Re-inventeration

September 6, 2009

Square-wheeled trike. Thanks to Jeff Atwood at www.codinghorror.com.

Square-wheeled trike. Thanks to Jeff Atwood at http://www.codinghorror.com.

If one happens to be a small business owner, especially if one happens to be the owner of a local printing company, the idea of re-inventing one’s business is probably pretty far up on the agenda these days. This is primarily because much of the business we all once enjoyed has suddenly just disappeared, as if by magic; or possibly due to the re-inventing of a much less cooperative economy.

Re-inventeration, a new word which Poor Richard thinks he has just coined, is the process of re-inventing something.  Of course, the whole concept is preposterous.  If something is invented the first time, does it really make any sense to try to re-invent it?

And it’s complicated. Re-inventeration is frought with Catch-22 scenarios. For those who have not read Joseph Heller’s famous book, the Catch-22 was the ultimate bureaucratic boondoggle.  Catch-22 (the book) told the story of Yossarian, a WWII B-25 bombardier and his squadron, as they were forced to fly increasing numbers of bombing runs over Italy.  The squadron commander, Major Major, literally embodied the concept of Catch-22. It was possible to schedule an appointment with Major Major at any time; however, one could only actually see Major Major if he was not in.

Similarly, if one was deemed insane, it was possible to get discharged from the Air Corps. Because Yossarian’s desire for discharge was deemed very sane, his insane behavior was considered by his superiors as a natural expression of his  true sanity. Catch 22.

Not unlike Yossarian, Poor Richard is struggling with the Catch-22s of the re-inventeration process at his downtown Macon Gralpharaphics shop (name carefully disguised to protect the sensibilities of the franchise). The first Catch-22 is simply time.  Business is down, we’ve cut back on staff, and more time is spent working in the business than on the business.  Without more time to work on the business, we’ll never be able to grow the business back to a point where more folks can be hired to work in the business; relieving the requirement for the owner to fold brochures until 2 am and allowing him to use his brain once again.

The next and more worrisome set of  Catch(es)-22 have to do with scope, the literal definition of the business. Behind the red awnings on Poplar Street, we’re taking jobs that we probably wouldn’t have looked at a couple of years ago.  A lot of these are small and risky.  The risk is that the expense in time and effort to produce the small jobs will exceed the revenue that results. Catch 22. The potential benefit is a new customer who might actually bring us a profitable job one day. Poor Richard is not sure how this one is playing out.

The low hanging fruit has been picked. We’ve responded to economic pressure on mainstay product lines by adding more products. In our case, we’ve added wide format printing and reprographics to subsidize some of the losses in conventional offset printing.   These were natural additions – similar products and services to what we were already doing. They didn’t disrupt the production process much and they added little in the way of expense. Unfortunately, they did not add enough revenue to compensate for the decline in conventional printing; and these product lines are also facing economic and competitive pressures. Catch 22.

So what’s the next step? Poor Richard has written before (with misgivings) about the current buzz-phrase in the printing industry. The latest rage is for printing companies to become marketing service providers. (See Poor Richard’s post Measuring Value). Our little company  is moving in this direction slowly but steadily, unsure of all of the implications, but with a sense that it is inevitable – there just aren’t many other areas of opportunity left.

Becoming a marketing service provider is full of Catch(es)-22. First, the whole notion takes us out of the realm of producing tangible products and into the area of shaping content. We’re no longer working with machinery that prints, cuts or folds stuff; but rather with electronic means of communication and the disciplines that go along with them – CSS, XHTML, Purls and a bunch of other acronyms. The competitive cost of entry into this business is low relative to the cost of a new printing press, which means that the pressure to keep ahead of the technology curve will be steep. Worse, the marketing service provider notion requires a new skill set that takes time to learn.  In our case, that’s the owner’s time that is in very short supply. Catch 22.

Second, the whole idea of shaping content laps over into creating content.  Printing companies are pretty good at shaping. We do layout work, color correct photos, even occasionally light editing for our customers. This is different from creating the content, an area we have generally avoided because of time limitations and a focus on keeping the machines running.

It’s just a little too hopeful to think that we might make money only by implementing marketing services — integrated direct mail and e-mail campaigns, for example. Most of our customers simply lack the time and resources to develop the content for this kind of effort, so it appears inevitable that we will be required to do some development work for them if we want to sell the services.

Hopefully we can do this without stepping on the toes of our agency customers and triggering yet another Catch 22. Ideally, the agencies might find it helpful to use our shop to implement integrated direct mail and internet campaigns for their larger customers. Our challenge will be keeping the focus on implementation (and measurement) of specific marketing services without getting customers confused about what we can do (and want to do).

Creating content, even on a limited basis, is a big step for a small printing company; but it is still a lot different from the conceptual work that our agency customers do. We can make that statement, but will our customers understand it?  Another Catch-22.

Poor Richard supposes that re-inventeration, like change, is necessary and unavoidable; but he hopes he’s not re-inventing a square-wheeled tricycle.


Expose’

May 20, 2009

The phrase that kept coming to mind was “showin’ tail,” which can be defined as either the southern pronunciation of that age old and established grammar school activity where every student brings a frog or a doll or a younger sibling to talk about; or the presumably accidental revelation of the anterior part of the anatomy.

This one’s liable to get Poor Richard into big trouble. It’s not just that I’m making fun of a customer (again), but this time it’s a church. Worse, it’s my church.  I’ve resisted writing this short entry for a couple of weeks now and I guess I could resist some more. Or, I could use Flip Wilson’s excuse, “The devil made me do it!”

The church that beautiful wife and I attend is a small town congregation. It is a friendly, loving group of folks for the most part, with the occasional unpresentable member Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 12. Like many small congregations, there are many folks there who “do church” on Sunday, a few who are really into church work, and some who really want to find out where God is working and join in.  It’s the last group that I’m probably going to be in the biggest trouble with, because what I’m writing about is their undertaking.

The undertaking is undeniably good.  It is Celebrate Recovery, which started as a ministry for those suffering with addictions at Saddleback Church. There has been a Celebrate Recovery program in Warner Robins, a larger city to the north of Perry where I live, but nothing in south Houston County, despite the fact that Perry is indeed the center of both the known and unknown universe.

Problem PostcardEnough rambling . . . after all, it should have been a simple enough task.  Poor Richard was asked to print and mail a postcard advertising the new ministry.  All well and good . . . at least until the art came in.  The photo of an obviously distressed woman weeping in front of a closed door was effective. It conveyed a message of desperation and would perhaps lead someone in that state to search for an answer beyond themselves.

But one aspect of the photo was just a bit distracting. The woman pictured is wearing a nightshirt and is sitting with her legs propped at an angle.  Technically speaking, she isn’t actually “showin’ tail,” but to continue in Southern vernacular, “she purty near is.”

I actually don’t know where the photo and concept came from. It’s possible that it could have been supplied by Saddleback Church as part of the promotional package for Celebrate Recovery.  If so, maybe the definition of “nearly nekkid” is different in Rancho Chimichanga, California or wherever it is that the megachurch is located. It is also possible that one of the ladies at our church found the photo and thought it appropriate.  Not having a depraved male mind, I suppose they could have missed the distracting part.

It really doesn’t matter much . . . Poor Richard’s never been much on printing photos of scantily clad women.  Not that we haven’t been asked. I’ve turned down a calendar job or two over the years and an exotic dancer once threatened to sue me for not printing postcards featuring her topless image.  (She really got angry when I told her that she looked better with her clothes on).  But I digress . . . this one just didn’t pass the propriety test, especially coming from my church.

I emailed the lady who had sent the art. “Approved by the pastor,” came the response.  Unfortunately, the pastor was out of town for a week and the postcard needed to hit the USPS before his return. I emailed a couple of respected leaders in the church. They agreed with me, but didn’t offer much in the way of suggestions.

Many of Poor Richard’s readers will understand that the way decisions are made in churches is unpredictable and occasionally unfathomable. Frequently, the cardinal rule of ecclesiastical decision-making is not to decide at all. So, after much prayer, some good advice and with godly wisdom and great courage; Poor Richard decided to sit on the project until the pastor returned.

What Poor Richard lacked  was only a bit of common sense. Fortuitously, the pastor brought some of that back with him from vacation.

“Put the church logo over her bottom,” was the essence of his short email response.

“Duh . . .” thought Poor Richard.

We did and the postcard was in the mail and not “showin’ tail.”


Measuring Value

May 6, 2009

My customer’s “tweet” says, “We’d like to know why creativity and concept development have no value in the ad world.”  Poor Richard knows what’s behind this one.

We used to call them “take the cake” episodes. When I was a teenager, my friend’s mom used this expression a lot.  I can still see Mrs. K, hands on hips, very exasperated with something that her daughter, me or one of our other friends had done.  Drawing a deep breath and pushing her eyeglasses up her nose with the back of her right hand, she would exclaim, “Well! doesn’t that just take the cake!” This was followed by a perfect military turn and usually a slammed door as she left us to contemplate the consequences of our misdemeanors.

We had a “take the cake” moment today. Brian, our production manager, received the customer at the door. He had come to inquire about business cards . . . not unusual.  Specifically, he had come to inquire about business cards we had already printed for his company. The cards were designed by an agency we work closely with and were produced for them. He wanted to know our price to produce the cards, because he felt he had been charged too much.

We already knew that there was some dissatisfaction with the original run of the cards.  His cards had originally been produced them on our house 80# stock and then we’d been asked to run them again on a heavier and nicer stock. Brian, wisely reasoning that it was better for me to get into trouble than him, excused himself and ran for the back where Poor Richard was actually about to cut the second set of cards.  Brian briefed me on the situation, but I don’t think I really grasped what the fellow had come for. I grabbed a sheet of the uncut cards and headed for the lobby.

I went to the front counter and introduced myself, handing my customer’s customer the sheet of cards and explaining that they would be ready very shortly. He examined the cards and stated that he didn’t realize they were being reprinted.  He objected to the size of a line of type and proceeded to ask again how much the set of cards would cost.  He stated an amount that he had been charged by the agency and that he had been purchasing printing and cards for years and thought the amount was excessive.

I explained that while our price to the agency was less than the dollar amount he had stated, it is quite understandable  that an agency would charge for the work they do.  Our customer, the agency, created the design, did the layout, provided the proofs and handled the details of printing. It should be expected that they would add a charge for their work to the cost of the actual cards. I also tried to assure him that he was working with a talented and capable group and that they had done a great job with his design.

The conversation remained polite, but just went off track at that point.  My customer’s customer explained that he had gone to the agency needing a name and logo for a new company, website work, and consultation for search engine optimization. He had ended up with a name, a logo, business cards and other such stuff; when all he had really needed was the website work. In fact, he had created the website himself for $50 and had received a lot of compliments. He fished a few times more for the price of the cards.  He didn’t say it outright, but it was evident that he felt he had been taken for a ride.

I tried, but I don’t think that I was successful at dealing with the real problem. The problem was not the price of the cards, but their perceived and actual value. Our customer’s customer perceived some value in the cards he had received, but little in the work that went into them. Even though he was unable to create the name and do the layout, he didn’t assign any value to those services. I’ll also guess that it took a little time on the part of the agency to get him to come to a decision.  He didn’t assign any value to that time, either.

Poor Richard has a lot of respect for the agency in question.  They are a good customer of AlphaGraphics and also friends of mine. They understand marketing and the current trends. They are practical folks. They know what works. I think they understand the budget constraints of small business.  And they are very creative, very patient, very kind people.  Their creativity, expertise and their patience all have value and they rightly charge for it. If I had to bet, it would be that their customer received much more in value than he actually paid for.

There is a move afoot to convince printers that we should become “marketing service providers.”  This sounds good at first, because content is moving online and the volume of print is dropping dramatically. That means that many of us are no longer making money. We need something to hang our hats and our hopes on. But we also need to define what the new phrase really means.

Poor Richard has written 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 fail miserably and many will go ballistic in the process.  Most of us are production people at the core. We like machines, gadgets, and ways of getting things done.  The value we create now is mostly in tangible products. It is conceivable that we could get involved in handling customer data and doing the implementation of some aspects of a marketing program, but  printers in general are not good at conceptual work.  Most of us don’t like it and we don’t have time for it.

I empathize with the exasperation my customer expressed in the Twitter post cited above.  Most people don’t do well with ideas. Very few people think them through carefully before implementing them. Even fewer measure their effect after implementation, then correct and try again.  These are the things that a good creative agency does well, if their customers will let them. There is great value in this capability and it can be measured by the return that their clients reap as the result of a well conducted marketing campaign.

I guess it’s necessary to explain and re-explain the value proposal. Value is created when a vendor provides something for a customer that the customer cannot do or does not want to do himself (or cannot do correctly or efficiently by himself). The customer chooses to pay the provider for the value of the service or product. In this case, the customer got confused. He thought that he was buying a product (business cards) and didn’t assign a value to the conceptual and design work necessary to create them.

lemon-on-scaleIt’s not that the concept and the product aren’t related.  Concept and product aren’t apples and oranges.  I guess they’re oranges and lemons, but one has to precede the other.  My customer’s customer perceived his agency as a a project shop.  He thought he was buying the orange and assigned no value to the lemons that were a necessary part of the package.  Poor Richard is sure that my customer’s customer received good ideas and practical suggestions from the agency he chose. He suspects that much (if not all) of that proposal was ignored and that the agency ended up developing “stuff” rather than engineering a marketing campaign.  And the value the customer assigned to the “stuff” was not equal to the time and energy that was spent developing it.

I’m very sorry that my customer is exasperated. They don’t deserve to be. Poor Richard was a little exasperated, too. I quit cussing a few years ago, but I thought of Mrs. K.  As the gentleman left the shop, I pushed up my glasses with the back of my right hand and exclaimed “Well, doesn’t that just take the cake!”  Executing a brisk military turn, I marched off to the back of the shop. If there’d been a door to slam, I would have.


Buttering the Bread on Both Sides

February 22, 2009

It’s happened again . . . same story, but a little different this time. In July 2007, Adobe, with indeterminate brilliance, decided that it would be advantageous to link the print dialogue in Acrobat directly to FedEx/Kinko’s (see Poor Richard’s post On Which Side is the Bread Buttered?). The rest of the industry screamed and threatened and Adobe backed down.

This time around, the culprit is Hewlett Packard (HP), who on January 27 introduced a new web-to-print site called MarketSplash (see HP’s press release).  As a standalone site, MarketSplash really doesn’t represent much in the way of an additional threat to brick and mortar printers (like us), who are already under so much pressure that one more straw on the camel’s back will hardly matter. The site will go head-to-head with VistaPrint, the web-to-print leader and compete very well. In fact, with some creative marketing from HP, MarketSplash could blow VistaPrint out of the water.

Being of a curious nature, Poor Richard had to explore.  MarketSplash, like VistaPrint, is template driven. And, like many/most of the online printing sites, business cards are free.  So Poor Richard decided to order some. I found a template that I liked, featuring Albert Einstein; and created a business card for a new company I had conceived only 30 seconds before, the Incomprehensible Services Company.  Poor Richard, needing a title, is now the Chief Conspirator of Incomprehensible Services.

I was actually impressed by the design template.  The default font sizes were a little small, but the design tools offered enough for customization of a rudimentary layout. Joe Consumer will be able to operate this design tool without getting himself into too much trouble.  I was also generally impressed by the quality of the layouts that were featured. A proof is approved online. The free cards are all double sided, with an advertisement for MarketSplash on the back.  Here’s a screenshot of the proof page . . . I hope HP doesn’t mind.  (If you do, let me know and I’ll zap the image.)

Marketsplash Proof Page for Incomprehensible Services Company

Marketsplash Proof Page for Incomprehensible Services Company

The quality of design can be attributed to another HP acquisition, a company called LogoWorks. Purchased by HP in 2007, LogoWorks offers inexpensive design work online.  Like MarketSplash, LogoWorks targets small businesses who are looking for a low cost alternative to ad agencies and freelance designers. Custom design from LogoWorks is also included as an option on the MarketSplash site.

After reading this far, you may be asking, “So, where’s the problem?”

There are a couple:

  • First, even though HP is not the first to offer a web-to-print site with low prices, they are going into competition with part of their customer base. This is admittedly a weak argument because HP’s desktop color printers were among the first technological developments to erode a segment of conventional printers’ business. (Home offices and the smallest of businesses were the first to go to self-printed business cards and letterhead).
  • Like Adobe, HP picked the wrong partner. They have teamed with Staples Office Supply for overnight delivery of product. While the geographic distribution of Staples’ centers certainly makes sense, the assumption that they will have the capability of quickly producing and delivering a quality product is open to question. To HP’s credit, they are open to “co-branding and licensing of the MarketSplash platform” to other retailers.  Poor Richard has no clue what this actually means.

Conventional printers may re-evaluate our purchasing decisions, especially when it comes to high end digital presses. HP has been the market leader with their Indigo line.  The quality and capabilities of these machines are impressive and many printers the size of our AlphaGraphics (including us) had planned to migrate to this machine as leases for our existing digital equipment run out. HP also has a strong presence in the wide format arena. But HP does not have the market share in our industry that Adobe Systems has. Also, unlike Adobe’s software, there are good alternatives to the HP products. HP’s decision falls squarely into the category of “calculated risk,” and the potential return may well outweigh the consequences from agitating bothersome printers like us.

Can brick and mortar printshops compete? The answer unfortunately is “yes” and “no.” If it’s a question of price, the answer is a definite maybe.  We won’t be giving away business cards, and we’re really not interested in selling 100 of anything for $39.95, but by the time you add freight some of the other items are not so cheap. The online printers convey the impression of low price, though, and it is sheer folly to say that the web printers have not eroded the low end of the customer base.

Repeat letterhead and envelope orders from small companies were profitable “bread and butter” business when our AlphaGraphics started. That business has virtually disappeared as correspondence has gone online and as a result of the VistaPrint – type alternatives. Freelance designers also once represented a good base of business for postcards and flyers. They began funneling these products to gang run printers a few years ago, similarly attracted by cheap pricing (See Poor Richard’s post Caveat Emptor). It is not just a little ironic that LogoWorks and MarketSplash actually represent direct competition to the freelance market segment, though the freelancers themselves may not realize it.

Especially in this economy, conventional printing companies are competing for a larger share of a rapidly shrinking pie. Many of us will not survive. Most of us are hanging on by our teeth and clawing with our fingernails. For those of us who will fight through these rapidly changing times, it will mean finding new ways of doing business, new products and services, and working harder and more closely with the customers we have left.  Local companies have the advantage of proximity, of reacting quickly to customer needs, and the ability to provide expertise to those who still value it.  Poor Richard thinks (hopes) that the ability to survive and eventually succeed again will still be based on that value proposition.

It will be another 6 or 7 days before Poor Richard receives the cards for his imaginary venture. They’ll be shipped by an unnamed ground transportation company. The order represented a $13.95 value, charges graciously waived by MarketSplash, and my cards will be printed on a medium matte paper. I’m anxious to see what that is, too. Be assured that another post will follow!

Postscript

Got the cards about five business days later.  They came Express Mail (USPS). The printing quality was good, but not exceptional. Digital color on an 80# Matte cover, with an advertisement for MarketSplash on the reverse side. The freebies presume that more profitable orders for other items will follow from satisfied customers who have received their wonderful free business cards. I’m sure that that is a valid assumption, but I wonder where the breakeven number falls.

Even with streamlined ordering, there is a real cost to print, cut, package and ship the stupid things.  I’d figure between $10 and $15/set in a really efficient production operation.  If one in four customers actually order another item, that’s $40-$60 in additional sales required before a margin is achieved.  A low volume business model must turn high volumes to make a profit. This is  a combination traditionally not compatible to a specialized and detailed business like printing.

Poor Richard confesses that this may be the business model for the times we’re in.  It’s not a model that will be conducive to the kind of business that good local printers have traditionally done. I regret that and I think that one day the customer’s we’ve lost may regret it too.


Digital Weight Loss

August 13, 2008

It’s been a long while since I’ve blogged. Life’s been hectic with altogether too much of little importance going on. We’ve been doing lots of small jobs at the printshop. With a weak economy, many of the projects we are seeing are of the do-it-yourself variety. So much so, in fact, that I’ve just about quit trying to explain that Microsoft Word is not a page layout program.

The DIY aspect has also compounded the problems with compressed deadlines. Typically, the customer has underestimated the time required to layout their program or brochure or postcard. They bring it to us at the last minute. We do what we can, but with intstantaneous deadlines there’s no time to disassemble the Microsoft mess, repair what we can, try to get higher resolution photos and then and reassemble it all in Indesign.

One of the recurring nightmares in the pieces we’ve been doing of late is disproportionate scaling of photography. This one really bothers Poor Richard, but I confess that it is sometimes flattering to the photographic victim. Here’s how it works:

Here’s our unsuspecting victim. His name is Brian and he manages production at the shop. Like me, Brian has inflated and deflated in cycles over the years he’s been at AlphaGraphics. Unlike me, Brian has occasionally decided that voluntary exercise is a good thing. He’s even had a gym membership once or twice. Poor Richard will never set foot in a gym. I see no purpose whatsoever in riding a bicycle that isn’t going anywhere.

Brian’s photo at left is scaled correctly. It is a very reasonable facsimile of what Brian actually looks like. The problem occurs when our DIY designer decides that Brian’s photo doesn’t fit the space that is allocated in the publication. Or perhaps the DIYer wants all of the photos in the publication to be the same size. So he resizes the photo.

Let’s suppose that the photo needs to be taller. Here’s what we often see. Brian becomes much thinner and taller. Now, depending on his current state of expansion or contraction, this may or may not be appealing to Brian. It is safe to say, though, that it is more appealing that the other distortion that we often see.

The “horizontal stretch” is rarely flattering:

For a normal sized American type person, the effect is disturbingly toadlike. For the Southern Fried Chicken, cholesterol, and carbohydrate dieter, the result can be downright disturbing.

In Brian’s case, the horizontal stretch makes him lookonly slightly like Peter Lorre.

So, how to resolve this problem? The answer is cropping and proportional scaling. Cropping is actually cutting out a section of the image to create horizontal and vertical ratio that is similar to the area that you wish to fill. Scaling increases or decreases the cropped image to actually fill the space.

Depending on the software you are using, you may have to do this operation in either one or two steps. Real page layout programs, like Adobe Indesign will let you both crop and scale at the same time. You simply import the photo into the layout, adjust the boxes using the black and white arrows (selection and direct selection tools). You can scale proportionally in Indesign and in many other programs by holding down the Shift key as you stretch the object.

You can also adjust the proportions in Photoshop or the photo editor that you are using prior to placing the image. This may be necessary if you are using a Microsoft aberration or another of the DIY programs that are sold in the marketplace for just about what they’re worth. Here’s an example . . . let’s crop and scale Brian the right way.

Let’s crop Brian’s head out of this photo and then size it for insertion. First in Photoshop or another image editing program, we’ll simply draw a line around the area we want with the crop tool and eliminate the rest of the photo. We’ll end up with something like this:

Assuming that the image is of sufficient resolution (a topic for another blog entry), we can then resize it proportionally to fit the space needed. The end result might look like this:

Then again, why should I be the one to worry about the finer elements of basic design. After all, I’m just ther printer. Go ahead, get creative . . . turn Brian into a green duotone, stretch him all out of proportion and be happy about it . . .

Sorry, Brian . . .

Isn’t life grand?


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.


If counterfeiters are dinosaurs, can printers be far behind?

March 30, 2008

It was called “Old Money” for a good reason. Crane Papers of Massachusetts made it, the very same company that made currency stock for the U.S. Treasury for all those years. I had heard all of the stories about printers and counterfeiting, but I guess it never really registered. That was before the order for letterhead printed on “Old Money” came in.

We ordered the stock through Unisource, our primary vendor at the time. The order was for 5000 sheets, so I think we ordered 5500 sheets to account for waste. I liked the stock when it came in . . . it really did have the look and feel of old money. High rag content, kind of soft feeling and a very light green tint when you looked at it in sunlight. Cool, I thought, then went on to the next thing.

It was a couple of days later when I picked up the phone. It was a young lady from Crane who wanted to speak with the owner. “You’re not in our records,” began the conversation.

“That’s good?” I responded.

“Not necessarily,” was the reply. “I’m calling about the paper.”

“Ahh, the paper . . .” I answered, still without the foggiest notion of who she was or where this conversation was heading. “What paper?”

“Old Money,” retorted the young lady, and it all came together for me.

AlphaGraphics Macon was not in her database. We had purchased a product that looked suspiciously like real money, and she needed to know where it went. I played along, giving her information about our customer, the quantity delivered and what we had left. I comforted her with the assurance that we were indeed a real printing company and not a concern for either Crane Papers or the U.S. Treasury Department.

As far as I can tell, “Old Money” has gone the way of most of the interesting papers of the last century. Henry Ford would approve of today’s approach to paper selection. The customer can have anything they want, as long as it’s white or tan. As demand for paper has declined, the paper industry has consolidated, and much of the really interesting paper we used to be able to get is no longer available.

As of last week, there were basically two large manufacturers left. Domtar and Sappi seem to have gobbled up all of the rest of the big companies. We still are able to buy our old standby sheet, Cougar Opaque, which used to be made by Weyerhaueser, which was purchased by International Paper, which was swallowed by Domtar. You get the picture. There are two remaining US fine paper mills, Neenah and Mohawk, that still offer a pretty wide selection of flavors . . . but none of the paper distributors keep them in stock. Crane is actually still around. They make very nice and expensive writing paper that can be obtained in white or tan and they still produce the currency paper for the U.S. mint.

Why am I writing this? I miss the variety. Designers used to love to choose a fancy paper to make their project special. Their goal was to create an economical, but elegant printed piece, using one or two colors of ink on an unusual paper and sometimes with an unusual shape. One of our favorite designers, who moved to Japan and then to Ohio, but who was not swallowed up in large company mergers; used to do amazingly creative things with paper and ink. They were fun to print.

Designers have moved to the web and paper has become boring. The paper manufacturers tried to console us for a while by making up new names for white and tan. “Ecru” sounds kind of designey. “Natural white” is down to earth. “Cream” is kind of comforting. “Soft ivory” doesn’t do much for me, because I don’t like the idea of hunting elephants. And when you put all of these sheets beside one another, they’re all tan. “Glacier” is whiter than tan, but not nearly as white as “Solar” or “Avalanche.” You understand.

Printers have coped by printing a lot more in color. The technology for short run color has become more accessible and prices for offset have come way down with the onset of automation and with increased competition. Sometimes we even print a background to simulate the interesting paper we used to be able to purchase.

I never printed on “Old Money” again and I don’t suppose Crane needs to keep a database of printers who buy their papers anymore. You don’t read much about counterfeiting any more. Like fine papers, it may have become a thing of the past. Why would any self-respecting criminal would bother with messy, labor intensive crime like forgery or counterfeiting when easier, neater high-tech crimes like identity theft are so readily available?

A customer will still occasionally ask to come in and look at paper. They’re remembering swatch books with dozens of shades and textures from which to choose. Some are incredulous when I explain the limited availability. But the runs are short and usually a deadline is looming, so ordering in carton quantities from the mill is rarely an option. I’m tired of white and tan, too; but fine papers are quickly going the way of the dinosaur. And honestly, I’m feeling a little fossilized myself.