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.

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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.


Diagnosis Charges

March 9, 2008

Doctor with Clipboard“He wants to speak to the manager,” were the words I heard. I looked through the glass into Brian’s office. His eyes were rolling just slightly and he had that sardonic half smile that he wears when one of those, “you’re the owner, you have to deal with this” events happens. I almost think he enjoys it.

“This is Richard, may I help you?” I said to the as yet unidentified voice on the phone. The voice introduced himself as the new general manager of an organization we’ve done occasional business with over the years.

“You’re doing some business cards for us,” he stated, “and I need to talk to you about these charges.”

I was familiar with the job and the company. Sharon, our salesperson, and I had visited our contact at the company weeks before. The company has gone through a lot of changes in recent years. We printed a newsletter for them at one time; letterhead, envelopes and other “stuff” that organizations use. Our contact has always been friendly, but the attitude of the company had changed. Most of the print had been eliminated to cut costs. They had reverted to “do it yourself” with the newsletter. What little was left was handled from a corporate office in Atlanta. All that was left for local production was the business cards. Disappointing, but easy enough; at least, that’s what we thought at the time.

It took a while for the order to come in. Sharon had to answer lots of questions. Estimates were prepared and presented. You will note the word “estimates.” That’s what printshops should provide, not quotations. It is only possible to provide a hard quotation for a static set of specifications. When the specifications change, so do the costs and so should the price.

On AlphaGraphics estimates we always include a special caveat. The language goes like this:

“Prices are for production only. Additional charges will apply for layout, design, or file modifications required before printing.”

We do not estimate design or layout charges because it is absolutely impossible to predict the amount of time a customer may require from us to achieve the finished layout that they desire. We simply keep a log of the time required for the job and charge accordingly. We regularly explain the caveat and offer our advice to keep layout and design charges at a minimum. Our advice is frequently ignored.

For instance, we may suggest that a customer provide us with a digital logo and a rough sketch of a business card design rather than try to prepare it themselves. Often, more time is required to unscramble a file from an inexperienced designer than to put it together from scratch. Or we might suggest that it’s best not to proof by committee. Everyone involved will feel compelled to make changes, increasing the confusion, and requiring more time for changes and proofs before the job is ready to print.

Time is the valuable commodity in a printshop design or prepress office. Prepress is the inevitable bottleneck in any production shop. I’ve written before about the challenges of printshop design (see The Trouble with Printshop Design ). It’s not that the equipment or the employees in the design office are so all-fired expensive, but that the opportunity cost of tying up the workflow can be tremendous. An inexperienced or inefficient designer can hold up a $3500 brochure run and 2 or 3 employees while they are engrossed in the layout of a $50 business card. Prepress time is valuable simply because it’s what keeps the rest of the people and equipment productive.

The time has a measurable value and we charge for it. It’s like going to the doctor. If you go in with a complaint, see the good doctor, and are told that you are perfectly healthy; you still pay the doctor for his diagnosis. You pay him because his time is valuable. If you fail to listen to your doctor, you can run into real trouble. If you fail to listen to your printer, the result can be the same.

We had provided a production estimate with our usual caveat to the customer mentioned above. What started out as an order for 4 sets of business cards had turned into 6 sets. We were told that they would send the art for the card. We received a low resolution logo and a basic layout pasted onto an 8.5 x 11 page of a Microsoft Word file. We received the names to typeset and were later told that two of the cards had a reverse side. Proofs were required . . . 4 of them to be exact. Because the changes had become excessive, Brian sent a revised estimate to the customer showing additional layout charges of $60. The phone call ensued, providing Brian with an opportunity for entertainment at my expense.

There’s no real need to go into the detail of the conversation with the new manager. Suffice it to say that our proviso regarding additional costs was of as little importance to him as the three weeks of indecision which had delayed the production of his cards or the multiple proofs. It was his responsibility to “watch every penny,” and he simply did not understand why there had been a delay or how the cost could change from his original estimate.

“I’ll have to let you know if we’re going ahead with this,” was his concluding statement.

I haven’t scratched the job from the production list yet, but I really don’t expect to hear back from him. I’m not so naive to think that he won’t get his cards somewhere. He’ll probably send the inadequate art off to one of the internet bandits and be satisfied with what he receives because he saved so much money. Or maybe he’ll find another printer who thinks that there’s lots more business to come and will put up with his indecision.

I’m sure that my expression betrayed my thoughts as I hung up the receiver and glanced back through the glass into Brian’s office. I’m always disappointed when a customer is upset. It’s just one of those things that happens occasionally in our business, and it’s never pleasant. Good customers are hard to come by and good reputations are easier to destroy than to earn. We try very hard to do each project well and really do go a long way to diagnose and accomodate the needs of each customer. Like the doctor, though, we have to cover the cost of the diagnosis and of special treatment provided. We have to keep the office running in order to help the next patient.


Digitally Pressed

November 29, 2007

So what exactly is a Digital Press anyway?

Xerox 6060

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Coming:

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

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

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

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