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Printed Samples: What You Need to Look For

A potential client asked me for printed samples today. We had discussed my role as a printing broker, and she wanted to see examples of the work the printers could do.

In contrast to representatives of individual printers, who have only their own shops to promote, I collected a printed product sampling from five of my best vendors. These are the things I looked for in the samples, so I could position each of the five printers in its best light:

Good, clean printing: I chose a booklet from a nonprofit educational foundation that focuses on Latin American constituencies. The book included heavy coverage solids that were consistent, flat, and smooth over large areas, without mottling, pinprick holes, hickies, or any variance in color density. The print job also included 4-color photos with images of people. These showed the fidelity of the color work this printer provided, particularly since the “memory colors” that include skin tones will stand out if they are not dead-on accurate.

Accurate folds: Another printer had produced a Z-fold brochure for a client of mine, so I included this in my sample packet. This brochure showed the finishing accuracy the printer could provide, ensuring that each panel ended precisely at the fold and that each panel was appropriately smaller or larger than the surrounding panels to allow for an even, folded piece. Given the color placement of solid inks and screens, it was important not to have screens or solids extending into adjacent panels. Folding was critical, and this sample showcased the precision this particular printer could offer.

High quality process color images: I also included a notecard with a large image of a flower. A year ago, I had produced a series of flower image cards for a client who is a professional photographer. The photos were highly detailed close ups, and, as a professional photographer, my client required absolute color fidelity in these flower notecards. Given the brilliance and saturation of the colors in this series of cards, I thought a sample from this lot would highlight both the color quality of this printer's work and his attention to detail.

High quality digital printing: This is a newer arena of printing, and the quality is improving in leaps and bounds. The digitally printed booklet I included in the sample pack for my prospective client included graduated screens with even printing and no artifacts. The screens were as consistent as samples of offset printing. The job also included reversed type, small type within graphs and charts, and screened type. I wanted my client to see that on this digital press (an HP Indigo) at this particular printer, she could expect quality almost indistinguishable from offset printing work.

You may look for other characteristics within the samples you request from the printers that come calling on you. It's best to ask for samples of printing and finishing processes that require precision and that are hard to do well.

I would include in this short list such press- and post-press work as diecuts, complex binding, and metallics and coatings (such as the interplay of a gloss coating against a dull coating for contrast).

I had one sample I didn't send my prospective client because I was afraid a metal attachment might rip through the envelope in the mail. This was a series of diecut “keys” and square VIP cards attached to a round keyring. A high-end printer had produced and assembled this marketing job for a client of mine a few years ago. It reflected the diecutting skill of the printer as well as his printing accuracy and his ability to coordinate the assembly of a job consisting of printed, diecut, and metal elements.

I also didn't send some of the books two high-end book printers had produced since I only have one copy of each. These particular samples showcase book covers with extended French Flaps (extended flaps that fold back into the book giving the appearance of an additional dust jacket).

I plan to take the books and keyring of diecut keys to my initial meeting with this prospective client, where I can point out the particular printing and finishing characteristics of these samples.

And just as I closely reviewed all of the printer samples I have amassed in order to find individual samples that demonstrated the printers' skills at difficult press- and post-press techniques, I encourage you to consider what you will specifically need to see in order to have confidence in a new printer. Then you can start with a small job and work your way up to larger projects as you develop trust in your printer's capabilities and commitment.

One final note: Ask your printer for current samples. In some cases your printer may also have production notes on the jobs, such as what paper stock was used. He or she should also be able to meet with you and explain the printing and finishing processes used to produce these jobs.

Identifying Digital Vs Offset Samples

When you receive the samples from your print provider, how can you tell which ones were printed via offset lithography and which were printed digitally? Ideally, you can't tell the difference with your naked eye. That's the whole point.

However, if you use a loupe, you really can get a good idea of how a job was produced.

Take a copy of a printed product that you know was printed on an offset lithographic press, and look at the halftone dots in a color or black and white image. In particular, if it's a color image, you'll see crisp, sharp halftone dots in circular, rosette patterns.

On the other hand, since the placement of toner particles on a digital press is not as precise as the placement of ink on a lithographic press, through a loupe you will see slightly blurry halftone dots (in contrast to the sharp printed dots of the offset printed product).

In addition, the halftone dots of the digitally produced product will be placed in rows, but they will probably not exactly resemble the circular, rosette patterns of halftone dots in the offset printed sample.

If your digitally printed sample was produced via inkjet technology, it will be even easier to tell the difference between the digitally produced and the offset lithographically produced product. Inkjet technology sprays minuscule drops of ink onto the substrate, giving you more of a continuous tone photographic image than you would see with the halftone rosettes of an offset printed product.


[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]

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