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.


Finding Shoes that Fit

August 16, 2007

Printshops are like shoes. One size does not fit all feet. Like shoes, some printshops are functional and casual. Others are trendy. Some are stylishly snooty. Some are cheap: they look good to begin with, but they’re poorly made. Others are broken down, worn out, or just out of step with current styles. With shoes and printing companies, the trick is finding the ones that are durable, comfortable, and right for the occasion.

Lets talk about durability first. Times are tough in the printing business. The market is changing rapidly. Volumes of traditional printed products (forms, envelopes, business printing) are declining. At the same time there are continuing opportunities for companies willing to embrace new technologies and expand their product offerings. There are still old line printers in most towns who are essentially dead men walking. They haven’t upgraded machinery or added new capabilities and they will not survive for long. These are the old, worn-out shoes. They may feel comfortable when you put them on, but they’ll kill your feet if you wear them and they’re going to let you down on a long hike.

How do you tell if your printer falls in this category? Visit the shop. Is it clean and well-organized? Do you see computer screens everywhere? Does the machinery look new or does some of it look like a workmen’s compensation claim about to happen? Are there pallets of old paper, automobile parts or unidentifiable hunks of metal scattered through the shop? Many of these printing companies are owned by wonderful people who have loved and taken care of their customers for ever. Like the old shoes, they have given great service; but now it’s time to retire. The durable printers are constantly getting re-soled and shined. They are always talking about something new. They’re like a good pair of men’s dress shoes, they’re classic and stylish. If you take care of them, they’ll last forever.

Now for comfort. There’s no flash to comfort. You can certainly go to the Internet and shop for the latest whiz-bang deal on 1/4″ thick AC plywood business cards with UV coating and Minwax on both sides. This may be a shock for some of you, but you have to pay for the right fit: for comfort, durability and for dependability. Your local printing company is suffering from the low prices that the gang run internet printers offer (see Caveat Emptor!). I commiserated with a competitor yesterday who spoke about the time he spent training freelance designers to prepare files for print only to have them shop price on the Internet. To say it straight, Internet printing is a crapshoot. It is cheap and poorly made. You will never receive the care, the quality, the customer service, or the reliability of a good local printer from the low-priced Internet bandits.

The old Howlin’ Wolf song says, “I’m built for comfort, I ain’t built for speed.” Here’s news . . . when you find the printshop that fits, it will offer both comfort and speed. Most mid-sized shops deal with a good many customers who create and print one or two jobs each year. For these folks, our objective is to make things as easy as possible. Generally, we try to make the best from what they give us within reasonable deadlines. But most of us also have key accounts who print with us every month or every week. If you belong to this customer category, your mainstay printing company should fit like a really comfortable pair of running shoes. If you will offer a commitment to your printer beyond just “letting them quote;” they should bend over backwards to streamline the workflow for you.

At Alphagraphics, we regularly slot production time for key accounts. We have literally configured customers’ computers to help them submit print ready .pdfs, we’ve set up proprietary websites for ordering, and we’ve purchased machinery and software to meet specific customer needs. For our key customers, proofs are turned in a matter of hours (sometimes minutes) and turnaround times are extremely short.

I’ve purchased Timberland boots for years. Until just recently, they’ve been the most durable and comfortable shoes I’ve owned. I still wear a pair of Timberland hiking boots that I purchased in Maine in 1988. Those boots were expensive, over $100 in 1988 money. Earlier this summer, I was surprised to find a pair of Timberland sandals at a discount store. I bought them for $48. They hurt my feet, they’re hot, and I can’t get them to break in. They’re cheap and poorly crafted. I think Timberland sold out.

Here’s the point. Printing is a value proposition. The printing company that fits will not be the cheapest. If your only consideration is price, allowing a good printing company to “quote” is a disservice to them and to your company. You’ll waste their time and yours. They will not be the cheapest and when you buy the cheapest, you’ll eventually get the Timberland sandals . . . ill fitting, hot and uncomfortable.

What about “right for the occasion?” One pair of shoes doesn’t always work for every occasion. This one’s a little tough, because there is the temptation to tell a customer that you can do it all. Print brokers and many conventional printing companies will accept any order and simply farm it out to another printer who has the capability to fill it. This isn’t always in their customers’ best interests.

You may wear casual shoes all the time. It may be that your local business printer can handle 90% of what you do in-house. Alternately, you might enjoy fancy parties. At these events, the casual shoes don’t work; high heels and dress shoes are required.

What do you do about specialty printing or the occasional long run? Ask your mainstay printer. The printer that you want to partner with will not hesitate to tell you when a job doesn’t fit. He will also probably have a recommendation or an alternative for you. We regularly recommend a large commercial shop in town for runs that will not run cost effectively on our presses. Likewise, we have referred another company for large format work that we could not do. Occasionally we use reputable trade printers to produce products for companies that prefer us to handle the job. We explain this to our customers before the order is accepted.

Why did I take the time to write this? Because times are tough in the printing business. Companies like AlphaGraphics badly need customers who will take the time to find and commit to a business relationship with the “printer that fits.” Companies like ours have invested a lot of time and money to make sure that we are like a good pair of shoes. We’re durable, a comfortable fit for our customers, and have the right capabilities to match the needs of our customer base.

There’s a lot be said for shoes that fit.

Caveat Emptor!

March 17, 2007

TANSTAAFL – there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.


I’d always thought that John Maynard Keynes coined this acronym in support of one of his free market theories. Turns out that it was Robert Heinlein, one of the strangest science fiction writers to emerge from the 1960s.

The principle is simple. There is an intrinsic value to every product or service and there is an associated economic cost to the provision of that product or service. Whether visible in the price of that product or hidden in the prices of other products, the cost is there nonetheless, and must be recovered if the transaction is to make economic sense.

Caveat Emptor, which literally means “let the buyer beware,” is a sound admonition to the purchaser when the lunch appears to be “free.” Look for the catch. The lunch may be free, but it costs $4.50 to throw away the paper sack and the apple core.

Twice last week, I’ve been confronted by “better deals” that a customer can buy over the internet. The first was from an ad agency, a customer that in the past has consumed a fair amount of time with quotations and required a little handholding when the projects came through. We had quoted postcards. They asked us to meet the price of an internet printer. I passed.

The second incident involved a college student organization that wanted some flyers. The student in charge of the project had come into the store and received pricing for the project, a thousand color handbills. He called back the next day, saying that the price didn’t fit his budget. I gave him a couple of options and finally reduced the price he was originally quoted by a little, simply because I wanted to help him out. His response frankly surprised me.

“Have you heard of” he queried.

I replied that I had not.

“You can get 5000 of these on manificoprints for $150, and they’ll throw in a free candy bar, too!”

I suggested that he opt for the free Snickers bar, wished him good luck, and told him to call us back if he needed help. Then I began thinking . . . always a dangerous proposition.

The internet printers have been around for a while. Four or five years ago, before the dotcom bust, there was a rush among conventional printers to establish an “internet presence.” Coalitions were formed, venture capital was obtained, grand castles of sand were built and collapsed with the incoming tide.

Most conventional printshops remained “brick and mortar” operations, using the internet for the things that made good sense for their customers. AlphaGraphics, Inc. did an exceptionally good job with this, providing their franchisees (Poor Richard included) with a web presence that included facilities for file transfer, proofing, online ordering, etc.

But now there is a new generation of online printers. At the core, the model for these businesses is not much different than that of “gang run” trade printers that have been around forever. The objective is to achieve economies of scale by combining (ganging) several similar jobs on a large sheet, thereby increasing efficiency, and reducing cost and price. Most conventional printers have relied on this model for outsourcing items like single business cards where price is more important than quality concerns.

The new online printers have enhanced this model with digital printing technology that enables very short runs with little waste or setup cost.From a manufacturing standpoint, the goal is standardization of input, maximization of capacity and mimimization of cost. Relative to a conventional printer, volumes are high and unit costs are low. Margins are very low.

The marketing strategy is blatantly simple . . . low price.

“Why, isn’t this good for the consumer?” you ask. “Shouldn’t we all be buying our printing this way?”

Poor Richard’s answer is “Yes and No,” but (predictably) “mostly No.”

The model certainly works on cheap business cards where either the quality levels are not demanding or the risk is low. AlphaGraphics has depended on a Jacksonville, FL company for years that mass produces business cards. They can produce the blue and red cards for Joe’s Bakery in Macon along with blue and red cards for Flo’s Jewelry in Mobile and Moe’s Body Shop in Kalamazoo for less than what it costs me to set up my press and print a single set. Joe saves money and the outcome is fine, as long as you stay within their paper and ink parameters and the card is uncomplicated.

And there’s the first caveat. The model works for peanut butter and jelly; maybe for a hamburger. It doesn’t work for filet mignon. What’s the risk if a business card doesn’t turn out right? You change it and do it again. Outside of the time required, the cost is certainly manageable, even for a DIY designer who is using KidPix to create the card. But what if it’s your boss’s card? What if it’s the corporate brochure or the annual report that goes to the Board of Directors? What if the event is next week and you don’t have time to do it again?

Poor Richard did a little research this morning. I read the fine print. Here it is:

19. Workmanship Guarantee
Because of the nature of “gang run” style printing shall not be held responsible for the following issues which may occur during our production process: variation in color, offset (smudges), cutting variations, marking, picking, cutting issues, size discrepancies (over/under), and etc. Customer acknowledges that they are receiving gang run style printing at a substantial price discount and expedited delivery times and thus said printing will not be held to the same standard as traditional offset lithography nor generally accepted printing standards. While every effort will be made to satisfy our customer’s needs, requests for reprints or credits based on quality issues will not be recognized.

And some more:

Indeed, VistaPrint takes great pride in its commitment to customer satisfaction. However, certain circumstances are beyond our control and are not covered by the guarantee. Please note that we cannot be responsible for:

  • Spelling, punctuation or grammatical errors made by the customer.
  • Inferior quality or low-resolution of uploaded images.
  • Design errors introduced by the customer in the document creation process.
  • Errors in user-selected options such as choice of finish, quantity or product type.
  • Damage to the products arising after delivery to the customer.

Please preview your designs carefully and correct any mistakes prior to placing your order. In an effort to keep costs down and pass substantial savings along to our customers, VistaPrint does not proof documents created by its customers prior to processing.,3&xnav=Feature

Most of our customers at AlphaGraphics have reasonable expectations when it comes to their printing projects. I don’t think that smudges, marking, picking, size variations, etc. fall within those reasonable expectations. They don’t fall within my expectations for my customers’ projects. And the best designers that we work with regularly catch minor mistakes at proof. Quality-oriented printers regularly check their customers files for errors and we regularly find them. Over 80% of the files we are given need and receive minor corrections before they are printed. In many cases our customers do not even know that a change was made to allow their file to print correctly.

In fairness, I did find one online printer that I think I might almost be willing to consider. They’re called and their website offers a customer satisfaction guarantee. You’re still on your own with design, but they do provide soft proofs of each job online. You can get a hard copy proof by mail for an extra charge. Their website is helpful and customer oriented.

Guess what? After all is said and done, the prices are comparable to what you can get at your local printshop. For instance, the base price for an 8.5 x 11 trifold printed 4/4 on 80# gloss text is $456.25. That’s 4 days in production + ground shipping from Montana. To reduce the production time to 2 days and ship overnight brings the total to $717.80, right in line with your local printshop who will help you with your art, your proof and probably deliver the job to your doorstep.

One of Heinlein’s more bizarre characters was a human named Michael Valentine Smith, born and raised on Mars by Martians, and rescued back to earth as a young man. From the Martians, Smith obtained a super-human analytical capability, a way of understanding that Heinlein dubbed “grokking.” To truly understand something, in Smith’s fashion, was to “grok” it.

The dictionary definition of caveat emptor is “the axiom or principle in commerce that the buyer alone is responsible for assessing the quality of a purchase before buying.” This means that you, the buyer, must determine the intrinsic value of the deal. To do this, you must understand what you are buying, you must “grok” it.

There’s a lot more to printing than meets the eye. Internet printing has a lot less to offer than low price. TANSTAAFLthere ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Grok it?

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.

Can’t you print it while I wait?

December 16, 2006

One of my graphic designer friends comments:

How about an explanation of all the steps required to produce a printed piece?

I really love clients who want projects turned around in a matter of minutes. Maybe, with this bit of information, people will understand that while all this wonderful technology does make things faster, it doesn’t make thing instantaneous.

Ok, we’ll give it a go.

It is not uncommon for a customer to ask the question, “Can’t I just wait for it?” We call it copy shop mentality. The customer is picturing a big box with a paper tray on the end of it. No matter what the size or complexity of the project, you just press a green button, the machine makes a little noise and the finished product comes out the delivery end.

In truth, there are some jobs that can run exactly that way. AlphaGraphics still has a couple of conventional copiers. If a customer comes in and requests a few copies and one of the machines is open, we’ll usually put the job on the machine and tell the customer about how long it will take. Sometimes we’ll ask them to go to lunch and stop back by after they’re through.

But we’re not a copy shop. This type of job represents less than 3% of the revenue of our business. Most of this work used to come from small and medium sized offices that now have fairly good copying capability in-house. The jobs that go to a printshop are the ones that are too complex to do in-house or require a level of quality that cannot be produced on an office copier.

The projects my designer friend is talking about usually fall in both categories at once. She is one of the designers that printers really like; with the (unfortunately somewhat rare) combination of artistic talent and technical competence. Producing one of her pieces on a copy machine would be like re-casting Michelangelo’s David in concrete.

The way a job progresses through the printshop is called workflow. Let’s take a look at how it works at AlphaGraphics:


Prepress has been called the black hole of the printing business, and it can be. Prepress is literally everything that happens to a project before ink goes on paper. It can be very easy or amazingly difficult, largely depending on the customer.

In the case of my designer friend, prepress is easy. She submits files that are usually ready for press. Her customers have approved the art and their changes have been made. We will simply check her files (this is called preflight) to assure that all of the fonts and images we need are there. She’ll get a final .pdf proof or a hard copy if the customer requires it. Once the proof is approved, we’re on to production.

Or, we can do it the hard way. For example, today I received files for a 36 page booklet. The page size specified is 5.5″ x 8.5″. The files were provided in Microsoft Word on an 8.5 x 11 page size (see my previous post Why Printers Hate Microsoft). That means a lot of work before a proof can be produced, then revisions, then proof approval, then printing and binding. This is where the black hole can appear. The timetable is largely dependant upon the customer. If they respond quickly to proofs and revisions are uncomplicated, the project will go smoothly and reasonably quickly. Alternately, they can require multiple revisions, review by committee, and stretch a four day project out for a month. This is the stuff that another blog post is made of.


In our shop, print production can be either on a conventional offset press or a digital machine. We will usually suggest one or the other depending on run length and quality requirements. I used to say that the digital machines were “copiers on steroids,” with the printer’s predictable preference for conventional presses. I really can’t say that any more. The quality gap between offset and digital color has narrowed immensely and the price barrier for digital color has come down a good deal. This means that digital color is suitable for more jobs and for longer run lengths.

Digital production is faster than press, but neither is “instantaneous.” AlphaGraphics (and any other good printshop) uses a production scheduling system that allows us to control the workflow through the shop. We can and do give priority to a job according to the customer’s deadlines, but this has obvious limitations. All jobs cannot be “hot” at the same time. Depending on the time of proof approval, digital printing usually occurs the same day or the next day. Press work usually takes a little longer, with a 1 – 2 day lead time on simple work and 3 – 4 days on process color.

Guess what? Longer runs take longer to run. It takes longer to print 20,000 brochures than it does to print 2,000. And the same consideration applies for everything that is done after printing is complete (see Bindery below).

Another consideration is drying time after press. Conventional inks are oil (or soy) based. They are tacky when they are applied to paper. There are several ways that printers can reduce drying time, but it remains a time and temperature equation. A large block of solid ink will not be dry when it exits the press and should not be handled until it is. This means that extra time may be required for certain projects. If your printer tells you that he can’t cut your business cards because the ink is still wet, believe him. He doesn’t want to wreck your job or redo it and you don’t want him to.


If prepress is everything that happens before ink goes on paper, bindery is everything that can happen afterwards. Simple bindery operations are scoring, folding, and cutting. More complicated operations are bookletmaking, coil binding, die-cutting, laminating, foil-stamping or embossing. Bindery can also include esoteric operations like specialized gluing.

Production time in bindery is largely dependant upon the mechanical capabilities of the printshop. A small shop may still collate and staple booklets by hand. This means that their production time will be much longer than the shop that uses an automated bookletmaker or saddlestitcher for the same process.

No printshop does everything in house. For example, presentation folders require large presses, specialized diecutting and gluing equipment for production. Most printers have a relationship with an outside supplier that specializes in this item. Because presentation folders are outsourced, lead times are longer. Die-cutting, embossing, and foil stamping also fall into this category for most small and mid-sized printers.

Another consideration is handwork. While most of us continue to invest in bigger, better, faster equipment to minimize manual operations, handwork in a printshop is inescapable. Doing work by hand is slower and more expensive. If we see a job that will have a manual component to it and we can suggest a better way, we will. If the customer wants it the hard way, we’ll produce it that way if we can. But, it will take longer and cost more than the automated alternative. Examples of this are very small or odd-sized booklets, specialty folds, and stuffing really small invitations into really small envelopes.

Last Words

Thanks to my designer friend for playing the role of muse. I could write on about this for a while, but I think that I’ve made the points that she asked for. Here’s the last words:

  1. Ask the questions and listen to the answers. Your printer (or an experienced designer) will have an idea of the best way to produce the product you want. In many cases, minor changes can save big time and money.
  2. Plan ahead, proceed calmly and be realistic in your expectations. Your sense of urgency will not cause the ink to dry faster. Also, there is a definite tendency for major mistakes to occur in projects that are done in a hurry.
  3. Establish a good relationship with a good company. It is natural for a printer to give their best service to their best customers. At AlphaGraphics, if we have a customer who is great to work with and depends on us for their printed products, we’ll pull out all the stops if they need something in a hurry. We’re not so anxious to do that with the customer who uses us for quotes all the time and only gives us a job when no one else can do it.

Hope this helps, P . . . .

Graphic Designer or Graphic Disaster

September 30, 2006

Printers don’t use cameras anymore. At least, very few of us do. If your printer still does, better ask him why. Cameras are old technology, just like the typewriter. I could never make much sense of the phrase “camera ready” anyhow. What it was supposed to mean was that the customer was bringing art that was ready to shoot for plates or film. Colors were separated, clarity was good, the art had been prepared in a way that would make it suitable for printing. In practice, “camera ready” meant anything from finished boards to crayon scribbles on a paper towel.

Today, the “camera ready” phrase has been replaced with “on disk.” Even that is passe’, we hardly ever receive anything on an actual disk or even CD any more. It all comes via file transfer over the web. Nonetheless, “on disk” comes with a similar set of problems to “camera ready.”

To paraphrase Corrie Ten Boom, having a computer no more makes one a graphic designer than having a garage makes one an automobile. I’ve ranted about Microsoft in a previous entry, so I won’t go there again today. But even users of real, honest-to-goodness layout and design programs can be dangerous. If graphic designers were issued licenses to drive their computers and printers were allowed to issue tickets for violations, there’d be a lot of designers in real trouble . . . and a few with their licenses revoked completely.

The big problem is that it is relatively easy to design something that looks pretty good on screen and fails miserably when printed. Designing for the web is so forgiving. The WYSIWYG acronym applies. Just preview your web page in Internet Explorer and you’re going to see what most of the world sees. In the print world, WYSMBWYG applies–what you see might be what you get! Those cool effects that look so great in Photoshop, Illustrator or Publisher might translate into a black box when they run through prepress.

Here are some tips from Poor Richard for aspiring new print designers:

  1. Use a drawing program for drawing, a photo editing program for photo editing, and a page layout program for page layout. Adobe Illustrator is the industry standard for vector artwork — that is line drawing and fills in the digital world. Adobe Photoshop is the same for pixels — .jpg, .tif and other file formats that are basically collections of dots grouped together tightly in just such a pattern that your eyes and brain think that they are seeing an image or a photograph. Adobe InDesign, QuarkXpress, and (sigh) even Microsoft Publisher are page layout programs where art, photos, and text are put together in a document for printing.
  2. Ask your printer first. Before you start your project, give your printer a call. Tell him what you intend to do and ask for requirements for setting up the publication. This can save an amazing amount of trouble and expense when your files actually get to the printshop.
  3. Follow the rules. When preparing files for print there are a few things that are absolutely required. Print design can be very unforgiving.
    For instance, if you are printing a one or two color piece, you’ll be using spot color. A spot color is essentially a named color that can be separated out from any other color used in the document. This requires a program that will separate colors. Illustrator does, Photoshop doesn’t. Your page layout program will, but you must assign the colors.If you ignore this, what will happen? Things are going to be very strange colors (or black and white) on your proof. You’ll be mad at your printer. Or your printer is going to call and you’re going to get mad at him because you don’t understand what he’s talking about. Even worse, your job might get printed in all of the wrong colors. Then you’ll get really, really mad at us.We hate it when you get mad and we really don’t want to revoke your computer driving license.
  4. Pay attention to resolution. If you steal photos for your cosmetics catalog from Acme Tweezer Company’s website, they’re going to look crummy. Internet resolution is 72 dpi (dots per inch). A good resolution for printing is 300 dpi.
  5. KIS applies. I’m being nice. I left off the final “S.” Many beginners end up over-designing. Keep it simple. The most effective layouts are clean. They use white space, one or two readable fonts, and clean lines.

We try to be very patient with out customers, especially those who are new to design and really want to do it themselves. For those who are more interested in the product than the process, AlphaGraphics and many other shops offer in-house design services. We actually do even work with crayon scribbles on a napkin from time to time.

I’ll write more about graphic design and the print process as the blog progresses. Send me a comment or a question and I’ll try to address it in another post.

How to make sure there’s something wrong with your print job — Part 1

September 20, 2006

The look on her face told it all. What she saw in the box was not what she expected. “What’s wrong?,” I asked. “Is there a problem?”

“These aren’t the size I expected,” she replied.

I went to get the job jacket for her project. Unfortunately, mistakes are made at printshops. When we mess up, we fix it; but we always want to see what has happened. I pulled the proof she had signed and measured between the crop marks. The dimensions were exactly the same as the finished product.

“I don’t understand,” I told her as I showed her the measurements.

“So that’s what those are for!” she replied, and everything became clear. We had sent a proof with crop marks indicating size, but the customer didn’t know what a crop mark was!

“I still don’t understand how you could have designed it that way,” she continued, “I told the person I spoke with that this piece had to fit in an envelope.”

I pulled out a #10 envelope and showed her that the piece would indeed fit comfortably inside.

“Oh, is that a standard envelope?” she responded. “My envelopes aren’t that size!”

Mistakes are very expensive at printshops. The products we make are useful only to the customer that commissions them. If the customer doesn’t accept the finished product, it becomes trash and a total loss to the printer. There’s really nothing else we can do with it and margins are not nearly so good that we can take a whole lot of total loss.

Because of this, we’re really fanatical about proofs. Everything is spelled out — quantities, colors, paper, and size. But in this case, the customer didn’t understand the way we communicated. In fact, she later admitted that she thought the proof “looked a little funny.” But she didn’t ask a question about it. She just signed it.

There are many methods to virtually assure that something will go wrong with your print job. Here are the first two:

Method 1: Don’t take the time to review the proof

Any good printer has 20 to 30 jobs in process at one time. We have to be pretty good at details, but we cannot track all of the details of all of the jobs at one time. When we proof internally, it’s generally for format. If information is given to us digitally (for example, in a Microsoft Word file) to flow into a document for print, we’re going to assume that you’ve already read through it. We won’t be looking at it very carefully.

We’re also very cautious about changing grammar or punctuation. Punctuation and grammar today are like ethical relativism. Just because it’s wrong to me (or your grammar school English teacher) doesn’t mean that it’s wrong in the customer’s eyes. If you type it that way, we assume that you want it that way; even if Miss Birch (my grammar school English teacher) would say that it’s wrong.

Read the proof carefully. Check things like names, addresses, and phone numbers on business cards. Poor Richard’s law says that the phone number will always be wrong on an unproofed business card. Read backwards for spelling. You’ll be surprised at how the misspelled words will jump out at you.

Method 2: Do lots of proofs and make lots of changes

Editing should really be done long before the printer gets the job, especially if the project is a team effort. Poor Richard’s law says that the more revisions you make, the greater the likelihood that something will be missed.

Proofing is a one person project. Poor Richard’s law says that if two or more are proofing, one will revise the other’s correction. Your printer will not know which version to choose and your project will go into printer’s limbo until we can figure it out. This means sending more proofs and time delays. If it gets too bad, we kind of freeze up like your computer does when you overload it. We may even make you wait until the next morning when the shop is rebooted before we send you another proof.

We really don’t advise calling on the phone. The person you talk to on the phone will rarely be the one who makes the changes to your job and they won’t have your project in front of them. Printshops are busy places. You’ll be throwing another bowling pin at the juggler who is already handling about 12 of them and keeping the plates spinning on the end of the stick, too.

Printers love documentation. Write out your changes and send them by email or fax. Put them all together in one email or fax, not a string of several of them. When the revision comes, make the final small corrections. If we miss or misunderstand something on the revision, then give us a phone call.

Please ask questions. If you don’t understand something, ask. We want to deliver exactly what you want, but this won’t happen if we’re not communicating clearly with one another. Remember that when you sign the proof, you are accepting responsibility for the accuracy of your project. If it “looks funny,” ask about it.

As it turns out, our customer’s cards did fit in the envelopes she intended to use. There was no additional expense or pain for either of us. The wires were still tangled, though, and that’s a losing situation for us. Maybe she’ll read my blog and understand.