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.

Thoughts on Greatness

January 19, 2007

What makes a great man? Is it fame, wealth, fortune? Is it the things that are supposed to impress or the things we never hear about? Is it appearance or reputation? Is it the desire for respect or a quiet strength?

Our shopping center is for sale. Actually, it’s not our shopping center. AlphaGraphics just happens to be located there. Anyway, it’s up for auction on February 7. It doesn’t really matter to us. We’re moving. But, the upcoming auction has produced an interesting cast of would be investors who all want to know the story behind our empty center.

His name isn’t Mark, but that’s what we’ll call him. He could have just walked in the shop and asked about the center like the rest of the bidders. But he had to make a show of it. Since he found himself in a printshop, he had to concoct a project he wanted. Ostensibly, he wanted some sales collateral for a development he is undertaking in Florida. He wanted ideas, but never stopped his monologue long enough to accept any. Rather he talked at length about all of the properties he owned, the wealth he had amassed, the important position he’d held at a large corporation. All of it was calculated to impress.

Miscalculation. Sorry.

Today, beautiful wife and I attended the funeral of a friend. His name was Derryl. The service was beautiful, a rare commemoration of a life well lived; a life of faith, a life of joy, a life given for others. I first got to know him through Walk to Emmaus, a Christian organization in which we both participated. Shortly after I became involved with this group, I met Derryl. I remember his excitement about working a weekend program. He was going to be on the cleanup crew, mopping floors and scrubbing bathrooms.

Beautiful wife got to know Derryl and his wife Jane before I met them. They invited our kids to their farm to pick vegetables. Fresh corn in paper bags would appear as if by magic on our doorstep and on the back porches of many other houses in Perry. We’d know that Derryl and Jane had been by. When we moved into our current house, he came over on a Saturday morning to help me figure out what to do with a grape arbor in the backyard.

He was retired. I knew that he had been a doctor. I didn’t know that he had graduated from the Citadel, then West Point. I didn’t know that he had practiced as a pediatrician around Philadelphia for 30 years. I knew him as a warm smile, a laugh, a pat on the back.

It was two weeks ago that I last saw him. I knew something was wrong because it took him a split second to remember my name. He had been sick for over a year, but he was in pain that day. Yet he called just a couple of days later to congratulate our daughter who had been awarded a scholarship. Always thoughtful. Always happy to encourage.

I doubt I’ll ever see Mark again. I won’t see Derryl again on this earth. I know I’ll miss him. He was a great man.

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.