicate the additional cost of each piece. A few more things to note:

  1. Noted market researchers and nine out of 10 dentists cited on television commercials agree that color attracts more attention than black and white.The extra “bang” for the buck doesn’t cost much more.
  2. Even at small quantities, the cost of adding color isn’t much. It’s approximately 1/3 more at 1000 copies of this brochure.
  3. At larger quantities, the cost/piece to add color is low. On our press, it’s in the $.03 to $.06 range. Would you spend 6 cents more to attract a good customer?

So what’s the point?

Secretly, Poor Richard has always wanted to be an economist and this was a chance to play with graphs and make a point, too. If you’re going to spend the money to create marketing or communications pieces for your business, do them in COLOR . Honestly, with the Internet and all of the color marketing collateral that’s out there now, black and white looks kind of cheezy. We can do a lot with 2 color, but there is nothing like a full color brochure or sell sheet to get the message across.

And it will make your printer happy.

Business Cards and Nuclear War

January 16, 2007

“Hi, is this a printshop?” mutters the voice on the phone.

“No, this is NORAD headquarters. Could I have your identification number please?” runs the thought in my head, but I resist. “Yes, this is AlphaGraphics. Could I help you?” comes the answer from my mouth.

“Do you do business cards?” is the question.

“We control the largest nuclear arsenal in the entire world from this little bunker two miles under an undisclosed mountain in Nevada or somewhere. Why would we ever trouble with business cards?” I suppress the maniacal laugh and say, “Of course we do. If you’ll tell me a little about the cards you’d like to produce, I’ll try to help you.”

“What do you mean?” says the voice.

“I mean that if I press that little red button . . .”

The “business card call” is regularly received at AlphaGraphics. It’s a fair assumption that other shops receive this call, too. Business cards are the bane of a printer’s existence. They are the proverbial bucket with a hole in the bottom. They waste valuable time and they can jeopardize valuable accounts. Screw up the boss’s business cards and you may not get a look at the $4,500 catalog job the company is planning for next month.

But that’s not the topic of today’s post. Today, we’re going to tackle the thorny problem of pricing: how to ask for it and how to evaluate it. The example above is what not to do!

In a printer’s dreams all of our customers know what they want. Price is not the primary consideration. They listen to us and accept our advice on how to get the job done the best and most economical way possible. They have allocated the necessary time for their project, they have a reasonable budget and their primary interest is in the quality of the final product. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Wake up, Richard!

Poor Richard’s Rule # 33: The accuracy and quality of a printer’s estimate is directly proportional to the quality of the information provided by the customer.

You will note that I am talking about estimates here. A smart printer does not provide an unqualified quotation. There are just too many variables involved, including the capability of the customer to make the decisions needed before production. All of the variables in printing have a cost. There is even a cost involved in producing an estimate in the first place. Here’s what we need to know to provide a good budget estimate:

  1. What is it? This is a good starting point. Tell us what you will call the project. Especially if we’re doing more than one project at a time for you, let us know that the project is. The project is the Alumni Invitation Set.
  2. What’s included? Be specific about everything involved. The Alumni Invitation Set will include a folded invitation, an outbound envelope, a response card, a response envelope, and a heartfelt request for large donations.
  3. How many? This is a really important question for us printers. “How many” will determine the best way to produce your job. If the “how many” for the invitation set is 5,000, this is going to be a press job. if it’s 500, we may do it digitally. If it’s 20, we may give you a few sheets of some nice cover stock and suggest that you print it on that $190 HP inkjet you got for Christmas.
  4. What colors? Along with “how many,” the amount of color will determine the best way to produce your project.
  5. What paper? No, we don’t expect you to be a paper expert. With all of the changes in the paper industry in recent years, it’s hard for us to keep up with what’s available. If you know exactly what paper you want, let us know. We’ll check to make sure that it is still available. If not, describe the paper. The invitations should be printed on a heavy stock with a texture and a light cream color. We’ll suggest a paper that meets your criteria.
    Please note: the paper selection can have a significant impact on the project cost. If you specify an expensive paper that can only be purchased in cartons of 1000 25″ x 38″ sheets and you want 500 business cards, guess what? Your business cards are going to be so expensive that you’d wish we had taken the nuclear option.
  6. What specifically would you like us to do? For instance, you’d like us to print, fold, stuff, address and mail the invitations.
  7. What is the timetable? If today is Wednesday and the event is on Friday, there’s no need to get an estimate. You should get all of the room mothers together and start telephoning. Printers love customers who set a timetable early on in the project and then stick to it. We like the other 95% of our customers OK, but we love the ones who can schedule. Always discuss timetable with your printer, especially when it is tight.
  8. What is the budget? Admittedly, this is a little counter-intuitive. Why would you tell the printer what you have to spend if you’re asking for a quote? If you’re asking us to quote caviar and your budget is sardines, we need to know.Believe it or not, we will try to fit your budget. Your printer can save you a bunch of money by suggesting changes in paper, colors, sizes, and exactly 342 other factors that are way beyond the scope of today’s blog entry.

Back to Poor Richard’s Rule: the better the information you provide, the more accurate the estimate. And here’s the first corollary:

  • If you provide the same information to multiple printers, it will be easier to compare the estimates.

This does not necessarily mean that you will always be comparing “apples to apples,” but you might get as close as “cumquats to nectarines.” Because of the number of variables involved in most print jobs, the likelihood of two printers coming in at exactly the same price is roughly the same as the probability of snowfall in Macon, GA in June. But at least you will have tightened up the specification.

Now, let’s talk about some other aspects of evaluating the prices:

  1. Is the printer reliable? Can they do what they say they will do and will they do it when they say they will? It is probably best not to try a new printer with a lower price when today is Monday and opening night is Wednesday. Ask a new printer for references. Give them a try with a smaller, low-risk job. Envelopes are good. Business cards are not (see above).
  2. Does the printer match the project? At AlphaGraphics, we love a run of 5,000 color trifold brochures. This is the perfect job for our color press. If you ask us to run 105,000, we’ll refer you to a friendly local competitor with great big presses. Buyer Beware! All printers do not follow this practice! There is a school of thinking that advocates accepting all projects and outsourcing those you cannot do in house. This is fine for some specialized items (like presentation folders), but can create real problems if the wrong vendor is selected for a project. Ask where the project will be done and why.
  3. Can the printer produce the quality you need? A small press that may produce acceptable quality for a form may not be able to hold the PMS color you need on your fancy letterhead. Simple process color may look ok when produced on a 2 color press. Heavy ink coverage may be a disaster. Ask for samples. Look at the quality of the work the printer is producing.
  4. Can the printer meet the timetable? Will he discuss the specifics with you? Discussing timetables requires commitments from both you and the printer. Do you have the assurance that he will meet his commitments if you meet yours?
  5. Is the price in line? Is it competitive? Does it meet the budget? It is very rare that the lowest price provider will be able to also provide high levels of service and quality. Again, see above regarding the discussion of budget prices with your printer.

If your goal is to find cheap business cards, don’t beat around the bush. The printer on the other end will be thinking about the nuclear option. If you’ve got to have cheap business cards, just ask! The printer on the other end of the phone will send you to one of the office supply superstores where you’ll get exactly what you deserve.

On the other hand, if your goal is to build a relationship with a printer who can produce the heartfelt request for large donations the way you need it, on time, and within budget; follow the guidelines above. We’d be happy at AlphaGraphics if you called us . . . but don’t ask about business cards.

Just do it . . . I trust you

January 12, 2007

Proof stampJust do it . . . I trust you.

These may be words that every adolescent male dreams about, but they strike fear into a printer’s heart.

At the printshop, these words are not cooed softly. Rather, they’re an exasperated exclamation as a harried customer walks out the door.

What the customer thinks he means is, “I’m sure you’ll get it right.”

What the printer hears is, “If I don’t like it, you’ll eat the cost.”

The printing projects we produce at AlphaGraphics are almost always custom. They will work for one customer only. If Joe’s Body Shop doesn’t like his business cards, we can’t sell them to Joe’s Spa and Massage. The businesses may sound similar, but the activities at the two addresses could be completely different. Imagine the dismay of the customer needing car repair who walks into the massage parlor (or vice versa)!

We try not to make too many requirements of our customers. We require proofs. We require that each customer approve a proof before printing takes place.We ask this of our customers even if a job has been done before and the customer says that it is an exact reprint.

“Why?” you ask.

Because printing offers so many wonderful opportunities for mistakes. For instance, we printed envelopes for the Edumacation Department at one of the local universities for several years before it became the Division of Edumacation, an important change for those who were getting edumacated. If we hadn’t proofed the envelopes each time, mail might have been returned to a department that didn’t even exist any more.

On a more serious note, we have had customers who did not thoroughly proof their business cards, received cards with an incorrect phone number, gave out half a box, then wondered why they never received a phone call.

Printers are nowhere near immune from mistakes. Poor Richard’s law #34 states, “the more creative the graphic designer, the more spelling mistakes he/she will make.” I’m convinced that the best designers all type with two left hands and all thumbs. And don’t ask me why spell check is anathema to graphics people. They used to get away with the excuse that it wasn’t built into the page layout programs. That’s not the case anymore. Now I suppose that misspelling has become a part of artistic license. Anyway, designers won’t use spell check.

At AlphaGraphics, we do internal proofs. If there’s a lot of text involved, we ask Joe to do the proof. Joe went to school in the ’50s and ’60s when they still taught people to punctuate and spell. Most of our internal proofs are checked more for form, flow and position than for content, though.

We’ve also gotten stung quite a few times. We’ve frequently corrected spelling, punctuation and occasionally syntax in text that a customer has provided only to have them uncorrect it at proof. In these cases, the customer is right; even if the necklace they are describing is not made of eggs (hint: it’s an amulet, not an omelet).

It’s really pretty simple. There are just too many jobs coming through the shop to catch everything. That’s why it’s important for each customer to receive, carefully inspect, and approve a proof. We appreciate your trust, but we’re careful. You still get a proof.

Color Separation . . . Whadd’ya Mean?

January 6, 2007

It happened again. One of our customers commissioned a new logo. She paid a website designer for the concept and the art. She was planning ahead. With the understanding that 2 color printing is far more economical than full color, she asked the designer to develop a two color logo that could be used on her letterhead and envelopes.

The designer followed her instructions. He produced a logo that used 2 colors, but he created the art in Adobe Photoshop, RGB color mode for screen, sized about 2″ x 3″ at 72 dpi (dots per inch). He did everything just right . . . for the Internet; and just wrong for print.

Now, if all of that printerese jargon has confused you, hang on ’cause I’m gonna ‘splain it to ya.

Here’s a logo. No liability here, it’s not a real product . . . dairymen don’t last long around lactating tigers. We’re just going to use this to illustrate how colors work for the Internet and for print.Specifically, we’re going to talk about how colors go together on your computer screen and in a printshop.

First, notice that you only see three colors in the art — orange, green and black. Strangely enough, the logo at the right is actually comprised of three colors. It’s put together in RGB color mode — Red, Green, and blue.





Here’s an illustration of how RGB works:

These are RGB color separations. The image on the right is a composite. RGB is an additive color mode. Here’s how it works. Red, green, and blue wavelengths of light can be combined in various intensities to make a wide spectrum of color. If you add all of the colors together, the result is white. All of the visible wavelengths of light are transmitted to your eye. That’s what’s happening in the illustration above. Various shades of red, green and blue combine to make the tiger. The solid colors in the background combine to make white.

Interestingly enough, combinations of two of the three colors together create the secondary colors used in printing. Red and green combine additively to make yellow. Blue and green combine to make cyan. Blue and red combine to make magenta.

The secondary colors can also be combined to make a spectrum (or color gamut). Printers call this process color. The RGB color gamut you see on your screen is a little bit larger than the gamut that can be printed on a printing press. Your screen gamut will also be dependant upon external lighting conditions and about exactly 1,763 other variables that are way beyond the scope of this little blog entry. Here’s the important part: What you see on your screen will rarely match what you see on Bob’s screen next door or Mary’s screen in the next cubicle. And Poor Richard’s law #47 states that what you see on your screen will NEVER, NEVER match what is printed on paper!

Process color looks like this:


You’ll notice that we’ve added another color to the three secondary colors listed above. The four process colors used in printing are Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black (CMY and K for black). In an ideal world, the combination of Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow will produce black; but the reflectivity of printing inks is not perfect. CM and Y combine to make kind of a muddy, ugly brown; so printers add black to be able to produce a solid black color.

CMYK is a subtractive color process. The inks combine to actually absorb (subtract) certain wavelengths of light. The remaining wavelengths are reflected off of the paper. You see this as color. White is close to 100% reflectivity — nearly the whole spectrum is reflected. A true black would have 0% reflectivity. A large part of the entire spectrum of visual lies in between and can be produced with combinations of cyan, magenta, and yellow, with black as an enhancement color.

Now, back to our logo problem.

RGB obviously won’t work. It’s an additive model based on a mixture of light, not ink. If you mix red, green and blue ink you get blecch, a completely new color that no one wants to see in print. So our customer’s logo will have to be converted. We could convert it to CMYK color and print it on a printing press, just like the tiger above. But there are some practical and economic problems. When CMYK is printed on a printing press, four actual inks are put on the paper. This requires either a four color press or a couple of passes through a two color press.

Four color presses are more expensive to purchase, setup and operate than smaller and simpler 2 color presses. Typically, there is also more paper waste involved. At AlphaGraphics, our minimums usually start at 1000 12.5 x 19 sheets for a process color job. In this case, that means 2000 pieces of letterhead for a customer who really needs half that much. Running full color in two passes through a 2 color press is even more problematic, the biggest difficulty being that you really don’t know what the final color will be until the second pass . . . and then it’s too late to do anything about it.

Our customer’s logo was also sized for the Internet. The size was approximately 2″ x 3″ at low resolution. When we shrunk the size of the logo to increase the resolution and clarity for print, it turned out about this big:

Tiger Logo

Envelopes are also a problem. Most conventional four color presses don’t like them. We tried to run envelopes on our color press once and spent half a day removing shredded envelopes from the rollers. Not fun. So, that means that process color envelopes have to be ordered from a specialty printer. Again, more expensive, 2,500 minimum and 2 – 3 weeks lead time; it’s not a good alternative for the customer.

Here’s the solution:


It’s a two-color tiger. In this case, all we did was change the color of the tiger’s eyes. Now, we’re going to print him in spot colors, orange and black. We’ll actually get the effect of more colors by shading the orange (with screens and gradient fills). And we’re going to get the right color. We’re going to mix the ink to specifically match the orange the customer wants.

In this case, the orange is PMS (Pantone Matching System) 158. Pantone makes neat books for printers that tell us how to mix colors. We’ll mix the orange ink and compare the solids in the printed product to a color swatch in the book. This doesn’t mean that there will be absolutely no color variations in the final product, but it should be really close to the PMS color specified. Please note: the ink color will match the Pantone book, but not necessarily your computer screen. Even if you waste a lot of time trying to calibrate your screen, the only reliable way to see a Pantone color is ink on paper.

This is what our customer originally had in mind. Two color printing is done on small presses. It’s economical to produce very short runs and most of the small presses we have will run envelopes, too. Unfortunately, her designer didn’t understand this at all.

We talked to the web designer. Nice guy. He had produced a really good looking logo and had not the faintest clue that his customer wouldn’t be able to print it. He also had no idea of how to draw a logo for print. Of course, the project was delayed for a week while everybody traded emails until all of this could be determined. In the end, our customer had to pay for additional design time for us to re-create the logo in Adobe Illustrator as vector art with specified Pantone colors.

What are the lessons to be learned from this?

  1. Poor Richard’s First Rule: Ask your printer. Ask your printer. Ask your printer.
  2. Make sure that the designer you hire understands how to design for print. Do not assume that he does. Many graphic designers are fine artists and web designers, but lack the technical knowledge needed for print on paper.
  3. Be very specific. Talk with your designer about exactly how you want to use the art they will create. Choose specific colors. Make sure that you discuss the cost implications of the art that they will design.
  4. Finally, involve your printer in the project from the outset. We think that it’s best if you have a direct relationship with your printer. If he is involved in the project from the beginning, he can work with your designer on the technical aspects. This will save you money over the long and short run.


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