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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven 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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Book Printing: Giving the Printer More and More Book Titles to Estimate

July 16th, 2017

Posted in Book Printing | Comments »

As a commercial printing broker, I am in the position of potentially crafting a deal that would make a client happy while bringing more work to a good printer. What’s interesting is that there are a lot of assumptions that may be negotiable, if the client, the printer, and I go slowly and work together.

The Client

My client produces books at a local beach resort. For the most part they advertise local establishments, but they also promote events and include other editorial content. The print books are 4-color throughout due to the high percentage of advertising. They are case-bound, for the most part, usually oblong in format, and their print runs range from 1,000 copies to 10,000 copies.

Over the past two months my client has been on hiatus before starting the new publishing year. Usually she prints in China, but she has intimated that for the right price she would consider bringing the work to a local US vendor. I have written about her in the PIE Blog before. Our work has been on hold for two months.

The Printer

At the same time, I have been working with a US printer to craft a potential year-long schedule for my client’s print books and to reduce costs where possible to make the deal attractive to my client. This particular printer is ideal for the job because he specializes in book printing. Therefore, his plant includes all of the equipment most other companies do not have. This includes binding equipment for case-bound books, Smyth sewing equipment, and so forth. Because of this, he can produce my client’s work at a lower price and more quickly than his competitors. After all, he doesn’t need to subcontract the binding work.

That said, he still can only come closer than most US printers to the pricing offered by Chinese print vendors. He can’t duplicate the low pricing in the Far East. However, my client has expressed interest in repatriating the work, avoiding the schedule slow-down around Chinese New Year in February, extending advertising deadlines (since overall production and delivery will take less time here than if the books are produced in the Far East), and avoiding potential dock strikes and the need to reroute ships to other ports. The list goes on. She pays a price for the discount offered by the Chinese vendor, even if he does do stellar work.

The Pot Gets Bigger

Since my last blog article on this subject, my client has taken on more work (more book titles) and is in the process of merging with another print book publisher. What this means is that over the course of the year, my client will have more jobs to print either in China or here in the United States.

My client is concerned that the book printer I have paired her with (due to his pricing, equipment, core competencies, etc.) will not be interested enough to come down in price, since her work in some cases will not go to press exactly when planned (i.e., the jobs cannot always be ganged). We had initially discussed pricing based on ganged work. This particular printer had actually come down in price as more books were added to the pot, but we had still based a lot of the discussion on the assumption that groups of books would go to press simultaneously. Apparently, some of the authors have not been able to meet their deadlines precisely, so this may be an issue. My client was worried that this would be a deal breaker.

This is what I said. Book printers want work. If we are up front about the potential for late job submission, or even the potential omission of a certain number of print books from the planned schedule, perhaps the printer will still offer superior pricing, since we keep adding books to the list. Printers want work, I said, and this amount of work provides leverage as long as we’re candid about the potential pitfalls.

Next Steps

Needless to say, my client was pleased with the answer. We also decided to slow down the process. Not a problem, I said. It’s better to do it right rather than quickly and risk making mistakes.

So what I suggested was that she make a calendar of book titles going from the present through 2018. She has work up through next year already planned (which our printer of choice will love to hear, since it will involve more print book titles than we had discussed at our last meeting). In fact, when I called the book printer after discussing the work with my client, he was pleased and ready to take the information upline to decision makers in sales management and estimating.

I asked my client to include in her calendar the titles of the books, their formats (their sizes and whether they will be upright or oblong), press runs, page counts, delivery dates, and color usage. I said she should set forth general assumptions at this point (educated guesses), assuming that things will change as we get closer to the actual jobs. My goal is to get a schedule into the book printer’s hands, a rough blueprint of upcoming work.

I also asked my client to start thinking about her target pricing, not unit costs but the overall cost per book printing job, excluding ganged shipping (since, if the jobs come in at different times, she will not be ganging delivery from either a Chinese printer or a US printer). I asked her to base these target prices on what she currently pays for work in China. I also asked her to consider the prices she would accept (i.e., if the US prices are higher than those from China, what will it be worth to her to avoid the importing headaches, potential dock strikes, long schedule, etc., plus whatever advertising revenue she can expect to gain by keeping advertising deadlines open longer).

Once I have this chart, even if it is a “back-of-the-envelope” estimate, I will go back to the book printer and see what I can get for my client. If the printer wants a lot of work, he may very well be willing to reduce his profit per title in order to acquire many more book titles. Conversely, his pricing may just be within my client’s comfort zone if he can come close to her targets. I fully expect to have some back and forth discussions to bring both my client’s and the printer’s goals and expectations in line with one another. At least this is my hope. It would benefit both my client and the book printer.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

Here are some things to think about:

  1. If you have multiple titles, or even a year-long schedule of dissimilar work (books, brochures, posters, office materials), consider sharing this with your printers. Many will be able to give you a better deal based on bringing in more work. If the jobs can come in together and be gang printed, so much the better.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask for better prices. If you really like a printer and have a good working relationship, you can always ask about ways to reduce costs (such as paper substitution).
  3. In many cases, if you work out a one-year contract, or a multi-year contract, with a printer, you can get better pricing. After all, your printer wants consistent work. If you will be a loyal customer and bring in predictable work over a certain time period, this will be valuable to your printer.
  4. If you’re trying to negotiate a multi-job, multi-year contract, be very candid about which jobs may miss their schedule by a week or more and which may disappear altogether. After all, you’re working with your printer as a partner at this point, and that requires mutual trust and transparency. Both sides have to win for it to be a long-term relationship.
  5. Keep in mind that everything is negotiable, but be as explicit as possible. Show the printer samples of everything. Avoid any surprises.

Posted in Book Printing | Comments »

Book Printing: Printing a Book Without Art Files

July 11th, 2017

Posted in Book Printing | Comments »

I just received a sample print book in the mail from a client saying he needed to potentially reprint the book without having the plates or art files.

I told him that this is not unusual. After all, once a print run has been completed, depending on the length of the run, the plates may have degraded. Long ago, many printers used to save the negatives and discard the plates. Now, I noted, printers save the digital information for a book printing job on hard drives or removable computer media.

My client did some research and found that the prior copy of the book (last printed a number of years ago) was on a Zip disk. If it could be found, potentially a Zip drive could be located, and the file could be accessed by the book printer.

(As an aside, the Iomega Zip disk was popular in the 1990s. It held 100 MB of digital information (or up to 250MB in later years–which at that time was a lot of digital information–and graphic designers transmitted files to the printer by submitting the job on a Zip disk. Of course this is nothing compared to the multiple tens of gigabytes small USB drives now hold, and regardless, designers usually now upload files to their book printer online.)

So the gist of my client’s dilemma is that he either has no art file from which to reprint his book, or he has an antiquated file on an antiquated medium from almost a quarter of a century ago. What to do?

A Description of the Print Book

My client’s book is 8” x 10” in dimension, one color inside with a four-color cover, and is perfect bound. It is a history book, a trade paperback about flight, with text and full-page images inside the book and a sepia-toned image created out of process color that wraps around the front and back covers and the spine. It is beautiful.

My client also sent me what he called a dust jacket for the hard-bound version of the book. The first thing that struck me was that the untrimmed dust jacket looked more like a proof. In addition, the color did not match the cover of the trade paperback. It contained a lot more red in the sepia image (presumably an image of the Wright Brothers and their airplane).

So I looked closely with a loupe. I noticed that the paperback book cover image had a halftone dot pattern and that the image was also composed of rosettes (a pattern of circles from the overlaying and slight tilting of the process color plates against one another to avoid moire patterns). The unbound cover (dust jacket) had no such pattern. Given this information, I now assume that it had been produced in a limited run on a digital press (perhaps an HP Indigo, given the quality of the image and the size of the press sheet).

The Analysis of the Book and a Plan for Its Reproduction

First of all, my client’s printer is searching for the Zip disk. Obviously, this is the best choice for reproduction since he can just produce new plates for the new print run. That’s Plan A. Plan B is to reproduce the job from a hard copy of the print book using a scanner.

With this in mind, I studied the inside of the book.

The images are all very old. Therefore they are of marginal technical quality but maximum historical interest. They are spotty. Some are better than others, but this is not really a problem because their purpose is to convey information. One expects this old an image to be scratched, washed out, or otherwise compromised, and this does not detract from the value of the print book. Therefore, I have suggested that my client have his printer “copydot scan” the interior pages of the book (scan the halftones and text exactly as is, reproducing the halftone dot pattern of the black-only images without descreening and then rescreening the pages–particularly the photos).

The covers are more challenging. Since they are composed of four colors, they probably cannot be copydot scanned. Rather, the printer will need to scan the large, wrap-around image and text as a single four-color image. Then he will need to descreen it (blur it slightly to make the halftone dots and rosettes invisible), then sharpen it and separate the four halftones (C, M, Y, and K) that will constitute the single cover image and text. Fortunately the image will be forgiving. Since it is a sepia image of two figures and an airplane, it looks more like a painting than a photo. It could even be fuzzier than it already is, and the image would just be more artistic and evocative. This is a blessing, since this kind of scanning, descreening, and rescreening will reduce the quality of each successive version of the image (i.e., every generation of re-copying will degrade the original; in this case, though, it will still make a good print book cover).

On my client’s book cover, the title is hand-written and printed in a light yellow (under the loupe it is mostly yellow with a slight halftone dot of magenta). The subtitle is almost white (white with a slight black halftone dot). Therefore, both should be readable in the next generation image, once scanned and manipulated. The spine is pretty much the same (i.e., probably quite readable, even after being scanned, descreened, rescreened, and printed).

The back of the book is another matter. On the hard-cover book dust jacket proof is a description of the book surprinted across the extension of the sky (which goes from the front cover across the spine and across the back cover). On the printed paperback are quotes about the book, pricing information, and a barcode. My client has said he would like to omit two quotes and add the description of the book on the back cover.

So this is what I suggested: He should ether recreate the mottled sky as the background of the back cover or use a consistent sepia screen (a four-color build to match the front cover and spine). Then he should reset all of the copy (description of the book, two fewer quotes, the barcode, and the pricing information) and submit only this page as new copy. Basically, the cover photo of two men and an airplane would now end at the edge of the spine where it abuts the back cover.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Technology marches on. Don’t assume the medium on which you save your job will be around in twenty years. That said, printers often have an uncanny ability to keep at least some of the old technology around to accommodate the needs of their clients.
  2. If you can’t do what you want to do, there’s usually an alternative. If my client’s print book cover were not ideally suited to scanning, descreening, and rescreening, he could have just paid a graphic designer to produce a new cover and then copydot scanned the interior of the book. If the images in the text had not been as forgiving as they will be (i.e., old photos to begin with), that might have been a problem. My client may have needed to redesign the interior of the print book.
  3. Your printer will have ideas like these. Tell him what you want to do, show him the book, and ask for his advice.
  4. Assume each generation of copying will degrade a printed image. Make sure you request a high-quality proof so you can see how the final printed book will look. Then ask about any potential unwanted patterning (moire) from the screening/descreening process.

Posted in Book Printing | Comments »

Commercial Printing: “On-Shoring” Color Printing

July 7th, 2017

Posted in Book Printing, Digital Printing | 2 Comments »

I am currently working with a print brokering client who produces a number of East Coast beach resort advertising print books, which are manufactured in China because it’s unbelievably cheap. However, she has to deal with a longer lead time, which cuts off her ad sales earlier than she might like. In addition, her print book production schedule falls during Chinese New Year, so book production slows down during this time. Also, there is always the potential for dock strikes, necessitating the rerouting of her books to another port for entry into the United States. Also, if something goes wrong, well, China is far away. So my client pays a lot for the discounted book printing prices.

In light of this, a situation that affects many of her fellow book publishers in the East Coast beach area and presumably a huge number of other publishers across the United States, I read an article the other day about inkjet color printing for trade books. I found it intriguing.

The Premise of the Article

I found the article on the AmericanPrinter.com website on 2/6/17. It appears to be a press release from Xerox, since I cannot find the name of the writer. If you Google the article, it’s entitled, “The Case for Bringing Color Trade Book Production Back Home.”

Even the title makes me feel warm inside. Here’s the premise of the article:

  1. Trade book publishers have been inkjet printing the text pages of black-ink-only trade books for some time now. This has improved inventory control. That is, publishers don’t run out of books, but neither do they need to buy books to cover the highest sales expectations. This means fewer inventory overruns and less waste, plus less overhead expense for inventory. Longer runs of the books are still best suited for offset printing. (Keep in mind that this pertains to the black-only text blocks, presumably not the covers.) (If you want to research this process, the technical term is “production” ink jet printing. This distinguishes it from inkjet products that are not trade books, educational books, and the like.)
  2. For books with 4-color interiors, inkjet color printing has not caught on. This is disappointing news, since it would be an ideal response to the seasonality of much of the 4-color book interior work. For instance, the American Printer article, “The Case for Bringing Color Trade Book Production Back Home,” notes that cookbooks are in demand around Christmas and Mother’s Day, color textbooks for higher education are in demand at the beginning of the school year, and children’s books sell well around Easter and Christmas.
  3. When a book publisher produces process-color print books overseas to fulfill expected orders at these specific times of year but runs out of inventory, he or she can’t just order more books from Far East printers and receive them in a timely manner. At best, it would take weeks for a reprint, not just a few days. This can mean either needing to over-order books initially or running out of books and losing sales later on.
  4. This short-run, inkjet-printed text-block paradigm for interiors of 4-color books would be ideal for solving the problem of seasonality in four-color book interiors. However, to date, there have been problems. Pretreated paper for currently available inkjet production presses has cost more than off-the-shelf coated paper, and there have been fewer paper options available. In addition, the quality of the printed product has not been of the same caliber as offset printed four-color work.

The Potential Solution

As I noted before, this article is most likely a Xerox press release. The article, “The Case for Bringing Color Trade Book Production Back Home,” goes on to list the benefits of the upcoming release of High Fusion Inks for use on its Trivor 2400 platform. This will “enable high-quality color inkjet printing on untreated commodity offset coated stocks with no pre- or post-print coatings.” “The Case for Bringing Color Trade Book Production Back Home” continues, noting that “These stocks often cost 15 to 20 percent less than specialty inkjet treated stocks and can help providers standardize on fewer paper stocks to better manage costs.”

Clearly this is sales literature. However, it also has far-reaching implications. When the price of the inkjet-printed books drops due to lower paper costs, and when the quality of the printed product improves (which is directly related to the paper, since the color inkjet printing process can already exceed the color gamut of 4-color offset printing if you use the right expanded ink set), then the case for bringing production inkjet for color book texts back home improves significantly.

Color quality aside, along with the cost of the paper, there are still a number of additional benefits to bringing the commercial printing of color books back home. “The Case for Bringing Color Trade Book Production Back Home” notes:

  1. Lower freight charges compared to shipping costs from the Far East.
  2. Minimized administrative and handling costs (to this I would add the elimination of the complexities and stresses of importing goods).
  3. The ability to control costs by more tightly controlling the supply chain.
  4. The ability to fulfill those orders that would be lost to a several-weeks-long reprint schedule compared to a few days’ reprint schedule for a locally-sourced ink-jet book.
  5. To this I would add the reduced cost of inventory.

Overall Impressions

Once production inkjet can compete with offset commercial printing in terms of image quality and printing paper price, this will be a game changer. I have looked closely at some inkjet printed color books, and I have seen the difference between these products and offset-printed color books. But I have also seen spectacular color inkjet work. I know we’re close. This might just be the right equipment at the right time. If so, it might just make the business case for bringing this commercial printing work home again.

Posted in Book Printing, Digital Printing | 2 Comments »

Custom Printing: Where the Art Meets the Craft

June 26th, 2017

Posted in Fine Art Printing | 2 Comments »

I love it when my work as a commercial printing broker and designer overlaps with the art therapy work my fiancee and I do with the autistic. Granted there’s always room in our class to discuss principles of design, which I am increasingly aware pertain to both the fine arts and the graphic arts. But most recently my fiancee came up with an art project that involved incising and then printing styrofoam plates made from the packages used to wrap food in the grocery store.

The Styrofoam Printing Project

Relief printing has been around for a long time. Probably at some time in your life, most of you have cut designs into half a potato and then inked up the raised portions and then pressed this printing block onto paper. In art class some of you have done the same with linoleum blocks or wood blocks.

Everything raised above the surface of the plate accepts ink and then transfers it to the paper. Everything you have gouged out of the potato, linoleum block, or wood block sits below the surface and therefore takes no ink and therefore does not print.

To apply this to our project for the autistic, we had the students plan a drawing (conceived with the help of numerous samples printed out from Google Images) and then transfer it to the front of the styrofoam sheet (an approximately 4” x 6” area once the edges of the food trays had been cut off).

The autistic members first drew the images on the styrofoam with pencils or markers, and then used styli of various kinds to deepen and widen the lines of the drawings. For this purpose we used pencils (for their points, not their colors), skewers intended for making chicken sate and shish kebab (for their pointed end), and other implements for leather working, cooking (including forks), and working with clay (metal scoops with sawlike edges to create texture, for instance).

I repeated a number of times throughout the project that anything cut into the plate would not accept a film of ink when we spread custom printing ink over the styrofoam using a brayer (a rubber roller that lays down an even film of ink on wood printing blocks, linoleum blocks, or in our case styrofoam printing plates).

The autistic members and their aides (parents or professional caregivers) developed their drawings and then incised their plates. Some made light cuts in the styrofoam (which when printed provided a subtle or ghostlike image). Others cut deeply into the styrofoam, and their final prints were coarser, more blocky, and in many ways similar to wood block prints.

I noted that the ink (whether blue or orange or black) would either print or not print, but that the members and aides could not make a dark blue print as a light blue. I taught the members and aides how to do hatching (patterns of parallel lines) and cross-hatching to create lighter areas of ink. I noted that the human eye would read hatching and cross-hatching as a light screen, much as a halftone screen in commercial printing can make areas printed only in black ink look like various shades of gray.

When the autistic members and their aides had finished inscribing the designs into their styrofoam plates, my fiancee and I came around with ink and a brayer, and inked up the member’s printing plates. We showed them how to cover only the raised parts of the design with ink while avoiding letting the ink seep into the lines they had cut into the plates. (For the most part this was easy, since the ink is thick and tacky, so the brayer will deposit it evenly on the topmost raised portions of the styrofoam plates without its seeping into the incised designs.)

The next step was to have each autistic member choose custom printing paper and then place the plate ink-side down on the sheet. Then we flipped the plate and paper over, and taught the members how to use a spoon to provide even pressure across the plate by rubbing back and forth on the back of the sheet. In this way each member could transfer the image from the styrofoam plate onto the printing paper.

When we peeled back the paper to release it from the styrofoam printing plates, so many of the people in the room fell in love with the process. Many wanted to go home and do more of this work immediately. There was something almost primal about gouging an image into a plate, inking it up, and then transferring the image onto paper.

To complete the project we provided large shoebox tops (we had collected multiple boxes donated for the purpose by a shoestore) to the members. Autistic members then glued both the custom printing plate and the printed sheet side by side into the boxtop “frames.”

Seeing the prints and the plates from which they had been produced side by side reminded me (and I mentioned this to the students) that custom printing is an art as well as a craft, and that seeing the inked-up plates along with their prints put the focus on printing as a process, not just a final art piece. The process of cutting the design into the styrofoam, inking up the plate, and making a print was at least as important as the final print itself.

How This Relates to Printing (What You Can Learn from This Case Study)

If you are a graphic designer or print buyer, it doesn’t hurt to know a little about the history of custom printing. It can help you to understand the ways technology has improved upon (or made easier) the original printing processes and also shed light on the art behind the craft of commercial printing.

The earliest printing presses (as well as the ones you often see in use at Renaissance Festivals) are based on the relief printing process. Printing plates with raised images (type and later halftone images) are inked up, paper is placed over the type and image, and intense weight is brought down upon the custom printing plate and paper. This yields a single printed sheet. Then the process is repeated.

Such a “relief” printing process is exactly the paradigm for “letterpress,” the printing process that preceded offset printing. In fact, due to the beauty of the process, many designers are going back to letterpress for specialty work such as invitations and printed envelopes because both the process and the product of letterpress relief printing hold such artistic merit.

So in your own work (much of which is divided between offset printing and digital printing), be mindful of the alternatives. For some of your projects, the texture letterpress can provide (the raised letters and shapes of the printing plate will actually sink into the custom printing paper and leave indentations) will make your printed pieces unique and special, in a way that gives pleasure to the touch and that also hearkens back to an earlier and perhaps simpler time.

Posted in Fine Art Printing | 2 Comments »

Custom Printing: Rack Card Redesign Case Study

June 19th, 2017

Posted in Rack Cards | 4 Comments »

A friend and colleague of mine has a small business. She is a Reiki practitioner and hypnotherapist. A few days ago she asked my opinion regarding her promotional materials (a business card, a rack card, and a website). Since I still do a little graphic design on the side, I offered to help her.

The Promotional Materials

First of all, what is a rack card? It is like a brochure in format (tall and narrow, in my friend/client’s case 3.75” x 8.25”). Unlike a brochure, it only has two panels (front and back). It also is printed on a much heavier commercial printing stock than most brochures. Based on the custom printing specs for my client’s prior press run, this reprint will be produced on 80# cover stock.

The purpose of a rack card is to sit vertically on a metal rack along with other rack cards, promoting some event or service. You have probably seen racks like these in hotels. Perhaps the rack cards were promoting places to visit on your vacation or sports you could pursue on your holiday, such as water skiing.

Rack cards compete with other rack cards for the viewer’s attention. Moreover, if a particular hotel desk doesn’t have a metal rack, the cards might just lie on a table in a stack. So the cards must be dramatic to grab the prospective customer’s attention immediately.

The second element in my client’s promotional package is an additional rack card. She wants to promote the Reiki and hypnotherapy separately. A shrewd move, since people who want to stop smoking might understand and value hypnotherapy but question or not understand the art of Reiki. My client understands her clients’ (and potential clients’) needs.

The third element in my client’s promotional package is her business card.

The fourth element is her website.

Revisions: What My Client Has Now, and What Changes I Suggested

The Paper Choice

I told my client I liked the thickness of the paper stock. It makes the rack card heavy and substantial. When you hold it in your hand, it feels strong and important, not flimsy.

However, one side of the sheet seems to be minimally coated (perhaps a matte coating), and one side has a high-gloss coating (like a laminate or a flood UV coating). Since the background color is a soothing green, and since the imagery is a stack of rocks (called a “cairn” and used throughout history as a trail marker) in a pool of still water, I personally would specify a textured, uncoated press sheet. This is a natural, “crunchy granola” piece aimed at earthy people who might avoid the corporate look and embrace a more natural feel. So I encouraged my client to choose a thick, uncoated stock for all rack cards and for her business card as well. (I wanted all elements of her promotional package to not only go together in terms of their design but also their physical “feel.”)

The Design (Type, Color, Design Grid)

I told my client that she only had a few seconds to interest her prospective clients once they saw her rack cards and business cards. People are busy. They are multitasking, and these days they have only a limited attention span.

Her current rack card design included the name of her business, a relaxing image of stacked rocks in a pool of water, a little copy about Reiki (what it is, and how clients might benefit from a treatment), and contact information. All type was reversed out of a green background.

Unfortunately, there was only a minimal difference in size between all groupings of type on this side of her rack card. So the reader had to think about what to read first, second, etc. I told my client that anything that slows down the reader risks losing her/his attention entirely.

Therefore, in redesigning this side of her rack card, I kept the green background, but I shifted back and forth between reverse type (for headlines) and surprinted (or black) type for text. I changed the centered type to flush left (so the reader’s eye would always come back to the left margin). I also put the photo of the rocks at the top, just under the name of the business (so the reader would associate the business name with the sense of peace—even if she/he stopped reading here and got nothing else out of the rack card). I then surprinted one of the quotes (about inner peace) over the photo to reinforce the message.

I told my client that readers who skim text go through the page in an “F” formation. They read from left to right through the headlines as they move down the page (left/right/down, then left/right/down). To increase the likelihood of their grasping the most important information instantly, I made the headlines white on the green background. I also reversed the contact information. So if potential clients got nothing else from their two seconds with the rack card, they would see the following:

1. The name of my client’s business.
2. What is Reiki?
3. What are the benefits of Reiki?
4. How do you contact my client’s business if you want Reiki?

The other side of the rack card repeated the green background, a screened silhouette of the calming pile of rocks (cairn) in the pool of water, a large reversed quote about Reiki, and, most importantly, all of the contact information again. No matter what side of the card the reader started with, she/he would see the name of the business, the benefits (either in list form or as a pithy quote), and the contact information.

Finally, I noted that I had chosen my preferred typeface for her job. I asked my client to consider the typeface carefully (along with the green background color). I asked her to consider whether the type, color, imagery, and overall design grid supported her message and whether they would attract the potential buyer for her service as she envisioned her/him.

The Imagery (Photo Treatment)

I encouraged my client to buy rights to use an appropriate photo purchased through a stock image bank (to be found online) and in this way to avoid copyright infringement. I described the difference between “rights managed” and “royalty free” imagery (you can Google these online to get a detailed explanation). I also said that an image of the rocks in the “public domain” would sidestep both copyright infringement issues and potential costs (i.e., the image would be free to use and would avoid a lawsuit).

Since the image will show up on all rack cards and on the business card as well—plus the website—I asked my client to read the image reproduction rights license carefully to make sure the image could be used “promotionally” for “however many copies my client wanted to distribute” both “in print and online.”

I also wanted her to make sure the image was of sufficient resolution (300 dpi at 100 percent size, or at the size it will actually be used). I wanted to avoid any image pixellation.

Final Words—and the Website

I also asked my client to consider all elements of the promotional package together: the rack cards, business card, and website. I asked her to consider how she wanted to move the reader from the rack card, or business card, to the website to get more information and then to the telephone to set up an appointment for a Reiki session. (This encouragement of the reader toward what marketers term “conversion”–i.e., getting the prospect to step forward and commit to the product or service—would be enhanced by the specific wording of the text on the rack card.)

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Everything is an ad: a business card, a rack card, and a website. Keep this in mind when you choose paper, select typefaces, choose images, and craft the design structure. Keep it in mind particularly when you write the copy.
  2. Paper is power. It is a subconscious influence on your prospective buyer. Choose one that supports your message and your image.
  3. Pay for your images. In addition to supporting the photographers, it protects you against litigation.
  4. Make sure all design elements across all channels (printed pieces and electronic media) are coordinated. Don’t confuse the reader by making things look different. The more times your reader sees the same images, type, and design structure, the more immediately recognizable your branding will be.
  5. All of this drives increased sales.

Posted in Rack Cards | 4 Comments »

Custom Printing: Design vs. Production of a Rack Card

June 14th, 2017

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In addition to brokering commercial printing and writing about printing, I also do a little graphic design on the side. I used to be an art director, and I like keeping my hand in computer aided publishing because it keeps me aware of what full-time designers go through in designing their projects and preparing them for print.

The Design Project

At the moment, I’m designing a rack card for a Reiki practitioner (a bartering job, actually). Over the course of the past few weeks we have been going back and forth with various proofs, changing fonts, photos, and overall design treatments.

A few days ago my client approved the art. “Can we send it to press today?” she said. They’re having a sale. (She had chosen an online web-to-print service to keep costs down by ganging up her rack card with numerous other rack cards, presumably on a large offset press.)

“Whoa,” I said. “We have to slow down.” “Design is not production. We have things to do.”

Now this is just how I work. And I’ll assume that many other graphic designers will also do what are essentially upscale mock-ups on the computer to communicate with the client. Once the designer and client have agreed on the “look” of the piece, there are numerous technical issues that designers address, check, and fix before the job can go to press. These take time and careful attention.

In my client’s case, here are the issues we will need to address:

The Paper

My client’s Reiki practice is a form of healing work. It appeals to earthy and artistic people, so I suggested either an uncoated printing stock or a matte coated stock. It would have a softer, “crunchy granola” feel, unlike a gloss coated rack card that would have more of a corporate feel. My client agreed. She said the online commercial printing vendor she had chosen offered a matte coated press sheet.

The Press Run

I asked for the press run for two reasons. The more immediate was that I needed to know how many copies she wanted the printer to produce. But more than that, I wanted to get a sense of what technology the printer would use. My assumption was that for an ultra-short press run (say 100+ rack cards), the job would be digital. For 500+ rack cards, I assumed the technology would be offset lithography.

The Custom Printing Technology

If the length of the press run would require offset lithography, I knew an uncoated paper would be more likely than a coated paper to absorb the ink. In addition, for a press run probably ganged up with numerous other jobs, I did not expect the web-to-print vendor to adjust the ink flow for my client alone (as would be the case if only her job were on press). Therefore, I encouraged my client to choose the matte coated press sheet instead of the uncoated sheet, because the ink would sit up on the surface of the paper better and would be less likely to seep into the paper fibers. This would keep the images crisp and bright, and avoid a muddy appearance.

I also told her that, in my experience, if the job will be short and therefore digital, the toner particles will also be more likely than the offset ink to sit up on the surface of the paper. However, to be safe, I still thought a matte coated stock would be best.

The Images

My client chose to take the photos herself. She had a good camera and a good eye, so I decided to teach her the technical issues she needed to address in order to provide print-ready images.

For instance, she had been giving me 72 dpi images for the mock-up, which I had then changed to 300 dpi and enlarged (a bad habit called interpolation, which creates image information out of nothing—fine for a mock-up but not for press-ready images). Therefore, my client is now reshooting the two photos (with minor changes) at much higher resolution. As per my request, she will provide RGB JPEGs, which I will adjust and then save for the printer as CMYK TIFF images.

The Silhouettes

Two of the photos are silhouettes. They are also screened back or ghosted (not 100 percent in intensity). Therefore, I did some research, and then practiced with the pen tools, paths, clipping paths, edge refinement, feathering, and other Photoshop tools to make sure the transition from the contours of my client’s silhouetted wooden bridge photo to the background green color will be subtle and smooth. I also chose to produce the green background in Photoshop rather than InDesign. (I could have done either.)

The Color Space

I will need to make sure the job is specified for CMYK and not RGB, and that all images are also 8-bit or 16-bit CMYK TIFFs. I will change them from RGB JPEGs to TIFFs at the very end of the process, once I am satisfied with the color, since I’ll see any potential color shifts right on my monitor.

The Printer’s PDF Requirements

I asked my client to send me the specs from the commercial printing vendor for creating press-ready PDF files. This includes information such as the trim size, bleed size, font-embedding, and a host of other specifics I have discussed in previous PIE Blog articles. This document will tell me exactly how this particular printer prefers to receive his art files (based on the needs of his prepress system).

For instance, when I started the job, I measured the prior version of my client’s rack card with a ruler. The online listing of rack card sizes is much more precise, so I will need to change the document size slightly in my art file and add the appropriate bleeds of the background colors and images that will extend off the page. (All of this has to be exact, whereas for the design mock-up I just had to make the screen version look good.)

Preflighting the Job Prior to Submission

Even before I distill the PDF files, I’ll check the InDesign color separations on-screen (you can look this up online). I find this useful, to make sure nothing will show up on a different printing plate than I intend or expect. I’ll also make sure I have removed any extra unused colors from the colors palette in InDesign.

I’ll look for any typefaces that have been altered (made “bold” or “italic” in InDesign rather than by using the proper bold or italic font). I’ll probably also print a laser copy of the job to look for errors, and I’ll run any preflight diagnostics available in InDesign (the little red or green light that shows up at the bottom left of the screen to let you know whether the file has problems or is ok to print).

Finally, I’ll review the printer’s PDF sheet once again to be doubly sure. I’ll distill the PDF file as requested, and then I’ll “compress” the file before sending it to the online printer’s website (compression makes files safer in transit over the Internet and avoids PDF file corruption).

Just to be safe, I’ll probably look at the images one final time to confirm their resolution and color space, and particularly to check the edges between the silhouettes and their backgrounds. After all, I will only see an online proof (unlike most brick-and-mortar printers, the online printers usually keep prices down by sending only virtual proofs to their clients).

When I explained this to my client, she understood completely that there was more work to do, and she set off to reshoot the photos at a higher resolution.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

The best thing you can learn is that design is not the same as art production (preparing final, press-ready art files for the commercial printing supplier). For me, trying to do both at the beginning of a design job is like editing my work while I am writing. It completely shuts down my creative process.

In contrast, the production step of the process is more logical and precise. It’s all about measurements, color spaces, and all of the other technical specifications that will ensure an accurate printed representation of your beautifully designed art file. It’s equally important.

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Book Printing: A Sample of Outstanding Design and Production

June 5th, 2017

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At a thrift store this week, my fiancee found a print book that is one of the best examples I have seen of effective book design and custom printing. It is exceptional on so many levels. A close examination of the book shows exactly what happens when book design is well executed, when the design reflects the content of the print book, and when the production qualities of the book support both the design and the content of the book.

A Description of the Book

The title of the book is Real Simple: 869 New Uses for Old Things, edited by Rachel Hardage and Sharon Tanenbaum. It is an 8.25” x 9”, almost-square-format, case-bound book. Instead of adding a dust jacket to a cloth binding, the designer has laminated the 4-color printed press sheet directly to the binder’s boards and then coated the book cover with a dull film laminate (or dull UV coating).

The color of the cover is bright and intensely saturated. The design grid on the cover comprises sixteen color squares (four rows of four squares), with each square containing a 4-color silhouette of a different household item. Three of the colors in the grid of squares are primary colors (red, yellow, and blue) or close relatives on the color wheel (for instance, the yellow changes to orange within the series of squares, and red cycles through magenta to pink). The back cover just extends this motif of squares to wrap the image completely around the book with a full bleed.

Type on the front cover is reversed out of the background colors, with the actual lines of text aligned with the borders between colors in a tight, geometric treatment.

Without even opening the print book, I think this approach stands out and makes the book unique for a few reasons:

  1. We are accustomed to books that are “portrait” format (taller than they are wide). Therefore, oblong books (also known as “landscape” format) and square books draw attention to themselves. They make us look again. I would even argue that square books are a bit more unusual than oblong books, outside the category of children’s books.
  2. The combination of the bright colors and the square format are reminiscent of a child’s book, but the content (lint roller, light bulb, rubber band, and so forth) make it clear that this print book is in fact for adults. However, the overall effect is still playful and perhaps even magical, specifically because of the saturated colors and the visual reference to books for children.
  3. The decision to laminate the printed press sheet to the cover boards rather than to add a dust jacket reinforces the casual and creative approach to the subject matter.
  4. The dull finish of the cover coating (whether laminate or UV coating) is just different enough from the usual gloss cover coating on the majority of books that it draws attention to itself. This is not just a visual acknowledgement of the subdued (not glossy) appearance. It is also—and perhaps more importantly–tactile. It feels softer than a gloss coated cover. To me that makes the book a bit more approachable in both a conscious and subconscious way.

Inside the Book

The print book designer has carried the intensity of the color into the interior of the book, starting with solid-colored endsheets and flyleaves. Divider pages and photos within the text of the book are all full pages of full color that repeat the saturated hues of the front and back covers. All photos and all color solids bleed off the page, giving a sense that the content of the pages is larger than the 8.25” x 9” format can contain.

Again, this reinforces the playful nature of the print book, as does the treatment of the photos. That is, all images are shot close up, which makes otherwise mundane household items seem new and captivating. Moreover, the images were illuminated with intense photo lights during the photo shoot, so they have a wide range of tones, from intense highlights to deep shadows. This gives them both depth and visual interest.

The overall approach to the book is, as the title states, “new uses for old things.” This is fully consistent with the visual treatment of the images, which could be summed up as seeing mundane household items in a new light. So the visual treatment echoes and reinforces the theme of the book.

Paper Choices

Paper is a subjective and particularly powerful component of design. This is easy to forget. In fact, that’s part of what makes it so powerful. The reader often doesn’t think about the paper. In this case the designer has chosen a bright, blue-white press sheet with a dull finish. This makes the text easier to read. Interestingly enough, the photos are all glossy (and crisp). Through a careful inspection, what I see is that the photos have been gloss varnished (to make them more dramatic). This creates an interesting contrast when the photos are seen next to the dull white text pages.

The Design Grid

Introductory pages of the book have one column of text extending from side to side. The designer has included small line drawings in places that would normally be paragraph breaks. That is, the text runs on without additional spacing between paragraphs, but the reader can identify the paragraph break from the position of the line drawing. In addition, the text shifts back and forth between a dark, bold sans serif face and a much lighter serif face. Since the intro pages have relatively little copy, this treatment is intriguing and playful rather than confusing. In addition, there is ample white space around the single column of text.

In contrast, the pages that actually tell you all kinds of new uses for mundane household items are set in smaller type in a five-column grid, with the column closest to the gutter left blank. The bottoms of the columns vary in depth, creating a nice visual zig-zag rhythm. This also allows for ample white space, so the reader is not faced with an overwhelming sea of type. In addition, a darker sans serif typeface is used for the headlines (only a few words each). For instance, you can look up “Avocado,” and the text will tell you “use to” and then offer suggestions for creative uses of an avocado.

What I like about this treatment is threefold:

  1. The typefaces are the same ones used in the intro pages, so the book has a rhythm and predictability based on common design elements.
  2. Shifting back and forth between the text (for the “how to” or “do it yourself” content) and the full page photos gives both predictability and variety to the look of the text. It’s creative but extremely readable.
  3. The contrast in typeface (and particularly the weight, or lightness/darkness, of the heads and text) make the content of the book easily understandable. If it were in another language, even one I couldn’t understand, I’d still be able to decipher the levels of importance (as well as relatedness) of one block of copy to another.

Divider Pages

Finally, the divider pages use two-page, full-bleed color solids to distinguish the break between subjects within the book. Minimal text is either reversed out of the color or surprinted over the color, and a large capital letter (the successive letters of the alphabet, since this book is formatted as a dictionary of sorts) is reversed out of the solid color. The letter bleeds off the page and is so large that it draws attention to its shape (the strokes of the letterform) as a piece of art in and of itself.

Overall Impressions and What You Can Learn from This Book

All of these design techniques create an easily navigable print book with bright colors, intriguing images, and an overall playfulness. This is fully consistent with the concept of playing with household items to discover new uses for them. If you are a designer, there is nothing that will lift your work above your competition than using these, or similar, artistic principles to marry the content and tone of your book with its overall appearance.

Keep in mind that design goes beyond the typefaces and design grid and includes paper choices, cover coatings, and bindery choices. If all of these support one another and also reinforce the purpose of the book, that’s true success in design.

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Custom Printing: Finding Flaws in a Lenticular Book

May 30th, 2017

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My fiancee recently bought two copies online of the same lenticular book as gifts from two separate vendors. When she had both in hand, she was surprised to see differences between the two. Naturally enough, when she had bought the books, since they were two copies of the same title, she expected them to be the same. So she brought this to my attention and asked me what had happened.

First of all, I refreshed my memory online regarding the lenticular custom printing process. Many if not most of you have seen the images that change as you tilt them from side to side. These plastic screens are sometimes used in postcards, for instance, to give a sense of movement to an image or to shift from one image to another. I have also seen lenticular movie posters that give the illusion of depth in the photo by using this technology.

The short description of what seems to be a very complicated process is that a number of images (or one image seen from a number of different angles) are combined (interlaced) with a computer, then printed, and then attached under a screen composed of lenses (lenticules) that present a different image as you tilt these plastic screens. Alignment is crucial for this to work successfully.

How the Two Books Differ

What I see most prominently when I look at both books under a good light is that one set of lenticular images is more intensely colored than the other and the contours of the animals in the images (each page spread presents a different image of a wild animal running) are crisper and more defined. I don’t think the average viewer would see the problem unless both books were viewed together under a strong light. Personally I think it is rather intriguing.

In my research I found that ghosting and poor imagery are the result of imprecise alignment of the images that have been transformed from individual photos to interlaced “slices” before being placed under the cover sheet of plastic lenses. This can occur during the printing process, which, for this particular technology, would be either screen printing or offset lithography.

Other Color Flaws in Other Kinds of Commercial Printing

As I compared the two books I was reminded of package printing I had seen in grocery stores, in which the images in two cereal boxes, for instance, might be slightly different in color even if the design clearly should have been the same (both content and coloration). How does this happen?

First of all, it doesn’t happen anywhere near as often as it used to even during my own career in commercial printing. You could say that the two packages with slightly different ink coloration had been from two separate press runs, and this might be correct. However, it would not really answer the question as to what had happened.

On an offset printed package, for instance, one particular ink color might have been run in excess. Another possibility is that the four process color plates for a full-color image might have been out of alignment (out of register). An error in “registration” of the custom printing plates could cause an obvious color shift, particularly in a neutral color or a memory color (like the green of grass or the blue of the sky).

However, this doesn’t happen a lot anymore for two reasons:

  1. A large number of offset presses are equipped with closed loop color monitoring. Optics and electronics on the press closely monitor the registration of all printing plates and the particular colors being printed and then feed this data back to the press console, adjusting the press and ink to maintain good plate register and consistent inkflow at a predetermined level. When the automatic press observations record an error, the press is adjusted to bring everything back into equilibrium, correcting the color problems and problems with image register.
  2. The preset ink levels can be captured as digital data, which can then be fed back into the computer for the second press run. This actually allows the press to “come up to color” or achieve the optimal color balance rather quickly, meaning that usable printed sheets start to come off the press with minimal adjustments and minimal paper waste. Because of this, it is unusual to have errors in color between two different press runs yielding two differently inked product packages in your grocery store.

Back when I was an art director, the way to avoid these problems was to attend a press inspection for every press run of every signature in every critical product. These often went around the clock (every four hours, for instance) for a number of days. The aforementioned automation and the quality of inspection that electric eyes and computers can provide have made this unnecessary in most cases.

Another Possibility

One thing that I have found over the years is that not all commercial printing processes are equally precise. For instance, offset lithography can be surprisingly accurate. Given the size of the presses and the speed at which they run, I still find it amazing that they can produce tight register and incredible detail.

In contrast, the output I have seen from flexographic presses often does not quite match that of offset lithography. Flexography uses rubber relief plates (elements that print are raised on the rubber plates). I have often seen less precise register and in some cases lighter ink films around the perimeter of letterforms in large type. Like other aspects of commercial printing, it is my understanding that technology has been making great strides, and the problems are becoming far more rare in flexography as well. But my point is that some commercial printing technologies are more precise than others, and this can be reflected in the final product. And for packaging, the final product is often produced through flexography.

What You Can Do

Ultimately all of this comes down to one question. If commercial printing processes are imperfect, how can you be sure your job will be beautiful?

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Proof early and often. Make sure that you see “contract quality” proofs that your printer assures you will reflect the final printed product.
  2. In all cases, ask for your printer’s advice as to the most color faithful proofing option. Usually that will be some form of digital proof. Your printer may be able to show you a continuous tone proof or a proof reflecting the actual halftone dot structure. The latter is more rare but also more accurate (for instance, it will show potential moire patterns). This kind of proof is also more expensive.
  3. If you are unsure, consider paying more for a press proof (a proof of the final product produced on a small press). This will be expensive. However, for a job with crucial color requirements, it may be worth the cost.
  4. Consider attending a press inspection. While this is usually unnecessary, for “critical color” (as opposed to “pleasing color”) it may be worth your time.
  5. Expect excellence, not perfection. You will always find flaws in printing. More than anything, it is a question of fixing the major flaws and letting the others go.

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Custom Printing: A Movie Standee Production Case Study

May 24th, 2017

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After seven years of installing standees at movie theaters, I received contact information for a potential print brokering client who needed standees both printed and installed. This was an intriguing opportunity, since I have experience in buying and selling commercial printing, as well as an understanding of the marketing goals and graphic techniques involved in producing large format print signage.

So I did some preliminary work prior to approaching my potential client. I checked out his website to see what kind of films he had produced, and I contacted one of the designers of the movie standees my fiancee and I had been installing.

Regarding the standee design studio I approached, I chose this particular vendor for a few reasons.

  1. After seeing this company’s corporate logo on labels on the backs of standees for seven movie studios over a seven-year period, I was highly impressed. This company was established and its promotional design work was well regarded by a substantial number of movie studios.
  2. I also relied upon my own eyes and marketing knowledge. I had checked out the design studio’s website, and I thought the graphic design work was both aesthetically superior and persuasive from a marketing standpoint.
  3. It just so happens that my potential printing client’s office is a twenty-minute drive from this design studio. Although I am on the East Coast, both my client and the design studio are almost next to one another on the West Coast. Therefore, I will be able to get my client’s immediate approval (or disapproval) of the firm for his own specific standee-creation needs based on his having met the principals of the firm and having seen their work, not only online on their website but also in person.
  4. I also chose this design studio because of its primary focus on marketing and movie standees. I know a lot of the printers on the East Coast that could do the same job (if I provided them with the specifications), but I wanted a firm for which standee design is a daily venture, a firm that will know how to design the most effective marketing products while containing costs.
  5. I knew the standee design firm would understand the steps following print production and finishing. They would be able to package the standees and ship them to movie theaters. More importantly, they would know how to get movie theaters to accept delivery of the standees, and they would understand the process of merchandising (installing the standees in the theaters). What they couldn’t do they could subcontract. Or at least they could provide advice regarding all aspects of the process. In fact, they happen to work with the company for which my fiancee and I install standees in movie theaters, and they also work with a number of competing installers.

My Assumptions Regarding the Client

I have only had minimal contact with the prospective client to date. However, I have seen his website, and I understand that in comparison to the design studio’s other clients, he may require only a short press run. Granted, this is an assumption. However, I know that the movie standees my fiancee and I install are shipped to hundreds of (or more) movie theaters across the country because we often receive the delivery manifests.

This need not be a problem. After all, standees can be offset printed or digitally printed based on their quantity, and I had learned from the design studio that they worked with a number of large format print providers. Presumably, this design firm had access to digital and offset printing equipment plus laminating equipment (for attaching the press sheets to the fluted cardboard standee substrate and for coating the press sheets) plus die cutting equipment (for cutting out the standees).

My Contact with the Client

Based on my research and assumptions, I had a discussion with my client over the phone. I suggested that he consider a flatcard design for the standee. This is a particular style of movie standee that includes a large (up to 6-foot by 9-foot) flat image with a cardboard easel back that keeps it upright. The edges are die cut and turned inward (and then screwed together) to give about a 2” depth to the overall flat, poster-like, large format print presentation.

What I thought might appeal to my client is that such a large image provides a lot of bang for the buck. It’s almost as large as a banner, so the viewer gets an image that takes up her/his entire field of vision. But from a manufacturing standpoint, it’s relatively inexpensive to make a flatcard. It involves limited die cutting. And when it’s folded (in quarters) in the box, it provides a relatively light package. It’s not only easy to install a flatcard quickly, but it costs less than many other standee designs to ship. And shipping can add up.

Finally, I encouraged my client to consider this format because it is standard. Many standees have unique designs with movie characters die cut and then attached to a large, overall structure. The scoring, folding, pattern gluing, and die cutting are all unique. So the movie studio has to pay for all of the dies required for the die cutting. In contrast (and I have confirmed this with the design studio), using pre-made dies from prior flatcards will save money. My client will not have to pay for all of the preparation from scratch.

However, if my client wants something more ornate, the images on the perimeter of the flat card design can be made to extend out of the rectangular format (as though they are coming off the large format print poster). This will require extra die cutting but not as much as if the overall base format were not a flatcard.

Or my client can choose to add depth. By die cutting slits in the front of the flat card graphic panel, my client can add “lugs.” These are attachments (movie characters, for instance), that seem to come out of the background, adding an element of depth to the overall image. Again, this would cost more, but it would start with the standard base of the flatcard.

So my client has options, and the design studio has approved all of the ones just described. The design studio is also fully capable of participating in (or coordinating) any or all of the steps in the process.

What happens next? My client will send the marketing art to me, and we can discuss whether this initial plan will work, or whether it will need to be adjusted.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. If you don’t know how to do something, consult a pro. I knew a little about standees from installing them but not enough to coordinate the whole job. So I found a studio that excels in this one area.
  2. Find ways to build on the work of others. This is true for pocket folders or any other die cutting job. A standard design will cost less overall than a totally unique one. If you can use a pre-made set of dies, you can still make your printed product look completely different from the competition.
  3. When you’re designing a 3D promotional product, consider the physical requirements of the design (for instance, make sure the design isn’t top heavy, so it won’t fall over), the overall graphic appearance, the marketing strategy, and the costs related to print production and finishing. But don’t forget all the steps that follow production, such as packaging, shipping, and installation.

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Custom Printing: Large Banner Stand Case Study Follow Up

May 16th, 2017

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I noted in a prior blog article that I had been working on a large banner stand project for a print brokering client. To review, it is a 10’ x 8’ large format print on a frame made up of thin metal poles at right angles to one another, with feet on either side that are perpendicular to the frame. Fortunately, this was exactly what my client had wanted, and I found photos online showing this specific product.

After drafting specifications for the job and sending these to three brick-and-mortar printers for estimates, I also found the product online for a very reasonable price. I told my client about the online vendor. I also told her that I could not vouch for the quality of their product since I had not worked with them before. Therefore, I sent my client an email with the vendor’s contact information, specifications, and price, and assumed she would want the online product.

Surprisingly, I was wrong. My client contacted me and said she wanted me to select one of my preferred vendors. She did not want to buy the banner stand online. I was so pleased that my client shared my belief in the mutual benefit of long-standing client-vendor relationships.

The Bids for the Large Format Print and Banner Stand

Shortly thereafter, I started receiving bids from my vendors. This is what I found:

  1. The online vendor was clearly the lowest bid, a little under $250 plus shipping (for $25). The lowest brick-and-mortar price was about $400 plus shipping (for $50), or about 64 percent more than the online bid. Then again, my client didn’t want an online printer.
  2. The midrange printer had priced the job not on scrim vinyl but on polyester fabric. The principal of the firm was worried that the weight of the vinyl, in such a large format print, would cause the center of the frame to hang down. He priced his fabric banner product at about $700 plus shipping.
  3. The high bid was for about $850 plus shipping. Interestingly enough, this printer offered to hand me directly over to the vendor (i.e., she was brokering the job, which indicated she did not have the large format press capabilities for this particular kind of banner).

New Assumptions for the Banner

Based on this information I made some assumptions:

  1. I had visited the mid-range printer before and had seen his grand-format inkjet printing equipment. So I surmised that this vendor would print the job in-house and then pair the banner with a banner stand bought from another vendor. Moreover, since this particular vendor was worried about the weight of a large vinyl banner, and since his price was higher than that of the first vendor, I wondered whether the cost of the fabric was higher, too, accounting for the price difference compared to the vinyl.
  2. With the assumption that polyester fabric costs more than vinyl scrim, I approached the low-bid brick-and-mortar printer and asked for a second bid based on this material. This printer also confirmed my belief that the polyester fabric reflected less light than the vinyl.
  3. When the additional pricing came back, it was almost identical to the mid-range printer’s price (about $700 plus shipping).
  4. I shared all specs and prices with my client, along with my thoughts and reactions. I encouraged her to buy from the printer that had initially bid on the vinyl banner. I did this specifically because I knew he printed his own banners and because he said he had never had a problem with the weight of the scrim vinyl.
  5. It’s not that I didn’t trust the mid-range vendor. I just liked having a large format print supplier comfortable with both vinyl and polyester fabric. Then I could let my client choose the substrate she preferred.
  6. In general I felt comfortable with whatever choice my client would make, because I already had working relationships with all vendors except the online vendor. I had confidence in their work.
  7. I wasn’t as concerned about the mid-range vendor’s fear that the vinyl would be too heavy because of the other vendor’s direct experience in producing scrim vinyl banners.

We’ll see what happens, but my client now has credit with the printer. She also has all information from the printer regarding PDF creation requirements plus FTP art file transmission procedures. Now all she has to do is choose between two banner materials and complete and upload the art.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. It seems that in the process of buying commercial printing services, if you’re alert and logical, the best option will “reveal” itself. I trusted all three vendors, but one planned to broker the entire job. (In other words, this printer didn’t have the appropriate large format print equipment.) No problem there. Not everyone does. I still had two vendors.
  2. Seeing comparable pricing from your selection of commercial printing vendors is a good sign. When I saw that the vendor with the scrim vinyl provided a revised price almost identical to that of the mid-range vendor when the job was priced on polyester fabric, it increased my faith in both printers.
  3. If a vendor is uncomfortable with a process, don’t make him do it. I trusted the first vendor because he had personal experience with the vinyl substrate. But I don’t think any less of the mid-range vendor for other kinds of work.
  4. Note that materials can be a large portion of the total cost of the job. The fabric was almost twice as expensive as the vinyl. If you’re making a choice like this, be clear as to why you’re choosing one material over another. For example, in my client’s case, the minimized light reflectivity, lighter weight, softness, and overall perceived higher value of the polyester fabric banner might be worth the higher price.
  5. When compiling a budget, don’t forget the cost to ship the banner and banner stand.
  6. More than anything, take time to regularly communicate with current vendors and forge relationships with new printers based on mutual benefit and trust. Nothing will help you buy commercial printing more intelligently and successfully.

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